“Let me tell you all what it’s like being male, middle-class, and white.”
– Ben Folds
The Puppies saga, Sad and Rabid, finally came to a close this weekend with the two groups’ utter defeat at the Hugo Awards in Spokane. I’ve been following the story since it started making the rounds back in April. The Hugo awards are (to me) one of the highest honors a speculative fiction writer can achieve. If I could put a value of life goals as a writer, winning a Hugo would be somewhere around “Ridley Scott optioned your book” and “HBO wants to do a seven-year show based on your series.”
Because the Hugo awards recognize excellence and the use of speculative fiction in the best of all ways: as a means to speculate (see what I did there?) about the “what if’s” and the “what abouts.” Some of the past winners are among my favorite books, SF and otherwise: The Dispossessed, two-thirds of the Mars trilogy, and Dune.
There have been millions of words written about the Puppies movement, so I don’t feel a great need to do more of that here. I highly recommend Amy Wallace’s Wired.com piece about the 2015 Hugo Awards and the defeat of the Puppies for an overview of the personalities behind the movement and the community’s response to them.
Puppies are Sad
The Puppy argument is fundamentally flawed. They want a return to the good ol’ raygun-shooting space adventure era of science fiction, which in and of itself isn’t terrible. On a personal level I struggled long and hard with the need to write something that would be considered a viable candidate for entry into the academic canon until a therapist (no, really) told me: write what you like to write, and stop worrying about that. Do you think Paul McCartney writes every song to be a great artist? Of course not. He writes what he likes.
Thus my Paul McCartney principle for writing.
So sure, if what you want to write is old fashioned raygun-toting, alien-blasting space adventures, awesome, go for it. There’s plenty of people out there who want that kind of thing. Wallace’s article notes the inherent class distinctions in what the Sad Puppies nominated: it’s more “blue collar” sci-fi in that it’s all about characters doing rather than characters feeling: the Puppies want characters that just get out and Do Stuff. Particularly fun, action-y, shoot-first-ask-questions-later stuff. If there’s Dinkum Thinkum stuff in there, fine, but only if characters are out there kicking ass.
The flaw is that these two things can’t mutually co-exist—or shouldn’t. SF is a big damn tent and there’s room for both, and no reason why a book where dudes are blasting aliens with rayguns can’t coexist with emotive, feeling characters, in stories that ask and answer the Dinkum Thinkum questions too. I operate under the assumption that the vast majority of us writers are simply writing what we want to write—whether it’s the raygun-blasting space engineer or the gender-fluid queer identity stories. We give it value because it’s important or fun to us, and important, valuable, and fun to our readers. In fact, the Eclipse Phase universe, which I’ve had the pleasure to write for, is all about both of these things coexisting.
Writers are often instructed to “write what you know.” There’s a limitation to this in SF because there’s a certain amount we don’t know about things like killing dragons, living on generation ships, or traveling through time. Likewise, for those of us who identify as straight, white, cis males, there’s only so much we know about being queer, trans, female, or nonwhite (to say nothing of my middle-class upbringing). It doesn’t stop us from speculating in our fiction, but—for me, personally—there’s a fine line between speculation and appropriation.
I’m currently working on a short story with a closeted, gay main character set in the late 1940s. My knowledge of that person’s experience is largely based on reading about how gay males of that era were actively recruited by intelligence services because they were so good at hiding their tracks, and trying to imagine how a gay person living in that time period might react and respond to an incredibly homophobic (and anti-Communist) America.
I’m also working on an RPG scenario that has heavy Native American elements—not “movie” Native Americans, but modern-day Kiowa people living in a small town in Oklahoma. I have the tiniest bit of experience by proxy, but certainly not the firsthand experience a Native American writer could bring to the table.
In my weird western novel Trouble in Hangman Flats (working title), the two main characters are both straight, white males. Boring from an inclusivity perspective, but it was what I wanted to write, and the main secondary character is a woman who ends up adopting a teenaged girl (something which I have more than passing knowledge of).
Representation Without Appropriation
The point is, when you write what you want, not every character is going to end up being a minority, and I’d like to think that SWCM (straight white cisgendered male) writers (me) who are good allies will at least consider whether their minority characters are appropriating experiences. Not to say that we can’t write those characters—far from it. But we should be sensitive and aware of the nuances of doing so. And for fuck’s sake, we should do our research and let those who have lives those experiences be our primary readers.
The flip side of this is that it’s also important to increase minority representation of characters in our works, because we SWCMs are still the majority in this business. My explanations above are not an excuse for my discomfort in writing characters and situations outside of my SWCM experiences; hopefully, I’m communicating the respect I have for those people who have dealt with those experiences firsthand and my desire to allow those experiences to be their own, without trying to make them “mine.”
Stop Feeling Threatened, Morons
My final thought: I in no way feel threatened by the rise of minority representation in speculative fiction. I welcome it, specifically because reading works about minorities helps me better understand their experiences. I will never be able to change the color of my skin, my sexual orientation, or the gender with which I identify. I can read about those who are different from me and learn from them. And isn’t that the entire point of the speculative fiction genre—to read a mind-opening “what if” story that helps you see something you never saw before?
When taken in the context of those in power (straight white men) feeling threatened by new people at the party, the Puppies’ hue and cry does make some sense. Wallace referred to the phenomenon as “people feeling threatened when someone else plays with their toys. It may be an extinction burst, or simply the perceived threat of loss of power. Either way, there’s no legitimate reason for them to feel upset in the first place. I’m not often in the habit of invalidating feelings, but with speculative fiction being, by nature, a pluralistic and open environment to explore ideas, the introduction of new ideas into that fracas should never be met with hostility.
We can learn from the Puppies—if only to observe how useless the whole movement is, because the tent is already large, people are writing what they like, and the more representation within our community, the better. We can have our rayguns, we can have our queer-trans-POC fiction, and we can have both (at the same time!)
That’s what makes the SF community great.