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Posts Tagged ‘What Came Before’

The Establishment Has Always Hated the New Kids

 

“I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth and receded, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.” 

John W. Campbell, frothing about the New Wave

If you spend a lot of time studying history, you’ll know that it helps to put the slings and arrows of the present into perspective. If you’ve been reading science fiction for the last ten or twenty years, you have likely noticed a certain shift in the field the last couple of years. A certain… bump in the level of its quality, particularly at the prose level. There are some award-winning stories from the last decade that I could poke fun at here for their cardboard characters and clunky prose, but on the whole the shift we are seeing in the science fiction and fantasy field is exciting. So exciting, in fact, that if you love great sff books, as I do, it’s impossible to keep up with all the great stuff out there.

About a decade ago, the worlds that I really enjoyed in books were marginal. They were stuffed into the New Weird category for a time, which we all soon learned wasn’t a genre at all. China Mieville was the genre, and the New Weird was a blip. Those experiments with prose and gooey weirdness got subsumed completely by the publishing meltdown in 2008, when editors and authors found their livelihoods lost, and fear sent publishers back to the basics. Many books got the ax, including my first novel, before they could even see the light of day. The field turned inward, betting on solid hits, easy to read prose, simple styles, proven genres.

There were those of us who kept writing, though. There were writers there pushing for more diverse work, less easy to define, and they were publishing slowly but surely, folks like N.K. Jemisin and Tobias Buckell and David Anthony Durham. Daniel Abraham put out a lovely but alas, far ahead of its time series called The Longprice Quartet that was fairly masterful.  Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor continued to publish and inspire writers coming up after them. While we fought and continue to fight about what science fiction is and who should be writing it, a lot of people are just fucking out there writing it already, and go fuck yourself for trying to put us in a box.

Though there has been momentum building for some time, a backlash against the backlash, I’d say it wasn’t until about 2013 when publishing started to catch up. Ann Leckie wrote a space opera (a woman wrote a space opera! With women in it! AND PEOPLE BOUGHT IT SHOCKING I KNOW AS IF NO ONE HAD BOUGHT LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS OR ANYTHING BY CJ CHERRYH OR OCTAVIA BUTLER), and it swept the awards. We Need Diverse Books was able to organize the conversation about the overwhelming whiteness of publishing, bringing together disparate voices into one voice crying out for change in who writes, edits, and publishes books, while the first Muslim Ms. Marvel comic book (written by a Muslim, even!) broke sales records.

The water has been building up behind the damn for a long time, and it’s finally burst.

Watching the pushback to this new wave of writers finally breaking out from the margins to the mainstream has been especially amusing for me, as I spent my early 20’s doing a lot of old-school SF reading, including reading SFF history (I will always think of Justine Larbalestier as the author of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). I was, of course, especially interested in the history of feminist science fiction. Women have always written SFF, of course, but the New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s brought with it an influx of women writers of all races and men of color that was unprecedented in the field (if still small compared to the overall general population of said writers in America). This was the age of Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Sam Delany, and nutty young upstarts like Harlan Ellison. These writers brought a much needed and refreshing new perspective into the field. They raised the bar for what science fiction was. And so the writing got better. The politics and social mores being dissected got more interesting and varied, as one would expect when you introduce a great wave of writers into a field that was happy to award the same handful of folks year after year. They shook up the field. They changed science fiction forever. The established pros had to write their hearts out to catch up.

And clearly, as the Campbell quote above illustrates, not everybody liked them. They hated all these different viewpoints, all these upstarts, all this young energy from these literary backgrounds. As far as they were concerned, the New Wave was ruining science fiction. 

In fact, what history has shown, and what we see on looking back, is that – if anything – the New Wave saved science fiction. It saved it from obscurity, from the endless circle-jerk, from the literary and social margins where it seemed content to argue with itself, and wither, and die. These talented and passionate new writers forced established writers to up their game. They raised the bar.

Here’s what Ursula Le Guin said about the New Wave:

Without in the least dismissing or belittling earlier writers and work, I think it is fair to say that science fiction changed around 1960, and that the change tended toward an increase in the number of writers and readers, the breadth of subject, the depth of treatment, the sophistication of language and technique, and the political and literary consciousness of the writing. The sixties in science fiction were an exciting period for both established and new writers and readers. All the doors seemed to be opening.

It was this bit, here: “All the doors seemed to be opening” that I was thinking about while at the Nebula Awards weekend in Chicago. Here were these astonishingly talented authors entering the field, young and old, yes, but fresh to the field, with new perspectives, incredible talent, and alternate ways of looking at the world. I read Cassandra Khaw’s short story “Breathe” this morning and shook my head at how wonderfully it experimented with language for effect (and achieved it! Nailed it!). There are a dozen stories that wowed me recently that I could just go on and on about. I read The Fifth Season in awe at its technical brilliance, and found that when I sat with my Hugo ballot this year that I’d read so many great books that narrowing it down was actually difficult for me for the first time.

There is, in fact, so much exceptional work out there right now that I find I can’t keep up. We’ve come a long way from the whale rape story, is what I’m saying. Because while there has always been great work, it was a lot harder to find ten years ago, as much of it was coming out in chapbooks and small press editions and stuff like the then-obscure, scrappy little magazine called Strange Horizons. But today, publishers are taking a few more chances, and then a few more, and a few more… and this change is led, more and more, by readers as well as writers.

We are inside a new wave, folks. And it’s amazing.

This is an incredible time to be writing speculative fiction. It is an incredible time to be in the field. And while I understand how it’s easy to get riled up by slap fights and naysayers and racists and extremists who will hate every New Wave in whatever form it takes, stop and take a breath for a moment and look around you. Because the wave doesn’t last forever. The wave washes over a genre and transforms it utterly, but you can only ride the peak of it for so long.

Enjoy that view from the peak.

Yes, Mercenaries Die. That’s Why You’re Getting Paid So Damn Much

Watched a documentary tonight about profiteering in the Iraq war by private companies like Halliburton, Caci, Titan, Blackwater, and others. I’m always amused that the same folks protesting using tax money to provide healthcare to their neighbors didn’t raise a peep when Halliburton was charging U.S. taxpayers $100 a pop to do a load of laundry for soldiers, and whose blatant disregard for said soldiers’ health resulted in death and dismemberment of troops and civilians.

But that stuff’s old news. Halliburton and the private contractors’ abuses are a rant for a whole nother post. Don’t get me started.

In this instance, what struck me as interesting was the way they portrayed the civilian contractors as totally naive casualties of war. These folks went over there with a passionate desire to help, yes, and they felt fucked over when it turned out they were just part of a profiteering system.

BUT.

The company I worked for back in Chicago was among those called on by Halliburton and others as subcontractors in Iraq, and you know what? The package they offer you is pretty sweet. 2.5 times your base salary plus combat pay, generous vacation time, and you only had to sign a 6-12 month contract. I’d have been getting paid almost $100,000 as a project assistant/glorified admin. I gnawed hard on this and finally decided that, you know, we made the mess, we should go over there and fix it.

That was the moral piece I needed to push me over there.

But let’s be honest, folks.

It sure as fuck wasn’t moralitythat got me interested.

It was that sweet, sweet, $100,000.

The morality just made me feel better about it when I sent off my resume.

Anybody who went over to rebuild Iraq as a private contractor was doing so as a mercenary. As a mercenary, there are certain things you’re going to expect: 1) you’ll be in a lot of danger, and there’s a real possibility you’ll come back dead or maimed, 2) because of this, you’ll be paid an assload of money 3) because you’re a mercenary and are expendable, your employer really doesn’t care too terribly about your safety.

Time and again I was struck by these families’ outrage that their son/brother/husband had gone over into a war zone to make 100-120-140K driving a truck or 200-250-300K setting up water sanitation sites and being absolutely stunned that they’d been hurt/maimed/killed.

Death is a horrible, horrible thing, but if a soldier dies in a war, do we ask why the government didn’t do more to protect them? These days, perhaps we do. Why didn’t they have better armor, better intelligence, better logistics? We demand amazing things from our government and rightly so. In a perfect world the war machine would run magnificently and folks whose countries we invade wouldn’t fight back. But this is what war is. War is dirty and messy and horrifying and people die. Did we expect something different?

Maybe this is just because I’ve read and written so much about war, and because so much of my family has served in war (including the Iraq war). Maybe it’s also because when I sent in my resume for consideration as a private contractor in Iraq subcontracted to Halliburton that I was very, very clear about just what kind of shitstorm that would entail. I would likely have been one of the folks in the video decrying the abuses of Halliburton as far as waste and endangering soldiers’ lives, but I don’t know that I’d have been upset because Halliburton put me in a war zone.

Halliburton didn’t put me in a war zone.

I had a price, and Halliburton was willing to pay it.

That’s what being a mercenary is, and it’s not all candy and roses and “hey I’ll drive a trunk for 100K and come home smelling like the desert.”

Anybody who thinks they’re getting paid 100K just to drive a trunk is woefully naive of what the fuck a war zone is, and has absolutely no conception of what it’d be like to be a member of a country that’s just been invaded, no matter how right or just or patriotic the invaders feel.

Are we really all this isolated and naive? Do we all make the same sorts of moral justifications like the one I made back then, (“wellllll… we broke it, so we really should fix i”t) to make ourselves feel better about being profiteering mercenaries? You can pretty it up any way you like, but if you were to offer the same job (“drive a truck and get shot at”) to somebody for 20-40K, see just how many sign up for patriotism.

The ones who signed up for patriotism are the soldiers. You know, the ones actually getting paid the shit money to get shot at in the desert. Everybody else is a fucking mercenary.

Me included.

At the end of the day, I was not among the folks selected to go oversees. But I would have gone. For $100K to pay off all those student loans and credit card debt and come back with a fresh new start?

You’re damn right I’d risk driving a truck across a mine field for that.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Because in the face of Nazi invasion, this is generally the best thing you can do as a civilian.

Well, that, and join the resistance. But for those of us often overwhelmed by simple daily living, it’s not a bad mantra for life-crazy. Sometimes we get worked up over the daily grind like it *is* a Nazi invasion, and you know? Not so much.