I see the Back In MY Day crowd is at it again.
In one of David Gerrold’s books* about the original Star Trek, he points out the show was billed as humanity’s future in space, but in fact that wasn’t what it was. Trek was 1960s USA culture in space. It was political. It pushed envelopes. It was unapologetically liberal most of the time, and often had beautiful, egalitarian visions of the future.
It was also sexist, racist, patriarchal, paternalistic, and sometimes weirdly authoritarian. Which makes it a pretty good snapshot of the culture of the times: what people wanted, what people were worried about, where their blind spots were–which we can see more clearly now, having seen how those ideas have grown and changed (and not changed) our larger culture.
It was a great show. It did great things, both for television and SFF culture in general.
There’s better stuff out there now.
It’s true. Y’all know how much I love The Expanse, both for its characterizations and its worldbuilding. Watchmen was an odd, flawed, bloody brilliant piece of storytelling. Stranger Things had its own fascinating take on nostalgia, viewing the past through the lens we have today; Doctor Who, over sixty-seven years, has reinvented itself over and over again.
All of these shows are problematic in their own ways. (Watchmen disappointed me by having two powerful, beautifully-acted female leads, and essentially diluting their relationship to arguing over some guy.) All of them will be judged by history, as they should be, as we do with all culture. That doesn’t make me enjoy them less. It’s perfectly okay to recognize a thing’s flaws and still like it.
It’s perfectly okay to recognize that new things happen, and sometimes they’re amazing.
What’s shameful isn’t enjoying the past. What’s shameful is complaining about change to the very people bringing change about. What’s shameful is using your own popularity to push old, flawed work that hurts people, at the very moment you’re supposed to be celebrating the new, the powerful, the future.
Isn’t science fiction supposed to be about the future? Isn’t it?
(Does anyone really think the future is going to be packed with nothing but vaguely European white guys?)
When I was a kid (Back In MY Day), I bought books at our local drugstore. I’d walk home from school and stop in to see what they had that was new. The book section wasn’t large, but they had half a shelf–maybe a whole shelf; it was 40 years ago so I can’t be sure–of science fiction and fantasy. I’d buy multiple books a week, if I could afford them (my dad dumped his change on the table when he got home, and I’d snitch quarters; bad child, indeed, but that’s also how he paid me my lunch money and my allowance).
Looking back, I suspect it was pretty remarkable to have so much SFF in our one small-town drugstore, but at the time I didn’t recognize my good fortune. I just bought stuff. Mostly I bought female authors. Over the years I’d realized I was more likely to enjoy a book written by an unknown if that unknown was a woman. I didn’t analyze that impression, but looking back now I understand.
For me to enjoy a book, I have to be able to immerse myself in the narrative. I don’t care if the protagonist is like me at all; I want to be drawn into the universe, the story, the fears and risks and tragedies and rewards. I want to be there, no matter who the main character is.
Sometimes, the way a book depicted its female characters would jolt me right out of that immersion. It’d be like coming across flashing red letters saying “THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR YOU.”
Is that what y’all want for readers, Back In MY Day folks? You want them to believe the only “good” stuff is stuff that egregiously shoves them out of a narrative they were, up until that point, enjoying?
I had an argument on my writing group with a guy talking about an author’s obligations to their readers. He was talking about producing books on a schedule, suggesting that authors owed it to their readership to publish regularly and promptly. I disagreed with that, rather forcefully; but the truth is I do feel an author has some obligations to the reader.
I believe if an author pushes people away with a particular narrative, they should be absolutely conscious of what they’re doing.
Which is an impossibly high bar to set, really, what with all of us swimming in the current culture. Biases come through. Unchallenged assumptions shape everything. But we’re writers. We should be constantly open and interested and learning about what’s around us, how we respond to it, how we shape what we’re presenting to the world.
And when we’re finished, we should be able to say to our readers: Here is the story, written as best as I can tell it; it belongs to you now, fellow human, and you may like it or not as you choose.
I mess up. My own blinders inform my work. I am trying. I am growing. Humans fascinate me. When I get something wrong, that’s a lesson, and when I open my eyes to it I know more. My world is bigger, grander, lovelier.
And in the midst of it all, nobody has told me to stop enjoying Star Trek.
There’s a zero-sum-game quality to these repetitive culture wars. Perhaps that comes from the dominant culture having propped itself up by taking from others for so long. I’m part of the dominant culture in the most visible ways, being white and married to a man and living in a little suburb. As a woman? I’ve always been shoved toward a very specific box in this dominant culture, and at times in my life I worked very hard to fit into it.
My privilege is undeniable; I’ve had huge advantages because of my race, my parents’ financial class, my educational opportunities, all of it. But SFF never welcomed me, not really. And maybe that’s another reason I went after female authors, some of whom wrote one book and disappeared: I recognized them. They were on the outskirts, quietly being themselves, and whatever story they told held some of that experience of being on the edge, being invisible, being patted on the head and dismissed.
There are people still dismissing authors, even in the age of Jemisin and Anders and Novik and Nagata and Maguire and Bujold. There are people still treating women–especially non-cis and non-white women–as cute little things on the fringes that don’t really belong. Oh, they’ll tolerate them, even recognize they’re good–but they’ll never let them forget that the true greats are the ones who came before. No matter what their flaws.
And I mean, the short answer is “fuck off with that bullshit.” But I get it, sort of. Just like the folks who don’t like it when people point out their racism. They can’t be racist, you see, because they’re liberal progressives and besides, they don’t wear a white sheet. Those are some of the most frustrating people to deal with: they’re smart, and they’re the sort you’d think would want to get it, but they can’t get past this idea that real racists are Bad People who wear some kind of visible sign.
Some of these self-appointed SFF gatekeepers are probably wondering if someone is telling them they shouldn’t love all these old books. Which is rubbish. Love what you want. But maybe don’t stand up and venerate it without recognizing the ways it’s become outdated, even harmful. And don’t venerate the hurtful stuff while people are celebrating the new.
Popular culture is a weird thing. In a lot of ways, it lags the way real people live. Folks my kid’s age, I notice, are pretty blasé about an individual’s gender and sexuality, while also defending fiercely everyone’s right to be treated with absolute respect. In the large, that generation gets it, and is working for the right things.
There are books and writers I’ve let go of over the years. That’s not easy. It breaks my heart a little every time I pick up a book I loved and find it…sort of appalling. There are books I still love, even flawed ones. (Linda Haldeman’s The Lastborn of Elvinwood is lovely, but if you look at the story it’s really kind of horrifying.) But my tastes are changing. Of course they are. The world is changing, and I am part of the world. That’s basically my job as a writer: to be part of the world.
Nobody’s telling anyone to forget the past. But letting in the future is both inevitable and tremendously rewarding.
Maybe, Back In MY Day folks, you could stop feeling sorry for yourselves for two minutes and remember that.
*I think it was The World of Star Trek, but it’s quite possible it wasn’t Gerrold at all. I apologize for my lack of cite. Good insight, though, isn’t it?