Is there Room for a Social Justice Warrior in the Future?

Amy Wallace writes in WIRED’s November 2015 issue about the battle for diversity in science fiction. I still don’t quite understand how such a outspoken group of authors managed to seize control of the nomination ballots, or how the voting panel (apparently it costs $40 to register to vote) so easily defeated these whitewashed proposals (with votes instead for “No Award,” but the argument itself is a familiar one. A group of purists attempts to remove any science-fiction nominees that don’t conform to their standards, claiming that it’s a matter of “quality” more than anything else. But whereas casting directors have a slightly firmer statistical ground (one that’s constantly eroding) to stand on when they suggest that minorities aren’t leads because they don’t sell as many tickets, that’s less of a concern when it comes to Hugo Awards, where the subjects in question have all already been published, and their works can be objectively read. I don’t dispute that there are definitely moves to publish a more representative swath of authors–just look at the controversy over Sherman Alexie’s attempts at inclusion for the Best American Poetry 2015–but this isn’t that. White, straight, male authors aren’t deliberately being overlooked; our depictions of the future (which as the article points out, is just an allegory of the present) are simply changing, and it’s crazy to see people try to argue against it. (I mean, wasn’t part of the fun and daring of the original Star Trek in its somewhat progressive treatment of characters? Embracing aliens, minorities, etc.?)

There’s definitely room to critique N. K. Jemisin for shoehorning in bisexual or gay subplots into her latest novel, The Fifth Season, especially when there are already so many good parallels regarding how the much-feared (and powerful) orogonists are treated and controlled by society. But that novel also daringly swaps between three narratives (connected in a way that I don’t want to spoil) and even goes so far as to play with second person for one of them, and the one small issue some might have with her writing (and it’s not as if other Hugo winners haven’t had equally all-flash sex scenes that titillate more than propel the plot) shouldn’t detract from everything else. This is not a novel, in other words, that is just dabbling in science-fiction because it’s somehow “easier” to win an award there than in another category–this isn’t the Emmy Awards.

Moreover, that’s not really even the argument that the opposition to Jemisin et. al. is making. You’ve got people like Theodore Beale who are literally calling Jemisin “an educated, but ignorant half-savage” and attempting to then say that he’s just being “provocative.” But when someone announces that “We should run a train on that bitch,” maybe it’s time that we look at the language of the opposition more than that of the respectable, published authors who they are calling out in the most trollish ways. Personally, I prefer George R. R. Martin’s response: “The reward for popularity is popularity. It’s truckloads of money. Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?” This is why I preferred the off-Broadway Obie awards (and the off-off Innovative Theater Awards) to the popularized Tonys; it wasn’t always about the slickest production values, the most “traditional” or tour-able productions–it was about the ability to conjure up something of meaning, sometimes with next to no resources, and to make an audience stop and think. Perhaps the Hugo Awards, like this year’s semi-protested Oscars, are doomed to be a meaningless award, replaced by Martin’s newly proposed (and more inclusive) Alfie Awards. But the idea that this is all about social justice is nonsense; in science-fiction novels, robots are often speaking for themselves. In the present, these books are more than capable of doing the same.

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