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TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.
Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.
It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.
Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.
The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.
The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.
The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.
The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:
With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20
The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.
This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.
Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?
Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.
The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.
All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.
In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.
Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:
Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337↩
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248↩
3. Page 322↩
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book↩
5. Page 48↩
6. Page 13↩
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.↩
8. Page 331↩
9. Page 35↩
10. Page 43↩
11. Page 24↩
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’↩
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7↩
14. Page 57-8↩
15. Page 89↩
16. Page 90↩
17. Page 94↩
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’↩
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity↩
20. Page 237↩
21. Page 30↩
22. Page 48↩
23. Page 50↩
24. Page 163-174, 339-349↩
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender↩
26. Page 368-9↩
27. Page 66↩
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they↩
29. Page 26↩
30. Both page 138↩
31. Page 143↩
32. Page 299↩
33. Page 139↩
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here↩
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie↩
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus↩
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LonCon3 ended on Monday, after five glorious, busy, action-packed, panel-filled, people-meeting, face-learning, discussion-having days of just geeking out as one more fan among many… but of course, it wasn’t all perfect, and you’d presumably like a little more detail than that!
The con actually, for me, got off to a fairly bad start; between trains here being cancelled or hugely delayed and a broken suitcase, Zoe and I barely made it to the Ritz in time to meet the wonderful Alisa Krasnostein, Julia Rios, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Jenny, Alisa’s mother-in-law, for tea – but we did just about manage it, and am very glad we did; not only were the grown ups wonderful, Alisa’s 9-month-old joined us, and Alisa let me hold and play with her! Discussion freewheeled around all sorts of things, and I got to pick up my copy of Kaleidoscope, with a number of signed stories, directly from the editors, which was pretty damn awesome. After tea it was off to the hotel to unpack, sort ourselves out and crash before registration; which, by the time we got there at around half five, was down to a fine art unless they lost one’s badge. Which they did mine, before providing me with a sharpie to edit my badge-name.
After all that chaos, it was finally time to head to my first panel of the weekend… Universal Language: Good or Bad? With a panel largely made up of people for whom English was not their first language, this was an especially interesting discussion, touching on the problems of a lingua franca, the way cultural imperialism elides indigineous languages, the assumptions that anyone creating a conlang brings with them from their own cultural background, and a fascinating discussion on language as a marker of power. The ranges of experiences and expertises brought to bear on the questions raised by the panel made it a more interesting discussion than could have been the case, reminding attendees of the power of a WorldCon to draw on a wide variety of cultural backgrounds amongst its participants and panellists.
A few hours later, and in stark contrast, that greatest and most ridiculous of all panel games was played; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, also known as the antidote to panel games. Lee Harris presided over an hour of well-ordered anarchic fun, including an appearance of the excrable Scottish accents of Emma Newman and Paul Cornell as Hamish and Dougall and some amazing singing from the three female players of the game, especially impressive from Seanan McGuire who was unfortunately really rather ill. In contrast to Only A Moment at Nineworlds, all the panellists seemed to be very much up for the game and having a huge amount of fun with it, as well as being properly pre-prepared, an absolute necessity for something like this.
After a good night’s sleep, then, it was back into the fray not for panels, but for signings, the Fan Village and the Dealer’s Room; indeed, until three, I didn’t attend a single panel. The Dealer’s Room was a thing to behold, with an amazing array of exhibits including a display of whisky bottles in honour of Iain M. Banks and a semi-recreation of John Clute’s study; but the dealer’s room, with publishers from Gollancz to Tachyon, from Twelth Planet to Titan, and smaller still, in attendance and selling books; academic presses like Liverpool University Press attended, with an amazing array of non-book-selling stalls too; and the art was truly amazing. Despite a couple of artists who rather missed the mark – Chris Foss’ T&A obsession, Anne Sudworth’s self-conciously twee-goth work – there was also some truly beautiful art on display; John Harris’ Ancillary Justice triptych, an appropriate tribute to a now-Hugo-winning novel, chief among them.
But of course, I was mostly at LonCon for the panels. My first of the day, The Politics and Economics of Cover Art, was fantastic; Justin Landon’s barely-concealed disgust at the hooded man, Irene Gallo’s counterpoint of practicality combined with her joy at the free range offered by Tor.com, and especially Sarah Anne Langton’s personal experience as both a graphic designer and Forbidden Planet employee, combined to give a fascinating array of views on the book-cover industry. The discussion skimmed over the issues of whitewashing, but did have an interesting discussion of the ways covers are gendered and the folly of that (as Justin noted, women are over half the book-buying population), which was good to see.
From there, I went to the packed ‘Imagining Fantasy Lands’ panel, which jumped off the back of Kate Elliot’s blog post on the topic. The panel was a brilliant exploration of how that status quo works in worldbuilding, and the ways in which it erases people, places, issues; indeed, the topic of history-versus-histories was, and not for the first time, discussed on the panel in some detail. Unfortunately the moderator, Mary Anne Mohanraj, inserted herself strongly into the discussion and didn’t spend enough time bringing some other panellists out to speak more; but Tobias Buckell’s brilliant points about race and racial perception – as a mixed-race Caribbean who is often perceived as white – were fascinating in the light they cast on the failures of popular racial narratives and their flexibility in different places.
Continuing the political-economic theme of the evening, I attended a panel entitled ‘Liveship Trading’, mainly to hear Max Gladstone and Juliet E McKenna on the topic. The wide-ranging discussion of different economics systems that have historically been used, from barter-economies through fiat currencies to discussion of the idea of gold as carrying value and conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately, the discussion of gift economies was abortive and rather unsuccessful; it failed to engage with the historical idea and practice of gift economies, as opposed to economies where gifts were seen as signs of wealth. However, the discussions of the failings of capitalism – especially from Juliet McKenna and the way economics works as a kind of magic – and fiat currency as a shared illusion, and Max Gladstone’s reworking of that as soul-as-currency – were absolutely fascinating and brilliantly held, well-worth attending. Unfortunately, the questions section of the session rapidly became a discussion between panellists and members of the audience, who did not have any amplification; as someone sitting at the back and with minor hearing difficulties, this was incredibly frustrating as an end to an otherwise great panel.
I slipped out early, and went to find Kate Elliot, with whom Zoe and I had arranged to have dinner. Lovely on the internet, she is at least as lovely in person; talking to her about life, conventioning, and so on was an absolutely lovely experience, and demonstrated once again that not only are authors people too, but that many authors are the best among people. Kate was patient and thoughtful, and unfailingly polite; a really wonderful experience, added to by the wonderful opening of the poem she handed to me, the start of the Beatriciad, whose conclusion I am patiently and joyfully anticipating!
Like any con, LonCon for me seriously hit its stride on the weekend. Saturday morning started at ten, and panels ran until nine with a break of only two hours in the middle; and that’s before we include the barcon of the blogging community at which I finally met the wonderful Book Smugglers in person, who are perhaps the most glamorous members of the reviewing community out there. I also fitted in a beer with Catherynne M. Valente – not a private beer, unfortunately, but a Literary Beer; ten or so people sat around a table talking to Cat about her work, her travels, future projects and inspirations, and more. It was a wonderful experience, although not with the same kind of informality as dinner with Kate had been; a really nice idea.
As far as panels went, I started the day with a panel on The Politics of Utopia, a fantastic panel looking at how white and male, and indeed American, fantastical utopias often are, and the troubling colonialist implications they tend to have; with a diverse panel those issues were reasonably well explored, as well as the idea of who decides what a utopia looks like and the problems of distribution of power in a utopia – Maureen Kincaid Speller noted that she was unwilling to be sidelined politically in order to live in a utopia, and yet that is a trope common to them.
Imaginative Resistance was a very different panel; a less diverse panel but with Sarita Robinson attending as an academic psychologist at UCLan, Jeff Vandermeer’s moderation ensured an interesting discussion which dug down into some of the more interesting issues around our suspension of disbelief. The discussion of where we draw the lines, politically – what we find ourselves unable to read or write, the way we deal with historically different settings and ideas – was beautifully covered, and although the panel didn’t discuss what I was hoping to hear about, the nonpolitical points where we lose our belief in a story, what it did look at and analyse was fascinating.
More pertinently for this blog, ‘The Review Is Political’ was a discussion which I intend to take forward and incorporate into my blogging. What we review, how we critique the politics of what we review, the kind of things we focus on in our reviews – all these things matter, and are political decisions. The panellists noted the extent to which we tend towards the default, the extent to which we don’t notice when someone’s politics are the status quo and therefore don’t challenge that in their work. There was also discussion of the role of review; inevitably, the choice of who one is talking to, what one is trying to do with reviews, and what one is trying to say, are all political decisions, and one I will be trying to take a lot more care to think about in future.
The evening’s panels were similarly brilliant. ‘Full-Spectrum Fantasy’ demonstrated Mary Robinette Kowal’s unique approach to moderation, starting with audience questions to focus the panel on before starting the discussion; in an hour-long panel which already had a reasonably precise description this was perhaps a mistake, but the panel itself, which focussed on the way disability is (mis)represented in fantastic literature, was brilliant. The discussion touched on, among other things, the failed representations of depression which are not only rare but also very poor; the narrative of the cure, including a lot of discussion about agency, cure-as-desirable, and the forced-normativity of many stories, which undermine their positives by truly wrecking their treatment of disability. More treatment of class would have been appreciated, although it was covered somewhat especially in the context of different class systems in different countries, though!
From there I ran to ‘Imagining the City’, an hour long self-advertisement panel from Kathleen Ann Goonan. While the rest of the panel, the moderator included, engaged in an interesting discussion about cities, the writing of cities, the individuality of cities, and even the idea of “city”, drawing on their own works and those of others (Simon Spanton brought up Jan Morris’ Hav) to discuss the different ways cities work in fantasy and the different reasons for them. Discussion of things like Trantor, the technological upper-limit on city population, Scott Lynch’s focus on cities in his fiction, and the benefits and risks in drawing on real cities to create one’s fantastical urban environments; had Goonan engaged more with the panel and less with self-advertising this would have been a brilliant hour.
The last of my Saturday panels suffered a slightly different problem; ‘Chivalrous Critics of Fannish Dimensions’ could have benefited from a moderator more directly interested in the topic and also more interested in letting the panellists run their mouths off a bit, rather than the impressively disciplined Myke Cole. In some panels his moderating style would have been massively appreciated, keeping panellists and audience in line as he did; but here, it kept the discussion a bit too locked down. While discussion of the role of critic, the purpose and target of reviews, and of course, Liz Bourke’s wonderful review of Theft of Swords was interesting, as was the discussion of epic fantasy, one got the feeling the audience and panellists were waiting for the formality imposed by Cole to drop so they could simply have a good time.
Sunday was lighter, in part because of the truncated evening; but began well, with ‘Seeing the Future, Knowing the Past’ suffering from Karen Miller’s determination to justify her own use of prophecy but also including the impressive, intelligent, well-sourced and well-informed rants from Kari Sperring and Liz Bourke on the historical nature and role of prophecy. Each brought their considerable expertise to bear, both from the point of view of fantasy readers and of academic historians; they tore apart the stereotypical and dull use of the trope of prophecy, completely shredding the way fantasists use it as a lazy approach to storytelling. It was a real sight to see, and one not to have been missed!
‘A Queerer War’ followed, which also seemed to be a bit of an unbalanced panel; Tanya Huff threw herself on every question-grenade happily and enthusiastically, while S. J. Groenewegen tended towards being quite a quiet panellist who considered what she wanted to say before saying it. Ann Leckie put in a decent performance but, with her lack of military experience, was a little sidelined and seemed happy to be so, although she contributed some excellent things to the more literary side of the discussion; while Huff and Groenewegen talked about the decriminalisation, across various armed forces, of homosexuality amongst serving members and the closet queers preceeding that. Despite some utterly foolish questions and a not entirely on-the-ball moderator in the form of Duncan Lawie, productive discussion was had by most.
The Kameron Hurley-inspired panel ‘We Have Always Fought’ followed a rather different path, almost totally diverging from historical female warriors and also from the fantastic; it was, instead, something of a Feminism 101 panel in some ways. Jeanne Gomoll didn’t appear to have prepared for the panel and was incredibly flustered – perhaps understandably – and the rest of the panel seemed only a little more prepared, talking more about women’s achievements in the last century than before that, and really failing to talk about the issues of erasure of women from earlier history, let alone how we can and indeed are reassessing things to ensure we recognise the role of women.
After that, I wanted to do something relaxing before the Hugo Awards, so attended Elizabeth Bear’s reading. In honour of the Hugos that night, she read her Hugo-winning work ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’, or at least the first half of it – which mentions the Retro-Hugo-winning War of the Worlds audiodrama. It was a good session, and Bear, unsurprisingly, has a real knack for reading her own work; a couple of ad libs thrown in and the emphases she put on different parts of the story were fantastic, really aiding in the effects of a by-turns amusing and dark story. Unfortunately you can’t find her reading it online, but another reader did so for Starship Sofa, and I strongly recommend listening to the story!
I’ll pass over the awards themselves in favour of a little discussion of the ceremony at the Hugos. First, the drama of the ceremony’s opening was very well handled; beefeaters guarding a fantastic display stand that opened into a frame for the beautiful array of Hugo statues, a veritable wedding cake of awards. Unfortunately, all the glamorous assitants who assisted the presenters and award-winners with the ceremony were pretty women in sparkly dresses; given Geoff Ryman’s sparkly tiara, it would have been nice to see either a man in a sparkly suit or a dark tuxedo taking that traditionally-feminine role too. I’ll talk more about the winners themselves tomorrow, though…
Monday, of course, was the day everything wound up. I attended just one panel, ‘Space Colonies’; while Tony Keen moderated and avoided inserting himself into the discussion too much, four Americans discussing how space would become a libertarian paradise so long as it looked like a white American small-town, or a survivalist colony, was terrifying. The number of unchallenged assumptions, thoughtless political conservatism, and the amount of closet-racism and classism was seriously shocking, as was the disablism directed at the non-neurotypical; psychopath and sociopath became interchangeable with violent murderer, and children of the educated middle classes were assumed to be strong, intelligent people while the children of the working class were assumed to be less worthy disaffected idiots, and the only place from where criminals came. A poor note to end the LonCon panels!
That wasn’t the end of my WorldCon though; there were two more social engagements. First, tea with a group of critics and fans – Liz Bourke, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid Speller, and more. It was a great discussion about the con, about books both good and bad, about future cons, and more; an excellent experience and a great meeting with people I’ve conversed with for a while on the internet but never actually met in person before. The evening was taken up with a meal with Tansy Rayner Roberts, Jenny, Alisa Krasnostein, and her baby; the talk was not, inevitably, of the most deep kind, as much of it was a sort of gentle blathering about post-con plans, future works, some con experiences, and of course, I got to play with the baby again, giving a nice kind of symmetry to the whole weekend. A very good experience, all told!
By now, we’ve all had a chance to see what the ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards looks like; if not, you can find them here. I was in the room as they were announced by the committee, so please bear that personal presence in mind as you read this post; also note that a discussion about the Hugo Awards and what they say about fandom with Stephanie Saulter, author of Gemsigns and a woman of colour, will feed into discussion in this post.
This looks like a ballot of two halves. Some sections strongly reflect one part of fandom, while others are more mixed. Before we go any further I’d like, with four individual exceptions, to congratulate every nominee on that ballot; especially Ann Leckie, who I am a big partisan of and was more than honoured to be the avatar of at the BSFAs on Sunday when she won best novel, and Liz Bourke, who is both a friend and someone whose writing I hugely admire, among others. Those exceptions are Brad Torgersen, Toni Weisskopf, Larry Correia and – most especially – the truly loathsome specimen Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale.
Before we talk about the bad, let’s talk about the good. Of our five Fan Writer nominees, four are women, none have won before, and (at least) four are very outspoken on social justice issues including anti-racism, feminism, and gender and sexuality issues. I won’t claim I always agree with them or their politics, but I wouldn’t expect to; I respect them, the integrity of their positions and writing, and perhaps more significantly, I respect their willingness to stand up to the people on the other side of these issues, the truly toxic souls who don’t believe (for instance) that women can be science fiction writers, or who believe that left-wing politics are evil.
This combination of well-written work, integrity and good politics are also clear in some of our semiprozine and fanzine nominations; The Book Smugglers are a wonderful pair of writers and their blog, whilst sometimes truly infuriating (sorry, Thea and Ana!) and focussing largely on parts of the genre I’m not very engaged with, is still absolutely fantastic work and they’ve really been willing to stick their necks out on the issues over the past year; similarly Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies all promote progressive fiction, progressive writers, and articles and pieces on progressive issues. They’re well put together and interesting sites I recommend to you all.
Best Related Work continues the theme of progressive, well-done projects being rewarded; Kameron Hurley’s We Have Always Fought essay is a slight entry on this section of the ballot, but it is undeniably a brilliantly researched and well-written historical argument about the genre and the marginalisation of female protagonists in it, and Queers Dig Time Lords, from the title onwards, highlights the role and existence of the similarly-marginalised queer community in its various permutations, especially in this strangely popular part of the fandom.
The final part of this ballot that I really want to celebrate is the Campbell awards; these are inherently awards for newcomers, but this year they are also an award for often-marginalised parts of our fandom. The ballot only has one white man, one white woman, two men of colour, and a woman of colour; all of these writers look at diversity and feature diverse cast, in fact often focusing on characters of colour, and look at larger progressive issues. This all demonstrates that the upwards trajectory of the genre is one that the next generation is going to consolidate.
There’s also the mediocre, unobjectionable work on the ballot. While I like some of Stross’ work, I’ve not managed to get through Neptune’s Brood (though it’ll be my next book now), and Mira Grant’s Parasite is an unobjectionable, fun read, very similar to the Newsflesh books; readable, but again, not the best of the year by any means. Across the rest of the novels on the ballot, only Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice strikes me as a really strong work pushing the genre forward and doing interesting, new things with space opera; especially as a debut novel, this is fantastic work. For the most part I’ve not read what’s on the rest of the fiction ballots, but it is here where the objectionable work is concentrated.
Splashed onto a fan ballot that is an absolutely beautiful example of some of the best and brightest the genre has, some of the most forward-thinking authors and commentators, are some truly toxic presences. First and foremost amongst these is the appalling Vox Day, real name Theodore Beale. VD has been published by, among others, WorldNetDaily, a fringe rightwing site, and has espoused the views that implies; he is an outspoken white supremacist, male supremacist, homophobe, transphobe and all-round bigot. That vile streak of hatred has been so violently, loudly and bluntly espoused by VD that the Science Fiction Writers of America expelled him, and his status as a tax exile from the United States is an interesting twist on his outspoken patriotism. He is well outside the genre mainstream, but he and the slate he promoted for the Hugos – Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen, Toni Weisskopf – received enough nominations to ensure that they made the ballot, self-admittedly in order to troll the rest of the fandom.
It’s become common on Twitter to decry those who accuse VD’s slate of ballot-stuffing. I’m just going to note how truly toxic these individuals are from the perspective of the rest of fandom, and that there was a 43% increase in nominations this year as compared to last year; while LonCon3 is one of the largest WorldCons ever, I don’t think that alone can account for this jump, especially with VD and his crowd out there actively campaigning for people to nominate a slate to troll the genre. The toxic underbelly of genre, that has cruelly attacked so much of fandom (and especially its already marginalised and vulnerable members), has managed to claim one of the highest profile parts of the genre for itself, and that cannot be overlooked.
On the other hand, Stephanie Saulter reminded me that she’d seen racism increasingly marginalised in her lifetime, and that sight had always been accompanied by the same thing fandom is seeing in VD (and among other writers). In her opinion, what we’re seeing here is the spasming rage of a dying breed of bigots. That the scale of those bigots has just been revealed only means we now know how many there are, though that’s an exact figure that will have to wait until after the award is announced and nomination figures are released.
I continue to think Saulter is, on this topic, overly optimistic, and that Scalzi’s advice that these people’s work should be treated on their merits are both wrong. The latter comes from a place of immense privilege; whilst VD has a longstanding feud with Scalzi, he remains a straight white middle class American male with a huge fanbase; that insulates him hugely from the damage and indeed fear that VD’s base can and has incited in others. The former has a lot more credibility with me; Saulter’s life experience and the changes she’s seen in her lifetime give her a historical insight into the present situation that honestly ought not to be overlooked. However, I think she’s wrong.
When 10% of SFWA want Theodore Beale as their president, when enough people are willing to pay the money to put Beale and his little cabal of racists onto the Hugo Award ballots, that’s not the dying gasps of racists. That’s the tip of the iceberg; fellow-travellers, those who don’t <em>quite</em> endorse how extreme he is but think he’s onto something, the UKIP members to VD’s BNP (to use a British political analogy) are all invisible to this harsh metric. I think (and I don’t know if Stephanie Saulter agrees) that this is something we need to actively, completely root out; our fandom cannot survive if it continues to nurture VD and his ilk, if it continues to provide him with a platform. The nice liberal-fandom bubble social media allows many of us to live in is not representative, or at a minimum not as representative as we would wish.
Let’s come clean, confront that fact… and throw these arseholes out.
NB: This isn’t the Hugo Awards Committee’s fault. Once VD &co got their nominations, there was nothing in the Hugo rules to allow them to exclude these bigots from the awards. That’s our fault as fandom. It’s our job, not the Committee’s, to no-platform and exclude those people, both by changing the rules (risky) and by getting more heavily involved rather than walking away. Things don’t get fixed when we leave them, they’re only allowed to decay more.