On Our Responsibility to Futures Past

I moved homes recently, and the most painful part of the process was, as it would be for any other bibliopath, deciding which books to keep and which to sell. I had built up a substantial collection over the years, maybe not as extensive as some collectors but still impressive, and I had to decide which books had the most merit, the most re-readability value, and the ones I had the greatest personal attachment with in order to makethese difficult decisions. Like many others, I have strong memories related to my first reading of a particular book-Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales From Planet Earth while on the shores of a beach in North Carolina, Ben Bova’s Mars while atop the massive red boulders of Ontario’s Killarney National Park-that makes me treasure the joys of returning to them even more.  Ultimately, after making my decisions, about 75% of the books in my collection-a large number of them duplicate copies-were sent to a charity book sale while those nearest and dearest to me remained on my shelves. A difficult task, as unfair as asking a parent to choose between their children (OK, I exaggerate a little), but a necessary one.

Even as I gave up part of my collection, I did not dispose of it; I made sure those books would be given a home elsewhere, so someone else could share in the joys of reading and re-reading them. My greatest hope is that those books continue to be passed on and be enjoyed by future readers, but surveying where fandom is headed, I am cautiously pessimistic. I am not speaking of the unwillingness to read books unless they appear on a Tablet or a similar electronic device; I am speaking of the lack of interest in and outright lack of respect for writers and books of eras past by the current generation of so-called science fiction fans. A particularly infuriating piece on The Daily Dot (found courtesy of Gregory Benford) sums up this at-once contemptuous and contemptible attitude quite well, providing a telling look at how a combination of cultural illiteracy, youthful arrogance and political correctness is poisoning the science fiction community. The author drips with sneering condescension towards the “old-timers” making up the guests and attendants at WorldCon, the leading literary science fiction convention (where the Hugos are awarded each year), attacking them for unspecified “offensive” comments they made at panels (none are actually given) and generally being “out of touch” with not just current fandom  but for their “exclusionary” behaviour and attitudes. Since the author further doesn’t name any targets of her derision other than Robert Silverberg, whose progressive and liberal bonafides are impeccable, I seriously doubt the accuracy of her reporting, something borne out by the article comments refuting her version of events.

From this wholesale trashing of Worldcon, the author then proceeds to a rose-eyed, insufferably gooey praise of the Nine Worlds convention, which she squees over for its allegedly “inclusionary” policies where people can freely discuss sexism and racism (as long as, obviously, you have the right opinion on such matters), and attendants can wear colour-coded lapel clips to signal whether or not they want to socialize (“Green means yes,  Red means go away”). The author obviously regards this as a Great Leap Forward (Maoist reference made without irony), but for anyone who has ever seen conventions as an excuse to socialize and meet people with similar interests in the first place, it’s a depressing regression, reminiscent of dystopian science fiction stories where social interactions are controlled and regulated by government fiat out of a misguided benevolence. I hope neither the author nor any of the other people at Nine Worlds ever reads Silverberg’s The World Inside, lest they suffer massive emotional and psychological trauma.

Most annoying of all is the way the author thinks she and fellow fans of the media branches of science fiction-TV, movies, games, anime, even comic books to an extent- are somehow being “oppressed” and “marginalized” by the old guard at WorldCon. How dare a convention originally founded to honor the best and brightest in print science fiction continue to give primacy to the written word! Indeed, why shouldn’t it, when the majority of conventions now cater not to science fiction readers but consumers of media instead? Why can’t there be even one convention left that remains dedicated to the literary faction of fandom, is focused specifically on science fiction instead of fantasy, and reminds attendants of the rich history of the genre instead of catering to the trendy and faddish and reinforcing for younger attendants what they already know and are continually exposed to? If the author wants to know what exclusion what really is, try being a fan of written science fiction other than Neal Stephenson or Tolkien (authors she name-drops who, along with Douglas Adams, happen to be the favorite writers of readers who don’t like science fiction), or a fan of classic movies (meaning: before Star Wars) and TV at the type of allegedly “inclusive” convention she drools over.

Her attitudes are not anomalous, I regret to say. Much as classic film lovers find themselves frustrated in trying to persuade a younger generation to appreciate the cinema of years past, so to do those of us who grew up reading science fiction find themselves vexed by the current fracturing of the genre, and trying to make the case for the primacy of books and the importance of retaining its literary heritage.  Instead, younger audiences seem to think that the science fiction of years past is only good for mockery at best, outright contempt at worst.  The importance of the so-called “Sad Puppies” campaign to get fans to nominate the Hugos on the basis of literary merit and entertainment value rather than political dogma or author identity lies not just in its push back against the toxic leftism that has infected the field, but in its attempt to reclaim the past. At the very core of the campaign is a revival of the classical values of the science fiction community, where science and fiction alike were equally important and respected, which embraced the free discussion of ideas and where not only was literary merit more important than politics, so was the cohesiveness and friendship that existed within the community. That Harlan Ellison and Jerry Pournelle, two writers so diametrically opposed in politics and well known for their great intellects and short tempers, could remain friends for so long even during the most divisive and turbulent of times, is a testament to this and an example for the rest of us to follow.  Beyond trying to rehabilitate the current state of the field, I also urge the Sad Puppies to do the same for the past as well. Keep alive not just the values of old-time science fiction, but the old-time science fiction stories themselves. Defend them against those who would censor them for not complying with contemporary progressive dogma and mores, and encourage them to be read. If science fiction is to have a bright tomorrow, it cannot extinguish the lights of its past.

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