When a Power List Isn’t
Lots of mail from people who are asking what my opinion is of the io9 “Power List” of science fiction, and my opinion is, basically, that it’s the sort of list you put out when it’s the end of the year, and you need a list to bring a lot of attention to your site, i.e., a list tuned more for an argument than for reason. And that’s fine; io9 needs to justify its existence to its bean-counting overlords on a daily basis, and this list does its function as an eyeball magnet.
But it doesn’t particularly mean the list is accurate, particularly when it comes to detailing who actually has power in science fiction, and ranking them accordingly. If that was indeed the intent, as the headline implies and the numbered list structure suggests, the word I’d use for the list is: laughable.
Here are who the most powerful people in science fiction actually are, in no particular order, and with the understanding this is an incomplete accounting: Dave Howe and Bonnie Hammer (Sci Fi Cable Network), Gabe Newell (Valve Software), Tom Doherty and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), Avi Arad and Kevin Feige (Marvel Comics/Marvel Studio), George Lucas (George Lucas), and the various studio heads about and around Hollywood.
They are powerful because they have the ability to say “yes” — to spend money in their respective fields to get things done and also to exert influence on how those things get done and also to influence how others get things done in the future. Arguing which among these has more power is a chump bet, since “science fiction” is at the end of the day a diffuse field with lots of contingent dependencies. I could, for example, give you a cogent argument that Tom Doherty and George Lucas are equally powerful and influential in “science fiction,” but in the real world one of them is a billionaire who can pay for a series of movies and television episodes out of his own pocket, and the other one isn’t. Comparing power between the literary and cinematic arms of science fiction, if nothing else, reminds one of the very large money gap between the various media arms of science fiction. But that’s a topic for an entirely different article.
The problem with putting out a list of who is genuinely powerful in science fiction is that the list is boring because a) it’s static, since who has power won’t change wildly from year to year and b) by and large what these powerful people generally do isn’t interesting, because what they generally do is give people money and say “do that thing you do.” Bonnie Hammer has been at the head of Sci Fi in one way or another for nearly a decade; Gabe Newell has run Valve for longer than that; Tom Doherty founded Tor in 1980 and has been publisher since. So if we were to do this list annually, you’d see how little it changes, and why you might nod off writing this list, or reading it, every year. That’s not going to get eyeballs. To get eyeballs you want a touch of glamor — such as can be offered in the dorkoidial field of sf — and you want something argumentative.
And thus, we have a list that features Kanye West and his science fictional affectations as the sixth most powerful person in science fiction this year. On this, I call complete and utter bullshit. I like me some Kanye West, and as it happens, 808s and Heartbreak is a fine album. But, io9 assertions notwitstanding, West isn’t using Autotune on it because he wants to make his voice “to make his vocals sound more computery and spacey,” he’s using it because he’s a rapper, not known for holding his notes. Cher used Autotune to make her vocal sound computery and spacey; West used it because dude can’t sing.
Likewise, I think making the argument Beyonce’s cyborg hand can be credited to West’s stylings is both going to get io9 on Beyonce’s jewelry designer’s hit list, and has the stench of correlation being confused with causation. The Daily Mail rather more convincingly argues that Beyonce’s cyborg hand should be credited to Kylie Minogue, but I’m not seeing Ms. Minogue on this power list, despite her history of dressing up like der Maschinen-Mensch from Metropolis (a look which Beyonce has also borrowed). Get West to persuade Beyonce to stuff herself into a Princess Leia bikini and then we’ll talk. In any event, if the dubious ability to make Beyonce get in touch with her geek side is what it takes to be “powerful” in science fiction, we need to ask ourselves whether there’s any value to being powerful in the field. For the sake of our own dignity, let’s just say that West doesn’t qualify as powerful in science fiction.
Now, don’t you worry about poor Kanye West, stripped as he is of mighty science fictional power; rumor is, he’s doing okay for himself. But let’s not confuse a listmaker’s desire to claim a multi-platinum musical artist for the field of science fiction with that artist actually being part of the field. A science fictional stage show and vintage drum machines do not an active involvement or influence in the genre make. I mean, hell. If we’re going by sheer volume of science fiction imagery shoved down the throats of music listeners as a legitimate criterion for inclusion into the genre, we have to claim ridiculous Guitar Hero cheese-rock sensations Dragonforce long before we get to claim West.
Denuded as the list now is of legitimate claims of power rankings (and of Kanye West), we see what the list for what it really is, which is io9 saying “these are people who we think are doing cool things in or with science fiction right now.” And as that, I’m down with this list just fine; I agree with some choices and not with others, but that’s a given. I’d still ditch the numbered format, but again, it’s not my list. I’d be wary of giving the list any particular authority other than being the opinion of io9 writers, but the io9 folks are true geekoids in the best sense, so the list isn’t complete nonsense. I just think the marketing of it is silly, and strikes me as misrepresenting what the list is actually about.
What the list’s about: shoutouts, end of the year eyeball-mongering and conversation starting. Keep that in mind and we’ll all be fine.