Damage Done, the Operative Said

Or, The Vicious, Small-Stakes Politics of the Science Fiction Community.

I’ve been watching yet another brouhaha in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Or, to be precise, not really another one, more of a continuation of the one from last year involving the editorship of the SFWA Bulletin.

And as I skim over some of the posts that people have made about the matter, with one exception (dealt with below) it all reminds me of this quote:

Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small

My old boss had a very similar quote on her bulletin board, attributed to Henry Kissinger, but the idea was articulated in (political scientist Wallace Stanley) Sayre’s law, which states that “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” This “law” is appended with “That is why academic politics are so bitter.”

I venture to say that SFWA politics also involve relatively small stakes, and the vitriol expended on them is far out of proportion to the issues.

Which brings me for the moment to the exception I alluded to above, viz., the tendency to resort to ad hominem attacks instead of addressing the issues. It’s at least understandable in electoral politics, where scoring points may rally the base or shake up an opponent, and where the stakes are higher because the issues involve nontrivial impacts on people’s lives. Scoring points that way can even be amusing, if done with panache. But it’s usually unnecessary if one has a principled position to defend and a sound argument based on valid premises. Unfortunately, in these SFWA proceedings I detect much more inflammatory rhetoric than reasoned argument or entertainment. Perhaps I should not be too surprised: after all, writers are in the business of producing dramatic works. But unwarranted personal attacks raise my hackles, especially when directed at friends of mine; and I count as friends people all along the conservative-liberal spectrum, with whom I will stand when they are attacked even if I disagree with them on any particular matter under debate.

Which brings me back (in my convoluted way of thinking) to the actual matter under debate, specifically the infamous-within-SFWA-circles petition circulated after SFWA advertised for a new Bulletin editor, and the SFWA President’s assurance that the petitioners have nothing to fear. The president wrote that he saw “versions [of the petition] and they express concerns for something that does not and will not exist: Specifically, the editor of the Bulletin will not have to go to any selection or editorial review board to approve material.”

I submit that, even if true, that really doesn’t matter anymore.

The statement itself seems contrary to the Bulletin editor job advertisement — seen below in a screenshot taken yesterday — which reads that the editor will “Participate in [the] proofing and review process with select volunteer and board members.” But even if that enigmatic item does not refer to an editorial review board, it doesn’t matter because the idea of the Bulletin editor having much in the way of autonomy evaporated with the dismissal of the previous editor over the “warrior woman” cover and the Resnick-Malzberg historical article that violated an unwritten, unspoken taboo by noting a female editor’s attractiveness.

(Screenshot of the SFWA Bulletin editor job advertisement, taken February 17, 2014. Click to enlarge.)

Does anyone realistically believe that the new editor of the Bulletin will not be aware of that precedent, and that it will never prick the back of their mind like some mental sword of Damocles? Right there in the job description are references to a vague “vision” and unspecified “SFWA standards,” and many vociferous members no doubt stand ready to enforce the standards as they see fit. As the Operative in Serenity said, in a different context to be sure, “Damage done.”

So came the latest brouhaha: some members and nonmembers signed a petition expressing concern over the editorial board notion, which if formed would only institutionalize the weakened position of the editor. And their petition was met, as such things often are, not with thoughtful objections but with scorn, ridicule, and anger. None of which will make much difference in the long run, because the castle keep of editorial (and authorial) license was stormed last year and now lies in rubble.

All of this seems to me clear examples of the viciousness of organizational politics over stakes that are pretty trivial.

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Look at How Many of My Friends are on the Nebula Awards Ballot!

Okay, some of them may be more like acquaintances, but it’s still kind of surreal that I know people who are in the running for the awards.

Nebula Award Logo

To explain: Last week the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America announced the nominees for the 2012 Nebula Awards, as well as for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. These are “industry” awards, in the same way that the Academy Awards are given within the movie industry, the Grammys within the music industry, etc. Among the nominees, I’ve marked my friends and acquaintances in bold:


  • Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)
  • Ironskin, Tina Connolly (Tor)
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Drowning Girl, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc)
  • Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)


  • On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
  • After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
  • “The Stars Do Not Lie,” Jay Lake (Asimov’s 10-11/12)
  • “All the Flavors,” Ken Liu (GigaNotoSaurus 2/1/12)
  • “Katabasis,” Robert Reed (F&SF 11-12/12)
  • “Barry’s Tale,” Lawrence M. Schoen (Buffalito Buffet)


  • “The Pyre of New Day,” Catherine Asaro (The Mammoth Books of SF Wars)
  • “Close Encounters,” Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
  • “The Waves,” Ken Liu (Asimov’s 12/12)
  • “The Finite Canvas,” Brit Mandelo (Tor.com 12/5/12)
  • “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” Meghan McCarron (Tor.com 1/4/12)
  • “Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia,” Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com 8/22/12)
  • “Fade to White,” Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 8/12)

Short Story

  • “Robot,” Helena Bell (Clarkesworld 9/12)
  • “Immersion,” Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld 6/12)
  • “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes,” Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 4/12)
  • “Nanny’s Day,” Leah Cypess (Asimov’s 3/12)
  • “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed 7/12)
  • “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/12)
  • “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” Cat Rambo (Near + Far)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

  • The Avengers, Joss Whedon (director) and Joss Whedon and Zak Penn (writers), (Marvel/Disney)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (director), Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Abilar (writers), (Journeyman/Cinereach/Court 13/Fox Searchlight )
  • The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard (director), Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (writers) (Mutant Enemy/Lionsgate)
  • The Hunger Games, Gary Ross (director), Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray writers), (Lionsgate)
  • John Carter, Andrew Stanton (director), Michael Chabon, Mark Andrews, and Andrew Stanton (writers), (Disney)
  • Looper, Rian Johnson (director), Rian Johnson (writer), (FilmDistrict/TriStar)

(Yeah, I don’t know any of those folks … although I do share a birthday with one of the writer/director types.)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

  • Iron Hearted Violet, Kelly Barnhill (Little, Brown)
  • Black Heart, Holly Black (S&S/McElderry; Gollancz)
  • Above, Leah Bobet (Levine)
  • The Diviners, Libba Bray (Little, Brown; Atom)
  • Vessel, Sarah Beth Durst (S&S/McElderry)
  • Seraphina, Rachel Hartman (Random House; Doubleday UK)
  • Enchanted, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)
  • Every Day, David Levithan (Alice A. Knopf Books for Young Readers)
  • Summer of the Mariposas, Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Tu Books)
  • Railsea, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
  • Fair Coin, E.C. Myers (Pyr)
  • Above World, Jenn Reese (Candlewick)

You can find links to some of the stories referenced above, available to read for free, in this SF Signal post.

Now I just need to decide for whom I wish to vote.

I’m pretty sure I can’t make it to the awards ceremony, which will be in mid-May in San Jose. If you’re interested — and you don’t have to be a member of SFWA to attend — you can find more information about the Nebula Awards Weekend at http://www.sfwa.org/nebula-awards/nebula-weekend/.

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Great News! for Several Friends

First, hearty congratulations to all my friends who garnered Nebula Award nominations! Several of the stories I nominated made the ballot (this was the first time I’ve been able to nominate, having recently upgraded my SFWA membership), and everyone on the list deserves a round of applause. The complete list is linked here, but I’m happiest for the folks I’ve gotten to know on-line or in-person — some very recently and some with whom I’ve been friends for several years — namely,

  • Mary Robinette Kowal, nominated for “Kiss Me Twice” (novella)
  • Kij Johnson, nominated for “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” (novella)
  • Ken Liu, nominated for “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (novella) and “The Paper Menagerie” (short story)
  • Rachel Swirsky, nominated for “Fields of Gold” (novelette)
  • Brad R. Torgersen, nominated for “Ray of Light” (novelette)
  • Ferrett Steinmetz, nominated for “Sauerkraut Station” (novelette)
  • Katherine Sparrow, nominated for “The Migratory Pattern of Dancers” (novelette)
  • Jake Kerr, nominated for “The Old Equations” (novelette)
  • Tom Crosshill, nominated for “Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son” (short story)
  • Aliette de Bodard, nominated for “Shipbirth” (short story)
  • Nancy Fulda, nominated for “Movement” (short story)
  • David W. Goldman, nominated for “The Axiom of Choice” (short story)

Now, of course, I have to figure out who I’m going to vote for. Along those lines, I’ll resurrect the line from my “Playing Politics” song: “I don’t know how much they’ll bribe me, I’ll just have to wait and see.”

Second, congratulations to my friend Jeff LaSala on the release of his Foreshadows project. (Full disclosure: Jeff and I are both slimy contractors for Baen Books.)

(Sample of Talon Dunning’s art for Foreshadows, from the Foreshadows web site.)

Foreshadows: The Ghost of Zero is an ambitious multi-media project combining original music, original fiction, and original artwork. Jeff, his brother, and several others collaborated on it, and the end result is very impressive.

I haven’t read many of the stories yet, but I’ve listened to all the music and it’s very evocative. (I admit that I’m not a big fan of “techno” and much of this music is of that style, but in terms of conveying the emotional undertones of the stories I think it works well.) My favorite of the songs is “Made in Brazil | Living in Japan.” The artwork, too, is extremely well done.

Check it out at http://foreshadows.net/!

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Part of the Profession

Meet the newest Active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America: me.

It’s nice to check that off the “writing career” list —

  • First story sale … CHECK (2007)
  • First professional story sale … CHECK (2010)
  • SFWA qualification (3 pro stories or a novel) … CHECK

— especially as my entry into SFWA was a little unconventional. I originally joined as an Affiliate member, based on my work with Baen Books, since I hadn’t yet made any qualifying sales of my fiction. Even my first professional-level story, “Memorial at Copernicus,” didn’t qualify me for Associate membership because Redstone Science Fiction was too new and had not yet been recognized as a professional market.

Of all the professional organizations I’ve joined at various times in my life (e.g., Air Force Association, American Society for Quality Control [now just ‘ASQ’]) SFWA’s entrance qualifications were the hardest to meet. Now that they’ve let me in, I’m reminded of the Groucho Marx bit — wondering if I should be leery of joining a group that would have me as a member — especially as I feel more like a lucky hack than a professional. Maybe it’s something I have to live up to.

Of course, this doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. To paraphrase one of my parents’ favorite sayings, to account for inflation and personal preference: that and a buck will buy me a diet soda.*

So, on to the next thing: finishing the next story.

*Even though “That and 50 cents will buy you a cup of coffee” sounds better, since I don’t drink coffee I’m not sure how many places still sell it for 50 cents.

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Two Chimps: One an Astronaut, One a Writer

Fifty years ago today — November 29, 1961 — NASA launched the last “orbital qualification flight” for the Mercury program.

(Enos, the Mercury-Atlas 5 passenger. NASA image.)

Mission Mercury-Atlas 5 carried a chimpanzee, Enos, that “performed various psychomotor activities during the flight and was found to be in excellent physical condition following splashdown.” Enos was supposed to make three orbits around the Earth, but mission controllers brought him back after only two orbits because of a propulsion system problem.

(Aside: Lucky chimp, got to be an astronaut.)

As for the writer chimp, that would be me.

Usually, when it comes to literary primates, I think about hypothetical monkeys at typewriters, trying to produce Shakespeare; you too may be familiar with the infinite monkey theorem.* But monkeys have tails, and we already have Shakespeare, so I’ll live with the chimp metaphor.

Anyway, yesterday marked another metaphorical milestone for me in terms of my writing career, such as it is: I sent in my contracts — and, perhaps more important, my money — to upgrade to “Active” membership in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

Soon, then, even though my fiction doesn’t come close to paying the bills, I may be considered a “professional” writer.

*An even more entertaining Wikipedia entry: the infinite monkey theorem in popular culture.

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With One Day to Spare: Hugo Nominations Are In

If you’re a member of Renovation, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, or were a member of last year’s AussieCon, and you haven’t submitted your nominations for the 2011 Hugo Awards, you don’t have much time left! The last day to nominate anything is tomorrow.

I submitted my nominations this afternoon. I probably should’ve been reading slush, but that’s the way it goes.

With respect to the nomination process, I’ve decided I need to develop a system whereby I mark and set aside good stories throughout the year, instead of going through the stack of last year’s magazines (on paper and online) and books and trying to remember which ones I really liked.

With respect to the nominations themselves: just in case any of my family and friends thought I might give in to the temptation, I did not nominate myself for a Hugo, nor did I nominate myself for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Finally, on a related note: Mary Robinette Kowal, winner of the 2008 Campbell Award and the current Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, mentioned me in her blog entry this past Tuesday: Campbell Award Eligible Writers You Should Pay Attention To. Thanks, Mary!

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