CW: Strong Language.
This is my surprised face:
I know. Not that surprised. It is definitely a face though.
You might wonder what the hell I’m going on about. If you are – thank your lucky stars/elixir of life/+5 Boots of Luck you don’t and don’t go digging. Walk away from this post now.
If you do know what I’m going on about then…well I’m seeing a lot of people wondering why PoC stick around when SFF fandom is so…full of people who would like to gatekeep us into what they believe is our place.
So here’s my journey back to being an SFF nerd and why in some ways I don’t give a flying fuck what old racists, homophobes, sexists and newly minted transphobes have to say and why, in others, I want to find them and remind them, forcefully, of just how irrelevant people like me make them.
I read a lot of trashy fantasy when I was growing up and some slightly more thoughtful SF. I had a wall of the stuff and loved nothing more than reading (especially when i should have been revising. Fortunately I have a memory that won’t quit so it didn’t destroy my chances). I played a lot of D&D so had shelves of Weis and Hickman, Forgotten Realms, Drizzt Do’urden. I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay, Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, Asimov and others courtesy of my father’s book shelves.
Then I stopped reading – mainly because I had people around me who frowned upon my reading material and I totally internalised their moral panic.
I read pretty much nothing except non-fiction until I was in my early 20s and rediscovered fiction. By that time I had completed my PhD in theoretical physics and, honestly, SFF bored the hell out of me. I couldn’t get past the crap (ranging from mcguffin through to ‘you really don’t understand this at all, do you) science in most SF. I’ve grown. I don’t care about your science now – I’m interested in other things.
No. After 7 years of reading philosophy, mathematics, theology and economics I discovered I wanted nothing more than to read contemporary literary fiction. Fury by Salman Rushdie, The South American Trilogy by Louis De Berniere and my all time favourite book – the Master and Margerita.
Why? Not because they’re inherently better but because they did this thing: they explored ideas and talked about subjects I had no other outlet with which to explore what was burning in my heart. I remember reading the Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills and House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski and realising fiction could do something great and profound. It could change who I was.
I was also discovering who I was as a person (I’m a venerable 45 now so being in my 20s was literally 20 years ago). I realised after talking to a Black friend that I’d spent most of my first 20 years of life trying to be white. Which obviously hadn’t worked for me. I realised I didn’t have to be ashamed of being brown – except brown people spent quite a lot of time telling me I wasn’t brown enough.
I realised I’m what you might call Liminal. At the time I was under the impression that my multiple heritages included Indian, English, Irish, French, Italian, Polish and Jewish. The largest components being Jewish and Indian. It’s since, in the last year, turned out I have no Jewish ancestry, nor Italian, but instead have Ukrainian Roma and Egyptian to swap those out with. Yes, it’s a long story involving the Shoah and prejudice and hidden histories which only came to light as that generation died. But I digress.
I didn’t return to SFF for a couple of reasons. The writing largely bored me – at least the stuff I was coming across. Compared to Hilary Mantel or Haruki Murakami or Jose Saramago or Anthony Burgess they were but pale imitations of what fiction can achieve. But. And it’s a big but. There’s a second reason lurking underneath this difficulty in finding a connection with a subject matter that, if left alone, I get terribly excited about.
I never saw myself on the page. Fantasy seemed to be almost addicted to the prince fighting for their kingdom or a chosen one, someone with special blood doing what no one else could (why always with this bullshit?). Not only could I not understand why anyone would write romantic peans to the divine right of kings when that kind of thinking is demonstrably bad for our personal agency and for civic society but as someone with more heritages than tv channels growing up, I really couldn’t see myself in their shoes. I am NEVER going to be the chosen one. And socially? It seemed (because I had no one to educate me) that it was socially retrograde beyond just lamenting our loss of kings with absolute power. Now, looking back, I know there was more out there, but those exceptions only prove the rule for me. Fandom and fantasy writers alike were (and still are in many respects) backward looking socially. There are obviously great exceptions to this now but I’m not wasting my time listing my caveats – especially when I have entire posts about those great writers elsewhere on this site.
So what brought me back to reading SFF? Because I literally stumbled upon writers who conveyed something different. Adam Roberts, Jeff Vandermeer, Hilary Mantel (again. Check out Beyond Black or Fludd if you want to see a master at work), Peter Watts, Hannu Rajaniemi, Lavie Tidhe, Octavia Butler, Vikram Chandra, Ann Leckie and Kelly Link.
What was eye opening? They talked about experiences I had, they were concerned with struggles I knew. And the ideas! Oh the ideas.
I still didn’t engage with fandom. Honestly I didn’t really know it existed.
Then I started getting my own work published and, as part of that, started attending cons. Nineworlds was my first and I was wonderfully buddied there by long time friend David Thomas Moore. It was a wonderful experience as my first con. I’m fortunate in that I’m not particularly shy and spend most of my working life negotiating/networking, so I don’t generally feel nervous about being in places where I don’t know people. Add to that an upbringing where i moved something like 7 times before university meant I’ve lots of experience of being on the outside looking in.
However, for the most part I made some great friends there and then even more at my first FCon. People like the incomparable Rehema Njambi, Mike Brooks, Tade Thompson, Anna Stephens, Peter McLean, Adrian and Annie Tchaikovsky and Anna Smith Spark just to mention those I remember from my early days at these things. (Also Frog Croakley and Penny Reeves who were tequila buddies when we all should have known better). I found people like me and it was glorious.
Now I’ve come into fandom late. I’m a fairly intimidating looking middle aged straight man and one whose accustomed to wielding actual power in my every day life. So I’m not easily phased by micro-aggressions. I’m also not generally ready to put up with bullshit and I will and have intervened where I see it.
Honestly, most of the people I’ve come across – be they super stars of kindness and creativity like Alasdair Stuart or fiery and righteous people like Farah Mendelsohn – are people I want to be like, people I want to impress because they impress me. They’re people who I want to be around. And I *think* most of fandom is like that on a day to day basis.
However. It’s also got a decent share of utter arseholes. People who think they are empowered as gatekeepers (and might actually be) when they have no right to that power. It’s got people who think mixed race characters have no place in fiction, that women can’t write, that we should be celebrating ‘old school’ fiction where ‘men were men’. It’s got people who’ll brigade new authors they don’t like (I won’t go over my own ample -ve experiences of being an author; I’ve documented them elsewhere) because they’re women or BIPOC or whatever other ugly and spurious degree of separation they believe makes them invalid.
But worse than that, and backed up by proper research, is the fact that toxic fandom has publishing on its side. You may think that’s not true and I love you my dear summer child. The stats are clear – publishing is a white industry. The books published are, largely, by white people. And the deafening silence from the vast majority of publishers on these issues is damning.
I work for an investment bank and we’ve made more noise and taken more actual substantive actions to change our composition and structure. We, the bastions of capitalism. It may be self-serving but then if it’s self-serving for us…how much more so for an industry like publishing which on the face of it wants to be seen as progressive far more than finance.
If you have a toxic publishing industry then you will have a toxic fandom because both are predicated on structures which permit and bake into the very nature of the system these kinds of outcomes.
And you know what? I’m nervous about writing this boldly about publishing. I’m trying to sell my books and I love SFF. There is a fear in my gut that speaking clearly about the issues here, in calling them out, I damage my agent’s ability to sell my work, that I alienate readers and editors, salespeople and marketers. I want to write about slavery, about rebellion, about ordinary people doing remarkable things, about being liminal, about being Black, Indian, outside, about power and about the long tail of colonialism. I want to write about hope, about how we can make a difference. You and I. Together.
This kind of self-censorship is one I can sidestep because I have a job that pays the wages. I work as hard on my writing as anything else I do but I won’t starve if I never sell another book. I come from a position of being someone who doesn’t need this to live (despite desperately wanting to get my stories out there).
But the fear is there.
We can complain about toxic fans, about vile gatekeepers and horrendously absorbed old guard. Yet they occupy a space the system has made and the rest of us can get angry about it but while the system remains 97% white (and middle/upper class at that) then there’s very little that will change deep in the bones. As I said in my article on diversity in publishing, 3 British PoC authors in the UK’s most prestigious SF award is all the evidence you need of institutional racism.
I’m hoping the results of that work are being discussed behind closed doors because they’re not being discussed by the industry where someone like me can see them…
So am I surprised that powerful people in fandom and the industry are facilitators of toxicity? No. Is it my fandom? Not in a million years.
if you want, I’ll be over here geeking out about She Ra, The Memory Police, The Light Brigade, Cage of Souls and Fast Color. Come join me and let’s have some fun.