Tag Archives: science fiction and fantasy

Analyzing the Wired article on the Hugo awards, Part Three

Today let’s take a look at slant in the Wired article on the Hugo awards. In Part One, I used a word frequency analysis to show gender bias, and in Part Two, I challenged the claim that the Hugo awards are about identity politics.

Today I’ll look at the way the Wired article is slanted in favor of some sub-genres and against others. This is a common error: many readers and reviewers have an unconscious hierarchy, and if a work doesn’t match up to the expectations of a favored sub-genre, then they consider the work itself to be inferior. People often do this without even noticing sub-genres exist.

What are the sub-genres? Here’s one list: contemporary fantasy, court intrigue, cyberpunk, epic fantasy, hard sci fi, military sci fi, parallel/alternate universe sci fi, science fantasy, space opera, quest fantasy, time travel, and urban fantasy.

And the hierarchy? Going by what I’ve heard many people say, it starts off with hard sci fi, space opera, military sci fi, cyberpunk, and then everything else. I’ve often heard it said that you can’t write sci fi unless you get the science right.

I don’t give a crap about the hierarchy. Personally, I prefer science fantasy, contemporary and urban fantasy, time travel, and space opera — but I’ll read anything that strikes my fancy. I also understand that even if I don’t like a work, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

The Wired article does have an unacknowledged hierarchy. Most obviously, as I mentioned yesterday, it keeps forgetting the Hugo awards include fantasy. I’ll repeat the quote here:

[T]he balloting had become a referendum on the future of the genre. Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?

Meanwhile, according to the article, the genre has Gods, and they are:

Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, and Robert A. Heinlein.

These are all highly influential authors from a certain era, often called “The Golden Age” of science fiction. Here’s a look at the sub-genres they wrote in:

  • Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) wrote hard sci fi. His Robot series introduced robots with a self-contained system of rules that was intended to protect humans, and then broke it. His Foundation series reached forward into the far future and chronicled a dying empire.
  • Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) wrote hard sci fi, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, a far-future novel with spaceships, AI, and powerful aliens.
  • Harlan Ellison (1934-present) writes in a variety of genres including speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy.
  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote postmodern, philosophical works that often included authoritarian governments and altered states of consciousness.
  • Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) wrote a wide variety of sci fi on a great number of themes, from rockets to free love to libertarian governments.

According to the Wired article, those sub-genres represent the pinnacle of SF/F in the past. Which sub-genres might it propose for the present and the future?

Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?

Does this “broader sci-fi” fit into any of the categories I listed earlier? No, it does not. Let’s add a new one: feminist sci fi. It’s not a sub-genre unto itself, though. It always intersects with another one. For example, I never sit down and say, “Okay! Today I’m going to write feminist sci fi!” No, I say, “Today I’m going to write about time travel and clones!” And it’s feminist because I have a feminist world view.

Feminist sci fi isn’t some upstart newcomer, by the way. The first feminist sci fi was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. It’s about creating human life outside  the womb, and it’s about prejudice and “othering.” Oh yeah, and that new life has feelings.

The above quotation refers to feminist sci fi but follows the lead of the Sad Puppies in omitting the word “feminist.” And it follows the lead of the Sad Puppies in failing to acknowledge that feminist sci fi could be about anything other than feminism. Finally, it denigrates feminist sci fi in subtle ways, by repeating what the Sad Puppies have said without providing any counterarguments.

For example:

But from the start, Correia had some serious complaints. He felt that the Hugos had become overly dominated by what he and others call “Social Justice Warriors,” who value politics over plot development. Particular targets of Puppy derision include . . . Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, whose protagonists do not see gender. Leckie conveys this by using female pronouns throughout.

Wow, an entire novel just about female pronouns, that values the politics of female pronouns over plot development? Actually, no. Ancillary Justice is an exploration of a far-future empire, following in the footsteps of Asimov’s Foundation series. And it’s about human-AI-machine hybrids. The genre here is not SJW politics but hard sci fi. The female pronouns? I’ve read so much feminist sci fi that I barely noticed them.

The article goes on to quote Sad Puppy leader Torgersen as saying:

“they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

The author doesn’t question the assertion that quality goes out the window. Nor does she counter a quote it gives from a Puppy supporter at Sasquan as saying some science fiction has a certain academic torpor and is self-indulgent and unreadable. That amounts to tacit approval of a Puppy view of literature.

To sum up, the hierarchy of genres in this article has hard sci fi at the top and feminist science fiction and literary fiction and fantasy at the bottom.

That’s quite a slant.

design by david ngo at http://www.ngocrump.com/

design by david ngo at http://www.ngocrump.com/

Analyzing the Wired Article on the Hugo Awards, Part Two

Yesterday I kicked off an analysis of the Wired article “Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters” with a word frequency analysis. It’s ironic that an article covering a struggle over diversity in science fiction would focus so heavily on men. Here are a few of the findings:

  • The pronoun “he” was used 74 times, and the pronoun “she” only 16.
  • The nouns that were mentioned 20 or more times were, in order of frequency, Puppies, people, Beale, and Hugo.
  • Mentions of male authors greatly outnumbered mentions of female authors.
  • Mentions of white authors greatly outnumbered mentions of people of color.
  • The list of people who had won Hugos that appeared at the beginning of the article included only white men. Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Connie Willis–women and people of color who have also won Hugos–had to wait until the very end, after the leaders of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, people who gave up Hugo nominations, Pancho Villa, MC Escher, Darth Vader, Churchill, FDR, and Stalin.

This isn’t unusual. This is same-old, same-old, an everyday erasure of diverse voices. It’s the sort of thing that happens when a journalist goes with the flow in the midst of a backlash. Worth pointing out, but let’s move on. I have two more interesting erasures to look at.

Here’s an obvious one that I bet most everybody missed.

[T]he balloting had become a referendum on the future of the genre. Would sci-fi focus, as it has for much of its history, largely on brave white male engineers with ray guns fighting either a) hideous aliens or b) hideous governments who don’t want them to mine asteroids in space? Or would it continue its embrace of a broader sci-fi: stories about non-traditionally gendered explorers and post-singularity, post-ethnic characters who are sometimes not men and often even have feelings?

There’s a word missing here, and that word is fantasy. The Hugo awards are for science fiction and fantasy. So this article that is supposedly about the future of the genre has left out half.

Oops.

What else has been left out? Well, let’s look at the choice given in the paragraph I just quoted. It’s between white men with ray guns fighting aliens and mean governments and stories about diverse characters with feelings.

This is really just a fancy rephrasing of the Sad and Rabid Puppies claims that anything with diversity is just about identity politics.

No way, nohow.

Believe it or not, authors who include diverse characters also include diverse plots and new ideas. Feelings are only one aspect of a genre that is constantly pushing boundaries, always going bravely “where no one has gone before.”

Just off the top of my head . . .

  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein asks us: what happens when human beings use science to play God?
  • Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower gives us a possible vision of life-after-apocalypse, and her trilogy Lilith’s Brood explores not only the complexities of interspecies mating but also the way they’re affected by a differential of power.
  • Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed shows us a vision of a post-capitalist world and then questions her own utopia.
  • Amy Thompson’s The Color of Distance dives into the hard science of ecosystems.
  • Nnedi Okorafor’s book of short stories Kabu-Kabu invites us to jump into a taxicab driven by a magical madman and then cheats us of the kind of endings we have been conditioned to expect.
  • Molly Gloss’ Dazzle of Day gives us a spaceship with plausible physics — one that didn’t break the speed of light.
  • Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren presents an apocalypse that breaks time and space, with a book that breaks the genre.

I would suggest that anybody who reads books like these and sees only identity politics is missing out. These books represent an ever broadening horizon of new life, new civilizations, and new ideas.(1) They help us understand the world in a different way, see possible consequences of new technologies, look at different options for the running of human society. In short, they’re the future of science fiction and fantasy.

Which is what the Wired article was supposed to be about, after all.

By Robbert van der Steeg (originally posted to Flickr as Eternal clock), via Wikimedia Commons

By Robbert van der Steeg (originally posted to Flickr as Eternal clock), via Wikimedia Commons

Notes:

1. You might be asking, “But what about the menz? Are you saying they can’t have diverse plots and fresh ideas?” On the contrary: white male authors moved beyond ray guns decades ago.  I just finished rereading Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber and gorged myself on the setting, which was so vivid it turned into one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve ever met. Short of Robert Holdstock’s worlds, that is. Meanwhile, China Mieville gets an A+ for the antihero in UnLunDun. And I will never look at parasites the same way again, after devouring Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps. Don’t even get me started on what Steven Moffat and Neil Gaiman did for Doctor Who. And then there’s George Orwell, whose dystopia 1984 is one of my three favorites.