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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Still More Thoughts on Diversity and the Awards Cycle

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One interesting thing that caught my attention in the discussion on diversity in the current Hugo finalist list is that supporters of the Hugo system don’t seem to think (or don’t want to admit) there’s a diversity program going on in the awards system. If this is true, then the swing from ~90% white men as Hugo finalist in the early oughties to ~90% women and minorities in the late teens is an entirely natural trend, based on increasing diversity in the SFF community and increasing appreciation for minority writers. This is paralleled by language about the recent activism of the Sad/Rabid Puppies, where the Puppy votes are negatively called “slate” votes in the analyses, while non-Puppy votes are called “organic,” as if they result from a natural, unbiased process.

At the same time, the increasing diversity of the awards is celebrated in the press, for example The Guardian here and here with articles that frame this as a victory. This framing (and other celebratory language) suggests there has really been some kind of battle going on to increase the representation of diverse authors on the awards ballots at the expense of white men. So, everybody might as well admit that.

My position in the last couple of post has been that, in the drive to increase the diversity of race and gender on the ballot, voters have advanced a particular intellectual agenda that reduces real diversity in the awards. For example, a brief look at recent winners shows what repeat WorldCon voters prefer is fantasy or science fantasy stories with high emotional content and current progressive themes. This agenda tends to exclude male writers of “traditional” SF, as everyone has noticed. Tellingly, it also tends to exclude groups like the US counted Native American and Latino minorities because these authors tend to prefer writing according to their own cultural worldview instead of to power broker agendas. This refusal to accept cultural worldviews is the big failing of standard diversity programs. Companies like Facebook, for example, want to hire diverse employees for the sake of compliance, but then they fail at inclusion, rejecting the actual results of their diversity campaign.

Admittedly the Sad/Rabid Puppies mounted a radical challenge to the Hugo’s in recent years, but WorldCon’s response has been to double down on their apparent agenda. There might be a lot of diverse names on the ballot this year, but what is WorldCon doing about real cultural inclusion?

More thoughts on whether the Hugo actually represents SFF fandom

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My recent blog about whether the Hugo actually represents SFF fandom generated a lot of traffic. Since everyone may not have read through the comments, I thought it worth summarizing some of the issues here. I’m sure participants in the discussion might like to see other issues addressed, as well, but this is what stood out for me.

  • A challenge to the idea that the Hugo is just a “popularity contest” and a proposal that the WorldCon voters instead try to pick the “best” work of the year in each category when they nominate or vote.
  • A question of whether the ballot should be expected to represent SFF readership demographics, or whether other factors like social/political trends have a more important effect on what’s nominated and what wins.
  • A suggestion that the likelihood for a particular work to win depends on the “intensity of support” for it.
  • A question of whether WorldCon should try to represent the whole world, or if we should admit it’s really just representing English-speaking fans.
  • A suggestion that a group of overlapping, active “voting” fans might control all the major US-based SFF awards.

These are all interesting comments that I think reveal how the Hugo Award is viewed and what members of the SFF community expect it to do. However, these issues generate other questions. If fans try to pick the “best work” for the Hugos instead of what they enjoy reading, what criteria do they use? Well written? Literary? Science based? Representing popular social/political trends?

If the award tends to follow popular social/political trends, does it mainly reward people who best represent these topics? For example, if (fill in the blank) is a current social issue, will the awards system reward (fill in the blank) authors and representations of (fill in the blank) on the ballot? Does this mean anybody else who is not (fill in the blank) is completely out of the running?

What lends to “intensity of support”? Is this a work that speaks to a lot of voting fans? Something that they feel is important for the SFF community to reward? Something novel and different? Something that indulges emotion?

The question of whether WorldCon ought to say it represents the whole world is an issue that recurs. It was probably an unfortunate conceit that led the founders to call it that back in the day. Likely in 1953 they had ambition to represent the world, but the various sub-genres have greatly multiplied since then, as has the diversity of writers/fans. People in China and Spain read science fiction. That makes it really hard to be inclusive. Plus, who’s going to handle the translations?

I was accused of singling out the Hugo’s for criticism, but I think I’ve covered literary awards in general in this series. They have their good points as well as their faults. I’ll try to look more closely at some others in the near future.

Thanks to all for the discussion on the issues.

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?

Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

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This novel is a Hugo finalist published by Tor Books. It’s promoted as science fiction but doesn’t include much technology. It reads instead like sociology.

In the 25th century, narrator Mycroft Canner is a Servicer/convict/slave because of crimes he committed in his youth. He can do high quality analyses, so his Servicer position gives him access to the circles of power. He documents a history for the reader, giving us glimpses of how the wealthy and powerful live. The theft of an important document sets an investigation into motion that threatens to reveal more than anyone wants.

This is an ambitious work, very complex and intricate. As you might expect with works of this scope, it succeeds amazingly in some ways, and falls short in others. Mycroft’s narration provides us a low-key review of human history, some fictional and some not, including the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of society. We’re treated to a jaw-dropping projection of how the world might be organized in the 25th century. Nations have been replaced with hives and noble houses with the ibash’ as the transit time across the Atlantic drops to about an hour. Recognition of divisive topics is discouraged, including the existence of gender and religion. People are a mish-mash of nationality and commonly genetically engineered. Set-sets are human-AI hybrids. About 2/3 of the way through, the novel develops suddenly into a political intrigue as it moves into revelation of what kind of crimes we’re dealing with.

On the con side this is another 400 page book that starts off at a glacial pace. The first 250 pages consist of brief scenes separated by pages-long blocks of exposition, and the author withholds information, meaning that the reader has to be pretty dedicated to slog through this part. Palmer then resorts to the 16th century and the Marquis de Sade to sharpen things up. The result is pretty messy, with inconsistencies in both the content and presentation. For example, Mycroft makes up excuses to describe gender and use gender pronouns, and unless there’s genetic engineering we’ve not seen yet, there are supernatural powers afoot. The world-building addresses the general organization and the houses of the powerful, but it ends up resorting to the past for specifics, i.e. ancient Rome and Paris. There’s a big emphasis on transit, but no clear indication of how this economy functions or how the government works or the common people live. The novel just stops; there’s no resolution.

The big pro for this book is the effort Palmer has put into the projections and world-building. It’s something missing from almost all the SF on the market these days, as writers tend to be overwhelmed by the rate of social and technological change and just roll belly-up. Regardless of the inconsistencies, the author has put together a reasonable sketch of how unrecognizable our world might be in 400 years. I guess that means it takes a social scientist to chart the change.

I can’t say much about the plot or action line as this has hardly started to develop by the end of the novel. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Clarkesworld Magazine in April 2016.

Aliens have arrived. The people of Earth can tell because pearly domes have appeared out of nowhere. The domes sit there for a while, and then open to release translators, apparently abducted children, who assure the authorities that the aliens don’t want anything. Avery is a driver who gets a call from her boss asking if she will drive an alien and his translator from D.C. to St. Louis on a converted tour bus. She takes the job and picks the two of them up. There’s no rush, so she takes the scenic route, stopping here and there and getting to know Lionel, the translator. He’s strange, as is his connection with the alien. When the alien turns out to be dying, they make a stop at a cemetery outside St. Louis.

On the pro side, this story is really science fiction, as it wouldn’t work if the alien wasn’t there. Plus, it’s thoughtful and absorbing. This is a real alien, not some anthropomorphic creature that’s sort of like humans, and its alien quality leaves Avery investigating the very nature of consciousness. The story moves smoothly through the Eastern US, trailing men in black, and ends with an interesting twist.

On the con side, the characters don’t quite ring true. We meet Avery’s brother at the beginning, but he doesn’t give me the impression of Avery that her bio later reveals. For that matter, Avery as revealed by her thoughts and actions doesn’t match the bio. Gilman’s effort for an emotional outpouring at the end doesn’t quite ring true for me, and I don’t see any motivation for Avery’s final decision. This is also a bit low on description—I ended up without much idea of what Avery looks like, for example, or the layout of the bus. Regardless of these drawbacks, I like this one because of the central question about consciousness.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Tor.com in July 2016.

Emily Starr works as the housekeeping supervisor at the Edison Star hotel, near Heathrow Airport. Rooms at the hotel have been booked for astronauts of the upcoming Mars mission, which has caused extra work. Her boss is Benny Conway, who came from Africa years ago with nothing but is now manager of the hotel. Her mother is Moolie, a retired metallurgist suffering from dementia related to a hazardous materials investigation. Emily’s favorite book is The Art of Space Travel, a book with star maps that has always been in the house. Moolie alternately tells Emily she doesn’t know who Emily’s father was, that the book was his, and that he was a member of the dead New Dawn crew, or maybe he wasn’t. It’s a mystery that Emily wants to track down. When Moolie has a health crisis, she gets a final clue.

Pros: This is very well-written, heart-warming fiction about the near future. Emily narrates, moving from her childhood need for a father to concerns related to Moolie’s illness, to concerns about management at the hotel in the press glare following the astronauts. She tells us about Benny, about the neighborhood where she lives, about Moolie’s moods and conflicting stories, and about preparations for the Mars crew’s stay at the hotel.

Cons: Although this is technically science fiction, the science is tangential. It’s basically a character-driven story using the Mars mission as a pretext, and it would work just as well without that. Nothing really happens here except Emily’s quest, and it’s fairly clear early in the story who Emily’s father is.

This is masquerading as science fiction, but I have to give it extra points for the quality of the work. It’s very absorbing.

Four and a half stars.

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