science fiction & fantasy

Eligible for Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer

The golden age of SF wasn't golden for everyone

I came to science fiction and fantasy fandom late in life. Don't misunderstand — I've been reading SF/F since I was a young child. I also read my grandfather's SF/F magazines while growing up and, through their letter pages and columns, learned about the larger genre community. About friendships and conventions and fanzines and cosplay and filking and everything else that brought people together around a shared love of SF/F.

As a child growing up in rural Alabama, I regretted not being able to take part in fandom. I didn't even attend my first convention, ConText in Columbus, Ohio, until 2007. I often felt like I'd missed out on so much by only taking part in fandom relatively late in life.

But now, I'll glad that happened. Now I'm glad I didn't take part in fandom when I was young. Because as I step more and more into fandom, I've learned about SF/F's dark side. About how the SF/F community ignored and overlooked the predators among us.

You want examples?

  • As others have said, Forrest Ackerman is having his own #MeToo moment. However, Ackerman's sins went beyond harassing women to also being known for not paying and/or exploiting authors along with rumors of child porn and more.
  • As Jim Hines has written, "Isaac Asimov’s proclivity for groping women was so widely known that in 1961, the chair of Chicon III wrote a letter inviting him to give a lecture on 'The Power of Posterior Pinching.' Marcus Ranum recalls confronting Asimov at a Worldcon some 30 years ago, after Asimov groped his girlfriend in an elevator. The convention kicked Ranum out. In their view, the true crime wasn’t Asimov’s harassment, but Ranum’s complaint about it."
  • Stories are coming out about Arthur C. Clarke being a pedophile. For one story on this see Peter Troyer's essay at Vice. Until I read this essay I assumed the pedophilia allegations against Clarke were smears because he was a gay man in a time and place where that wasn't acceptable. Troyer's essay changed my mind and, even though he didn't name Clarke, it's obvious Clarke is the author he's referring to.
  • There's also Ed Kramer, well-known SF editor and co-founder of Dragon Con who pleaded guilt to child molestation.
  • And don't forget Marion Zimmer Bradley, who both sexually abused kids and allowed her husband Walter Breen to do the same. And while Bradley's conduct was unknown to most people during her lifetime, Breen's wasn't, with fandom groups like Worldcon actually debating whether to ban him for sexually abusing kids.

And that's merely the tip of the iceberg. The genre is filled with stories about the horrific actions of fans and writers who aren't famous. For example, the first convention I attended, ConText, imploded over an inability to deal with sexual harassment issues

I understand how these revelations pain many people. I grew up on the fiction of Asimov and Clarke. I still love their stories. I'm frequently published in the wonderful magazine named after Asimov. But that doesn't mean I'm willing to overlook what is being revealed or has been revealed about their behavior.

I also understand that SF/F fandom once felt besieged and looked down upon by society at large, and that this gave some people the urge to ignore behavior which should never be ignored.

But if the SF/F genre is to continue growing it must be open about the sins previously done in the name of fandom. In addition, fandom must never again tolerate such horrible acts.

I love science fiction and fantasy. I love the great people I've met in SF/F fandom. But despite that love, I refuse to ignore the harm fandom has allowed to happen to many people.

We all should stand together to demand that the SF/F genre do better in the future.

The golden age of SF/F television

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Note: Originally published in the October 2017 issue of the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.
 

My grandfather lived through the Golden Age of Science Fiction during 1930s and 1940s, when the modern SF genre made a major cultural impact in many other parts of the world. As a child I often looked in awe at my grandfather’s collection of Golden Age magazines and books.

I once asked him what it was like living through that era. My grandfather merely smiled and said “I just loved reading the stories.”

One day, when my grandchildren ask me what it was like living during our current Golden Age of SF/F Television, I plan to say, “I just loved watching the shows.”

We’re living in an age of television greatness, an era which HBO helped created at the beginning of the millennium with intense crime dramas such as The Sopranos and The Wire. These shows, which took visual episodic storytelling to new heights, influenced other networks and producers such as Netflix to do the same. The result is more great TV these days than anyone could possible watch in a lifetime.

However, what’s often missing in discussions over the great shows on TV is how much of that gold is mined within the science fiction and fantasy genre.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t great SF/F television shows in earlier decades. Star Trek and Doctor Who created the world’s first SF franchises back in the 1960s, a trend continued by 1978’s Battlestar Galactica. The soap opera Dark Shadows showed the potential of TV fantasies during the 1960s, as did the The Twilight Zone.

However, there were limitations on televised genre works in earlier decades. Special effects prior to the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) were extremely expensive and often looked extremely unrealistic. While Hollywood could justify the cost of quality special effects on blockbuster movies, TV shows had more limited budgets, with the cost of special effects playing a significant role in the cancellation of both the original Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.

Expensive special effects also limited the genre stories which could be told on TV. For example, Harlan Ellison’s original script for the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” was very different from what was eventually filmed. While creative disagreements between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry caused some of the changes, others resulted from how expensive it would have been to film Ellison’s script.

A side-effect of expense special effects was that many genre shows of this time period, such as Doctor Who, were also overly talkative. After all, it was far cheaper to film characters describing what was going on in a SF/F setting than to actually create the visual world and effects.

But by the 1990s realistic-looking and affordable CGI effects had expanded the storytelling possibilities of televised genre stories. And the arrival of good CGI coincided with increasing demand for in-depth episodic stories. This perfect melding of new visual worlds with deeper character-driven stories resulted in two great SF shows from the 1990s, Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

However, I believe it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the fantasy/horror/comedy series created by Joss Whedon running from 1997 to 2003, which truly set the stage for our current Golden Age of SF/F Television. The series followed the life of Buffy Summers, one in a long line of "Slayers" who battled demons and vampires while often falling into complicated relationships with the same. The series’ power rested fully on Whedon’s unique characters, in particular the strength of Buffy and her painful on-again-off-again relationship with the vampire Angel. The complex chemistry between the characters raised the show above other TV fantasies from that time such as Xena: Warrior Princess, which while fun never reached Buffy’s heights.

Joss Whedon’s next series, 2002’s Firefly, continued this mixing of character chemistry and drama but added a far higher standard of CGI effects. Set in a far future where humanity settled a distant star system, Firefly followed the crew of a rundown spaceship trying to survive in a space-western setting. Firefly was unique among many SF shows in that every character was fully realized with a complex dramatic arch — individual stories which, tragically, would not all be realized before the series was cancelled without finishing even a single season.

Fortunately, death by cancelation didn’t befall the next two great genre shows of our new golden age, the reimagined versions of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who. Debuting respectively in 2004 and 2005, both series built upon the strong universe creation, settings and characters of their earlier incarnations. They also showcased special effects which finally did justice to the grand scope of their stories, whether showing a ragtag group of ships struggling to reach a new home or the immortal Time Lord playing across space and time.

However, the new versions of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who also took their stories into new territories with extremely complex storytelling and characterizations which crossed back and forth through grimly realistic themes and ideas. Battlestar Galactica’s reworking of the original hotshot fighter pilot Starbuck into the tortured soul of Kara Thrace resulted in one of the best TV characters of all time. Doctor Who episodes such as "Blink," featuring the Weeping Angels, showed viewers new depths of fear while "The Doctor's Wife" gave a painful depth to the Doctor’s character and travels.

And now we’re caught up to our current day, with fantasies like Game of Thrones and SF such as The Expanse and Westworld being major cultural milestones. Even lesser-watched shows like Black Mirror and Orphan Black are creating stories which rank with the best SF/F television of all time. Add in the countless superhero shows and it’s easy to see how we are truly living through a Golden Age of SF/F Television.

One day, when your grandchildren ask what it was like with so much great SF/F on TV, simply tell them you loved watching the shows.

Why the red pill doesn’t wake people to our world’s true reality

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Note: Originally published in the March 2017 issue of the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.


Few science fiction symbols are as powerful as red and blue pills. In the 1999 film The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered a choice of two pills to take. If he takes the red pill, the truth of an extremely painful reality will be revealed. If Neo takes the blue pill, he’ll return to his happy illusion of life.

As Morpheus tells Neo, “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Since the release of The Matrix various political groups have seized on red and blue bills as a symbol describing people who have “woken” to their different belief systems. Among the many political groups using red and blue pills to describe what happens when someone understands and accepts their beliefs are anarchists, various progressive causes, environmentalists, the men’s rights movement, conservatives, neo-nazis, white supremacists, and many more.

Obviously all of these groups don’t possess the truth of reality, and some such as neo-nazis and white supremacists are so far from the truth that they wouldn’t recognize a red pill if it was shoved down their collective throats.

Despite this, I find it fascinating and disturbing that the red/blue pill symbol is seen as a metaphor for understanding the truth of reality. After all, The Matrix uses these pills in an extremely destructive manner. In the film once someone takes the red pill they are physically removed from the dream-like world the machines craft to keep humanity enslaved.

Despite being freed Neo and the other red pill people frequently return to the machine-crafted illusion most of humanity lives under, wanting to free their fellow humans from endless slavery. But to do this, Neo and his followers do almost as much harm as the machines they’re fighting.

As Morpheus says, “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

The truth of what the red pills reveal is boiled down to these words from Morpheus: “If you are not one of us, you are one of them.”

In The Matrix, this “us or them” belief means Neo and his band of followers slaughter any enslaved human who stands in their way, secure in the knowledge that theirs is the path of righteousness and that, in the end, they’ll reveal the truth to the world.

“If you are not one of us, you are one of them.” That’s a hell of a political statement. That’s the type of statement embraced by history’s worst political movements, movements which have killed millions in pursuits of their goals.

The Matrix is a great SF film, one of the best of the last few decades. But as political theory the film is extremely simplistic. After all, there’s a word for people who go through life with such an extreme “us or them” attitude: psychopaths.

While simplistic “us or them” arguments resonate with many people, our greatest achievements come when we put this attitude aside. When we stand with those we have disagreements with but with whom we can still find common ground.

And it’s this human determination to reach for common ground which makes me stay optimistic about the future. Because I believe in people. I believe most people try to do good and try build a better world.

This truth holds true in any successful community, be it a large, diverse community like the United States of America or a small community like SF film fans.

Our communities exist even when people disagree on issues. Our communities exist because we are more alike than different. Our communities exist because so many people make a decision to reject a red pill “us or them” view of the world.

And that’s one reality the red pill will never reveal to anyone who believes in a “us or them” world.

What happens to storytelling when the audience knows everything?

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The opening of the classic science fiction conspiracy show The X-Files posed an evocative statement: “The Truth Is Out There.” Well, the truth is still out there and, thanks to the internet and mobile technology, humanity is well on its way to having continual access to any truth we want.

These days anyone with a mobile phone or tablet carries vastly more computing power than all the computers on Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in 1969. Add in online access to the ever-growing libraries and archives of human experience and it’s possible for many people to instantly learn the answer to nearly any question they have.

And we’re merely at the beginning of continual access to human information and knowledge. Wearable tech and its promise to embed online access into clothing and eyeglasses and more, is already appearing. Body tech will follow shortly after.

We’re already seeing major changes in society from people having access to information through mobile devices. Paper maps and guides, which existed for thousands of years, are nearly extinct in some countries as people use their phones and GPS to navigate. Printed encyclopedias and dictionaries have also mostly disappeared, replaced by Wikipedia and other online resources. And social movements like the Arab Spring owed much of their power to the instantaneous sending of information between people by social media.

Those are merely the start of the changes we’ll see when every human has instant access to any information they desire. And one intriguing question I’ve been pondering is what this continual access to information will do to storytelling.

Here’s the issue: the vast majority of stories deal with an information gap between that story’s characters. This gap between what is known and not known by different characters helps create a story’s drama.

For example, in Romeo and Juliet a main character commits suicide because he believes his lover is dead. But what happens to that story when the characters can instantly find out they’re both alive?

Or what about Liam Neeson’s film Taken, where a father hunts for the people who kidnapped his daughter? What happens to that story when the father can instantly know the address where his daughter is being kept? Or his daughter can access an online database to learn of her kidnapper’s true nature when she first meets him?

And what about the eternal horror story where a group of kids visit an isolated house containing a monster or killer? What does that story turn into when the characters not only know the monster is present but download the monster's profile and stay in continual touch with each other instead of splitting up to be killed?

Those are only three examples of stories where having instant access to information could kill much of the story’s drama and plot. And this doesn’t take into account certain literary genres like mysteries, which could face extinction if people expect anyone to solve a crime after researching for a few seconds on their smartphone.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it’s an issue today’s authors and story creators must address. Otherwise their stories will no longer be believable. Audiences accept and go along with stories because of suspension of disbelief — the term refers to how people accept fantastical aspects of stories as long as the story has a semblance of truth. And in a world where many audiences already have instant access to all the information they desire, not giving characters the same access will cause that audience to doubt other aspects of the story.

Authors are already dealing with this issue in their fiction. I’ve talked to many writers over the last decade who bemoan what cell phones have forced them to do with their stories. If a character in a story gets lost or needs to call for help, an author has to set up exactly why that character doesn’t pull out their phone and use Google Maps or contact the police.

Ever wonder why so many films and books these days are set in areas with bad cell phone coverage? Mystery solved.

Much of human history revolved around a scarcity of human knowledge. Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world of danger and strangeness, governed by scientific rules they didn’t understand. Even when civilizations began inventing written languages and record keeping, most people didn’t have access to that information. Instead, storytelling and oral traditions and religion and gossip and rumor were essential for the sharing of needed knowledge.

But things have changed significantly over the last few centuries as schooling and literacy expanded, and as the printing press and then radio and TV gave more and more people access to needed information. One way to look at human history is that greater and greater percentages of humanity are continually being given the tools to access the knowledge and information they desire.

And now we’re on the cusp of every human having access to all information all the time.

Despite all this, ready access to information and knowledge is unlikely to totally destroy stories because the biggest source of human drama in storytelling won’t disappear. For many years to come you still won’t know what the person next to you is thinking or planning to do. The individual worlds and thoughts which swirl in each and every human will still be mysterious realms. Great stories will continue to explore the drama and conflict arising from that.

And just because humans will have 24/7 access to all information, that doesn’t mean they’ll desire the correct information. Or understand the information. Or act on it properly. All of which provides even more fuel for great stories.

In many ways science fiction and fantasy stories are able to deal with this issue far better than other storytelling genres. After all, if you set your story in an epic fantasy world without cell phones, or in a future universe or time where information is severely controlled, audiences won’t expect your characters to have continual access to needed information. Basically, the SF/F genre has long used world building to address why characters can’t use magic or technology to access any information they might need.

I wish I knew exactly how our information revolution will eventually change stories. But that’s exactly the information I’m unable to access at this time.