Posts Tagged ‘SF/F’

This is not a post I ever thought I’d be writing, and I certainly didn’t expect to be writing it now, when there’s so many terrible things going on in the world. But the SFF writing and publishing community is not an island: we impact and are impacted by the world in turn, and it’s because of this relationship that I’m speaking now. This is a small matter in comparison to the ongoing protests over the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd and the egregious police brutality with which those protests have been met, but it is still, to me, an important matter, as how the SFF community responds to racism and bigotry in other contexts will always relate to how it deals with internal gatekeeping. After what’s happened, I don’t feel that I can in good conscience continue to remain silent.

Last week, Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary, who lives in Minneapolis, tweeted that she had called the police about “looters” at the gas station near her house in the wake of protests about the death of George Floyd. When other people pointed out that calling the police could potentially result in more violence towards Black people in particular – the Minneapolis protests were peaceful until police turned water cannons and rubber bullets on the crowd, precipitating the riots through a series of violent escalations – Fredrick doubled down in defense of her actions. When one of her agents, Kelly Van Sant, announced her resignation from the agency over the matter, Frederick posted a statement to the Red Sofa Literary website, insisting that there were “zero protesters” present at the gas station, just “straight up looters.” (How she could be certain there was no overlap between the two while watching from a distance is, presumably, unknown.)

Since then, two more Red Sofa agents, Amanda Rutter and Stacey Graham, have likewise resigned from Red Sofa in protest, while several of Frederick’s clients have dropped her. It was only after this that Frederick published a second statement, apologising for her actions; she has also deleted her twitter account. As as a result, I have seen many members of the SFF community debating whether or not the reaction Frederick received was proportional to her offence, with some asserting her credentials as a long-standing advocate for diversity in the SFF community as a reason why she has been treated unfairly.

It is for this reason that I have decided to speak publicly about my own past experiences with Dawn Frederick.

In 2014, I signed with Red Sofa Literary to be represented by Jennie Goloboy, an agent who subsequently left Red Sofa in 2017, not long after the events I am about to describe. While I don’t know for certain that what happened with me precipitated Jennie’s decision to leave Red Sofa, the timing of her departure has never struck me as being coincidental. At the very least, I suspect that what happened to me was a factor in her decision, and while I can’t say that my relationship with Jennie ended on good terms, I do believe that, at the end, her actions were severely constrained by Fredrick.

This is going to be a longish story, but the early details are important to the later context, and so I hope you’ll bear with me.

In December 2016, I received my edits for A Tyranny of Queens, the second novel in my Manifold Worlds duology, published with Angry Robot. As my original editor was unavailable at the time, a different editor had been brought on board, one who was also, coincidentally, an employee of Red Sofa. When the edits came in, I was upset to discover that the editor had made several problematic suggestions regarding diverse themes in the novel. In particular, she wanted me to use a different pronoun for a nonbinary character, stated that a neurodivergent character was insufficiently sympathetic because of their neurodivergence (“I love seeing that in a character, but it does make them very hard to present in a warm manner… It might be nice to present a little more of his confusion about how people interact, his fear… to assist with reader sympathy”), and said that giving the protagonist a notable PTSD symptom, after her PTSD is developed throughout the first book, was “a step too far,” describing the PTSD itself as something that should “be the focus of a whole novel” rather than a small subplot”.

I’m quoting these details now, not because I want to shame or attack the editor nearly four years after the fact – aside from anything else, it has always been my belief that these comments were the result of ignorance, not malice, and that the editor has since done active work to improve her understanding of these issues – but to explain why I was, at the time, both unhappy and stressed. I wrote an email to Jennie outlining my concerns, and later had a Skype conversation with her about it in greater detail: her response was, essentially, that everyone gets edits they disagree with sooner or later, and that I should just do my best. I didn’t feel as though this addressed the problems I was having, and I was additionally concerned that the editor being a fellow employee of Red Sofa was, if nothing else, putting Jennie in the awkward position of having her client complain about a colleague, but I was on deadline, so I set it aside and kept working on the book.

Four months later, in April 2017, fellow nonbinary writer JY Yang wrote a twitter thread about editorial pushback they’d received for using the singular they as their pronoun of choice for nonbinary characters, while also talking about how the personal blindspots of editors around issues of diversity is an element of gatekeeping in SFF publishing. Recalling what had happened with the editing on A Tyranny of Queens, and acting under the (as it turns out, incorrect) belief that Jennie had passed on my concerns to my editor back when I’d originally made them, I decided to chime in, piggybacking off Yang’s thread to share my experiences. I was careful not to name the editor, though I reiterated my belief that she was well-meaning. I hoped that my speaking up would help to further the conversation about diversity in publishing, and left it at that.

At this point, it’s important to note that, whereas Red Sofa Literary is based in Minneapolis, in 2017, I was living in Brisbane, Australia, meaning that Jennie and I were operating in very different timezones. As such – and as I’m a habitual night-owl – it wasn’t unusual for me to hear from Jennie in the evening. Even so, I was surprised and stressed to receive a DM from her after 1am my time, when I was already in bed and noodling around on my phone, saying that she wanted to talk about my tweets, which I’d posted earlier that day (my time). Our subsequent conversation went as follows:

jg tweets 1

jg tweets 2

 

At this point, I got out of bed, got dressed and went to Skype Jennie. I stated that, while I was sorry for causing upset, I didn’t think taking the tweets down would help, as traditionally, deleting tweets in the era of screenshots only tends to make an issue blow up. Jennie replied by saying that, to her, my tweets read like I was dissatisfied with Angry Robot and the final version of A Tyranny of Queens (I wasn’t), and that this was what she thought needed addressing.

And then my four-year-old stopped breathing.

More specifically, he started wheezing desperately, frighteningly for air, so loudly that I could hear him several rooms away. It woke my husband, who dashed in to look after him, and I have a very vivid memory of the last thing I said to Jennie on that call being a panicked, “I’m sorry, I have to go, my son isn’t breathing.” I shut the laptop on the Skype conversation and ran into my son’s room. He was terrified and struggling to breathe. We called an ambulance. The ambulance came, and determined the issue was serious enough to merit a hospital visit. I carried my son out to the ambulance at nearly 2am, and as I ducked my head to lift him in, I badly wrenched my lower back.

The EMTs injected him with steroids on the way to the hospital, and this did a lot to help his breathing. (He had croup; he’d had it before more than once, but never so badly, and not while he was old enough to understand what was happening.) Even so, we had to stay at the hospital for several hours to get him checked out properly. It was stressful and exhausting, both emotionally and physically, and sitting in a hard hospital chair made my back pain even worse. Still, there is not a lot to do in a hospital, and once the immediate danger had passed, I checked twitter to see what was happening. To my surprise, I found that the editor had replied to my tweets, identifying herself as their subject, apologising for her blind spots, and promising to do better in future. I was touched and pleased, and thanked her for her words, which I believe were sincere.

Eventually, at around 5am, my husband insisted I get a cab home and go to sleep, as he’d had several hours of rest to my none, and it looked like our son wouldn’t be discharged for a while yet. I did so, tweeting in the cab that I’d been in hospital and hurt my back, but that my son was okay. When I got home, I took some painkillers and got into bed, but before I fell asleep, I used my phone to send a quick email to my then publicist at Angry Robot, asking if the publisher was unhappy with me, apologising if I’d caused them any difficulties and offering to tweet a clarifying statement if they wished. Then, exhausted, I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for most of the day. I woke up a couple of times and glanced at my phone when I did so, but I was loopy on pain medication and didn’t really process anything beyond “shiny screen have words.”

It was late evening by the time I woke up properly, and when I did, I found I had an email from Dawn Frederick, head of the agency. The only other time I’d emailed with her directly had been when I signed my contract with Red Sofa. The tone of the email was blunt and aggressive. It read as follows:

Foz,

As you know, we’ve been trying to get ahold of you with the situation of the Tweets you wrote over 24 hours ago.  Jennie has tried to reach out to you repeated times, but alas it seems you’ve not gotten back in touch with her.

We need to talk. Not tomorrow. Today. I would appreciate 15 minutes of your time, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Thanks in advance,

Dawn

Startled, I checked my twitter DMs and found that Jennie had sent me several messages while I’d been asleep:

jg tweets 3

At this point, I was starting to feel extremely anxious. Having already established both in writing and verbally with Jennie that I wouldn’t be taking the tweets down, I didn’t know what the rush to “resolve” things was, especially as she was aware of the trip to hospital. I emailed Dawn a reply, explaining why I hadn’t been available, but stating that I would get dressed and come to the computer if she wished to speak to me. When Dawn didn’t immediately reply, I hopped back into my DMs with Jennie, where we had the following exchange:

jg tweets 4

On the basis of this exchange, I stayed awake, believing that I would be skyping privately with Dawn. Instead, I ended up on a call with both Dawn and Jennie that ended up lasting nearly an hour.

And for almost the entirety of that hour, Dawn shouted at me.

It was the worst experience of my professional life. When I opened the call by trying to explain, once again, that I hadn’t been available because of the hospital incident, Dawn said, “This is not about [your son] right now.” (She did not ask if he was okay, though she made sure to tell me that, as Jennie is a mother and because Dawn likes kids, I couldn’t accuse them of being unsympathetic.)

At any time when I tried to talk, either to ask questions or to defend myself, I was shouted down. Jennie said very little, chiming in only once or twice: overwhelmingly, the person speaking (shouting) was Dawn. She told me that my professional conduct in tweeting about my editor was the worst she’d ever seen; that she had Trump-voting relatives in Tennessee with whom she managed to get along, so therefore I had no excuse for criticising my editor in public. She repeatedly claimed that what I done was bullying; that I was a bully. Over and over again, she said I had “thrown her [the editor] under the bus.” When I tried to say that the editor had apologised on twitter, she exploded at me that of course she had, what else could she be expected to do, when everyone knew she was being talked about? I expressed surprise at this, as I hadn’t identified her; Dawn claimed that “everyone knew”.

When Dawn said how unacceptable it was to raise the issues I’d had in public, out of nowhere, without giving the editor a chance to reply, I was baffled, pointing out that I’d clearly raised them with Jennie months earlier. Jennie said yes, but she hadn’t passed them on to the editor, as I hadn’t expressly asked for that to happen. (I’d assumed that, as my email had essentially culminated in me saying I didn’t want to work with that editor in the future, this would happen as a matter of course.)

Dawn then proceeded to tell me that Angry Robot was “furious” and wanted the tweets removed – so much so that they were considering pulling my book a week before it was due to launch. She said that Red Sofa was one of the most author-friendly agencies in the business, “and if you can’t work with us…” she said meaningfully, leaving the sentence hanging so as to imply that, if they dropped me, I would have no future in SFF at all. Dawn accused me repeatedly of lying about the fact that I’d been asleep earlier in the day, saying that she “knew” I’d emailed Angry Robot and therefore had clearly been awake and ignoring Jennie’s messages. Any time I tried to advocate for myself, I was told to stop speaking or risk being dropped by Red Sofa , as she “[didn’t] want to represent that.”

At one point, she tried to frame my criticism of the editor as an un-feminist act, something I should’ve known better than to engage in, “because we’re all women here.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I’m genderqueer.”

Dawn made a scoffing noise. “That’s not what this is about.”

(It kind of was, actually, what with the editor wanting to change the nonbinary pronouns I’d used, but when I tried to mention this, Jennie asserted I’d never brought them up with her at all. Ironically, though I’d originally mentioned this as one of my issues while drafting my December email, I’d ended up taking it out of the final version, worried at being seen as hypersensitive about gender identity. Instead, I’d raised it with her verbally when we’d Skyped about the email, which she said she didn’t remember. I tried to argue that being genderqueer was part of my lived experience, something might know less about than me in this instance, but Dawn became angry at the implied criticism. “Of course we believe in diversity! We wouldn’t have signed you otherwise!”)

At one point, Dawn’s shouting was loud enough to wake my husband, who was asleep in the other room. (It was approaching midnight our time by then.) He wandered in, an appalled look on his face at what he was hearing, but he was just as tired as I was, so I gestured for him to go back to bed. At another point, I tried to suggest that there was a conflict of interest in Dawn and Jennie advocating so strongly for the editor, who was also a Red Sofa employee, despite the fact that I was a Red Sofa client; Dawn became absolutely furious at this, denying it completely, and yelled me back into silence.

In the end, Dawn gave me an ultimatum. I had twenty-four hours to post an apology to the editor, or Red Sofa would drop me as a client.

When the call ended, I was numb and shaking. (I’m shaking now as I write this.) I rested, inasmuch as I was able to rest, and then I wrote the apology. Posted it. Received confirmation from Dawn and Jennie that they approved, and that I could keep my representation.

I was still deeply shaken, but by that time, I’d calmed down enough to realise that I still hadn’t heard anything directly from my then publisher at Angry Robot. The publicist I’d emailed, however, had responded, and their (friendly, courteous) email implied Red Sofa had been the ones to contact Angry Robot, and not the other way around. This was confusing, as it seemed to go against what Dawn had told me on the Skype call, so after consulting with an excellent, level-headed writer friend, I tentatively reached out to the publisher to get their take on things.

To my relief, the publisher happily agreed to speak to me. Unlike the call to Red Sofa, my Skype with Angry Robot was calm and professional – and extremely enlightening.

According to the publisher, it was indeed Red Sofa who reached out to Angry Robot about my tweets, something they apparently did before I ever received my first DM from Jennie. Not only that, but Red Sofa also didn’t tell Angry Robot about my December email, letting the publisher believe that my comments about the editor had, indeed, come out of nowhere. The publisher’s understanding of things was that Dawn and the editor were Facebook friends: having seen my tweets, the editor had posted privately to Facebook about how upset she was, as she’d been proud of her work on the book (it was also, apparently, her birthday, which I hadn’t known). Dawn had been so incensed on the editor’s behalf that she’d gone straight to contacting Angry Robot, reassuring them that she would “get to the bottom of it.” The publisher also confirmed that, while they’d been a bit miffed about the tweets, they hadn’t asked for them to be taken down, nor had they ever been going to pull A Tyranny of Queens. I thanked the publisher for taking the time to talk to me – they were gracious, calm and forthcoming – and we ended the call on mutually good terms.

It was at this point that I looked back over my original DMs with Jennie and noted, with a certain painful irony, that almost the first thing I’d said to her was that I didn’t want to be shouted at. I hadn’t actually thought that Jennie would shout at me; I’ve just had enough hot-tempered, unreasonable bosses in my officeworker life that my anxiety wanted me to make sure it wouldn’t happen. My mental health, at the time, was garbage, something I’d also discussed with Jennie in the past. I felt vile: maybe Jennie hadn’t shouted at me, but she hadn’t stopped Dawn from doing so, either – but then, Dawn was her boss, and had clearly given her little to no say in the situation, either.

Up until this incident, I’d never had a single negative experience with Red Sofa, which was part of why the whole thing was so jarring. It was the first time I’d done anything to make the agency unhappy with me, and Dawn reacted so violently that even now, years later, just seeing her name crop up when I’m not expecting it gives me a sharp adrenaline spike and leaves my hands trembling.

I’m still not sure how much I blame Jennie for what happened, because the truth is, I don’t know the extent to which Dawn, as her then-boss, was dictating her actions. But knowing that they’d lied to me about Angry Robot’s role in things, and feeling strongly that Jennie hadn’t been advocating for me as a client, I didn’t feel I could trust either of them going forward. As such, I dropped Jennie as my agent and Red Sofa as my agency, though it still remains the agency of record for my Manifold World duology.

Three years later in 2020, I still don’t have a new agent. I’ve got plenty of works in progress, but I don’t have anything finished that I can shop around, and part of the reason for that – aside from yet another international move, parenting a small child, and dealing with a series of health issues, both physical and mental – is that, ever since my experience with Red Sofa, I haven’t felt as though I’m welcome in the SFF industry. I’ve been demotivated, struggling to push myself to finish a first draft, because what’s the point? How can I belong in an industry that doesn’t want me to speak up when I encounter something terrible?

Because that’s the real crux of it; that’s why my experience with Dawn and Red Sofa has felt so catastrophic. It’s not just that I encountered a horrible person who treated me badly in a professional context; it’s that the culture of silence in SFF is such that, when I spoke privately to colleagues about what happened with Dawn, even when people were horrified by her actions, their overwhelming consensus was that speaking about it publicly would risk me being seen as a problem author, someone nobody would want to represent in the future, and that I’d be setting my career on fire – in other words, making myself exactly as unrepresentable as Dawn had said I was, because if you can’t work with us… 

Since leaving Red Sofa, I’ve spoken to and heard about other former clients who have also had negative experiences with Dawn, and who have likewise been advised to keep quiet about it. And perhaps I would’ve stayed quiet, too, but after this past week, I feel it’s important to make it clear what kind of person she can be behind the scenes. I have no evidence for the claim that Dawn’s treatment of me resulted in Jennie switching agencies, but I suspect it was a motivating factor, and on that basis, knowing how willing she was to muscle in and take over from one of her own agents, I’d be deeply unsurprised if it turned out that Van Sant, Graham and Rutter all had additional, pre-existing reasons for wanting to leave Red Sofa in addition to Dawn’s tweets. I don’t say this to take away from the significance of three white agents choosing to depart on the basis of their support for the Black Lives Matter movement – that is a powerful statement, and something to be applauded. But as I’m already seeing their actions described as hypersensitive and disproportionate, I think it’s important to consider that, when something like this happens, it’s never just about a single thing said publicly, but about everything that has preceded it in private.

I don’t know what the future holds for Red Sofa Literary, but I wish Van Sant, Graham and Rutter all the best in finding new agency positions, and hope likewise that Dawn’s former clients find new and better representation. In speaking now, my intention isn’t to take attention away from the protests over the death of George Floyd, but rather to add my voice to the conversation around how real-world politics and actions continue to impact gatekeeping in SFF publishing.

Update, 1 June 2020, 7:00pm: 

Since publishing this piece, I’ve been privately contacted by another former Red Sofa agent, one who was with the agency during the period when I was represented by Jennie. With their permission, I’m sharing the message they sent me:

Hey, I wanted to say thank you so much for writing about Dawn. I’m horrified you had to go through that. I’m not sure if this is worth adding to your account, but both Jennie and Dawn, separately, communicated to me that your tweets had come out of nowhere (with no mention of the email), painting you as unreasonable, over-sensitive, and maybe even unstable. They didn’t even tell me about the Skype call. Only about a “polite ask” and you blowing up at them. I apologize for my part in this, in accepting their stories a face value. If there’s anything I can do to help and support you, please let me know. You’re brave and strong and you belong in SFF, and have more friends and power in the community than dawn ever did. One thing I’m certain of is that they didn’t tell people beyond the agency their version of events, so I’m confident you weren’t smeared anywhere.

In other words, not only was I lied about to Angry Robot, but also to other members of the Red Sofa staff. During the Skype conversation I had with Jennie following my original December email about the editorial issues, it was clear that she didn’t take my complaints seriously; that was frustrating at the time, but it’s even more so now to learn that I was being characterised as potentially unstable for raising those issues in the first place.

Update, 1 June 2020, 7:30pm:

Also with permission, I’m sharing this additional account of Dawn’s behaviour, which was sent to me privately by another former Red Sofa author:

I am so sorry Dawn put you through that. I had my own, but not nearly so awful experience with her. Shortish version: I had a different Red Sofa agent. Things started off fine, but a couple months into submission, the agent seemed to zone out. She’d give me contradictory info about editor replies, or she simply dropped into a black hole. When I got a R&R from Harper Voyager, I sent my agent the revised ms. but she never replied. I told her I needed her to be better about communication, and if that wasn’t possible, we needed to talk. The next thing I knew, Dawn emailed me, all shouty, saying the agency policy was to give updates only twice a year, and if I didn’t like that, she’d fire me as a client. I bit my tongue because…middle of submissions and all that. The book and its sequel sold, but my agent got more and more flaky. I finally parted ways with them, but Dawn was also a major part of my decision.

Warning: significant spoilers for Docile

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and sexual slavery

In a near-future Baltimore, Maryland where all debts are generationally inherited, 21-year-old Elisha Wilder sneaks away from his impoverished family to auction off their collective 3 million dollars of debt by becoming a Docile – a debtor who sells their labour to a rich individual or corporation, called a Patron, for a set term. Most Dociles choose to take Dociline, a drug developed by Bishop Laboratories, which renders them pliant, happy drones for the duration of their service, and which, once their time is up, leaves them with no memories of the experience. As such, a great many Dociles are used for sex by their Patrons: their sexual health is a guaranteed right, but their sexual autonomy is not. But Elisha, whose mother continues to act like an on-med Docile years after her own term of service ended, intends to refuse Dociline. The only trouble is, his Patron is Alex Bishop: the heir to Bishop Laboratories, whose family is pressuring him to prove that he can publicly manage a Docile as a prelude to taking over the company – and without Dociline to help keep Elisha in line, Alex resorts to other methods of control.

K.M. Szpara’s Docile is a complex, incredibly pacy book about which I nonetheless have mixed feelings. At first blush, it’s a gripping, emotional, highly accomplished debut that I finished in a single sitting: a queer rebuke of capitalism whose central thesis is an investigation of debt slavery, autonomy and consent. And yet, the more I probe at it, the more that thesis is undermined by holes in the worldbuilding; a mixture of glaring omissions and smaller slips that sit less easily with me the longer I have to think about them. At the same time, Docile is also an unapologetically sexual book, which I think is to its credit: in addition to putting queerness front and centre, it doesn’t flinch from portraying the emotional complexities and power imbalances of Elisha and Alex’s relationship, and makes a point of showing how sex is a part of that.

As someone whose primary exposure to queer romance and erotica comes via fanfic, seeing what I’ve come to think of as fanfic tropes appear in traditionally published SFF works is still a slightly weird (but ultimately satisfying) experience. When it comes to particular tropes, however, I’ve discovered that there are things I’ll happily read about in fanfic which I struggle to enjoy in other mediums, not because of any difference in the quality of the writing or level of darkness involved, but because the knowledge that a thing is fic as opposed to canon allows me to process it differently. Partly, this is the result of tagging, which works to reassure me that the author knows the dynamic or context they’re writing is fucked up and is exploring those themes on purpose; but mostly, it’s that fic, for me, exists at an extra level of remove from reality. A dark fic about a particular pairing isn’t the defining story of their relationship; it’s just one extrapolation among many. If it makes me uncomfortable, I don’t have to invest in it, because a plethora of other, gentler stories about the same characters coexist alongside it. And no matter how good or bad they may be, I don’t have to pass critical judgement on the themes and worldbuilding of such stories, because that’s what the canon is for: the fic is an escape from that, which means that I’m primarily here for the feelings.

But when the same tropes appear in an original, canon story, I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain that wants to poke and probe at the background details, the rules of the setting, and judge how well they work. I have a greater desire for the narrative to justify its logic and decisions, because there’s no pre-existing enjoyment of a separate, existing story to act as a Because Reasons shortcut for accepting why these particular characters are being treated a certain way, or why their world functions as it does. To take some classic fanfic AU examples, when I’m browsing my way through AO3, I don’t need an in-depth explanation for how magic can openly exist in the real world, or a treatise on why every human person is either a sub, dom or switch, or a set of detailed biological diagrams to explain a particular version of A/B/O in order to enjoy a story, even if the writer feels moved to provide such information. Because it’s fanfic, I’m happy just to accept that The Setting Is Like This, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, and to focus instead on the characters. But in an original work – and especially in a work of SFF – those other details are vital: they’re the lens through which I’m meeting the characters for the first time, and therefore integral to understanding them properly. If the world or the plot is inconsistent, it can make the characters feel inconsistent – and that, in turn, impacts my ability to invest in them.

With all that being understood: Docile is a story about sexual slavery. For many people, this is, quite reasonably, a hard limit, and one I’ve discussed before, when reviewing C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. Though structured like a romance, with different chapters showing us the first person POVs of Elisha and Alex respectively, the ending isn’t a HEA; nonetheless, the main sexual, emotional relationship is functionally master/slave, and while that’s not the Patron/Docile terminology used in the book, that’s functionally what it is. That the vast majority of the book is spent interrogating the fuckedupedness of this relationship in particular and the nature of consent in general is certainly important – tags or no tags, Szpara understands exactly what he’s writing about, to the extent that the book itself has a trigger warning on the back cover – but even so, that doesn’t obligate anyone to be comfortable with it.

In order to control Elisha without Dociline, Alex establishes rules for Elisha’s behaviour. For his own sexual and aesthetic benefit, he also decides what clothes Elisha wears, gives him a set exercise regime and personal trainer, has him learn to cook and determines what food he should eat, sees him tutored in piano, history and languages, and – of course – teaches him what he wants in bed. If Elisha disobeys, there are three types of punishment: writing lines, kneeling on rice for a set amount of time, and confinement. Throw this all together, and what develops is an inevitable Pygmalion situation: without understanding the full consequences of his actions, Alex brainwashes Elisha into being his perfect boyfriend, someone who is wholly dependent on him in every way, and doesn’t realise what he’s done until he starts wanting Elisha to interact with him autonomously and finds that he can’t. That Alex doesn’t set out to break Elisha doesn’t exonerate him in the narrative: his initial callousness to Elisha’s situation is what causes him to set the rules in the first place. It’s only when Elisha fully becomes his creation that Alex cares enough to see him as a person and, consequently, to be horrified by how broken that personhood is.

As such, I’d argue that this section of the book is – at least in part – a thinly-veiled rebuke of the toxic BDSM “romance” in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Anastasia, Elisha is a subby virgin whose body and life are fully controlled by a dominating rich man; but unlike James, Szpara is fully aware that this is an extremely imbalanced, unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t magically become acceptable because the parties have feelings for one another. Unlike Christian Grey, when Alex finally realises what he’s done to Elisha, he’s appalled with himself. He pays Elisha’s contract in full and sends him home – but Elisha, still brainwashed, doesn’t want to go and is devastated to think himself rejected by the man who’s become the centre of his world. What follows is a protracted, emotional aftermath: after a near catastrophe, Alex realises that, even though he’s the one who damaged Elisha, he’s done so in such a way that he can’t simply expect him to heal in his absence. Along with members of Empower Maryland, an anti-Dociline activist group, Alex tries to help Elisha recover – but when the Bishop family realises what he’s doing, Alex winds up in his powerful father’s crosshairs, leading to a climactic showdown in court.

Without wanting to spoil the novel in its entirety, Szpara does an excellent job of showing how Elisha and Alex come to reconcile. The ending between them isn’t romantic – which I think is the right decision – but it ends in a place of catharsis, with the potential for change in the future. A major part of why this works is the narrative acknowledgement that trauma, desire and identity are fundamentally complicated. Elisha knows that what Alex did to him was wrong, but he also can’t stop being the person who had those experiences, nor would it be healthy to hate his new self just because of its genesis. Instead, he has to negotiate: to figure out who he is on his own terms while still accepting aspects of his identity – his sexually submissive nature, his love of music – that Alex brought to the surface. Elisha doesn’t have to know with 100% certainty which parts of him are untouched by Alex and which are not; the more important thing is to like himself, to have autonomy, and to have that autonomy respected by those around him. Alex, in turn, has to learn about the blinkered nature of his privileged upbringing: how his staggering naivety has done harm not only to Elisha, but to others in his life, and how throwing money at a problem isn’t the same as understanding why it exists in the first place.

This is the heart of Docile, and the overwhelming strength of the book. The emotional intimacy of the narrative, the excellent pacing and the real engagement with questions of consent, identity and autonomy make it a fascinating read, and one I wish I could recommend without any reservations.

But.

The thing I cannot get past – the thing I kept expecting to find throughout the book, but which never appeared, and which I think is a baffling elision in a story of this nature – is the fact that actual American slavery isn’t mentioned. Not ever. Not even once. A story about slavery in near-future Baltimore – a story which features multiple black characters, many of them anti-Dociline advocates – doesn’t mention black slavery. I understand that debt slavery is not traditionally motivated by the same appalling racism that underscored the trans-Atlantic slave trade (though it can still exist within racist paradigms, as happens with a lot of people-smuggling), but the two concepts are still related, especially when it comes to the functional sale of bodies, and I can’t believe that no character mentions it at all.

Especially given that the alternative to being a Docile is ending up in debtor’s prison, the threat of which motivates Elisha to sell himself in the first place, it’s striking that the fate of such prisoners isn’t ever explained in text, either. Given that modern American prisons are literally run as businesses, with prisoners often working for a pittance to make innumerable goods for the American market – another toxic facet of the captialism Szpara is rebuking, which ensures that paid workers in those fields can’t compete with what is effectively slave labour – the lack of explanation about what they do in the world of Docile niggles. I don’t believe there’s any accurate way to discuss intergenerational poverty, debt and incarceration in modern or near-future America that doesn’t include an analysis of race and the systematic racism with which slavery was replaced, and as such, its absence from the text felt not only glaring, but broke my immersion in the worldbuilding.

In establishing how the world of Docile came to be, there is no mention of existing debt slavery; of how fines and fees are already used as a means to incarcerate poor Americans who are overwhelmingly POC. There is no mention of plantations or sharecropping (although we see that Dociles are used for manual labour), no mention of white supremacy (although the majority of the hyper-rich characters are white), no mention of the history of human trafficiking (although this is how debt-slavery frequently manifests itself in the modern world, with workers shipped overseas and promised jobs, only to find their wages increasingly garnished to “pay” for the cost of their transport, lodging and innumerable other things, thus keeping them from becoming independent). The only historical precedent given in-narrative for the Docile system comes from ancient Roman history.

Elisha only has an eighth grade education; Alex has been raised by bigoted trillionaires who view their wealth as deserved. As Szpara never states how far in the future Docile takes place, it would be wholly consistent with the existing narrative to establish – even if only in passing, via something said by a secondary character – that the history of slavery is no longer properly taught, leaving the reader to infer that neither of the protagonists understands the historical legacy of the system to which they now belong. The idea of this history being suppressed, leading to the cyclic perpetuation of an old wound, would’ve made the book a thousand times more powerful without any need to change the central narrative. But to include multiple black activist characters who never once mention real slavery while talking about their fight against fictional slavery? To include a diverse cast, but not explore race or racism as a factor in class and poverty, or to even so much as hint at explaining why that analysis might be absent in a crapsack captialist future that is otherwise extrapolated from our present reality? Feels bad, Scoob.

The lack of discussion around race feels most salient in the case of a black Docile, Onyx, who we eventually learn is only pretending to be on Docilium in order to spy on trillionaires who won’t guard their mouths around him. When Elisha finally starts to break free of Alex’s brainwashing, it’s Onyx who helps him safely start to explore his sexuality, identity, submission and autonomy, which means that the two talk a lot about boundaries and stress. In order to uphold his cover as an on-med, Onyx has been having public sex with other Dociles and Patrons, and while the story doesn’t go deep into the practicalities of this performance in any case, it feels like both a misstep and a missed opportunity that Onyx never mentions the personal, racial implications of being a black man feigning slavery to an audience of mostly white Patrons. Given how gross and dehumanising the trillionaire class is portrayed to be towards their Dociles, I find it inconceivable that racism never enters the mix – however far in the future the story is meant to be set, it doesn’t seem remotely far enough for racism to be so long a thing of the past as to never be mentioned – and yet, it never does.

The other such omission, which feels less charged than the issue of race while still being significant, is the lack of any reference to any religion, particularly Christianity. In a future America where Dociles are used as sex slaves, it completely breaks my suspension of disbelief that nowhere, not even in passing, is there any reference to Evangelical protests about sin and immorality, or how faiths of any kind reacts to the Docile system, and I cannot help but view this as a failing. Again, I’m not asking for the central narrative to be overhauled: it’s just that, in a setting which is meant to be politically and socially derived from the USA at present, in all its megachurch-having, faith-based political glory, it feels like a hole in the story.

There are other issues with the worldbuilding, too. Why, for instance, is there seemingly a practice of putting children and young adults into the Docile system? At the start of the novel, Elisha sells the family’s debt in part to stop his thirteen-year-old sister from having to do so; but given that Dociles are so often used as sex slaves, the uncomfortable implication is that paedophilia is an established part of the system. Similarly, we learn of two characters who were on Docile from ages 7 to 12, and who’ve been in therapy as adults to deal with the trauma of it. But how can children that young, even Docile, be expected to sell their labour? What could they actually do at that age to work off the debt? And given that Docilium leaves you with no memories of your time spent taking it, how would this impact child users, who’d presumably “awaken” to their former mental age once going off-med instead of developing normally? This feels like it should be a much bigger aspect of the novel – a foundational grievance against the Docile system for the Empower Maryland activists, if no-one else – and yet it’s never mentioned except in passing, as though the reader should be horrified by it, but not curious about how it actually works.

With all of these issues already in place, smaller gripes become magnified. Why does Alex sign Elisha to a lifetime contract when he’s only getting a Docile under duress and clearly doesn’t want one long-term? How is the sexual health of Dociles protected, as we’re told it is under law, when they’re sexually shared with each other and their Patrons instead of being sexually exclusive? Why, when Elisha’s mother’s ongoing Docile condition is so central to the plot, is her case the only one of its kind we encounter, instead of being one of many? Why is thirty years of continuous, 24-hour Docile labour seen as a generous contract for paying off a 3 million dollar debt, when this works out to an annual salary of $100k? Even with living expenses paid for by the Patron, this doesn’t seem like a good exchange. What other jobs exist, or don’t, and how does the Docile system change their availability?

Similarly, the fact that queerness wasn’t overtly discussed in the narrative, only depicted as normative, struck me as being oddly unsatisfying, given the context. Returning to the issue of my differing standards for worldbuilding in original content vs fanfic, I’ve enjoyed endless fics where everyone is happily out and queer in settings where, realistically, the opposite is true, and never raised an eyebrow, because the how and why of those stories is vastly less important to me than the characterisation. At the same time, I don’t believe that depicting homophobia or overtly discussing queerness is necessary to establish realism even in stories set in the present day, let alone the near future. But Docile is explicitly meant to be a dystopian rebuke of capitalism, and one of the weirder aspects of being a queer person living in a capitalist society that’s slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into queer acceptance, is watching things like pride events and rainbow decorations suddenly being monetised by corporations who, not so long ago, went out of their way to avoid being seen as For The Gays.

It left me wondering: how, then, is queerness marketed, perceived and understood in the world of Docile, and how would this intersect with other aspects of identity that the book doesn’t tell us about, but which must logically exist? We’re told explicitly that things still suck for disabled people, for instance: aside from medical debt and widespread poverty, Patrons are responsible for paying for medical care for their Dociles, which makes it much, much harder for those who disclose a chronic illness or disability to find good contracts. So if prejudice still demonstrably exists in the setting, then why don’t we hear about it otherwise, even when it must clearly impact the characters? Why are the awful Bishop family, who value lineage and legacy above all else, more concerned with Alex finding a man to marry or a Docile to manage than with his producing an heir? Where are the hypocritical conservatives protesting that having gay sex with Dociles is against god’s law while simultaneously arguing that the hetero alternative is just fine, because something something Old Testament concubines something? And why, when it’s clear that Dociles are treated like objects by their Patrons, do we never hear about the handful of rights they’re granted being abused or broken? Even if Dociles technically have the right to refuse Dociline, what’s to stop a Patron from forcibly injecting them and then bribing or blackmailing not to report it the next time they check in with their caseworker? The premise left me with dozens of similar questions, and while I wouldn’t expect to see all of them answered, the more social elements were left absent or unexamined in text, the more I wondered why the book was set in America at all.

I can understand Szpara wanting to have a tight narrative focus on capitalism as a metaphoric vehicle for discussing bodily consent; I can also understand his wanting to tread carefully around issues of race, faith and culture. If Docile were a work of fanfiction, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about everything he’d left out or the details that don’t make sense, because I’d already have a pre-existing, canonical context in which to situate the characters. An AU setting would be understood foremost as an excuse to explore a specific relationship in a new way, with no need to be self-supporting otherwise. But when you tell me that a story is set in a near-future America, that implies the use of our present reality as a starting point – and if major aspects of that reality are absent from the worldbuilding without any explanation, while other details stand out as being weird or contradictory, then I’m going to find it hard to buy in to the premise.

The Hunger Games is technically set in America, but in a future so distant that there’s no need to connect it to our present, let alone any deeper history, in order for it to stand on its own. The alt-reality TV show Kings was intended as a clear thematic stand-in for the modern US, but as it was set in its own world, it wasn’t tied to historical specifics. And there are any number of narratives set in fully science fictional settings – space stations, colony planets, ambiguously situated cities with familiar technology but no clear ties to modern Earth – that manage to discuss capitalism and other such social institutions without invoking the specifics of our present reality. Had Szpara chosen any of these options for Docile, the book wouldn’t feel remiss for failing to discuss black slavery, religion or anything else particular to the USA, because they wouldn’t have been a contextual part of the setting, but as things stand, the omissions really bothered me.

It’s frustrating to have been so captivated by the pace and intense emotions of a novel, only to want to smack the setting firmly upside the head. Which is why, to return to my earlier point about tropes and fanfic, I can’t help feeling that Docile is, functionally, written as a fic, and that while this does extraordinary things for the pacing and characterisation, it comes – in my opinion – at the expense of the themes and worldbuilding.

I don’t mean that as an insult to fanfic, which I love wholeheartedly; nor will I criticise any reader who, unlike me, is perfectly content to argue that the details of Docile’s premise are ultimately less important than the characterisation. Certainly, I can’t claim to speak for how a POC might react to the text, except to be certain that no group is a hivemind: as a white queer reader, I was more inclined to accept Docile’s lack of homophobia precisely because, even when realistically present in a narrative, it’s personally upsetting to me. As such, I can imagine that some POC might similarly enjoy the lack of racism and racial analysis in an SF story which still boasted a diverse secondary cast.

But at the same time, and without wanting to lay down any hard rules about who is allowed to write what and under which auspices, I feel more comfortable with Szpara choosing to remove homophobia from a (real-world, albeit futuristic) story on the basis that Szpara is queer himself, and therefore representing his own, very reasonable desire to not have to deal with that bullshit in his own writing. Choosing not to acknowledge racism and slavery, however, feels dicier for the same reason – it’s less in his lane, and while neither he nor I gets to tell any POC readers how to feel about that, it nonetheless impacted my enjoyment of the novel.

All that being so, while the ficreader in me loved the twisty, emotional heart of Docile (AO3 tags: rated E, modern AU: slavery, rape/noncon, dubcon, under-negotiated kink, abuse, mindbreak, suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, dark yet weirdly tender, the real big bad is capitalism and also privilege, Lex Bishop’s A+ parenting, hopeful ending), my SFF reader/reviewer brain wanted more from the setting than the book could provide, especially regarding the elision of historical slavery from an American slavery novel. I’ll be interested to see what Szpara writes next – on a technical level, his writing is superb, and he has a compelling grasp of characterisation – but while I’d still recommend Docile to others, I can’t do so without reservation.

Warning: mild spoilers

Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, a novella about librarian spies in a weird west setting, begins with the protagonist, Esther, stowing away in the back of a wagon to avoid an arranged marriage. Discovered after two days of hiding by Bet and Leda – Librarians whose job it is to deliver Approved Materials to remote settlements – Esther shakily reveals her predicament: she’s a woman who isn’t attracted to men, and her domineering lawman father just hanged her best friend and lover, Beatriz, after finding her with seditious Unapproved Materials. Together with Cye, their Apprentice Librarian, Bet and Leda take unexpected pity on Esther and agree to bring her to Utah, where they’re set to deliver a mysterious package. But life with the Librarians is more complicated than it first seems, and Esther is soon caught up in a dangerous adventure which, at every step, challenges not only what she thought she knew about the world, but about herself.

Written in a style that succeeds in being simultaneously whip-smart, pacey and heartfelt, Upright Women Wanted is a story about queer self-acceptance: about what it means to grow up believing that your orientation has doomed you to evil, unhappiness and a bad ending, and to shrink yourself to fit that narrative, only to discover – painfully, brutally, beautifully – that it isn’t true and never was; that you have only ever been as small as other people forced you to be. It is also a story about fascism – not in the past, as one might first expect from the western setting, but in the future. Though Gailey’s far-ranging horseback Librarians are reminiscent of the Pack Horse Library Project, which saw female riders delivering books to remote Appalachian communities in the thirties and forties, Upright Women Wanted is gradually revealed to take place in an era with drones and videos, but where diesel rationing has rendered cars a thing of the past. The United States is divided into quadrants; there is always War, and what little fuel exists is given as a priority to the tanks that fight in the beleaguered Central Corridor.

Viewed in this light, the authoritarian insistence on Approved Materials – and the lessons these stories have taught Esther about herself, about people like her – becomes even more sinister. Like the infamous Hays Code, which determined (among other things) that homosexuality could only be depicted on screen if it was made clear to the audience that it was morally wrong and its practitioners destined either for tragedy or villainy, the Approved Materials exist to indoctrinate under the guise of spreading unity. Esther knows about people like Cye, who goes by they instead of he or she (unless they’re in town, for reasons of personal safety), but only from stories that paint them in the same bad light as women like her. This leaves the audience free to fill in the blanks about what might’ve happened to lead society in such a terrifying backwards circle; blanks which, at the present historical moment, are frighteningly easy to envisage.

In its deliberate evocation of a past era recreated in new shades of misogyny and fascism, Upright Women Wanted is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s Fade to White, where a post-nuclear, Macarthyist USA puts a smiling, fifties spin on matchmaking fertile youngesters, and where teenage Sylvie has to hide her Japanese heritage in a white nationalist state. Both stories highlight the terror of difference, and the frightening ease with which propaganda shapes culture, society and self-perception. Fade to White is the bleaker story, ending on a note of poignant despair – and to deliberate, chilling effect. But while Upright Women Wanted doesn’t go full Star Wars, the rebels triumphant and the evil empire defeated, it nonetheless lands us in a place of powerful hope, with Esther aware of her strengths and determined to fight for herself and others.

Given its status as novella rather than novel, there are details about the wider setting of Upright Women Wanted – about its history, culture and characters – that go unexplained, or which an eager reader could be forgiven for wondering about, but these omissions are never due to bad writing or inconsistencies. Rather, it’s that the story is a greyhound, sleekly muscled and pointed straight down a set track: the core and soul of things is Esther’s journey, both literally and thematically, establishing her as a microcosm reflective of a greater whole. Even so, there is plenty of room left for further stories set in this universe, and I for one would be very happy to read them. Upright Women Wanted is a queer heartpunch, reminding us of the ways in which simply existing happily, without shame or abnegation, is a rebellion all its own. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Plus and also: queer librarian spies. I’m not made of stone!

As social media platforms enter their collective adolescence – Facebook is fifteen, YouTube fourteen, Twitter thirteen, tumblr twelve – I find myself thinking about how little we really understand their cultural implications, both ongoing and for the future. At this point, the idea that being online is completely optional in modern world ought to be absurd, and yet multiple friends, having spoken to their therapists about the impact of digital abuse on their mental health, were told straight up to just stop using the internet. Even if this was a viable option for some, the idea that we can neatly sidestep the problem of bad behaviour in any non-utilitarian sphere by telling those impacted to simply quit is baffling at best and a tacit form of victim-blaming at worst. The internet might be a liminal space, but object permanence still applies to what happens here: the trolls don’t vanish if we close our eyes, and if we vanquish one digital hydra-domain for Toxicity Crimes without caring to fathom the whys and hows of what went wrong, we merely ensure that three more will spring up in its place.

Is the internet a private space, a government space or a public space? Yes.

Is it corporate, communal or unaffiliated? Yes.

Is it truly global or bound by local legal jurisdictions? Yes.

Does the internet reflect our culture or create it? Yes.

Is what people say on the internet reflective of their true beliefs, or is it a constant shell-game of digital personas, marketing ploys, intrusive thoughts, growth-in-progress, personal speculation and fictional exploration? Yes.

The problem with the internet is that takes up all three areas on a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between speech and action, and while this has always been the case, we’re only now admitting that it’s a bug as well as a feature. Human interaction cannot be usefully monitored using an algorithm, but our current conception of What The Internet Is has been engineered specifically to shortcut existing forms of human oversight, the better to maximise both accessibility (good to neutral) and profits (neutral to bad). Uber and Lyft are cheaper, frequently more convenient alternatives to a traditional taxi service, for instance, but that’s because the apps themselves are functionally predicated on the removal of meaningful customer service and worker protections that were hard-won elsewhere. Sites like tumblr are free to use, but the lack of revenue generated by those users means that, past a certain point, profits can only hope to outstrip expenses by selling access to those users and/or their account data, which means in turn that paying to effectively monitor their content creation becomes vastly less important than monetising it.

Small wonder, then, that individual users of social media platforms have learned to place a high premium on their ability to curate what they see, how they see it, and who sees them in turn. When I first started blogging, the largely unwritten rule of the blogsphere was that, while particular webforums dedicated to specific topics could have rules about content and conduct, blogs and their comment pages should be kept Free. Monitoring comments was viewed as a sign of narrow-minded fearfulness: even if a participant was aggressive or abusive, the enlightened path was to let them speak, because anything else was Censorship. This position held out for a good long while, until the collective frustration of everyone who’d been graphically threatened with rape, torture and death, bombarded with slurs, exhausted by sealioning or simply fed up with nitpicking and bad faith arguments finally boiled over.

Particularly in progressive circles, the relief people felt at being told that actually, we were under no moral obligation to let assholes grandstand in the comments or repeatedly explain basic concepts to only theoretically invested strangers was overwhelming. Instead, you could simply delete them, or block them, or maybe even mock them, if the offence or initial point of ignorance seemed silly enough. But as with the previous system, this one-size-fits-all approach soon developed a downside. Thanks to the burnout so many of us felt after literal years of trying to treat patiently with trolls playing Devil’s Advocate, liberal internet culture shifted sharply towards immediate shows of anger, derision and flippancy to anyone who asked a 101 question, or who didn’t use the right language, or who did anything other than immediately agree with whatever position was explained to them, however simply.

I don’t exempt myself from this criticism, but knowing why I was so goddamn tired doesn’t change my conviction that, cumulatively, the end result did more harm than good. Without wanting to sidetrack into a lengthy dissertation on digital activism in the post-aughties decade, it seems evident in hindsight that the then-fledgling alliance between trolls, MRAs, PUAs, Redditors and 4channers to deliberately exhaust left-wing goodwill via sealioning and bad faith arguments was only the first part of a two-pronged attack. The second part, when the left had lost all patience with explaining its own beliefs and was snappily telling anyone who asked about feminism, racism or anything else to just fucking Google it, was to swoop in and persuade the rebuffed party that we were all irrational, screeching harridans who didn’t want to answer because we knew our answers were bad, and why not consider reading Roosh V instead?

The fallout of this period, I would argue, is still ongoing. In an ideal world, drawing a link between online culture wars about ownership of SFF and geekdom and the rise of far-right fascist, xenophobic extremism should be a bow so long that not even Odysseus himself could draw it. But this world, as we’ve all had frequent cause to notice, is far from ideal at the best of times – which these are not – and yet another featurebug of the internet is the fluid interpermeability of its various spaces. We talk, for instance – as I am talking here – about social media as a discreet concept, as though platforms like Twitter or Facebook are functionally separate from the other sites to which their users link; as though there is no relationship between or bleed-through from the viral Facebook post screencapped and shared on BuzzFeed, which is then linked and commented upon on Reddit, which thread is then linked to on Twitter, where an entirely new conversation emerges and subsequently spawns an article in The Huffington Post, which is shared again on Facebook and the replies to that shared on tumblr, and so on like some grizzly perpetual mention machine.

But I digress. The point here is that internet culture is best understood as a pattern of ripples, each new iteration a reaction to the previous one, spreading out until it dissipates and a new shape takes its place. Having learned that slamming the virtual door in everyone’s face was a bad idea, the online left tried establishing a better, calmer means of communication; the flipside was a sudden increase in tone-policing, conversations in which presentation was vaunted over substance and where, once again, particular groups were singled out as needing to conform to the comfort-levels of others. Overlapping with this was the move towards discussing things as being problematic, rather than using more fixed and strident language to decry particular faults – an attempt to acknowledge the inherent fallibility of human works while still allowing for criticism. A sensible goal, surely, but once again, attempting to apply the dictum universally proved a double-edged sword: if everything is problematic, then how to distinguish grave offences from trifling ones? How can anyone enjoy anything if we’re always expected to thumb the rosary of its failings first?

When everything is problematic and everyone has the right to say so, being online as any sort of creator or celebrity is like being nibbled to death by ducks. The well-meaning promise of various organisations, public figures or storytellers to take criticism on board – to listen to the fanbase and do right by their desires – was always going to stumble over the problem of differing tastes. No group is a hivemind: what one person considers bad representation or in poor taste, another might find enlightening, while yet a third party is more concerned with something else entirely. Even in cases with a clear majority opinion, it’s physically impossible to please everyone and a type of folly to try, but that has yet to stop the collective internet from demanding it be so. Out of this comes a new type of ironic frustration: having once rejoiced in being allowed to simply block trolls or timewasters, we now cast judgement on those who block us in turn, viewing them, as we once were viewed, as being fearful of criticism.

Are we creating echo chambers by curating what we see online, or are we acting in pragmatic acknowledgement of the fact that we neither have time to read everything nor an obligation to see all perspectives as equally valid? Yes.

Even if we did have the time and ability to wade through everything, is the signal-to-noise ratio of truth to lies on the internet beyond our individual ability to successfully measure, such that outsourcing some of our judgement to trusted sources is fundamentally necessary, or should we be expected to think critically about everything we encounter, even if it’s only intended as entertainment? Yes.

If something or someone online acts in a way that’s antithetical to our values, are we allowed to tune them out thereafter, knowing full well that there’s a nearly infinite supply of as-yet undisappointing content and content-creators waiting to take their place, or are we obliged to acknowledge that Doing A Bad doesn’t necessarily ruin a person forever? Yes.

And thus we come to cancel culture, the current – but by no means final – culmination of previous internet discourse waves. In this iteration, burnout at critical engagement dovetails with a new emphasis on collective content curation courtesies (try saying that six times fast), but ends up hamstrung once again by differences in taste. Or, to put it another way: someone fucks up and it’s the last straw for us personally, so we try to remove them from our timelines altogether – but unless our friends and mutuals, who we still want to engage with, are convinced to do likewise, then we haven’t really removed them at all, such that we’re now potentially willing to make failure to cancel on demand itself a cancellable offence.

Which brings us right back around to the problem of how the modern internet is fundamentally structured – which is to say, the way in which it’s overwhelmingly meant to rely on individual curation instead of collective moderation. Because the one thing each successive mode of social media discourse has in common with its predecessors is a central, and currently unanswerable question: what universal code of conduct exists that I, an individual on the internet, can adhere to – and expect others to adhere to – while we communicate across multiple different platforms?

In the real world, we understand about social behavioural norms: even if we don’t talk about them in those terms, we broadly recognise them when we see them. Of course, we also understand that those norms can vary from place to place and context to context, but as we can only ever be in one physical place at a time, it’s comparatively easy to adjust as appropriate.

But the internet, as stated, is a liminal space: it’s real and virtual, myriad and singular, private and public all at once. It confuses our sense of which rules might apply under which circumstances, jumbles the normal behavioural cues by obscuring the identity of our interlocutors, and even though we don’t acknowledge it nearly as often as we should, written communication – like spoken communication – is a skill that not everyone has, just as tone, whether spoken or written, isn’t always received (or executed, for that matter) in the way it was intended. And when it comes to politics, in which the internet and its doings now plays no small role, there’s the continual frustration that comes from observing, with more and more frequency, how many literal, real-world crimes and abuses go without punishment, and how that lack of consequences contributes in turn to the fostering of abuse and hostility towards vulnerable groups online.

This is what comes of occupying a transitional period in history: one in which laws are changed and proposed to reflect our changing awareness of the world, but where habit, custom, ignorance, bias and malice still routinely combine, both institutionally and more generally, to see those laws enacted only in part, or tokenistically, or not at all. To take one of the most egregious and well-publicised instances that ultimately presaged the #MeToo movement, the laughably meagre sentence handed down to Brock Turner, who was caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman, combined with the emphasis placed by both the judge and much of the media coverage on his swimming talents and family standing as a means of exonerating him, made it very clear that sexual violence against women is frequently held to be less important than the perceived ‘bright futures’ of its perpetrators.

Knowing this, then – knowing that the story was spread, discussed and argued about on social media, along with thousands of other, similar accounts; knowing that, even in this context, some people still freely spoke up in defence of rapists and issued misogynistic threats against their female interlocutors – is it any wonder that, in the absence of consistent legal justice in such cases, the internet tried, and is still trying, to fill the gap? Is it any wonder, when instances of racist police brutality are constantly filmed and posted online, only for the perpetrators to receive no discipline, that we lose patience for anyone who wants to debate the semantics of when, exactly, extrajudicial murder is “acceptable”?

We cannot control the brutality of the world from the safety of our keyboards, but when it exhausts or threatens us, we can at least click a button to mute its seeming adherents. We don’t always have the energy to decry the same person we’ve already argued against a thousand times before, but when a friend unthinkingly puts them back on our timeline for some new reason, we can tell them that person is cancelled and hope they take the hint not to do it again. Never mind that there is far too often no subtlety, no sense of scale or proportion to how the collective, viral internet reacts in each instance, until all outrage is rendered flat and the outside observer could be forgiven for worrying what’s gone wrong with us all, that using a homophobic trope in a TV show is thought to merit the same online response as an actual hate crime. So long as the war is waged with words alone, there’s only a finite number of outcomes that boycotting, blocking, blacklisting, cancelling, complaining and critiquing can achieve, and while some of those outcomes in particular are well worth fighting for, so many words are poured towards so many attempts that it’s easy to feel numbed to the process; or, conversely, easy to think that one response fits all contexts.

I’m tired of cancel culture, just as I was dully tired of everything that preceded it and will doubtless grow tired of everything that comes after it in turn, until our fundamental sense of what the internet is and how it should be managed finally changes. Like it or not, the internet both is and is of the world, and that is too much for any one person to sensibly try and curate at an individual level. Where nothing is moderated for us, everything must be moderated by us; and wherever people form communities, those communities will grow cultures, which will develop rules and customs that spill over into neighbouring communities, both digitally and offline, with mixed and ever-changing results. Cancel culture is particularly tricky in this regard, as the ease with which we block someone online can seldom be replicated offline, which makes it all the more intoxicating a power to wield when possible: we can’t do anything about the awful coworker who rants at us in the breakroom, but by God, we can block every person who reminds us of them on Twitter.

The thing about participating in internet discourse is, it’s like playing Civilisation in real-time, only it’s not a game and the world keeps progressing even when you log off. Things change so fast on the internet – memes, etiquette, slang, dominant opinions – and yet the changes spread so organically and so fast that we frequently adapt without keeping conscious track of when and why they shifted. Social media is like the Hotel California: we can check out any time we like, but we can never meaningfully leave – not when world leaders are still threatening nuclear war on Twitter, or when Facebook is using friendly memes to test facial recognition software, or when corporate accounts are creating multi-staffed humansonas to engage with artists on tumblr, or when YouTube algorithms are accidentally-on-purpose steering kids towards white nationalist propaganda because it makes them more money.

Of course we try and curate our time online into something finite, comprehensible, familiar, safe: the alternative is to embrace the near-infinite, incomprehensible, alien, dangerous gallimaufry of our fractured global mindscape. Of course we want to try and be critical, rational, moral in our convictions and choices; it’s just that we’re also tired and scared and everyone who wants to argue with us about anything can, even if they’re wrong and angry and also our relative, or else a complete stranger, and sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy a thing without thinking about it, or give yourself some respite, or exercise a tiny bit of autonomy in the only way you can.

It’s human nature to want to be the most amount of right for the least amount of effort, but unthinkingly taking our moral cues from internet culture the same way we’re accustomed to doing in offline contexts doesn’t work: digital culture shifts too fast and too asymmetrically to be relied on moment to moment as anything like a universal touchstone. Either you end up preaching to the choir, or you run a high risk of aggravation, not necessarily due to any fundamental ideological divide, but because your interlocutor is leaning on a different, false-universal jargon overlying alternate 101 and 201 concepts to the ones you’re using, and modern social media platforms – in what is perhaps the greatest irony of all – are uniquely poorly suited to coherent debate.

Purity wars in fandom, arguments about diversity in narrative and whether its proponents have crossed the line from criticism into bullying: these types of arguments are cyclical now, dying out and rekindling with each new wave of discourse. We might not yet be in a position to stop it, but I have some hope that being aware of it can mitigate the worst of the damage, if only because I’m loathe to watch yet another fandom steadily talk itself into hating its own core media for the sake of literal argument.

For all its flaws – and with all its potential – the internet is here to stay. Here’s hoping we figure out how to fix it before its ugliest aspects make us give up on ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

As busy as I’ve been today, my attention has nonetheless been drawn to Robert Silverberg’s recent post on File 770, wherein he seeks to defend himself against charges of racism and sexism stemming from his reaction – made privately, but later reported publicly – to Nora Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award acceptance speech. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I’m lucky enough to call Nora a friend, while Silverberg, both as man and author, is a virtual stranger to me. On the night of the Hugo Awards in question, I was briefly introduced to him by a third party as one of the nominees for the Best Fan Writer award, which category he was set to introduce. He looked at me in a way which, both at the time and on reflection, felt as if I was not so much being seen as looked through. I mention this, not to cast further aspersions on the man – Silverberg was not obliged to pay me any special attention, nor did I expect it from him – but to be honest about our limited interaction, which extended not much further than a hello and a brief period of standing in the same circle.

I do know, however, that Silverberg is a beloved figure to many fellow SFF writers, such that his original reaction to Jemisin’s speech and the things he’s written now are distressing on a personal level. Once upon a time, I might have sworn and shouted about Silverberg’s post, but 2018 has been a very long year, and I am tired. Yelling at Silverberg will not make me feel better about the state of the world, and so I will rather attempt to explain, for the sake of anyone who might want such an explanation, why Silverberg’s comments have produced such an upset reaction.

The problem, at base, stems from Silverberg’s misapprehension of four key points. Specifically:

  1. His evident failure to understand the relevance of Jemisin’s experience, and the experiences of those like her, to both the work for which she was being awarded and its context within the SFF world currently;
  2. His apparent belief that a Hugo speech should not be politicised;
  3. His mistaken belief that Jemisin was angry in the first place; and
  4. His confusion as to what, exactly, he’s being accused of.

To quote the File 770 piece:

At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her.  Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony.  I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books.  My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.

I would not presume to comment on her experience of having had racist and sexist obstacles placed in her career path.  I have no doubt that she did face such challenges, and I’m sure the pain created by them still lingers.  I in no way intended to add to that pain.  However, it seemed to me that this writer, after an unprecedented three-Hugo sweep and considerable career success otherwise, had triumphed over whatever obstacles were placed in her path and need not have used the Hugo platform to protest past mistreatment.

Beginning with my first point: by his own admission in his original comments, Silverberg has not read Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for which she won the unprecedented three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards. Both individually and as a series, the Broken Earth is about exactly the issues that Jemisin raised in her speech: bigotry, prejudice, institutional cruelty, and how goddamn difficult it is to overcome all these things in pursuit of change. To everyone who has read and understood her books, Jemisin’s speech is in clear conversation with them, and therefore makes perfect thematic sense.

But at another level – that of real-world SFF politics – the points she made were also deeply relevant, not just in a general sense, but to the actual goings-on at that convention. As I’ve previously recounted elsewhere, throughout the weekend of the 2018 Worldcon, right-wing protesters affiliated with the Sad Puppy movement showed up in front of the building with the aim of harassing congoers. Some chanted actual Nazi slogans; others carried pro-Trump signs. Antifa and police showed up in response, and while the original protesters were few and handily dealt with, their physical presence was just one manifestation of an increasingly ugly culture of far-right bigotry in the SFF community: one with which Silverberg himself, as he points out, has now become unwillingly associated, as his private comments were initially posted on website run by one of the more prominent Puppies. This same man is known for casting racist abuse at Jemisin, which event she alluded to in her speech.

Which brings us to the second point: Silverberg’s seeming objection to the political content of the speech. I say seeming, because I’m not entirely sure he means this particular comment in quite the way it reads – or at least, I have difficulty believing that he thought through the full implications. Because, dear God: has there ever been a time when Hugo speeches weren’t political? I’ve been on the SFF scene for nearly a decade – which, granted, is a pittance compared to Silverberg’s tenure – and in that time, I’m pretty sure that every single Hugo Awards ceremony has featured multiple speeches whose contents touch on politics in some way, sometimes because of events surrounding the con itself, as in the Sad Puppy era, or else just due to the political nature of the work that was being awarded. Even if that’s a new development in the history of the Hugos – and I’m inclined to think it isn’t – it’s still an ample precedent for Jemisin’s speech.

The alternative explanation here is that Silverberg is using the word “politicize,” not as a literal criticism of Jemisin’s decision to reference politics, but for daring to say something that could, potentially, split the room in terms of its reception. And I just, like. Not to be all glibly millennial, but it’s a fucking awards ceremony, Robert. By definition, the choice of winner is always a bit politicised, in that individual people have different tastes and different reasons for voting for particular candidates, and the overlapping discussion of pros and cons, merits and failings, has a tendency to get heated, not to say personally felt. Name me a major awards ceremony in which, in any given year, not a single person claims that the argument for Winner X was politicised, or that there were political reasons why Nominee Y missed out, and I will fall over backwards in astonishment.

Either way, this seems like a strange and incongruous complaint to make of Jemisin in particular, as though she were the lone culprit of something unprecedented. It strikes me as being the type of complaint you’d only raise if you were disquieted by her speech and looking to blame that reaction on her, sans personal introspection as to why that might be. What Jemisin accomplished with her win was unarguably historic – and, just as unarguably, took place within a political context where there was demonstrable, immediate overlap between the issues raised in her work, the issues raised in her speech, events at the con where she was being awarded, events within the wider SFF community, and the broader political reality of living in 2018. Which is a large part of why her win, in addition to being historic, was historically meaningful – which is why, in turn, her speech was so overwhelmingly well-received by people other than Silverberg.

Which brings us to the third point: his misapprehension of Jemisin’s anger. Because Jemisin, for all that she spoke with passion, was not angry: she was triumphant. The point of mentioning everything she’d overcome to win and how bad things have been in the world – just as things had been bad in the world of her books – was to speak with hope for the future: to say that, like her characters, we can endure and make things better. She talked about working her ass off to succeed because, over and over again, the accusation flung at minority authors within the SFF community, including Jemisin herself, is that any success we have is due wholly to insincere virtue-signalling on the part of others; that we’re not really talented and deserving, but are rather the creative equivalent of an unloved diversity hire, selected for tokenism and nothing else. Jemisin knew this, as did everyone who cheered during her speech. We recognised it for what it was: a powerful, happy celebration of triumph over adversity.

Triumph, as I should not have to tell a fellow writer, is not synonymous with anger – but when you have been socially conditioned to see an outspoken, passionate black woman as an inherently angry figure, the unconscious leap is an easy one to make. Which is where we come to the fourth point: Silverberg’s failure to understand exactly what he’s being accused of, and on what basis.

In penning his self-defence piece on File 770, Silverberg goes into detail about how he cannot possibly be sexist or racist, because he has black writer friends and has published women. There are many ways to respond to such a trite assertion, the majority of which are profane, but in this particular instance, I’m going to go with this one: Silverberg has confused conscious racism and sexism with unconscious (racist and sexist) bias. Specifically: as he does not actively think of women and people of colour as inferior – and is, indeed, opposed to the logic of those who do – he believes he cannot be rightly accused of committing racist or sexist acts.

Silverberg sincerely believes this to be true – and in another decade, such a statement might well have been viewed as self-evident by those who shared his political leanings. The problem is that we now know, quite conclusively, that this belief is wrong – a fact that has been repeatedly born out by academic research into unconscious bias and related fields of study. Whether we like it or not, we all unconsciously absorb information about the world which influences our actions and reactions, particularly about groups of people to which we don’t belong or with which we have little personal experience. This is why, for instance, dogwhistling in politics is an actual thing: a bigoted speaker need only reference the myth of “welfare queens,” for instance, and even though the majority of welfare recipients in the US are white, many of them seniors, using the system out of genuine need, the image we’re meant to picture is that of a young, unmarried black mother, deliberately bearing children just to sponge more from the state.

One of the most pernicious such myths is that of the angry black woman. This myth has been deeply embedded in the cultural and political narratives of Western nations, and particularly the US, for a long goddamn time; long enough and deeply enough to have wormed its way into the subconscious of even the most well-meaning white people. The salt in the wound of this myth, of course, is that black women, both presently and historically, have suffered a great deal of mistreatment about which to be legitimately angry – but a failure to smile and a slightly raised voice is enough to see anything they say, whether actually spoken in anger or not, dismissed as unreasonable hostility.

This is why Silverberg’s comments about Jemisin’s speech were seen as racist, and why his decision to counter that accusation by saying, in essence, “but I have black friends!” both misses the point and further cements the verity of the original complaint. (As, for that matter, does his decision to double down by using phrases like “brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon,” as though she did anything with a heavy, unwieldy statue other than hold it.) Racism isn’t exclusively defined as such by intent, but by the pattern to which it contributes and the impact it has on the affected party, just as a wound isn’t only a wound if it was delivered on purpose. If a careless hand-talker flings their arm out in conversation and knocks an unsuspecting passerby into a table, that person is still injured, and the correct response is to apologise for hurting them and figure out how to prevent a recurrence – not to claim that, since you didn’t mean to do it, it didn’t really happen.

Now: in saying all this, I have one tiny sliver of sympathy for Silverberg, and that comes from having his comments in a private forum made public without his knowledge or consent. I am sympathetic, not because I think this makes a meaningful difference to their content, but because nobody likes to be on the wrong side of a breech of digital etiquette, and because there’s a difference between speaking an opinion to a close group of friends and declaring it from a public pulpit. Had his original remarks not been made public, and had he instead been called upon to speak publicly before making them, he might well have spoken less candidly and with greater thought to the impact. But the fact remains that he meant what he said, regardless of the circumstances under which he said it – something he has now confirmed by way of his self-defence essay, which rather negates my feeling sorry for him in this instance.

Do I think that Robert Silverberg is, at the core of his being, in his most deliberate acts and comments, racist and sexist? No. But do his intentions make him immune from taking racist and sexist actions, or saying racist and sexist things, out of ignorance or privilege or sheer unconscious parroting? Not in the slightest. Because – and this is the hardest truth for a lot of people to swallow – no-one is completely morally perfect. While it might behove us at times to be generous with forgiveness, and while there’s certainly many valid criticisms of online callout culture to be made – let he who is without problematic behaviours cast the first stone of discourse, etc –  acknowledging our fallibility shouldn’t stop us from trying to do better.

Silverberg is in the doghouse, not because he’s being viewed as a monster, but because he made an ignorant, hurtful comment and elected to double down on it rather than show some humility and learn from those he impacted.

Here endeth the explanation.

After some recent shenanigans, the revised program for WorldCon 76 is now live, and looking very exciting! For anyone interested in my own appearances, I’m scheduled for the following events:

Original Characters: Putting the ‘Fan’ in Fantasy

Format: Panel
17 Aug 2018, Friday 10:00 – 11:00, 210C (San Jose Convention Center)

They say sharing is caring – and it’s no accident that many of the most successful story-worlds are those big enough for fans to make their own Jedi, benders, wizards, and ponies. What makes a universe ‘fan-friendly’, and what can and can’t you do with original characters?

Tex Thompson (M), Anna Meriano, Cecilia Tan, Elektra Hammond, Foz Meadows

Beyond Nuclear: Queer Families in SFF

17 Aug 2018, Friday 13:00 – 14:00, 212D (San Jose Convention Center)

Building a family is a lot like building a story — and in queer writing communities, we do a lot of both. Join our panelists for a discussion of the intersections of family, storytelling, and queer identity.

Foz Meadows (M), Bogi Takács, Rivers Solomon, Lila Garrott

Breaking Out of the Margins

Format: Panel

17 Aug 2018, Friday 18:00 – 19:00, 211D (San Jose Convention Center)

How do we get past the pernicious assumption that privileged creators can tread where they please, but marginalized creators need to stay in their lane? On this panel, marginalized creators discuss how identity informs creative output, even in stories that aren’t focused on identity issues.

Michi Trota (M), JY Yang, Foz Meadows, Caroline M. Yoachim, Sarah Kuhn

Reading: Hugo Finalist BookSmugglers

Format: Readings

17 Aug 2018, Friday 19:00 – 20:00, 211A (San Jose Convention Center)

BookSmugglers is one of the finalists for the Hugo for semi-prozine. Come hear some of the voices of BookSmugglers read.

Foz Meadows, Kate Elliott, SL Huang

Author vs Fan Ownership

Format: Panel

18 Aug 2018, Saturday 17:00 – 18:00, 210DH (San Jose Convention Center)

How much do readers “own” the books they read? Writing is a private art intended for public display. Once the story is out of the writer’s hands, it can take on a life of its own–inspiring fandoms, fantheories, and fan interpretations that can vary widely from the author’s. How much do the fans own the work? Can you (and should you) divorce the writer from their fiction? What is the writer’s role in participating via social media in debunking or encouraging fan theories? Can the author be “wrong” about their own work? Our panel of authors and expert fans discuss the various and increasingly complex interactions between work, author, and reader.

John Scalzi (M), Charles Payseur, Foz Meadows, Greg Hullender, Renay Williams, Eric Kaplan

Mythogenesis

Format: Panel

19 Aug 2018, Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, 210C (San Jose Convention Center)

Some of the great SF and Fantasy stories have their origins in myth, legend, and folklore. How have these tales grown from Yddgrasil’s roots and transformed into what we could call the mythology of today?

Heather Rose Jones, Lisa Goldstein, Roni Gosch, Tad Williams, Foz Meadows

What Does a Nontoxic Masculinity Look Like?

Format: Panel
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 14:00 – 15:00, 211C (San Jose Convention Center)

“Toxic masculinity” is one phrase for cultural norms of masculine identity and behavior that may be harmful to people of all genders and to the larger fabric of society. But if “precarious masculinity” has been the norm, what are the alternatives? Panelist discuss non-toxic, stable, positive masculinity and offer suggestions about how it manifests and who is modelling it.

Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Vanessa Rose Phin (M), Foz Meadows, Reuben Baron, Nino Cipri

Recommended Reading in Webcomics

Format: Panel
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 16:00 – 17:00, 210F (San Jose Convention Center)

Webcomics are arguably a different sequential art form, with different ways of reading, and different topics and themes. And they’re really popular. The panel recommends some of their favorite webcomics, as well as watering holes, so to speak, where you can browse through webcomics on your own while you’re on your morning commute. Check it out!

Foz Meadows (M), Aaron Duran, David Bowles, Ursula Vernon, Gonzalo Alvarez, Henry Jenkins, Der-shing Helmer

 

Hope to see you there!

UPDATE, 13 Aug 2018: I’m no longer appearing on the Mythogenesis panel.

In the past 24 hours, there’s been a significant online blowup surrounding the programming for Worldcon 76 and the convention’s treatment of marginalised creators, including those who are Hugo nominees. These problems have unfolded from several quarters, and while at this time of writing the con is taking steps to try and redress the problems, the damage they’ve done – and how it came to happen in the first place – merits significant discussion.

But first, some recent background:

On July 11, the organisers of Worldcon 76 created a minor furore when they sent out an email stating that, counter to longstanding tradition, formalwear was required for those attending the Hugo Awards. “We ask that everyone attending the ceremony wear semi-formal dress,” read the missive, sent by Jessica Guggenheim and Randall Shepherd, “as we are striving for an elegant, professional looking event.”

Affectionately described as “nerd prom” by many congoers, the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.

People pushed back against the change on Twitter, with the subsequent conversation revealing, rather confusingly, that the dress code email hadn’t been sent to everyone. Originally, it was thought that it must have been sent exclusively to Hugo nominees, but even within this smaller group, multiple people reported that they hadn’t received it. A week after the initial email was sent, the official Worldcon Twitter account appeared to reverse its decision, stating that formal attire isn’t required at the Hugo Awards ceremony.” However, it was notable that this statement made no reference either to the original email or to the pushback against it; rather, it was issued in response to a poll tweet by Campbell Award nominee Rebecca Roanhorse – who hadn’t received the original email and was unaware of the discourse around it – asking about what people wear to the Hugos.

As a result of all this, there’s been plenty of public discussion about clothing and the Hugos. What I have not yet seen discussed, but which strikes me as being deeply relevant to the issues that came to light yesterday, is the program participant survey.

When the link to fill in the survey was sent out in early May, I received it twice: one email, sent on the 12th, was addressed to me as a Hugo nominee, while the other, sent on the 7th, was the generic version sent to all attendees. Though I didn’t have the presence of mind to screenshot it at the time, I found it odd that the survey, in asking if members had previous experience appearing at conventions, went the extra step of requesting information about individuals who could verify that experience without expressly stating what form that information should take or how it would be used. Did they want the names of people with whom I’d previously appeared on panels, or the names of conrunners who’d greenlit my appearances previously? In either case, did they plan to contact those people? Was I meant to provide email addresses or contact details for third parties who hadn’t necessarily consented to having their details given out? Or did they just want to know that these people existed?

It was an intimidating question for even an experienced congoer to answer: I don’t keep a handy record of fellow panellists past, I’ve got no idea who ran the programming for most of the cons I’ve attended, and I felt wary of giving names in any case because I wasn’t sure whether I’d be signing someone up to vouch for me by doing so. Traditionally, if you’re asked to have a third party act as your reference in a professional context, it’s polite to give them a heads up about it; here, though, it wasn’t clear that anyone I named would actually be contacted. In the end, I settled for listing the cons at which I’d previously appeared, with an added note about why I felt the question was poorly worded. At the time, I wrote it off as an unintentional error: the sort of thing that might reasonably happen if someone had used a more business-y survey as a template without thinking through the implications. If anyone else was similarly confused by the request for references, I suspect that they, too, assumed it was just a weirdly worded question and answered as best they could.

In light of recent events, however, I’m lead to believe that the choice of wording was deliberate, after all: a way to gatekeep panellists by seeing whose “references” were names that met with the program runners’ approval.

Which leads us to what happened yesterday – or rather, to the many things that happened yesterday. Given the complicating factors of timezones, retweets and Twitter’s maddening decision to show tweets out of order, I can’t vouch for the exact chronology of events, but the order of each issue by bullet-point is an approximation how I saw the main events unfold, with the most salient responses to each issue included in its summary. So:

  • Hugo nominee Bogi Takács reported that Worldcon was using a bio for em that misspelled eir name and changed eir pronouns to he/him, which Bogi has never used. In response, div head of programming Christine Doyle rebuked Bogi for raising the issue publicly rather than in private and falsely claimed that Worldcon hadn’t changed the bio, saying instead that they’d Googled and found it that way. This is demonstrably a lie, as typing the exact wording of the bio as written by Worldcon into Google as a quote-search produces zero results. Bogi’s partner, Rose Lemberg, then reported receiving an email apologising to Bogi, but simultaneously expressing a wish that e hadn’t complained in public; in response, Rose resigned from programming. Several hours later, con chair Kevin Roche apologised to Bogi from the official Worldcon account, but made no reference either to the email received by Lemberg or to the actions of  Doyle.
  • Hugo nominee JY Yang reported that a fellow Worldcon attendee, who later identified herself as writer Nibedita Sen, had received an email from a member of the Worldcon programming team stating that:

    Finally – and this has come up a few times – there’s a generation of amazing Hugo finalists who represent a set of voices that is exciting to nominators, but completely unfamiliar to many folks who will be attending. I can give you a concrete example of this: we have no panel explaining what #ownvoices is, and I’ve had to field multiple questions essentially asking me, “What is that?” I suspect that *everyone* at Wiscon is familiar with the hashtag and its significance. I would guess maybe 20% of Worldcon 76 members know what it means.

    As this email was part of an ongoing correspondence between Sen and the programmer about the lack of #ownvoices panels and the predominance of straight white men in the programming – and as Yang had earlier reported being denied the panels they’d specifically requested and given a reading, which they’d asked not to have, instead – this was widely interpreted as an admission that the Worldcon programmers had actively denied or limited panel opportunities to marginalised writers, including some Hugo nominees, on the basis that they weren’t famous enough in the wider community. Two Hugo nominees who were initially thought to have been denied panelling were Vina Jie-Min Prasad and N.K. Jemisin; however, both clarified that they had specifically asked not to be on panels. Though Jemisin had been scheduled to give a two-hour workshop, she subsequently withdrew from programming and asked that the slot be used to showcase #ownvoices panels instead. Other writers also began to resign their programming in protest, including Charlie Jane Anders, JY Yang, Mary Robinette Kowal and Annalee Newitz.

  • Commensurate with this, I noticed that Christine Doyle, div head of programming, had assigned herself multiple programming items. Though several of these were feedback meetings directly related to her role in running the convention, others were regular panel appearances. Given that unfamiliarity to congoers was directly cited in the correspondence to Nibedita Sen as a reason for keeping new voices off the programming, this struck me as base hypocrisy: Doyle is an anaesthesiologist who also does convention administration, and while that might make her an interesting speaker, it does not make her a known, recognisable figure within the SFF community. That being so, if she was capable of acknowledging that lack of notoriety didn’t impact her own ability to contribute, she has no excuse for failing to extend the same courtesy to marginalised writers whose careers, unlike her own, could be greatly impacted by a Worldcon appearance.
  • Worldcon member Greg van Eekhout, who is a person of colour, reported that although his suggested panel description had been accepted and used verbatim, neither he nor any of his suggested panellists had been included as participants. It was similarly reported by Jaymee Goh that a panel originally proposed with a majority of POC as speakers had instead been given to speakers who were predominantly white.
  • Hugo nominee Grace P. Fong reported that Worldcon had taken her public bio, altered it for their official use, and then paired it with a photo taken from her private Facebook page, all without asking permission.

In response to all these issues and the conversations surrounding them, Kevin Roche issued a public apology and had all programming for the convention taken down, with the intention that the entire program would be redone. Speaking on both Facebook and Twitter, Roche said:

I directed the Program Division to take down the preliminary program information that was released yesterday evening. There were too many errors and problems in it to leave it up.

I am sorry we slighted and angered so many of the people we are gathering to meet, honor, and celebrate. This was a mistake, our mistake. We were trying to build a program reflecting the diversity of fandom and respectful of intersectionality. I am heartbroken that we failed so completely.

We are tearing the program apart and starting over. It was intended to be a reflection of the cultures, passions, and experiences of Worldcon membership, with room for both new voices and old. What we released yesterday failed to do that; we must do better.

Many of you have offered to help us do a better job. Thank you. We cannot accept all those offers, but yes, we will be turning to some of you to help us do it better this time.

We will continue to reach out to the Hugo Finalists we have missed connections with, to ensure any who wish to be on the program will have a place on it.

At the time of this writing, no new program has been released, nor is it clear what this will mean for those writers who stepped down from panels in protest, given that the original programming has now been scrapped. There has been no official word about who was responsible for the emails to Rose Lemberg and Nibedita Sen, nor has there been any comment on the actions of Christine Doyle, though I suspect that will eventually change.

Right now, my personal suspicion is that Worldcon 76 has been afflicted by a combination of bigotry – some likely subconscious, some very likely not – and poor coordination, with the latter significantly enabling the impact of the former. As much as I appreciate Kevin Roche stepping in to issue apologies and redo the programming, that these actions were necessary at all speaks, at absolute best, to an administrative setup wherein the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing, and at worst, to a gross case of insincere, post-facto ass-covering.

Even from the outside, it seemed clear well before yesterday that the programming for Worldcon was disorganised and running behind schedule. The “very preliminary programming” email I received on July 9 had me listed for no panels at all, confirming only that I’d be attending the Hugo Awards. When I queried whether I’d be on any panelling, the reply I received from Christine Doyle stated that, while I was “pencilled in” for some panels, “We were in the “get something out now” vs “get everyone scheduled” phase — and opted for the get something out now.” This didn’t exactly alleviate my worries, given that the con is due to start on August 16. (By comparison, the first full program schedule for MidAmericon II in 2016 was sent out on July 6, well in advance of the August 16 start date, with final corrections issued by August 4.)

I was more encouraged by the July 22 email I received from Leigh Ann Hildebrand, the LGBTQ+ content lead for programming, which listed 27 separate queer panel topics and asked which ones I’d like to be a part of. Thinking that these would be the only panels on which I might appear, I listed four but gave no order of preference; when the original program was sent out yesterday, I was therefore surprised to find that I’d been given two of the four, plus three other panels and a reading. In honesty, I was happy with the panels I’d been given – both in terms of topics and fellow panellists – but once it became apparent that other Hugo nominees had been offered far less, it was difficult not to feel angry on their behalf. Campbell Award nominee Rivers Solomon, whose expenses for attending Worldcon were crowdsourced by the SFF community, was offered only one item; to the best of my knowledge, JY Yang was given only a reading – or at least, this is what I inferred from their saying that they’d been left off the panelling items that they requested. Either way, it ought to be Worldcon 101 to try and accommodate both guests and award nominees from the outset instead of letting their contributions be afterthoughts, and whatever other factors are in play, it doesn’t escape notice that, overwhelmingly, those slighted by the programming are POC, non-American, queer or a combination of all three.

To be clear: I am deeply sympathetic to the nightmarish logistical difficulties inherent in scheduling any convention, let alone a large one. With the best will in the world, there’s a finite limit to how many people and how many events can be scheduled, which means that some people – even interesting, deserving ones – are always going to be left out, with the hows and whys of their exclusion vs the inclusion of others always up for debate. But when a member of the programming committee openly states that being Hugo nominated at the convention where those nominees are honoured isn’t enough to make you a noteworthy panel attendee, and where the white head of programming schedules herself on more panels than are given to some award-nominated people of colour, then simple logistical limits are not the problem: gatekeeping, and the bigotry which, whether openly or covertly, underlies it, are.

As more than one person pointed out on Twitter yesterday, there’s a sharp irony in claiming that Hugo nominees aren’t famous enough to attract the interest of Worldcon attendees when the former group is exclusively nominated and voted on by the latter. You literally cannot vote for the Hugo Awards without a Worldcon membership, and while there will certainly be congoers who didn’t vote for whatever reason, or who purchase their attending memberships after the voting has closed, anyone expecting to show up to a thousands-strong con and recognise the name of every single panellist on every single item is either a narcissist, a SMOF, or woefully unaware of the size of the SFF community. I’ve never been to even a small convention where I recognised every name on the menu – which is, I would argue, one of the many, crucial things that differentiates a convention from a clubhouse. You’re meant to find new people here: that’s how we grow the community.

Reading the words that Worldcon sent to Nibedita Sen, I was reminded powerfully of something once tweeted by the Merriam- Webster Dictionary:

People keep

1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means

then

2) asking why we added it to the dictionary

Structurally, this works as a perfect analogue to the problem of Worldcon’s attitude to marginalised creators: the programmers keep saying attendees don’t know what #ownvoices is, then asking why we want it added to the program. Personally, I cannot think of anything more boring than attending a convention that doesn’t expose me to any writers, concepts or arguments that I didn’t know already. Given the frequency with which left-leaning SFF is accused of being an echo chamber, the claim that 80% of Worldcon attendees neither know nor want to know about #ownvoices would seem to point the finger firmly in the opposite direction, if not for the fact that, by the email-writer’s own admission, they’d already been fielding multiple queries about it from newcomers to the concept. The question of what #ownvoices is and why it matters is exactly the sort of thing that a panel – or panels, even – would be well-placed to answer: instead, the programmer erred in favour of dismissal.

My first ever Worldcon was AussieCon 4, which was held in Melbourne in 2010. My very first novel, Solace & Grief, had just been released by Ford Street Publishing, a local Australian press, and even though I was certain that almost nobody would know who I was, I was thrilled to be in attendance. Conveniently, the venue was a mere half-hour’s walk from my house, and because I had no idea how exhausting big cons could be, I decided I’d get there on foot every day instead of taking the tram. I’d also applied to be on panelling, and as I was a new local voice with a book just out, I ended up with seven panel items, a reading and a signing. Giddy with excitement, I waved off more experienced friends who knew exactly how much of a workload that was, and ended up falling asleep at my signing table, dead tired. Which, to be fair, wasn’t much of a loss; only one person came to get a book signed, and that was someone I knew. But the rest of the time, I had a blast: I shared a reading space with China Mieville, was on a vampires vs werewolves team debate with George R. R. Martin, and spoke on a webcomics panel with Phil and Kaja Folio. I even managed to cozen my way into the Hugo afterparty as a friend’s plus one, and spent the whole time vibrating at the frequency of glee.

Looking back, AussieCon 4 was a landmark experience for me, both personally and professionally. I hung out with people from my writing group, met online friends for the first time IRL and made plenty of new ones, too. During the dead dog gathering at the con bar, I met two girls, long-time BFFs, who’d attended the con as fans and were planning to write a book together. We talked about writing and agents and writing in general and decided to keep in touch online. Eight years later, the average SFF reader would be far more likely to recognise their names than mine: Meagan Spooner and Amie Kaufman, who are New York Times bestselling authors.

I’ve been to two other Worldcons since then – LonCon 3 in 2014, MidAmericon II in 2016 – and plenty of other cons besides, but I’ve never forgotten how that first Worldcon made me feel welcome and important, even though I was a total newbie. That’s the sort of experience that all new writers deserve to have, especially those who’ve had to struggle to break into the industry; who are writing from traditionally marginalised perspectives. I might have been a newbie in 2010, but I still had luck and privilege on my side: luck, in that my first big con was held just down the street from where I lived around the time my book came out; privilege, in that the Australian SFF scene is comparatively small and close-knit, so that as a white, middle-class, native English speaker living in a major city, I’d found it comparatively easy to break into that social scene and make friends with other writers.

After everything that’s happened, I won’t fault anyone who chooses not to attend Worldcon 76, or who resigns from their programming even after the new program, whatever it may be, comes out; nor will I fault anyone who chooses still to go and participate. I will say, though, that it frustrates me how discrimination of this sort always ends up having a double impact on marginalised writers, as they are both the most frequently targeted and the first to resign in solidarity with the mistreatment of others. The Worldcon program is changing, but the people who stepped down from programming to force that change were overwhelmingly POC, women, queer folk, disabled folk, immigrant voices and marginalised writers from around the world – exactly the same people whose mistreatment by the programmers was the problem in the first place. Those with the fewest seats at the table shouldn’t have to step aside to effect better treatment for those who take their place while the majority, unaffected, stays where they are. That doesn’t increase the number of marginalised speakers; it just treats them as a resource to churn through, burning them out and replacing them while claiming to give them a platform.

I don’t know what the new program will look like, but I hope it will do justice to the whole SFF community – and that we’ll get it in time for those deciding whether to come to make an informed decision.

fuckery

The above opinion crossed my path today via this tumblr post. Other folks have already responded to it on Twitter and elsewhere, but I’m nonetheless moved to add my voice to that chorus.

“When did we start compromising real life for the sake of making our books “diverse”? The world is diverse, yes, but not every place is. For example, if I was writing a book that took place in my hometown IT WOULDN’T BE VERY DIVERSE. And that doesn’t make it bad/racist/sexist.”

Dear Abbie,

I don’t know where your hometown is, but when you wrote this paragraph, I imagine you were thinking of somewhere in America that’s predominantly white and Christian. While you’re correct in thinking that some places are indeed demographically whiter than others, you’re mistaking the absence of a particular type of diversity for the absence of any diversity. In this hypothetical white, Christian hometown, there will still be plenty of women. They might not have made themselves known to you, and they might not always be out, but there will still be queer people – not necessarily many, but we’ll be there. There will still be kids with ADHD, adults with diabetes, veterans with missing limbs or PTSD or both; there will still be adults over the age of 50, people of all ages with various types of depression, anxiety and mental illness; there will be cancer survivors, individuals who are are sight-impaired or need therapy animals, and all manner of other conditions. And, yes, even in this predominantly white-and-Christian setting, there will be people of colour, some of whom might have a different faith to you and some of whom might not, just as there will also be white folks who, whatever their performance of Christian cultural norms, will be agnostics or atheists in the privacy of their thoughts, or who believe fervently in God while still getting their palms or tarot or horoscopes read every fortnight. Diversity is always present, is the point; it’s just not always as clearly visible as a difference in clothes or skin colour.

I’m a fantasy writer, which means I spend a lot of time in settings of my own or others’ invention. Charitably, I’m going to assume you weren’t thinking of places like these, which can reasonably be or do anything the author wants them to be without reference to the modern world, when you complained about diversity “compromising real life,” as though diversity isn’t part of real life. You yourself have acknowledged this fact; but given that you still have a problem with it, I’m going to venture that the issue is really a failure of empathy and imagination on your part. Whether consciously or not, you’ve assumed that any setting which reminds you of your hometown – or rather, your reductive, distant view of it – must necessarily be like your hometown, and so you find diverse stories set in such places unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean they actually are: it just means you don’t know as much about what’s “normal” as you think you do.

You’re quite right to say that you, personally, will not encounter every type of person in your small corner of the world. But “small” is the operative word, here: wherever your hometown might be, the fact that it’s the basis of your personal experience doesn’t make it even vaguely representative of the world – or even America – at large.

You claim that you “love everyone” regardless of their background, and I’m sure you believe that about yourself. Here’s the thing, though: when you say you wish people would stop being “correct” and “just write books that actually… reflected the kind of thing we encounter in real life,” you’re making a big assumption about who that “we” is. There might be very few black people in your hometown, but if one of them were to write a novel based on their memories of growing up there, you likely wouldn’t recognise certain parts of their experience, not because it was “incorrect,” but because different people lead different lives. And when you claim that certain narratives are forced and unrealistic, not because the writing is badly executed, but because they don’t resemble the things you’ve encountered, that’s not an example of you loving everyone: that’s you assuming that experiences outside your own are uncomfortable, inapplicable and wrong.

Here’s something I know from my own life: when you grow up white in a predominantly white area, it’s easy to assume that everyone around you is kind of amorphously having the some sort of cultural experience. Unless someone actually sits you down in your childhood or early teens and explains how gender, class, race, religion, sexuality, disability and a whole host of other factors can radically alter your experience of the world, you’re unlikely to pick those things up on your own, because unless they relate to you personally, or to someone you care about who explains what it means, they won’t be on your radar. Even if you’re subjected to sexism, for instance, as women tend to be, it’s easy to internalise it as normal if nobody around you describes it as a negative, or if the type of femininity you’re being pushed to perform aligns with your native interests. Social barriers have a disconcerting tendency to be invisible until or unless you find yourself rammed up against them; and even then, if nobody else is outraged along with you, it’s easy to be gaslit into thinking you were mistaken.

See, the problem is that a lot of people treat Western culture as homogeneous-with-exceptions, as though Westerners of every background experience the same culture the same way unless it’s Cinco de Mayo or Chinese New Year – in which case, some people get to indulge in a little bit of extraneous personal heritage for just those two holidays, and then it’s all samey again. As such, this means that white people uncritically raised in this tradition of assumed homogeneity tend to view the decision to make a character something other than white or straight – and, often, male – as a purely cosmetic change, and therefore an unnecessary one. After all (they argue), if an Asian American and a white American teenager can experience America in roughly the same way, then why would you write about the Asian American as though it makes them different and special? Except, of course, that they’re usually not having the same experiences at all; and even if they plausibly are, the only reason to insist that the white character is a natural, apolitical default while the Asian character is forced and tokenistic is if you’re being racist.

When you grow up watching predominantly white, straight movies and reading predominantly white, straight books, it’s easy to find the transition to more diverse literature difficult. That sort of cultural conditioning can be tough to overcome, even for the people who need it most. It’s like hearing the Nutbush play and seeing people dance the Macarena – the dissonance between expectation and reality feels jarring and wrong, and if you want to follow along, you have to pay close attention instead of moving on autopilot as you usually would. But once you accept the limitations of your own experience – once you find a new rhythm – it’s like discovering a whole new genre of music to dance to; or genres, even.

Abbie, I don’t know you, and I’m doubtful you’ll ever read this. But on the offchance that you do, here’s the bottom line: an unfamiliar experience isn’t the same as an unrealistic perspective. The world is bigger than any one person, which is why we humans tell stories in the first place – to see more of the world and its possibilities than we could ever manage otherwise. And if you ever come across a story that’s so unfamiliar as to be unrelatable, before you pan it as bad outright, consider that it simply might not have been written for you. You’re no more the default audience for every book in the world than your hometown is a universal substitute for other, more diverse places, and just as you’re not obliged to like every story you read, not every story is obliged to cater to you.

Yours queerly,

Foz