Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Screwtape Writes a Letter

My dear Leadscrape,

Allow me to join the many shades and gentledevils who are no doubt showering you with accolades over your recent success in America. Such a success shows tempting skill of the first order, and suggests a future bright with further opportunities for mayhem and delight. I would not have considered writing you, except that a casual review of graduation records showed that you were in attendance with the graduating class of the Tempters' Training College on the night I gave the commencement address. While I do not recall that we spoke on that occasion, the connection seemed significant enough to excuse my boldness in addressing you in the hour of your triumph.

I also, as the undersecretary of a department, took the liberty of requesting your reports, as well as a copy of the transcript of the post-mortem interview with your supervisor following the processing of your patient. (As an aside, let me say that your supervisor's jealousy of your success was quite obvious from the text of the transcript, and that no intelligent devil will hold that against you.) It was one point in particular -- your question as to whether or not your success might lead to greater difficulties for other tempters in the future -- that convinced me to communicate with you on that subject.

Let me begin by saying that your concern does you great credit. If more devils were as interested in the greater expansion of Hell's dominion on Earth rather than in simply adding souls to their personal larder, our progress against the Enemy would certainly be significantly improved. But I think your concerns are somewhat exaggerated, and while some second-rate tempters may find their patients are a bit more wary of their tactics over the next few months or years, on the whole I believe the situation is unlikely to change in any significant way.

Let us begin with the most basic observation -- the manner of the triumph. While I am not myself an expert on the American sector, the data collected by our investigative arm speaks for itself: violent killing sprees enabled by firearms are endemic to America -- over half of all such events in the entire world over the past 50 years have occurred there -- and so it was very appropriate for you to take advantage of the environment to push another patient into such an outburst. Indeed, the now traditional calls for 'improved mental health treatment' were seen in the media almost immediately following the event, despite the patient having successfully passed the required background check for acquiring firearms in his state. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how 'improved mental health treatment' would have impacted this specific patient, given that he managed to convince police specifically sent to evaluate him well prior to the event that he was no threat (I imagine you have some uncredited praise coming for that as well), and that the evidence suggesting mental illness was not seen by officers prior to the fatal events themselves. In that sense, you were wise to take advantage of the opportunity that the culture in America allows, and there appears to be no sign that other tempters will be unable to do likewise, if they know what they are about -- I know it would have been far more difficult for a tempter in my region to have succeeded in the same spectacular manner.

Next, the question of misogyny, exacerbated by the patient's apparent presumption that, as a middle-class male of the seemingly dominant culture, he was allegedly 'owed' companionship and sex from whatever woman he found attractive. This is truly first-rate work, building on the labor of many who came before, and there is no reason to believe that this culture, too, will not endure. Though some have identified a sort of 'entitlement' culture in relatively recent stories, the reality is that our cultural arm has been working along these lines for millennia, nearly as long as the human vermin have been telling each other stories. One of their ancient comedians wrote a play in which a human convinces avians to intercept prayers and sacrifices meant for the gods; the audacious human ends up with both a scepter of royal command and a god's former lover as his bride. Perhaps the most famous story from that era involved the knowledge that, instead of the most beautiful woman in the world being allowed to choose her own mate, the men of the era would go to war to decide her fate. While it is true that some recent stories have done better at avoiding these 'sexist' tropes, the truth is that humans, especially those in our sectors of the world, have such a hunger for stories that there will be no shortage of stories recycling these ancient, useful tropes. Even one of the most carefully constructed popular stories of recent vintage, where the protagonist and his distaff companion build a platonic relationship on mutual caring and trust, contains a harried sub-plot where two characters meet and discover 'true love' after communicating for less than a day, and after the male has rescued the female from drowning. There will be no shortage of future tales for future tempters to use to twist male vanity to entertaining ends.

The one part of your argument that seems worth preparing for is that there does indeed seem to be a tremendous outpouring of support for the idea that males have a responsibility to 'stand up' and help correct sexism and misogyny, at least as expressed in male behavior toward females. This does appear very dangerous to our cause; if human society, even one human society, ever succeeded at providing an example of how racist and sexist beliefs could be handled without conflict, it would put centuries of our labour at risk. Fortunately, this appears to merely be a particularly loud echo of an idea which, while persistent, does not seem to be taking root. Similar echoes occurred with the harassment of a woman in 2007 involving prominent Internet personalities, and even a massacre of female science students specifically because they were science students in 1989. There are literally dozens of different ways in which the male human animals violate and oppress their women, some of them so ancient that uprooting them will take far more than just a handful of impassioned pleas on the Internet.

As for you, my good devil, your obvious talent and intelligence would be significant advantages in my own region's ongoing campaign to promote the United Kingdom Independence Party. Would you be interested in stopping by the offices to see if a supervisory role would suit?

With respect and admiration,


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

My Take On the "Insect Army"

One of the things that has troubled me is seeing women who say that they are apprehensive about entering SFF because they don’t want to attract the sort of bile I did.

It’s not just women, of course. It is any group that has been historically underrepresented.

For all of you… we have your back. There is strength in numbers. Join our army.

- Mary Robinette Kowal, as reported on John Scalzi's blog, "Whatever"

There is change in the air.

It's been slowly building for a while now, but I've noticed it mainly in the past three years. I first noticed it in SF and fantasy fandom, with the "cosplay is not consent" movement. I then noticed it spreading to the larger SF and fantasy fandom via the adoption of harassment policies and publicly shared stories of verbal and sexual harassment, many of which named names.

However, these things are not as new as I thought they were -- rather, they've been around for a while, but only recently have started to build sufficient momentum to become visible, and in some circles, resented. Here's the thing that made me realize just how long this movement has been in the making:

petsnakereggie: @michaellorg @Paul_Cornell @gallifreyone Without that attitude, @CONvergenceCon wouldn't exist. So I guess some good came of it...

@petsnakereggie is Tim Wick, local geek raconteur probably best known for his leadership of The Dregs, an indescribable band with a fanatically devoted following. "That attitude" Wick is referring to is probably best summed up by the following post from, uncredited so as not to give undue attention to the author:

The problem is that the ‘vocal minority’ of insects who make up the new generation of writers don’t scramble for the shadows when outside lights shines on them—they bare their pincers and go for the jugular. Maybe it is a good thing that SFWA keeps them locked up. The newer members who Scalzi et al. brought in are an embarrassment to the genre.

The idea, of course, is that those folks who don't 'fit in' to the existing structure of fandom should keep quiet about it, let the 'grown-ups' speak, and generally not embarrass themselves or the fandom by trying to make things more accessible and accommodating -- because the people in charge (referred to, often derisively, as 'Secret Masters of Fandom' or 'SMOF') like things exactly the way that they are.

This conflict played out in Minnesota years ago, which is what Wick is referring to when he says that CONvergence "wouldn't exist" without it. I won't claim to be an expert here, nor to be providing a detailed history, but the gist is basically as follows:

For many years, the primary science fiction fandom convention in the Twin Cities was Minicon. The convention was inaugurated in 1968 (making it nearly as old as I am) by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society. If nothing else, the organizers of Minicon deserve credit for maintaining the convension over so long a stretch of time, and for maintaining its 'quality' to the degree that the convention, despite existing in a fairly obscure part of the country, has attracted a number of the highest-regarded authors in SF to appear as guests.

Now, according to that Wikipedia article linked above, Minicon grew from a scant 60 attendees in its first iteration to roughly 3000 attendees by the turn of the century, but then made the decision to "downscale[d] dramatically due to a feeling among some organizers that it had strayed too far from its roots and had become unmanageable." There's reason to suspect that, while the strict meaning of that explanation is correct, the actual reasoning behind the explanation incorporates the rise of 'fandom' in the San Diego Comic-Con sense: people who show up with less of an idea to sit in panels discussing SF concepts with authors, and more to celebrate their favorite SF, fantasy, and even anime works and characters through cosplay and fan discussions.

The reason that this is significant is that some of the people who liked the expanded fandom aspect of the old Minicon were part of the organizing staff, and they broke off and started new conventions, the flagship of which was CONvergence. From the beginning, CONvergence has been organized as a 'fandom' convention, not just a SF convention, with guests of honor to match: Harry and Jay Knowles of 'Ain't It Cool News' were among the first guests of honor, and other guests from outside the traditional SF circle such as cartoonists (John Kovalic), fantasy artists (Ruth Thompson, Denise Garner), comic-book writers (Marv Wolfman, Mark Evanier), and even folks involved in the RPG industry (Ken Hite, Jenifer Clarke Wilkes) have appeared at the convention. The convention has made a deliberate effort to promote fandom in general rather than just SF (or even just a specific, preferred form of SF).

The effect, well, seems obviously predictable. Since separating from CONvergence in 1999, Minicon, running over Easter weekend, has averaged anywhere from 700-900 attendees during its three days. CONvergence, which relocated to the Fourth of July weekend, has shown significant growth, expanding both in attendance (the most recent CONvergence drew over 7000 attendees) and size (the convention expanded to four days in 2008 and has not looked back). Probably the most intriguing bit of info I've overheard is that the organizers of Minicon, perhaps finally shamed over the explosive popularity of their unwitting rival, have considered what they can do to get closer to the kind of attendance that CONvergence has been doing.

I'm not the person to answer that in detail, but in general, CONvergence is better-attended simply because more people feel included and welcomed there. This has been a deliberate effort on behalf of CONvergence's organizing staff, from being early-adopters of 'cosplay is not consent' to being inclusive of anime as a fandom. (Anime Detour, CONvergence's sister convention held during the early spring, is nearly as popular as CONvergence itself.) While Minicon can't and shouldn't try to do everything CONvergence does, it could and should go farther into making SF more inclusive, and embracing the 'Insect Army', and not uncoincidentally distancing itself from the old 'SMOF' approach to fandom, would go a long way toward doing that.