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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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?

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 Terra! Tara! Terror! edited by Juliana Rew

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This is Third Flatiron Anthology #24, released 30 September 2018 in both e-book and paperback formats. This anthology falls into the underserved class identified by Natalie Luhrs, that is, anthologies edited by women. Rew is an accomplished editor, but independent.

This is an excellent collection of stories, as usual without being cluttered up by way of political statements one way or the other. This release definitely leans to the literary and to fantasy rather than SF. The description says the anthology is about mystery and shadows and the content of the stories varies, as you would expect given such a general theme. The authors are notably international, and the stories are better than the average creative.

“Learning to Fly” by Marie Vibbet is about a little girl who makes her school poster into a magic carpet with the help of a high wind. “If a Tree Falls” by Dan Micklethwaite is about a Dryad that grows old and eventually loses her footing in a storm. “Memory and Muchness” by Rhonda Eikamp details the life of a child surrounded by Alice in Wonderland characters and how she finds her way to the real world. In “War Dog” Wulf Moon presents a story about the Conquistadors that’s is okay on the surface, but alludes to an ugly past. “The Lady of the Park” by Blake Jessop is about a London lamplighter who falls and is caught by a Spriggan. Other authors include Salinda Tyson, Jen Downes, Evelyn Deshane, John Paul Davies, Steven Mathes, Diane Morrison, E.M. Sheehan, Michele Baron, Liam Hogan, Stefon Mears, K. G. Anderson, Kelly A. Harmon, Matthew Reardon, Samuel Chapman, Emmett Schlenz, Gustavo Bondoni, Melanie Rees, Kiki Gonglewski, Caroline Sciriha, Wulf Moon, Elizabeth Twist, and Josh Taylor. In addition, there’s a special reprint from Robert Silverberg and a bit of humorous flash fiction at the end of the book.

Recommended. Four stars.

Where did fantasy lit come from?

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Fantasy has deep roots and seems to be a standard in human culture. Very old fantasy tales have come down to us, including works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights and the Norse Edda. Then the printing press was invented in the 1500s and people started getting the idea of publishing their stories.

In 1666 Margaret Cavendish wrote the satirical novel The Blazing World, now credited as an early work of speculative fiction with elements of both science fiction and fantasy, as a companion piece to her more serious work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. As we get closer to the modern day, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were collected in the 1700s, and in the latter 1800s, William Morris set the standard for high fantasy works with The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at World’s End. This inspired early 20th Century writers like Lord Dunsany, who wrote The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars) and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), who pretty much established the sword and sorcery genre.

In the 1930s and 1940s, J.R.R. Tolkien continued the high fantasy tradition with his series on Middle Earth. Also writing in the 1930s, Gertrude Barrows Bennett (a.k.a. Francis Stevens) invented dark fantasy with the novels Claimed and The Citadel of Fear. Although some might think he falls into the horror genre, I’d place Lovecraft into this same dark fantasy period. I also think Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny deserve mention as mid-20th Century icons. Moorcock’s series of eternal champion novels and Zelazny’s Amber series published in the 1960s and 1970s established the multiverse of alternate worlds as a standard.

By the 1980s, contemporary and low fantasy were finding their footing as a serious sub-genre. Terri Windling is credited with popularizing urban fantasy with Borderlands, followed closely by Charles de Lint. C.S. Lewis is an icon of Christian fantasy, and of course I have to mention J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

This is just a quickie review, of course. Are there any huge icons I missed?

Is it fantasy or science fiction?

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Interestingly, there are theorists who think there’s not that much difference between fantasy and science fiction. For example, in 1976 Todorov and Berrong classified science fiction as a subset of the fantasy genre. In 1979 Suvin argued that it had become common to call anything science fiction that included themes of “novelty, estrangement and cognitive dissonance,” and that science fiction should be the overarching term. The only real difference between the genres, according to Suvin, is that science fiction has to conform to a logical framework. So, presumably this argument was the reason for developing the term “speculative fiction” to describe a particular type of literature that can actually be hard to sort out.

Then, Menadue (2017) conducted a study that found readers actually have fairly strict definitions of fantasy and science fiction, and that the two bodies of literature are seen as contrasting instead of one being a subset of the other. Presumably this has to do with the logic requirement for science fiction, which means it has to follow more rules for causation and world building than fantasy does. In other words, we have to justify the events in science fiction according to real world physics, for example, while in fantasy we can just call it magic and go on with the story.

So, it turns out that the main way readers sort stories into one genre or the other is whether they include “magic” or “science/technology.” There are a few other differences, too. For example, science fiction is generally seen as more future oriented than fantasy, and may address social change more directly. Science fiction is about the possible futures, after all, and not especially the venue for tradition.

Comments? Does this suit your definition?

Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

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