Blast From the Past

Richard Chwedyk

It’s been four years almost to the day since the event that inspired this piece I originally wrote for the SFWA Bulletin, back in the day, occurred. It was already old news when I finished writing it. Since then, the conversation, if we can call it that, has moved on to various squabbles, riots, brawls, puppies, ponies and dragons, as to who’s doing what in sf, who’s doing what to sf, and why this is bad and this is good and why the other folks are not only wrong, but detestable people with bad hygiene.

The one thing in this piece that may still feel current is the opening and closing metaphor: we’re on a bridge and the folks coming the other way are shouting, “Turn back! Turn back!” Perhaps it has always been this way. Perhaps, as well, it seems much more desperate because this time we’re really on the verge of a critical juncture in the way we think of science fiction, and how the rest of the world thinks of it.

I’m fond of telling my students that science fiction is more like a public park, where all are free to play, and not a private club where you have to fill out an application, or are recommended by a member in good standing, or qualify by having a minimum income, or education, or a golden ticket extruded from the wrapping of a candy bar. Perhaps I have been naïve in thinking our public park can regulate itself; that bullies and cliques would not try to exclude those they deem unworthy or unnecessary. That doesn’t bother me. I have no trouble being wrong, no trouble being naïve. I’ve been both many times and so far, I’ve survived. I believe, if I can’t say I know, that the public park is the direction we’re going, and nothing can stop it. Fight it, complain, resist, hold your breath – you can’t stop it.

Science fiction is something greater than all its constituent factions, and we can’t “take it” to one place or another we think it should go. It takes us, and the thing which is at once glorious and terrifying about science fiction is that we don’t know where it’s going next.

The Invasion of the MFAs

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say at the outset: I am not now nor have I ever been an MFA. I do, however, teach in a program that awards MFAs (among other degrees), and that some of my students (mercy upon them) will receive graduate degrees in the writing of fiction.

#             #             #

There is a scene that opens Andrzej Wajda’s deeply tragic 2007 World War II film, Katyn. It’s 1939. Polish refugees fleeing the Nazi advance from the west arrive at a bridge. On the bridge already are a multitude of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet advance from the west. Both groups meet in the middle and shout to each other, “Turn back! Turn back! They’re coming!”

Yes. It can feel like that at times.

What can feel like “that”?

Well, if you’re reading this publication, you’re probably aware of the uncertainty and tension which has become part of the science fiction world: for writers, readers, “publishing professionals” – the “community.” To push understatement to a new level of absurdity, let’s say many people in said community are not in agreement with one another – including who’s in the community and who isn’t.

Science fiction has never been a stranger to controversy. The difference between “then” (wherever you want to place that marker) and “now” (meaning, well, right this minute) is how quickly, and widely, our electronic media can disseminate those controversies – and how public they become. Not to mention how volatile.

In such an atmosphere, one would think discretion would be the favored course. And one would be wrong.

Oh, so wrong.

NO “ROSIE” PICTURE

Let me give you a “for instance.” It happened back in 2012, at Chicon 7, the World Science Fiction Convention held in Chicago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and one might assume I’d just let it go, but new stories in the media keep reminding me of this instance, so I can’t. Not completely.

I was asked to appear on a panel called “Teaching and Science Fiction,” which, along with me, consisted of teachers and “educational professionals.” 

It seemed (excepting of me) a panel fairly determined to agree on at least one major point: from their perspective, the main purpose of science fiction was to interest children in science and technology; once inspired, students, therefore, would continue their love of learning by majoring in scientific and technological fields.

The differences on the panel were more tactical than strategic. With one notable exception (which I’ll bring in later), you could easily come away with the impression that the primary (if not sole) vocation of a science fiction writer is to be a propagandist for the sciences.

Science fiction as an engine of indoctrination.

The science fiction writer as word-painter of “Rosie the Riveter” posters for bioengineering and astrophysics.

It’s not a bad thing to be. Especially when we have so many gatherers of statistics telling us through the media that we in “the States” are falling behind in science education. A lot of presumptions are there: that nations are in competition to educate; that “education” may have peculiar and particular goals that have to be met, like points on a checklist or hurdles on a track; and, less explicitly, this education is to be gained in order to achieve some sort of extra-educational rewards, like space travel, artificial intelligence, bigger (or smaller) TVs; cures for all known diseases (don’t forget the Immortality Pills); new sources of cheap energy; sustainable methods of food production . . .

These are all admirable things that I would in no way impugn or cajole.

And if we were to include that science fiction might play a role instilling within students an interest in the social sciences, and economics, and even – dare I say? – politics, I am even more inspired to make my Rosie the Gene Sequencer even rosier.

But – no.

It’s not a bad thing to be – just not the only thing.

The sole other concern voiced about what science fiction might accomplish in the classroom was that it might lure non-readers into the world of books. Again, this is a laudable goal. In no way would I ever dispute it.

I was afraid, though, the implication here was that once young readers were lured in by science fiction, these educators would quickly hand them a technical manual – that a love of reading – a love of science fiction – in and of itself wasn’t enough.

THIS CAN’T BE LOVE

I confess, I stumbled through my responses to the other panelists and the questions from the audience (and a good-sized audience it was). I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t want to sound like I was at war with them. I’m not. We all love science fiction. We all think science fiction should be in schools. We all think science fiction has a very important role to play in the education of all people, with as wide a definition of “people” as you can imagine.

My point, in a nutshell, however poorly expressed, was, “Why stop there?”

I bumbled my way through an explanation of what I meant, wanting to say that, as okay as it is for science fiction to inspire students to become great scientists, it isn’t wrong or counter-productive to also inspire kids to simply love science fiction.

Or to become science fiction writers – hell, to become writers.

And thinkers.

And informed do-ers who, in any occupation, can look at the world the way science fiction writers do: taking a long, critical gaze at our reality and saying, “This isn’t the only way it can be.”

No limitations.

Granted, in some ways I’m coming from the other side of the equation: I teach science fiction writing. They’re teaching English, or reading, or “communications,” or maybe social studies, or even “literature.” They deal with the product after it’s been processed and packaged. I’m teaching students how to make the product.

Put another way, I knew the hamburger when it was still a cow.

As such, I try not to direct my students to any particular goal beyond the creation of interesting, compelling, real stories. It’stheir job to figure out the direction of science fiction. They’re who the future belongs to.

Science fiction started out as one thing, then comes Hugo Gernsback. It became something else after John W. Campbell, Jr. enters the scene. Then a Theodore Sturgeon comes along, or a Robert Sheckley, or a Hal Clement, or an Ursula K. Le Guin, or an Octavia Butler, or a Ted Chiang, and so on. Once they have arrived, science fiction isn’t what it was before. It may contain what it was, but it’s also something more.

And this, apparently, is where we get into trouble.

A SENSE OF “NO WONDER”

Someone on the panel, in regard to finding new books that would inspire students to invent jet-packs and Immortality Pills, bemoaned the current state of science fiction and insisted that the “sense of wonder” was gone. Where were the books that would do for the current generation what the books of her generation did for them?

Science fiction was all “negative” and “depressing,” she said. Why can’t science fiction writers do something more “positive” and “uplifting”?

Okay – you all know the quick answer to that one: because science fiction writers, like any artists, have to work with the world they inhabit. You may have noticed a dearth of “positive” or “uplifting” news – not an absence, but a definite shortage. Insisting on optimistic science fiction is an admirable goal, but in the current circumstances it’s somewhat like asking the inheritor of a dungheap not only to clean up the mess, but to smile while doing so.

So, in response to this teacher’s appeal, I tried to describe a story I have my students read: Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pump Six.” It’s about the breakdown of things (primarily the water pumps supplying the greater Manhattan area), about living in a polluted world, where BHP endocrine disruptors are wreaking havoc on human growth and development. The protagonist is Travis Alvarez, who could be the inheritor of Campbell’s or Heinlein’s “capable man” status. He’s a high school dropout, but he knows how things work and he can learn swiftly and effectively. Unfortunately, the world is breaking down at a rate perhaps much swifter than he can learn to save it. Permit me to be a “spoiler” and tell you the last image of the story is of Travis, sitting in his kitchen, with a stack of pumping system maintenance manuals, not knowing where to begin with such an enormous problem, and the devastating consequences should he fail – he opens one of the manuals and turns to a page.

A bleak universe? Certainly. An “impossible” problem? By all means. Depressing? Negative?

No.

Travis is heroic. He is doing what heroes have always done. Will he succeed? Who knows? Travis is facing the problem squarely and won’t be thwarted.

The response from the teacher: “See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Why is all this new science fiction so depressing?”

It gets better.

INVADERS AMONG US

“You know what it is?” she adds. “It’s the invasion of the MFAs.”

Okay, I don’t remember verbatim her elaboration of what she meant. To my ears it sounded like this: writers from MFA programs were coming in and spoiling the science fiction she grew up with. MFAs, with all their literary pretensions and sensibilities were making a mess of things.

That alone took me aback. What made it even more disarming was that no one in that room really challenged the assertion.

My first response was dismissive. My second response was to wonder if I was missing something. From where could such a perception arise? Was there any truth to it?

I judge my effectiveness as a teacher not by what I know but by what I readily admit I don’t know (which is a hell of a lot), so that I can pursue an answer.

Along with being a SFWAn, I’m a member of the Modern Language Association. I’m also a member of the National Council of Teachers of English. More relevantly, I belong to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs – where the MFA and Creative Programs dwell. I read their journals. I attend their conferences. If the world of creative writing is raising martial banners and rolling out siege engines to invade science fiction and take it over, they are doing so behind my back – or plotting somewhere in deep cellars (or secret faculty lounges).

Or maybe they’ve already staked out the field, like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe we’re being turned into MFAs as we sleep.

I decided to check it out (the motto of the late Chicago City News Bureau: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”).

NAMES NOT CHANGED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT

I took out a bunch of “Best of the Year” anthologies, edited by Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell. I looked through the contents of Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, edited by Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. I looked through the recommended reading lists of Locus magazine. I threw in a few extra names of some writers who may not be young and starting out but are far from Grandmaster status.

The list isn’t up to scientific/demographic standards, but it isn’t selectively cherry-picked either. I just tried to pick out about fifty-plus names (fifty-five, to be exact) of writers whose work has been significantly cited for its quality, and see how many of them are “invaders.”

What the hell. Why not?

Vandana Singh – an Assistant Professor of Physics.

Aliette de Bodard – software engineer.

Ken Liu – Practicing attorney and software developer.

Hannu Rajaniemi – From Finland. His Ph.D. is in String Theory. Co-founder of ThinkTank Maths, applied mathematics consultants.

Madeline Ashby – A “foresight consultant.”

Tony Ballantyne – Went to school to study math; has taught Math and Internet Technology.

Pat MacEwen – Physical Anthropologist.

Yoon Ha Lee – Master’s degree in secondary math education.

Deborah Walker – Museum curator and science journalist.

Catherine H. Shaffer – Writes for BioWorld Today and freelances science journalism in various places, including Analog.

Nikki J. North – Degree in Computer and Information Science and works as a web programmer.

Mercurio D. Rivera – Former Manhattan litigator.

Ann Leckie – Music degree. Also a Clarion grad.

Benjamin Crowell – Ph.D. in Physics from Yale. Teaches Physics at Fullerton College.

Charles Stross – Degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science.

Paolo Bacigalupi – Journalist and webmaster. Degree in East Asian Studies.

Neal Asher – Machinist, machine programmer and gardener.

David Levine – IT professional and Clarion West grad.

Oliver Morton – Science writer and editor.

Marissa Lingen – Trained in physics and mathematics; worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.

Karl Schroeder – Consultant on the future of technology.

James L. Cambias – Has worked in the role-playing game industry. He has a degree in the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine from the University of Chicago.

Peter Watts – A marine mammal biologist.

Cory Doctorow – Is Cory Doctorow. Next question.

Karen Traviss – Clarion graduate. And, citing Wikipedia: “She worked as both a journalist and defense correspondent before turning her attention to writing fiction, and has also served in both the Territorial Army and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service.”

Alistair Reynolds – studied Physics and Astronomy at Newcastle. University, received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews University and worked as a research astronomer for the European Space Agency.

Brenda Cooper – Collaborated with Larry Niven, which, I believe, is the equivalent of the “Get Out of Jail Free” card to the anti-MFA crowd.

Liz Williams – Card reader on Brighton Pier; educational administrator in Kazakhstan.

Ted Kosmatka – Has held many jobs in northwest Indiana (and yes, that includes working in a steel mill); currently working in the gaming industry. His resume is conspicuously free of any lurking MFAs.

Elizabeth Bear – Graduated from the University of Connecticut; has taught at many workshops. Many jobs in many disciplines. No evidence of MFA hidden in closet.

Mary Robinette Kowal – Puppeteer of great repute. Held two SFWA offices, including Vice President.

Tobias Buckell – Clarion graduate. Once stated in an interview that he started taking writing seriously in college but with the added observation that this interest arose in spite of rather than in pursuit of his studies.

Catherynne M. Valente – BA in Classics; and since she is known mostly a fantasy writer, maybe she’s clear to carry as many MFAs as she desires.

Alaya Dawn Johnson – Studied East Asian languages and cultures at Columbia University; worked as a journalist and in book publishing.

Kage Baker – the late author worked in theater and in the insurance industry. I found little about her post-secondary education, but I have a hunch that if MFAs weren’t given out in Elizabethan studies, she figured she could do without one.

M.Rickert – Has worked many jobs and has attended many workshops, including John Kessel’s at Sycamore Hill, but no MFA as far as I can detect.

John Scalzi – Of the many things he may accused of, one rap you can’t pin on Mr. Scalzi is that he’s an MFA. But for those who must know, though he studied with Saul Bellow when he was a student at the University of Chicago (uh-oh), he never received his intended degree with that writing program (according to his Wikipedia bio). He was editor of the Chicago Maroon for a while and worked as a movie critic for the Fresno Bee.

Cat Sparks – No background on her degrees, but she’s an active SFWAn, attended the inaugural Clarion South workshop in Australia, has won a passel of Ditmar and Aurealis awards.

Paul Cornell – Got his start in writing doing Dr. Who tie-in work.

David Moles – Sturgeon Award winner. Has degrees from UC Santa Cruz and Oxford but can’t find what they’re in. Closet MFA? Oxford, as far as I can discover, does not award MFAs in Creative Writing.

Adam Roberts – A Senior Reader in English at London University. Not an MFA, but he has an office right down the corridor from them. Are English degrees to be in logged in with MFAs? You might try, but the English profs will fight you.

Daryl Gregory – Double major in English and Theater from the University of Illinois.

Genevieve Valentine – English degree.

Joe Pitkin – Teaches English at Clark College but “belongs to the Evolutionary Ecology Lab at Washington State University, Vancouver,” according to David Hartwell.

Carrie Vaughn – Has a Master’s Degree in English Literature and also is a grad of Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Karen Heuler – Has written across a number of genres, including “literary,” so there may be an MFA back there we don’t know about.

Nnedi Okorafor – Professor of Creative Writing, first at Chicago State University. Now Associate Professor of English at SUNY – Buffalo. MFA? Hah! No – a Ph.D.! How do we count that one?

Charlie Jane Anders – Has run the Writers with Drinks series and was an editor/contributor at io9 – too cool to even measure.

Brit Mandelo – has worked as a senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons.

Rachel Swirsky – Hey! We caught one! She went to the Iowa Writers Workshop (as did Joe Haldeman), but she also attended Clarion West.

Cat Rambo – (form her website) “I came through the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, where I studied with Octavia Butler, Andy Duncan, L. Timmel DuChamp, Connie Willis, Gordon Van Gelder, and Michael Swanwick. I’ve also got an MA in Writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where I studied with John Barth and Stephen Dixon.”

Indrapramit Das – Yes, an MFA. He is also a graduate of Clarion West and a recipient of the Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship.

Lavie Tidhar – A recipient of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize given out by the European Space Agency. He is widely traveled, but I haven’t found out much of his educational background, so the book ain’t closed on his MFAnitude.

Ian Creasey – From his website: “I began writing when rock and roll stardom failed to return my calls.”

RETURN TO YOUR HOMES – NOTHING HAPPENING HERE

I’m not trying to produce overwhelming evidence for anything pro or con, up or down, in or out. But a quick list of recent, notable writers of science fiction does not turn up much to support anyone’s belief that “literary” MFA-types are taking over science fiction.

And what if they were? Is there a belief out there that all MFAs fit a certain stereotype? How do you feel about folks in academia who stereotype science fiction writers? Is the pot calling the kettle black or is turnabout fair play?

The voices of contemporary science fiction come from a diversity of places. That should be encouraging news, not a reason to fold up the tents or raise the drawbridge.

I don’t believe any of the writers mentioned above have been cited for being “depressing” or “negative” in their work. Frankly, I haven’t seen any specific names cited at all – not from any writers who are published in the more recognized journals of the field or by major publishers of science fiction.

Well, then, who is depressing and negative?

Stories and blogs have appeared on the internet with headlines like Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic, Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology, and Enough With Dystopias: It’s Time For Sci-Fi Writers To Start Imagining Better Futures. These headlines have appeared, respectively, under the banners of The Smithsonian, Wired and The Huffington Post: fairly respectable places.

From the tone of those headlines, one would think every science fiction writer pecking words into their devices were starting with nihilism on their very first pages and dropping the mood from there. Who are these poor souls? Perhaps we can send them some medication.

The Smithsonian article’s only cited examples are the film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road (which makes one wonder if the author of the article knows that the novel exists) and the cable series, The Walking Dead.

The Wired article’s cited examples are two: McCarthy again, and the television series Battlestar Galactica.

The headline of the third article was repudiated by its author, Kathryn Cramer, who co-edited a number of Year’s Best SFanthologies and has written extensively about science fiction for the New York Review of Science Fiction and other journals. The examples she cites are almost entirely positive. She mentions Bacigalupi’s “Pump Six,” Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and the film adaptation of The Hunger Games as examples of dystopian science fiction, but adds that these works continue a long tradition of cautionary tales in the field and doing so admirably. The other examples she cites come from the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. The anthology is the initial venture of Project Hieroglyph, spearheaded by Neal Stephenson to promote “technological optimism” in the field. That use of “optimism”might strike one as a critique of current science fiction indulging in the opposite, but the tone of the article, and Stephenson’s own statements on Project Hieroglyph’s website, seems to indicate not so much an admonition to stop being pessimistic as an appeal to writers in the field to redirect their interests to solving the technological challenges the world faces.

So far, the principal culprits I can perceive from these criticisms are television shows and Cormac McCarthy. Even though The Roadis considered, arguably, sf, McCarthy is not thought of as a science fiction writer.

He doesn’t have an MFA, either.

So, who else?

YA = MFA?

Apparently, dystopian visions have been well represented in the Young Adult section of the publishing world, a section that continues to grow at a healthy pace. If you Google search “Dystopian Science Fiction” you’ll find a significant number of titles that come up are YAs – not MFAs. It is true, though, that Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) holds and MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts (among other degrees in Theater Arts and Theater and Telecommunications; Veronica Roth (the Divergent series) holds a degree from the writing program at Northwestern University; Amie Kaufman (TheStarbound trilogy) has a graduate degree in Conflict Resolution; Beth Revis (Across the Universe) has a Master’s in English Literature; Scott Westerfeld (the Uglies series) took his degree in Philosophy. So, though MFAs have made their mark in the YA world, it’s no clean sweep there, either.

YA is a region that seems impervious to the influence of educators or to any part of the “science fiction community,” whatever that means at this stage. These books are bought by people who want to read them – dystopian or “negative” or not. To be less subtle, no one is holding a gun to the heads of readers and forcing them to buy these books. Quite the contrary.

Perhaps, then, the dissatisfied educators and bloggers should be addressing their protests not to the writers of science fiction, but to readers.

Let’s see how well that works.

BACK TO THE BRIDGE

I’ve spent a great deal of space and wordage over this one statement at this one admittedly minor event not because there was anything singularly outrageous about it, but because it seems part of a mosaic of doubt, questioning, admonitions, accusations, ultimatums, cris des coeur and out-and-out bloviations that have become so much a part of the discourse on science/speculative fiction. Whether the manner in which this discourse is carried on is inevitable and unavoidable is a subject for a far more comprehensive presentation than I am capable of here.

But it does return me to those refugees on that bridge in Poland in 1939. For them, the threats were real. For us, the threats may be more a matter of perception.

No one should wish to silence the voices of civil (and, to a degree, uncivil) protest, but it may be the better part of sensibility (and sensitivity) to not only listen to what’s being said, but to examine those statements carefully and make sure that in protecting our borders from the invaders we’re not also preventing the entry of our allies.

 

Perhaps, rather than escaping on the bridges we have, we should be building more of them – in all directions.


Richard Chwedyk won the Nebula Award in 2003 for his novella, “Bronte’s Egg.” His work has also been nominated for the Hugo, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Rhysling and, most recently, the Pushcart Prize. Since 2009, he has been teaching science fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago. A story collection, ONE BIG PLACE: THE BOOK OF SAURS is forthcoming. He lives in Chicago with his wife, the poet Pamela Miller, and occasionally blogs at Critinomicon.

 

Readers like you make Alephi possible. Please show your support. 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *