Politically Incorrect Ramblings, Part Deux

Wednesday, 12 October 2005 17:40 Dave Truesdale
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ImageA response to "Tough Times for Beset Manhood: Or, Where Has Good Old Golden Age SF Gone?" by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake.

The article referenced above recently appeared in the October online issue of the Internet Review of Science Fiction. I originally thought to let it go without responding, then decided to respond within the forum provided. But one thing led to another and my thoughts grew too expansive and I have decided to publish my thoughts here, as an editorial (not a piece of journalism).

I strongly urge those of you reading this to read the article at IROSF first.

Since I am quoted and referenced several times in this article, I'd like to set the record straight and correct some rather obvious errors of fact. The article attempts to tie together two assertions: (one), that those who grew up with Golden Age SF and who are now dissatisfied with today's SF, are (two) in some way sexist (whether they read or edit it, and are of course male; there are no sexist females in SF, nor have there ever been, in case you didn't get the memo). They argue through backdoor logic and inference, the logic chain being linked thusly: since Golden Age SF was predominantly written by men, those who still prefer this sort of SF must have something against SF written by women today, because SF is different today than it was in some vague Golden Age when men wrote most of the SF. Which is totally fallacious, since it is still the fact that more men than women are being published in the magazines today and this should please those who are carping, if, as is implied, women are the cause of the dissatisfaction with today's SF. Truth be told, it is the type of SF (short SF for my purposes here) that is being questioned (at least by me), not who writes it. It's that simple, I'm afraid. I speak for no one else mentioned in the IROSF article who is quoted or referenced.

By way of making their argument, the authors have used a quote from an editorial I wrote back in March, and, because it suits their agenda, have taken it totally out of context. Here is the quote:

"Sometimes I have this unnerving and spine-chilling thought that too much short SF today is naught but metrosexualized SF."

The author of the following sentence from the article then says:  "These criticisms are dancing around the real complaint, betrayed in such word choices as 'metrosexualized SF'."

This attempts to infer that the real complaint I was making has something to do with repressed angst (or whatever crap) against women writing SF. That this repressed fear or angst against women is the theme of the article is revealed in its very title "Tough Times For Beset Manhood." Thus, a link is made between those who prefer (certain aspects of) Golden Age SF to some feminist theory cum Freud and Pop Psychology 101. What the author fails to include were the lines directly following the one quoted out of context:

"Boy, it sure looks great in its polished and coiffed literary clothes, but is what is underneath any different—or better? Is what is underneath (the actual story itself) any better for the clothes?"

Thus, the truth is revealed that I was merely using a metaphor, which in reality had nothing to do with what Mr. Lake and Ms. Nestvold have tried to turn it into. I have used this clothes metaphor before (though in different form, in a years earlier Tangent editorial), by way of illustrating that regardless of how SF is dressed up, or looks, the same literature is underneath, and is what should be looked at and addressed in our reading or reviewing. It was my way of saying that it is not the intention or style of any given story, but its contents that ultimately were of consequence. But rather than address the issue I raised, my words have been taken purposefully out of context to serve a specific agenda. This is poor journalism, a potential criticism I consciously avoided in the article they quote from me; for in the title to my piece I tell the reader what they are getting, which was "Politically Incorrect Ramblings," and not an attempt at journalism. Would that Lake and Nestvold had been so forthright.

On a separate subject from the article at IROSF, while the Golden Age of SF for many may very well have been 12, it certainly wasn't for me. While I had an SF juvenile novel read to me in the 2nd grade during a trip to the library (something from Chad Oliver IIRC), and I had read two of Andre Norton's YA novels before I was ten (from the same grade school library), I then read no SF until I was in my late teens (I found superhero comics in the interim and fell in love with them), and surprise, it was all New Wave stuff and I was about to enter college. My Golden Age of SF was my college years and the New Wave—what an explosive mix and marriage! You know, where all the supposed rules were broken, SF was open to men and women alike (I wasn't aware, at the time, that this was even an issue, having read Andre Norton in the late '50s) experimentation ran rampant in form, style, and subject matter, and this radical, subversive SF (which I wasn't aware was any of these things, but I knew I liked it) was all the rage. I was absolutely enthralled by it. I was also non-political, never thought about politics much, but took it in stride along with getting laid for the first time, my first taste of alcohol, my first introduction to acid and pot, and last of all my first cigarette (which was the absolute worst of all the aforementioned—by far). While I still more or less accept the canon, as a general observation, that the Golden Age of SF is 12 (or whatever), as posited in the Nestvold/Lake article, in my case it was decidedly an older, more mature age than 12. Not that 18-22 is necessarily totally mature, judging from my now ancient vantage point of 55, but still, it beats the hell out of 12. So I freaked out on the New Wave shit. There were all kinds of drug references, acid trips, the art featured naked wimmin with big tits (where were the feminists then? Hmm.), and if you were tripping you could follow all of the crazy textual layouts. 'Twas tons of fun.

Michael Moorcock is credited at the forefront of the New Wave movement with New Worlds magazine, which moved to the U.S. in the late '60s (just as I was off to college). Berkley published six volumes of The Best SF Stories From New Worlds, and then in 1971 when NW was kicked out of the UK for being too politically subversive (among other reasons), it was given a home here in the (evil) U.S. as a handful of original volumes, as a paperback, also by Berkley. Because "Beset Manhood" addresses the issue, let's see how the male/female breakdown of authors in these groundbreaking volumes, embraced by the Political Left shakes out and where any prejudices may or may not exist.

The Best SF Stories From New Worlds #1-6: Male, 56. Female, 5.
New Worlds Quarterly #1-4: Male, 39. Female, 3.

Samuel R. Delany (and Marilyn Hacker), also associated closely with the New Wave, edited 4 issues of Quark as a pb original series from 1970-1971. It was the most free-form, radical New Wave experiment of them all, with art (mostly drug or sex related), and "avante garde" poetry along with the stories. Its breakdown of male to female authors adds up like this: Male, 37. Female, 16.

In 14 issues of New Wave writings from 1965 (some of the reprints from The Best From NW) to 1971, we have a total of 146 stories: 122 stories by males and 24 stories by females. This translates to 83.6% by men and 16.4% by women. Let's compare these stats with those of F&SF in the 5-year period before the earliest stories reprinted in The Best SF Stories From New Worlds. Keep in mind (for what it's worth) that NW (from the UK) and Quark are the cutting edge, radical magazines, whereas F&SF is the elite, literary U.S. magazine that was the envy of every writer (notably Harlan Ellison, another name closely associated with the New Wave).

Male/Female Ratio Published in F&SF From 1960-1964
Total Stories, 1960-1964: 474
Stories by Males: 411.5
Stories by Females: 62.5
Male percentage: 87%
Female percentage: 13%

One sees that in the 5 years prior to the New Wave stories hitting our shores, there is only a 3.4% difference in F&SF's male/female ratio from the combined totals of the New Wave publications listed above. They are pretty close, easily in the ballpark for all intents and purposes.

Now, I ask authors Nestvold and Lake this: in three of the most cutting edge, radical New Wave publications—publications which have become legendary icons of the New Wave movement, mind you—edited primarily by men (but oh, so progressive, liberated, and forward-thinking men); was their Manhood Beset by Tough Times because they included a paltry 16.4% of the stories by women? Were they afraid (you know, deep down) that women would supplant their male dominance in the New Wave movement? I think not. But according to the logic used by the authors of "Manhood Beset," this is the only reasonable explanation for the male/female ratio in published short SF today, and is why, should anyone even broach any subject which questions the established orthodoxy relating to SF where external influences and trends are concerned (which might even peripherally touch on gender issues, or Political Correctness—much less address them directly), the old, tired, sexist smear is dragged from the tattered feminist playbook as the ultimate, final, catch-all Answer to Anything with which they disagree, or offends their Politically Correct Sensibilities. But that dog doesn't hunt anymore. 

Not only is the overt agenda of this article not supported by the historical facts (only a few of which I have presented here, but are sufficient to cast legitimate doubt), the piece purposely uses quotes out of context to support this agenda, and then draws totally biased conclusions in order to make their thesis fit said agenda. This is the worst sort of journalism. Ask Dan Rather.

One should not think too harshly on this exercise in biased, failed journalism (replete with footnotes and references) however, but kindly consider the relative youth and inexperience of the authors where it concerns an understanding and history of the SF field. After all, they're products (as are many of the newer SF writers today of a certain generation) of an entire culture suffused with Political Correctness, and all of the subtleties most folks take for granted as just the way things are, and should be.

Just as (some of) the SF writers of the '60s and '70s questioned the status quo re sex and politics (just to name two hot button issues), so too should this generation of writers question these same issues, and what has proved good or bad, valid or invalid, since that time—but far too many of them are not, blindly accepting assumptions made some 40 years ago, in another time and place in history. In other words, have some of the movements of the '60s and '70s and their respective ideologies helped or hampered our society since then? They all began with the highest and noblest of ideals, and had their hearts in the right place, but shouldn't we be taking a hard, objective look at them now, from where they've been, how they've remained true to their initial wonderful idealism, or waivered and gone astray, sometimes to ridiculous excess? The Environmental movement, the Feminist movement, the ACLU, Affirmative Action, Politics in general and how the Democratic and Republican parties may or may not have shifted their philosophies over the years, and on and on. Shouldn't science fiction writers (whether sf, f, or spec-fic, it doesn't matter), be aggressively digging deep into these issues, and not merely parroting the accepted party-line assumptions from 30-40 years ago? Regardless of personal beliefs (which is hard, I know), shouldn't intellectual honesty be a priority for writers of all stripes, but especially SF writers who want to be considered radical, or at the least on the cutting edge?

The only real radicalism (if such a term even vaguely applies here), or subversive quality I see with any regularity these days in short SF, is the game of seeing how much speculative content not to include in an  SF/spec-fic story, at the expense of style and characterization (mainstream end-all and be-all supposed virtues. Note: Jay Lake is a self-proclaimed "style monkey") and then watch sadly bemused on the sidelines to see what new term someone comes up with to make the story fit under the already soaked and bending (already all-inclusive) SF umbrella. And then when questioned about this, the questioner is labeled either a sexist, a racist, a homophobe, or an old fuddy-duddy who only desires to read what he read during his supposed "Golden Age of SF." It's a fun, if frustrating, game. But that's all it is: a game, with no real substance insofar as dealing with the real issues, and a conscious effort by those committing pseudo-liberated stories dealing with sexual or political pablum to SF magazines not willing to examine themselves and the themes they are treating. And the various editors in (most of) the "big" SF magazines are just as much to blame, despite their protestations to the contrary. Examples? Proof? Here you go. Note that these are respected and highly regarded editors in our field, and all have published award-winning, outstanding fiction during their tenures (as well as some bow-wows, but this is not a condemnation, just a universal and timeless reality). I know them personally, and like them all, though our baseline philosophies sometimes collide.

One editor publishes great stuff all over the map, from hard SF to Fantasy and Horror of all sorts—as well as (regrettably) non-SF. This editor has tried, in vain, to justify any spec element in a certain story, countering the objections raised by a certain critic by continually shifting the goalposts as to what constitutes any spec element in the story, to an untenable extreme. Even the author of said story admits it wasn't SF (or F) by any definition.

Another editor publishes fiction and admits to its only "feeling like" SF/F. Which is a tacit admission that it is not SF/F.

Another editor pays for fiction that elevates the status of newly semi-crudely-intelligent rodents above the concerns of human beings, without regard to the obvious, logical, rational consequences. The Liberal theme is ostensibly one of understanding between species, without an intelligent, rational, reasoned regard for Reality.

These examples exemplify notions espoused from a Liberal Left philosophy from some 40 years ago (at least in the SF community's consciousness, but not examined since then, i.e. that Situational Ethics in all things prevail, and there is no Absolute Good or Bad, Right or Wrong—ever). That relativism is always king (i.e. there are no boundaries—ever, and by extension from the PETA folks, any insect, fish, or mammal has equal rights with human beings—always). Anything goes in SF is a laudable goal when rightly understood, though the mantra, if the Liberal Left would have its way is Anything Goes In SF Even If It Isn't SF. And as a corollary, through many exhaustive years of reading short SF, especially since somewhere in the '70s where this belief blossomed, a belief that Humanity Sucks (in a galactic sense we are worthless worms—the anti-Campbell school), and that the values of the West (i.e. capitalism, freedom, democracy) Suck even worse. Thank you New Wave, you Socialist/Marxist/Communist radicals. I invite denials by those indicted.

In some aspect or other, Politics does inform the SF we read, and that editors buy, and reviewers or critics discuss. Overtly or covertly, Aristotle was right when he said that Man is a political animal. Given all of the above, I was momentarily taken aback after publication of my "Politically Incorrrect Ramblings" editorial in March. There were several in the Tangent Online forum which discussed this piece who strongly objected to my injecting Politics into a discussion of SF. Talk about more than a generation gap, and trying to speak shorthand to those who had no understanding of the history of the field!

Though not a majority of the short fiction published in the established, major magazines, these off-the-cuff examples are not unique, and are slowly but increasingly prevalent; most notably in the many small print and online venues springing up. They send a signal to potential writers that the editors are open to mainstream as well as the fringe element of many Liberal ideologies—but not anyone else. Would the editor who bought the story about the rights of the crudely-intelligent rodents have bought the story if the Rights of Humankind were to triumph, and the evil machinations of the rodents were terminated? If the rodents were (gasp) killed? We'll never know, will we? All we are given to speculate on is the printed evidence.

Too many short SF writers today are only polishing old ideas from the '60s and '70s—ideas put forth by the real cutting edge radicals; tinkering with these old (not necessarily bad to begin with, politically or gender-related, or environmental, or whatever) ideas a bit maybe, or merely fine-tuning them to death, without a real understanding of what the hardcore New Wave writers were all about. And so they are producing nothing new, or radical, in their own right, because of their lack of understanding of the real forces which drove the New Wave. Oh, they might think that because they write a little about sex or politics (in their infinitely more well-crafted prose—which it is), makes their work "cool," but if one has read a lot of the angry, bitter, New Wave stuff, theirs pales by comparison. It looks good, but is watered down, recycled pap. The stories which deal with the (then, and still perhaps now, yes) important issues of the past look better now, more suavely presented by the better writers (not necessarily new writers, mind you), but at their core do they really say anything different than the true ground-breakers from the past? Are they adding anything substantially new to our understanding of these issues? In my estimation they are not.

One of the major driving forces of the hardcore New Wave in the mid-60s in the UK was Politics, and the idea by some of its practitioners that SF should—as a matter of course—not merely entertain the reader in passing (or entertain at all in the broadest sense of the word), but attempt to Change Your Life. As if, in their impassioned Arrogance, they Knew what was Best for Us. Here's a short quote from a relatively recent interview with M. John Harrison conducted by Cheryl Morgan at Emerald City. Harrison was also one of the editors at New Worlds in the '60s; he contributed fiction, and wrote several stimulating essays for NW Quarterly which combined his social and political views with valuable (sans political intrusion) criticism of books: They are terrific reads to this day.

"My feeling about escapist fiction has softened a little down the years but it has never really changed. I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape. After you grow up, you should start reading for other purposes. You should have a more complicated relationship with fiction than simple entrancement. If you read for escape you will never try to change your life, or anyone else's. It's a politically barren act, if nothing else. The overuse of imaginative fiction enables people to avoid the knowledge that they are actually alive. (In fact, various evasions, various kinds of fantasy, seem to me to be a kind of bad politics in themselves, the default politics of the day, through which we maintain our Western illusions of freedom and choice.)"

The word "politics" is used thrice in seven short sentences. Recently, in the June 2005 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, #202, in a reprinted article from 2001 titled "The Future of Science Fiction," Michael Moorcock begins with this sentence: "Many years ago, someone asked Brian Aldiss if he felt science fiction might in some ways be a 'subversive' form of fiction. Brian replied, 'Of course it's subversive. It wouldn't be any good if it wasn't subversive.' "

In my copy of the Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary; Encyclopedic Edition, to "subvert" means "1. To overthrow from the very foundation; destroy utterly. 2. To corrupt; undermine the principles or character of."

So I now ask myself the following question: what did Aldiss (and others in the New Wave) want to subvert (i.e. overthrow, corrupt, undermine, or destroy utterly)? Science fiction as it had been to that time, or the political forces deemed to be wrong-headed in the UK at the time through science-fiction as the vehicle for their political views—or both? Either way, one can see that Harrison and Aldiss meant business; they weren't fooling around with empty, or recycled rhetoric. They weren't just waving placards at some rally, without really knowing why. And neither were Michael Moorcock or James Sallis, for further examples. Never mind that one can easily trace their political viewpoints toward the socialist/Marxist end of the political spectrum, which is at least part of the reason their fiction content was welcomed by the Political Left on this side of the Pond during our own cultural upheaval in the '60s. It was a match made in heaven, ideologically speaking. Throw into this volatile mix the fact that the New Wave placed an emphasis on literary sensibilities as well as a widening of subject matter, and we (those of us there when it happened) enjoyed (or endured, depending on your point of view) a literary triptych of cultural and publishing forces, the likes of which have never really been equaled since. What was new and exciting then in terms of subject matter, treatment, and publishing dynamics is not now; it's commonplace.

One can only hope that Lake and Nestvold's forthcoming fiction excursions excite us with a bit more logic, reason, and objectivity in their exploration of cutting-edge ideas—and treatment thereof—that they believe they have brought to us thus far, as opposed to this jury-rigged piece of PC-informed journalism; for if not, we might just be subjected (again) to such wildly avante garde territory where a, let's say, lesbian (how shocking!) holds the fate of two cultures in her hands, and saves everyone by literally talking it over with Mother Earth (or pick your own planet, we all know planets all possess consciousness and have specific answers to interstellar problems), to arrive at a Politically Correct, New Age Mysticism-derived solution. Can lesbians do that? Wow, now that's something I never would have thunk of in a million years. Since Quark is long defunct, I wonder if Asimov's would publish something so radical. Hey, I'm open to anything, you know?

All said and done, and with my armor strapped firmly in place for the tired and (sigh) expected vitriol from the Left, many of whom have only their short term writerly interests at heart and not that of the field in general, I leave you with the following quote, from a man I truly admire (though disagree with on a few points). A timeless icon in the SF heavens said:

"When any category of science fiction writing has become dull and repetitive, there is always a brilliant story waiting to be written by giving up the assumptions that made the story easy to write." —Damon Knight