If I hadn’t read a blog post at Superversive SF called The Cardinal Mistake With SJWs and Robert Silverberg, I probably wouldn’t be writing this.
First off, I’ll state for the record, that because I’m even mentioning Jon Del Arroz‘s (yes, he deliberately makes himself a lightning rod for controversy) name and daring to write something with a social and political perspective not shared (necessarily) by Democrats, leftists, and progressives (those words are not synonyms), that at least one person will be vocally upset with me here on my blog.
I suspect that a lot of other people who regularly read my fiction will simply not respond because A: they like me and what I write, and B: they think that I’m a nice enough guy not to be flamed for expressing unpopular opinions.
Anyway, I did read Del Arroz’s article which starts out:
Robert Silverberg, a science fiction legend who’s responsible for editing some of the greatest sci-fi anthologies and short fiction collections of all time, among having one of the biggest writing careers in sci-fi himself, had a private email list with a few friends over the summer. On the list, he made commentary about NK Jemisin’s Hugo Award speech, in which she riddled with identity politics like she does everything else. He thought something along the lines that it’s a shame that people seem to be voting based on identity and that instead of celebrating and enjoying that people cared about a story, she used the platform to launch into “muh racist”, like she always does. He lamented this is not good for sci-fi, and rightly so, because it’s not.
For those of you who may not know, Robert Silverberg is a legend in the world of authoring and editing science fiction with a career that spans six decades. He has won Four Hugo Awards, three Locus Awards, and six Nebula Awards. Suffice it to say, he comes with an exceptionally impressive set of credentials.
However, after the most recent Hugo Awards presented this year in San Jose at the rather contentious (according to some) WorldCon76, he went on a private online forum to state the following, as recorded at the File 770 blog:
At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her. Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony. I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books. My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.
I know more than a few people (including the aforementioned Mr. Del Arroz) who have been highly vocal about such awards being granted less for story quality, and more for presenting various progressive themes and various progressive authors (regardless of quality), so this sentiment isn’t unknown to me (and according to Mr. Silverberg’s own words, issues of race, sex, or quality were not a part of his private complaint).
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous member of the private forum chose to publish Mr. Silverberg’s comments on a publicly accessible online platform, and things degraded from there (in a world where the Christmas classic Baby, It’s Cold Outside and the song from the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid Kiss the Girl are sexist and promote a rape culture, and the Christmas movies Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer are racist and bigoted, pretty much anything can be considered offensive).
In an attempt to set the record straight, Mr. Silverberg went on File 770 and wrote the essay Racism and Sexism. Unfortunately, according to Mr. Del Arroz (I haven’t read most of the 200+ comments there yet, so I can’t speak to this directly), it went tragically wrong, and Silverberg’s reputation, at least among this group, shot downhill with a bullet.
I did scan some of the responses and, in part, one stated:
That doesn’t make everyone in America a capital-R racist. But it does mean that everyone who grew up in America should be checking their biases and assumptions on a regular basis, because it’s HARD to go against that level of societal programming, and so to some degree, despite ourselves, we all are likely to slip up to a greater or lesser extent.
I’m not excepting myself from this. For example, I’ve noticed that I get more nervous if a group of black men pass me on the sidewalk than if a group of white women do. I don’t make excuses for this; I know perfectly well that it isn’t fair to the black men, and that it’s because of the explicit warnings and the example set by her behavior that my mother gave me when I was a child half a century ago. And because I know this, I make a conscious effort to not change my behavior or affect, even if my heart rate is speeding up. I have no control over my heart rate, but I do have control over how I behave.
Well, according to that (and I may be exaggerating just a tad), 100% of all white American men are at least latently racist and must constantly be checking something or other before they open their mouths or put fingers to a keyboard “even in a private discussion group.” Now remember, Silverberg, who is Jewish, didn’t use any racist or sexist epithets AT ALL. His statement and its result is the moral equivalent of classic science fiction writer Gregory Benford having recently being evicted from a Con merely for using the word “honey” as emphasis to a statement he was making to a general audience.
Now according to Del Arroz, Silverberg’s original statement had to do with the Hugo Award acceptance speech of NK Jemisin who is a woman and African-American science fiction author and psychologist, and whose works have won nine awards and been nominated for nineteen, which is pretty impressive.
Now science fiction has always been used to talk about current day political and social issues and to push the edge of controversy (without seeming to, which is probably the difference between classic and modern SF), so this is nothing new. However, to the best of my knowledge, Mr. Silverberg’s objection was against “weaponizing” (my term, not Mr. Silverberg’s) winning awards in an attempt to denounce various historical and current sources of oppression. Since Ms. Jemisin is obviously an over-the-top success, to the best of my ability to determine online, she’s doing pretty well these days. Maybe when accepting her most recent Hugo, she could have afforded to say, “I’d really like to thank all my fans for helping make my career an outstanding success (including my Patreon campaign).” Just a thought, and for all I know, she does say that in other venues.
However, according to Mr. Del Arroz’s opinion of Ms. Jemisin:
Of course, sci-fi elites like Jemisin herself replied with passive aggressive drivel like you would expect. The woman has a publishing contract solely because of her skin color, sells books solely because she whines about it, and wins awards solely so people can pat themselves on the back for it. It’s a joke. She’s used her race to create her entire career, and is one of the biggest race-baiting liars out there.
Wow! First of all, how can he possibly know all that? Secondly, in any objective fashion (that is, setting aside that she’s a woman, a person of color, and apparently socially and politically progressive), does her writing stand on its own? That is, if I didn’t know anything about her, including whether or not she is a “her” and I read any of her books, would I think they were not only good, but of award winning quality (and I’ve been reading science fiction since before Ms. Jemisin was born)?
I’ll answer that question in a minute.
Not too long ago, I read an article at Quartzy called Nine Sci-Fi Subgenres to Help You Understand the Future by Jay Owens. When you cut through all of the fluff, he’s basically saying, that if you write science fiction, and you don’t specifically include one or more of these progressive, leftist themes, your writing doesn’t matter, regardless of the quality of the story. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re a good storyteller anymore. It only matters if you fulfill some highly specific social/political imperative.
You can click on the link to find out what the nine subgenres are, and they’re not necessarily bad or invalid. In fact, writing well within these contexts could produce some very good stories (assuming the writing is good and doesn’t simply pander to a popular theme).
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, and especially my social/political commentaries, you know I don’t like being told what to do, how to speak, what to look like, how high to jump, just because an online pundit says I so. It doesn’t bring out the best in me.
Ever since my previous rants on WorldCon76 and the Hugos, I’ve wondered if these modern award-winning novels, short stories, and so on, really are as good or even so much better than those, say, created by Robert Silverberg back in the day?
I checked the paperback out of my local public library (libraries are good) on a whim without realizing it was a “part two.” I think that could be why I’m having trouble grasping the environment she’s created and connecting with the characters.
Oh, Ms. Bear is also the recipient of eight awards, three of them being Hugos.
I’m going to continue to push through “Chill,” which has received proverbial rave reviews, to see if I can warm up to it, but it does give me an idea.
I’ve been meaning to “sample” recent Hugo award winning short stories and novels to see if they match up in quality to the memory of what I experienced as the good science fiction authoring of my youth. Ms. Jemisin’s Hugo award winning novel The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) is available through my local library system. I’m adding it to my list and will write a review, both here and on Amazon, which I finish it.
I was briefly tempted to comment on File 770, but decided not to because A: I’m a nobody relative to the various luminaries that frequent that environment, B: because I have nothing to add (that I haven’t already said here), and C: I have no desire to (once again) be flamed because I’m male, old, white, cis-het (did I get that part right), conservative, religious, and don’t automatically consider myself wholly evil because of those characteristics.
I should probably never write missives like this one because people always complain, but on the other hand, I don’t feel like I should be muzzled either because social media pundits want only one voice to be heard (and it wouldn’t be mine). If you really, really want diversity in science fiction or any other venue, it’s not a matter of pushing out the “old” (white guys) and exclusively accepting only the “new” (everybody else), but making room at the same table for all voices. That’s not an unreasonable request.
Do I think that Robert Silverberg is a racist and a sexist? Given the fact that I can’t read his mind, I can’t know in an absolute sense. Given the comments of his I can read, and based on how I have historically defined racism and sexism, no, absolutely not. But then again, I don’t think I’m racist or sexist either, and I’m sure based on this wee essay, someone will disagree.
You know, if Silverberg and Jemisin sat down, just the two of them, at the same table over coffee or a couple of beers (or whatever beverage they agreed upon), maybe they’d find common ground, and who knows, they might even like each other. After all, they’re well known science fiction authors. I bet if they got away from all of the social media noise (including my blog), they’d actually get to relate to each other as human beings. I know. Shocking, right?
EDIT: I managed to find a transcript of NK Jemisin’s most recent Hugo Award acceptance speech. Since I can read faster than a person speaks (just about everyone can), I didn’t actually listen to the speech, so I couldn’t hear tone of voice or inflection, or see body language, but based on the language alone, it didn’t seem particularly angry. She took five minutes to relate what her experience has been like becoming a successful SF/F author. Granted, Silverberg is a SF luminary and I’m just an aging wannebee, but I probably wouldn’t have said “boo” in response to this speech. The only reason I’m commenting now is because, of how out of proportion I believe Silverberg’s comments have been taken. No, I still don’t believe he’s a racist or a sexist. I do believe he was speaking out of his decades long experience in the SF field, at the cons, receiving awards, and just being him. Unfortunately, the comments I’ve been going through at File 770 do not encourage me, but then, I haven’t gotten very far yet.