Get schooled by Lavie Tidhar

Paul Raven @ 27-06-2011

Just in case I haven’t offended enough bigots already today, I’m going to direct you all to read Lavie Tidhar’s short story “The School”. Not only does the story itself critique the racism, misogyny and homophobia that regrettably still lurks in the heart of genre fiction’s body politic, but the fact that some big-name fiction venues shied away from publishing it – on the basis of being afraid to offend the sensibilities of said body politic – exposes an unwillingness to upset the applecart that contributes to the persistence of that bigotry.

Yet again, I find myself frustrated by my inability to fund story purchases here at Futurismic at the moment; I’d have paid for and published this story with pride, knowing that any readers I lost weren’t readers I wanted to keep in the first place.


The web =/= the mob?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

Network diagram of macaque brain connectivitySeeing as how I ended up with a whole bunch of related links, I thought they might as well all fit in one post. So, your overarching thematic question is: the power of the web and social media is pretty much a given, but does it empower us in ways that are beneficial or detrimental?* [image by arenamontanus]

For a start, Bruce Sterling points to what must be the third story I’ve seen in the last year about what happens when jurors are accustomed to social media and ubiquitous information access. In a nutshell, it’s almost impossible to keep people in an informational vacuum without locking them up in a Faraday cage, or to keep them from Tweeting about a case they’re hearing… so what happens to the existing legal model of the unprejudiced jury of your peers? Pandora’s box is well and truly open; how can we develop fair trials in the information age? Expert systems instead of juries? Crowdsourced multiplex juries? Or a trial process that not only accepts but embraces its position at the centre of a media ecology based on novelty and shock?

Over in Egypt, however, the political counterculture is just starting to flex the lithe and slippery new limbs that the internet has provided it, thanks to the incumbent government’s possibly self-defeating decision to leave the internet predominantly uncensored in the hope of encouraging international trade and domestic development. Decentralised networks like Twitter are undermining the official media controls and embargoes that are the hallmark and lynch-pin of the despot… with the end result that the Egyptian government is falling back on the time-honoured (if counterproductive) methods of intimidating and threatening the loudest dissenting voices.

Meanwhile, televangelist megapastor Rick Warren caves in to public opinion and writes publically to Ugandan ministers to condemn their violent persecution of homosexuality. While it’s impossible to truly know the mind of another, I think I can safely assume that Warren would have lost no sleep over the Ugandan lynch-mobs; the bad publicity focussed on himself as a result of staying quiet, however, was simply unacceptable. A small victory for public opinion, perhaps.

But that knife cuts both ways. Remember me linking to an interview with Indian science fiction author Ashok Banker, in which he took the Western publishing industry to task for institutionalised racism, accompanied by a chorus of voices denying that any such racism existed? Well, that interview has been deleted from the World SF Blog at Banker’s request, because he and his family have been receiving death threats in response to it, through assorted social media channels. A sad story, and one that pretty much proves his initial point… as well as demonstrating that the “pure” democracy of the web can enable the primacy of hatred just as easily as justice (your postcard from Switzerland has just arrived). It all depends on which group cares enough to do the most hard work with that media lever.

And speaking of inequalities, here’s a post from a well-known figure in the copywriting blogosphere, wherein he reveals that he’s actually a she. And no, it’s not even some dramatic story of gender confusion and coming out: it’s an inside account of the glass ceiling that still exists in the Western world for women who dare to make their own way in a male domain. Long story short: after a long period of crap work, poor pay and demanding clients, she started using a male pen-name and found that everything improved drastically.

In some ways, there’s a small victory for the web here: intertube anonymity overcomes the gender boundary, saves family from poverty! But the story overall is a sad one, highlighting an institutionalised misogyny that we still perpetrate at a subconscious cultural level, even on the supposedly egalitarian plains of the internet. Worth bearing in mind next time the subject of female authors submitting stories using their initials rather than their first names comes up, and folk start saying that they’re doing themselves a disservice by doing so, eh?

[ * Obviously the answer is “both”, but I think there’s a lot of value to be gained by thinking about how these things happen. We’ve asked whether the web is an inherently democratising force here before, and the stories above seem to suggest that social media empowers the most vocal and/or powerful groups that possess the savvy and access to use them effectively. In Egypt, that appears to be the good guys (at least from my perspective); unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere. ]


Ashok Banker wants to disassemble science fiction publishing

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2009

The last year or so has been punctuated by debates on the inherent racism and sexism of genre fiction publishing, but if you thought there had been some strong opinions stated boldly before now, you should really go check out the exclusive interview with Ashok Banker at the World SF News blog.

Banker is a hugely popular and prolific writer in his home country of India, but is virtually unheard of in the West… and he doesn’t pull any punches in his assessment of the Stateside publishing industry:

I won’t mince words here: SFF publishing in the US today is the Klu Klux Klan of the publishing world. It’s anachronistically misrepresentational in its racial mix, religious mix, cultural mix. The few exceptions to the rule only prove the endemic, systemic and deeply bred bias in the field. There are even editors who claim to champion ‘coloured’ writing, by publishing anthologies that segregate non-white non-Judeo/Christian non-American authors of speculative fiction from their ‘mainstream’ genre counterparts.

[…]

For decades SFF has been accusing mainstream literary critics, readers and authors of being snobbish and denying them their due. In fact, it’s the other way around: SFF’s pathetic cries of outrage and refusal to change with the times are proof of SFF’s own snobbishness and bias. SFF is dead and rotting. Long may it stay dead! We who love the elements that make great SFF don’t need the label so Klansmen can recognize work by other Klansmen. We don’t care if our milk was drawn by brown hands, black, or white. We just want our milk!

I think the Klan metaphor is perhaps a little strong (not to mention calculated to offend), but the man has a very valid point. The easy (and lazy) response would be to call him out for jealousy, but given that Banker points out that his earnings are far higher than most US or UK writers of genre fiction, that doesn’t really hold a lot of water. Banker doesn’t need the SFF industry; the question is, does it need him?

The wider business of publishing in general doesn’t escape Banker’s ire, either:

In four words: Publish less, publish better. If publishers and editors are so obsessed with commercial viability, then why are they so out of touch with what readers are looking for? Why are publishers so surprised when the next it new sensation comes along and upsets their apple cart? Why can’t they accept and understand that readers and authors decide what sells, not editors and publishers. Why are racial, cultural, religious backgrounds relevant when signing an author? Why not just good books, period? Why not just good books that readers respond well to and want to read? Get the fuck out of your offices and get down to the streets and live. Fire your marketing departments. Hire bloggers on per-hit pay-basis. Look at frontrunners like Cory Doctorow. Think about the Long Tail. Explore free publishing as a marketing model. Get bullish on ebooks, drop the prices and tighten your belts. Reduce print runs on the big sellers, reduce your risk and stop flooding the stores with ‘product’. Tell Dan Brown to go get a life. Stop letting James Patterson use the Warner jet and chopper. Spend money on authors, not on the business of publishing and the fairyland of PR. Let readers decide what should be published and what shouldn’t – put work for free out there online and let them vote. Then, once you know what they’ve picked, go in and edit it well, package it well, do your stuff. But remember that you’re a meat-packer, you don’t build the cow, you don’t eat it. You just pack it. So pack it well, or get packing.

There’s quite a few chewy home truths in that little screed… I get the feeling this particular interview will be a hot topic for a little while.

What do you think about Banker’s assertions of endemic racism in SFF publishing, or about the state of publishing in general? Drop in a comment below – but keep it polite, OK? In line with the Futurismic comments policy, any racist or ad hominem rants will be removed, so play nice.


Racism and genre fiction

Paul Raven @ 31-07-2009

This week is apparently International Blog Against Racism Week. During this year’s tumultuous RaceFail debate in the genre fiction community (and other smaller ones before it) I predominantly kept my mouth shut and tried my best to just listen; as far as middle-class white Western privilege goes, my life is pretty much a textbook case, and I’m sufficiently aware of that to know I have very little to add to the discussion that can’t be put far better by others with greater experience (not to mention stronger rhetorical chops).

But silence can seem like complicity, so this seemed like a good moment to come out and nail my colours – and Futurismic‘s, by association – to the metaphorical mast. I do my best to make Futurismic an inclusive place for everyone, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation; I know I slip up sometimes, and I’ve been grateful to the handful of people who have politely pointed such incidents out to me (and will continue to be so in the future, I hope). My motivations for doing so will remain personal; there are those who may choose to see it as some sort of liberal guilt complex, and they might be right. Frankly, I’d rather live with that than the opposite; my insomnia’s bad enough already.

The important outcome of RaceFail for me – as for many others – was the uncomfortable but important realisation that, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’m still racist sometimes. We tend to think of racism as an active verb, something that is by definition pursued deliberately, but that’s not necessarily the case. At very deep levels of our culture, we’re conditioned into a worldview that subconsciously reinforces the values of the past, even when we consciously embrace the ethics of the present. I guess you could say that – in what I hope and believe to be the majority of cases, at least within the genre fiction community – we’re racist by accident rather than design.

The good thing about making mistakes is that they give you an opportunity to learn and to improve yourself, if you have the will to do so. When I witnessed my first internet spat about racism in genre literature, I was rather taken aback – first and foremost because science fiction fandom had struck me as the sort of community where racism would be unlikely to occur. After all, it’s the literature of the future, of progress, right? Well, not entirely; I came to fandom quite late in my life, but I still came with a whole load of naivete. I very much suspect I still have a lot of it to lose.

But more recently I’ve come to see RaceFail and similar debates as something that actually confirms genre fiction’s progressive spirit. When I think of the other subcultures I’m closest to – particularly rock music – it becomes obvious that, by comparison, the genre community’s ability to muster enough voices against the status quo to make themselves heard is actually a very rare thing. Rock music is an intrinsically racist and sexist culture; not through deliberate choice in the majority of cases, but because it’s a reflection of its demographic’s attitudes. That peer pressure produces a powerful cultural inertia; try finding a well-trafficked rock music forum online where you can have a debate about the position of women in rock without rapidly being drowned out by posts saying whether or not the postee would consider sleeping with the woman in question. If you do know of one, please let me know about it!

Perhaps it’s because of its comparatively small size, or its long lifespan, or just the fact that it was one of the first fandom communities to really take to the multicast communication platform that is the internet… but I think the genre fiction community should be proud that we have debates like RaceFail. Sure, they can get pretty nasty; people on both sides of the fence tend to get hurt, both personally and professionally, and that’s a shame. But personally I think it’s a good thing that we can fight across that fence – because it means the fence isn’t an unclimable and impermeable wall, as it is elsewhere.

I’m not doing special pleading for fandom here; there are surely many other communities where the same conditions apply, but I can only talk with any validity about those I have experience of. RaceFail doesn’t mean that the genre community can rest on its laurels, safe in the knowledge that it’s more open to debate and dissent on matters of racial and gender privilege than other subcultures; nor does it mean it’s so riddled with entrenched prejudice as to be beyond improvement.

What it means, I guess, is that it’s full of people who care deeply about many different things, but who have a common ground in their love of fantastic stories. It is my hope that this common ground will continue to act as a meeting space where folk on both sides of the debate can discover more about each other as people, as individuals. If anything is ever going to erase racism from our culture – the culture of fandom, and the culture of the world at large – it’ll be getting to know people who are different to ourselves, and coming to realise that difference is something to be celebrated rather than feared.

It won’t happen overnight. Hell, it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, or maybe even longer than that. But I believe every assumption questioned is a step toward the future – that’s science fiction’s message, after all.

Thanks for reading.


A cure for racism?

Paul Raven @ 23-01-2009

If there’s one thing that the recent United States elections made plain to me, it’s that, sadly, there’s a lot more racism still about than I had realised – and that goes for this side of the pond as well, and pretty much everywhere.

But what if there was a way to ‘cure’ racism? It’s a tricky question, because prejudice of any kind isn’t a disease or pathology as such; it’s part of the way our minds are wired, but (to use an analogy which I hope isn’t too inaccurate) it’s more of a software issue rather than a hardware problem.

Nonetheless, a team of university researchers believe they may have found a short-cut method for eroding the race-focused deep bias:

Tarr’s findings overlap with other results suggesting that the key to reducing racial bias — at least in a short-term, laboratory setting — is exposure to people in personalized ways that challenge stereotypes. This is hardly a new notion: it’s the essence of the contact hypothesis, formulated in the mid-20th century and the basis of integrated schooling.

But unlike carefully structured social mixing, with precisely controlled conditions of interdependence and equality, Tarr and others raise the possibility of a a lab-based shortcut to bias reduction.

Even if this method turns out to be genuinely effective and harmless, I doubt we’ll be seeing it deployed en masse any time soon. Maybe it would be applied to serious recidivists as a punitive correctional method, but the legal implications of rewriting someone’s mind are going to be an ethical minefield for years to come. And to receive the cure voluntarily would be an admission of being racist, which is the principle barrier to defeating the bias in the first place… even so, an interesting insight into mental plasticity.

I wonder if they could remove my positive bias towards unhealthy foods?


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