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.

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.

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

Review of “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and was published in Asimov’s September/October 2017 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Rosie Clay is a resident on a generation ship who teaches history and plays traditional fiddle in a weekly OldTime gathering. Rosie is third generation and never saw Earth, but she tries hard to maintain the history the ship has left. A few years out, a disgruntled programmer erased the databases of art, literature and history the ship carried, leaving the residents with nothing but memory to use in recreating them. Now the younger generations are starting to question why they’re required to learn and maintain this history when it is in no way useful to their own way of life. One group totally withdraws to form an artistic enclave and produce only new works. Is there any reason to save the past?

This isn’t just a question that people on a generation ship are asking. When should people expend resources trying to preserve the past and when should it all go in the trashcan? It’s a conflict between conservatives who want to preserve tradition and progressives who want to create a totally new future, all of it framed in music within this story. When Rosie accidentally creates a new song, she decides to document it carefully, creating a middle path. In the current political climate, this is a radical statement.

The music and efforts to recreate the past become the major players in the work. The story rambles, with Rosie’s narration moving from memories of her Grandmother Windy to music to events on the ship to encounters with students in her classroom. The author’s love of music comes through clearly, and anyone who has played in this kind of traditional group will share in her experience.

Not so good points: Because the narration centers so heavily around the music, generally the world building and the characters are poorly developed. We hear a lot about Windy and how she became a legend to the ship’s musicians, but know almost nothing about Rosie’s current family, the organization of the ship, the technology that runs it, etc. The conflict here is weak, too. The programmer’s act and the effort at recreation are both in the past, and at the point of the story, there’s nothing for Rosie to fight against except a minor rebellion in her classroom.

Three and a half stars.

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?

What If? Attacks on Rocket Stack Rank

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A furor erupted this week in SFF cyberspace about pronouns and how reviewer Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank has made light of them. For anyone just tuning in, Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) is a review site run by Hullender and Eric Wong that provides brief reviews of stories eligible for the major SFF awards, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and presumably the Bram Stoker and other awards.

The site has received a lot of positive notice, and recently Hullender was tapped to serve on the Locus panel that feeds the major awards. In response, a group of SFF authors posted an open letter complaining about the pronoun issue and Hullender’s take on trans and non-binary characters in the reviews, also calling him a racist for good measure. Since I’m not trans or non-binary, I’m going to refrain from commenting on this. Everybody is entitled to their own feelings. However, I just wrote the last blog on virtue signaling, so I’m looking at this dust up through that lens.

Hullender promptly posted an apology to “all readers and authors we’ve harmed and offended.” This was judged unacceptable because he also wrote a response to the charges with evidence to demonstrate how they were questionable. Of course, it’s unsupportable to discriminate against people because of their race, gender or trans status, but what if this is actually about something else?

David Gerrold recently made some interesting comments at Amazing Stories. He basically says that members of the SFF community have to stand up and take sides in the progressive/conservative fight in order to save their reputations. This is troubling because it suggests you can’t just remain neutral. Instead, you have to take sides, and then to signal your virtue through word and action in order to be accepted in the community. So why are Hullender and Wong being attacked? Have they not done this properly?

The authors of the open letter think they’re insensitive racists. Hullender seems to think they‘re thoughtful progressives. So, are they posting discriminatory reviews, or are they just posting equal opportunity bad reviews for stories they don’t like?

Trans is the current cause célèbre. Is critiquing the stories not proper virtue signaling? What are members of the community expecting instead?

Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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On September 9, David Gerrold posted an interesting essay at the Amazing Stories website. Yeah, I know that was two months ago, but I running a little behind on my reading. What makes this interesting is that I can’t make out if it’s a warning, a complaint or an apology.

Gerrold’s title is “Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” He starts off saying that the universe is a place of constant change and that SF is a way to investigate that. “This literature is the laboratory in which we consider the universe and our place in it,” he says. “It is the place where we ask, ‘Who are we and what is our purpose here? What does it mean to be a human being?’”

Because he’s talking about SF, I expected this would be about technology and how this impacts the human condition, but instead, he’s aiming at social issues and how it’s inevitable these concerns will be reflected in SF publishing. Then he gets to what’s really bothering him, which is the current traditional vs. progressive split in the SFF community. He calls out some people who have said things that were “ill-considered,” (apparently aiming at just the traditionalist side). He then moves into a parable about “throwing shit,” and what you should do if you’re standing next to a person who’s doing this. His answer is that you need to speak up about it because your reputation in the community is at stake. What he’s talking about is virtue signaling, where you separate yourself from the other side through criticisms, attacks and “me, too” statements that are socially prescribed.

This is now a requirement in the SFF community? That’s what he’s saying, right? So, what does he mean by this?

First possibility: A warning.
Does Gerrold mean that you’re in danger of being black-listed as an author if you don’t take sides? If you don’t clearly indicate your support for the current progressive direction of mainstream SF publishing? In this case, you don’t have to think about issues at all, you just announce your support and you’ll be fine.

Second possibility: A complaint.
Does Gerrold not like being forced to fight this battle? You have to remember that he’s been in the thick of the conflict, He was SWATted in 2015 by Lou Antonelli in response to the conflict about the Hugo Awards. Is he tired of being the figure-head for the progressive movement that crashes into things and takes all the damage?

Third possibility: An apology.
Is this explanation Gerrold’s apology to the traditionalists? Does it indicate that he feels forced into supporting the progressive movement and therefore has no choice other than to attack a lot of people who were probably his friends before this all got started?

In the current climate, I think all these possibilities are disturbing. It all comes back to that first possibility, where you’re required to say certain things and attack certain people because of social coercion. Where you don’t get to think first, or consider the issues, or look at arguments from the other side at all. Instead, you say the right things in support of the right people and you’re fine.

This is pretty much the definition of “groupthink.” According to Wikipedia, this is “a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” In other words, the desire for conformity displaces independent thinking and criticism. Note the part about the dysfunctional outcome.

More on this later.

Notes on Accomplishing Greater Diversity

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The current initiative for diversity falls out of the policy of multiculturalism. In recent decades, this policy has replaced assimilation, where individuals give up their cultural values to take on those of the dominant culture. Under multiculturalism, the expectation is that society will celebrate the diversity that different cultural values bring. All has not gone well with the effort to incorporate diversity within the dominant culture. In other words, there’s a lot of friction.

One of the big complaints about the issue has been that people talk about diversity a lot, but in practice, the dominant culture remains rigid and unaccommodating. For example, here’s a 2008 blog post where writers of color complain about being forced into writing stereotypes in order to get published. In the SFF community, it’s true that we see a greater variety in races, religions, sexual orientation, disability status, etc., among writers, but there’s actually a difference between counting beans (i.e. publications, statistics on the awards ballot) and establishing real diversity. So, what is real diversity? How would this look on the award ballots, for example? I have a few suggestions to throw out there.

For one thing, I’d expect a broad difference in content and theme. I’ve complained before about the preference publishers seem to have for emotional content over intellectual inquiry. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog, there were entirely too many stories out there this year on the theme of child abuse. This tends to crowd out serious SF in favor of emotional stories with a minimal SF or fantasy setting. The quantity of blatant political message fiction in contention for the awards this year is also troubling.

Second, I’d expect settings from different cultures and viewpoints. Real diversity should include more writers from outside the Western dominant culture, for example, writing stories based on Chinese, African or Pakistani culture. It’s true that there are more diverse names on the awards ballots in recent years, but has this really resulted in a diversity of viewpoint? And one of the Sad/Rabid Puppies’ complaints has been the dominance of liberal/progressive themes. Shouldn’t real diversity include other political viewpoints, as well?

Third, I’d expect diversity to include a broad sampling of ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, both among the writers and the characters. One of the characteristics of recent ballots is the complete absence of white men, for example. Hispanics and Native Americans are also consistently shut out of the awards ballots. In some cases, preference for LGBTQ writers and characters may be at the point of displacing the straight and cis-gendered.

A while back, I got comments that recommended I look at the diversity on the Hugo ballot this year. So, how does it stand up under this kind of analysis? There are some good points here. First, there are four black writers and two trans writers on the ballot, both of which are under-represented minorities. There are also both men and women on the ballot, even if they’re not arrayed according to demographics. There are writers with disability. There is variety in the type of works, including fantasy, science fantasy, dark fantasy, space opera and hard SF.

On the critical side, this ballot tends to lack in intellectual diversity, suffering the usual preference for emotional over intellectual content. Although 8 of the works are nominally SF, Cixin Liu provides the only serious, hard SF, and is also the only writer from outside the dominant UK/American English culture. The contenders lean heavily to women writers of fantasy or science fantasy, and without Vox Day’s activism, there would be no white men on the Hugo ballot at all. Half the finalists were published by Tor, which means the company’s particular brand dominates, shutting out small presses and independents that might be publishing more diverse and cutting edge work.

The Hugo is a fan-based award, and by now it’s clear the rules allow particular groups to dominate the voting. So how could WorldCon increase the diversity of the results using these criteria? Broader participation?

Review of “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright

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This story is the Rabid Puppies’ recommendation for the Hugo Best Short Story Award. It was published in the themed anthology God, Robot from Castalia House. The blurb calls it “a collection of intertwined stories from some of the best known names in superversive science fiction. Written in the tradition of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and edited by Anthony Marchetta, the book contains stories by John C. Wright, Steve Rzasa, Joshua Young, L. Jagi Lamplighter and others.” The theme is theobots, programmed to love both God and man.

A human and a theobot are in the midst of a questioning session within a glass box, high above the world. The woman is naked and beautiful and the man calls her a whorebot. He is a robopsychologist, tall and florid with a double chin and big belly, known for the number of robots he has maimed or destroyed by flaying. He questions her regarding the Three Laws and about her beliefs. He calls her answers inappropriate, beats her and then demands sex. She refuses. He orders her punished for her heresy.

Pros: John C. Wright is actually an awesome writer. The number of levels this story works on is pretty amazing. 1) It invokes the Inquisition, i.e. the uppity, beautiful woman accused as a witch and the powerful, degenerate man questioning her. 2) It pays homage to the Asimov robot stories, referring to the Three Laws and similar philosophical issues. 3) It outlines questions in the dialog that fall out from the current conflict between conservative and neo-left politics. 4) It’s pretty erotic. Wright doesn’t fall short on the character descriptions, and the BDSM elements are obvious.

Cons: Wright’s big fault is in overdoing his stories. He has a huge command of meaning and subtext, but more isn’t always better—this ends up being very dense and hard to digest. The story could have been improved by thinning it out some, and Wright could have written a couple of other stories (or a novel) instead to expand on the material. There was a twist ending, but it wasn’t hard to predict. I’m not sure if this was because of subtle foreshadowing or clues in the dialog. Regardless, I’m a little surprised that the story ended up being so cynical. Isn’t superversive SF supposed to be upbeat and affirming?

Three and a half stars.

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