August 11, 2014

Paradigms Dying: An Observation On Diversity and Science Fiction

by Mark W. Tiedemann

[Editor's Note: August's From the Office piece was penned by guest contributor Mark W. Tiedemann.  Mark W. Tiedemann is an accomplished science fiction writer; the author of ten novels as well as numerous short stories and novellas.  Mark's newest collection, GRAVITY BOX AND OTHER SPACES, was just released from Walrus Publishing.  Looking for the common theme within the stories in this speculative fiction collection, Mark was pleasantly surprised to learn that the connecting thread was families.  Learn more about the new book here:  Mr. Tiedemann is also a skilled photographer who has spent four decades working with a camera.  You can read more about Mark and see some of his incredible work here:  As always, the opinions of guest contributors are their own, and do not necessarily represent those of the owner, staff, or store.  But frankly, we usually agree with them. - Jude Feldman]

Some things seem so obvious, so self-evident that for anyone to react to them as if they were unexpected and, worse, unwelcome is puzzling.  Take for instance the idea of diversity -- in science fiction.

One would be forgiven for assuming this would be one of the Automatic Givens in a field that has made its bed in the Valley of Strange since it began, what with everything from Arrisians to Martians to Vulcans to Cyborgs.  How could such a literature not be thrilled at the idea of inclusion?  Of variation?  We should, all of us, have long ago gotten over the sense of revulsion at the presence of all the manifold Others that must surely make up the universe, genocidal alien invaders notwithstanding.

But I suppose, being humans, we compartmentalize even in this, our chosen precinct of the imagination.  All well and good for the page to be open and welcoming, but when it comes to who is writing the new stories and getting nominated for awards and, gasp, changing the nature of the field, tolerance can be just as scarce as among any other segment of so-called mundane society.

I remember the first Worldcon I went to, L.A. Con II, in Anaheim.  This was 1984 and I was starting on my journey to try to be one of these wonderful beings known as science fiction writers.  I’d had a good experience with the few local conventions I’d attended.  What impressed me most was the nearly immediate sense of welcome I received and the feeling of finding a place where the petty exclusions of "normal" life did not pertain.  Here were people who seemed to live up to the imaginations they valued.

Most of the Worldcon was wonderful and I met many writers and fans and generally had a great time.  There were two instances of discord, inharmonious exchanges that didn’t fit, which I quickly dismissed as aberrations.  One was a conversation with a group that included a couple of writers.  They shall remain nameless, particularly the one who was holding forth about the "weak stew" coming from the new women writers.  I asked what he meant and for the next several minutes got a dissertation on the lack of hard SF, the inclusions of "mainstream" literary "nonsense" and the basic mushy emotionalism of the work.  There were exceptions, of course, but in the main women just didn’t "get it."

I mentioned C.J. Cherryh as a counterexample and received a blank look.  One of the others in the group laughed.  "You thought C.J. was a man, didn’t you?" he asked the pedagogue.  By the expression on the pedagogue’s face, this appeared to be true.

Nevertheless, I wondered aloud what was wrong with all those factors of which he’d been complaining.  Why didn’t they deserve as much attention as anything else in SF?  "You just answered your own question," I was told. "This is science fiction.  You want all that stuff, read something else."  We were drinking, of course, so I put it down -- somewhat -- to that.

The other incident involved an overhead conversation among some fans returning from a foray to Disneyland, which was right down the road from the convention center. They were laughing and joking about how they’d got one over on all the "mundanes" in the park.  It had that exclusionary tone I’d heard since grade school, the one that says distinctly "You aren’t one of us, and that makes us superior."

I didn’t think much of these two incidents for many years, not until recently when I started seeing and hearing a lot of verbiage about the “problem” of diversity in science fiction.  It makes me sad.  Some of my favorite books have been written by people who fall into one or another category of the Other -- women, African Americans, gays, immigrants (for instance, Joanna Russ, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany, Algis Budrys) -- and I thought, all along, isn’t it great we can not only write about these things but we have people with some experience of being on the outside (in different ways than the traditional SF social isolate) now writing about aliens and such from a more authentic perspective.

But change, it seems, can be as unwelcome to former "visionaries" as anyone else.

In recent months, there have been a disturbing number of "incidents" within the science fiction fold exemplary of a kind of insensitivity and close-mindedness one might be forgiven for believing simply could not happen among such agile minds and progressive attitudes.  Alas, as Samuel R. Delany has said, science fiction is not about the future -- it is about the present, distorted through the lens of an assumed future.  Apparently, also distorted through the remnants of the past as well.

Firstly, there has been an ongoing issue with sexual harassment policies at several science fiction conventions, one resulting in the resignation of an entire con committee due to apparent disingenuousness (i.e. instituting a policy and then pretending it didn’t mean anything).  Women have been airing concerns over their treatment both as convention-goers and as potential reporters of harassment, an all-too-familiar problem that goes to credibility.  Convention by convention, this is being addressed, but inevitably there is backlash -- from people who don’t seem to want what they regarded as their Boy’s Club weekends ruined by women who they then characterize in the most ungracious terms.  Secondly, there was the matter of problematic material published in the house organ of the professional organization, SFWA.  Protests of sexism, instead of being met with the kind of professionalism and sensitivity one might expect from people who embrace dreams of the future, were countered by some with accusations of censorship and insults about oversensitive types.  To compound the problem, actions were taken which seemed worse than the initial problem, reaction rather than calculated response.

Along with all this, name-calling came to the fore of the kind that lumped anyone not in an evidently preferred group into one category of denigrated Other.  This was done by one individual who was, for professional infractions, ousted from SFWA, but some thought it necessary to defend him at least in principle, adding to the toxic atmosphere.

An almost comic capstone was a panel at the recent Nebula Awards intended to discuss "diversity" in science fiction -- both the literature and the community -- which was comprised of a full compliment of white writers.  In my opinion, this was not the result of any conscious intent to offend, but rather the product of carelessness, as if the subject were sufficient to legitimize the panel and required no effort to have actual representative voices -- of which many were present.

The irony, of course, is that this year all the top Nebula Awards went to women.  Even the dramatic award was given to a film that starred and was about a woman.

Clearly, this is an ongoing process, a work in progress.  Some of us thought, surely, here, in this field, these matters should not be controversial.

Science fiction has always evolved, mutated, adapted, and embraced the Next Thing.  New standards have always swept aside givens of the past and the results have formed the basis of a new set of givens, which in their turn fragment in the face of the new.   Most of this has been somewhat more than superficial, dealing with science and tech and the introduction in a serious way of new sciences, and then in matters of style and form.  What seemed cutting edge when new turned out to be provincialism for a later generation, and paradigms shifted and fell in response.  As it should be.  And of course there has been resistance to these changes from people who had cause to question facile differences that seemed to unfairly displace the work they had done (and continued to do, with perhaps less and less success).  As it should be.  It’s a dialogue, after all.

That initial welcome I felt upon walking into my first convention, that open, familial warmth should be the standard, and for most of us I believe it is.  But as SF even within its bounds is tied to the world in which is exists, what happens in that world affects us, and today we seem to be enduring a resurgence of the kind of small-minded intolerances that made the entire Civil Rights movement necessary in the first place.  We’re arguing about who belongs and who doesn’t, and it’s an ugly, irrational argument.  People are taking sides over issues many others had thought long settled and inevitably this seeps in to our community.  On us it wears particularly poorly.

Arguments over style and direction and interpretation have always raged within science fiction and for the most part it has resulted in better stories, more variety, new ways of looking at old problems.  Paradigms rise and fall, schools of thought appear and vanish, movements flow and sometimes change the entire field.  To argue over the relative merits of New Wave versus Golden Age or Cyberpunk versus Space Opera is normal and productive.  But to attack or demean the one dreaming the new dream for producing work that doesn’t fit expectations. . . criticizing the imagination and legitimacy of someone who is Other than some measure of acceptable or expected, who is Not Us. . . this is exactly contrary to the dream that has carried through science fiction from its pulp beginnings to now.  This is unworthy. This is small-minded in the exact way we, writing in this field, have always railed against in our stories and, one would hope, in our lives.

Diversity is the source code of our visions and dreams.  To recoil at it when faced with it in the person of a dreamer suggests that we’ve been hiding behind our fictions rather than actually believing in them.

I don’t think that’s true.  Not for me.  Not, I believe, for most of us.  In fact, all the shouting, in my opinion, is little more than the death rattle of a dying paradigm.

I can’t wait to see what the new one looks like.

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