An Inconvenient Future

24 02 2014
Tiresomely classic, traditional titillation

Tiresomely classic, traditional titillation

Riding back from the Boskone convention in Boston, I got into a conversation with a writing colleague about NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association) which puts on the convention, and the culture behind the con.  Those with long memories in the scene remember the Great Schism, during which a cosmic convergence of bad judgement and unfortunate circumstances led to Boskone being essentially Banned from Argo, or at least every respectable hotel in Boston.  To make an epic story short,  Boskone sobered up.  But elements of Boskone refused to stodgify, and Arisia was spawned.  In the years since, Arisia has characterized the progressive, partying, cosplay and gaming, wide-open new frontiers convention, and Boskone has come to symbolize traditional, serious, literary Science Fiction, discouraging parties, costumes, and only reluctantly letting vendors other than booksellers into the dealer’s area.

Arisia has exploded into a huge monster that sold out memberships this year and essentially takes over the hotel with 24 hour programming and a staggeringly broad range of panel topics and events.  Boskone is positively austere by comparison.  To be fair, the weather might have had something to do with it, but the difference in attendee traffic this year was stark.  Panel topics were much more limited, and discussions were often characterized by the phrase, “I can remember 50 years ago during the classic era of Sci Fi when…”

A distinct parallel exists between the NESFA and the greater SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, although it does extend its membership to Fantasy and Horror writers as well) which has been racked with controversy over accusations of sexism, primarily as manifested in its choice of cover art.   The serious writing (and consuming) of Science Fiction has been historically dominated by Straight White Males, who naturally favor minimally clad busty Barbies in their artwork.  As diversity spreads in the community, it has been suggested that maybe this sort of titillation is no longer appropriate.  In fact, many folks, particularly women, are pretty sick of it.

The reaction in the SFWA bastion was predictable.   Like Straight White Males everywhere who see their traditions threatened, they began beating their chests and hooting with derision.  Who do these loud-mouthed broads think they are, stirring up trouble and challenging classic SF tropes?   Heck, they were happy to welcome women into the time-honored profession as long as the ladies knew their place.  Had to respect the way things were always done, not question authority, and for pete’s sake, don’t have a conniption over some harmless groping in the elevator.  Be flattered that you’re pretty enough for that august professional to want to grab a piece of your sugar.

In the latest embarrassingly apish display, we have insider Sean P. Fodera snarking at multi-talented, Hugo-award winning author Mary Robinette Kowal via a comment on sff.net (this write-up on The Daily Dot has the wretched details).  An outspoken and staunch critic of sexism in the industry, Kowal was accused by Fodera of hypocrisy because of photographs she posted on her website of her wearing a “diaphanous white outfit, posing on a beach.”   He went on to tag her as “phony”, Incompetent” and “arrogant.”

Diaphanous?First of all, Kowal has a perfect right to pose in whatever outfit she chooses, including knock-offs from Lady Gaga if the fancy takes her.  That doesn’t justify sexual harassment or make her a “phony” for demanding respect for herself and all other professional women.  But what makes Fodera’s rant particularly pathetic is its utter groundlessness.  The white dress in question was not only modest but about as transparent as the NSA.  Not particularly provocative unless you’re a Victorian prude shocked at the sight of an unclothed ankle.

While Kowal was VP of the SFWA, she dared to call out the perpetrators of incessant sexual harassment, much of it against her, and that made her a target.  Bad choice of target, though, considering the amount of respect Kowal has among members of the greater writing and publishing community.  The president of Broad Universe, an organization of women writers and publishers in the genre, wrote a piece that pretty much sums up the general response, that these nasty tactics are  “disgusting and unacceptable.”  Unfortunately, they are also completely understandable.

Consider what is happening in national politics.  Once women were property, their lives and bodies subject to male agendas.   Similarly, non-whites were kept in their place, and any gay who dared come out of the closet could be bashed right back into it again.   All that has been changing.  The Straight White Male elite is seeing their power base eroding, their privileges questioned, their traditions challenged.  The Other is demanding a place in the sandbox and a share of the toys.  They want to change the rules, innovate, and discover their own way of building sandcastles.  Whether it’s right-wing Republicans or SFWA reactionaries, the Establishment feels it was there first, it’s their sandbox and their toys, and they aren’t going to give them up without a long and bitter fight.  Classic SF or Traditional American Values, by God, the Old Guard will fight to the death to defend it from the forces that seek to destroy it.

It’s rather sad, actually.  Those poor bastards, digging in and flinging offal at their attackers as they defend the ramparts.  Conservative, traditional, sober Boskone continues to shrink, and Arisia grows wilder, crazier, and more colorful every year.  That’s how life works.  That’s the nature of democracy and diversity: Women, and the rich rainbow of ethnicities, genders and cultures, huge and rich, full of new ideas and inspiration.  Yes, and disorderly, loud, uncontrolled and unpredictable.  No wonder the Establishment feels appalled and threatened.

But even as they dig in deeper, enlightened members from within their own ranks work to welcome the inevitable change.  Jim Kelly, SFWA insider, award-winning writer of classic SF, and confirmed Straight White Male, sees the irony of writers who spent careers imagining the future complaining about the future they actually got.   He is among those who are working from the inside “to bring our organization into the Twenty-first Century.”

I wish Jim and those like him every success.  Those who ignore the future are doomed to be trampled by it.

[Fodera, by the way, has since posted a long-winded and somewhat defensive apology to Kowal, but an apology nonetheless, which she graciously accepted.]

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11 responses

24 02 2014
Mary Jolles

Wow, I never realized that there was so much sexism remaining in the SF world… So many of the best (and my favorite) authors were/are women: Ursula LeGuin, Kate Elliott, and the fabled Leigh Brackett, just to name a few. I wonder how they have dealt with the sexist attitudes that they invariably must have faced.

25 02 2014
kristipetersenschoonover

Fodera should have been fired. If it’d been a racist or homophobic comment, he would’ve been, but I guess Big Six Macmillan is okay with this sort of behavior. That’s alright. I won’t be buying their books, or those of their imprints.

25 02 2014
justinegraykin

Agreed. His apology was crafted and intended to impress, but his original outpouring of vitriol has the ring of truth, an unvarnished and impulsive revelation of his dark internal thoughts. He is a man with serious issues.

25 02 2014
Mary Jolles

I just finished reading through Fedora’s (oops, Fodera’s) comments about Kowal and did find them extremely disturbing. He sounds like he has some serious personal issues. Unfortunately, people like Fodera tend to hide behind the cloak of “You misunderstood me,” as reflected in his pseudo-apology. I’m afraid we understand him all too well. His mysterious plaint about being prevented from doing good for SFWA by Kowal is vague and nonspecific. His personal attack on her suggests that he has confused a professional issue with a personal one.

25 02 2014
justinegraykin

Good point. He claims his comments were taken out of context and sensationalized, but if you read the original, they are completely straightforward. Pretty difficult to misunderstand. And his prolonged protestations in his “apology” sound an awful lot like the racial bigot’s claim that some of his best friends are black.

25 02 2014
Laurie Mann

I don’t think your analogy between NESFA and SFWA’s current bru-ha-ha works at all. Lots of women have run Boskone, particularly over the last 20 years. Boskones only discouraged open parties, costumes and non-book items in the Hucksters room once 26 years ago. Boskone size stabilized years ago. One thing most of us learned in the ’80s is bigger isn’t necessarily better.

25 02 2014
justinegraykin

Perhaps you are right. It is just an impression I’ve gotten from my experiences at both conventions and from people I have talked to. It may just be a common misconception based on superficial appearances. In NESFA’s case it might have less to do with gender and more to do with a certain philosophy. Certainly it is still the case that there are much fewer costumes, parties, and diversity of programming. But it must be said that Boskone has this in common with Readercon, a venerable and greatly respected con. Of course, Readercon had its recent sexual harassment scandal. That’s probably irrelevant, and more symptomatic of a greater societal problem.

25 02 2014
Chris Doherty

Ya know, if the guy is a jackass, or says some goddamn stupid thing on the internet, good for you for calling him out, and I agree with you in this case. But it helps no one to impute these failings to his nominal membership in some racial/sexual/demographic group. Saying Straight White Males this or that is in no way less offensive than saying Women this or Jews that. The stereotyping is the problem not the particular group that is being characterized, and acknowledging that not ALL Straight White Males act this way is about as enlightened as other folks writing that there are, maybe, some good Jews (or Muslims or Lesbians or whatever). Hate an opinion all you like, but when you hate a group of people you are the same as every other bigot – all of whom think that the group in question really is bad, know in their hearts that they really are all the same . . . and i suspect you are better than that, aren’t you?

Full Disclosure: Straight, mostly white, biologically male, in my 50’s, not offended, just saddened.

26 02 2014
justinegraykin

I would, in general, agree with you, if it weren’t for the fact that this particular demographic group tends to make such a big deal of its superiority and entitlement, and has a history of systematically oppressing those outside the group. Of course this is a generalization, but it’s one with not only historical but contemporary basis in truth. Are there exceptions? Of course, and I cite one, Jim Kelly. There are many others. When they cease to be exceptions, and become the general rule for the group, then the characterization will collapse and become irrelevant.

Are we really all the same in our humanity and desire to avoid suffering and seek happiness? Of course. Unfortunately, we as human beings have evolved with a strong innate tendency to want to identify with a tribe or group, and consider ourselves distinct from the Other. Members of all groups, racial, national, gendered or religious, take this to an extreme, expressing hostility towards the Other, forgetting that there is a certain arbitrariness to these labels. This hostility leads to conflicts, often bloody, and creates a great deal of suffering in the world.

What distinguishes the Straight White Male demographic is the power they wield, and the control they have had historically, a situation that continues into the present. To refuse the acknowledge that most of the wealthiest, most prominent and powerful people in the world today fall into this demographic group is to deny reality, as is remaining deaf to the rhetoric that these individuals espouse, explicitly justifying their positions of privilege because of their having been born into this group, denigrating those who are not members.

Again, does every human being who shares the demographics of this jealously powerful group also share their bigotry? No, as evidenced by the strides these people have made to open the door to those outside the group and embrace diversity. They are the key to progress and justice. I celebrate them.

26 02 2014
MW

I was just at Boskone, together with my wife and three of the kids. The people running the con were very nice and everything was professional. It did feel like an old-style sf con, but that’s okay. Choices are good and I’m not in any way against Arisia. It’s different, but not in a better or worse sort of way.

26 02 2014
justinegraykin

Thanks for the feedback! I just posted my review of the con itself (here) and as you can see, I enjoyed myself very much. Ah, the danger of metaphorical comparisons! The metaphor gets confused with the reality.

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