02 September 2013

"Redshirts," gatekeeping, and the post-century dilemma

So John Scalzi won the Hugo last night for Redshirts, and already the carping has started, mostly by people who seem more peeved that their pick didn't win rather than anything else. I am starting to see people go after Scalzi personally, and resort to insult, and to bemoan the state of SF/F as it exists--all because of one book winning one award. One person even went so far as to say on Facebook that the only reason Scalzi won is because he marketed himself and that he only appeals to drunken frat boys.

The relative merits of Scalzi's book aside (and I have some opinions regarding this, primarily that it is a brilliant piece of postmodernism disguised as an unassuming genre potboiler, and that you dismiss it at your intellectual peril), I want to point something out. That attitude, that PRECISE attitude, is what keeps SF/F relegated to the "step above category romance" ghetto in the minds of critics and readers. This "we're too good for you plebeian rabble" gatekeeping nonsense has to end. That it is still going on is a detriment to all of us.

So Scalzi markets himself and deliberately writes his books so as to appeal to as wide a range of reader as possible and that's a bad thing? He is a very visible person and a great ambassador for the genre, and that's a bad thing? He is one of a handful of people working to make SF/F more inclusive, more open, more friendly as a genre. And now that he has been rewarded for his success, for his pains he is getting handed a bunch of shit by (in my estimation) a bunch of old farts (and it is entirely possible for a young person to be an old fart), who fail to understand that the genre is changing, and that it desperately NEEDS to change if it is to progress into the coming century as something viable, and not be relegated to the dustbins of history by those critics and readers who can't be bothered with a genre they think doesn't want them.

Why do they think this? Because its public face is, or has been until recently, a series of crotchety assholes who openly disparage them for liking the genre's most accessible material. It is the worst kind of gatekeeping, and has been done by people who really ought to know better. Especially people who claim that Scalzi appeals only to drunken frat-boys--because if you know anything about Scalzi, you would know that his estimation of drunken frat-boys is incredibly low.

Was Kim Stanley Robinson's book a better one than Scalzi's? Who knows? That is a matter of personal taste, and of personal preference. In my mind, it is a pointless comparison, and here's why: They are completely different books. As is Saladin Ahmed's Hugo nominated novel. As is Mira Grant's Hugo-nominated novel. As is Lois McMaster Bujold's Hugo-nominated novel. Comparing them on the basis that Scalzi's critics want to compare them is comparing apples, oranges, mangoes, cantaloupes, and broccoli. Something someone once pointed out to me about Sonia Sotomayor and the people angry over her nominaton is that once you reach that level qualification, everyone is equally qualified. So it is with the Hugos. You don't get nominated for one for writing shit.

And I can't help but wonder: Would the carping and crabbing and bitching be so loud and so vociferous if one of those other books had won? Or is it simply because of Scalzi? because he is so vocal, and so visible? And because people think it's easy to dismiss him because (in their opinion) Redshirts isn't as good as, say, Ringworld?

Here's my humble opinion: Ringworld is, honestly, a decent novel with a big sparkling idea at its heart, and that big sparkling idea is what won it the Hugo. But if you read it, you can tell that Larry Niven is a lot better with ideas than he is with anything like character development and flowing prose--not to mention the "show, don't tell" rule. Every other page in that book is an infodump. But nothing like Ringworld had ever been seen before, and because of that it won the Hugo in 1970.

So let's take a look, just for fun, at what other books were nominated for the 1970 Hugo: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; Up the Line, by Robert Silverberg; Macroscope, by Piers Anthony; and Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad. I have read three of those four books (the exception being Anthony's novel) and I can honestly say that all of the ones that I have read are better written novels than Ringworld. I will even go so far as to say that Up the Line has a better concept than Ringworld.  Moreover, I will stand proudly on my soapbox right now and say that anyone who thinks Ringworld is a better novel than Slaughterhouse-Five is full of steaming brown stuff, and can go intercourse themselves with the implement of their choice.

In my opinion, that Hugo should have been on Vonnegut's mantel. However, that it is on Larry Niven't instead is not a great injustice or crime against literature--people simply liked Ringworld more than they liked Vonnegut's book, and voted for it for that reason at that year's WorldCon.

In short: Ringworld carried the Hugo voting because it captured people's imaginations and was popular at the time--just as Scalzi's novel did. So if you're making the argument that the only reason Scalzi won the Hugo was because the Hugos have become a popularity contest and no longer represent the best EF/F has to offer, well guess what? You're ignoring two things. One: The Hugos have always been a popularity contest. Two (and related): It's just that the notions of what is popular have changed, and no longer fit yours.

That is not the notion's problem. It is your problem, and you need to look to yourself.

Maybe you can start by celebrating the novel that did win the Hugo, instead of acting like a pissy hormonal teenager because the one you like didn't win. It would make us all look better in the eyes of those constantly trying to marginalize us, and would certainly make you look more like a grownup.

And in that wise, here is my personal message to John Scalzi: Congratulations, John. You done good.

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