My ounce of bile: Yarn is cowardly.
TL;DR: I have an opinion on the Hugos/Sad Puppies thing, people who cry out ‘we just wanna write good old fashioned entertainin’ yarns!’, and the state of Science Fiction as a genre.
For context if you didn’t know (and wow, are YOU out of the loop), a bunch of people hijacked one of the Science Fiction fandom’s premier awards, the Hugos, with a voting slate to dominate as many categories as possible. Why? Because, in the words of Brad Torgerson, one of the organizers for this round of things:
“Largely because of the nomination and voting tendencies of World Science Fiction Convention, with its “fandom” community. In the last decade we’ve seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works. Some of these literary pieces barely have any science fictional or fantastic content in them. Likewise, we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.”
Better minds than I have torn this to shreds — and it’s telling that where the slate really took off, with minor modifications, was in the hands of a guy who got kicked out of SFWA for using SFWA’s official twitter account to publicise racist epithets directed at another author.
That’s all fine. People are allowed to be bigots — its their right as human beings, and its everyone else’s right to be thoroughly disapproving.
Here’s the thing. These guys (and a very, very few women) are all screaming, defensively, that they’re writing good old fashioned YARNS. Entertaining STORIES. Books with rocket ships on the covers instead of that inconvenient new-fangled social commentary. And they point at luminaries like Heinlein, and Asimov, and all those golden age authors.
Heinlein who was talking about contemperaneous issues like the cold war, the morality of total warfare, free love, the impact of new and changing technology and the need for retaining simple skills (such as the much loved slide rule), and was a man who spoke very much to the issues of his time. Asimov who attacked major issues of his lifetime like eugenics and social engineering through his work (what, you think Foundation’s psychohistory has nothing to say about the pursuit of social purity?), wrapping up issues of perception and belief and creation in rip-roaring stories.
These men were not writing yarns. They were products of their time, attacking the issues of their time. That they did so skilfully, entertainingly, and thought-provokingly is testament to their genius. They were not saints, their opinions are not sacrosanct, they, like any other person, held opinions agreeable and disagreeable.
You know who else wasn’t just spinning yarns? Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game is fundamentally about the boundary between being a soldier and a human being. It’s implicitly about genocide, about hands on the big red button, about the ignorance required to perform such a terrible action and remain innocent. It was originally a short story written in 1977, in the middle of the cold war, and rewritten as a novel by 1985, just as the cold war got terrifying all over again. Attacking the issues of his day, OSC put together a masterpiece. And then, quite honestly, he started looking at his personal bugbears instead of the wider world, and never did anything so good again in his life. That’s when he started writing yarns.
Fiction isn’t about entertainment. It never has been. From the earliest stories we’ve told ourselves, the myths that grew into religions, Aesop’s fables, the fairy-tales you were told as a child, they’ve all been about communication. Discussion. Opening a dialogue. They are vehicles for exploring, and thinking about, the world. This is all fiction, not just science fiction.
The three little pigs and the wolf are all there to make us flirt with the sad reality that the world is a dangerous place, confront the idea that preparation and hard labour provide safety where idleness and thrift get your house blown down on your head. Cinderella’s about love lost and won, every prince charming and his princess is a yearning for a romantic love so pure that none of us can credit its truth beyond our first (or possibly second) kiss. Creation myths engage with our deep-set paranoias and curiosities — every day we confront the horizon of our futures, beyond which we cannot see, but the past, beyond our birth, beyond the creation of all we can see and touch, is a far more powerful mystery simply because we can never touch it.
These are not mere yarns. They are the fabric of who we are. Pursuing ‘yarns’, pursuing entertainment at the exclusion of the ‘literary’ is fundamentally impossible. The ‘literary’ is our engagement with what we believe, what we see, what we feel. A story that dips its toes nowhere near these waters is a failure.
The truth is, the cry to write ‘yarns’ is really the cry to write ‘fiction that doesn’t upset my worldview’. When someone from America uses the term ‘state’s rights’, what they truly mean is ‘one law for you, one law for me.’ What they meant at the time of the civil war was ‘my law says human beings remain my property’, what they mean today is ‘my law says that only my ethics need be considered’. Pursuing the writing of ‘yarns’ is just a cowardly way of saying that you have nothing to say, and you resent the implication that you should have the conviction to believe the words that come out of your own mouth.
The stories put forward for the Sad Puppies slate are, generally, using the same ‘literary’ content they scoff at to promote and examine a world view far, far out of step with the one the rest of us live in. Women must seek fulfilment as part of a nuclear family even against great odds (like being a brain in a vat because Obamacare means everyone should get the same, shitty, medical care), faith is super-duper important, men — especially soldiers — must sacrifice themselves for the greater good, the intrinsic value of good ol’ fashioned humanity and the bible trumps humans who sully themselves with technology and future-morals every time.
These are the ‘yarns’, the entertainment over literary, the utterly non-ideological stories which must, surely, trump all this garbage about gay people and gender issues and, god forbid, social justice.
Ouroboros takes its tail in its mouth, and its own shit provides the nourishing meal that drives this snake into the glorious future of science fiction.
Science fiction, right now, is stagnant. They’re right about that.
Science fiction has always trailed after wider society, and like any society in turmoil, the walls are up and the portcullises down. In an ideological war like that taking place right now — SJW against GamerGater/Puppy/Whoever, Gay Rights versus Religious Right — everyone gets the hell off the fence and backs away into their corner, fearful of being pushed out into the cold wilderness.
Legitimately, I think, there is a very hard skew left in the professional science fiction markets right now. Women, minorities, they’re all there — horribly underrepresented by an absolute count, horribly overrepresented by comparison with the no-girls-around boy’s clubhouse of a few decades ago — and as a white guy, I can’t say it’s not intimidating. Women, people of colour, LGBT folk — they all have these deeply personal issues to express and discuss on the page. They all have this viewpoint shaped by the way in which they interact with society, or society interacts with them, and strong voices to talk about it, to discuss it, to chew over the issues in their fiction. What the hell do I, or any white guy, have to say about the masculine condition that could stack up against that?
Quite a fucking lot, actually. My first pro sale, Pavlov’s House, is all about what it is to be forced into the ‘masculine’ condition society attempts to condemn us to — willing warriors for the political right, emotionally closed and repressed, unable or unwilling to confront the consequences of our actions by instead tarring over it with ‘I know better’.
And you know what? It sold. It sold, in a short fiction market which the yarn-spinners would have you believe is closed to an examination of the masculine, which is closed to any ideology that has any relevance to straight white guys. Because the only ideology straight white guys care about is xenophobic us-versus-them space battles where a thousand aliens are gunned down in the name of righteous war!
Fuck that shit. The world’s changing, I want to know what place I have in it. Am I privileged for the colour of my skin, the shape of my genitals, and what I choose to use them for? Am I condemned for the same? Is the world I live in more beautiful, more complex, more faceted if it’s one with many different kinds of people with different opinions? Am I worthless if I, suddenly, am the one who is different from everyone else? Or am I suddenly worth a whole lot more because I get to be part of a tapestry, instead of a sheet thrown over everything else? There are a lot of personal ideological issues in ‘new’ SF for the straight white guy to explore.
There isn’t much room on the fences, it’s true — it doesn’t feel like there’s much room to fail.
The process of changing an opinion, of discovering a new one, is a long and tangled road of missteps and misunderstandings. You put your foot in your mouth and you say something stupid, and you learn how stupid it was, and you say something marginally less stupid next time, and you spin the wheel for another game until you’ve got it at least partially right. You sit back and you listen to others, you discuss, you participate. You fail and you succeed.
It is hard, very hard, to fail these days. Especially in public. Both socially — expressing opinions disliked or disagreed with and you’ll discover the hate mobs are incredible on both sides of the fence — and artistically.
Back in the old days, the days those yarn-spinners long for, the pulps were a thing to be admired. They want to claim it’s because the pulps, which I doubt many of them have ever read if they’re under sixty-five years of age, somehow represent a purer and more wholesome, entertainment-focussed style of writing.
The pulps were cheap, and paid badly. They didn’t matter, so failure didn’t matter. It was possible to sell a shitty story and have it read on the same merits as the stories of your heroes — it was possible for a young Robert E. Howard to sling his words down alongside H.P. Lovecraft and not get laughed out of town. There’s nowhere I know of like that these days — every editor is under intense pressure to find and publish the best of the best, and their every selection is under astonishing scrutiny from all sides of our nascent little culture war.
There’s very little room left for writers to be shit. There’s very little room left for fresh, nascent ideologies in our fiction to blossom and grow. Either they hove close enough to one of the established viewpoints or they risk being overlooked as something small and quirky and irrelevant. Writers aren’t talking about what makes the best kind of story, or what kinds of questions are worth asking in their fiction — they talk about who’s selling and why, the politics of self-pub, the ideological war, who’s been trolling who, who said a bad thing about someone else, who’s messing up the awards, what the awards even mean.
I sing the praises of the furry fandom here and there, and this is why: I don’t feel like failure if I fail among my peers there. Furries are weird, we’re rapidly conditioned to be accepting of weird. Erotic fiction about animal people getting it on with walking talking airplanes? … Why not, right? A cooperative writing project stretching decades back that amounts to nothing more than glorified TaleSpin fanfic? Yeah, we’ll do that. What we won’t do, most of the time, is go out of our way to shame each other. Someone’s into dobermans in Nazi uniforms? Cool, I guess, the whips aren’t for me, but I won’t say it’s not ‘furry’, I won’t say it’s not worth something to somebody. A version of Horatio Hornblower in space, but… everyone’s a rabbit? A little closer to my kind of thing, but no less weird to some people!
Okay, so, a story about a space ship, but the space ship doesn’t understand gendered language and calls everyone ‘she’? A book where bug-hunting alien-killing marines successfully convert the alien hive-queen to God’s light? Ideoligical Left/Right-ism! It’s only for SJWs/Bigots! You should be ASHAMED of yourself!
(Ancillary Justice — won the Hugo last year — and The Chaplain’s War, up for one this year, for those of you keeping score at home.)
People often say that the future of genre writing belongs to the fandoms. They used to say it belonged to the cyberpunks — and the reason is this: The cyberpunks broke out of the echo-chamber of the time. They pulled in influences from every direction they could reach, they grabbed literary techniques from hardboiled mysteries and drugged out poets, they figured out new questions to ask and new ways to tell stories and they pushed the boundaries flat to try and make a new, broader horizon. They were willing to fail, to try uncomfortable things, to push.
It’s hard, for everyone, to push right now. There are a lot of uncomfortable things going on. Trying to figure out what I have to say artistically as a ‘straight white male’, instead of whoever I thought I was before I realized there was an unwelcoming label on my identity, is its own unique challenge and I cannot fathom what kind of challenge it must be to those with labels less explored and less understood and far less welcomed by the mainstream.
Saying the same old thing is safe, especially professionally. Saying something new is threatening and fraught with risk — and I feel so much more comfortable keeping it within the safe space of my fandom. I think that’s going to be true for a lot of writers out there with one foot in the professional sphere and one foot in fandom, be it something like furry or one of the various show fandoms, or something else I haven’t encountered — just some relatively small group of mutually supportive people who it’s safe to fail around, safe to push the boundaries with. And it’s us, those of us who have a safe space to learn what we want to say — a safe space to fail and say it wrong over and over until we say it right — who bear a kind of responsibility to bring that new-developed wisdom out into the wider world and add it to the much larger discussion society and SF/F as a whole is having.
We need to be brave enough to say something at least a little new. We need to tell stories, not ‘yarns’.
(Factual mea culpa — The Chaplain’s War was put forward on the Rabid Puppy Slate, and was authored by Brad Torgerson, who spearheaded the Sad Puppy slate. It did not actually get put up for a Hugo this year. Total error on my part, though I do feel it adequately represents the kind of material being floated as appropriate for the Hugos.)