The recent spat within fandom over classic science fiction has reached the point where Cat Rambo, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, has had to step in with an editorial in Clarkesworld Magazine. Its rambling preamble is not just to let you know that “she read that“, it also builds up her qualifications as an authority in the field. You see, as she works her way toward delivering a mild rebuke to some of her less lettered colleagues, she has lay out all of her credentials in order to make it stick. And she’s not just taking a pass on the latest science fiction and fantasy bandwagon. She’s about to tell people they need to get off of it.
So here’s the question that brought me here: should fantasy and science fiction readers read the F&SF classics? And the answer is a resounding, unqualified yes, because they are missing out on some great reading… if they don’t.
Yes! A full-throated endorsement for the classics! (I was beginning to wonder if any of these people had it in them.) But for those of us that are going to read these things and like them, there is sort of a wrinkle to this that Cat seems to need to acknowledge here:
When you hit problematic stuff—because you will, in one form or another, find something tailored to your particular triggers, it’s okay to love it if you like.
This is one of those lines that actually gets kind of creepy, because she’s speaking here not as a fan and not as a critic. She’s stepping outside of those boundaries and into something akin to the role of the preacher, the pastor, or perhaps even the high priestess.
Am I reading too much into that…? I have several friends that would say so. They’re not the types to follow that deceptively chipper sounding phrase to the web page it points to. But who is she to give anyone permission to like “problematic” things, anyway? And why would her time in grad school give her the authority to say this stuff? She is behaving not as if she studied English there, but rather as if it were instead some kind of seminary.
Who is the flock she is responsible for? Whichever one Jason Sanford, John Scalzi, and Aliette de Bodard run with, I suppose. Ms. Rambo really does unload on those three and their ilk:
If you tell me you are an F&SF writer who can’t be bothered to shape their reading around a greater understanding of the field, particularly one that will enhance both one’s reading pleasure and writing ability, then I am saddened by what I perceive as a poor choice of priorities on your part.
Well, maybe “unload” isn’t quite the term. This is another example of the pastoral tone that infuses her piece. We don’t get the actual theology behind her position here. We don’t get the fiery Sunday Sermon. She doesn’t call fire down from heaven or shake the dust off her sandals. No, the delivery here is that of the small town church pastor inviting you out for coffee, asking you about what’s going on in your life, and then… not exactly rebuking you, but gently informing you that he is… saddened… by some of your life choices.
In spite of this odd tack, she does actually make some good points here. The classics that so many people have criticized here of late are actually some very good books, as she says. If you don’t read them, you’re going to mistake someone else’s regurgitation of them for the real thing. If you don’t read enough of them, you can’t even grasp the context that the greatest of books were written in! (Just as one example, even Tolkien takes on a different light once you read some of his lesser known contemporaries.)
That’s nice and all, but she does not go far enough. But I’m afraid that under the circumstances, she cannot simply point out that the classics are really great books to correct the smug “know nothing” attitude of her colleagues. Because just like the college administrators that are dealing with the incoherent protests of the most pampered generation in history, she and her cohorts have helped engineer this whole mess well before it even got started.
What is the first word that pops into your mind when I say “H. P. Lovecraft”? Probably “racist”, right?
What about “Robert E. Howard”? Sexist!
“Robert A. Heinlein”? Fascist!
And “Lord of the Rings”? Probably something like “western-centric”. (As if it were a bad thing, of course.)
There is a very big chunk of readers right now that like these authors and that feel bad about it. There is an equally large group of people that steer clear works by these authors because they have been told that they are basically evil. But the spirit of the times that Cat Rambo is responding to are the people that have gone so far down this road, that they act like their ignorance of these writers is a badge of honor. It’s embarrassing. It’s making these people that pose as being brilliant, cultured, and “more evolved than the average redneck” look like a bunch of stooges.
Notice how the article she links to in order to give us permission to like the classics includes the following demands:
- “Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it.”
- “Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements.”
- “Thirdly you must acknowledge other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like.”
Yeah, “it’s okay to love it if you like it.” But there’s an oppressive amount of caveats to that. You might even say that that line has an asterisk by it.
The president of the SFWA just linked to page that basically turns the defamation of the classic authors into some kind of rite through which ordinary fans can atone for their sins. You know I can’t imagine how much this really helps authors with their careers and expands the appeal of science fiction in general. But even if it could there’s still a very real problem here for these people: even after the constant smearing of these works, being ignorant of them still makes you look stupid. Especially if you’re a professional science fiction author.
But more than that, you can’t really claim to be the heirs of the very people you repudiate at every opportunity, of course. And most people aren’t going to get very far with the classics without ditching this struggle session stuff, either.