William Shakespeare’s Dune is back!
In which the Evil Baron plots the ascendance of House Harkonnen to the throne!
William Shakespeare’s Dune is back!
In which the Evil Baron plots the ascendance of House Harkonnen to the throne!
The worlds of Science Fiction today are mourning the loss of one of the best of us. Dr. Jerry Pournelle has passed. For those of my readers who do not know, Dr. Pournelle was one of the great pioneers of both science and science-fiction. He was consulted by NASA and the Reagan Administration on matters of space exploration and defense. He wrote several novels I loved, especially High Justice. But my favorites were his collaborations with his partner, Larry Niven. Together they wrote two of my favorite SF novels ever, and one of my favorite fantasy works: Footfall and The Mote In God’s Eye, which to me deserve a place in the eternal canon of SF for being, respectively, the greatest alien invasion and first contact novels of the latter 20th century, and Inferno, a rewrite of Dante, in which a science-fiction writer travels through hell.
I was reminded of how privileged I am to have spent even one evening in Jerry’s company when I saw so many of my Facebook friends, most of whom are more accomplished authors than I am myself, saying that they had only met Jerry last week at DragonCon for the first time, or never.
I met Jerry eighteen years ago, at Writers’ Of The Future. I’d won 2nd place in the 1999 contest, and I still remember it as one of the proudest moments of my life that he and Mr. Niven handed me — ME! — my first ever science-fiction writing award. That I promptly made an ass of myself with my thank-you speech, which I had not rehearsed, is a somewhat less-proud moment, but that’s life.
But I will always treasure the memory of the after-party, when I got to speak with Jerry and many other writers. I’ll always remember that he came up with the best explanation I’ve ever heard of for the infamous Roswell Incident, which I will recall here. I’m going to emphasize that this was Jerry speculating, NOT releasing actual knowledge. Obviously, what follows is not an exact transcript, but I’m going to reproduce it as best I can recall from eighteen years ago:
“You got to remember that this was the old Air Force, with all the pilots still veterans of World War II. And those pilots were pretty much drunk as their ground state of being. On top of that, this was 1947, when the entire nuclear arsenal of the world was approximately eight weapons, all of them bombs, and all of them owned by the United States of America.
“Well, what it seems to me is that at some point, the Air Force wanted to move a bomb. Naturally, you’d keep that as secret as you can; why would you tell even the pilots? And so, two pilots, enjoying the long and boring flight over the New Mexico desert as best they could, climbed into the night sky, and never arrived at their destination.
“Now a nuclear weapon, of course, has safeties to prevent a mushroom going off in case the plane carrying it crashes, but crashed planes tend to burn, and the chemical explosive wrapped around the plutonium can certainly catch fire. So you have the Air Force looking for a missing plane, carrying an atomic bomb, and suddenly reports from Roswell of a a burning wreck in the middle of the desert. It doesn’t take the Air Force long to put those two facts together, but by the time they arrive, several VERY unauthorized persons have seen the wreck and the burned bodies (Author’s Note: Ever seen a photo of a very badly burned body? They do tend to shrink and attenuate. So they look very thin, with disproportionately-sized heads. Funny, that.) and strange fragments of highly-classified equipment.
What the Air Force very much wants to do is to make all this go away, so they whisk away all that they can, but they can’t disappear U.S. citizens, and they very definitely do not want it getting out that a couple of idiots managed to destroy by incompetence an eighth of the world’s nuclear arsenal. So they make up the story of a crashed weather balloon, which is an obvious fabrication, and pray. Sure enough, people disbelieve this and their theory about what the Air Force is covering up is… aliens. Alien spacecraft, crashed in the desert, whisked away by the Air Force.
The Air Force, of course, with its competent people on the job, send up praises to heaven and immediately refuse all comment on such things, pointing with increased energy to the “weather balloon,” and looking as stupid as they can. Because the more they do, the more people think “Ah-HAH! So it IS aliens,” and the less they think, “I wonder whether the Air Force might have lost a nuclear bomb.”
I remember thinking. My gods, of course. That makes absolutely perfect sense, and no matter how high up the chain of command you go, all the way up to President Truman, absolutely NO ONE in the government is going to have an interest in coming clean on that story, and neither would anyone in Eisenhower’s administration after that. How simple and brilliant.
Well, we all laughed, and whether it’s true or not, it’s a good story. And then Jerry talked to me. He asked about my story, and said he remembered it, and that it was a good story. And that’s something I will always remember when I feel that I can’t hack it as a writer. More than anything else, I remember that Jerry made me feel included, and truly part of this wonderful thing that I had always imagined fandom to be. And you know what? I think he did that with everyone. While I have talked to people who hated Jerry’s politics (and hated his fiction) and said he could be an ass when he was arguing, I never heard anyone who said that Jerry snubbed them or made them feel unwelcome.
There’s been a lot of — shall we say, discord — in fandom lately. A lot of exclusivity. I’ve seen friends made to feel unwelcome and friends threatened and excoriated and called liars and slanderers and worse. I’ve experienced some of it myself, as people made it clear that for one reason or another, I was not good enough or important enough to be worth their respect or time. For the purposes of this piece, though, I am not interested in the rights or the wrongs of any of it. All I would like to say is, that I would like all of us to remember Jerry, and how he took the time to befriend and welcome a newbie author. I never had the privilege of truly working with him, but I will always be grateful that for that evening, and that the man I met was as gracious and entertaining as the worlds he had brought to life for me. Thank you Jerry. And I hope to meet you again, in the worlds beyond the sky.
I generally don’t speak to the various kerfuffles in F/SF Fandom, for two reasons:
1) I choose to spend my moral energy in dealing with issues closer to where I live, and closer to my heart.
2) I’m not really IN Fandom yet. Not as a fan, certainly, and not as a writer, yet. So I don’t know a lot of the people who have been the targets of harassment, or who have harassed, demeaned, insulted, etc. other people. I don’t go to a lot of cons, and very few people know who I am.
But there is a phenomenon I have noticed in many, if not most, of the incidents of harassment I have read of. I have read of it over and over again in the essays and posts and rants and screeds. It’s familiar to anyone reading this: the phenomenon of “That’s Just Bob.” We all know Bob. He’s the charismatic Elder Male Writer (sometimes Fan) who assaults a woman (or belittles her in public). Then, when she cries foul, Bob’s fans try to explain that it wasn’t really a big deal and she shouldn’t feel victimized, because “That’s Just Bob.” Sorry. That’s just the way Bob is. And a lot of people have correctly pointed out that this essentially means: We value Elder Writer Bob, the Predator more than Nobody You, the Victim. Because there’s only one Bob and there’s thousands of nobody girls. And there is a lot of outrage because sexual assault shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. I agree. And people say that the problems are Rape Culture, White Male Privilege, and Sexism. And that’s where I disagree.
Before I become the target of justifiable outrage, let me expand: I do not disagree that sexism is a problem. I do not disagree that Bob is sexist, still less that he has privilege. I disagree that sexism, privilege, and Rape Culture are the core problems with Bob’s behavior. So what is? Allow me to illustrate from my own experience, the which I can speak to very well:
Many years ago, before I had ever made a professional sale, and when I was just getting, however tenuously connected to a community, a particular Bob was mentioned at a rather well-known Clinic I attended. I had heard of this Bob, of course. Everyone had. Bob was (and is) justly famous for his unique style of writing and his iconoclastic behavior. I had read some of Bob’s work and enjoyed it. And yet, when I read about Bob in real life, it was always about him being exceedingly rude to those around him. At the Clinic, I got to know some Friends of Bob, and they began telling stories about him. Stories of how Bob behaved around young writers. How he would ruthlessly mock their stories*, tear them to shreds, and then issue judgments about whether they would ever become successful writers (Hint: it didn’t end well for most of them). They were laughing and having a fine time, recalling the cruel things Bob had said.
I opined that it sounded like Bob was kind of a jerk.
“Well, but that’s just Bob,” I was told.
I opined that this did not make it okay for Bob to hurt people on purpose, for his own amusement.
“But you don’t understand,” I was told. “Bob’s really a great guy. If Bob’s your friend, he’ll do anything for you. He’s your friend for life.”
I said that I didn’t want to worship at the throne of Bob in exchange for that.
I was told: “You know what Bob would say to that if he were here? He doesn’t care.” And I was out of the conversation.
But what I thought was: yes, exactly, Bob doesn’t care, and that is the problem, because what you have said reduces to: We value Elder Writer Bob more than you, the nobody, because Bob is a god among lesser men and he LIKES us. That’s what separates us, the Chosen of Bob, from common little nobodies like you. He has RECOGNIZED our genius, and that gives us hope that we too may one day be Bobs ourselves. We are IN, and if lesser people have to suffer the Wrath and Mockery of Bob, it is not our place to care. They are beneath us.
Is it any wonder, then, that Bob thinks sexual harassment is entertaining and his right? After all, he is applauded by his friends for mocking the very people who came to him to learn. Why should they not applaud a different form of degradation? I mean, no one said Bob’s victims were arguing with him, or challenging his credentials. If they had, then Bob’s mockery might have been somewhat justified, or at least provoked. No, the universal consensus was that their sin was… not being good enough for Bob.
And that’s why I say the core problem with Bob and those like him is not sexism. It is not sexism, and it is not the privilege that leads to failure to call Bob out on his sexism, or to report him for his harassment. No. The core problem with Bob is the Bob Privilege that leads to failure to call him out on his presumption, his rudeness, his mockery, his bullying, and his inexcusable discourtesy to anyone around him that doesn’t fit Bob’s notion of what a writer or a person should be. All of these are faults that anyone but Bob would be called out on. But Bob we worship. And since Bob is used to being worshiped, he demands the deference as a right. Of course he’s sexist, racist, and whatever-the-hell-else-ist. Because that’s the basic ingredient of every -ist that plagues humanity: the fundamental belief that you can treat people however you want because they aren’t good enough for YOU!
I will not name Bob here. He is not worth naming, and I do not shame other people in public, deserved or undeserved. Besides, there are a lot of Bobs out there. I will point out, instead that if we wish to remove sexism, racism, and the other -isms from among us, I suggest we look a little harder at ourselves and the Bobs we choose to follow. Because the Bob we worship today for mocking, insulting, and bullying people we hate and despise may turn his or her wrath on us next. But more likely, Bob won’t target us; we’re the Chosen, after all. No, Bob will choose his victim, and there we’ll be. Saying nothing. Doing nothing. Because it’s not as important as sexual harassment or racism or any other sin we hate. And we know our Bob would never do those things. He’s a great guy.
Until he does.
And we, the Chosen, will have to choose.
*I do not mean, of course, that Bob or those like him should not, especially in a teaching situation, call out bad writing. One of my least favorite teachers at the Clinic called one of my stories out and ripped it to shreds. And it was painful. But he was right. And as much as he ripped it to shreds, he didn’t tell me I’d never be a decent writer. He just handed me the truth. But there is a difference between doing painful surgery on people and giggling at them as they writhe in agony.
Okay, it’s been a long time since I posted on this blog, despite a resolve to do at least one a week. What can I say, a big idea turned out to be more work that I had in me, and then life happened. But this blog topic is less nuanced, and I think I can fire it out there really fast:
I was recently shooting the breeze in my own thread online about a topic I would have to work to care less about when a rather Upset Young Guy™ I know barreled into the conversation with the subtlety of a chainsaw and informed me that because I was not acting in the manner of Real Fans Everywhere, my opinions on the topic had no merit, and that by merely airing my opinion… on my page, which I guess is his business because… he can see it? I dunno, where was I? Ah, yes: By merely airing my opinion, I had caused the UYG™, personally, great mental, nay, physical, anguish and distress. UYG™ proceeded to berate me for pretending to be a Real Fan and not spending the time or money to back it up. (In deference to the fact that he’s young and generally not a bad guy, I’m not being more specific than this. In deference to the fact that actions have consequences, I’m not being vaguer.)
The funny part is that he’s right: I’m not a Real Fan. I never said I was a Real Fan. I was just commenting on a few trends I’d recognized (trends that I was actually picking up by reading analysts who are likely far more Real Fans than either of us, as they get paid for this crap.) But apparently, no one who is not a Real Fan gets to talk about the topic at all, lest they get called out as ignorant or unenthusiastic by Real Fans, I guess.
The even funnier part is that he actually seems to think that I care about whether the self-appointed Real Fans respect my opinion on the topic of entertainment and how I should be enjoying it. But, then, he’s not alone: in the past few months I have seen professionals in a number of fields of study and craft, some of them quite close to my heart, rip each other to pieces in the name of what Real Fans, and Real Artists, and Real Activists, and Real People do and do not do.
And that’s not funny. That’s actually just sad.
Before I go further, a disclaimer: there is such a thing as real expertise in the world. And before you go intruding in a conversation set up by, about, and for experts with your own opinion, you’d better make sure you know what the hell you’re talking about, or damn well expect to get your head handed to you. For example, if it had been me who had barreled into a conversation UYG™ had been having with other Real Fans in a space for Real Fans, he could have said almost the same things he did say and have been totally in the right to do so.
But the Real Experts remember that they too were once novices, and they don’t look down on novices for not being experts, or question their motives for entering the field, or badmouth those taking a passing interest in the topic for expressing a feeling about it, or for passing on the opinions of those more knowledgeable than themselves, or even (gasp) for being WRONG once in awhile. Real Experts don’t take it upon themselves to be the Topic Police and run off the unworthy and uninitiated from discussing it among themselves. Because that’s not being an expert. That’s being the gatekeeper for a clique. That’s cutting your own field, or fan-base, or whatever off at the roots, because no one is going to want to be around people who act like that.
Don’t care? Figure people will always want to be Real Fans like you because you’re just That Cool? Okay. But there’s a lot of good people who won’t put up with your crap, whether its a fandom or a cause. And eventually, they’re going to welcome more people than you. Because they’re welcoming and not gatekeeping.
From Somewhere in Orbit