Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Optimizing the future

with 7 comments

On Saturday, an online firestorm erupted over a ten-page memo written by James Damore, a twenty-eight-year-old software engineer at Google. Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” it led to its author being fired a few days later, and the furor is far from over—I have the uncomfortable feeling that it’s just getting started. (Damore has said that he intends to sue, and his case has already become a cause célèbre in exactly the circles that you’d expect.) In his memo, Damore essentially argues that the acknowledged gender gap in management and engineering roles at tech firms isn’t due to bias, but to “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women in part due to biological causes.” In women, these differences include “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” “higher agreeableness,” and “neuroticism,” while men have a “higher drive for status” that leads them to take positions demanding “long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.” He summarizes:

I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Damore quotes a decade-old research paper, which I suspect that he first encountered through the libertarian site Quillette, stating that as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” And he concludes: “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

I wasn’t even going to write about this here, but it rang a bell. Back in 1968, a science fiction fan named Ron Stoloff attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, where he was disturbed both by the lack of diversity and by the presence of at least one fan costumed as Lt. Uhura in blackface. He wrote up his thoughts in an essay titled “The Negro and Science Fiction,” which was published the following year in the fanzine The Vorpal Sword. (I haven’t been able to track down the full issue, but you can find the first page of his article here.) On May 1, 1969, the editor John W. Campbell wrote Stoloff a long letter objecting to the argument and to the way that he had been characterized. It’s a fascinating document that I wish I could quote in full, but the most revealing section comes after Campbell asks rhetorically: “Look guy—do some thinking about this. How many Negro authors are there in science fiction?” He then answers his own question:

Now consider what effect a biased, anti-Negro editor could have on that. Manuscripts come in by mail from all over the world…I haven’t the foggiest notion what most of the authors look like—and I never yet heard of an editor who demanded a photograph of an author before he’d print his work! Nor demanded a notarized document proving he was write.

If Negro authors are extremely few—it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition. There isn’t any possible field of endeavor where race, religion, and sex make less difference. If there aren’t any individuals of a particular group in the authors’ column—it’s because either they didn’t want to, or weren’t able to. It’s got to be unbiased by the very nature of the process of submission.

Campbell’s argument is fundamentally the same as Damore’s. It states that the lack of black writers in the pages of Analog, like the underrepresentation of women in engineering roles at Google, isn’t due to bias, but because “either they didn’t want to, or weren’t able to.” (Campbell, like Damore, makes a point of insisting elsewhere that he’s speaking of the statistical description of the group as a whole, not of individuals, which strikes him as a meaningful distinction.) Earlier in the letter, however, Campbell inadvertently suggests another explanation for why “Negro authors are extremely few,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with ability:

Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize why there is so little mention of blacks in science fiction; we see no reason to go saying “Lookee lookee lookee! We’re using blacks in our stories! See the Black Man! See him in a spaceship!”

It is my strongly held opinion that any Black should be thrown out of any story, spaceship, or any other place—unless he’s a black man. That he’s got no business there just because he’s black, but every right there if he’s a man. (And the masculine embraces the feminine; Lt. Uhura is portrayed as no clinging vine, and not given to the whimper, whinny, and whine type behavior. She earned her place by competence—not by having a black skin.)

There are two implications here. The first is that all protagonists should be white males by default, a stance that Campbell might not even have seen as problematic—and it’s worth noting that even if race wasn’t made explicit in the story, the magazine’s illustrations overwhelmingly depicted its characters as white. There’s also the clear sense that black heroes have to “earn” their presence in the magazine, which, given the hundreds of cardboard “competent men” that Campbell cheerfully featured over the years, is laughable in itself. In fiction, as in life, if you’re black, you’ve evidently got to be twice as good to justify yourself.

It never seems to have occurred to Campbell that the dearth of minority writers in the genre might have been caused by a lack of characters who looked like them, as well as by similar issues in the fandom, and he never believed that he had the ability or the obligation to address the situation as an editor. (Elsewhere in the same letter, he writes: “What I am against—and what has been misinterpreted by a number of people—is the idea that any member of any group has any right to preferential treatment because he is a member.”) Left to itself, the scarcity of minority voices and characters was a self-perpetuating cycle that made it easy to argue that interest and ability were to blame. The hard part about encouraging diversity in science fiction, or anywhere else, is that it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires systematic, conscious effort, and the payoff might not be visible for years. That’s as hard and apparently unrewarding for a magazine that worries mostly about managing its inventory from one month to the next as it is for a technology company focused on yearly or quarterly returns. If Campbell had really wanted to see more black writers in Analog in the late sixties, he should have put more black characters in the magazine in the early forties. You could excuse this by saying that he had different objectives, and that it’s unfair to judge him in retrospect, but it’s equally true that it was a choice that he could have made, but didn’t. And science fiction was the poorer for it. In his memo, Damore writes:

Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principled reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that.

Replace “tech” with “science fiction,” “men and women” with “black and white writers,” and “Google” with “Analog,” and you have a fairly accurate representation of Campbell’s position. He clearly saw his job as the optimization of science fiction. A diverse roster of writers, which would have resulted in far more interesting “analog simulations” of reality of the kind that he loved, would have gone a long way toward improving it. He didn’t make the effort, and the entire genre suffered as a result. Google, to its credit, seems to understand that diversity also offers competitive advantages when you aren’t just writing about the future, but inventing it. And anything else would be suboptimal.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2017 at 9:15 am

7 Responses

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  1. A fascinating post. I’ve been wrestling with the issue of whether artists, ideally, ought to replicate or further any social agenda. As a progressive, I’m in favor of that, but as a spectator I’m more ambivalent. Recently there has been criticisms of Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks on the grounds that the series remains
    white, male and rooted in the 1950s. I’m troubled by that too, yet Lynch’s artistic vision has always drawn sustenance from his grounding in the middle class culture of 50’s suburbia; what gives his work great strength artistically is reactionary from a political perspective. I accept it for what it is, and am grateful for it. Campbell, on the other hand, was as much an editor as an artist. Unlike Lynch, he should have actively intervened to make science fiction reflective of his own times, to say nothing of the future. That was his stated goal, as you note. So when it comes to the relation of art and politics, editors might be assigned a greater social responsibility than artists. Maybe.


    August 10, 2017 at 11:06 am

  2. Back in the real world and based on real world evidence, John Campbell was full of it as Samuel R. Delany offered him the novel NOVA to serialize in ANALOG in 1967.

    You’ve been relatively assiduous about your research thus far, so I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen this before. But in case you haven’t —

    “Racism and Science Fiction”
    by Samuel R. Delany

    ‘…On February 10, a month and a half before the March awards, in its partially completed state Nova had been purchased by Doubleday & Co. Three months after the awards banquet, in June, when it was done, with that first Nebula under my belt, I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being black, you understand. (There reputedly exists a letter from him to horror writer Dean Koontz, from only a year or two later, in which Campbell argues in all seriousness that a technologically advanced black civilization is a social and a biological impossibility. . . .). No, perish the thought! Surely there was not a prejudiced bone in his body! It’s just that I had, by pure happenstance, chosen to write about someone whose mother was from Senegal (and whose father was from Norway), and it was the poor benighted readers, out there in America’s heartland, who, in 1967, would be too upset. . . .

    ‘It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket. (In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it. . . .) Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry.. .’.

    NOVA is the novel following which Algis Budrys — a Campbellian SF proponent if ever there were one — declared Delany the then-best SF writer in the world and NOVA the best SF novel.

    Mark Pontin

    August 10, 2017 at 5:35 pm

  3. And I’m someone who _buys into_ the argument that there weren’t more black writers back then largely because black writers didn’t write or submit SF stories in any numbers.

    Mark Pontin

    August 10, 2017 at 5:41 pm

  4. @Mark Pontin: Oh, believe me, I’m aware of it. (I didn’t have room in this post to go deeply into Campbell’s attitudes about race, both within and outside of the genre, but I deal with it at length in the book.)


    August 10, 2017 at 6:30 pm

  5. Cool. Thanks.

    Mark Pontin

    August 11, 2017 at 2:00 am

  6. And as I think about it, at least one instance occurred in the 1960s where Campbell _did_ run a series of three novels in ANALOG that featured a black protagonist — the Homer Crawford character in the BORDER, BREED NOR BIRTH stories by Mack Reynolds, a writer who wrote cardboard prose and characters, but sometimes had potentially interesting notions about socio-economics (i.e. universal basic income and corporate mercenaries featured in quite a few Reynolds stories).

    But even then Campbell was full of it. If he thought his readers were okay with _three_ novels with black characters written by Reynolds, why were black characters written by Delany not okay? Well, one obvious difference between Reynolds and Delany is that the latter actually was and is African American.

    Bah. Anyway, sorry to fulminate all over your blog ….

    Mark Pontin

    August 11, 2017 at 2:28 am

  7. I vaguely recall a comment that when a group is in too small a minority they cease to be role models because they’re freaks. It’s about 25%. It was a paper I read about females in physics. The gist of it was that female physicists were so rare that they were outliers and the girls in the class did not see them as normal and therefore as role models — kind of ‘I’m not like her, she’s weird.’ The 25% was for a two group system (M/F) where they ‘should’ have been 50:50. I imagine the critical concentration would be different for other pairs of groups (white/non-white being the obvious one here). There simply has to be positive discrimination. Campbell’s example about blind submission might be true insofar as accepting a given ms is concerned, but then it means he was not getting ms from non-white authors, and that shows exactly why lack of positive discrimination means effectively support for the status quo. Lots of magazines did and do publish potted author bios with a little picture. Or you see it on a book jacket. Or the lives and socio-economic situations portrayed in the stories are alien to you. So none of that ever looks like you, and so surely you’re less likely to think that you could be in the book. On the inside of the group. Anyway. It is just so damn easy to know too much about your heroes.


    August 14, 2017 at 2:56 am

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