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.”
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.