Part three in a series of discussions of What The Hell Went Wrong.
Let me take you to a swimming pool. Let’s call it The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club (Members Only.) It’s the late 50’s. There are cabanas and stripey umbrellas. There are cocktails in high-ball glasses, with their own little umbrellas in them. There are a bunch of people at said swimming pool, some reclining on lounge chairs, some in the water splashing around with floating creatures and toys, and everyone’s wearing tinted sunglasses. The women (though there aren’t tons of them, maybe three or four) are in bikinis. The men are in trunks. Everyone looks fantastic and is having a fantastic time. One of the men reaches out and playfully slaps one of the women on the derriere.
‘Oh, you!’ she says. ‘You’re naughty, but you’re a genius.’
The man grins, puts his cigarette out in the ash tray shaped like a golliwog, and dives into a pool. Everyone else follows him. There’s splashing and laughing and groping. It’s a beautiful day. There’s even a sex robot serving drinks.
At the moment, a lot of us are in agreement that culturally there’s a segment of the SFF community (and frankly, the world, but this is just about this moment, this scene) which remains frozen in some kind of gropey amber, their universes paralyzed circa the early 60’s, when it seems a bunch of people fell into sap and stayed there, warm and safe, dead but not realizing it. Not everyone. Lots of people of that generation kept moving right along with the world.
But there is, and has been, a vocal minority who’ve always Don Drapered it up in conventions, at parties, and now, across the internet. Some of the current crew of Drapers didn’t even live through the 1960’s. They were born in the 70’s or 80’s, or even 90’s, but still willfully decided to time travel. They chose to miss the way the world had moved on beyond the alleged Golden Age. It is as though they got Instagram Golden Age of SFF filters and applied them to everything – but the filters were really fucking bad, the kind that edit out anyone of color, anyone female, and leave a happy little gold-tinted circle of white male friends and fans, all happy together, all brilliant, all joy. (Well, not all the women got edited out. The ones who were nice and hot and uncomplaining got to stay in the picture.)
Ah, those golden years. And by golden years, I’m not even really talking about the official Golden Age of SFF (the post-pulp/pre-New Wave period) but the Social Golden Age, by which I mean the Golden Age of SFF Interaction, Convention Heaven, Lady Editors In Bikinis, and Writers Walking into Parties, Waiting For the Prettiest Young Ladies To Be Alone, and then Introducing themselves with the line “Hi, I’m ________, wanna fuck?” to everyone’s major amusement. (Or maybe not everyone’s. In fact, I’m pretty sure some people felt like they were being massively creeped on, but were too vulnerable to say anything critical in rooms full of people who found harassment hilarious. And perhaps, just perhaps, this policy encouraged a kind of jolly-rapey cultural norm that has since been very fucking difficult to eradicate.)
It’s a few years later. The pool at The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club is still a pretty great place. All the cocktails are half full, not half empty. There are more people here now, a lot of people.
‘Look at that Lady Writer! What a fanny on her,’ says one of the guys in the pool, as he pinches the fanny. The woman gets up, and leaves the pool, affronted. One of the guys talks about how she’s too sensitive. There are some high fives, but also some weird looks. Someone throws a life-preserver. “You might want this, buddy.”
At poolside, a man walks by. He’s black. He steps onto the diving board. The guys in the pool look up, startled. Some of them are okay with this. Others are not. Regardless, it’s an oddity. At least one guy in the pool is totally freaked out. He does what mammals have always done when claiming territory.
He pees. The pee colors the water around him. Things start to look a little yellow in The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Pool.
“This is our pool!” says the guy. ‘You’re not welcome here!’
At this point, a lot of the writers in the pool climb the ladder, and get out of the water.
“Maybe let’s get a new pool,” say some of them. “This pool is no longer golden, but pee-yellow.”
But some people stay in it anyway, splashing around.
That Golden Age. The one that seems to have taken place from roughly the late 50’s to the early 70’s. During that period of time, the great imaginations of SFF made a lot of things. They invented worlds in which we traveled through space, in which universes full of amazing things were invented, in which we came upon native populations on various planets and taught them about sex and liberty (here begins an oh no), in which we kept falling into masses of nubile women of all colors and sexual orientations. The cover art of said Social Golden Age books reflected this glorious reality: golden bikinis, tantalizing thighs, spectacular manes of hair on women who were not really human women but beautiful “aliens” and “savages.”
Because that’s what aliens are for, really: we fuck them. And if they object to that? We fuck them up.
What population would not want to be fucked (or fucked up) by the Social Golden Age of SFF?
Mind you, in the real world, a lot of things happened during the years I’m talking about. Science Fiction became reality. There was a moon landing. Several of the marginalized (and beyond marginalized) groups rose up and protested the fact that they were consistently being crushed under the cracked heels of this one small group.
But in SFF, a small group stayed in the 60’s. They missed the 70’s. They wrote about, but missed the moment when the world became transparent, when the internet emerged, when equality became a thing.
They stayed in the pool. Some new people were born, and joined them there.
So now, it’s fifty years later.
We’ve still got a culture of ghostly influence here, a posse of dead notions, but SFF, no matter the progress in the actual writing – and holy shit, there’s tons of it, spectacular things being written both by people new to the scene and people who’ve been around – remains culturally a very peculiar place.
It’s like we time-traveled.
Or, at least, like some of us time-traveled. For me, walking into certain rooms in genre fiction has been like zipping on a pencil skirt, filling up a decanter of bourbon, and pouring my boss a 10am drink, just before I light his cigarette. When I turn to leave, he grabs my ass. Did I mention that in this time-travel scenario, I’m a secretary? I am. Or, you know, a Lady Writer.
It’s the present day. The Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club has gotten a lot smaller.
In fact, now there’s a much tinier pool. It fits about a dozen people, give or take, plus a couple of blow-up dolls, used as flotation devices. But people have been claiming territory in that water for years.
Now the Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club is just a hot tub full of pee.
The rest of the swimmers are elsewhere. There are better swimming pools in the world. Ones that have LBGT people and people of color. Ones where women’s bikini tops don’t get tossed around as fun and games.
But the Golden Age of Science Fiction Swimming Club still periodically announces, loudly, that this is Where Science Fiction Has Fun.
This is a new Golden Age, and things have changed and are changing for the better. That’s what all this is. It’s not pretty, some of it, but it’s happening. If you’re still in that hot tub, you’re sitting in a public health hazard, and it’s in the process of being drained and boarded up. I know. It doesn’t feel great to suddenly be exposed, sitting in toxic waste, with your arms around the blow up doll.
Maybe you need to imagine a new world yourself – I think people can change, though can and will are two different things – or maybe you just need to do as Mary Robinette Kowal recommends. Because seriously?
The rest of us, the ones who haven’t been sitting in that water are like: WTF?! We aren’t in that damn hot tub.
That hot tub is full of boiling piss.