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Forbidden Thoughts, Dissident Minds

Online self-segregation gets written about a lot these days. That’s where people never encounter anyone who disagrees on Facebook and Twitter. They’ve unfriended or unfollowed dissenters on Facebook or are victims of software that tailors information to their worldview. But what happens if you leave your filter bubble?

Well, about eighteen months ago, that’s exactly what happened to me. I read some articles claiming that a small group of  ‘rabid chauvinists’  were trying to keep women out of science fiction. According to the article, these Sad/Rapid Puppies hijacked the Hugo Awards, which describe themselves as science fiction’s most prestigious. I was concerned. I’d read Hugo Award-winning novels. I’m an aspiring hard SF author and had dreamed one day of winning an award.

It soon became apparent to me – in the most dramatic way possible – that the mainstream media coverage was lies. Or, in the trendy language of today, ‘fake news’ (well, okay, it was just biased to all heck).

Dissident Minds

In June 2015, I read and commented on Big Boys Don’t Cry, one of the novellas nominated by the Puppies. My commentary ran long. Out of politeness, I emailed the author, Tom Kratman. Stuck in my urban liberal bubble, I had no idea he was a well-known author with almost an entire shelf in London’s Forbidden Planet bookstore.

We got into a debate, initially about his novella and then about writing more generally.  Tom  noticed from my profile that I was struggling with a novel. We had a chat about the plot and setting, and why I was failing to finish.

We discussed why I’d chosen to write in first-person perspective. His view was third person was easier for a newbie. He suggested I write a short military SF story in my setting and experiment with third-person perspective. The deal was that, if the story was good enough to publish, it would go into the anthology he was editing. If it wasn’t, he’d give me detailed feedback. I wrote Diamonds are a Man’s Best Friend in a fortnight, and – after some edits – Tom accepted it.

Bear in mind, Tom was singled out for criticism on Tor.com for his depiction of women in military SF. The anthology is Riding the Red Horse Vol.2, to be published by alt-right blogger, fantasy author and Rabid Puppy Vox Day. If Tom and Vox were trying to keep women out of SF, they were doing a VERY bad job.

I’ve come to my own view about the Hugo Awards kerfuffle. I think Worldcon, the small ageing convention that owns the awards, objects to mid-American pulp authors like Larry Correia gatecrashing their party. There is a political component. This seems to be elderly white American hippies panicking over why their convention – and awards – aren’t very young or diverse [Note: These picture are from Worldcon in London in 2014. They show the oldest whitest crowd I’ve seen in what may be the most ethnically-diverse city on the planet].

Forbidden Thoughts

I mention all this as a preamble to reviewing Forbidden Thoughts, an anthology by Puppy authors with a foreword by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo’s inclusion alone is probably enough to get the book banned on numerous American campuses. As everyone knows, trying to ban a book is the best way to make it a bestseller.

I heard Milo speak at the Battle of Ideas public debating festival a few years ago. He was noisy with little content. Ultimately, in a culture of ‘You can’t say that!’, there’s a career in outrageously trollish soundbites (Note: someone was shot at an anti-Milo protest yesterday in Seattle so this stuff has real-world consequences). His foreword to Forbidden Thoughts is significantly more intelligent and shows an understanding of geek culture.

The rest of the anthology is mixed. Milo’s foreword sets it up as being a counterblast to so-called Social Justice Warriors (the identitarian left). Author L. Jagi Lamplighter suggests that the aim was to be as controversial and incendiary as possible.  Forbidden Thoughts is political ‘message fiction’ and suffers from the same problems as its identitarian equivalent. Political writing invariably has a niche audience.

My favourite story was The Social Construct by David Halliquist, a disturbing tale about designer babies and the commodification of human life. The artificial wombs made me question whether bonding between adults and infants is aided by the nine-month gestation period. Do we value babies more because of their life-death struggle within the mother’s body? Would we value them less if they arrived on the doorstep fully developed? I wondered how the parents of children born via surrogacy feel. Do they bond easily with a newborn? Or is this a more fraught process? The last paragraph is simply chilling, although this may simply be because I have a young baby. It hails from same literary tradition as ‘why dogs are not just for Christmas’ tales.

The Secret History of a World Gone By by Joshua M. Young is a haunting tale that extrapolates the identitarian-left ideas of perfect equality and white guilt. A barbarian warrior seeking knowledge of the World Gone By travels to the Pentient City where no one has visible gender and everyone is desperate not to offend. The payoff and politics wasn’t headbangingly obvious, and it had a hopeful ending. The Pentient City, in some ways, reminded me visually of the city of New Alesund in my Kokopelli setting. I think they’re both playing with the ‘crystal spires and togas’ trope.

Sarah Hoyt’s Flight to Egypt was also enjoyable, although I found Asimov-esque names, such as ‘Marstown’, a tad jarring for modern SF. It’s a romance about a mixed-race couple who find themselves, and their child, falling victim of crass anti-black profiling and rampant abortion. The ending is positive. I liked the message about judging people as individuals and not members of identity groups.

More of a problem was Graduation Day by an pseudonymous author. There’s a point at which political writing feels like someone hitting you over the head with a hammer. This story, about a self-loathing liberal whose daughter graduates from the Karl Marx Educational Gulag overstepped that line. It simply wasn’t fun to read. The Muslim student beheading a woman with a scimitar was a particular low point.

Nick Cole’s Safe Space Suit was a frenetic story with arguably muddled messaging. A Mars mission is scuppered by astronauts selected primarily for their race and gender, rather than their competency. I read the story as a  cautionary tale of tokenism. However, Greg from Rocket Stack Rank rightly pointed out that there’s also an unpleasantly old-school racist interpretation (discussion here). The story never tackles why NASA couldn’t find an astronaut who was black AND competent. Thus, it veers towards the interpretation that all black astronauts are incompetent.

The Code by Matthew Ward and Brad Torgersen’s Hymns of the Mothers both suffered from the story payoff being obvious from the outset. The Code is a story of dating in a world where even a kiss can constitute rape. Needless to say, at the end, the hapless male protagonist finds himself arrested for rape. Hymns of the Mothers was well written, but I knew from early on that this was a gender-segregated society where the ‘trog’ slave race were men.

Vox Day’s Amazon Gambit was a mostly cool piece of military SF that contains the obvious (but controversial) truth that women have less upper body strength than men. The twist in the tale involved prostitutes. This achieved its aim of being anti-feminist, but I was hoping for something more strategically or tactically interesting.

John C. Wright’s novel Somewhither is brilliant, but I didn’t gel with By his Cockle Hat and Staff. His otherworldly style didn’t fit with the rest of the anthology. I also couldn’t get into the flowery writing style of Brian Niemeier’s Elergy for the Locust and ended up skipping over it (sorry Brian).

Test of the Prophet by L. Jagi Lamplighter contains the most genuinely ‘forbidden thoughts’ in the anthology. It’s an allegorical tale that, from my reading, is about a former US marine in Pakistan converting from Islam to something related to Christianity after being visited by the Angel Gabriel. As a vaguely spiritual person who tries to be respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, it was too much for me. I read it with the vaguely worrying idea that Jagi might be looking for a Salman Rushdie-style fatwa.

I later gave Test of the Prophet to someone with a better knowledge of theology. There’s apparently a couple of faux pas. Jesus is described as a prophet and God in the same story. The Angel Gabriel is described as a child of God. Some evangelical Christians may find this story uncomfortable for that reason, as well as the basic premise of Islam being a Christian heresy. The story is also set in Pakistan, but the local colour is Hollywood Tunisia. This is an unspecified location between north Africa and India, usually indicated (in James Bond films) by bazaars, beggars and a guy on a bicycle wearing a fez.

Tom’s The Rules for Racism is a interesting piece of short non-fiction. I particularly liked his point that having mixed-race children is different from casually sleeping with someone of a different race.  You’re pinning your genetic legacy on that person. Twitter troll Arthur Chu should have considered this before accusing Sad Puppy Brad Torgersen of racism (I got angry about the Hugo kerfuffle for this reason – it was almost the first thing I saw and way out-of-order)…

At the Edge of Detachment, meanwhile, was a debut story by teen author April Freeman. This is brilliant for a first story by a young author, but the pro-life message didn’t resonate for me. The bad guys were too blatantly villainous. Most people in the West treat dogs as sentient beings with rights, even though they don’t formally have them. I couldn’t suspend disbelief at a mother legally killing for cash a child old enough to narrate their own story. I wondered whether the premise came from a conservative filter bubble, i.e. a belief that liberals are shallow about abortion. Certainly, some liberal feminists make it seem that way.

Other stories in the anthology include The Razor Blade of Approval by Ben Zwycky and Auto America by E.J. Shumak. They didn’t stick in my mind – it’s possible they were too short.

6 thoughts on “Forbidden Thoughts, Dissident Minds”

  1. Greg Hullender says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the Hugo awards had a nominating system that made it very easy for a small, determined minority to swamp the votes of the majority. An honor system had kept that from happening for years, coupled with a mechanism in the final vote that allowed the majority to prefer No Award to any of the nominees. People had talked about it for years, but it had never been a real problem before, so nothing was done about it.

    What the puppies did was specifically target this well-known weakness. Further, with just 250 people, they managed to sweep every position on the ballot, which meant no one else’s votes mattered. It didn’t help that nearly every story on their list was either poorly written or else incomplete. Members were forced to vote No Award in most of the categories.

    The claim was repeatedly made that “people like us don’t win awards,” but if that meant “conservative white males,” a look through the history of Hugo Winners over the past decades show’s that’s laughably false. If it means “authors who write trash don’t win awards,” then that’s really the way it’s meant to be.

    The 2016 rabid puppy slate did contain one or two decent stories, which ranked under “No Award” solely because of the way they were nominated, but the 2015 slates did not, and most of the 2016 slate was either trash or else mainstream works added to the slate to try to force the members to vote against popular works. (It didn’t work; voters could tell the difference.)

    I’m sure politics influence how some people vote, but, for the most part, the awards go to interesting, well-written stories. They don’t go to boring message fiction. (And, from your review, “Forbidden Thoughts” sounds like nothing but boring message fiction.) The story of the puppies is simply the story of a group of mediocre writers who convinced themselves the only reason they didn’t get awards was because of a liberal conspiracy (as opposed to the fact that they just don’t write very well). A story where those writers created a real conspiracy to destroy the reputation of a 75-year-old award by flooding the nominations lists with trash. And where the members of WorldCon followed their own rules (which take two years to make big changes) to adopt new voting rules that will prevent a single slate from taking over half the ballot in the future. Anyone on the outside looking in can see who told the truth and who lied. Who acted with honesty and integrity and who didn’t. And who the real heroes and villains were.

    1. Vivienne Raper says:

      Greg.

      Thanks for the long and detailed reply!

      I think the problem is that I *did* come from the outside. I read a story in the Guardian newspaper and decided to check it out. It seemed pertinent to me; I’d been warned several times over the years that I’d have difficulty publishing hard SF because I was a woman and SF was sexist.

      I’ve written more about the Hugos here, but the writers involved certainly aren’t mediocre. Larry Correia, who started Sad Puppies, is a New York Times bestselling author. I’m a fan of his fiction, which I discovered via the Puppies. He’s a strong pulp storyteller. Likewise Somewhither by John C. Wright is genuinely imaginative and unlike anything I’ve read before. Whatever you feel about his political views and character, he isn’t short of talent as a storyteller.

      There seems to be a general failure of imagination across Anglo-American short fiction right now. I don’t know whether that’s due to the economics of the short fiction market or something else. Cat Pictures Please, the 2016 Hugo short story winner, was entertaining enough, but not exceptional. The best short(er) fiction I read in 2015 was Folding Beijing, which justifiably won an award but was written by a Chinese author about China (nothing wrong with that, of course).

      Sadly, I felt the stories I read from the 2014 Hugos, before the Puppies, were poor overall. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere was barely speculative fiction and had problems with conflict, pacing and the internal logic of its reality. I’ve read some excellent stories about coming out, but this wasn’t one of them. I can see myself why that and If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love prompted a backlash (and a lot of parodies). If You Were a Dinosaur has nowhere the emotional power of a similar literary work like Naming of Parts. It’s okay to enjoy it, but there’s definitely a personal taste element.

      I should also mention that I read Redshirts, which won the 2013 Hugo for Best Novel, before I’d heard of the Puppies, and was baffled by how it won an award. It read like Star Trek fan fiction thrown together in a hurry by a talented author. I now realise Worldcon fandom was giving a big shoutout to John Scalzi for his… well, fan fiction thrown together in a hurry. That devalued the award for me.

      So it’s not correct to say that the Puppy entries were trash and the non-Puppy entries weren’t. It may be better to say that Worldcon fandom has tastes that don’t necessarily gel with other SF&F readerships. That’s okay. SF&F is much bigger these days than it was when the Hugos were founded. It looks like the Puppies have now gone off to the Dragon Awards, which should hopefully continue to award good pulp fiction.

      1. Greg Hullender says:

        I read all the puppy nominees for 2015, including three John C. Wright stories, and they were almost all really, really bad. The largest problem with any of his writing that I’ve seen so far is wall-to-wall purple prose. (Something that makes for a one-star story in my book.) Contrast an excellent story like Michael Flynn’s “Journeyman in the stone house” (which, unfortunately, isn’t a stand-alone work) and it’s clear how poor the other puppy nominations were.

        Larry was a best-selling author for one week, if I recall, due to a big discounting push. It’s still an accomplishment, but not quite as meaningful as it sounds. He’s definitely the most serious author by far in puppyland, though. He wasn’t part of the ballot sweeps however, and I’ve never read any of his work–just his nonfiction.

        “Cat Pictures, Please” won because it was the only non-slate entry, but it wasn’t a bad story. “Binti” is a much better example of a very poor story that won an award by default, showing how the slates cheapen the awards even when they don’t win.

        I agree that “If you were a dinosaur” isn’t even SFF at all, but it never won a Hugo award either. And I also thought “the water that falls on you from nowhere” was just too silly. Both of them were very emotionally powerful stories, though, and some people give such stories a lot of weight. Redshirts was an okay story–a good bit better than fan fiction–but I agree there had to have been better candidates for the Hugo that year.

        However, the fact that the Hugo voters don’t always pick the best stories isn’t an excuse for a group of sore losers to conspire to ruin them entirely.

        1. Vivienne Raper says:

          Binti also won Best Novella in the 2016 Nebulas, which – of course – are awarded by SFWA members and can’t be easily Puppified. As I say, I think there’s a general problem with the short(er) fiction market. There is a theory it’s some kind of cultural exhaustion. It could be economics. It could be the personal tastes of Baby Boomer gatekeepers.

          I agree that Water That Falls and If You Were a Dinosaur were written to emotionally engage the reader. I guess I feel SF&F should do more than simply emotionally move the reader. It needs a sense of wonder. Or, in the case of SF, to inspire the next generation of rocket scientists and explorers. Both of those stories (and many of the other nominees I’ve read) are exceptionally introspective (Lela Buis has blogged about the trend towards sentimentality too). I’m not saying the Puppies solve that problem, or I can solve that problem (I can’t), or even it’s a problem, but it’s definitely a trend you can dislike.

          John C. Wright, incidentally, was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2005. Somewhither has a crisper pulp style than his short fiction. I doubt his writing has deteriorated since 2005 so I assume the floweriness is a short fiction issue and personal taste.

          I understand that Worldcon is a close-knit community who were justifiably unhappy when their awards were gatecrashed by outsiders. I have a friend who knows someone who was in the Sasquan organising committee. Trouble is, outsiders only see the Hugos; I didn’t know they were attached to a convention. I can understand the anger at unwritten rules being broken, but don’t experience it myself; I’m not a Worldcon regular.

          I got VERY confused over that, actually. People kept telling me that members of Worldcon voted for the Hugos. I could become a member of Worldcon by paying a fee. Yet, at the same time, there were people like Steve Davidson writing about Fandom in capital letters (can’t find a better example ). So I could join Worldcon and vote in the Hugos, and so could the Puppies, but – at the same time – we weren’t Fans. I’ve latterly realised that Worldcon Fandom is a subculture; you can be a ‘fan’ of SF&F without being Worldcon Fandom. Again, that’s okay, but downright confusing for someone coming in from the outside. So I completely sympathise with Larry Correia who has written about being confused for… well, almost the exact same reason.

  2. Will says:

    I have been blocked by Twitter three times for “sharing” quotes from the book. Milo’s name is a yellow star. #JeSuisMilo

    1. Vivienne Raper says:

      Do you mean ‘blocked’, i.e. you weren’t permitted to publish the Tweet? Was that just mentioning Milo’s name? Or trying to link to Forbidden Thoughts?

      I’ve heard there are certain websites where you can’t put a link on Twitter. I wasn’t aware just mentioning the name ‘Milo’ was enough to stop a Tweet being posted (?)

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