Saturday, August 27, 2016

Quick Thoughts - The "Trouble" with SFF

So I was just writing up my review of Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott when an entirely new and deeper reading of the novel occurred to me, one that has everything to do with SFF and writing and fandom. One that I'm a bit surprised didn't occur to me as I was reading and is part of why I love to think about stories, why I like to write about stories. [SPOILERS FOR A FAIRLY OLD NOVEL] The novel is a cyberpunky tale about a group of queer hackers who have all brain worms, something that's dangerous to have installed (comes with a risk of brain damage as it is, after all, brain surgery and rather illegal in America where the novel is based in) and allows them to experience the web differently, more intensely. Now, these hackers are all part of the same clique because they're queer, because being queer doesn't really make them popular. They all have the brain worms essentially because they have nothing much to lose. For them they're already at risk and so the prospect of risking themselves further isn't that much of a stretch. And because of their talent and their drive to carve out a space for themselves, they're among the best hackers out there. Which, again, doesn't really make them popular. They’re "political," which for the straight hackers means they're not as good, that the brain worms are the only reason they can do anything.

And…and in thinking about that I'm struck by how resonant it is now, especially in SFF. Not just for queer writers but for really all marginalized writers. That we get labeled as "political" and, so the logic goes, inferior. People claim that we have an unfair advantage because of "PC culture" and affirmative action as if it still isn't more dangerous to be a non-dominant writer. A queer writer. A writer of color. A neurodiverse writer. Now, like in the novel, the danger might not be the same for all people. Certainly money has a lot to do with it. People who can afford to have the surgery done where it is safer are, well, safer. People who operate under the protection of large corporations are safer. There is definitely something to be said about the ways in which these queer hackers risk themselves. But regardless of their protections, they are not safe from people claiming that they haven't earned what they have. Not from "imposter syndrome," which is something completely different, but from their peers treating them differently and negatively because of a perceived advantage. They are not safe from the resentment and harassment of the larger community and especially from those who feel that their differences make them a stain on the landscape.

Of course, the novel is about this group of queer hackers overcoming the patriarchy and overthrowing the broken systems. Expelling the worst of the shitholes and setting up a new order that might not be perfect but is at least trying for something better. So of course I love it.

But it seems especially topical now, when people are coming out the woodwork to decry diverse writers as "special snowflakes." To claim that the success of marginalized writers is only because they get bonus points for being marginalized. Is only because of their brain worms. Not that being marginalized gave these writers the experiences and drive to succeed. Not that being marginalized made it even more important that they innovate, that they push forward, because they never would have been let in to the community as it was. They had to first build their own. They had to first be better. Better than the dominant group. Better hackers, better writers. And I think that the direction that SFF has gone reflects that. Why have awards moved the direction they have. Is it because "PC culture" dictates that inferior writers receive higher praise? That there's some large conspiracy at work to keep out straight white cis-men from being lauded? Or is it possible that the stories winning awards are just better?

In Trouble and Her Friends, there is never a moment when Trouble gets to stare into the face of her opponent in triumph. He would quite literally rather die and take down as much as he can in the process than be held accountable for his own crimes. He would rather ruin the world and the community that he claims is important to him than admit that he had been bested by a queer woman. And that doesn't sound familiar at all, I'm sure, with the Puppies still trying to do as much harm as they can to the genres they claim to love. It's almost sad that a novel written over twenty years ago is so timely now. Almost sad, though, because by the time the antagonist of the story is trying to destroy everything rather than change, the heroes have almost won. As much as they can win. Theirs, and ours, is not a world where victory is going to look like 24/7 queer vodka parties. Both are worlds where victory means more work, more care, more craft, and more community. It means not making the same mistakes as those who held power so corruptly for so long. But it is victory all the same. A victory so many are fighting for. A victory, I hope, that's getting closer daily. Thanks for reading.

All the best,

Charles Payseur

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