Controversies Inside the World of Science Fiction and Fantasy

With the recent release of Ender’s Game, many of you were made aware of the controversy surrounding Orson Scott Card, his homophobic comments, and his efforts to fight marriage equality. It was the rare occasion of something well-known in the science fiction community reaching a larger audience. In the spirit of that exposure, I’m going to share five more controversies that rippled through our small community. Be warned: there’s racism, sexism, and generally dickish behavior below. 

Elizabeth Moon’s Guest of Honor Status

Elizabeth Moon is an established science fiction author who has been publishing since the late 1980s. Her long-running Paksenarrion novel is still ongoing and she won the 2003 Nebula Award for The Speed of Dark. She was established enough to be named a Guest of Honor at Wiscon, the “feminist science fiction convention,” in May 2011. 

However, on September 11, 2010, she wrote a blog entry titled “Citizenship," which talked about the Islamic memorial center that was being planned near the site of the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan. Moon said things like: 

But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they've had.  Schools in my area held consciousness-raising sessions for kids about not teasing children in Muslim-defined clothing...but not about not teasing Jewish children or racial minorities.  More law enforcement was dedicated to protecting mosques than synagogues—and synagogues are still targeted for vandalism.  What I heard, in my area, after 9/11, was not condemnation by local mosques of the attack—but an immediate cry for protection even before anything happened.   Our church, and many others (not, obviously all) already had in place a "peace and reconciliation" program that urged us to understand, forgive, pray for, not just innocent Muslims but the attackers themselves.  It sponsored a talk by a Muslim from a local mosque—but the talk was all about how wonderful Islam was—totally ignoring the historical roots of Islamic violence.


The same with other points of Islam that I find appalling (especially as a free woman) and totally against those basic principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution...I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom.  It would be helpful to have them understand what they're demanding of me and others—how much more they're asking than giving.  It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country.

These comments were obviously seen as inflammatory by some in the community (though not all). Most significantly, though, the organizers of Wiscon, which tends to focus on diversity in general and not just feminism, were offended. They issued a statement but said they wouldn’t take back the invitation . But the criticism continued and as a result, they rescinded Moon’s invitation. Some felt this was against the spirit of the convention (since she was exercising her right to free speech) and that discourse at the convention would be the best solution, but ultimately Moon was removed from the program. It should be noted that Moon defended the right of the con organizers to do so.

Harlan Ellison gropes Connie Willis

Harlan Ellison is not a stranger to controversy. He has claimed to have mailed a publisher a dead gopher in response to a grievance. But perhaps one of his most egregious acts took place during the 2006 Hugo Awards. Ellison was on stage with author Connie Willis and grabbed her breast. People in the audience were shocked. Editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden said, “Harlan Ellison groping Connie Willis on stage at the Hugos wasn't funny and it wasn't okay. I understand (from third parties; I haven't spoken to her about it) that Connie Willis's position is that Ellison has done worse and she can handle him, but I really didn't want to watch it and neither, I think, did a lot of other people in the audience. Up to then the comedic schtick aspects of the Hugo presentation had been genuinely funny. After that, I think, many of us just wanted it all to stop.” 

Ellison apologized a few days later: 

Nonetheless, despite my only becoming aware of this brouhaha right this moment (12 noon LA time, Tuesday the 29th), three days after the digital spasm that seems to be in uproar ... YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!! IT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN'S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go way over the line in terms of invasion of someone's personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst. When George W. Bush massaged the back of the neck of that female foreign dignitary (Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel), we were all justly appalled. For me to grab Connie's breast is inexcusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive to any observers or those who heard of it later.

Of course, he couldn’t just leave it at that. He later responded with: 

Does not anyone READ WHAT I WROTE within fifteen minutes of learning of this? Does not anyone wonder why, if it was such a piggish thing I did, as one of those jerkwad blogs calls it, Connie Willis hasn’t, after twenty-five years of “friendship,” not returned my call on Monday … or responded to the Fedex packet of my posting here on Monday, which Fedex advises me she received at 2:20 pm on Tuesday?

Can the voluble and charismatic Connie not even pick up a phone to tell the man whose work she “admires deeply” that he has gone a bridge too far? Is she so wracked by the Awfulness of it that she is incapable of saying to his face, you went too far? No one EVER asked her to “bell the cat.” She decided that was her role toward me, long ago. And I’ve put up with it for years. 

How about it, Mark: after playing straight man to Connie’s very frequently demeaning public jackanapery toward me — including treating me with considerable disrespect at the Grand Master Awards Weekend, where she put a chair down in front of her lectern as Master of Ceremonies, and made me sit there like a naughty child throughout her long “roast” of my life and career — for more than 25 years, without once complaining, whaddaya think, Mark, am I even a leetle bit entitled to think that Connie likes to play, and geez ain’t it sad that as long as SHE sets the rules for play, and I’m the village idiot, she’s cool … but gawd forbid I change the rules and play MY way for a change … whaddaya think, Mark, my friend, am I within the parameters of brutish pigginess to suggest if she WAS offended, then I apologize … even if you and a garbage-scowload of asinine pathetic internet wanks get up on their “affront” and tell me how to behave?

I’ve sat here for four days, quietly, having done as much forelock-tugging and kneeling as I feel — as I — I — not you — not fan pinheads in far places who jumped and bayed and went after me in a second — but I –who is responsible for my behavior — as I feel is proper. And for four days I’ve waited for Deeply Outraged and Debased Connie Willis — an avowed friend and admirer of my work for more than a quarter century –to get up off her political correctness and take her pal off the gibbet.

I spent more hours traveling this benighted country, for eight years, state after state after state, lecturing in defense of women’s rights and passage of the ERA than any of you have spent mouthing your sophomoric remonstrances.

As the Great American Philosopher Tony Isabella has said, “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.”

My last word on this clusterfuck. If Willis wants in, she knows where you all are. She knows where I am.All the rest is silence.

Ultimately this issue is between Ellison and Willis, but it seems yet another example of the sexism of the old guard of SF. 

Vox Day / Theodore Beale is expelled from SFWA

Theodore Beale is an author and game designer who sometimes goes under the pseudonym Vox Day. Earlier this year, Beale ran as a candidate to be president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Beale, a self-professed libertarian with extreme (and offensive) views. For example, he believes that female equalitarianism (equal rights for women) is “the primary threat to the survival of Western civilization." He also believes that race and intelligence are related.

Author N. K. Jemisin (whom I’ve written about before) gave a speech at Continuum, an Australian convention, where she was Guest of Honor. As you can see in the speech, she makes a quick reference to Beale’s candidacy (and calls him an asshole) but without naming him.

The membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole.

Well, Beale, decided to fire back. 

On his blog, Vox Popoli, he responded, calling Jemisin an “ignorant half-savage” along with other racist language. I won't repeat the rest of his words here, but you can see them for yourself (beware of the craziness and unabashed racism in the comments). Beale also made the mistake of linking to this post on the official SFWA Twitter feed. As you can imagine, his rant made a lot of people upset, but his Tweet was ultimately what got him removed from SFWA

The SFWA Bulletin has a Sexist Trifecta

SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America comes into this last controversy as well. It regards the SFWA Bulletin, the periodical sent to members. In issue 200 of the bulletin, a regular column by authors Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg talked about female editors in the genre. Unfortunately, this discussion too often veered off into talking about the appearance and attractiveness of the named editors, including the mention of one in her bathing suit. This column happened to appear in an issue with a cover showing a scantily-clad warrior woman (in a snow-covered landscape no less), evoking the embarrassing sexist covers of the (mostly) past. This was followed by an issue where CJ Henderson praised Barbie as a role model for young girls: 

The reason for Barbie's unbelievable staying power, when every contemporary and wanna-be has fallen by the way-side is, she's a nice girl. Let the Bratz girls dress like tramps and whores.... Barbie got her college degree, but she never acted as if it was something owed to her, or that Ken ever tried to deny her.

She has always been a role model for young girls, and has remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.

In the next issue, Resnick and Malzberg responded to the criticism of their column by claiming censorship and bemoaning “liberal fascists.” 

All of these things combined to create a big wave of protest in the SF community, something that was picked up by major news outlets. SFWA put together a task force to investigate the situation and Jean Rabe, the editor of the Bulletin, resigned. As a result of the task force, SFWA decided to put the Bulletin on hiatus while they figured out a direction moving forward. 


As you might be able to tell, there seems to be a divide between the older, largely white and largely male members of the genre community and the younger, more diverse crop of new writers currently coming up. The racism and sexism has almost certainly been around for generations, but it's only now being called to task. I'll end this with a post from author Kameron Hurley, who said the following in response to the SFWA controversy above: 

I get it. The world used to agree with you. You used to be able to say things like, “I really like those lady writers in this industry, especially in swimsuits!” and your fellow writers, editors, agents, and other assorted colleagues would all wink and grin and agree with you, and Asimov would go around pinching women’s asses, and it was so cool! So cool that he could just sexually assault women all the time! You used to be able to say, “Black people are fine. As long as they are clean and don’t live in my neighborhood,” and your friends and colleagues would wink and grin and agree with you. You’d say, “Gay men are gay because they were abused, and all lesbians are really bisexual and just need the love of a good man,” and hey, it was ok, because no one disagreed with you....Well, welcome to 2013. And the world wide web, where everybody, even those underprivileged nobodies you never had to listen to before, has a chance to be heard.

You came to believe that what you believed, and what you said, was true. It was the narrative. You felt happy and self-important about it, because you got it. Sure, you were tolerant. You accepted everyone! You just told it like it was. You stated your opinion. Maybe sometimes people said stuff like, “Well, maybe that’s kind of racist” but you just waved your hand and bellowed, “I’m not a racist!” and then stopped inviting them to parties. Problem solved.

In fact, everyone you knew agreed with you when you said these things, or, if they didn’t agree, they grinned and winked and gritted their teeth instead. In fact, a lot more of them likely gritted their teeth and bore it than you could ever imagine. But by stating your opinion without getting disagreement or pushback, a funny thing happened. You started to believe that your narrative was the only narrative. That your opinion was the sound one. The only one. Absolute, untouchable truth.

Well, welcome to 2013. And the world wide web, where everybody, even those underprivileged nobodies you never had to listen to before, has a chance to be heard.

These are just some of the dark rumblings in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community. What do you think? Have you heard of these? Does it surprise you? Sound off in the comments. 

Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at and and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books November 26, 2013 - 12:28pm

Oh, Harlan...

Earl Marischal David Greybeard's picture
Earl Marischal ... November 30, 2013 - 8:16am

Not sure how I feel about some of these... 

I can understand Moon's comments and they seem a strong opinion but not one far from the mainstream of the USA. And she makes some valid points. I'm a gay man and I also share some hatred that Islam (and other religions) engenders in my community. But it's the Muslim nations that draw shocks us time and again.

Harlan's made a career of being an asshole. He's know more for that than any of his writing. He's an old fuck trying to be funny in that tape. It was clearly what the audience wanted from him. And I think he was pretty funny. Isn't it sexist to be able to tap an man on his chest and not a woman?

I've never read the Mike Resnick column. He is however a very very gifted writer. Maybe the best living short story writer in genre. He is also know for his good natured humor. His humor premeates everything he writes. I find it impossible that he mean to harm any one, much less a woman. So I must withhold judgement on that one.

The Vox Day bit? That's not controversy that what we mid-westerners call "common sense".


Tim Lieder's picture
Tim Lieder December 8, 2013 - 12:37pm

Oh I remember these fights. I think that the only one that I was uncomfortable with since I saw the point of the old guard was the Elizabeth Moon one - mostly along the lines of wondering how comfortable a religious Muslim would be at a convention that celebrates all forms of diversity including polyamory, transgender and homosexuality.

Of course, Elizabeth is grossly generalizing all Muslims based on nations that have allowed themselves to go theocratic with the encouragement (forgive the understatement) of the British Empire. But I was wondering if those generalizations were necessarily anathema to a convention that seeks more diversity.

I was probably wrong. Re-reading her blog, it does seem like she is engaging in some serious Islamophobia and just outright assuming that Muslims are going to be sexist creeps and that there aren't any feminist Muslims in the world.


Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast December 10, 2013 - 8:12am

I had heard about the Card Controversy (mainly because it was reported here on good ol' LitReactor) but the rest of these were a wonderful, intriguing surprise.

Sadly, Resnick and Malzberg's rebuttal has been removed from the page you link to, but the internet being what it is, someone else has kindly provided screen grabs for our reading enjoyment. The gist of the Old White Guys rebuttal is that 1) romance fiction has naked men on the cover so that means it is OK to have naked women on sci fi books 2) if you disagree with them you are a cheerless harridan who wants Andrea Dworkin to choose her annual reading list.

For the record, I would rather have Andrea Dworkin (God rest her) choose my reading than either of those two ranty old bores.


eilatan's picture
eilatan December 10, 2013 - 7:49pm

Cath, a clarification: the scribd link was a copy of the scans originally posted back in May at my site (which is the one you link to).