In thy orisons be all my sins remembered (Worldcon 2020)

The online Worldcon 2020 has been and gone, with the following just some of catastrophes still green in memory:

  • A rambling, alienating three-hour Hugo Awards ceremony driven by George R. R. Martin's wilfully ignorant anecdotes. Several have read what he said transphobic and deliberately disrespectful toward several nominees, particularly Nora Jemisin and Jeannette Ng. Robert Silverberg's wilfully ignorant presence meanwhile followed Silverberg's shameful comments about Nora Jemisin last year, and Martin's rambling lacked any reflection on his diva-like behavior around the Hugo Loser's Party in Dublin. Martin meanwhile failed on such a basic level as to pronounce many winners' names wrong;
  • A program that tokenized and alienated Hugo nominees to the point that several banded together to set up their own "Worldcon Fringe;"
  • My own being censored by Worldcon staff for displaying a Black Lives Matter/Uyghur solidarity Zoom background, despite the Convention's own Code of Conduct expressing sentiments directly the opposite;
  • A stony reception to the idea of debating whether Worldcon should be held in places where the existence of many attendees is illegal.
These are all of what comes to mind now; I'm sure there was more. Lots of people have already written good pieces about each of these problems. Let me put forward the notion that the bullet points above are all actually different manifestations of the same problem.

Fantasy & science fiction are about fantastic storytelling, and the most fantastic and most-told story in the SFF community is: "In all the worlds of art and literature, SFF is the most inclusive place there is."

Like anything flowing from the (white, male and above all property-owning) idealist libertarian traditions of Locke, this statement can bear the load of reality only with the formation of stress fractures, and 2020 has been the most reality the global North has had to deal with in a long time. But over the past, say, 15 years, Worldcon in particular has seen the emergence of, broadly, two strands of thought as to how to adapt the Story of SFF for modern conditions.

The first strand says, in several ways, "in order to be more inclusive, we all need to take an active role in centering marginalized voices and quieting oppressive ones."

The Speaker for the Opposition rises and states as he always has, "wouldn't it be easier just to exclude the people who think we're not inclusive?" The Puppies were a rare example of this being said out loud in an organized fashion. But it is often not just quiet, but spoken out loud in various ways by individuals. There's a layer who have viciously condemned SFWA for its pro-Black Lives Matter stance--there are people in the SFF community who'd rather kick out some of the best, most lauded writers than make a serious effort at being accepting and tolerant.

I've seen many assertions as to how to divide these layers: old versus young, Golden Age versus contemporary, USA versus rest of the world. All these theories are incomplete and inadequate; a comprehensive answer probably must rely on intoning the Forbidden Narrative.

I will tell you: this is my third pass through fandom. I ended the first, in the early 90s when I was a teenager, when I realized I was meeting a lot of brazenly manipulative people whose agenda was maintaining a false peace where nobody ever publicly disagreed with one another.

The second sputtered out around 2007 when I had no money to spare to participate nor to buy new books more than once or twice a year--and on top of this, in the online spaces there was always this smug assertion, "we are so evolved," which was maintained aggressively even when people were being nakedly homophobic, racist and sexist. 

I come into this third round, which started in 2014, a different person: I have found my voice as an activist, I write, and overall I am more assertive, more confident and overall healthier. (I screw up sometimes. But it's good that I speak my mind.) Moreover I have the sense, or had, that since 2006 there had been a conscious, organized effort to change the environment in SFF culture to make it more in tune with the first strand I described above. When the Puppies were turned back while women authors of color dominated the Hugo awards, I was close to convinced--there were just a few stragglers to clean up.

Last year I could not take home a poster from the first convention where I was a featured guest because it was blatantly anti-Black. The organizers of that convention were fully aware of the problems they were causing, with multiple people speaking to them with great patience over a period of months, yet those organizers refused to take the issue seriously.

Last month I had to leave what has become my home convention and walk off the program. The convention organizers chose to embrace an extreme-right anti-immigrant activist with open arms, knowing full well exactly what his history was and what he stood for. That con committee hasn't even offered the public an excuse for what they did, much less any kind of apology.

Here we are the day after Worldcon. I am still discussing with the CoNZealand organizers and others, trying to figure out exactly what failed in my little piece of it. It's clear that it's far more than my little piece that's broken.

Access. Access, access, access--"build the ramp first." That is what we are all supposed to pay attention to if we're serious about the SFF community thriving. 

There were two organized choices for the 2022 World Science Fiction Convention--and it is no category error to say that an event which in three of the past four years has been organized and run largely through the hard work of people in Finland, Ireland and New Zealand is something more than just an excuse for people from the US to take a vacation. 

When those two choices include one where LGBT people are legally forbidden from existing, and another that cuts off travel from a huge swathe of the world's population, then the Worldcon community whatever way you define it, as a loose affiliation of active fans, as an entity constituted by the WSFS business meeting, as whatever, has laughed in the face of accessibility.

When writers of color feel so marginalized that they need to set up their own parallel event in order to get their voices heard, when some of those preeminent voices are mocked from the Hugo Award stage and other state their need to quit this toxic environment, the Worldcon community has spat on the idea of accessibility.

When the most mild act of political protest from the direction of liberation is censored while notorious racists and predators are openly celebrated without consequence--

Look, I'm not going to say my being censored at Worldcon was of the same magnitude as the Hugo mess, the program mess or the site selection mess. But it still belies a malevolent "apoliticalness"--be okay with the status quo, or if you're not, pretend. 

The overall message of the SFF community lately is, tolerate intolerance, or else.

I have published fourteen short stories over the past two years. I can begin a paragraph with "as a writer" and have it not sound absolutely frivolous. 

As a writer, one thing I have learned is that every really good SFF story is actually (at least) two stories. There is the superficial story, the whiz-bang adventure with wizards or rocket ships or whatever that is exciting because it is novel. And this part has to be good to keep the reader excited.

But then there is the second story, hidden under the first, which is exciting because it is in some way familiar. It speaks to your soul--you see some of yourself in the fantastic, impossible thing you're reading. There is a common language, private language between you and the writer. And there can be great joy in that common idea, but there can also be profound pain, and all of us are living in a pained world. That's one of the reasons this second story is hidden in the first: reading it unmasked hurts, and from the first sentence our instinct is to look away.

To make conventions a place where positive challenges to the status quo are covered over, pushed aside, quietly or loudly shown the door is the constant refusal to read that second story, the insistence that we all must read only the stories available in some warm crib full of primary colors and shiny objects.

There are three solutions. One, the SFF community will continue to spit out people who refuse to break when chewed, and stagnate. (This is already happening in the US.) Two, the community will fragment, and the big events like Worldcon will die. It is better if this does not become a tolerable option.

Third, we do better.


Edmund Schluessel

No comments:

Post a Comment