Columns > Published on April 14th, 2014

Is Sci-fi a “Closed Shop”?

Science fiction and fantasy fans, authors, merchandise sellers, media types and a lot more will be gathering in London this year for the annual WorldCon convention, or LonCon3, as it’s known. This is also the place where the winners of this year’s Hugo Awards will be announced — science fiction’s most coveted prize. Past winners of this award include: Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Connie Willis, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman... well, you get the picture. And those are just Best Novel winners!

"If people genuinely believe I would upset them or those they care about then I'd rather not spoil their night. I agreed because I love SF. And because Neil Gaiman asked me."

WorldCon, for those of you who don’t know, a.k.a. “The World Science Fiction Convention, is a science fiction convention held each year since 1939 (except for the years 1942 to 1945, during World War II)”, and is the annual get-together of the World Science Fiction Society. (As an aside, why do they all have terrible websites?)

This year, the Hugo awards got into a bit of a PR mess when the organizers picked a host from the large pool of talent in the United Kingdom, one chat-show host, film critic and friend of Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Ross, O.B.E.. The decision was met with a backlash from fans and authors, many of whom felt the 53-year old broadcaster was a poor choice. But they didn’t stop there. A number of people took to Twitter to personally attack Ross and his family, concerned that he would “mock ‘women and other minorities’”. This controversy led to his stepping down as host for the awards. Author Seanan McGuire even went so far as to say:

You know, I've really enjoyed knowing that, were I to be nominated for a Hugo, the host wouldn't see me and make fat jokes.

Ross, who is also a comic writer and collector, is married to Hugo-award-winning screenwriter Jane Goldman, and yes, he's known for saying the wrong things sometimes. That aside, he responded with a statement which included:

"If people genuinely believe I would upset them or those they care about then I'd rather not spoil their night,” tweeted Ross. “I agreed because I love SF. And because Neil Gaiman asked me.”

Then Gaiman weighed in, saying he felt “seriously disappointed” at the way fans had reacted to the decision.

Gaiman said that he was “seriously disappointed in the people, some of whom I know and respect, who stirred other people up to send invective, obscenities and hatred Jonathan's way over Twitter (and the moment you put someone‘s @name into a tweet, you are sending it to that person), much of it the kind of stuff that they seemed to be worried that he might possibly say at the Hugos, unaware of the ironies involved”… “I have won Hugo awards, and I am incredibly proud of all of them; I've hosted the Hugo awards ceremony, and I was honoured to have been permitted to be part of that tradition; I know that SF is a family, and like all families, has disagreements, fallings out. I've been going to Worldcons since 1987. And I know that these things heal in time," Gaiman blogged. "But I've taken off the Hugo nominee pin that I've worn proudly on my lapel since my Doctor Who episode, The Doctor's Wife, won the Hugo in September 2012, and, for now, I've put it away.”

Stranger Danger

I have to say I agree with him — the attacks were far too personal and, dare I say it, bullying. A very strange thing from a group of people who, if they’re life experiences are anything like mine, probably have been bullied themselves in the past.

This also led me to wonder if sci-fi is a “closed shop”? Are we really so insular that new faces and people who might not fit our ideas of what constitutes a sci-fi “fan” are not welcome? I find it very odd that a group already on the fringes for wanting to explore distant worlds and alternate universes where things work differently than on our own can be so prejudiced — particularly when the person in question is not only sympathetic, but for all intents and purposes, “one of us.”

I can only think this springs out of a fear of the unknown (again, the irony is not lost on me) and yes, to a lot of people, Jonathan Ross is an unknown. Hell, he’s even been the host of the Eisner Awards at San Diego ComicCon — more than once — he even snogged Neil Gaiman onstage at said awards! So why all the hating? Are these self-appointed “gate-keepers” hurting the cause? I’d say so.

The Hugo Awards remains one of the most obscure awards outside the fan-base. Ask any passerby on the street what the Hugos are and I think you’ll be lucky to find one person in 20 that knows what you’re talking about. Ross’s profile, not to mention his presence on social media, would have opened up the awards to a new audience, giving it a PR boost that is hard to buy in the modern world. And it would have rescued the awards from backwater status.

I can hear it now (don’t write in): “But we don’t want outsiders involved”. Yeah? You want to sell books don’t you? In an ever-more-saturated market, publicity for your work is what every author should be looking for — otherwise, you might as well sit in your shed and pen your masterpieces, smug in your role as hermit of the genre. Why do you think movies that win Oscars make such a big deal about it? Not to mention those that are just nominated.

What is up with the Hugos?

John Scalzi, last year’s winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel for Redshirts, recently posted about the idiosyncrasies of the Hugos on his blog. Entitled A Plea to Current and Future Worldcons, re: Announcing the Hugo Nominations, he asks why, oh why, the award nominees are announced in the PR deadzone of the Easter weekend?

If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

It’s a good point. Nothing gets announced, that wants to make some kind of impact, between Friday and Sunday.

Saturdays are a dead zone for publicity. News organizations are on skeleton crews. Blogs update sparsely, if at all. No one reads newspapers, news sites, or watches cable news on Saturday because they’re sleeping in, are outdoors, or planning their Saturday night. Anything that happens on a Saturday is generally forgotten by Monday morning, when everyone goes back to work. There is a reason why governments and corporations release all their bad news on Friday at 5pm — because they don’t want people to know about it. The only reason they don’t release it on Saturday is that even PR people are home on Saturday. Saturday is where news goes to die. Saturday is where you go when you want no one to know what you’re up to.

And the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter is “the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything”.

If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. That is the only scenario on which that day is optimal for the release of information. Conversely, if I were a publicist with a client who wanted the world to know what they were doing, and the client said “Hey, I have a great idea! Let’s release the news of our biggest event on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter!” I would stare blankly at the client while I counted to ten in my head, followed by “Well, we could do that, but –”

Listen, it’s hard enough to get book publicity in the 21st century without putting more stumbling blocks in the way. I’m shaking my head just thinking about it. The only people who will pay attention to the announcements are people who already know. The Oscar nominations aren’t announced on a Saturday, now are they? What the hell?

Abandon all Hope…

So you can see why I wonder if science fiction is a niche market that wants to stay that way. It’s funny isn’t it, people who cross over into the mainstream are often regarded as “traitors” by fans and authors alike. Those people have “sold out” to popular culture. Right. I hear the same arguments all the time. “They’re not really a (insert genre here) author, they’re just using it to make money.” As if.

The popular impression of most science fiction is that it’s aimed at nerds and people “who like that sort of thing”. Why? Why does it have to be exclusive? Particularly now when things like Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have been some of the most-watched television in recent history? Surely that means it’s more accepted to create science fiction than ever before. When was the last time a sci-fi movie won an Oscar, much less five?!?

So does it have to be this way? No, it doesn’t. But I’d guess sci-fi fans are also the least likely to break out of their comfort zones and embrace the openness a lot of us take for granted. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate science fiction — I’ve been reading it most of my life. I just think that we can’t be quite so insular in this day and age.

About the author

Dean Fetzer is originally from a small town in eastern Colorado, but has lived in London, England, for 21 years now. On reaching London, he worked as a graphic designer and web consultant before starting a pub review website in the late 90’s.

His current book series, The Jaared Sen Quartet is set in near-future London, but also encompasses historical elements, reflecting his fascination with missing artifacts and conspiracy theories.

Dean left pub reviews behind in 2011 to concentrate on his writing and to set up a new company offering publishing services to authors, poets and artists as well as blogging and writing book reviews on his website at www.deanfetzer.com. He lives in east London with his wife and two cats and dreams (often) of a house in France.

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