Monday, April 3, 2017

Dereck Clemons, In American Sci Fi Magazines

Liberal Sci Fi, Now More Liberal

American Science Fiction skews left. Yes, right-wing, military- and market-happy stories exist. But paranoia over government and market motives has been abundant since the Vietnam era, and since the 2008 financial crisis, even anti-capitalist stories bloom in the mainstream.

Increasingly: pick up (or download) a copy of a Sci Fi magazine (the few there are) and you’ll see characters expressing annoyance with this “capitalist bullshit.”1

When people explore the stars, it’s due to military industrial complexes and the violence of capitalism having ruined Earth for everybody, like in Carter Scholz’s “Gypsy.”2

Anti-sexual-violence and women’s recuperation of their bodies figure heavily in 2014 Nebula-award winner Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” and finalist Alyssa Wong’s “The Fisher Queen.”3 Feminist expression runs throughout “Fade-to-White,” by Catherine Valente, in which a mother warns her daughter that the history of the world consists of “men taking your body and soul apart to label the parts that belong to them.”4

Don’t forget revolutionary zeal, as in Aliette De Bodard’s “Immersion,” reminding us that “every revolution had to start somewhere—hadn’t Longevity’s War of Independence started over a single poem, and the unfair imprisonment of the poet who’d written it?”5

Or check out Fireside Fiction with their stated aim of “resisting the global rise of fascism and far-right populism, starting with the current occupant of the White House.” Titles of short stories and essays on their current homepage: “The Revolution Was Televised,” “This Machine Kills Fascists,” “The Revolution, Brought to You by Nike,” and “Black Like Them.”

Speaking of Fireside, a report of theirs making waves is “Antiblack Racism in Speculative Fiction,” by Cecily Kane.6 The report casts in stark, scientific terms the scarcity of black writers in Sci Fi magazines. For instance, over half of all Sci Fi magazines published an average of zero black writers within 2015-16. Just two or three magazines, and mostly one (Terraform), accounted for most black writers who did appear in magazines.

Follow-up essays on the matter include Sci Fi authors Justina Ireland with “Two Percent” and Mikki Kindall with “Opportunity Lost,” both of which extrapolate implications, causes, and remedies from Firesides report and their own experiences.

Anthologies (like Dark Matter or Mothership) could be said to provide a way to introduce black writers to Sci Fi audiences. Justina Ireland argues that these anthologies, though well-intentioned, sidestep the issue. Says Ireland: “I’m tired of the only opportunities for black writers happening the two or three times a year that POC get to Destroy something.”7

“Destroy something” refers to Lightspeed Magazine’s special issues People of Color Destroy Science Fiction, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, and Women Destroy Science Fiction. Ireland observes that separate spaces are not the answer: “As much as I love the POC Destroy [Something] books, they are emblematic of the problem. The established SFF short fiction markets are so unwelcoming to PoC in general and black authors in particular that we have to build our own, separate spaces. But separate isn’t equal, and the separation of opportunities for authors of color both ghettoizes these authors into a niche interest and gives more mainstream markets a pass for not being inclusive....”

Not that dedicated spaces can't be productive or shouldn't be created, however, as Ireland herself edits such a project: the newly minted Fiyah: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. Another new arrival is Black Girl Lit Mag, and it should be noted that Rosarium Publishing has been going strong in this regard since 2013.

Socialist Sci Fi is Socialist
If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism... they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.
 Tim Kreider, “Our Greatest Political Novelist?” The New Yorker, 2013.
One reads much Sci Fi with two minds, such as when Justina Ireland mentions enjoying the Destroy anthologies but also recognizing them as part of the problem.

On the one hand, Sci Fi has led the way among literary genres in questioning authority and shedding a light on capitalist fallout. On the other, it excludes black writers, plus its backlog can be tiresome or degrading due to the history of misogyny, racism, &c. found there.

Sci Fi can best do its job of foregrounding present concerns among future possibilities if it has diverse peoples telling the stories. As the editors of Terraform magazine put it, “you can’t get a complete picture of how humans are thinking about the future unless you’re inclusive of as many voices as possible.”8 Sci Fi writers and readers need these perspectives to offer, among other things, greater portrayals of life beyond capitalism, a broad trend in itself.9

After the 2008 financial meltdown and the ongoing wars in the Middle East, with the police violence videos catching people’s attention, and now with a complete train wreck of a White House, you could say this country’s trust in its institutions is imploding yet again. Once Sci Fi reckons itself with some of the oppressive mechanisms it shares with the rest of our society, it will be a greater asset than ever for anti-capitalist and anti-fascist thinking.

Next Up

For those of us with left to radical streaks in our reading preferences, let’s look forward to these developments in the next few years:

More black writers in the magazines. Or let’s hope so anyway. We’ll see.

More certainly: unambiguously critical looks at police brutality. This one has a history with much Sci Fi expressing a distrust of militarized police or government surveillance; as well, it’s commonplace for a character to outmaneuver snitchy military drones and brutal occupying forces. Often, however, the settings are far-away and police referred to by euphemism (guardians, monitors, agents, troopers, scouts), so let’s look for more transparent examples.

Also an awareness of recession cycles. Because the end, so people tell me, won’t come with a bang but a series of escalating ruptures followed each time by increasingly less effective recoveries and violent measures taken by a militarized state desperate to protect its assets. Look for high-tech, landed gentry surrounded by medieval conditions.

More Sci Fi postcolonialism, like the critical stance toward pre-emptive strikes in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Scott Westerfeld’s Risen Empire.10

More Cory Doctorow being critical of state surveillance.11

The apocalypse remains a big sub-genre, having been around for decades (see: dread of atomic weapons), but the popularity of a wasteland with killer zombies or psychopathic neighbors—this falls away coming up. Look for more creative observations of how a capitalist state in decline could hobble along. More people coping, not cannibalizing.

The U.S. as less of a superpower but not a hellscape.

Of course lots more on Mars, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and the Sixth Mass Extinction, all longtime staples of Sci Fi.

What I’m not saying: that Sci Fi will end capitalism. If anything, it looks like we’re in store for a continuance or even escalation of state repression and violence, so expect to find this long, hard slog represented with increasing nuance in Sci Fi.

Expect more radicalism, left and right, and for Sci Fi to grow ever more valuable for its trove of dangerous visions.

1 Rich Larson, “The Nostalgia Calculator,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction [or FSF], May/June 2016.
2 Carter Scholz, “Gypsy,” FSF, Nov/Dec 2015.
3 Ursula Vernon. “Jackalope Wives,” Apex Magazine, January 2014. Alyssa Wong. “The Fisher Queen,” FSF, May/June 2014.
4 Catherine Valente. “Fade-to-White,” Clarkesworld, August 2012.
5 Aliette De Bodard, “Immersion,” Clarkesworld, June 2012.
6 Cecily Kane, “Antiblack Racism in Speculative Fiction,” Fireside Fiction, 2016.
7 Justina Ireland, “Two Percent,” Fireside Fiction, 2016.
8 Cecily Kane, “Antiblack Racism in Speculative Fiction,” Fireside Fiction, 2016.
9 Fredric Jameson, writing on Sci Fi, famously says “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” He goes on in that essay and others to extol Science Fiction for imagining those possibilities. He calls the visions Utopian, where Utopia is a kind of optimism about what people are capable of at various stages of capitalism’s decline (or without it altogether).
10 Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest is a good Vietnam-era indictment and as good a place as any to start. It’s also this fan’s favorite gateway into her Hainish cycle. Rewinding a bit, though, and you have Philip K. Dick’s “Tony and the Beetles” (1953). It boils down to how, though he may fraternize with kids of the oppressed group, a white kid still plays an agent of abuse against them. The structure, or the history and power dynamic, that leads to this revelation is a firmly established one of attitudes, however conflicted and well-intended.
11 See: this Doctorow story in which a group of activists stays connected via phones and cooperation, called “Lawful Interception.” It’s about a future Occupy Oakland, except he calls it Occupy Seneca, after the Bay Area mental health agency, and it takes place after an earthquake because Occupy is a way for people to help each other deal with crisis, so an earthquake is a succinct and externalized crisis.

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