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February 2017



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jarts: internet lawn defense league

now i'm looking in the mirror all the time wondering what she don't see in me

Apparently it's time again for the annual "Kids these days don't read Heinlein" argument, which--to be honest--I don't even understand why it's an argument. Kids these days don't read Heinlein, and you know what? That's their privilege. Heinlein doesn't speak in any meaningful way to their concerns. (As a heavy teenaged Heinlein reader my own self, I, personally, am a little sadder that kids these days don't read Zelazny, Le Guin, Delany, and Bradbury, because I think they'd have more to offer that's relevant, including less tiresome pontificating--as well as a larger serving of actual writing chops--but I also suspect that the people now sadly bewailing the long slide of Heinlein out of the canon of indispensable authors got a ration in their own youths about being insufficiently invested in E.E. "Doc" Smith. Though I also suspect the generation gap was less, for reasons I will explore below.)

Back in the dim mists of history, about ten years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the internet and Livejournal was where the cool kids hung out, I used to get into arguments with certain people who opined that there were no young SFF writers. I would present them with a list of SF writers under 35 (myself included) only to be told that they meant writers under thirty, or maybe twenty-five, and that those writers didn't count because they weren't "Hard SF Writers" (whatever the hell that means), and because they weren't being published in Asimov's and Strange Horizons (still one of the bastions of young writerdom in the SF world) didn't count.

And when I pointed out in return that Asimov's was a hard market to crack (it seems more welcoming to new writers these days), and that literary and craft standards are higher now than they were in 1940 and correspondingly it takes longer to develop a professional skillset--and that maybe the problem was that my correspondents weren't reading the markets that were publishing the young writers, I would generally find myself greeted with the wail, "Where are the Bob Silverbergs?" (Or, from slightly younger handwringers over the Incipient Death of SFF, "Where are the Neil Gaimans?!")

Way to shift a goalpoast, honey.

Because we get more than two or three prodigy geniuses in a generation. And because we can identify them from the scrum of young writers when everybody is not-quite-thirtyish and shooting rockets of possibility everywhere.

Well, I'm older now, and I'm feeling pretty safe in saying that (among many others) Scott Lynch, Seanan McGuire, and Catherynne Valente (All still only in their mid-thirties, ten years later--hell, I think Seanan wasn't even a thing yet when I was still bothering to get in these fights) have some staying power. Also, today is Sam Sykes' 30th birthday, and Max Gladstone just turned thirty last month. Happy birthday, Sam and Max.

It finally dawned on me that the people I was arguing with could not be convinced, and their opinions didn't matter anyway. The best of them, I think, were arguing out of nostalgia. They wanted stories by young writers that would make them feel the way the young Silverberg's stories made them feel when they were twenty. And that's not going to happen, frankly, because they aren't twenty anymore, and because my then-peers (and the writers who are now the generation* after me, to whom I feel an obligation as older colleague now, and how the hell did that happen?) aren't writing out of the concerns that were current and pressing in 1956.

The worst of them weren't willing to accept this new generation of writers because the lists of names I kept handing them were full of female, queer, and person of color names. Because that is what my generation of SFF writers looks like, in large part.

This was around the same time that I got into a certain amount of trouble by pointing out that many of my age-group peers don't read newer work by our older colleagues, and the older colleagues often don't read us at all. Which wasn't meant as a value judgment, but it seemed like one to many people, and no less a light that Bob Silverberg took me to task for it. (There he is again.  And as a certain recent publication of mine may seem to indicate, I have been, am, and remain a fan.)

But my point then stands: there is no due diligence to be a fan. And trying to force fans to consume stuff that doesn't speak to them is, well, pointless and alienating and will only drive them away.

I do feel like the standard is a little more exacting for professionals in the field--writers and critics owe it to ourselves to have a foundation in the history of the genre. But I will be the first to say that that is our own responsibility, and our choice, and how we handle our own professional development is our own lookout. I'm going to tend to give more weight to the opinions of a critic who demonstrates herself to be knowledgeable and well-read--but that also means being well-read among current writers, and I'm afraid we probably have as many critics in the field who judge everything against the standard of Poul Anderson as we do critics who haven't read very much published before 1990.

(1990 was twenty-four years ago, by the way, for people my age and older. Just a little bullet of perspective there. When I was a freshman in high school, the equivalent year would have been 1961.)

So I fully encourage people who want to develop a sense of the history of the genre to go back and read, say, Fritz Leiber. Hell, I regularly read Fritz Leiber, and I'm hugely fond of his work. Not in the least, because Fafhrd is a great big fluffy feminist. (Mouser is friendzoned forever though; man, what a douchecanoe.) But even with Leiber, who wrote strong female characters with agendas and agency, I have to keep myself firmly in rein sometimes and remember that he was writing for a predominately white heterosexual male audience that was un-accepting of seeing anybody else placed in the role of protagonist. The white dude always has to save the day, no matter how cool everybody else is. And he usually has to get laid along the way.

And you know, if you don't want to read that, who the hell am I to tell you otherwise?

Which leads me to a point about privilege, before I end this rambling dissertation and go for a nice long run before it gets too hot outside. I too-often see (almost always white, almost always male) commentors and bloggers saying that they don't have a problem reading books in which the protagonists are aliens, or elves, or women, or black people--so why is these so much fuss about the need for diversity and representation in literature? Isn't it about getting out of your own skin and seeing somebody else's point of view?

Other people have tackled this far more in depth than I have time or patience for, but I'm going to take a swing.

It's easy to say that when one has never found one's self in a position of being disenfranchised and erased. When one has that safety of an entire world that considers you the default to return to. When what one is is assumed to be normal and comfortable.

All I can think is that somebody who says he's not worried about representation has never found himself placed constantly in an object position, which is, quite frankly, unpersoning. He's never been told over and over again that he exists only as an accessory to somebody else's story.

Stories are important. Stories are the mechanism that our pattern-making brains use as an engine to understand the world. And our stories need to show all people that they have an important place in that world, and that they are the heroes of their own narratives, not the color in somebody else's.

And I think writers with privilege in any given situation--be it gender, gender presentation, sexuality, race, class, ableness, what-have-you--have the responsibility to make space in our work for readers who do not have those privileges. And I also think that we have the even more important responsibility to make space for the actual voices of other writers who come from different backgrounds, and that the onus upon us to read widely is even more important when talking about writers of our own generation who come from less-widely-represented backgrounds than it is when talking about writers from the depths of the 1930s.

Everybody deserves stories.

And to anyone who is tempted to argue with me on that point: Hey. Isn't it about getting out of your own skin and seeing somebody else's point of view?

*writer generations are a funny thing. They go by publication date rather than chronological age. Which makes me the same writer-age, roughly, as Scott Lynch and as Peter Watts, even though there's about a sixteen-year spread on our physical ages.

(Comments are screened, because I'm going for a run and I have better things to do.)


Nostalgia is all well and good, but it can't be the basis for how anything -- a life, a group, a genre -- is defined. We all see writers (and musicians and artists and sports-people) we loved and admired go out of print and out of fashion. We can mourn that. We don't have a right to try and reverse it and to force our memories and tastes onto everyone else. Nor do we get to declare everything that isn't as we recall it Bad and Wrong. This is how history goes: things change, tastes change, we move on.
It's a point I wish the current UK government would take on board, too.
All lists of 'canon' encode privilege. They are drawn up out of existing privilege. They are in many ways an attempt to reinforce privilege (this is one reason why I am on some level always slightly suspicious of canon!). Like you, I wish more people were still reading Zelazny and LeGuin and Bradbury and Delany, who were the golden writers of my teens and twenties. But I know people now in their mid to late 30s who bewail that the young are not reading Banks and Gentle and Gibson. We all have our own doorways into these other lands. And the more diverse those doorways are, the better. The two books I most want to take back in time for my teenage self are Nnedi Okorafor's Zahrah the Windseeker and Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses because they say things about who people are, what people are, how people are that are critical and necessary and beautiful.
'Young writers' itself... So much coded there, about what is valorised in our culture. The demand for 'youth' itself privileges certain groups over others -- it's much easier to grab the time needed to write and acquire the confidence needed to put the work out there if you're a middle class white man. Women, people of colour, working class people, people with disabilities of all kinds tend to find it harder to get that time and confidence. So they debut older (and find themselves told they're irrelevant, too late or have somehow missed their turn, sometimes, too, which is... Well, it's a thing).
Heinlein mattered, certainly. But he is not the whole of genre, nor its blueprint, and we have grown beyond his visions and words and ideas. He doesn't need to go on mattering. This is history, alive and breathing amongst us, moving and changing shape. And that's how it needs to be.
Most people who are older fen haven't read Delany or Zelazny either. I didn't read Delany until last year and I was amazed at how relevant it was, how still-disturbing, how the only thing that felt dated was the use of subway tokens. But he is merely famous rather than actually being widely-read. Trouble on Triton has two orders of magnitude fewer ratings on Goodreads than Starship Troopers does.

Indeed, if Delany and Le Guin and Atwood were being promoted as The Canon, I think we'd see more people engaging with canon, because they do speak to current, pressing concerns.

(People might also read more of Heinlein if we had a functional public domain and things written 70 years ago were available for free on the internet, but oh well.)

I've read a lot of older stuff because my dad had a personal library. James Schmitz was the first things that spoke to me, because of course this 11 year old girl wanted to be a psychic with an invisible telepathic cat. But he's not part of canon either, because he wasn't Important Serious Works, and I wouldn't push him on others because his writings were frankly awkward and plopped cool, liberated women into sexist societies. Which may have reflected my experience at age 11, but doesn't mean anyone else needs to read it.

But I also don't expect everyone coming into fandom to be like me, maybe because not everyone in fandom has ever been like me. That's an experience I will never have that I think some white dudes in the 60's got to have and are still missing. Their experiences just aren't that important.
I was incredibly lucky in having access to a good set of public libraries and in having an sf-reading neighbour who let me borrow books as a teen. And they had Zelazny and Delany. (And Heinlein and Clarke and Niven and Harrison and Asimov and so forth. Lots of sf. Someone in the library circuit must have been a fan, looking back.) And the bit of fandom I fell into also included a lot of readers of Zelazny and Delany, too. But I can imagine this varied a lot from place to place. I was limited to what was published in the UK, and thus missed a lot of early Zelazny -- he wasn't picked up here till Jack of Shadows I think. Likewise I didn't get to read Russ or Tiptree till I was in my mid-20s. So much depends on access.
You were definitely luckier than me: from what I remember, my local library limited itself to early Asimov and Clarke, Dragonlance, and Dr Who novelisations. At home the choices were thoroughly British and 50s too - Huxley, Orwell, Wyndham and Kneale - and it wasn't as if my provincial bookshop was exactly teeming with non-UK sf either, so I didn't read Zelazny and Delany and Heinlein etc because they simply weren't around to be read...
Also, James Schmitz? Fabulous writer, whose stories still hold up, for me at least. Young women with agency. And, for his period, a fair attempt at introducing characters of diverse backgrounds, too, though the heroes all tend to be white, as I remember.
Schmitz was one of the few writers who did have female protagonists, and not all of them were young. Don't tell me Pilch isn't a role model! :-)

Furthermore, his stories hold up surprisingly well even today. Much better than most of the early Heinlein, certainly.

Indeed, if Delany and Le Guin and Atwood were being promoted as The Canon, I think we'd see more people engaging with canon, because they do speak to current, pressing concerns.

It's also easier to complain that "this person who died 25 years ago wouldn't win a Hugo today," whether you're assuming that's with the books they published half a century ago or "as if they kept writing," than to ask yourself why Le Guin and Delany, who are still alive and writing, haven't won a Hugo lately.

In some cases, I suspect the question doesn't arise because the Heinlein worshippers don't know that Le Guin and Delany are still alive and working, because they don't push the same buttons that Heinlein did. (A person can appreciate both: but the reasons I still love The Left Hand of Darkness aren't the reasons I liked Heinlein's juveniles, and overlap only somewhat with the reasons I enjoyed The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

In the context of this particular argument, it was the old "SF is dying!" canard. Because There Are No Young Writers, You See, So We Will Die Out.
Ah, yes, I've heard that one in an academic context, too, because the Wrong People were doing history - "But these people aren't just like me! The sky is falling!"
You would think that, given that science fiction likes to think of itself as a forward-looking, innovative, open to new ideas (which, in passing, Heinlein was in his work) that these "guardians" would be delighted to see new approaches, new insights, diverse writers, wouldn't you? But no, what they want is more of themselves. (And there are, sadly, 'young' -- in the sense of newish in the field -- writers who are just like them. Sigh. Privilege protects privilege.)
It would be nice to think that they were right and the privilege they're so exercised about *was* dying out.