Human Shields, Cabals and Poster Boys

I’m awake too early to leave for the airport but too late to go back to sleep, so as long as I’m up, some additional thoughts on the recent Hugo-related drama.

* I’m feeling increasingly sorry for the nominees on the Hugo award ballot who showed up on either Puppy slate but who aren’t card-carrying Puppies themselves, since they are having to deal with an immense amount of splashback not of their own making. And to this you may say, well, but the Puppies maintain that everyone on their slate was notified, so they knew what they were getting into. But as it turns out, we know that at least some of the people on the Puppy slates weren’t contacted before the nominations came out — see Andromeda Spaceways In-flight Magazine on this — so this is not a 100% sure thing.

Also, let me suggest that when Brad Torgersen (or whomever) went off notifying people of their presence on the slate, he probably did not lead with “Hi, would you like to be part of a slate of nominees whose organizers whine darkly and incessantly about the nefarious conspiracies of the evil social justice warriors to infiltrate all levels of science fiction, and which will also implictly tie you and your work to at least one completely bigoted shitmagnet of a human being?” Rather more likely he played up the “we’re trying to get stuff on the ballot we think is cool that doesn’t usually get on it” angle and downplayed, you know, that other stuff.

And you might think, well, how can you miss that other stuff? The short answer to that is that, as difficult as it might seem, not everyone actually spends a lot of time following the Hugo and the controversies therein. It was, until very recently, kind of an insider sport. So it’s possible to have missed this stuff and/or not fully grasped the implications of it until after the awards came out. Not for me, clearly, and possibly not for you. But it is possible.

It’s difficult to miss them now, of course. But this increases my sympathy for these nominees. The whole reason the Puppies are so transparently covetous of the Hugos is that they are a big deal in a (relatively) small community. So imagine being part of this community, being told that you’ve gotten a Hugo nomination, and then finding out that there’s this metric load of toxicity around it, manufactured by the people who got you the ballot — or at least claim that they did.

It’s easy to say, well, they should just withdraw. Speaking as a past Hugo nominee, I’m here to tell you that the emotions around that decision are likely not to be that simple, especially because at least some of that work and some of those people are (in my opinion) deserving of the sort of recognition the Hugos offer.

Thus the irony of this being an excellent year not to be on the Hugo ballot, because you get to pass on the entire shitshow around it. To be clear, some of the nominees affirmatively signed up for a shitshow, hoped for a shitshow and are now reveling in the shitshow that’s happening. That’s their karma. Give some thought to the ones who didn’t sign on for it, or might have not fully realized that it was coming. I think of them as the human shields of the Puppy campaigns. Personally, I’m cutting them a bit of slack.

* Matthew Foster, husband of the late and missed Eugie Foster, has a nice two-part recap of the Puppies situation (1, 2) and the personalities involved on the Puppies lists, and makes a cogent observation about the Puppy assertion of a SJW cabal, which is that it’s complete nonsense:

Eugie and I were acquainted with, or friends with most of the people the Puppies point out as leftist leaders. We were both directors at Dragon Con, just about the biggest genre convention around, and know the organizers of many other conventions. Eugie was a Nebula winner, female, and Asian American. Trust me Puppies, if there was an organized society or just a clique working against you, we’d have been in it.

Yes, this. The entire paranoid theory of a social justice warrior cabal is predicated on the rather narcissistic hypothesis the Puppies have that those they see having opposing political and social view spend countless hours thinking of ways to thwart politically conservative writers and keep them off award ballots, for reasons.

Speaking as someone who the Puppies have a rather disturbing hate-boner for (yeah, I know, think how I feel about it) and who is certainly a high poobah of whatever cabal they imagine: Honestly, who has time for that? I’m busy enough! Thwarting the careers of people I don’t know or care about is not actually high on my list of things to do, be they conservative or otherwise. The idea I am going to take any time out of my schedule to do that is ridiculous. I barely have time for people I like.

But look at these statistics that show — show! — that Scalzi and Charles Stross gamed the Hugos! (Yes, this is an actual thing.) Dudes. You give me soooooo much more credit for personal industry, and also, you don’t know how to read the numbers. I mean, I get it: When you want to do something obnoxious in furtherance of your own personal agenda, you want to be able to say other people did it first; when you want to front a slate of nominations with an explicit sociopolitical goal, you want to assert that you’re just doing what other people have already done. You want to posit bad behavior to rationalize your own, as if other people being assholes excuses you being one, too. But there is no SJW cabal, and this is on you.

Saying there’s no cabal is just what a cabal member would say! Well, yes.

* Continuing the personal aspect of this, it’s been noted by several that the Puppies have a rather unseemly interest in me: I’m accused of creating my own slates (I didn’t), of gaming the Hugos in some manner (I haven’t) and Redshirts is used as an example of how the SJW cabal is secretly controlling the Hugo voting, because how else could a bestselling, widely-liked book by a well-known author who had nine previous Hugo nominations and a Campbell Award possibly have taken an award in a popular contest? It beggars the mind, people. The idea that this particular book, by a straight white male, that might not even pass the Bechdel Test, is somehow the perfect vehicle for an SJW cabal Hugo win is its own case study in just how poorly constructed the logical underpinnings of the “SJW Cabal” hypothesis really are.

These accusations are generally accompanied by a rather lot of spittle, enough so that people are beginning to mock the Puppies for it; the best joke of this I’ve seen comes here, in a comment on a File 770 post (the post, appropriately enough, speaking of paranoid hypotheses having no relation to reality, about a Puppy assertion that Terry Pratchett never being nominated for a Hugo shows how the system is gamed being undermined by Pratchett turning down a Hugo nod in 2005):

Q: How many Sad Puppies does it take to change a light bulb?
A: 100, one to change the bulb and 99 to say, “Gosh, I hope this makes Scalzi’s head explode!”

I think it’s pretty evident why I’m a poster boy for Puppy hate: The primary drivers of the Puppies (Beale, Correia and Torgerson) don’t think warmly of me for their own personal reasons, I have politics and social positions they oppose, and I strongly suspect the fact I have a successful career in science fiction confounds them, which is, among other things, why they and other Puppy partisans spend so much time trying to assert that I don’t actually sell any books, and so on.

I’m a useful target for them, in other words, and someone they can use to whip up their partisans: Scalzi’s the problem! There’s no way Scalzi could be successful without a shadowy conspiracy! He’s been doing what we’re doing all along! A victory for the Puppies will make Scalzi weep salty tears! And off they and their lackeys go, to the comment threads and to Twitter, to use me as justification, in so many ways, for the stupid and tiresome things they do. Not just me and not just my work, mind you. The Puppies have a full enemies list. But on that list, I’m top five, easy.

I have no control over this, although I do find the Puppy version of me interesting. He appears to simultaneously live in a volcano lair, evilly stroking a cat whilst planning the next SJW pogrom against the valiant writers of pure and true science fiction, and also lives on the streets, giving handjobs for a nickel and raving how he used to be somebody. I should like to meet this John Scalzi; I would give him a hot cup of soup and a warm jacket, and then ask him if I could borrow his laser cannon.

Be aware that me writing about their obsession about me will be viewed as proof that it is really me that has the obsession, hah ha! I’m also aware that some people think this is a thing where the Puppies and I are two sides of a coin. Again, not much I can do about that, except to say I didn’t make the coin or be asked to be put on a side. If I’m on the enemies list, fine. Just ask why it is I’m on the list, and for what reasons. And ask what that says about the Puppies.

The Big Idea: Ken Liu

Myths and legends and ancient stories come down to us to be told and retold, but what needs to be done to keep those retellings fresh — and to avoid cliched narrative traps? Ken Liu gave this question very serious consideration for The Grace of Kings, and presents his own solution here.

KEN LIU:

At its heart, The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world fantasy setting. It is the tale of two unlikely friends, a prison-guard-turned-bandit and a disinherited heir of a duke, who lead a rebellion against tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to make the world more just once the ancien régime is overthrown.

The aesthetic of the book is what I call “silkpunk”: filled with technologies inspired by predecessors from Classical Chinese antiquity: soaring battle kites, silk-draped airships, chemistry-enhanced tunnel-digging machines, prosthetic limbs powered by intricate mechanisms made of ox sinew and bamboo. There are also jealous gods and goddesses, magic books, wise princesses, heroes who follow a heroine with a greater share of honor, women and men who fight in the skies, and water beasts who bring soldiers safely to stormy shores.

These are things I’ve always wanted to see in fantasy fiction. I want my book to be fun.

But it all started because I wanted to find a fresh way to tell an old story that is at the foundation of my own transcultural literary upbringing.

When I decided that I wanted to write a novel, I examined a list of favorite stories I’d written and noticed a constant theme running throughout: the idea of crossing boundaries, of translating between languages, cultures, ways of thinking, of disassembling a literary artifact in one frame of reference and reassembling it in another—challenging viewing communities and artifact alike.

“You and I both grew up osmosing Chinese historical romances,” my wife, Lisa, said to me. “Echoes of these stories can be heard from time to time in your work. Why not embrace this aspect of your writing and give an old tale a new life?”

And a light came on in my mind. I had found my novel: I wanted to re-imagine the story of the Chu-Han Contention.

Two Narrative Traditions

Like many of my fellow writers in the Anglo-American tradition, my literary models are drawn from a long lineage that pays homage to Greek and Latin classics, starts with Anglo-Saxon epics and histories, runs through the great poets and novelists on both sides of the Atlantic whose names are found in various Norton anthologies, and ends with the increasingly diverse, contemporary literary marketplace that gives more room for the voices of the historically marginalized.

But at the same time, I’m also indebted to a parallel Chinese tradition that starts with classical Western Zhou poetry, traverses Spring and Autumn philosophies, Han Dynasty histories, Tang Dynasty lyrical verse, Ming and Qing Dynasty novels, oral pingshu performances, and ends with martial arts fantasies of the 20th century and contemporary web-based popular serials.

Just as readers in the US often absorb the stories of Achilles and Odysseus, of Aeneas and Beowulf, of Hamlet and Macbeth not by reading the original, but through simplified children’s versions, popular film adaptations, and re-tellings and re-imaginings, readers in China absorb the stories of great historical heroes like Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) in similar ways.

The Chu-Han Contention of the third century B.C., an interregnum between the Qin and Han Dynasties, is a historical period that has proved especially rich for fictional treatment. Many important ideas about Chinese politics, philosophy, and identity can trace their origin to stories from this era. Upon the foundation of the core events and biographies penned by the historian Sima Qian, countless mythical legends, folk operas, oral traditions, and poems have accumulated over the millennia. The literary re-imaginings continue to this day in new media like video games, TV miniseries, and scifi adaptations (see Qian Lifang’s Will of Heaven).

As I grew up, I absorbed tales of the friendship and rivalry between wily, gangster-like Liu Bang and noble, cruel, proud Xiang Yu along with lessons about Chinese characters (I share Liu Bang’s family name), with Chinese Chess (the board is modeled upon the standoff between the two factions), with references and allusions in popular entertainment and textbooks, and with schoolyard games.

This is a story that is at once deeply Chinese and personal; mythical, historical, political, and fantastic; I wanted to try my hand at re-creating it for a new audience and readership.

Re-imagining

There is, of course, a long Western tradition of literary creations based on re-interpreting and re-imagining the old: James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Gardner’s Grendel, countless contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s plays in new settings that the Bard never imagined, and even Milton’s Paradise Lost can be understood as a reworking of the tropes of classical Greek and Latin epics in the service of a new Christian epic.

But re-imaginations must be done with a purpose, and to be successful, they must appeal both to those who are familiar with the source material and those who are not.

Early on, I rejected the idea of setting the story in a secondary world version of Classical China, in the same way that Middle-earth is a secondary world version of Medieval Europe. Faced with the long history of colonialism and Orientalism in Western literary representation of China dating back to Marco Polo, I felt that it was no longer possible to tell a story of “magical China” without having it be lost through the mediation of centuries of misunderstandings and stereotypes.

And so I went with a bolder plan. I decided to create a new fantasy archipelago—as different from continental China as possible—in which the peoples, cultural practices, and religious beliefs are only remotely inspired by their source material. This was a way to strip the source story to its bare bones and to give them new flesh that would better serve my vision.

But it is in narrative technique where I took the most risk. Melding traditions from the Greek and Latin epics, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Miltonic verse, wuxia fantasy, Ming Dynasty novels, and contemporary chuanyue stories, the novel is told in a voice and style that should be at once familiar and strange. Here you’ll find kennings and litotes, gods who speak like a chorus and Water Margin-style backstories, dead metaphors from another language given a new periphrastic sheen. The title is an allusion to Henry V while the core chrysanthemum-dandelion image is inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem. I tried to write something that reads at the same time as both old and new, and which interrogates its source material as well as our assumptions about what is West and what is East.

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The Grace of Kings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.