Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The past through tomorrow

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Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon

Precedent is merely the assumption that somebody else, in the past with less information, nevertheless knows better than the man on the spot…Tradition is something very different. To follow a tradition means to do things in the same grand style as your predecessors; it does not mean to do the same things.

Robert A. Heinlein, Space Cadet

On Thursday, I took part in a panel at the World Science Fiction Convention titled “Old Time Radio and New Tales in the Age of Podcasts.” Now that the event is safely behind me, I might as well confess that I’m not sure why I was included: I’ve written one radio play, still unaired, and I’m married to a professional podcaster, but I doubt that the organizers knew this, and nothing else in my résumé stamps me as an authority on the topic. But I’ll happily talk about anything, so I went back to review the handful of blog posts I’ve written about radio and worked up a few additional thoughts in advance. As it turned out, the panel was my fourth event in five hours, including a draining solo presentation on John W. Campbell’s work during World War II, so my energy level was pretty low. For the most part, I was content to sit back and allow the other speakers to do most of the heavy lifting, chiming in whenever I felt I had something to contribute. The one big point I wanted to make is that contemporary podcasts aren’t the same thing as classic radio dramas—if you’re writing for audio these days, you’ve got to prepare for the possibility that your listeners are giving you maybe a quarter of their complete attention. Two of my fellow panelists disagreed, saying that writers and producers had to encourage their audiences to embrace an old-fashioned “theater of the mind.” Personally, I think that this is a nice sentiment, but not particularly realistic. Still, it was all very cordial. Afterward, one of the other participants shook my hand, saying that he thought that I did a good job, and essentially apologized for taking over the discussion. “I don’t usually talk much,” he told me, “but when I’m on a panel like this, I just can’t stop myself.”

And this turned out to be a prophetic remark. The next day, the very same participant was expelled from the convention for hijacking another panel that he was moderating, using his position to indulge in a ten-minute speech on how political correctness was destroying science fiction and fantasy. I wasn’t there, but I later spoke to another member of that panel, who noted dryly that it was the first time she had ever found herself on the most controversial event of the weekend. Based on other accounts of the incident, the speaker—who, again, had been nothing but polite to me the day before—said that the fear of giving offense had made it hard for writers to write the same kinds of innovative, challenging stories that they had in the past. Inevitably, there are those who believe that his expulsion simply proved his point, and that he was cast out by the convention’s thought police for expressing an unpopular opinion. But that isn’t really what happened. As another blogger correctly observes, the participant wasn’t expelled for his words, but for his actions: he deliberately derailed a panel that he was supposed to moderate, recorded it without the consent of the other panelists, and planned the whole thing in advance, complete with props and a prepared statement. He came into the event with the intention of disrupting any real conversation, rather than facilitating it, and the result was an act of massive discourtesy. For a supposed champion of free speech, he didn’t seem very interested in encouraging it. As a result, he was clearly in violation of the convention’s code of conduct, and his removal was justified.

The Futurians

Either way, though, he got exactly what he wanted. If he had been allowed to stay, he would have taken it as a tacit endorsement of his approach; now, by being expelled, he gets to use this perceived injustice to whip up his sympathizers, and we’re already seeing the results online. But this kind of tactic is as old as fandom itself. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the famous incident in which the Futurians were excluded from the first Worldcon in New York. In The Immortal Storm, the historian Sam Moskowitz—who was the one who forced them to leave—says of the episode:

Looking at the circumstances in the most pessimistic light, we can see that the Futurians had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If allowed to enter, they could have disrupted proceedings, and thus proved their prior claim that New Fandom was incompetent to run a successful convention; if not allowed to enter, they could point to another prior claim of New Fandom’s being essentially dictatorial as proved. Indeed, Futurian strategy may have been devised with these possibilities foremost in mind. Whether it was or not, the Futurians stood to gain public sympathy as a result of the convention if they played their cards properly no matter what stand New Fandom took.

And although I don’t think the Futurians were organized enough to consciously act with this end in mind, it worked more or less as Moskowitz says. For while, public sympathy tipped in their favor, and while this victory was short-lived, the fact remains that what we hyperbolically call the Great Exclusion Act is just about the only thing that anybody remembers about the first Worldcon.

I doubt that the kerfuffle from this weekend will resonate for nearly as long, and I suspect that we’re more likely to remember the convention for the landmark victories by women and writers of color at the following evening’s Hugo Awards. If the stunt had taken place in the early days of fandom, it might have merited a paragraph in The Immortal Storm. (Or as Borges puts it in “Three Versions of Judas”: “His name would have helped swell the catalogs of minor heresiarchs.”) As it stands, it’s going to be little more than a footnote. But I have a hunch that it was motivated, at least on a subconscious level, by a nostalgia for the controversies that have animated fandom in the past, despite the fact that the community that we have now is larger, more diverse, and more interesting. Donald A. Wollheim, who was a better troll than anyone living today, once said of the fan William Sykora: “You got the impression that for him, it was still 1937.” You could say much the same thing about the current crop of reactionaries, both in the positions that they take and the means that they use to express them. Just as contemporary podcasters have to adjust to the realities of the medium, rather than pining for a golden age of radio that no longer exists, writers these days have to operate within a set of standards that weren’t even on the table when a lot of classic science fiction was written. And that’s just how it should be. As I’ve noted before, increasing the diversity of voices within the genre can only lead to greater innovation, and the science fiction of an earlier era didn’t succeed because of its indifference to these concerns, but in spite of it. It’s good to have a debate, but any side that remains stuck in the past—especially in science fiction—is bound to lose. And if it can’t adapt, maybe it deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2016 at 8:52 am

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