Discrimination in the SFF community?

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A while back I made the comment that the major SFF awards seem to be discriminating against Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. In the past few years, it’s been easy to run down the list of nominees and see a good representation of African American, Asian and LGBTQ authors, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc. However, there’s been a consistent shortage of Hispanic/LatinX/Native American names in the nominations and in the Locus reviews and other reading lists that feed into the awards. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanics are the largest US minority, and combined with Native Americans, come in at about 1/3 of the population. Comments on the blog suggested that the issue was that the people who vote for the awards just don’t like the type of fiction those people write.

The lack of representation is no surprise. Despite the large numbers of Hispanics/Native Americans in the US population, they’re still highly marginalized and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, immigration and lots of other areas. There’s really no shortage of accomplished writers within this group, so it makes you wonder what’s been going on in the publishing and awards systems to keep the Hispanic/LatinX/Native America authors so unrecognized. Now, we have a clear case of discrimination within the SFF community that suggests what might be going on.

Jon Del Arroz is Latino and, as such, falls clearly into the marginalized minority brown author-of-color category. Like many Hispanics, he apparently also falls on the moderate to conservative side of the political spectrum. His current publisher is Superversive Press, known for pulp type fiction, but also a publisher of fairly right leaning works.

Del Arroz posted a blog here about his experiences back in the spring. According to Del Arroz, he was initially promoted at local Bay area cons as a minority author, but found himself placed in panel discussions that were political and left-leaning, rather than about SFF or promoting books. Once his politics became known, says Del Arroz, then the discrimination started, based more on his ideas than his race.

In the late summer, Del Arroz was lumped with those “middle aged white dudes” after his nomination for the Dragon Awards. This was followed by a campaign in December 2017 to try to get the SFWA management to reject his application for membership. He’s also been banned from WorldCon.

So, are Hispanics/LatinX/Native Americans being excluded from the SFF community mainly because of their political views? Clearly Del Arroz thinks politics is currently trumping his marginalized minority status as a Latino. How does a socially conscious community reconcile this kind of behavior?

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Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System

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Recently I’ve been blogging about virtue signaling, which is publicly stating your opinions on moral issues in order to show your support. Social pressure to conform leads to “MeToo” reactions, and something worse called “groupthink.” In groupthink, no one really thinks critically about issues, but instead responds to the social pressures with knee-jerk, mindless reactions.

This makes virtue signaling a powerful tool in the political arena. In fact, the dependability of the reaction it provokes makes it easily weaponized. All you have to do right now to take someone down is to call them a racist or a sexual harasser. This trend has gotten so obvious in broader US politics that I can almost see powerful and manipulative Puppetmasters pulling the strings—a war back and forth—with attacks taking down Hollywood political donors, artists, senators, members of the press, anybody who influential and on the wrong side of issues. I’m sure these Puppetmasters are laughing all the while, as mindless groupthink lemmings attack one another, doing their work for them. Anybody who questions the process gets a dose of the same.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were early casualties, and conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that Weinstein was payback. It’s pretty easy to dig up questionable actions over a man’s lifetime, but women are harder. Taylor Swift was attacked as a racist by someone claiming her songs contain white supremacist lyrics. Meryl Streep is currently under attack by anonymous posters that have appeared in Los Angeles, accusing her of knowing and keeping quiet about Weinstein—complicity, in other words. Morning-after remorse has produced calls for Al Franken to unresign, and led Tavis Smiley and Joe Scarborough to wonder publicly what’s behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration deftly avoided accusations by taking down attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bringing the focus back to the SFF community, I think these same hazards have been working in the heavy polarization of relations. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely important to call out people who are actually sexually abusive and racist, but because of the weaponizing, it’s gotten to be important to look critically at the accuracy of the claims and question what might be behind them.

The most obvious example is Vox Day, of course. Articles and comments consistently claim he’s anti-diversity, while a look at his publications and award nominations show clearly that he likes Chinese SF and promotes minorities. Another recent attack, of course, has been on Rocket Stack Rank as racist and sexist because of their dislike of non-standard pronouns. Wasn’t it at one time questionable to attack reviewers? Another example is last year’s attack on horror writer David Riley for holding conservative political views. Still another is the attack on editor Sunil Patel (see also here) for apparently being a jerk, while accusers couldn’t come up with anything more than vague claims about sexual harassment.

There may be questionable issues at work in all these cases, of course. Anyone has the right to feel affronted and to complain, but shouldn’t we be looking at things a little more rationally?

What should we expect SFF awards to do?

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The large mainstream awards like the Nobel and the Pulitzer try to identify important literary works. But in the smaller world of SFF, what should we expect the Nebula and Hugo awards to do? Because the Nebula is presented by industry professionals and the Hugo supposedly by fans, one would expect that the Nebula should elect an “important” work that has literary value for advancing the SFF genre. Alternately, the Hugo ought to represent fandom and elect a popular work. But then, whose taste in reading is it going to represent?

SFF fandom has diversified, and this is no longer a simple choice. As I understand the Puppies’ complaints, they think the results in recent years have not been representative of the genre as a whole. Additionally, some have alleged that industry professionals and/or special interest groups have gained control of the awards. Why do they think so?

Not so long ago, the Hugo was awarded by the small group of people who attended WorldCon or who went to the trouble to snail mail in a fee for a “supporting membership” and wait patiently for a ballot to arrive. We can assume this group included dedicated fans willing to fork over cash to participate, plus industry professionals expecting to sell books at the con. However, the advent of the Internet has changed all this.

When WorldCon started offering supporting memberships online, then it’s easy for anybody to buy supporting memberships so they can vote without the expense of attending. This has the nice advantage of making money for the Con; however, it’s also mainly what has led to the recent problems with control of the award. Supporting memberships mean that any special interest group can influence the direction of the awards through the simple method of buying memberships. This exposes the award to influence by vested interests and activists, for a couple of examples.

I gather the Puppies tried to point this out, and when WorldCon ignored the issue, Vox Day conducted a demonstration of how it works. WorldCon’s response has been to institute measures to reduce the influence of coordinated voting campaigns, but given the presence of porn in the list of finalists again this year, this effort has had limited success.

But should this really be WorldCon’s problem to solve? Why not just accept that special interest groups will try to influence the awards? If fans of traditional SFF want greater control of the Hugos, then shouldn’t they just be more active in the awards process?

What does “important” mean for lit awards?

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, Tom Leclair indicates he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.” This is an interesting philosophy, as it says nothing about the quality of the writing or the writer’s skill in putting the novel together. Additionally, Leclair suggests that popularity, or even likability, should not be important for choosing a winner.

This, of course, is a philosophy for judging great literature. Examples from the 20th century might include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies and The Color Purple. These are all profound works, and everyone pretty much agrees on their landmark status. The question is, should this kind of philosophy apply to judging genre works, too?

Genre works like romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy are splinters from mainstream literature that originally formed to tell entertaining stories—as popular fiction, in other words, without any ambition to become fine literature. Of course, some genre fiction was bound to become landmark works. The Lord of the Rings, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 come to mind.

Novels like this don’t come along every year, but you never know when one will break through into landmark status in a mainstream literary sense. So, do the SFWA professionals look for these “important” works for the Nebula Award?

Leclair goes on in his article to suggest we’re really better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes of a literary prize. We’re assuming the SFWA members take their responsibility for the Nebula seriously, read all the works on the ballot (or at least critical reviews), and avoid voting on things like name recognition, friendship or reputation of the publisher.

What about this year’s winners make them important for the SFF genre?

Comparison of All the Birds in the Sky and Ninefox Gambit

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Generally the contenders for the Nebula Award are fairly easy to identify on the Nebula Reading List at the SFWA Website. The way this list works is that authors/editors/publishers/agents can provide copies or links to works for the SFWA membership to read and recommend. Often the recommenders leave their names, which is interesting because you can see who likes what. Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky was an early favorite. The page is down now, but this novel ended up with 18 recommendations, which I think put it at the top of the list. Lee’s Ninefox Gambit fell much lower, with 7 recommendations as far as I can tell through the Wayback Machine. Jemisin’s novel put in a strong showing, too, but since she won last year, voters might have discounted this year’s follow-up as more of the same. That leaves Ninefox Gambit as the outstanding contender.

If you look back through my reviews, you’ll see that I thought Anders’ novel was just average—I gave it three stars. I rated Lee’s Ninefox Gambit at four and half, which means I thought it was above average. Both these authors are strongly diverse, and this was the first novel for both. So why was Anders’ book such a strong favorite? Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the novels again.

Anders’ novel starts off very strong with a presentation of how talented children are bullied and persecuted. In Part II, it abandons this theme to present an apocalyptic situation where nature and science are at odds and the humans end up impotent. The ending is predictable. The writing is interestingly quirky and absurdist, but the novel sags badly in the middle and never recovers. What it ends up saying is murky, maybe that we are at odds with nature and on a path to destruction.

Lee’s novel starts off with a space battle clearly based on an alien system of reality. The protagonist works her way through an understanding of the politics related to who will establish the reigning system, and ends up finding herself attached to a highly talented, dead subversive. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this work also has excellent characterization, imagery and artistic effects. The question it asks is about the nature of reality. It has a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality that detracts, which is all that kept me from giving it 5 stars.

In my humble opinion, Lee’s novel is the more entertaining. It has a great plot and a strong action line. The underlying philosophical questions and the world-building are first rate. It’s highly professional as a first effort, and should hold up much better in the coming years. So why was it passed over? Does Anders’ work look to be more important?

Award Winners that Don’t Hold Up over Time

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In her 2014 article on literary awards, Barbara Cohen notes: “Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons: On the long list of worthies deprived of the Nobel for literature are Tolstoy, Proust, and Joyce.” I’ve been discussing influences on the awards over the last few blogs, and of course these issues are likely to result in some winners that don’t hold up over time.

Checking around, I found The Hugo Award Book Club (HABC), which has a page discussing the issue of poor choices. The group awards the “Worst Hugo Award” title to 1973, when Isaac Asimov won his first Hugo for a novel with The Gods Themselves. Here was the lineup of finalists that year. As was standard in those times, there were no concerns about diversity, so the finalists are all white men.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov [Galaxy Mar/Apr,May/Jun 1972; If Mar/Apr 1972]
When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold [Ballantine, 1972]
There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson [Signet, 1972]
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg [Scribner’s, 1972]
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg [Galaxy Jul/Aug,Sep/Oct 1972; Scribner’s, 1972]
A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak [Putnam, 1972]

The HABC briefly reviews all these works, along with some other worthy contenders that year. Asimov’s winner was a three-part series published in Galaxy Magazine where aliens in a different dimension steal energy from ours, causing the sun to go nova. The HABC notes that the physics is interesting, but that the end result was dull and boring and the book has not aged well in comparison to the other contenders that year. In the comments Steve Davidson mentions that the work was recognized at the time for its risks with sexual content, but that isn’t anything exceptional these days, so the novel’s shortcomings are what stand out.

So what affected the WorldCon membership that year to make this choice? Asimov’s reputation as a short story writer? Frederik Pohl’s reputation as the editor of Galaxy? The ascendancy of hard SF? Promotion? Some kind of groupthink issue? Whatever it was, the vision affected the Nebula and Locus voters, too. The novel also won the Nebula in 1972 and the Locus Award in 1973.

Getting back to the present time, which of recent choices in the awards will hold up best over time? It’s an interesting question, eh?

Analysis of the Nebula Novel Finalists

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A couple of blogs back, I mentioned that recently a friend pronounced that the outstanding diversity among the 2017 Nebula finalists indicated a committee had composed the ballot. This was a surprising charge, but my friend is a poet and not a prose writer, so she doesn’t have a dog in the fight. That means her assessment could be fairly objective. The Nebula ballot is supposed to be made up from member nominations rather than by a jury, but one would expect a fairly unorganized result from that kind of process. Not quite random, because taste in books is never random, but at least fairly loose. So, does this result indicate that kind of process? Hm.

Here’s the description of the nominations from the Nebula Website:
• The official NOMINATION PERIOD will open on November 15th and continue until February 15th. Nominations will be accepted via a secure web-based form.
• Only Active and Associate members in good standing shall be eligible to nominate works for the FINAL BALLOT.
• Nominations shall be treated as confidential information and only the names of the works and numbers of nominations will be available for viewing by eligible members after the awards ceremony.
• Each eligible member may nominate no more than five different works per category and may not nominate any work more than once.
• The nominations will be counted by the Nebula Awards Commissioner, who shall compose the FINAL BALLOT.
• The FINAL BALLOT shall be comprised of the top six works in each category that receive the most nominations.

And here were the 2017 novel results:
All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)

The diversity here really is staggering. These five finalists represent two trans authors, two black authors, an Asian author, three LGB authors and three disabled authors. There are no average plain-vanilla writers here at all. So is my friend right? What are the chances that the active/associate membership of the SFWA would produce this lineup from all the books out there this year?

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