No Fucks Given

Jake's conscience given free rein

Marketplaces, Lilith Fair, and Women Destroy Science Fiction

When Lightspeed announced its Women Destroy Science Fiction (WDSF) special issue, the first thing that came to my mind was the Lilith Fair rock festivals in the nineties. Rock tours and radio were dominated by men, and the excuses given for this fact were so maddening that Sarah McLachlan created a festival of only female performers–Lilith Fair. It was fabulously successful and pretty much crushed existing assumptions that many had about rock music and women. It was both a celebration of great music and a fuck you to the establishment. To me the parallel was obvious to WDSF, especially in how entrenched bias against women is being blamed on market forces.

I worked for a BMG-owned record label in the early nineties, and one of our artists was the Australian band Baby Animals. The band had a lot going for them: Eddie Van Halen loved them and chose them to open for the sold out Van Halen tour of North America. They were one of the most successful debut rock bands in Australian history, winning the ARIA award and selling quadruple platinum. Their music was both catchy and powerful. They really only had one problem: Their lead singer was female.

This “female problem” was what Sarah McLachlan faced when she threw up her hands and decided to put together Lilith Fair. Yet if you talked to concert promoters and radio station music directors it wasn’t a problem or a bias at all; it was just a fact of the marketplace: Having two women on a concert bill wouldn’t sell out shows, and rock music radio listeners didn’t want to hear female singers played back-to-back.

In this fucked up perception of the marketplace, the single worst thing that could happen for a record company was to have a female-fronted band or singer release a song right when another woman had a huge hit. The “female slot” would go to the person who got there first. It really didn’t matter how great your song was, you had to wait your turn. And god forbid you had two women touring at the same time. I saw this as a record company manager in the early nineties, and I saw it as a journalist in the mid-nineties. It really wasn’t until Sarah McLachlan and a bunch of women finally had enough that perceptions would change, and it took one of the most successful festival tours of the decade to even move the needle.

The situation is just as fucked up today for women writers as it was for Sarah McLachlan and Melissa Etheridge and other women singers. Writer Patty Jansen outlines a typical scenario with an editor from Angry Robot Books that is echoed by E. Catherine Tobler writing about her experience with a Black Gate editor, and you can be sure is shared by women writers everywhere: The marketplace just doesn’t accept women. It’s Lollapalooza and rock radio all over again. Here’s Jansen:

Me: I heard you are interested in hard SF
Publisher: yeah, we are, but… *looks uneasy*
Me: … if it’s written by a woman?
Publisher: yeah, I hate to say that, but yeah, that is a problem

I mean, holy shit, replace “hard SF” with rock music, publisher with “radio music director,” and written with “sung by” and the “me” could have been Sarah McLachlan.

Okay, so Lilith Fair ushered in a short explosion of female alternative rock and rock/pop musicians, from Alanis Morrissette to Gwen Stefani. Things really did look better. The sad fact that radio and promoters slid back into their old ways in recent years is more indicative of how difficult it is to erase entrenched bias than it is a failure of women rockers. The numbers illustrate this: When women were given a shot, they sold like gangbusters. Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill alone sold 33 million copies, and you can go down the line to see platinum album after platinum album. Even one hit wonder Meredith Brooks’ album went platinum.

But the old biases die hard, so the battle continues.

And this brings me to WDSF. I have no doubt that it will be fabulously successful and most likely be one of those seminal publications that people look back on and point to as their first exposure to this author or that author. I mean, how can it not? Like Lilith Fair, when you remove the constraints of a fucked up perception of the marketplace, the pent up talent that is released draws a huge audience. We’re seeing it even now. In direct response to WDSF, Escape Pod has revised its guidelines to attract more women. Again, it is early, but I’m confident that we’ll see more anthology versions of Lilith Fair and more women using that showcase to rise to prominence.

To really kick off change sometimes you have to be like Sarah McLachlan and Christie Yant–say fuck you to the marketplace and then go throw your own damn party. And the cool thing about Lilith Fair and the cool thing about WDSF is that it turns out to be the coolest fucking party in town, and everyone–men and women–want to check it out. That’s how change happens, and while we’ll see progress ebb and flow over the years, it won’t stop.


Doctorow, Nihilism, and “The Cold Equations”

I’m rather fond of Cory Doctorow. I’ve had drinks with him, watched him perform music in a hotel room, and have been an avid supporter of his efforts with the EFF. I also admire how he embraces Creative Commons ideals and the idea of content sharing. I’m also a huge fan of his website Boing Boing. He’s an author I respect. What I’m not fond of is his recent attempt at literary criticism involving Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.”

He starts the essay outlining what he likes about science fiction. This is great, because we get to see the ground rules that Doctorow is going to work with:

The thing I treasure about science fiction is its utility as a toolkit for thinking about the relationship between technological change and human beings. This is why I value ‘‘design fiction’’ so much: an architect might make a visualization that flies you through her as-yet-unbuilt building, an engineer might build a prototype to show you what he’s thinking of inventing, but through design fiction, a writer can take you on a tour of how a person living with that technology might feel.

I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Certainly science fiction as a genre is bigger than just “design fiction,” but this is one of the ways that it is particularly relevant to a world technologically evolving at ever-increasing speeds. Doctorow then does something odd. He attacks two classics of SF literature for embodying “the worst parts of modern shortsightedness. They present a kind of blueprint for disaster, a willful and destructive blindness whose self-deception is perfectly mirrored in these two classics of SF.”

This is a provocative statement, and could be taken to mean that Doctorow is disavowing “design fiction” that aims to design “disaster.” That’s an odd point to make, as it seems to disavow dystopian fiction. As you read further, however, Doctorow isn’t disavowing dystopian fiction, necessarily, he is disavowing fiction that investigates hopelessness and nihilism. As I’m intimately familiar with Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (disclaimer: I wrote an homage to the story titled “The Old Equations”), I will focus on his comments on that work.

For those unfamiliar with “The Cold Equations,” you can read it here. Here we have a story where all of the variables–all the equations, as it were–lead to tragedy. It is the ultimate no-win situation. This stark illustration of innocence faced with no future is what Godwin is examining. In many ways “The Cold Equations” has a lot more in common with the dark noir of the period that you see written by authors like Jim Thompson than golden age science fiction. It is undeniably nihilist, and you can’t help but see that when you read the final paragraph. Reality is a harsh place where bad things happen to good people for no reason. It is dark. It is horribly depressing. And it is powerful:

He saw that the white hand of the supply-closet temperature gauge was on zero. A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship. Something shapeless and ugly was hurrying ahead of him, going to Woden, where her brother was waiting through the night, but the empty ship still lived for a little while with the presence of the girl who had not known about the forces that killed with neither hatred nor malice. It seemed, almost, that she still sat, small and bewildered and frightened, on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:

I didn’t do anything to die for … I didn’t do anything …

Doctorow’s assessment is that “It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder.”

Of course, the first point is that all fiction is a contrivance. We as creators arrange all the pieces on the page, the screen, or the stage so that our story and message is told and seen and heard. So it must be the next sentence where Doctorow’s key issue lies: Godwin has created (“contrived”) a piece where the pilot Barton’s reluctant and sad need to sacrifice an innocent child is “justifiable murder.”

Doctorow places a provocative label “justifiable murder” on a complex situation, and this would make for a powerful discussion emanating from the piece: What is justifiable murder? Is it murder if by saving the child, a colony of other people die? Is it murder if the choice is between two people dying or one person dying? Unfortunately, Doctorow completely bypasses this discussion. To him, it is simply “justifiable murder.”

The entire point of the story is that there is no justification needed for what happened. There was, indeed, no choice at all. Every result involves death, and every result is horrible. As I mentioned earlier, Godwin is making an explicit statement that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. Doctorow could have examined this, as well, delving into Star Trek morality with a discussion of the Kabayashi Maru or Spock’s statement that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or, if Star Trek doesn’t provide enough gravitas, he could have compared the story to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In the end, however, underlying it all is a harsh reality that sometimes there are no good choices and every choice means death. But Doctorow examines none of these things.

Instead, Doctorow states: “It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.”

If you read between the lines here, Doctorow is making an absurd statement: An author who “contrives” to create a scenario where death at the hand of another is the only outcome is doing something immoral. He is a purveyor of “moral hazards.” I can’t help but wonder if Doctorow has ever read Sophie’s Choice or Of Mice and Men or any number of works from the fifties that embrace a nihilistic worldview.

And, ultimately, I think that’s what the fundamental issue is here. Doctorow either doesn’t understand or is extremely uncomfortable with the idea that sometimes there is no one to blame. There is no evil. There is no one “contriving” to do harm. As he further explains:

“The Cold Equations’’ shoves every one of those questions out the airlock along with the young girl. It barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.

Doctorow wants there to be someone to blame. He finds it unacceptable for fiction to embrace a situation where a scenario just is, whether it is “The Cold Equations,” Sophie’s Choice, Of Mice and Men, or a noir crime novel set in the grimy streets of New York. And the author who creates such a scenario is contriving a “moral hazard.”

But to believe Doctorow’s point-of-view is to believe that dystopian stories, stories without hope, and nihilism have nothing to teach us. That real life always has a murderer who knows why he is pulling the trigger or an engineer who happily designs unsafe structures because no one will ever know he was behind the building collapse. But life isn’t like that. Children die of cancer. Rob Hall dies on the top of Everest, talking to his wife before his death as the young girl in The Cold Equations does with her brother.

And that, ultimately, is the power of “The Cold Equations.” Tom Godwin shoved our faces up to the abyss and showed us a dark place. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t fun. But it gave us a glimpse of a part of ourselves. It is what Faulkner famously described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” That’s art, however uncomfortable it makes us.

A Reminder


Laziness, the Truesdale Petition, And Slacktivism

I’ve finally put my finger on why I am so bothered by the Truesdale petition regarding the SFWA Bulletin–it’s the laziness of it all. Obviously I find the writing appalling, but it’s what that poor writing means that is sad. Maybe it’s because I was raised in Pittsburgh in a working class family, but the way the petition was created and delivered smacks of the worst in Internet slacktivist laziness, where the participants are so minimally engaged in the cause that they can’t even make the minimal effort to contribute to the damn thing they’re signing.

Wikipedia defines slacktivism thusly:

The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed… Slacktivist activities include signing Internet petitions, joining a community organization without contributing to the organization’s efforts, copying and pasting of social network statuses or messages or altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services.

And that’s exactly what we have here.We have Truesdale so little invested in the cause that he doesn’t even belong to the organization, let alone not contributing to said organization. The signers are even less invested. I mean, having an extraordinary essayist like Harlan Ellison sign this sad excuse for an essay makes me wonder if he even read it. One can picture Truesdale running in, yelling “censorship,” and then adding names to his list.

The signers of this petition are doing the equivalent of sharing a post on Facebook that one of their friends put up that said, “Share on your wall if you want to raise awareness of this thing.” They share the post and feel good, because, gosh darn it, putting the pink ribbon sticker on their car takes a bit too much effort, let alone actually donating time or money.

If I was informed that an organization dear to my heart was establishing censorship panels, and I actually cared about it, you’d think I’d write the president or someone on the board. I sure as hell would follow up if presented with Truesdale’s meandering emails to Steven Gould. But, no, all of that was just a bit too much effort for the people who signed this abomination of a petition.

If any of these writers really gave a shit about this petition and weren’t just pressing a metaphorical share button then they’d have rewritten the damn thing. But, no, Ellison didn’t think censorship of words was a topic worthy of actually having quality words behind the message. Nancy Kress didn’t. Brin? Nope. And when the petition was questioned for multiple reasons, with the exception of David Gerrold, there was nothing but crickets from the signers. Even engaging in a dialog was too much work.

Like I said, it’s the worst in 21st century slacktivism. Sign my name, press the share button, and then let me go back to what’s really important in my life.

And you know what bugs me about this even more? I actually would love to see that dialog. I’d love to see Harlan Ellison get off his ass and rage about having his words excised by some Hollywood hack and having to fight for the dignity of his art as an illustration as to why the respect for words are important today. I’d love to see Gregory Benford talking about where SFWA bulletin content crosses over from historical fact and into irrelevant sexism. I’d love to see David Gerrold lecturing people on both sides about decorum. Heck, Gene Wolfe could just write a bunch of metaphors on censorship with his amazing talent for language. At least then I’d get new Gene Wolfe writing, and that shit is priceless.

But did we get this? No, we got some hack writer putting together an incomprehensible treatise that muddied the point so much that everyone is claiming to have “won,” and we got a significant number of important  writers too lazy to actually write about what was concerning them. They pressed the fucking share button and went back to playing Candy Crush.

Feel free to share this on Facebook. I’d enjoy the irony.

The Most Interesting Science Fiction Story You’ll Read This Year

So I’ve spent a day poring over this petition to SFWA about the bulletin editor position, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. Seriously–I can’t make sense of it. This thing is so badly written I can’t believe Gene Wolfe signed it without a little piece of himself dying inside. This is presumably a petition of some sort, yet includes such passages as the author’s positive opinion of the Jumper novels and a short biographical note on a Scottish lawyer from the eighteenth century (He settled in Philadelphia!). Then you have pages of email exchanges included verbatim. (The concept of a footnote being perhaps a bit too highbrow for Mr. Truesdale).

Since the subject of this morass of email exchanges, anecdotes from the eighteenth century, tangential conversations on political sensitivity, and assorted other pieces is ostensibly the illegality of editorial oversight, I was rather intrigued with the idea that this was all some kind of textual performance art to prove the opposite: Truesdale illustrating that you actually should edit words by writing something so hilariously bad that editing it would be self-evident to anyone reading it. How cool would that have been? I can see John W. Campbell smiling in Heaven right now.

But then I saw the final few words of the title of the document: “…2nd version.” Holy shit. There was an even worse version of this thing? Dave, you’re doing yourself no favors commenting on the job of an editor by releasing something so horribly edited.

Okay, I know what you’re saying: There must be a petition in there somewhere, right? After all, a petition, by definition, is a request to do something. Let me see if I can find it in this thing. Okay, I’ll admit it. I skipped to the end. You know, because in a well-written petition you end with your call-to-action. You clearly elucidate what it is that you’re requesting. Shockingly, there actually was some kind of call-to-action at the end. So what’s this petition everyone is so up in arms over?

[a] call for SFWA President Steven Gould to kill any proposed advisory board or any other method designed to censor or infringe on any SFWA member their First Amendment right to freedom of speech in the pages of the SFWA Bulletin.

Well, shit, I am down with that. But why did it take Truesdale over one-thousand fucking words to get to something so simple to understand? It’s like he was getting paid by the word and his mortgage was due. Anyway, I’m a big believer in the first amendment and freedom-of-speech. That’s why I support the ACLU like I’m sure all the other signatories do. In fact, with SFWA being incorporated in the United States, our members are constitutionally guaranteed their freedom of speech. It would be illegal for SFWA to limit that.

Wait. So why the fuck does this petition exist? This shit is already illegal. What is Truesdale going to do next, write a two thousand word petition to make sure that no SFWA board members commit murder?

I know. I know. I missed that the signatories want to kill any “method designed to censor or infringe” on those first amendment rights. Yes, this is a petition against future infringement of constitutional rights. The only thing more ridiculous than a petition to tell an organization to follow the law (rather than, you know, actually sue in a court over it) is to petition an organization to follow the law and to also follow the law in the future.

And that’s when it hit me. Wow. This actually is textual performance art. That genius Truesdale was being so cagey that he didn’t want to give it all away by putting Phil Dick’s name at the top of the list of signatories. This is the most science fictional petition of all science fiction petitions. It is petitioning SFWA not to do something it hasn’t even done yet.

Hey, Truesdale may be a shitty editor, but I kind of like this avant-garde piece of fiction-written-as-a-petition. The only thing that would make this more entertaining is if the entire subject of this petition turned out to be serious, and that Truesdale and the signatories never passed fifth grade civics. Actually, no, that would not be entertaining. That would just be sad.

So I choose to believe that this is actually an homage to Phil Dick. A poorly written one, sure. But an homage none-the-less.

To Clarify