Science fiction as a genre is not compatible with nostalgia.
I’m not advocating ignoring the past as a writer, a reader, or a civic-minded human being. Knowing and understanding our history is not just important, it’s vital.
But we need to do that with clear eyes and deep understanding, not with a dreamy view of the “good old days.” Because those days weren’t all that damn good.
I’m thinking about this because of Jeannette Ng’s speech at the Hugos after being given the award for best new writer and also because I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.
Ng didn’t say anything the science fiction community didn’t already know when she called John W. Campbell as fascist. His blatant racism and misogyny was obvious in the editorials in his magazine and the way he made his authors write. I’m glad the name of the award is being changed.
His magazines were before my time, though I’ve read some of the good work published there in other places and have also read essays about what he did. I’m very glad I didn’t read his publications, because it’s possible they would have soured me on science fiction as a genre.
While I usually think those who disdain science fiction do so because they don’t like reading something where the place and story aren’t obvious on its face or because they think it’s pulp trash, it’s possible that some people rejected it long ago because of the influence of people like Campbell. Having come to serious reading of science fiction through the feminist writers of the 1970s, I missed all that and instead got a glimpse of what the genre could become.
Given the list of winners at the Hugos — which are fan awards and therefore a good marker of what the people who love their SF/F think is important — times have changed dramatically. I see no reason why Ng or anyone else needs to pay homage to Campbell, who is clearly going to be a marginal person in the genre if he’s mentioned at all fifty years from now.
Also, I don’t know why anyone thinks she should have declined the award because of the name attached to it. The award isn’t for writing something Campbell would have approved of, after all. It’s for being the favorite new writer among the fans. Campbell’s name got attached to it for some reason, probably misplaced nostalgia.
And that brings me back to why we science fiction has no room for nostalgia.
Fantasy does, perhaps. It’s a broader genre, one that exists whenever someone puts an element in a story that bends the rules of physics or biology or reality or at least our accepted understanding of those things at this point. I’m not interested in nostalgic fantasy, but rather in the stories where that bending of reality shows us more than we could see without it, but I suppose there’s room for stories that are built on dreaming about the past.
But science fiction? Science fiction is about possibilities, about the future, about what we can become. It can be hopeful, even utopian, or depressing and dystopic, or perhaps a combination.
Many of the stories published in the 1950s gave us those possibilities, but they did so in the trappings of their times. Confusing those trappings with science fiction makes us misunderstand what the genre is truly about. And being nostalgic about the trappings is silly.
The world that gave us those stories has changed, and stories set in outdated realities, even good ones, often don’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in that period. There are a lot of times when you need context, which doesn’t mean saying someone is a “product of their times” and skipping over what they did, but looking at other layers in the story (assuming it’s a story that’s worth spending that much time on).
These days the audience for science fiction is much broader than the mythical 13-year-old (white) boys the Golden Age fiction was supposedly aimed at. We have a strong need for science fiction that breaks us out of the misogyny and racism and colonialism on which so much of western culture has been built. And the audience is worldwide, drawing from their own cultures and experiences.
If you believe storytelling is a vital part of being human – and I do – you have to realize that there are a lot of ways to tell a story and a lot of different ideas of who might be the hero.
It’s possible to respect the contributions of those who have gone before us without indulging in nostalgia for a world that was never actually like the one they presented. It’s also possible to understand that some of the people who were powerful and important once upon a time are no longer worth remembering.
Maybe the solution is to stop putting people on pedestals. Treat everyone with respect, but don’t idolize people. No one can live up to that status, anyway, and anyone who wants to be worshipped in that manner probably isn’t worth your time, no matter how wonderful their prose may be.