The only constant in the universe is change — and even that’s not always constant.
But even while that is immediately observable, measurable, and testable, most human beings act as if reality is static. There’s no evidence to support that belief, but we act as if the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be — ignoring the fact that the history of our species is about nothing as much as it is about change. We explore, we discover, we colonize, we build, we invent, we evolve, we transform — and we stumble inevitably from one crisis into the next, never solving any of them, just outliving the worst. We are the descendants of the survivors, the ones too stubborn to die.
Somewhere in there, we invented language and eventually writing — it was a way to preserve knowledge and pass it on to the next generation. When we invented literature, we also invented culture. Our world is the palimpsest of history rewriting itself anew every generation.
Right now, we’re living in a science fiction world and our literature is a literature of ideas and possibilities. Some of these possibilities are the dreams that stuff is made of — others are warnings of places we probably shouldn’t go. But we have arrived at a unique moment in world history. As a species, we are finally considering our own future. We are finally looking at possibilities — and the choices that those possibilities demand.
This is the primary function of science fiction — to be the Research and Development Division of the Human Species. This literature is the laboratory in which we consider the universe and our place in it. It is the place where we ask, “Who are we and what is our purpose here? What does it mean to be a human being?”
One might argue — justifiably — that most of science fiction simply isn’t that ambitious, and one would be right. But even the simplest tales still serve to establish the vocabulary for the greater journeys beyond. And that may be the universal appeal of this particular branch of literature.
No other genre is as ambitious, no other genre considers as many powerful and disturbing questions. All the other branches of literature are about the past, they’re about how we got here, as if here is a static place. Only science fiction is about the future. Only science fiction is about change.
And just as our world changes, so does our literature.
The evolution of science fiction is a reflection of our changing culture. Attitudes that were commonplace in the past have been recognized as antiquated, quaint, and obsolete.
Our national conversation is the result of our diverse history. We’re not the proverbial melting pot — no, we’re a tossed salad. Every new wave of immigrants adds new ingredients to the mix, new flavors to discover; but all arrive with the same dream, a place to build a better life. We are immigrants, or we are the descendants of immigrants, and as a people we are learning to recognize the strength and value of our national diversity — it gives us a greater sense of the global village.
So, yes, it is inevitable that science fiction authors will explore that diversity — expanded roles for women, new definitions of gender and sexuality, the contributions of People of Color and other non-white ethnicities. We’ve discovered the overlooked skills of the aged and the disabled, the unusual and extraordinary ratiocinations of people who are neuro-atypical. The next generation of authors are exploriong vast new landscapes of possibility — places to explore and discover ways of being human previously unconsidered.
Even as science extends its reach outward, probes journeying as far as Pluto, telescopes peering to the farthest edges of the universe, as we expand our knowledge of what’s out there, some of our most ambitious authors are turning their attention to a different frontier —exploring the workings of the human soul.
We’ve seen some remarkable work, truly transformative — mind bending. Yes, it’s non-traditional — so what? Science fiction has always been non-traditional. It has always been “that weird stuff.” It has always been subtly subversive — and sometimes even openly dangerous.
But for some people, the current definition of “non-traditional” includes the increased visibility of women and blacks, Asians and LGBT people, both as authors and as a fan base. If it’s true that change is a constant (and it is), then it’s also a corollary that change causes upset. Therefore, what appears to be a dramatic change, will produce an equally profound upset. Following that logic, the science fiction community lives in a condition of constant upset … with all the associated drama that comes with.
The upset is understandable. Most upsets are variations on, “This isn’t what I expected,” and “This isn’t the way things are supposed to be,” and “I don’t like broccoli.”
The problem — if you want to consider it a problem — is that we tend to take things personally. We forget that in the great grand scheme of things, we’re mostly irrelevant. We’re only important to the degree that we make a difference in the world — and even that’s debatable, depending on the kind of difference we’re committed to.
All those authors — the ones we like, the ones who excited us, and all the others ones as well, the ones we skip over, the ones we’ve chosen to despise — they’re not writing for us, they’re writing for themselves.
I won’t say this is true of all authors, but it’s certainly true of many, and probably most — authors write the stories they want to read, but that nobody else is writing. Authors write their own selves, they write the way the world looks to them, they write from the inside of their personal bubble of experience — what they write always reflects reflect their own identities and how the world looks to those identities. And if there are others out there who respond well to what has been written, then they’ve succeeded in reaching across time and space to touch another human being.
As the recognition of women and minorities has grown in our culture, so it has also grown in our literature. One result is that women and minorities have recognized that too much of “traditional” science fiction has overlooked their participation in the world. It’s this simple: “I don’t want to be invisible in fiction. I want to see stories that include people like me.”
And, as I said above, writers write the stories they want to read — so women and People of Color and LGBT people and others have been redefining the boundaries of science fiction, feeding not only their own literary appetites, but those of the audiences that have been overlooked.
Change causes upset, remember? Some people got upset. Some people reacted badly. The “I hate broccoli” bunch was particularly appalled.
And a few of them said some things that were ill-considered.
Instead of discussing the content and the quality of the stories, some people made derogatory comments the race, gender, sexual orientation, and behaviors of other authors. These were comments that were rooted in bigotry. I should point out here that bigotry is not an expression of hatred as much as it is a demonstration of fear, insecurity, and cowardice. It’s natural to fear the unknown — real courage is embracing it.
But once the conversation descended into vicious personal attacks … well, as usual, all fandom was plunged into war. The internet made it possible for everyone to lob ballistic missives in all directions. It was as if the grownups had left the room and everybody was playing North Korea. Depending on where you stood, depending on what you believed, depending on which upset you had adopted as your very own, anyone who agreed with you was a good guy, anyone who argued with you was the unholy spawn of some as yet unnamed Lovecraftian eldritch horror.
Larry Niven has wisely said: Never throw shit at an armed man. Never stand next to someone who is throwing shit at an armed man. In fact, one could distill this into a much more general rule. Never throw shit. Never stand next to anyone throwing shit.
This is profoundly good advice.
There has been too much shit-flinging. Monkeys are good at it, but human beings have made it an art form. Some of us enjoy shit-flinging so much that we forget we’re human beings, we become fecal trebuchets.
So let’s have this conversation be about remembering our essential humanity — and what we must do to preserve it. It’s this simple. If someone is throwing shit, verbal or otherwise, silence is interpreted as agreement.
Saying, “I’m not throwing shit,” is insufficient. Especially if you’re still standing next to the person throwing shit.
Saying, “Well, I’m not responsible for him,” is insufficient. He’s still throwing shit and you’re still standing next to him.
Equivocation of any kind is insufficient. It’s an attempt to avoid responsibility.
The real question is this —why are you still standing next to the guy who’s throwing shit?
Why aren’t you telling him to stop? Why aren’t you saying, “This is not me and I won’t stand for it!”
You might have good points to make. You might even be right. But that conversation gets left behind when the louder voices are speaking racism, misogyny, and homophobia. If you aren’t equally loud in your condemnations, if you don’t distance yourself from the shit-flingers, then you will be perceived as an accomplice. You are perceived as an enabler. You will be perceived as “another one of them.”
Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. once opined that the overt displays of prejudice from the KKK and the White Citizens’ Councils did not distress him as much as it was the silence of those who claimed to be allies.
That’s the issue.
You might believe you’re not a racist, not a misogynist, not a homophobe — but when you are silent in the realm of bigotry, what does your silence say?
Science fiction is a genre of exploration and discovery. It’s a literature of possibility and its many fandoms have become a multi-verse of enthusiasms. Love us all, we’re celebrating our ability to imagine all kinds of glorious, ambitious, amazing, astonishing, marvelous things. We have self-assembled a worldwide community of people who love the extraordinary — including legions of scientists and engineers, mathematicians and sociologists, researchers of all kinds, astronauts and artists —and as a result, we’ve created so many of the dreams that stuff is made from that we’ve changed the world.
Fighting among ourselves is about as useful as arguing whether we should break our eggs at the big end or the little. Doubling-down on the argument, justifying our shit-flinging only compounds the failure. It’s not what rational human beings do. Honest. (I’ve met some rational human beings. I’ve watched very carefully how they behave. I can see why it might look like a strange and alien experience. It requires conscious effort. Shit-flinging is so much easier.)
This is the point:
Who’s dominating the conversation? Are you willing to let them speak for you? If you are, then you don’t get to complain about how you’re perceived.
If you don’t want to be seen as a misogynist, a homophobe, or a racist, don’t say the things that misogynists, homophobes, or racists say. And don’t stand next to people who are saying the things that misogynists, homophobes, and racists say — and if you do find yourself standing next to those people, then it’s your responsibility to rebuke them. Tell them to shut the fuck up. And publicly walk away. Put a few light years between yourself and them. Because it’s your reputation that’s at stake.
Limelight contains kryptonite. If you’re going to be a public figure of any kind, it’s no longer about who you are — it’s also about who the audience thinks you are as well. And you have to make damned sure that you’re clear about that, because if you’re not, others will fill your silence for you.
And we’ve seen how that worked out.
Shit-flinging didn’t solve anything.
Let’s do something else instead.
We’re here because we love science fiction — therefore, we’re all in this together.
Let’s start with that.
Copyright © 2017 by David Gerrold.
David Gerrold broke onto the Science Fiction scene with one of the most memorable episodes of Star Trek’s original series, The Trouble with Tribbles. He has worked in television, (Star Trek TOS, Next Generation, Land of the Lost, Babylon 5, The Twilight Zone), is the author of The Martian Child which was adapted for the screen, has won the Nebula, the Hugo, the EE Smith award. He is an advocate for LGBTQ rights and is currently working on the latest novels in the War with the Chtorr series.
In 2015, David Gerrold, along with Tananarive Due, served as the Hosts of the 2015 Hugo Award ceremonies at the height of the puppy kerfuffle.