The World Is at Stake: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Internet Activism, and Reverberations in the Hyperbolic Chamber
by Saumya Arya Haas
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
(Translation: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”)
– Bad Latin / necessary advice from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
As a long-time Science Fiction/Fantasy (SF/F) fan, I’ve been following the controversy over this year’s Hugo Awards. Two activist groups calling themselves the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies feel that, in recent years, this prestigious SF/F award has wrongly honored more “literary” books, often by women and minority writers, which feature liberal social themes over “traditional” writers, styles, and themes. They organized a response. According to Slate:
As usual, the [Hugo Award] finalists were determined by ballot; any member of the 2014, 2015, or 2016 WorldCons (that is, any fan who shelled out the requisite $40 to sign up for one of those conventions) could vote. And yet the names and works that rose to the top provoked a tsunami of controversy. That’s because a group of rightwing activists managed to game the selection process, proposing a fixed slate of nominees and feverishly promoting it. Since small margins are sufficient to secure Hugo nods, what emerged was what many are calling a strange, ideologically driven, and unrepresentative sample of fiction.
The Puppy activist groups are outraged, and they are doing something about it. To many people, myself included, their outrage is cause for outrage. I mean, really? It’s not as if straight, cis, white men have stopped winning Hugo Awards; the awards have simply become more inclusive of women and minority work and books with liberal social themes. As a geeky minority woman who wants to read diverse stories, I feel that this is a good thing. Being angry about, and fighting against, representative diversity is ridiculous. But it’s real, troubling, and in some ways, it’s working.
When women, minorities, LGBT folks, etc. express their outrage over being marginalized, many of the dominant (“mainstream” or majority) groups feel that our outrage is outrageous. Furious debate has ensued, playing out in many arenas. Rightwing groups like the Puppies have a name for people who support diversity: SJWs: Social Justice Warriors. This is not intended as a compliment. I should know: I have been granted a SJW ranking of 33,000 on Twitter; I have no idea what this indicates, besides that someone took the time to assess my tweets for mentions of “culture, racism, gender, rape, and transgender” issues.
I try to first believe someone’s truth and think critically afterwards. The gap between my reading about the Hugo Awards controversy and my outrage was about this long -. I immediately began posting my opinion all over social media. I followed people who shared my opinion. I retweeted. I got a few rude responses from Puppy supporters, which I ignored. They were not engaging me in debate, they were expressing their outrage at my outrage at their outrage at… you get it. As this issue has gone on, voices and stakes on both sides are raised. Critical blogs are posted; angry responses to said blogs are posted minutes later; rabid responses to the responses of said blogs…you get it. Now and then, someone cracks a joke; half of us laugh and the other fumes, feeling mocked. Angry responses to the joke are posted, and so on. So it goes. The hyperbolic chamber.
I love social media. It helps me connect to people around the world who share my concerns. It helps me hear other opinions. As a minority woman living on a little farm in the Midwest, it helps me form community that is as authentic as any community I have ever been a part of. As a writer, it gives me an audience that was very difficult to find twenty years ago. Most of all, it has confirmed my outrage when I felt alone with it. I’m not arguing against the internet, social media, or outrage. I’m just saying…be cautious. Be outraged (the world is outrageous), but be cautious. I try to decide where I put my energy, and I’m pretty good at it, but the internet sucks me in. On this issue, on many issues, it’s not surprising.
I admire people who are able to react thoughtfully and reasonably. There are some sharp but smart responses to the controversy. Twitter user @AidenRWalsh researched the history of Hugo Award winners, and came up with this graphic.
Of course you can find graphics like this in articles written for high-quality media sites that are covering this issue, but I am interested that someone decided to take the time to do their own research and present it as a perspective in this debate. I find @AidenRWalsh’s graphic a fantastic and useful response: cool numbers in the face of heated rhetoric.
Seeing this information baldly illustrated via graph just made me more outraged. 72% of Hugo Awards to men. Seventy-two percent, and the Puppies howl that men are being disenfranchised. What percentage would be considered fair?
This is not about a literary award.
SF/F was my first reading genre. My mother, a writer and teacher, introduced me to Stoker and Verne and (Mary) Shelley. My father, a Hindu priest and philosopher, introduced me to Asimov and Clarke, L‘Engle and McCaffery, Tolkien and Star Trek and superhero comics. I read the classics when I was too young to understand them. My parents taught me to be a critical reader and viewer. They pointed out themes that resonated with our tradition, and explained what resonated with other traditions. They identified the paucity of women, the coded or outright racism, the drumming in of Eurocentric white male perspective. When I raved about Lord of the Rings with all its different races, my dad gently asked me to re-read the section describing evil Easterlings and Southrons/Haradrim (dark-skinned, black-skinned, primitive, wearing bright colors and lots of gold, riding elephant-like creatures, and obviously coming from the Eastern and Southern parts of the world). “Which cultures do those sound like?” I started to notice that characters described as “swarthy” were inevitably villainous. The trope of the swarthy-skinned villain is so pervasive in classic SF/F that it’s become shorthand my brother and I use to describe works that are a good read but fall into racist themes. “How is it?” he’ll ask about something I’m reading. My reply: “Swarthy.”
I was mad at my dad. Why did he give me this stuff to read, wait for me to enjoy it, then tell me it was racist, sexist, and horrible? How could I enjoy it? Because I did, and I do, enjoy these books. My ambivalence about enjoying racist, sexist books and films (see: Blade Runner) is an article for another day. The short version: I fell in love with flawed works; for years there were few other options. I’m grateful that that is (sloooowly) changing. As a very young girl, I read A Wrinkle in Time, and was delighted that the protagonist was a girl. I remember reading Andre Norton’s Lavender Green Magic and realizing that the kids in the book were African-American. I was stunned: there are black kids in this book! Lavender Green Magic dealt with prejudice that was familiar to me as a brown-skinned American. These books gave me something that I had not had before: SF/F heroines, and adventurers of Color. I needed them. In finding them, I realized that despite being 50% of the population, women were a minority of writers (it’s worth noting that “Andre Norton” is a male pen name used by Alice Norton; today, the male pen name has been largely replaced by gender-neutral initials, as in the case of J.K. Rowling). As characters, women were usually a nice pair of tits with either (a)a rescue/vengeance mission, (b) a sex scene, and/or (c)an expository device attached to them. (C) was my least favorite: a male character mansplaining pertinent facts about the setting to a female character (who clearly lives in that setting), for the benefit of the reader. Augh! Come ON.
This is the source of my outrage: Women and minorities have been here, part of this (literal and literary) culture, all along, but when people who look like us are included as characters in books, the portrayal is too often limited, unimaginative, and problematic. My favorite example of this is the Fantastic Four. Hey, there’s a woman in this superhero group! What’s her power? She’s invisible!
For every Wonder Woman, there are a dozen literarily and literally invisible, neglected, and/or caricatured women (see: Black Widow). The limited and unimaginative portrayals of women are as aggravating to me as the “problematic.” We are a creative species, and in a genre that is wide open for creativity, we can do better. We are doing better (in some mediums, in some cases).
We have to write our own stories. Yes, a straight, cis, white man can write diverse and complex characters who happen to be women, or gay, or whatever. That’s why we write, to explore possibility. But there are women, minority, and LGBT authors who also read and write stories…who have been reading and writing and struggling to be included and acknowledged in every genre all along. It is outrageous that as we gain any percentage of recognitions that that recognition is seen as taking away from so-called “traditional” authors and tales. This battle over a literary award is a reflection and refraction of the difficulties we face every day as a culture, and as groups within that culture. Women and minority voices need their signal boosted, not cut off. There are plenty of visible straight, cis, white male authors and heroes in real life, literature, TVs, and movies. They are not fading into oblivion. Look around you. Guys are still, for the most part, running the world.
Without diverse voices, and recognition of those voices, our culture and our literary traditions become their own hyperbolic chambers, amplifying certain perspectives to the exclusion of all else. It has taken our outrage to fuel us this far; being met with a wall of contrasting outrage is not going to push us into invisibility or silence. I feel that is the heart of the Puppies’ rage: they are losing power, and they know it. They might be able to manipulate a literary award, but controlling perspectives in the real world is more of a challenge; the strain is starting to show.
Personal outrage is loud: it makes its own noise that can drown out what we don’t want to hear. Outrage is righteous. Pushback against our outrage further convinces us that there is urgent moral necessity at stake, that we cannot give ground, that our world is at risk.
It is true. As in many SF/F tales, a world is at risk. The world of “tradition,” the world where straight, cis, white guys are the inheritors of the throne, the world where women and minorities have their identities dictated and blunted by a dominant narrative: that world is gravely at risk. It is slow erosion, but it’s real. The Puppies, caught up in the echo chamber of their own fantasies, see themselves as valiant heroes who must save this dying world. They want to control the narrative of the real world by symbolically controlling the narratives of a literary tradition. The world is being remade: by people living their lives out loud, by books, by outrage. We won’t be stuffed back into narrow margins. It must be terrifying to own the whole damn world and then feel it begin to slip away. No wonder they’re sad, and rabid.
We are not outraged about who wins a genre literary award; we are fighting over the world. We are outraged when our meaning comes in conflict with someone else’s meaning and there is a fight to subsume our perspective. We’re outraged because, for many of us, this is not a story about stories. This is the story of our lives. My sympathy with the other side evaporates because there is, very clearly, room for them in the new world we are building. There is room for everyone to have their own place and share their own stories and preserve their own traditions (there is not, however, room for them to impose their narrative on anyone else). Their world, the old world they are struggling to preserve, would grind me down into a minor character written by someone else.
Saumya Arya Haas is an ALB candidate in Religious Studies at Harvard University. She lives with challenges due to a Traumatic Brain Injury. Prior to this life-altering injury, she engaged in interfaith/intergroup dialogue and Social Justice projects, advising organizations such as The New Orleans Healing Center and Hindu American Seva Communities, and has worked with the Parliament of World Religions, The UN World Council of Religious Leaders, and The UN Peace Initiative. Her work has taken her everywhere from West Africa to the White House. She is a contributor at The Huffington Post, State of Formation, and The Good Men Project. Her writing can also be found on various other websites and in print media. Saumya is a priestess of both Hinduism and Vodou.