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.

Image of Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
Author: John Scalzi
Price: $13.07
Publisher: Tor Books (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 320 pages
Image of Revenge #1
Manufacturer: Image
Part Number:
Price:
Image of Turf
Author: Jonathon Ross
Price: $14.93
Publisher: Image Comics (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 180 pages
Dean Fetzer

Column by Dean Fetzer

Dean Fetzer is originally from a small town in eastern Colorado, but has lived in London, England, for the past 21 years. After a career in graphic design, he started a pub review website in the late 90’s; He left that in 2011 to concentrate on his thriller writing, as well as offering publishing services for authors, poets and artists. When not writing - or in the pub - he can be found in the theatre, live music venues and travelling.

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Comments

ReneeAPickup's picture
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ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books April 14, 2014 - 8:32am

I agree as well. I am not a huge Jonathan Ross fan, his voice kind of grates me and the speech impediment makes it hard to take him seriously (I know, that's mean, but I'm trying to be up front). HOWEVER. He is a member of the SFF community in many ways and it is really disappointing to see him run out on a rail with a lot of people saying that he wasn't "one of us". I get it, a lot of people in SFF have a hair trigger over the sexism in the genre, I see it and it upsets me, but you can't fight bullying with bullying. And you can't make assumptions on someone's character based on something you read in the Daily Mail (which, by the way, is a TABLOID).

 

But overall, I think you are correct. A large portion of the community wants to lock the doors. I think what we'll find is more and more authors who write in the genre looking elsewhere for a feeling of community.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life April 14, 2014 - 9:53pm

This article is deflection. The issue is certainly not a question of whether Ross is 'a sci-fi person'. The issue is this: his inclusion created an environment in which some members were made to feel unsafe and/or unwelcome. Most of us work in an environment where the rules of sexual harrassment are clear and unequivocal:

If someone feels unsafe/unwelcome/faced with a hostile environment, then there is an issue. That issue must be addressed.

Conventions are the workplace for the individuals who made this complaint. They had not only the right, but the mandate, to make their feelings known. 

The handling of said issue is not the question. The timing of the announcement is not the issue. Scalzi and Gaiman are not the issue. Attendees to the event voiced their discontent, dissatisfaction, and distrust, and they were heard. This was a victory. 

writinginmyhead's picture
writinginmyhead from Southern California is reading Channel Zilch April 15, 2014 - 10:09am

I agree almost entirely with what Jeffrey Grant Barr wrote. I think it would have been even more of a victory if Ross had publicly addressed the concerns of the community members like Seanan McGuire to their sastisfaction, assuring them that in spite of his previous track record, he would do his best to contribute to an environment where everyone felt safe. Then he could have gone on and hosted the event. I mean, really, what kind of SF fans kick out NEIL GAIMAN'S choice for host? Not me! And I'm a fat chick! ;-)

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life April 15, 2014 - 12:28pm

I do think Ross should have addressesd the concerns from McGuire et al. If he had stepped up and said 'I understand your concerns, and while I disgaree, here is what I bring to the table...'. then at least someone could have come away with something positive, rather than aspersions cast in every direction and a taint on the entire situation. 

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 15, 2014 - 2:29pm

I think the point where I actually cared about a Hugo is long gone. Gone along the way of other such meaningless awards like Bram Stoker. (Yes at one point I would have wanted to get both a Bram Stoker and Hugo.)

Considering the fact that they will wine over meaningless stuff like whether its a magazine or cartridge installed into a handgun, even in work that doesn't even involve guns has made me a touch of an unsympathetic ear.

I care about theoretical social dynamics.

ReneeAPickup's picture
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ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books April 15, 2014 - 4:53pm

I don't think he was given the opportunity to respond before the pitchforks came out, and THAT is why it is such a disappointing situation. And there were MANY people saying that he was not a part of the community while they hurled accusations about his character. 

If it is a victory when a bunch of people get together and shout loud enough to drown out all dissent, then yes, I believe you are right. However the whole thing took place in less than a day, they were public, they were vitriolic, and they did not invite any defense or clarification.

As someone who has followed, and spoken out against, the treatment of women in sci-fi, I have a great interest when a situation like this comes up. I knew of Jonathan Ross, and had seen his television show a couple times, and that was it. Many people were attacking him based on article printed in the Daily Mail, which, can we please, for the last time, understand that it is a tabloid?! Without being familiar with his work. The accusations grew from his irreverent humor, people perhaps genuinely concerned that he would be offensive, but they snowballed until he was being accused of every "ism" that exists. This took place over a course of MINUTES.

So not only was it clear that nothing Ross said or did would make things okay, it was also hugely embarrassing. See, when women and our allies stand up for ourselves, when we talk about sexism in our writing, sexual harassment at cons, etc. you know what people who want to shut us up say? They say we are overreacting. They say we are being crazy. They say we are being over emotional.

What happened there? ALL OF THE ABOVE.

And it left a REALLY bad taste in my mouth. I don't want to associate with the assholes who think less of me because of my vagina, but I also don't want to associate with people so blinded by their cause that they fail to think critically and act decently.

Steve Davidson's picture
Steve Davidson April 16, 2014 - 1:35am

Not really a fair article as most of these issues have been asked and answered and we're over this now.

 

If the author really knew SF fandom, it would be understood why worldcon and WSFS websites are not the latest in web design;  

 

if the author really knew fandom, it would be understood that fandom is not about shallow popularity;  an SF film being financially successful does not directly translate into "more peasants for the fandom mill".  Fandom is "a way of life";  entry should be open to all (something we are working on within fandom - making it more open and appealing, which is in the long run nothing more than instatiating the ideals that fandom has stood for since at least 1939) - but it requires more than merely 'liking' something to be an engaged member.

 

Fandom starts with the literature.  Fandom recognizes that most media presentations of (good) literary works are usually shallow, watered down presentations designed to make money (there are exceptions and you'll easily find them by looking for the films and shows that have large fan fan bases).  Art, honesty, versimilitude, accuracy and genuine entertainment are the goals of good genre literature - not earnings and not popularity.  

 

Suggesting that mere popularity is a solution to fandom's closed society indicates a complete failure of understanding of fandom.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life April 16, 2014 - 10:53pm

Renee, you know I adore you, even though I disagree with you on this particular issue. However, let me address your tenets inline, to show that I have heard and considered your opinion.

I don't think he was given the opportunity to respond before the pitchforks came out, and THAT is why it is such a disappointing situation. And there were MANY people saying that he was not a part of the community while they hurled accusations about his character.

Not true. He had time to respond - and did respond - almost straight away, to the UK critics of the Hugo's choice of host. I will point you to this article, which in turn links to the storify page which shows the conflagration, complete with timestamps. 

If it is a victory when a bunch of people get together and shout loud enough to drown out all dissent, then yes, I believe you are right. However the whole thing took place in less than a day, they were public, they were vitriolic, and they did not invite any defense or clarification.

Yes, it is a victory. Shouting allows people to be heard. In a completely level society, with everyone on a same playing field, we could have a quiet, decorous debate: but in the here and now, shouting gets you heard. If no one speaks up, no one gets heard, and the status quo reigns on. 

As someone who has followed, and spoken out against, the treatment of women in sci-fi, I have a great interest when a situation like this comes up. I knew of Jonathan Ross, and had seen his television show a couple times, and that was it. Many people were attacking him based on article printed in the Daily Mail, which, can we please, for the last time, understand that it is a tabloid?! Without being familiar with his work. The accusations grew from his irreverent humor, people perhaps genuinely concerned that he would be offensive, but they snowballed until he was being accused of every "ism" that exists. This took place over a course of MINUTES.

In my opinion, the issue isn't about Ross' putative past comments or actions. I firmly believe that the issue is about how people felt about Ross as the host, their reaction to the decision, and their power to right what they believed to be wrong. Without attempting to deduce motivations, I advocate for an objective look into why people reacted as they did. It is always worth taking the time to consider everyone's voice. 

So not only was it clear that nothing Ross said or did would make things okay, it was also hugely embarrassing. See, when women and our allies stand up for ourselves, when we talk about sexism in our writing, sexual harassment at cons, etc. you know what people who want to shut us up say? They say we are overreacting. They say we are being crazy. They say we are being over emotional.

You are entirely correct in extrapolating that the response to the outcry would be 'bitches be crazy' and that emotions were involved. To which I say: yes! Emotion is at the heart of the entire issue! Emotion is important! No matter how much I would love a Vulcanic society of logic and order, we are still burdened by these pesky human emotions, and they are as real and valid as anything else. So responding emotionally is, IMO, entirely correct, and should not be seen as a negative.

You are also right when you say 'Nothing Ross said or did would make things okay'. So true. And that is why this is a victory - when someone feels the need to resort to 'punch down' to get laughs, or get on TV et al - then they made their bed, and they can lie in it! They have plenty of other avenues. 

And it left a REALLY bad taste in my mouth. I don't want to associate with the assholes who think less of me because of my vagina, but I also don't want to associate with people so blinded by their cause that they fail to think critically and act decently.

I, for one, have no cause, except maybe that the unempowered be empowered. I'm not a feminist, or an ally - unless you count my alliance to the basic human desire of the disenfranchised to be heard. I believe that the 'decent' thing to do is not to allow or excuse the acts of the powerful, but to acccomodate everyone who is fighting for a chance to be heard and counted. What I saw in this issue, and this article, is that rather than address the feelings, fears and concerns of some people, we're tempted to make a victim where there isn't one, and to turn the voice of the marginalized back on themselves to try and shame and dismiss them. 

farseer's picture
farseer April 21, 2014 - 7:14am

I thought the way Ross and his family were treated was shameful and unfair, and reflects very badly on the fan community, after he generously accepted Gaiman's invitation and agreed to host the ceremony for free because he loves the genre, even though he has a high profile and usually earns a high fee for that kind of things.

Seanan McGuire, who by the way is a nominee for best novel under a pseudonym, even said that she did not feel safe attending the Hugo ceremony with Ross as master of ceremonies, which is just shockingly absurd. It's no wonder he immediately withdrew. I wouldn't want to have anything to do with this circus, either. And no, when someone who had offered to help in good faith is insulted in public and morally lynched by a bunch of people who do not even know who they are insulting, the proper response is not to engage in a debate with the bullies and try to assure them that he knows how to behave in civilized company. Jonathan Ross just -quite sensibly- did not see any need to put up with the abuse and left.

To the article, I would only add that these attitudes do not represent the whole fandom, but only a very vocal minority.