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Future Interrupted — The Origins of Science Fictional Inequality

May 21, 2015
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Issue #258 of Interzone is now a thing in the world: Subscribers will have received it through the post while the vascular systems of non-subscribers are urged to rise up and strangle their graceless hosts. Soon, the subscribers shall inherit the Earth and a new Utopia will be born in which the subscribers are cared for by a slave-race of vascular butlers. As time passes and centuries come to seem as fleeting as British summertime, the subscribers will grow listless and corrupt… unable to do anything but watch rolling news and stuff their faces with M+S ready meals. Over-reliant upon their own vascular butlers, they won’t see the next revolution coming and none of them will experience the terrible calm of a million dead cities filled with nothing but red puddles and brilliant science fiction magazines. Should this future appeal, physical subscriptions are available from the TTA Press website while digital copies are available via Smashwords.

This issue’s short stories are:

  • “A Shout is a Prayer/For the Waiting Centuries” by T.R. Napper
  • “The Re’em Song” by Julie C. Day
  • “Doors” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
  • “Angel Fire” by Christien Gholson
  • “Her First Harvest” by Malcolm Devlin

The issue contains a wonderfully conflicted Nina Allan column about the Sad/Rabid Puppy debacle and what this means for people who are invested in the Hugos. There’s also an interesting interview of E.J. Swift by the immortal Maureen Kincaid Speller as well as Tony Lee’s film column and some excellent reviews including Paul Kincaid’s typically thought-provoking take on Kit Reed’s Where and Stephen Theaker’s thoroughly excellent review of Karen Lord’s The Galaxy Game, sequel to the unexpectedly sinister The Best of All Possible Worlds.

As I’ve been recently thinking about old cinemas and lost modes of cultural consumption, Christopher Fowler’s comments on the changing genre landscape really hit home:

I started hanging around London’s SF bookshops when a shop called Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed existed in Soho’s Berwick street, and moved to Forbidden Planet when it opened, at a time when such places still acted as social clubs for the unusual-minded. The theft of SF into branded empires catering to specific ages and social groups brought about an end to this strange camaraderie, and I became bored with genre reading, which had grown too polite and repetitive for my fiercely baptised tastes. It seemed to me that frightening and difficult ideas were no longer being presented, that characters, plots and themes too-frequently arrived in pre-digested forms — and so it remained until a partial move to Barcelona, where I discovered Freak Zone, an entire block of strange and wonderful shops, cafes and meeting spots to which it seemed that all of Europe’s wilder minds had gravitated. Here were people united by their love of unclassifiable fiction and shops that sold adult SF literature, not collectables.

Fowler’s long-dead havens for grown-up science fiction seem as distant as the flea-pit cinemas that once dotted London’s West End and served as a comparable discovery zone for a generation of cinephiles. Upon reflection, it occurs to me that much of the nostalgic allure of these places comes from the fact that while these zones were far from accessible at the time (How many people would have known to visit that bookshop in Berwick street? How many female film fans would have ventured into a porn cinema in order to see a film by Borowczyk?), they seem accessible to us now because we already satisfy the entrance requirements. Rituals of exclusion are awesome and empowering when you aren’t one of the people being excluded, which brings me neatly to the subject of this month’s reposted column…

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The Origins of Science Fictional Inequality

It is in the nature of science fiction to reimagine its history at least once every generation. Previous understandings of genre history emphasised science fiction’s increasing literary sophistication or its growing scientific accuracy but the current paradigm emphasises its growing diversity and the need to overcome a history of institutionalised sexism, racism and homophobia.

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This understanding of genre history is hardly new. When cultural historians began to lay the academic foundations for this approach, the first thing they did was return to the fanzines of the 1970s in order to find arguments and analyses similar to those that are currently inspiring dozens of essays, reviews and anthologies. Wonderful books like Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms explore genre culture’s evolving attitudes to women and feminism while Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing catalogues the rhetorical strategies used to marginalise women’s voices while limiting their influence and down-playing their importance. The surprising thing about these texts is their willingness to treat genre sexism almost as a given. The line of inference is fairly easy to follow: Western society is sexist and genre culture is a product of Western society, therefore it follows that the institutions of science fiction are just as sexist as those of Western civilisation. In truth, the sexism surrounding science fiction is something of a commercial anomaly.

Back in 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a study into American reading habits. What they found was that only 45% of men had read at least one book in the preceding year (compared to 64% of women). When the NEA stripped out all of the non-fiction and limited themselves to works of literature, the number of men picking up at last one book a year dropped as low as 37%. Already quite stark, this gender divide becomes even more pronounced when you realise that women who do read at least one book a year tend to read a lot more than their male counterparts. In fact, it is now estimated that women account for somewhere between 66% and 80% of all novels sold. While women are more likely to buy a book and read a book, they are also increasingly more likely to become involved in the process of book production as a 2010 Publishers Weekly survey found that women now account for an astonishing 85% of American publishing employees with less than three years experience. If these studies are correct and women do indeed form a disproportionate part of both the market for novels and the publishing industry as a whole, then why have women been historically pushed to the margins of science fiction? One answer is to consider how contemporary ideas about gender came about in the first place.

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One of the most interesting books ever written on the subject of inequality is Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus’s The Creation of Inequality. A vast and yet surprisingly accessible book, The Creation of Inequality looks at dozens of human civilisations and concludes that every single one of them begins with a hierarchy in which currently-living humans are expected to play second fiddle to ancestors and supernatural presences. How societies develop depends largely upon how this original inequality is exploited and parlayed into inequalities that place one human above another. Whereas some societies justify their inequalities in terms of who is closest to the divine, contemporary Western society justifies its inequalities in terms of who best serves the gods of the market.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, the upper classes of Western civilisation reorganised themselves along gender lines with men changing from people responsible for organising family labour to people earning a wage. With men expected to provide financial support for the family, women found themselves corralled into a supporting role of ordering family life and creating a ‘domestic haven’. While this sexual division of labour excluded women from public life, it also forced them to come up with their own forms of leisure that could be pursued from home. The novel was invented with these middle-class women in mind and this is why many early novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie adopt an epistolary form to explore the emotional lives of their female protagonists. In fact, cultural historian Lynn Thomas even goes so far as to argue that modern ideas about human rights have their roots in these early novelistic experiments in synthetic empathy.

The social pressures that kept women in the home also kept men away from novels but while the line between private and public has blurred and women have pushed back against the idea of never being allowed to set foot outside, the sexual division of leisure lives on in the fact that men are still less likely to become avid fiction readers. Science fiction has long been an exception to this rule as early science fiction presented itself as a literature of public engagement rather than of private escape.

While clever sorts like Brian Aldiss and Adam Roberts have tied the origins of science fiction to the distinctly literary Mary Shelley and the distinctly classical Lucian of Samosata, the foundations of the commercial genre that science fiction would eventually become were laid down by people like Hugo Gernsback who saw science fiction less as a literary niche than as a means for people (usually men) to educate themselves about science and engineering. Gernsback’s approach to marketing science fiction may not have survived the collapse of the pulps at the end of the 1950s but its spirit lives on in much the same way as the sexual division of leisure perpetuates itself every time a boy is told to go outside and run around while his sister is encouraged to pursue less physically-demanding hobbies.

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When the commercial focus of science fiction shifted away from magazines and towards traditional publishing it did so as a secret garden, a place where the usual social conventions were suspended and men could read books without seeming effeminate. Nowadays we tend to look back at the hysterical masculinity of early science fiction as a failure to capture how real human beings behave but what if the competent man was an attempt to assuage social anxieties by asserting the genre’s masculine credentials? This affected hyper-masculinity also explains why James Ellroy’s books are filled with violent misogyny and why every epic fantasy novel seems to contain at least half a dozen rapes. These tropes are born neither of ignorance nor of laziness but of commercial superstition; rituals of exclusion and devotion performed to appease the gods of the market and exploited by people only too happy to benefit from real world inequalities.

What has changed is that the walls of the secret garden have now collapsed and today’s young men are even less likely to pick up a book than their fathers. Many of the eccentricities and failures of contemporary genre publishing are due to the industry’s insistence upon repeating those old rituals of exclusion; the ones that insist that female writers are better off writing Fantasy and YA, the ones that assume that the only way to get a man to read a book is to fill it with graphic depictions of rape.

Genre culture is filled with anger and a desire to address historic injustices but beneath the political posturing and the theoretical language lies a desire for the big SF imprints to set aside their commercial superstitions and begin nurturing a new generation of science fiction writers who can connect with contemporary readers. Much is being made of our moment of cultural renewal signalled by works of British SF like Nina Allan’s The Race, Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn and Simon Ings’ Wolves but only one of those novels came out of a major genre imprint. Science fiction is still an important and relevant literature – how could it not be? – but serious questions need to be asked of the major imprints’ commitment to the genre. Maybe the number of genre novels emerging from mainstream publishers is a sign that science fiction publishers are no longer interested in the audience of science fiction. Maybe the big science fiction publishers are no longer fit for purpose.

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