Activism, Awards, Books, Culture Wars, Literature, Recommended

Science Fiction Purges its Problematic Past

Since 1991, the James Tiptree Junior Award has been given annually to a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” The award was founded by two women science fiction writers, Pat Murphy and Karen Jay Fowler. From next year, it will be called the Otherwise Award.

James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon. Born Alice Bradley in 1915, she travelled the world with her parents as a young child. In 1940, after a brief unhappy marriage, she joined the women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and worked in intelligence. She married Huntington “Ting” Sheldon in 1945, and in 1952 they both joined the CIA. She later earned her doctorate and took up writing. She wrote short stories and novels, but it is the former that stand out as truly remarkable. With prose as subtle and precise as the most refined literary fiction, she penned imaginative tales like “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Girl Who was Plugged In,” which became classics of science fiction and also important works of feminist fiction. Later in her life, she suffered from heart troubles and depression. Her husband went blind. She recorded in her diary in 1979 that she and her husband had agreed to a suicide pact if their health worsened. In 1987, she shot her husband, called her lawyer and told him that they had agreed to suicide, and then shot herself.

The award is being renamed because of this suicide. Although the prize was founded to recognize fiction “exploring gender,” the current board of the award see their expanded mission to be to “make the world listen to voices that they would rather ignore.” The issue is that some of these voices have decided that Sheldon killed her husband because she was ableist (that is, bigoted toward the disabled). Sheldon’s biographer, Julie Phillips, has tweeted in response: “The question has come up whether Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr) and her husband Ting died by suicide or murder-suicide. I regret not saying clearly in the bio that those closest to the Sheldons all told me that they had a pact and that Ting’s health was failing.” Phillips has also changed her Twitter profile to include the sentence, “Biographer of Ursula K. Le Guin and of James Tiptree, Jr., who was not a murderer.”

But evidence and expert judgment are not sufficient here. Someone feels that Sheldon murdered her husband, and such claims must now be respected. Thus, the board reports, “We value the disabled writers and readers and artists and fans who support this award. Many of them—many of you—have told us that the Award’s current name holds negative, painful, exclusionary associations. So we’re changing it.”

Speculative fiction is fortunate to have a community of active readers and writers who do volunteer work of the kind the Otherwise Award board does. It is not a criticism of their sincerity or generosity to recognize that this renaming is a kind of erasure of Alice Sheldon. Consider the words of Sheldon’s biographer on her blog: “For myself, I can say that I first encountered Alice Sheldon through the name attached to the award, and that if the award hadn’t been called the Tiptree I might never have written the biography.” It is hard for writers—even relatively successful writers—to find an audience. Removing “Tiptree” from the award, and replacing it with the anodyne “Otherwise,” will discard an opportunity for many readers to first hear of James Tiptree, Jr.

Sheldon is not the only member of the speculative writing community to recently be re-evaluated. In 2019, Jeannette Ng won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In what is emerging as a new tradition for those receiving science fiction awards, she gave an acceptance speech denouncing the genre’s failings. She targeted the eponym for the award:

John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.

John Campbell was the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (the name was later changed to Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact) from 1937 until his death in 1971. He had enormous influence over science fiction in his time, and published many of the most famous science fiction writers, such as Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. The award was named in his honor. After Ng’s diatribe, the award was immediately renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Prominent writers released statements in support of Ng’s speech. Arguments were made that Campbell might not be appropriate to represent contemporary writers, but no one addressed whether we should want a community where we call each other “fascist,” or why it was reasonable to treat being male and white (or, oddly, exalting in industry) as deplorable.

Other awards have been changed. The World Fantasy Award used to be a bust of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, designed by the famed macabre artist Gahan Wilson. After objections to the racism that Lovecraft expressed in his private letters and in some unpublished works, in 2016 the award was changed to a new sculpture of a sun setting behind a tree.

Cernunnos Press recently published a handsome new edition of Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. The book is an example of how critics can confront problems like these with reason and care. Houellebecq addresses Lovecraft’s racism head on, drawing our attention to some of his most hateful expressions, like this one about the people he saw during his brief time living in New York: “The organic things—Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid—inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human.” Houellebecq recognizes this racism as a terrible flaw of Lovecraft, and he also recognizes that if it anywhere intrudes into Lovecraft’s fiction, it is to the detriment of that fiction. While drawing attention to his faults, Houellebecq also celebrates Lovecraft in a way that no scholar in the Anglophone world has (most writing on Lovecraft is apologetic for his prose style, estimating him as of limited talent). Houellebecq is most astute, and most full of praise, in evaluating Lovecraft’s ability to create a new mythology, something he recognizes as akin to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. If we must be concerned with the author and not just the work, then Houellebecq’s book is an example of the balance that our criticism should achieve: we must recognize that the work is one thing, the author another. Literary criticism should not be a struggle session.

But this is not the spirit of our moment. Instead, as speculative fiction becomes more diverse, the sense that it must be corrected grows, and author and art are evaluated together. There is a notable asymmetry in this evaluation. Most fiction readers are women, and many fiction genres are dominated by women. Men who write romance novels or cozy mysteries must write under female pseudonyms, because the audiences for these genres will largely avoid books by men. In publishing, this is considered merely a demographic fact, and not an ethical failure of some kind. The attitude is very different towards science fiction. That for decades science fiction was mostly written, read, and published by white men is seen, at best, as something that must be denounced and aggressively corrected, and at worst as evidence that racism and sexism were the driving engines of this creative explosion. We do not single out other genres of fiction, or other art forms, for this kind of invective. We do not hear admirers of the golden age of jazz, for example, denounce the great composers of that era because they were nearly all African-American men. Louise Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and many other such men are honored for their genius, and we recognize their creations as a gift to humankind. Why not consider American science fiction in the twentieth century as a gift, instead of dismissing it as “Sterile. Male. White.”?

What we might call the commercial center of the speculative writing community has committed to diversity as a primary goal. Most agents and publishers now representing speculative fiction make explicit that they are eager to represent and publish diverse writers producing fiction on themes of diversity. In recent years, 90 percent of the nominees in the fiction categories for the Nebula Awards (the annual awards given by the Science Fiction Writers of America) were women. The president of the Science Fiction Writers of America has pinned a tweet to her Twitter account that reads: “It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.” Everyone knows who counts as homogeneity and needs to be subtracted.

These organizations are member-driven non-profits; publishers and agents are private businesses and private individuals. Without reservation, we should support their right to make their own decisions, to rename their awards, to nominate the works they choose to recognize, and to promote the fiction and writers they want to promote. But there is a clear pattern now in these campaigns, wherever they occur. Victory is not followed by celebration, nor even a passing frisson of satisfaction. Instead, it leads to ever greater anger towards the vanquished and a search for new enemies, while the bar for outrage gets ever lower. Thus, we start out objecting to a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, and soon we are quashing one of our greatest feminist writers.

Why do those who remain silent while others denounce the legacy of Alice Sheldon not recognize that the outrage will eventually be aimed at them, or at their favorite writers? If fiction—and any accomplishment in publishing, editing, and promoting fiction—must be evaluated by applying ever-shifting ethical standards to the individual doing the work, then any work can eventually be deemed “problematic.” It will be as easy to denounce the most enlightened of the contemporary speculative fiction writers as it was to denounce John W. Campbell.

At its best, science fiction gives us a way to think about our time, the future we want to achieve or avoid, and our relation to technology. In one of Alice Sheldon’s most powerful stories, “The Women Men Don’t See,” a woman named Parsons and her daughter hire a pilot to take them to Chetumal. The plane crashes en route, and they are stranded with the pilot and a fisherman in the wilderness. The fisherman struggles to understand the women. The feelings and hopes and goals of Parsons are invisible to him, and all he can do is project his prejudices onto her. Understanding this, Parsons likens herself to a nocturnal animal, present but not genuinely seen. She tells the fisherman, “What women do is survive. We live by twos and threes in the chinks of your world machine…. Think of us as opossums…. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City.” When an alien spaceship lands nearby and the group encounters an extraterrestrial explorer, the fisherman panics, but Parsons and her daughter beg the aliens to take them away. They would rather leap into the unknown than return to their life in America. Written with careful realism, the story is a masterful inversion of expectations and tropes. The fisherman tries to stop the women, but they leave Earth with the alien explorers. Later, drunk in a bar, he muses, “Two of our opossums are missing.”

We need to learn from Sheldon’s wisdom. Anyone can be an opossum now.

 

Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher. You can follow him on Twitter @CraigDeLancey

Featured Image: Alice B. Sheldon at work (courtesy of Jeanne Gomoll)

Comments

  1. The great progressive cultural revolution continues, melting another portion of western cultural legacy into a slag of mediocrity.

    The problem is not criticism of the past, the problem is that critics who have nothing to offer except thoroughly stereotyped criticisms, are being treated as the arbiters of everything.

    If I knew more about cultural history, I am sure I could find a precedent, even though digital culture and diversity activism are new things. This can’t be the first time that mediocrity has temporarily triumphed.

    So we must await two things. First, the appearance of worthwhile new works and movements, from outside the stifling new orthodoxies. For some reason, I think here of Fortnite’s 100 all-male finalists. I’m not saying that only men can create worthwhile culture, but clearly the spaces not yet governed by new ideals of artificially equal representation, are among those outside the reach of the new orthodoxy.

    Second, we need a quasi-objective accounting of what the new orthodoxy is, and the nature of the culture that it has created (and also of the prior culture that it has displaced or destroyed). I am thinking of a neutral, anthropological account. Contemporary progressive culture may be new and disorienting, but it is not the only culture ever to have new ideals, to engage in purges of the canon, to have hypocrisies and blindspots. It has its inner logic too.

    The combination of these two things - an understanding of the new orthodoxy, and what it has replaced, and a sense of where new futures are growing - can allow us to see and move beyond mere culture war.

  2. The impulse to rename awards is the same as the impulse to tear down Confederate statues. Controversial people are woven into the tapestry of history as tightly as anyone else, and trying to erase them doesn’t make their influence go away no matter how thorough your damnatio memoriae may be.

    It’s that influence that bothers the SJWs most, I think; they would like history (in this case the history of their literature) to begin with them, free of the corruptions of a past no longer extant nor remembered. They want to declare a Year Zero, as so many totalitarians have done, and sweep away their predecessors as irrelevant and unworthy of attention; they have never learned, and probably never will learn, that the consequences of willful ignorance of the past cannot be avoided. Judging by the declining quality of SF, those consequences have already kicked in.

  3. Jeannette Ng won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In what is emerging as a new tradition for those receiving science fiction awards, she gave an [ungrateful and hand-biting] acceptance speech denouncing the genre’s failings. She targeted the eponym for the award:

    John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.

    I object to the feminomarxist slur of “sterile”. There was nothing sterile about, for example, Isaac Asimov.

    And while we’re on the subject of women who write science fiction, they don’t, for the most part. They could charitably be described as writers of speculative fiction, but science fiction? There is hardly a scientist among them.

  4. Feminists consider the old SF stalwarts to be sterile because they didn’t spend enough time digging into the psychology of their characters, or, to put it bluntly, they didn’t write enough about feelings. The complaint one hears, again and again, is that the old writers focused either on concrete details or abstract concepts, and while swinging between those two poles nobody stopped to make the audience give a rat’s ass about the characters – the result being that there was no emotional investment in science fiction. Emotional investment is the sine qua non of modern SF authors, to the detriment of such things as actual PLOTS and IDEAS. (And it is both wrong and insulting to suggest that old-school SF didn’t bother to make you care about the characters.)

  5. Lovecraft is awesome. If he weren’t such a wretched misanthrope his stories wouldn’t have been nearly as good. He doesn’t need any awards named after him.

  6. Here is the bitter truth, they can heap innocuously named awards upon themselves for intellectually bland books that come from the same angle again and again, but the future will ignore them and the books they damn will survive while those they write will be deservedly forgotten.

  7. “There is NO ONE as fascist as Robert Heinlein. Although I am sure he would disagree, and would call himself a libertarian. He coined the term “TANSTAAFL” for “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. He wrote “Starship Troopers”, in which you gained citizenship by killing “bugs” or alien scum. I used to think it was tongue in chief, but I now believe it was completely earnest.”

    This comment is either over the top sarcasm or rank idiocy. No one who read more than one book by Heinlein could come to such a conclusion. Heinlein liked to take certain points of view and expand on them. For example, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was his Libertarian novel, Friday was his super spy novel, The Puppet Masters was his alien invasion novel, Glory Road was his adventure novel, Stranger in a Strange Land was his new age novel and Starship Troopers was his militaristic novel.

    There’s nothing fascist about the term TANSTAAFL. Furthermore, you didn’t “gain citizenship by killing “bugs” or alien scum” in Starship Troopers. You gained citizenship through a term of service, either with the government, health services or in the military. In addition, citizenship gave you the right to “vote”. The leadership was elected, not a dictatorship.

    Of course, if you never actually read the book, but only watched the movie which was closer to a parody than a retelling of the book, I could understand your confusion.

  8. Houellebecq recognizes this racism as a terrible flaw of Lovecraft, and he also recognizes that if it anywhere intrudes into Lovecraft’s fiction, it is to the detriment of that fiction

    This is frankly nonsense. Lovecrafts racism is unpleasant and shocking to modern sensibilities but it also is clearly an integral part of his work hich would be different and probably not have the same depth and impact when describing the incomprehenible, loathsome and alien nature of ancient horrors.

    There is a serious problem seeking to censor and judge art on the perceived morality of the artists, even more so when judging using modern morality to judge those in the past. This is compounded by a racist and sexist agenda amongst those doing the judging and an eagerness to find fault and reluctance to give the benefit of any doubt.

    Science fiction for good or ill was mainly a male domain both writers and readers. There have been outstanding women writers. I liked Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler for example but it was mainly a male domain because of its focus on science and ideas. This is aligned to the general tendancy for men to be more interested in things and women in people. The genre is very diverse and there were movemenst against this fouc fo rexample the New Wave of science fiction in th 70’s but broadly it was true. Overall I think to teh extent it could be called a ‘community’ it was broad, tolerant and mainly male. Recently there has been an effort to reduce male influence denegrate men and those forms mainly liked by men and this parallels a broad trend in society to undermine and colonise male spaces as exclusionary and discriminatory while expanding women only spaces.

    Literature whas been dominated by women for some time, there are women only litereature prizes but no male only prizes while publishing is dominated by women. The attack on science fiction as a male space was inevitable and in an atmosphre of poltiical correctness some traditional women authors would inevitably be collateral damage. At some point the pendulum must swing back to a less sexist more equal and tolerant view but that does seems a distant prospect at the moment.

  9. SciFi has always attracted lunatics, some of them illiberal. But Heinlein was no fascist. In fact he’s become a bit of a Rorschach test. If you read it and read fascism you are intellectually and spiritually inclined to leftist-ism. If you read it and see a liberal society at war you are inclined to liberalism or libertarian-ism. I mean if a nobody from the British lower middle class can figure this out, why can’t our intelligentsia. I think it’s because they don’t want to imagine legitimate societies that are organized on non-leftist principles.

  10. You could call the Dr No narrative bigotry. You could also call it racially aware. I mean what is the difference between this narrative and how a professor of anti-colonial studies, or many black studies professors view the world? Do they not perform the same social dissection and classification complete with moral judgement? And here’s the clincher, while this paragraph offends current year liberal Western sensibilities and good opinion in our major metropolitan areas, the offence diminishes the further you drive away from the city lights, and when you cross the border where English is no longer the lingua franca you would be shocked about how people see the world. In Jedda, Cairo, Bejing, Tokyo, Jakarta, Bogota, Lagos, Addis Ababa, etc… this racial judgmental-ism is just par for the course with no change in sight.
    So why are we so concerned with the words of the dead old British white man? Right? We have bigger bigotries and toxic narratives to deal with now and they don’t always wear white face. I think we are leaning on the “horribleness of the white man” narrative because it makes our reality knowable, comforting, and easy. We are too afraid to look beyond the city walls in case we come to learn that larger demons live there.

  11. Twenty years ago this article would have been considered science fiction. Today it is horrifyingly non-fiction.

  12. @Craig Thank you for this article. I have loved SF since I was a tiny tyke in the 70s.

    What do you think about the claims of groups like the Sad Puppies, that the SFWA and Hugo / Nebula Awards have been captured by a political clique that uses its clout to promote only fiction that aligns with a specific, intersectional political view and shut down fiction that is outside it. Do those claims have merit or is that paranoid?

  13. It’s curious (and by curious I mean entirely predictable) that we’re seeing gender controversies in the only fiction genre that still has a significant number of male readers. Do we see this kind of uproar in Romance? Nope. In Mystery, Thrillers, or Historical Fiction? Nope. The readership of all those genres is overwhelmingly women, as are most of the authors these days. There’s no controversy because genres dominated by women aren’t regarded as a problem. It’s only genres that still have close to 50 per cent male readership that are problematic, and need to be reformed.

    80 per cent of novels sold today are sold to women. That’s a pretty dramatic disparity. If you think reading fiction is a good thing, then it’s cause for concern that it has come to be eschewed by boys as a gendered activity. But of course any efforts to encourage boys to take up reading would be immediately denounced as the reactionary campaign of misogynist MRA trolls.

  14. “Reasonable.”…

    1. I believe your claim is completely wrong, that Lovecraft’s work would be significantly different and significantly diminished if he had not held the racist views that he did. I believe that almost anyone who has read the classic Lovercraft stories would see this to be true.

    2. The fact that many other writers can create works set within the fictional world created by Lovecraft who are not racist says nothing about whether his racism affected his writing and in doing so strenghened or weakened it.

    3. That many people enjoy Lovecraft’s fictions says nothing as to whether he was racist and whether that racism is an influence in his work.

    It is absolutely clear to me that the sense of disgust he expressed towards other racial groups in the real world are very closely paralleled in the disgust he protrays in his fictional writing towards the variosu non-human or humanoid denziens of his fictional world. The sense of horror, awe and disgust conveyed in his writing with respect to the various eldricth horrors is integral to his appeal and I feel are strongly related to his racist feelings. This is the element I believe is strenghened and in a purely literary sense improved by his racism.

    We need to recognise that real people including authors are products of their time, that everyone is complicated with good and bad characteristics often in apparent contradiction and that ‘bad’ people can create great works of art.

    If we censor everything created by anyone who transgresses modern propriety than we will have almost no literature at all and nothing of any note.

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