Online self-segregation gets written about a lot these days. That’s where people never encounter anyone who disagrees on Facebook and Twitter. They’ve unfriended or unfollowed dissenters on Facebook or are victims of software that tailors information to their worldview. But what happens if you leave your filter bubble?
Well, about eighteen months ago, that’s exactly what happened to me. I read some articles claiming that a small group of ‘rabid chauvinists’ were trying to keep women out of science fiction. According to the article, these Sad/Rapid Puppies hijacked the Hugo Awards, which describe themselves as science fiction’s most prestigious. I was concerned. I’d read Hugo Award-winning novels. I’m an aspiring hard SF author and had dreamed one day of winning an award.
It soon became apparent to me – in the most dramatic way possible – that the mainstream media coverage was lies. Or, in the trendy language of today, ‘fake news’ (well, okay, it was just biased to all heck).
In June 2015, I read and commented on Big Boys Don’t Cry, one of the novellas nominated by the Puppies. My commentary ran long. Out of politeness, I emailed the author, Tom Kratman. Stuck in my urban liberal bubble, I had no idea he was a well-known author with almost an entire shelf in London’s Forbidden Planet bookstore.
We got into a debate, initially about his novella and then about writing more generally. Tom noticed from my profile that I was struggling with a novel. We had a chat about the plot and setting, and why I was failing to finish.
We discussed why I’d chosen to write in first-person perspective. His view was third person was easier for a newbie. He suggested I write a short military SF story in my setting and experiment with third-person perspective. The deal was that, if the story was good enough to publish, it would go into the anthology he was editing. If it wasn’t, he’d give me detailed feedback. I wrote Diamonds are a Man’s Best Friend in a fortnight, and – after some edits – Tom accepted it.
Bear in mind, Tom was singled out for criticism on Tor.com for his depiction of women in military SF. The anthology is Riding the Red Horse Vol.2, to be published by alt-right blogger, fantasy author and Rabid Puppy Vox Day. If Tom and Vox were trying to keep women out of SF, they were doing a VERY bad job.
I’ve come to my own view about the Hugo Awards kerfuffle. I think Worldcon, the small ageing convention that owns the awards, objects to mid-American pulp authors like Larry Correia gatecrashing their party. There is a political component. This seems to be elderly white American hippies panicking over why their convention – and awards – aren’t very young or diverse [Note: These picture are from Worldcon in London in 2014. They show the oldest whitest crowd I’ve seen in what may be the most ethnically-diverse city on the planet].
I mention all this as a preamble to reviewing Forbidden Thoughts, an anthology by Puppy authors with a foreword by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo’s inclusion alone is probably enough to get the book banned on numerous American campuses. As everyone knows, trying to ban a book is the best way to make it a bestseller.
I heard Milo speak at the Battle of Ideas public debating festival a few years ago. He was noisy with little content. Ultimately, in a culture of ‘You can’t say that!’, there’s a career in outrageously trollish soundbites (Note: someone was shot at an anti-Milo protest yesterday in Seattle so this stuff has real-world consequences). His foreword to Forbidden Thoughts is significantly more intelligent and shows an understanding of geek culture.
The rest of the anthology is mixed. Milo’s foreword sets it up as being a counterblast to so-called Social Justice Warriors (the identitarian left). Author L. Jagi Lamplighter suggests that the aim was to be as controversial and incendiary as possible. Forbidden Thoughts is political ‘message fiction’ and suffers from the same problems as its identitarian equivalent. Political writing invariably has a niche audience.
My favourite story was The Social Construct by David Halliquist, a disturbing tale about designer babies and the commodification of human life. The artificial wombs made me question whether bonding between adults and infants is aided by the nine-month gestation period. Do we value babies more because of their life-death struggle within the mother’s body? Would we value them less if they arrived on the doorstep fully developed? I wondered how the parents of children born via surrogacy feel. Do they bond easily with a newborn? Or is this a more fraught process? The last paragraph is simply chilling, although this may simply be because I have a young baby. It hails from same literary tradition as ‘why dogs are not just for Christmas’ tales.
The Secret History of a World Gone By by Joshua M. Young is a haunting tale that extrapolates the identitarian-left ideas of perfect equality and white guilt. A barbarian warrior seeking knowledge of the World Gone By travels to the Pentient City where no one has visible gender and everyone is desperate not to offend. The payoff and politics wasn’t headbangingly obvious, and it had a hopeful ending. The Pentient City, in some ways, reminded me visually of the city of New Alesund in my Kokopelli setting. I think they’re both playing with the ‘crystal spires and togas’ trope.
Sarah Hoyt’s Flight to Egypt was also enjoyable, although I found Asimov-esque names, such as ‘Marstown’, a tad jarring for modern SF. It’s a romance about a mixed-race couple who find themselves, and their child, falling victim of crass anti-black profiling and rampant abortion. The ending is positive. I liked the message about judging people as individuals and not members of identity groups.
More of a problem was Graduation Day by an pseudonymous author. There’s a point at which political writing feels like someone hitting you over the head with a hammer. This story, about a self-loathing liberal whose daughter graduates from the Karl Marx Educational Gulag overstepped that line. It simply wasn’t fun to read. The Muslim student beheading a woman with a scimitar was a particular low point.
Nick Cole’s Safe Space Suit was a frenetic story with arguably muddled messaging. A Mars mission is scuppered by astronauts selected primarily for their race and gender, rather than their competency. I read the story as a cautionary tale of tokenism. However, Greg from Rocket Stack Rank rightly pointed out that there’s also an unpleasantly old-school racist interpretation (discussion here). The story never tackles why NASA couldn’t find an astronaut who was black AND competent. Thus, it veers towards the interpretation that all black astronauts are incompetent.
The Code by Matthew Ward and Brad Torgersen’s Hymns of the Mothers both suffered from the story payoff being obvious from the outset. The Code is a story of dating in a world where even a kiss can constitute rape. Needless to say, at the end, the hapless male protagonist finds himself arrested for rape. Hymns of the Mothers was well written, but I knew from early on that this was a gender-segregated society where the ‘trog’ slave race were men.
Vox Day’s Amazon Gambit was a mostly cool piece of military SF that contains the obvious (but controversial) truth that women have less upper body strength than men. The twist in the tale involved prostitutes. This achieved its aim of being anti-feminist, but I was hoping for something more strategically or tactically interesting.
John C. Wright’s novel Somewhither is brilliant, but I didn’t gel with By his Cockle Hat and Staff. His otherworldly style didn’t fit with the rest of the anthology. I also couldn’t get into the flowery writing style of Brian Niemeier’s Elergy for the Locust and ended up skipping over it (sorry Brian).
Test of the Prophet by L. Jagi Lamplighter contains the most genuinely ‘forbidden thoughts’ in the anthology. It’s an allegorical tale that, from my reading, is about a former US marine in Pakistan converting from Islam to something related to Christianity after being visited by the Angel Gabriel. As a vaguely spiritual person who tries to be respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, it was too much for me. I read it with the vaguely worrying idea that Jagi might be looking for a Salman Rushdie-style fatwa.
I later gave Test of the Prophet to someone with a better knowledge of theology. There’s apparently a couple of faux pas. Jesus is described as a prophet and God in the same story. The Angel Gabriel is described as a child of God. Some evangelical Christians may find this story uncomfortable for that reason, as well as the basic premise of Islam being a Christian heresy. The story is also set in Pakistan, but the local colour is Hollywood Tunisia. This is an unspecified location between north Africa and India, usually indicated (in James Bond films) by bazaars, beggars and a guy on a bicycle wearing a fez.
Tom’s The Rules for Racism is a interesting piece of short non-fiction. I particularly liked his point that having mixed-race children is different from casually sleeping with someone of a different race. You’re pinning your genetic legacy on that person. Twitter troll Arthur Chu should have considered this before accusing Sad Puppy Brad Torgersen of racism (I got angry about the Hugo kerfuffle for this reason – it was almost the first thing I saw and way out-of-order)…
At the Edge of Detachment, meanwhile, was a debut story by teen author April Freeman. This is brilliant for a first story by a young author, but the pro-life message didn’t resonate for me. The bad guys were too blatantly villainous. Most people in the West treat dogs as sentient beings with rights, even though they don’t formally have them. I couldn’t suspend disbelief at a mother legally killing for cash a child old enough to narrate their own story. I wondered whether the premise came from a conservative filter bubble, i.e. a belief that liberals are shallow about abortion. Certainly, some liberal feminists make it seem that way.
Other stories in the anthology include The Razor Blade of Approval by Ben Zwycky and Auto America by E.J. Shumak. They didn’t stick in my mind – it’s possible they were too short.