Jerry Pournelle: May His Wings Be Made Of Tungsten

Slightly modified from the original post on my blog about the passing of Jerry Pournelle, The Logoccentric Orbit for the SF fans I can rely on finding here.

I have been asked to say a few words on the passing of Jerry Pournelle. I scarcely know where to begin. He wrote several novels I loved, especially High Justice. But my first thought about Jerry Pournelle was the awestruck realization that here was someone who could make Larry Niven even better. This team produces two of my favorite SF novels: Footfall and The Mote In God’s Eye, which to me deserve a place in the eternal canon of SF for being, respectively, the greatest alien invasion and first contact novels of the latter 20th century. (Although I will admit that Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow could give Mote a run for its money.) Another of their works that I will always admire is Inferno, a rewrite of Dante, in which they quite literally put a science-fiction writer through Hell. I loved it so much that during graduate school I talked it up to a visiting professor from Yale. She was nice enough to write me back thanking me for the tip and saying she was adding it to her curriculum!

I was reminded of how privileged I am to have spent even one evening in Jerry’s company when I saw so many of my Facebook friends, most of whom are more accomplished authors than I am myself, saying that they had only met Jerry last week at DragonCon for the first time, or never.

I met Jerry eighteen years ago, at Writers’ Of The Future. I’d won 2nd place in the 1999 contest for my story “Bearing The Pattern,” and I still remember it as one of the proudest moments of my life that he and Mr. Niven handed me — ME! — my first ever science-fiction writing award. That I promptly made an ass of myself with my thank-you speech, which I had not rehearsed, is a somewhat less-proud moment, but that’s life.

But I will always treasure the memory of the after-party, when I got to speak with Jerry and many other writers.  I’ll always remember that he came up with the best explanation I’ve ever heard of for the infamous Roswell  Incident, which I will recall here. I’m going to emphasize that this was Jerry speculating, NOT releasing actual knowledge. Obviously, what follows is not an exact transcript, but I’m going to reproduce it as best I can recall from eighteen years ago:

“You got to remember that this was the old Air Force, with all the pilots still veterans of World War II. And those pilots were pretty much drunk as their ground state of being. On top of that, this was 1947, when the entire nuclear arsenal of the world was approximately eight weapons, all of them bombs, and all of them owned by the United States of America.

“Well, what it seems to me is that at some point, the Air Force wanted to move a bomb. Naturally, you’d keep that as secret as you can; why would you tell even the pilots? And so, two pilots, enjoying the long and boring flight over the New Mexico desert as best they could, climbed into the night sky, and never arrived at their destination.

“Now a nuclear weapon, of course, has safeties to prevent a mushroom going off in case the plane carrying it crashes, but crashed planes tend to burn, and the chemical explosive wrapped around the plutonium can certainly catch fire. So you have the Air Force looking for a missing plane, carrying an atomic bomb, and suddenly reports from Roswell of a a burning wreck in the middle of the desert. It doesn’t take the Air Force long to put those two facts together, but by the time they arrive, several VERY unauthorized persons have seen the wreck and the burned bodies (Author’s Note: Ever seen a photo of a very badly burned body? They do tend to shrink and attenuate. So they look very thin, with disproportionately-sized heads. Funny, that.) and strange fragments of highly-classified equipment.

What the Air Force very much wants to do is to make all this go away, so they whisk away all that they can, but they can’t disappear U.S. citizens, and they very definitely do not want it getting out that a couple of idiots managed to destroy by incompetence an eighth of the world’s nuclear arsenal. So they make up the story of a crashed weather balloon, which is an obvious fabrication, and pray. Sure enough, people disbelieve this and their theory about what the Air Force is covering up is… aliens. Alien spacecraft, crashed in the desert, whisked away by the Air Force.

The Air Force, of course, with its competent people now on the job, send up praises to heaven and immediately refuse all comment on such things, pointing with increased energy to the “weather balloon,” and looking as stupid as they can. Because the more they do, the more people think “Ah-HAH! So it IS aliens,” and the less they think, “I wonder whether the Air Force might have lost a nuclear bomb.”

I remember thinking. My gods, of course. That makes absolutely perfect sense, and no matter how high up the chain of command you go, all the way up to President Truman, absolutely NO ONE in the government is going to have an interest in coming clean on that story, and neither would anyone in Eisenhower’s administration after that. How simple and brilliant.

Well, we all laughed, and whether it’s true or not, it’s a good story. And then Jerry talked to me. He asked about my story, and said he remembered it, and that it was a good story. And that’s something I will always remember when I feel that I can’t hack it as a writer. More than anything else, I remember that Jerry made me feel included, and truly part of this wonderful thing that I had always imagined fandom to be. And you know what? I think he did that with everyone. While I have talked to people who hated Jerry’s politics (and hated his fiction) and said he could be an ass when he was arguing, I never heard anyone who said that Jerry snubbed them or made them feel unwelcome.

There’s been a lot of — shall we say, discord — in fandom lately. A lot of exclusivity. I’ve seen friends made to feel unwelcome and friends threatened and excoriated and called liars and slanderers and worse. I’ve experienced some of it myself, as people made it clear that for one reason or another, I was not good enough or important enough to be worth their respect or time. For the purposes of this piece, though, I am not interested in the rights or the wrongs of any of it. All I would like to say is, that I would like all of us to remember Jerry, and how he took the time to befriend and welcome a newbie author. I never had the privilege of truly working with him, but I will always be grateful that for that evening, and that the man I met was as gracious and entertaining as the worlds he had brought to life for me. Thank you Jerry. And I hope to meet you again, where all is

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, worlds without end. Amen.

A Rambling Wreck, with Hans Schantz

The Catholic Geek: A Rambling Wreck, with Hans Schantz 06/25 by We Built That Network | Books Podcasts:

Hans Schantz joins host Declan Finn to discuss Social Justice in Science, and how it relates to his books ‘The Hidden Truth’ and ‘A Rembling Wreck’ 

Dr. Hans G. Schantz is a physicist, an inventor, and a co-founder and CTO of Q-Track Corporation, a supplier of indoor location systems. He wrote the science fiction thriller, The Hidden Truth, a textbook, The Art and Science of Ultrawideband Antennas, and a short history on The Biographies of John Charles Fremont. Hans will be launching A Rambling Wreck, the sequel to The Hidden Truth, at LibertyCon next weekend. Hans lives in Huntsville, Alabama with his wife, and two sets of twins.

Bringing Home The Baycon (Or What I Learned From Being Blackballed)

Forward: I would like to thank the Superversive group for allowing me a platform for my voice to be heard. I wouldn’t be nearly as brave as I am in speaking out without people like them. Superversive fiction truly is changing the world of entertainment, and I look forward to it growing in its reach. – Jon Del Arroz 

A couple of weeks ago,  I found out that I had been blackballed from speaking at my own home convention, a place I’ve loved and cherished for almost a decade. This was a wanton act of discrimination, and perhaps more importantly, a show of utter disinterest in promoting prominent local science fiction authors. With a supposed emphasis on diversity, this act done to a Hispanic author casts an even darker shadow. It’s about as disturbing as it gets to see folk that you considered friends for years treat you with that level of disregard, while in the same stripe ignoring attendees who deliver me death threats.

Most shockingly, the event organizers (of whom I know very well and very personally) in question did not respond personally, but delivered a form letter to explain the ostracization. It’s disingenuous and displays a dismissal and dehumanization of which I could hardly conceive.

From a  global health of fandom perspective, it leads me to the question: if an organization such as the Bay Area Science Fiction Convention doesn’t stand for Bay Area authors, and doesn’t care about Science Fiction first and foremost, what is the point of the organization? If other cons across the country are operating similarly, does a change need to occur?

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Why Are Some File770 Readers so Miserable?

Seriously. What is wrong with some of them? They presumably like science fiction. I thought the point of fandom was to share what you like. But some File770 readers like SF so much that they enjoy reading about the writing of science fiction, organizing events, giving lectures to other people, trolling websites, calling people rude names if they disagree with them…

Hopefully you see my point already. Liking something is positive. But I am not sure that all the readers of File770 like science fiction. When you talk about how their favorite event could do more to increase the appeal of science fiction around the world, they get angry. Why are they so defensive? Why does the thought of changing things to increase the popularity of science fiction make them so upset that they turn to innuendo, lies and abuse? These are the things they write, in public.

You may not have been aware of Superversive SF’s commitment to diversity, a word Blank uses 10 times in his post.

What is that supposed to mean? It means something like: “this guy is a closet racist/sexist/homophobe but I cannot justify that opinion, so I’ll use innuendo instead.”

When I started writing at SuperversiveSF, nobody told me there was a party line I had to stick to. If you really must, then attack me as an individual for the thoughts that I have. But it is cheap and divisive to try to turn every intellectual disagreement into a grudge match between gangs. That is a tactic used by bullies, especially when they know they have the biggest gang. So if you want to pick a fight with me, leave the rest of the SuperversiveSF crew out of it. I have my opinions, they have theirs, we are all individuals.

Also, I am not a closet racist, sexist or homophobe. And it makes me angry that I feel forced to write that after two posts which focus on the fact that the “world” science fiction convention, which hands out the “premier” science fiction award, is mostly run for and by Americans. Which is a fact.

The extrapolated Ray Blank: …and to stay even more relevant the Hugo Awards should primarily be about the best cat video…

I wrote about how the “world” science fiction convention, which decides the “premier” science fiction award, totally failed to notice a masterpiece of science fiction cinema, because it was made in the Soviet Union.

I do not have time to watch every science fiction film from every country, so it would be pretty cool if fans of science fiction from all around the world shared their advice on the best science fiction films. Then I would find out about more films like The Host. But the Hugos cannot help me, because they are not voted on by fans from all around the world. This observation has nothing to do with cat videos, or reducing standards. On the contrary, expanding the scope of awards from Hollywood to the whole world should increase range and quality.

I got the impression from Ray Blank’s previous ideas about Worldcon that he’s never actually been to one.

Now he has these ideas about the Hugos without seemingly being aware of what the Hugos are or that there are a plethora of other awards already on offer in the field of SFF.

All of these ‘facts’ are wrong.

I mentioned how the internet is an echo chamber for some people. They hear their own opinions reinforced, and that is what they want. To do this, they do not engage with an argument. Instead, they rephrase it, for the amusement of people who already think like them. They also invent new facts, to demonstrate how valid their reasoning is. I struggle to see the purpose of this activity, except as a weird way to achieve social bonding. Presumably tribes of cavemen used to smash the skulls of any strangers who wandered into their perceived territory, using the common ‘threat’ as a way to encourage closer ties within the tribe. The internet provides a less violent, but equally crude alternative.

Ray Blank has a Brian-like ability to be immensely concerned about things he won’t do anything active about.

That will teach me to contact the WSFS about the requirements for submitting a bid to host Worldcon in Qatar 2022, and to reach out to Arab SF fans to see if they have the appetite for such an event.

I can hear the File770 counter-arguments already. “But you cannot do it on your own!” No. I know that. Presumably one person had the idea for the first SF convention ever, and then talked about it with somebody else, etc etc. That is how stuff gets done. “But we would hate going to Qatar!” Yeah, I know that. That was my point, somewhat. You talk about running a ‘world’ event but then you mock the idea of taking that event to different places in the world. “Finland is different!” If I said Muslims suffer more prejudice than Catholics, then you would know perfectly well what I mean. So do not hold up Finland as a (potential) example of the Worldcon’s diversity.

What he really wants is for other people to spend more than half a century of accumulated goodwill to do things the way he says, without him having to do very much more than pound on his keyboard. Fat chance.

That is not what I am trying to do. I have heard a lot about my motives, which is odd, because nobody has yet invented a fantastic SF mind-reading device. Apparently, my horrible horrible motives mean I am totally totally wrong to point out very simple and obvious facts, like how 80 percent of this year’s Worldcon members will be from the USA, and how that shows the Worldcon is not very diverse for an event that has “world” in the title. That is what I wanted to do. Nobody needs to change because of what I wrote. I have no magic powers, no delusions of grandeur. But this kind of defensiveness suggests I hit a raw nerve. Might all these attacks, directed at my motives and behavior, be a convenient way of shifting the focus from inconvenient facts? For all the bile directed at me, not a single person has questioned the basic demographic data which underpins everything I wrote.

And then I heard how, if I care so much about diversity, I should: attend conventions in the USA which are about hosting conventions in the USA, then throw parties in the USA to persuade Americans to hold their event somewhere really different. Even though I am bound to fail. Because of the heat. And the alcohol. And the terrorism. And because I am a joke. Presumably this was all some kind of motivational technique to make me work harder, because they really really are doing everything they can to increase diversity, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Just like me. Wrong-o-wrong-o-wrong. Who can argue with that logic?

I should not generalize, but clearly something is askew with the File770 thought police. If I observed that the police force in North Charleston is 80 percent white, they would immediately jump to a single conclusion: institutional racism. So what conclusion do they resist so fiercely when I make a similar observation about Worldcon? Oh yeah. How dare I make that analogy! I must be pig ignorant!

The thing about institutional racism is that it is different, in quality, from saying any individual is racist. It occurs because of a mentality which says “this is the way things are done around here” and because “these are our traditions and nobody from outside is going to mess with them” and because “we have been doing things like this for 50 years so why should we change now?” Does that sound familiar? Those are all the things stated by File770 readers, when you suggest Worldcon and the Hugos could be a little less… racist. Go on. I will call it like I see it. They are racists. And they are too blind to see their own racism. Which is how racism works, most of the time.

I was being nice by focusing on nationality, because the available demographic data concerns nationality, not race. But they are racists. Go back and read what they actually wrote. Not a single File770 follower condemned the racism that was publicly displayed by other File770 followers. The Arabs are not a nation, they are an ethnic group, and File770 readers repeatedly made ignorant, intolerant comments towards Arabs in general. They confused different Arab nations with each other. They made unjustified generalizations about Arabs. They criticized all Arabs for laws that apply only in some Arab nations. They worried that the Arabs would blow them up, even though the statistics show the risk of violence is far greater in the USA than in many Arab nations. All of these comments were directed at the Arab people, not any specific nation or group of individuals. They were written by File770 readers who are too ignorant to distinguish between races and nations. So they are racist.

And by the way, I personally have no accumulated goodwill toward the Worldcon. Why should I? Why should anyone, unless they already feel part of the club, and benefit from membership?

I can understand why, in the late 1930’s, it may have seemed fine to start a ‘world’ society which ran a ‘world’ event which rarely aspired to leave North America, and only went to friendly nations when it did. Others might call that an example of cultural imperialism. I could start a bogus global SF organization tomorrow, and run a bogus global SF internet poll too, but it would not genuinely reflect the opinions of fans from around the globe. The “if you don’t like ours, then start your own” argument is nonsensical. I actually want more global outreach, not competitive division. But getting global outreach is made harder when one established group pretends they represent the world but does not really do that.

We can forgive and forget. Worldcon and the Hugos originated in different times, with different expectations. What I struggle with now is the idea of a 21st Century Worldcon, insistent on tradition, as if nothing can be improved. I rail against the low expectations of those who rush to defend the terrible lack of national diversity exhibited in the Worldcon data. I find something deeply contradictory in the idea of a world event where the number of African participants will equal the number of participants from the International Space Station, or whose map of the world looks like this:


And there was all the other abuse which was too mundane to analyze, such as:

He really is stupid, isn’t he?

If I wanted to engage with people like this, then I suppose I would be stupid. What would be really stupid is spending a lot of money to attend an event like Worldcon, in order to suffer abuse for daring to deviate from Worldcon groupthink. In that sense, some readers of File770 do a strange job of promoting an event they seemingly care for.

I was writing for the far more polite readers of SuperversiveSF, when someone else decided to copy and paste my words, to rile up his readers. So who are the real keyboard warriors? And if their opinions are so settled that no data could ever influence them, why do they seek alternative views, and then respond with venom?

The Internet Will Kill the Hugos

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.

― Isaac Asimov

Some people may not believe me. But the truth will be recognized by anyone who understands technology, and how it changes the way people behave. An award that was born in the 1950’s is dying, and not before time. For my own part, I come to bury the Hugos, not to praise them.

Over 5,000 supporting members have signed up to this year’s Worldcon, almost double the number from last year. There has been an extraordinary outpouring of words about votes and nominations and puppies and CHORFs. Some might take this as evidence that the Hugos are in rude health. I believe this is another example of human societies turning their back on technology, when it suits them. That the context is a science fiction convention only adds to the irony.

The controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards has encouraged a surge in supporting memberships for Worldcon. People have been giving supporting memberships away. This year’s Hugos have received more mass media coverage than usual. All of this has been enabled by technological progress, in the form of the internet.

It is the ubiquity of the internet that permits anyone – me included – to broadcast their opinions about the Hugos. The deep penetration of innovative communication tools and techniques, and the broad acceptance of new cultural norms that surround them, allows people to rally supporters and friends, and to rile strangers and enemies, with unprecedented ease. The internet amplifies the potential for controversies like those which have surrounded the Hugos, and increases the attention they receive.

However, the Hugos themselves have not embraced the internet. On the contrary, the meagre use of the internet by Worldcon organizers demonstrates a sad refusal to adjust to modern times. Their motives are understandable; they want people to physically attend their convention. However, the awards could be unleashed, and managed across international frontiers by placing it wholly in cyberspace. This has not happened because the awards are subordinated to the needs of the convention.

Societies that cannot accommodate technological change may persist for a generation or two, but they become easy prey for those who have evolved. A herd mentality may make Worldcon members feel good, but adaptation is a superior strategy to groupthink. Has this group of people adapted to the modern world? Not really. They continue to follow a behavioral pattern mapped out decades ago, before the internet existed.

Worldcon members can vote for the Hugos online. But why should the “premier awards in the science fiction field” still be associated with a physical meet-up? That approach was optimal in the 1950’s, and for a long while after. It is no longer a good way to serve your goal, if the goal is to promote an art form, and to engage with the greatest number of fans. The internet has changed what is possible. The internet connects us to millions, when we used to be satisfied with reaching thousands.

It appears that Worldcon2015 will have more non-attending members than attending members. The disproportionate growth in Worldcon supporting memberships demonstrates an inconvenient truth. The awards could be managed separately from the event. There are only two reasons to connect the two: marketing, and a subsidy for the physical convention. By connecting the two, the legitimacy of the award is undermined. This is supposedly an award given by all fans, wherever they are. So why confuse a voting electorate with a membership system that prefers some fans to others?

Associating an internet-based vote with a convention inevitably skews the vote towards the population who live near to the convention’s location. If the organizers of a ‘world’ event really wanted to maximize the diversity of participation in SF, they would separate the convention from the award, and lower the cost of voting. If Worldcon attendees want to vote on the Hugos, let them pay a lower entrance fee and then pay an additional top-up to vote, set equal to the cost of a supporting membership. Then the awards would not be treated as the hostage of the event, used to generate increased revenues for the convention by increasing publicity and creating a subsidy for those who physically attend. Let the convention be sold on its own merits, and the award be voted for by fans, irrespective of where they are. There is no need to confuse the two.

Consider the cost of participation in the Hugos. To vote currently costs USD40. What the heck are they doing that costs USD40 per voter? This is a small-scale internet-based ballot to decide the winners of a cultural award. USD40 is much more than it costs most governments to handle international postal voting in public elections, although they obviously have to be managed to a higher standard in order to prevent fraud.

If the goal was open democracy, demanding 40 bucks for the right to vote would be considered an outrage. And obviously the cost will have a different impact around the world, because no allowance is made for average national incomes. If the organizers want diversity, the cost of voting should only be a few dollars. The actual cost reflects two goals which are opposed to diversity: erecting barriers to create exclusive tiers within ‘fandom’, and the maximization of revenues.

One of the joys of the internet is that it is so inclusive. Since the 1990’s, the roll-out of commercial internet services has done more to remove barriers of wealth, nationality, race and gender than decades of political posturing. On the internet, nobody knows if you are a dog. So long as you can afford the cost of accessing the internet, it does not matter if you are old, black, Inuit, disabled, gay, Jewish, transvestite or French. If you have access, you can express your opinion.

However, the data from the Worldcon memberships shows the Hugo Awards have totally failed to be the inclusive global force it pretends to be. At the time of writing, this year’s Worldcon has 10,157 members. 8,263 of them are from the USA. The huge rise in supporting memberships has done nothing to increase the international diversity of Hugo voters.

For reasons that I struggle to understand, the organizers of Worldcon2015 have taken a massive step backwards when it comes to the transparent presentation of demographic data. Worldcon2014 provided a straightforward table, so you could analyze memberships by both nation and type. Worldcon2015 gives you totals by nation, and totals by type, but no cross-analysis. Is this because they are embarrassed by the lack of diversity? The number of supporting members is more than double the number of members from outside the USA. It does not take a mathematician to realize the growth in supporting memberships has resulted in even less international diversity amongst Hugo voters.

Literally anybody on the planet should be free to say they are a fan of SF, and to vote on what they considered the best work of the year. One of the Hugo categories is ‘Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form’ (a stupidly outdated way of saying ‘Best Film’). Are there only a few thousand people on the planet who are competent to judge if Guardians of the Galaxy was better than Interstellar? Of course not. Nobody ever went to see a Hollywood film because it won a Hugo, but these awards are treated like they represent the opinions of fans everywhere.

Ignoring the international nature of SF film culture reveals the inward-looking nature of some ‘fandom’. We can make excuses for why written stories may not succeed when taken across borders, but it is harder to make excuses when it comes to the medium of film. Consider Solaris, a 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky is one of the greatest film-makers of all time. Ingmar Bergman said:

Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.

Solaris was both a science fiction film, and a work of genius. It was so good that some arrogant Hollywood types decided they could make some easy money by remaking it in English. Was the original nominated for a Hugo? Of course not. It was made in the Soviet Union. One of the greatest SF films was ignored by a ‘fandom’ which ignores films distributed outside the Hollywood system. Am I supposed to believe that George Clooney has better taste in SF films than most SF fans? The failure to nominate Solaris for a Hugo was excusable in the 1970’s, when it was harder to know about foreign cultures. There is much less excuse for a current ‘world’ award to exhibit an unrelenting bias towards Hollywood films, though it clearly persists.

The organizers of the Hugos do not care if Koreans (current Worldcon members = 0), or Indians (3), or Africans (1) express an opinion on what was the best SF film of the year. They do not care if there are thriving movie industries in those parts of the world, or if they make good SF films. As a result, I will not learn about those films by taking an interest in the Hugos. The bias towards Hollywood films should be a telltale sign of cultural bias, but the in-crowd seem unaware of the lack of international diversity in the culture they choose to consume. That is why they do not deserve to influence others. But mercifully, that is also why the Hugos will die.

I would never read a book because it won an award. All culture is a matter of taste. It makes more sense to be influenced by my past experience, by the advice of friends, and by individual editors and reviewers with good taste. It makes less sense to be influenced by the votes of individuals who I do not know and who represent nobody but themselves. As a result, the internet is killing the Hugos, even whilst it props them up with a burst of increased publicity. Overall, the internet diminishes the power of the Hugos, by making it easier to receive opinions about a wider range of content, from sources that we know and trust.

If I wanted to be influenced by strangers, I could read their blogs, or follow their tweets, or see their reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. And if I prefer to seek out the newest film from Studio Ghibli, instead of some dross from Hollywood, the internet will help me. The internet is often like an echo chamber, allowing people to hear their own opinions reflected back at them. But it also gives us choices that would not be possible otherwise. It gives us freedom, and diversity, and alternatives. Thanks to the echo chamber, some will convince themselves that the Hugos still represent a meaningful expression of taste. Stepping outside that echo chamber, fewer will be listening. And if the global SF market expands, then the Hugos may suffer more than it benefits from that growth, because of the failure to decouple an international award from a predominantly American convention.

To rejuvenate and extend the authority of the Hugos would be simple: separate the voting from the convention, and thus encourage many more people to vote, from all around the world. But that is not going to happen. Meanwhile, the internet gives me access to many more opinions, but it does not increase the amount of time I spend reading. That is why the influence of the Hugos will continue to diminish. The Hugos served a purpose, but by sticking to an outdated model for human interaction, they will become increasingly anachronistic. So the Hugos must die, and the sooner the better.

The internet has room for many opinions, and an award is an expression of an opinion. I do not care who pays 40 dollars for the privilege of identifying themselves with ‘fandom’, for the same reasons I prefer Solaris to many films which were nominated for the Hugo. Real diversity now surrounds us, in the optical fibers and radio waves that bring us the internet, wherever we are in the world. That diversity is incompatible with the cultural straightjacket worn by the self-selecting Worldcon ‘fandom’. The Hugos are dying; long live the internet, and the liberation of science fiction.

The Difficulty with Political Diversity

At the last Worldcon, there was a panel whose title I liked, but which I did not want to attend because the panelists lacked diversity. The title of the panel was: “Ideology versus Politics in Science Fiction”. It caught my eye, because I follow politics closely. The description ended with a very good question, asking how politics might be represented in SF in an authentic way, whilst remaining interesting to readers. But then I saw who was on the panel. Whilst I had no objection to any specific individual, I thought there was a big problem with the panel’s composition. This was the panel:

  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden, moderator
  • Martin McGrath
  • Laurie Penny
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I dislike labelling other people’s political beliefs. Political views can be complicated, and labels encourage unhelpful generalization. The left-right spectrum is a crude way to allocate beliefs to individuals, and people should speak for themselves. But for those of you who may be unfamiliar with some of the names listed, let me succinctly characterize their views in ways that I believe are fair to them. To do that, I will try to draw on facts about the individual, as opposed to anyone else’s opinions about them.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is an American editor. She started a popular weblog described as “liberal to libertarian” per its Google entry.

Martin McGrath is a British academic. In a recent blog, he identified with the “task” facing the British Labour Party if it is to win in future.

Laurie Penny is a British political journalist. The name of her personal blog, Penny Red, is meant to signal her political sympathies.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an American author. When asked if he was a libertarian anarchist, he replied:

No, I am a green socialist, roughly. A utopian. I don’t like libertarianism as I understand it because it seems to keep private property, police, and other aspects of the current system, indeed it seems to keep capitalism.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a British author. I know least about his politics; his views may be the hardest to pigeon-hole. But after the British general election he tweeted that he lived in a “weird country” and that he was eating chocolate muffins as “compensation” for the result.

Given the facts, no reasonable person would dispute that all these people identify with the left-hand side of the political spectrum in their respective countries. That means none of them identify with the right, or even the current middle. But they were asked to discuss how to portray politics in a more authentic way. Does that not seem odd, if the goal was an impartial analysis of authenticity?

Last week I wrote some things that upset some people. Put very simply, I observed that American writers are more likely to win awards if the awards are decided by people who are mostly American, and who participate in conventions that are mostly held in America. I also believe that lefty writers are more likely to win awards if the awards are voted on by lefties who attend conventions where lefty speakers are preferred.

I have less data of relevance to the second observation. Hugo voters do not register their political affiliations, and it is harder to objectively determine a person’s politics than their nationality. But I struggle to see how these observations could be considered controversial. Substitute the word ‘Cambodia’ for ‘America’, or the word ‘Buddhist’ for ‘lefty’. The statements are true based on what we know about people in general, irrespective of the specific tribe they belong to. People vote for book awards according to taste. Their tastes are influenced by their experiences, and are manifest in the groups they choose to identify with.

For all the debate about awards and politics in SF, few have proposed good ideas for promoting polite conversation between them and us (or between us and them, depending on your point of view). That seems odd, because every single Worldcon has been hosted in a democratic country, meaning that the vast majority of Worldcon participants are familiar with cultures that encourage dialogue between political adversaries. We understand the point made by Churchill, when he said:

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.

I think the next Worldcon should emulate the last one, by having a panel that overtly discusses politics in SF. But this time, a full range of opinions should be represented. If that occurred, the speakers might – there are no guarantees – demonstrate how it is possible to disagree without resorting to name-calling, tantrums, no-platforming, or any other shenanigans that seek to promote some by excluding others.

So then I wondered who would be on that panel, if I was given the task of selecting the speakers, and the omnipotence to ensure their willing participation. Kim Stanley Robinson would be a good choice, even though I was unhappy about last year’s panel. Brad Torgersen would be an obvious pick, if not detained by an actual war-war somewhere else.

However, I found my challenge was beyond me, or else I would have presented a list of names here. It is devilishly difficult to pick five people to intelligently and sincerely discuss how politics might be authentically represented in SF, whilst also reflecting a comprehensive range of political opinions. To get a good choice, you would have to select individuals who are passionate without being divisive, who are earnest and persuasive, who are knowledgeable and credible, and who play well with others, though you will strongly disagree with some of them. What do you think a truly balanced panel would look like? Not having a good answer to share, I am curious to learn from others.

On Worldcons and World Cups

Normally it is considered foolish to insult customers. But others do it, so why not me too? Like others, I do foolish things from time to time, not least when honestly stating my point of view. However, I try to back those views, no matter how outrageous, with objective data. Today I want to discuss who belongs to the supposed mainstream of science fiction ‘fandom’, and who sits on the periphery. I will do this whilst presenting data about the World Science Fiction Convention, the group that hands out the Hugo Awards.

Anybody who objectively looks at the Worldcon data can easily distinguish Worldcon’s notion of a mainstream SF fan from the rest of humanity. The distinction does not lie in the fan’s gender, race, sexual orientation or political beliefs. The difference is their nationality. If the claims are correct, and Worldcon represents the mainstream of science fiction ‘fandom’, then it is dominated by citizens of the United States of America. Every other nationality is on the margins, if it is represented at all.

Please forgive that I put the word ‘fandom’ into inverted commas. I do so to draw attention to an important fact. The people who decide who belongs to fandom – and hence who is excluded – are the people who are already members. Unlike most language, the correct use of a word like ‘fandom’ cannot be influenced by the great mass of humanity. On the contrary, the word is defined by a clique. In turn, the word defines who belongs to that clique, creating a circularity which cannot be penetrated by outsiders. To have an opportunity to influence the meaning of the word, you must join the clique. Everyone else is excluded from the conversation.

These may seem like extravagant claims. But I want you to think of the following words, and what they mean: Alinsky; Fox News; Gamergate; and Limbaugh. These are some words that I have seen repeatedly used by people who feel ire towards the Sad Puppies. They are often used whilst trying to depict the Puppies as a faction which opposes diversity. But none of those words are commonly used outside of the USA. Many intelligent, educated English-speakers will have little or no idea what these words refer to. And yet, without any sense of irony, people who say they want science fiction to be more inclusive keep using uniquely American cultural references to describe their point of view.

To further illustrate, I googled very recent posts that support Irene Gallo. Here are snippets from those posts, written by people who honestly believe they want to make the science fiction community more inclusive.

…it’s no more unfair to characterize the Puppies by their leaders’ statements than it is unfair to characterize Republicans by the positions of George Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

That’s a move straight out of the Breitbart playbook.

There was an episode of “All In The Family” — where an argument got out of control.

Just how much cultural awareness is needed to appreciate that an argument about the Worldcon awards will not be improved by endless references to American politicians, American news websites, and American TV shows? Are people who express themselves this way serious about wanting a genuinely inclusive community, or do they only want to include people who already share their opinions, experiences and culture?

Here come the stats about Worldcons. People who are sensitive about diversity may want to look away.

The number of Worldcons to date = 72
The number of countries in the world = 196
The number of countries which have hosted a Worldcon = 7
The number of Worldcons held outside the USA = 19
The number of Worldcons held in the USA = 53
The proportion of Worldcons in the USA (so far) = 73.6%

I went to Loncon3, reportedly the Worldcon with the most members and the second-highest attendance. Even holding an event in the UK does not stop an extraordinary American domination of ‘fandom’. 38.6% of Loncon3 members were from the US, only a sliver behind the number of Brits who took part. But as an outsider, what really shocked me was the selection of speakers. I had assumed British SF is relatively healthy compared to that found in most nations. There are many British authors whose work I have enjoyed. And I imagined I might be introduced to a wider range of authors, from around Europe and nearby regions like North Africa and the Middle East. But few Loncon3 panels could muster more than one token non-American. Some panels were staffed solely by Americans.

Perhaps the organizers of Loncon3 deserve no blame for this state of affairs. Perhaps they attracted the best people available. But what does that say about the science fiction community, and how inclusive it is?

Look also at who is nominated for Hugo awards. I do not believe I should vote for awards, because I would never read enough to feel justified to have an opinion. In addition, all art is a matter of taste, so the primary purpose of awards is to generate a marketing buzz, and to signal who belongs to an elite that sets tastes for others. If you and I are both free-thinking mature individuals, then my idea of the best will rarely match your idea of the best, so it is daft to argue about what is best. Nevertheless I read all the short stories that were nominated last year. This is what they were like:

  • Chinese people written about in a way that panders to American tastes;
  • Thai people written about in a way that panders to American tastes;
  • Scots folklore and Arab descendants written about in a way that panders to American tastes; and
  • Dinosaur sings on Broadway after being called a fag and a towel-head.

I did not like these stories, but as I already stated, there is no point arguing about taste. And I understand why writers have every right to prosper by pandering to American tastes; these stories were primarily sold to American customers. But do the fans who liked these stories see nothing lamentable about this selection? Call me old-fashioned, but surely an audience keen on science fiction will notice that none of these stories are set in space. Seemingly they all occur during the present day. There is not even a hint of science in any of them. And they all affirm the values of the American readers they were written for. In other words, whilst these stories refer to places and cultures outside of the USA, the characters exhibited little diversity of thought or opinion, even though none of these stories conform to traditional expectations about SF culture.

Diversity entails a degree of friction. Customs clash, and compromise is hard. Nobody can win every battle, if they really accept the full range of human diversity. I read science fiction stories in the hopes of being challenged by them. But the truth is that ‘fandom’ is easily embraced by people who say they want diversity, but who loathe to be challenged. They want to be amongst people who think like them. The point of ‘fandom’ is to share a mutual love, which puts it into potential conflict with any outsiders who represent real diversity. So the Chinese gay guy ends up with his true all-American love. And the selkies escape to Colorado to live and love each other in peace. And the shemale dinosaur is the subject of the supreme cliché of love, elicited via a deathbed. And literally everything in Thailand turned out the way it was lovingly destined to be.

Brad Torgersen wrote something relevant about Worldcon, and I suspect many people who read it missed one of the points he made. So let me help, by adding some additional emphasis.

…Or maybe just be wholly transparent and call it White American Liberals Con — An inclusive, diverse place where everyone talks about the same things, has the same tastes, votes the same way, and looks at the world through the same pair of eyes…

…Because the ultimate question in a polyglot society — or a polyglot field of the arts — is whether or not you (and your tribe) can make room in your hearts and minds for the people from the other tribes. Are the other tribes really dangerous? Or are you simply worried that by letting the outside tribes mingle with the inside tribe, you will lose the authenticity and flavor that you believe makes your tribe special? How much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve your culture, versus allowing your culture to mix with others, and blend? We know these fears. They perk up every time a new wave of immigrants comes. Doesn’t matter if its Irish, German, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, or Mexican. People become very upset with the idea that the new tribe is going to wash away everything about the old tribe. Can the new tribe be assimilated? What if they won’t assimilate, what then?

Perhaps some failed to notice this nuance within Torgersen’s argument because Torgersen is also American. But who else should make an argument about the insular national character of SF ‘fandom’? Kenyans? Saudis? Me? Doing so is counterintuitive and bad for business. Who wants to struggle to join an insular group in order to upset the prospective customers they meet there, by telling them their tastes are narrow? (Apart from me, that is.)

If Worldcon members want diversity, they could do a lot more to appeal to the inhabitants of other countries. Forget arguments about changing how to vote for the Hugo. The method of choosing where to host Worldcon is much more broken than the awards are. The choice of Worldcon location is the most obvious and negative influence on who belongs to ‘fandom’, and it contributes to the insular nature of the Hugo Awards.

People are selfish. They choose what is easiest and best for themselves. But if Worldcon members want the real diversity that comes from extending the SF market to the hundreds of millions of English speakers in countries like India, Nigeria and the Philippines, they need to take Worldcon to those countries. They should not sit on their haunches, waiting for foreigners to become so enamored with an inward-looking American subculture that they literally beg for Americans to come and lecture them about storytelling.

The Worldcon could learn a lot from the World Cup. (If you do not know what I am referring to when I discuss the World Cup, you are already too culturally isolated to be helped.) Science fiction should be a global culture. Football is a global culture. Anyone with legs can kick a ball around, whether a boy or girl, black or white. Anyone with imagination can dream of fantastic scenarios in faraway places. So why is the ownership of SF so narrow, when the whole world rejoices in the World Cup?

(And note, in the culture of my birth, like most cultures, the sport is called football. For once, I am not going to indulge American cultural quirks any more than I have to.)

The World Cup has been going longer than Worldcon, but because it is held every four years, there have only been 20 tournaments so far. But unlike Worldcon, the World Cup has been hosted by 16 different countries! Moving beyond its traditional bases in Europe and South America, the World Cup has been held in Asia, Africa and North America. This magnificent accomplishment has occurred even though the top football administrator, a Swiss man by the name of Sepp Blatter, is a corrupt old white guy who said women footballers should wear tight shorts and gay fans should just refrain from having sex in countries that ban homosexuality!

And yet, that corrupt old white man has succeeded in promoting much more celebration of international diversity than Worldcon has. In fact, part of the reason Blatter has held on to power so long is because he has pushed for the World Cup to be taken to new places, like Africa, East Asia and the Middle East.

What stops Worldcon from being taken to new countries? It is not language. Lots of Africans are fluent in English; there are 83 million English speakers in Nigeria alone. Many educated Asians speak English as well as you or I. In Pakistan, 65 percent of salaried professionals speak English because it is crucial to career advancement. In total, 92 million Pakistanis have learned English, and 24 million are fluent. In the Middle East, English is the lingua franca for educated people because of the difficulties caused by having multiple dialects of Arabic and large numbers of Asian expatriate workers. 300 million Chinese are learning English. And yet, when 758 members of Loncon3 voted on where to hold Worldcon74, 651 preferred Kansas City. Only 70 voted for Beijing. The population of China is 1.36 billion, of which 11.5 million live in Beijing. The population of the USA is 317 million, and Kansas City is home to just 467,000. Which location is most likely to increase the diversity of SF ‘fandom’? Which host would do most to expand the SF market?

I do not believe that language, or inertia, explains the failure of SF ‘fandom’ to broaden their international horizons. It would certainly make good business to promote the grass roots of SF around the world. And any cosmopolitan would be happy to see the art form they love being appreciated in other nations. I think the real inhibition is that few in the existing mainstream want to tackle the uncomfortable challenge of broadening the SF market to accommodate contrasting cultures, and alternative tastes. It is easy to talk about wanting diversity amongst the audience, but that is unlikely to be realized unless there is also a willingness for producers and gatekeepers to compromise on matters of opinion and taste.

If Worldcon was hosted in South Africa, it might have to deal with a culture where one in four men confess to being rapists. If Worldcon went to Malaysia, it would find itself in a culture where the majority of Muslims believe leaving the faith should be punishable with death. Qatar is scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup, and they are nearing completion of one of the largest convention centres in the world, with a view to becoming a hub for global and regional events. But if Worldcon went to Qatar, its members would have to engage with a society where homosexuality is against the law, many women choose to cover their faces, and expatriate workers have inadequate legal protection, leading to their mistreatment.

If you have strongly-held progressive beliefs, you should want to go to places like South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar; nobody changes opinions by avoiding those who disagree with them. And dealing with weighty real-world issues might discourage some of the sound and fury that taints arguments about how to vote for a book award. The people who say they stand with Gallo believe themselves to be principled, even though comparing the Sad Puppies to Nazis is idiotic, insulting and counterproductive. Let them show how principled they are, not by using the internet to express solidarity for a New Yorker employed by a publishing company, but by meeting the remorseless diversity of humanity in person. If they did, they might discover extremes that put the actions of people who voted for a book award into some useful context.

Torgersen is right about Worldcon and the awards it hands out. It is an event for Americans, by Americans. Everybody else assimilates, or is excluded. Worldcon might promote an American industry to customers overseas, but reveals little appetite for international diversity within that industry. That would imply more competition for American writers and American businessmen, and it would also mean more competition amongst ideas.

I like my science fiction to be challenging, and I find the world to be a challenging place. Not everyone is like me, and not everyone shares my tastes or opinions. It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. So I must expect that some will prefer to observe the world whilst wearing blinkers or rose-tinted spectacles. They have a right to free speech, even if they only use it to talk amongst themselves. If it makes them happy, they should continue as they are. But nobody should pretend that the members of Worldcon aspire to realize the greatest, most diverse potential of the SF market. They may refer to their event as Worldcon, but this ‘fandom’ retreats from the world at large.

Ray Blank is not a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.