I weep for my genre.
No matter how many times I try to convince non-genre readers that Speculative Fiction isn’t what you think it is -- that it isn’t a big boys club full of maladjusted geeks who find women all icky and intimidating -- one of those aforementioned maladjusted geeks does something to confirm everything that the bulk of the genre is struggling against. It’s even more frustrating when it happens during the closest thing the genre has to an international spotlight and by one of the genre’s most lauded writers.
At the end of August, the speculative fiction folks throw their biggest annual party, called WorldCon. This year’s Con was in L.A., one of the globe’s biggest fantasylands even under normal circumstances. The centerpiece of each year’s convention is the awarding of the Hugos, which is one of the book industries few awards that are completely decided by the fans. In a way, it is the best example of how a democratic award can work.
As much as I admire their devotion to the vox pop, I’ve long had a problem with the Hugos. I mean, I’m all about how fans are frequently the best judges of a work’s success and/or failure. Despite my love of the genre, however, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the actuality of who wins the award and who is even in the race. I have ranted about this before. It still stands.
No, my current bout of weeping isn’t about the books that won in Los Angeles. This batch is one of the stronger slates in the past couple of years and comes closer to reflecting all of the genre’s diversity. I’ve made my love for Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin clear. It is an amazing book and deserves all of the accolades heaped upon it. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is another of my favorites. Scalzi has more than earned his John W. Campbell award for best new writer. While I don’t think “Inside Job” is Connie Willis’ best short story, it is one of the highlights of the form from the couple of last years.
Actually, if Willis wrote the romance copy on the back of sugar packets, I would make a point of seeking them and reading them. Her Doomsday Book is both a great example of what speculative fiction can achieve as well as a great gateway to the genre for readers unfamiliar with it. Her Passage is one of the few books that still makes me cry, even after having read it a half-dozen times. My only gripe with Willis is that she doesn’t write fast enough, which is the perfect complaint to have about a writer.
No, my gripe is with Harlan Ellison, who shall now always be linked with Willis in my mind, spoiling my fond memories of her and my hope for the genre’s current state.
It seems like a leap to go from Ellison to Willis. One writes books that are better known for their brutality; one writes books that capture both the brain and the heart. One is a well-known asshole; one is from the Midwest and embodies all that that implies. One grabbed the other’s boob during 2006’s Hugo ceremony in LA; one didn’t squeeze the other’s nuts until they ripped clean off. Which is a pity.
Willis was this year’s Master of Ceremonies at the Hugo ceremony. During the bit of the program where Ellison and Willis shared the stage, Ellison grabbed Willis’ breast. This is not an event that is in dispute. Ellison has copped to it -- more on that in a minute. There was no hue and cry at the time, mostly because eyewitness descriptions make it sound like Janet Jackon’s Nipplegate, where you really weren’t certain that you had just seen what you thought you’d seen.
In truth, it seems like a minor invasion of personal space. When compared to all of the painful acts committed on women every day, this is bush league. Even Willis herself has laughed it off, saying something along the lines of “I can handle Harlan.” She can, of course. I have no doubts about Willis’s ability to protect herself. That’s not the argument. Nor is the argument about whether or not the nearly translucent Ellison is insane, as the always astute writer Jeff VanderMeer posits.
The argument, instead, is about whether or not such behavior should be tolerated. Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s connections between Ellison and a certain world leader are dead-on:
Just as with George W. Bush's now-famous uninvited shoulder-rub of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the basic message of Ellison's tit-grab is this: "Remember, you may think you have standing, status, and normal, everyday adult dignity, but we can take it back at any time. If you are female, you'll never be safe. You can be the political leader of the most powerful country in Europe. You can be the most honored female writer in modern science fiction. We can still demean you, if we feel like it, and at random intervals, just to keep you in line, we will."
Ellison himself has written an apology on his message board, where he says “IT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN'S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go way over the line in terms of invasion of someone's personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst.” But two sentences later his apology starts to ring hollow. “What now, folks? It's not as if I haven't been a politically incorrect creature in the past.” You can hear the man start to shrug it off, explaining that he’s been an ass and will continue to be one because that’s just who he is, darn it. By the last lines, where he “stand[s] naked and defenseless before your absolutely correct chiding,” you realize he’s trying to top from the bottom.
The question about what to do about it still remains. The sales of Ellison’s books will probably continue at the same rate they always have, as will the sales of Willis’s. Further down the line, Ellison’s election to Grand Master status -- alongside writers like Asimov and Heinlein -- is a near certainty.What makes me equal parts sad and furious is that speculative fiction as a genre offers the hope of so much more. No matter how much I may like mysteries or high-brow literature, only spec fiction scratches my itch for explorations of how the world could be. It is a place where no idea is too far-fetched, even if those ideas are revolutionary in the real world. But I am slowly becoming more convinced with each passing year that those expansive ideas are only workable as type on paper. According to real world evidence, change is impossible.