Sarah Hoyt did a bang-up job highlighting this in one of her recent blog posts. She talked about how she had to constantly watch herself: what she said, who she associated with, what signs she might give the editors or the other authors or even the fans that Sarah was the “wrong” kind of writer. I know what Sarah is talking about, on a very intimate level. Sarah’s not kidding. In fact, she’s almost being too nice about it. The field (of SF/F publishing and fandom) is soaked with fear. Moreso now than — I dare say — at any time in its history.
I think part of it comes from our general societal fear factor. Activists of all stripes have discovered that — through the magic of the internet — even very small fringe groups can make themselves appear more substantial, by crowd-sourcing their efforts and using Alinsky-style tactics to threaten and punish businesses, politicians, public figures, actors, musicians, comedians, writers, you name it. If there is somebody capable of being pissed off at a thing in this world, that somebody is (at this very moment) staging, or preparing to stage, a letter-writing campaign, a boycott, a comment thread mob, a twitter storm, or some other type of harassment designed to shut the target down. Force the target into the defensive posture. Make the target apologize, capitulate, scrape his belly, mewl for forgiveness, etc.
And the sad part is: this usually works. Folks know that behind every activist mob, there is the threat of a) bad publicity and b) a law suit. Folks don’t like either of those things. So if push comes to shove, a targeted business or individual will almost always try to give the plaintiffs what they want. Either in the form of superficial concessions, or worse yet, by converting and flying the plaintiffs’ own flag — See, world? We’ve changed! We’re one of the good guys now! Not like all these other evil people who’ve not seen the light! Forward, comrades!
Nobody is safe. Not in any area of our world. Witness the poor comet probe scientist who was mobbed and shamed into a tearful Soviet-style mea culpa by the so-called feminist activists — who were outraged that he had worn a loud bowling shirt with James Bond style women depicted in the print. Such a shirt would not have caused anyone to bat an eyelash 20 years ago. Now? Now, it’s a hanging offense.
So, what we’re seeing in SF/F isn’t confined to just SF/F. This is a pandemic problem across the culture as a whole.
It’s bleakly ironic, too, because of all the fields that should be fighting this Maoist-flavor “cultural revolution” with tooth-and-nail tenacity, it ought to be SF/F. Aren’t we the dangerous genre? Aren’t we the genre who proudly flaunted tradition and censorship and restrictions, from the pulp era right up to the present? Didn’t we flip the bird at convention, at conformist thinking, and McCarthyist silencing of “wrong” voices?
Alas, SF/F has drunk the fear kool-aid too.
In my short time in the field as a pro, I have been cautioned extensively to not rock the boat, not make people mad, not say the wrong thing, not publish with the wrong people, not associate with the wrong friends, and not make the wrong editors mad at me. Because apparently my every move is under scrutiny. And always was. Even going back to before I hit print.
Anecdote: I got savaged (as a fan!) in the letters column of Scott Edelman’s Science Fiction Weekly for daring to express the opinion that Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica was not, in fact, a racist hell-hole. Even my wife (who has more literal skin in the game than me) said she thought BSG was A-OK. It didn’t matter to the activists. I had expressed “incorrectness” in my push-back against the charges leveled against Moore. And I was treated to a running exchange of sniffy, churlish, haughty barbs and arrows. All because I — then, as a fan — dared to speak up in defense of a program which I felt didn’t deserve the rancor being directed against it.
That was a huge bellwether. A sign of what was to come. It’s been ten years since that particular exchange took place, and though Science Fiction Weekly is sadly no more, the attitudes — the self-assigned police of correctness — have flourished. Gained new sympathizers and megaphones and allies in high places.
Such that, now, the field doesn’t want to be dangerous. It wants to be safe. It wants to be sanitary and clean and properly in tune with whatever it is the police of correctness say it should be in tune with.
You can’t be a free thinker or a free speaker in that environment, without consequences.
Some of those consequences are (as threatened by the soul cops):
● Getting blacklisted at or kicked out of publisher(s).
● Getting blacklisted at or kicked out of convention(s).
● Getting blacklisted by or boycotted by consumer(s).
● Getting targeted and harassed by blog and twitter mobs.
● Having your family or friends harassed by blog and twitter mobs.
● Having your personal details and private info “doxxed” for all the world to see.
● Financial vandalism (if they can get your SS# and bank and credit accounts).
● Workplace jeopardy (they threaten your employer with bad PR — or worse — so your employer lets you go.)
And there are even more dire consequences. If you believe that’s even possible. And it is. But this is the state of fear. This is the gut-level anxiety and panic-inducing leverage that the commissars of correctness levy against you as both a fan, and as a producer of product. If you fail to demonstrate correctness in your words, your actions, and your associations, you are putting yourself on a dunking machine chair. And they are going to hurl all the baseballs they can get their hands on, until you’ve been sufficiently drowned.
This is done for the sake of “inclusivity” or so we are told.
This is done because “safety” is paramount: for people who need the world bubble-wrapped, foam-padded, and child-proofed before they dare step outside their front doors.
This is done because it’s “good manners” and we are told — by people who rejoice in being snide, hostile, smarmy, cutting, critical, peevish, ad hominem assholes — that no decent human being can possibly be opposed to good manners.
Now, maybe I am naive, but 23 years ago (when I first dreamed up the crazy idea to get into this business) I thought the field was a chummy place with overflowing camaraderie. The anecdotes of authors like Larry Niven certainly made it seem so. Worldcon (the World Science Fiction Convention) was touted as the epicenter of all things hip and cool and fun and amazing in the field. And I believe that it once was that, perhaps at a time when people weren’t so obsessed with correctness. When having a difference of opinion was not a sin that got you sent to the social media guillotine.
But that time is over.
This is the oh-so-correct 21st century. Where one of my colleagues can be moved to tears because she is terrified of expressing her Mormon values, lest her friends and peers in our business shun and shame her for not being correct. Where whether or not you can be successful with a publishing house depends on how chameleon-like you can become, in order to reflect back to the editor(s) the ideologies and allegiances those editor(s) want you to reflect. Where “social justice” has become a banner of immunity, justifying outlandish character assassination, baseless slander, and the ruining of reputations. Think I am kidding? Look what happened to Jean Rabe, Barry Malzberg, and Mike Resnick, when they were punished for using phrases like “lady editor” in a column about the history of the field. And those three are veterans of many decades! If they can get carved up like turkeys — by SFWA, the field’s so-called union for professionals — for the tiniest of perceived infractions, what hope is there for a new person?
Again, it’s sickly ironic that our field — the field that ought to be rallying to oppose correctness in any and all enforced forms — has become so thoroughly infested with this mindset.
I am amazed any new people dare attempt to break in at all. I mean, it seemed bad when I was trying to break in, but it’s extra-bad now. Don’t say the wrong thing. Don’t anger the wrong people. Don’t publish with the wrong publishers. Don’t question the bullshit that stinks right in front of your face. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t rattle the cage. And whatever you do, don’t write the wrong stories.
The last is perhaps the most heinous. Don’t write the wrong stories?? Yes, friends, don’t write the wrong stories. For all definitions of “wrong” that include, “Whatever the commissars of correctness feel like making ‘wrong’ this week.”
I keep hoping we’ve reached a tipping point. That the field as a whole has become so strangled by this correctness disease, that people of conscience are standing up and saying, “Enough.” In some ways, that’s what Sad Puppies 3 is about: peeling the field’s top award out of the hands of the commissars of correctness. But really, even if the Hugos tipped into the sea and vanished forever, the fear would remain. As long as new authors have to worry about anything other than perfecting their storytelling craft. No new author should have to be afraid of what might happen if it’s found out (s)he belongs to a given social group, a given political party, a given religion, a given ideology, or have worked with a given professional(s) or publisher(s).
No. New. Author. That fear is a giant red flag. It’s a sign that the field has lost its way in a very dreadful fashion. This field — above almost all others — should never have fear as a front-door component. Either explicitly, or tacitly.
Perhaps all it takes is for people (us folks who are now on the inside, and working) to simply refuse to play the game? Stop caring about the threats? A threat is only effective if it can demoralize you to the point that you act in the way the threateners want you to act. The commissars don’t have to work very hard if all they have to do is burp in your direction, and you run away frightened; or drop to your knees to beg forgiveness.
Many writers simply don’t have the intestinal fiber to face the commissars. Many writers go into writing — and SF/F in particular — because confrontations of this sort are mind-bendingly uncomfortable. They’d rather get a tooth drilled without the benefit of lidocaine. Go face-to-face with loud and obnoxious critics? Nope, nope, nope. It’s too scary. They will ruin your career. You will be shame-shunned. Or is it shun-shamed? Shamey-shunned? The Shameyshunnyshame? Whatever you want to call it, many people will simply keep their heads down and hope they don’t become a target of opportunity.
Many other writers are themselves the threateners, and actively prey on the fear they know permeates the atmosphere. Either because they are true believers in whatever The Cause™ requires, or (very often) because they want to pose as “good guys” who may or may not actually believe the doctrine of the commissars, but it’s important to be seen as a “proper” person who abides all the rules, speaks the correct stuff, and therefore won’t be targeted.
Me? My cohorts in Sad Puppies? We’ve decided that some things are worth the personal risk. We’re done with playing the game. We’re calling out the fear-mongers and we’re saying, “Go to hell, you can’t stop us, because you were never as powerful as you thought you were.”
And it’s true. A lot of this correctness crap is a tissue. A smokescreen. The CHORFs, the Social Justice scolds, the taste-maker poseurs, et al., it’s like an overlapping venn diagram of noxious people. But they rely greatly on all of us being too timid, or too career and reputation-conscious, to risk the blowback. Maybe if I was still a hopeful 18 year old I’d be too spooked to stick my neck out. But I’ve lived too much life to let the commissars have this field uncontested. It’s time to make SF/F live up to its reputation again. As the dangerous field. Yes, dangerous even to — or should I say, especially to? — anyone who tries to use fear and intimidation and exclusion as a tactic. The commissars can’t win if we don’t let them. Enough with making things safe. Spit on your hands. Run up the flags and sails of freedom. Get this ship out of the doldrums of correctness. Put it back onto the high seas where it belongs.