Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

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So, who reads science fiction anyway?

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The last blog generated a discussion of whether science fiction can be called conservative at all because of its nature as speculative fiction. Following up online, I see opposing opinions about whether science fiction is inherently conservative or inherently liberal. There’s not nearly as much research on the demographics of the speculative fiction market as there should be, but in this post, I’ll try to have a look at some results.

First, what kind of people in general read science fiction? One writer-conducted market survey found that science fiction readers account for about 20% of the US population, are wealthier than the average, are about 57 percent male and tend to reduce their reading volume between the ages of 45-65. Also—no surprise—SF readers are people who read a lot. One study found that speculative fiction fans consistently consume high volumes of books, TV and films, which the authors considered “cognitively beneficial.” This study also found that SF as a genre has a strong effect on the way the public perceives and accepts science. Another study showed that science fiction in popular culture has a real effect on public attitudes. The authors suggest this is a literacy effect, where consuming scary media about “killer robots,” for example, affected opinions about development of autonomous weapons.

Other research shows that science fiction readers are more mature in their social relationships than readers of other genres. Fans who scored as knowledgeable about SF on the Genre Familiarity Test also scored higher on the Relationships Belief Inventory, while romance readers scored lower. In contrast, another study found that readers of romance and suspense/thrillers had higher interpersonal sensitivity/empathy scores than science-fiction/fantasy fans. Again, this isn’t really a surprise.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons, and escapism seems to be high on the list. Education is likely up there, too, where people are interested in broadening their horizons—science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, after all. However, most of us would still like to read texts that reaffirm our beliefs and values rather than something that challenges them. That leads us to the question of worldviews (i.e. politics). So how do worldviews affect reading habits?

Here’s an interesting study that found a preference for different disciplines in science reading material. For example, liberals tend to like theoretical disciplines including anthropology, biology, astronomy, physics and (surprise) engineering. On the other hand, conservatives tend to prefer applied disciplines including medicine, law and (surprise) climate change. Analyzing the results, the authors conclude that “scientific puzzles appeal more to the left, while problem-solving appeals more to the right.”

Another study conducted on Goodreads found that conservatives tend to prefer escapist, “low-brow” genre fiction and recent book-to-movie titles, and liberals tend to read more “high-brow” novels that win prizes. According to the authors, these results support the worst, polarizing stereotypes of “sophisticated” readers (liberals) versus “simple-minded” readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives). However, the authors also discovered a sizable number of non-partisan books that bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives. And, it turned out to be generally conservatives who were more engaged in producing this space for cultural compromise.

I didn’t find anything at all about the relative size of the conservative versus liberal audience, which suggests it’s a topic for original research. Anybody?

Conservative vs. Liberal in the SFF Community

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Following up on the last blog, why do liberals/progressives feel like they have to force change? Why does N.K. Jemisin, for example, feel like she has to stand up in front of the WorldCon audience and accuse the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minorities (i.e. racism)? Is she right? And once she’s been privately called “graceless” because of this, why do some members of the community feel they have to leap to her defense?

I’d like to suggest this is because liberals remain in a distinct minority within the community, and the fact that liberals remain a minority means they have to try harder to be heard. Minority status for liberals in the SFF community somewhat defies conventional wisdom. There’s been quite a split in the community in recent years along political lines. I’ve seen a ton of articles about how the community is now more progressive because it’s inclusive of minorities and women. Supposedly there has been a big swing in publishing toward works these members read and write. Meanwhile, the big seller this year was classed as hard SF, Andy Weir won the Dragon Award, and I met an engineer last night who asked me for a list of authors who wrote books he might like.

So, have the demographics actually changed that much? Since there aren’t a lot of studies about readership in the SFF community, I’ll have to look at general demographics. In the US Gallup says conservatives and moderates heavily outnumber liberals; about 42% of the population identify as conservative, 35% as moderate and 20% as liberal, with 3% other. If you assume the SFF community also breaks out this way, then liberals are actually a huge minority. Even if the community has a much bigger liberal faction than the general population, this still likely leaves this group well into minority status. The Daily Dot recently identified WorldCom as a conservative organization. Because of all noise about diversity in the Hugo Awards, this may seem a little surprising, but maybe it’s not, after all.

Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

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Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?

Wrap up of the Daredevil Reviews

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So, there are a number of reasons why this series would never have happened on other entertainment services than Netflix with a MA (mature audience) rating. The first of course, is the darkness of both the subject matter and the production. This is about evil as represented by organized crime and a cast of people who are trying to do something about it. The production doesn’t hold back on either blood or the representations of evil. Lots of people get hurt and killed in ugly ways, and a few get tortured along the way. Especially in the first season, Daredevil isn’t always a nice person.

This production is tailored to fit well into today’s expectations, as the cast is diverse and there are some liberal additions to the story lines—organized crime forcing poor minority immigrants out of their homes, etc. However, there is a darkness in the heart of the story that current viewers may not recognize. This story is very much about the Irish experience. The Irish weren’t considered white in the US in the 19th century, and Daredevil debuted in 1964 when there was still active discrimination against Irish Catholics in the US. This means that when Marvel released the comic, it was actually a diversity addition to their offerings.

Next, I’m surprised that there’s been no comment on the ideology here. Despite the trimmings, this show presents something you don’t see much these days—that is conservative values including love, family, respect, religion, strict morals, Western culture and the rule of law. The discussion of good and evil is framed in Catholic terms as about the Christian God versus the adversarial Satan, and Matt is working from a strict Christian moral system that defines what is acceptable for a “good” person to do and what’s not. The danger in failing is losing his soul and, as Sister Maggie warns him, becoming the monster himself.

The last issue is something interesting that’s understated here, but built clearly into the concept. It’s considered politically incorrect to discuss racial characteristics these days, but since the Irish and Germans are now both white, then they’re fair game, right? Plus, I’ve got a lot of Irish and German in my family tree, and I can talk about my own roots. So, the Germanic tribes really like order, punctuality and world domination. The Celtic tribes, on the other hand, are known for passion, wit and ferocity. This means you want to put Germans in control of your transportation system and the Irish in as first responders—firefighters and police. If you don’t believe in racial characteristics and you want to do it the other way around, then fine, but the results are your problem. So this story is about Matt Murdock’s Irish fire against Wilson Fisk’s Germanic drive for order and world domination. It’s an old war, going all the way back to the Iron Age in Europe, but still playing out here in the neighborhoods of NYC.

I love complex works. Congratulations to the show’s stars and production team for carrying it off so well.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 3

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in October of 2018, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Erik Oleson as the showrunner. Principal stars include Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin and Wilson Bethel as Poindexter/Bullseye. This review contains spoilers.

Daredevil is thought to have been killed in a building collapse (see The Defenders review), but a badly injured Matt washes out of the city storm sewer and is found by a passer-by. He refuses to be taken to the hospital, and takes sanctuary at Clinton Church, where Father Lantom places him with Sister Maggie, back in the orphanage where Matt grew up. He makes a slow recovery, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and eventually starts going out as a vigilante again. Results are poor at first, but as he gets stronger, he finds that Fisk is gaining power again as an organized crime boss. Convincing the FBI he is a valuable informant, Fisk has moved into a penthouse apartment in Manhattan where he gives out enough information to eliminate other crime bosses, while working to establish a new protection racket. He subverts the agents guarding him, including Nadeem and the psychopathic Poindexter. Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson is still working at his job with a new firm and Karen Page has taken a position as a reporter for The Bulletin. The two of them continue to pay the rent on Matt’s apartment, but they are losing hope that he’s still alive. After Fisk’s release hits the papers, Foggy is surprised by a sudden encounter with Matt, who steals his wallet and uses the IDs to gain entrance to Fisk’s prison. He is identified and manages to escape, but is intercepted by a taxi driven by Fisk’s man and plunged off a dock into the river. He escapes there, too, and when Fisk sends the FBI to get him, they find only wet clothes in a pile on the floor of Matt’s apartment. Foggy and Karen insist that they need to work through the law, and Matt joins them to try to find witnesses to turn on Fisk. The stakes continue to rise, as Fisk gains more power and outfits Poindexter with a fake Daredevil suit to make trouble for the trio. Eventually Matt decides that the law won’t prevail, and that he needs to kill Fisk. He misses once because Fisk has Page cornered at the church, but with Karen safe, he crashes Fisk’s wedding with his love Vanessa in order to try again. Confronted with the dark Daredevil, Matt has to make a final decision about how his life will go.

So, this season is absolutely brilliant. Completely reduced by events, Matt Murdock has to totally rebuild his life from nothing. He lurks around in a parka and a baseball cap, and he’s back to basic black for his vigilante work. He’s got no friends, no ID, no money, and depends on charity at the church to eat. He’s haunted by his father’s ghost, his missing mother, an ephemeral Fisk, and a fake, sneering, evil Daredevil that’s exactly what he could become. However, he’s shed Matt’s disability, too—now he’s just himself. In this season, the black of his mask is relieved by a touch of white lining, though at the end we see a red edge peeking out from under his tee-shirt. On the action side, Matt’s escape from the prison is pretty awesome, and all shot in one take. Plus, in the unrelieved grimness of the series so far, suddenly this season presents some completely hilarious moments.

Check it out on Netflix. Five stars.

Review of Netflix The Defenders miniseries

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I’m also going to review this miniseries, as there’s a gap in the Daredevil seasons without it. The Defenders superhero group includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. This MCU show premiered on Netflix in July 2017, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez acting as showrunners. It stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Finn Jones as Danny Rand/Iron Fist, all reprising their roles from their individual series, plus Sigourney Weaver as the Hand’s Alexandra Reid. This review includes spoilers.

Luke Cage has been released from prison, and during an investigation encounters Iron Fist Danny Rand and his friend Coleen Wing, who have arrived in NYC from Cambodia. PI Jessica Jones takes a case where an architect has gone missing, finds his apartment filled with explosives, and is present when he commits suicide in his office. Jones is taken in by the police and Foggy Nelson sends Matt Murdock to get her out of trouble. Meanwhile, the Hand’s excavations at Midland Circle are causing earth tremors. Cage, Jones and Murdock continue investigating, and Rand tries using his corporate ties to find out what’s going on at Midland Circle. His meeting with the board goes poorly, and the Defenders end up together fighting their way out. They hold a meeting at a Chinese restaurant where Matt’s old martial arts instructor Stick arrives, and Matt and Jones refuse to get involved. The Hand is onto them now, though, and arrive at the restaurant. Cage captures Sowande, one of the Hand’s fingers, and they find that the Hand wants Danny/Iron Fist to open a portal for them at the bottom of their excavation. The Defenders gather their friends and send them to the police precinct station for protection. Stick kills Sowande and means to kill Danny, but Elektra arrives, kills Stick and steals Danny away. The Defenders wake from unconsciousness at the police station, but break out and head uptown to rescue Danny. Meanwhile Cage’s friend Claire Temple and Colleen Wing have stolen the explosives and the architect’s plans out of the police evidence room and set the explosives at Midland Circle to bring down the building. Elektra kills Alexandra Reid and takes over the Hand’s organization. Madam Gao takes control of the reanimation substance the Hand is mining. The Defenders rescue Danny and head out, but Matt goes back for Elektra. The explosive goes off. Is there any way Matt and Elektra can survive?

This story continues the second season of Daredevil. It’s something of a mash-up of stories, but it also includes bits of ironic humor and generally moves along pretty well. There are a couple of big plot holes. For example, if the police find unconscious people at a crime scene, they’ll take them to the hospital, not to the police station, even if they’re identifiable as superheroes. The resulting scenario is fun, but not real likely. Also, even female superheroes have to deal with physics. Even if Jessica Jones is super-strong, she will still need to deal with mass, and even if Alexandra Reid has mystical powers, she will still need correct body mechanics to throw her opponents. This is an obvious problem given the gifts of Élodie Yung as Elektra and the 75-year-old Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao, who does an awesome job of channeling her mystical powers.

Very entertaining and watchable. Four stars.

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