More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking


In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?


Comparison of All the Birds in the Sky and Ninefox Gambit


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?

Review of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders


This is a science-fantasy novel published by Tor. It ended up with 18 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Laurence and Patricia are talented children. Laurence is a tech genius and Patricia is a witch. They don’t know how to hide out, so they’re bullied in school and end up hanging out together out of shared misery. Even their parents misunderstand and mistreat them. Later as adults, after they find their niche with appropriate groups, they run into one another again. The world seems to be ending, so Laurence and his friends try to build a machine to move people elsewhere. The organization of witches opposes this as a doomsday plan, leaving the two factions at odds. Can Laurence and Patricia come together to save the world?

Pros: I really like the first section of this novel. The writing has just a bit of hyperbole that gives it humor, and if you’ve read back through the blog, you can see I think bullying an important subject. Besides being so miserable and destructive to the recipient, it persecutes really gifted children and keeps them from making connections and developing their talents. This novel is also a complex work—Anders thanks her father for help with the philosophical conundrums.

Cons: Laurence and Patricia are pretty much sidelined after the first section, and the great beginning gets lost in accusations of self-aggrandizement, questions about responsibility and counter-maneuvers that leave everyone totally lost and impotent. Bad things happen. The ending is trite and fairly predictable. The writing may be quirky and absurdist, but it contributes to a feel that the novel doesn’t know what it’s trying to accomplish. It suffers very badly from mid-novel sag and doesn’t ever really find itself again. Maybe it’s about impotence in general? I’ll give it a few points for the philosophical conundrums.

Three stars.

Rebuttal of the 2016 Cecily Kane Fireside Article


That finishes up reviews of all the short works from the Nebula Finalists. The novels will take me a little while longer to go through, but in the meantime, I’ll try to review some of the Rabid Puppies recommendations for the Hugo nominations. Next up will be John C. Wright’s short story “An Unimaginable Light.”

Meanwhile, I want to mention something that went by too fast for most people to catch—a rebuttal to last year’s analysis by Cecily Kane in Fireside Magazine that suggested anti-black racism was to blame for lower publication rates of black authors in SFF publications. The rebuttal, titled “Bias in Speculative Fiction,” was published at Medium. It criticized Kane’s statistical methodology and recommended a deeper study of structural bias against African American authors—but it was only online for a matter of hours. The authors (who prudently remained anonymous) were quickly labeled racists and withdrew the article after receiving threats. Luckily File 770 published a link to the Google cache file. Fireside also republished the article here.

A couple of main concerns of the authors were the use of the binomial distribution and US population figures in the Fireside statistical analysis. The binomial distribution predicts random events and the percent of African Americans in the US population says nothing about how many are writers. These issues should have stuck out to any critical readers, and I commented on them here at the time. Beyond what the rebuttal says about the statistical methods, submittal and publication are never random. That’s why magazine editors ask you to read the magazine before submitting. That way you don’t submit something that’s totally misaimed and waste everyone’s time (including your own).

Besides the methodology problems in Kane’s article, I have another concern now, which is that the review and rebuttal of Kane’s methodology was met with threats and bullying. There is a long tradition of rebuttal in the scientific community. It goes like this: Published scientific articles (such as those using statistics to suggest editing bias) are reviewed by readers, who are then encouraged to support progress by pointing out flaws in the science. This makes sure the community self-corrects. If rebuttals are shut down by threats and bullying, then how do we keep track of the true scientific facts? What if calling SFF editors racist is just pseudo-science?

More on Double Standards. Is it racism?


In the last blog I asked why Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Sunil Patel have been treated so differently after bad behavior within the SFF community. Under her persona as a lesbian Thai writer, Sriduangkaew has been promoted in various high profile magazines despite being exposed as a notorious online bully. On the other hand, Patel has recently been blacklisted by several publications because of complaint by women via Twitter that he engages in “manipulation, gaslighting, grooming behavior and objectification of women” (but not apparently direct sexual harassment). So, why the difference? Is there an issue here? I checked around on the Internet for different opinions on the matter.

Here’s one from last fall where Billy D offers a fairly standard view that the Twitter charges are vague, non-specific and unsupported by any real evidence.

Here’s an interesting opinion by Natalie Luhrs. According to Luhrs, “…if Patel were a white man, I don’t believe the people he abused would be getting nearly the same degree of support from the community.” She goes on to give examples of white men who have been accused of similar behavior without much effect. She also notes that Patel has moved to position himself strongly within the community, but he’s actually just an up and coming editor/writer without much of network that would give him real power and influence to resist the charges.

These opinions are interspersed by announcements by publishers about cutting ties with Patel because of the complaints. These include Lightspeed, Book Smugglers, Alliteration Ink, Mothership Zeta and Around the World in 80 Books Blog, who pulled an interview with Patel.

No one has brought charges of sexual harassment, but clearly Patel is out of line in a major way. Luhrs thinks his behavior would be considered standard in a white man. So, is the problem here really that Patel is a dark-shinned man-of-color? No one has uttered the word “racism” in this discussion, but Luhrs’ comments about Patel’s status in the SFF community lend to this idea. In previous blogs, I’ve noted that men-of-color clearly have lower status than women-of-color. Patel is ambitious, and he’s probably following the standard formula as outlined by John Scalzi, which is “sucking up and punching down.” However, he’s missed the fact that this only works for men with “white” privilege. The result is a serious offense.

I’m not coming out in support of Patel’s behavior. However, he’s clearly being treated differently than Sriduangkaew–or, for example, YA author Greg Andree, who was accused of similar behavior but escaped unscathed.

So, is the issue racism, or not?

A Question about Double Standards


The Nebula nominations are closed now, so while they’re producing the list of finalists for review, I’ll talk about something else for a few days. First, a question seems to have arisen this week about whether racist Internet bullies and/or abusers should be forgiven even if it looks like they’ve reformed their ways, or whether they should be blacklisted in some way.

The pertinent issue right now is about Requires Hate, an Internet personality who spent years harassing and bullying writers under different screen names, especially young writers of color. Her different personas were eventually connected to her pen name for fiction, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Laura Mixon won a 2015 Hugo Award for an expose. Sriduangkaew, in her persona as a Thai lesbian writer, was by then a rising star published by a number of high-profile magazines and a nominee for the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I’ve had commenters on my blog assume that being exposed as a racist, homophobic bully ended Sriduangkaew’s writing career. However, it didn’t. The high-profile magazines continued to promote her stories, while she apparently continued her harassment behaviors. This issue came up last week when Apex Magazine included Sriduangkaew on a roundtable event. After complaints, editor Jason Sizemore issued an apology.

Contrast this with the recent treatment of writer Sunil Patel. After various complaints from women about “manipulation, grooming behavior and objectification of women” (but not apparently direct sexual harassment), several publishers cut ties with Patel, dropping him out of scheduled publications. This happened even after he publicly apologized.

So, why the difference? Why does the community of editors (and presumably readers) ignore Sriduangkaew’s racist, homophobic transgressions and continued harassment of writers, while blacklisting Patel? Is there a double standard of some kind in work?

Review of “The Curse of Giants” by Jose Pablo Iriarte

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This story was published by Daily Science Fiction. It currently has nine recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Danny was born a “giant,” which means he never fits in. He is clumsy and is called Dumbass Danny at school, where he sometimes responds to the bullying by acting out, knocking over chairs and tables and kicking things. When this happens, he gets disciplined at home, as well. He tries to report that he’s being bullied, but nothing happens. When the acting out happens again, his father beats him with a belt. Danny goes to the principal’s office and lifts his shirt, showing the marks.

This is another feel good story with strong anti-bullying and anti-child abuse messages. However, like most of the stories I’ve read on the Nebula Reading List this year, it’s not fully developed. Danny has made a strong statement at the end, but the story should have gone on to tell what happens in Danny’s life when Child Protective Services intervenes. Also, I don’t think this one is SFF. I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy content at all, except that Danny thinks he’s a “giant” instead of a disabled child.

Three stars.

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