So, on the most recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan asked, was it possible to be so enthused and relieved about science fiction without (or with a great deal less of) the normal dose of racism and sexism that this might blind readers to the fact that the work was otherwise not all that significant?
So. Disclaimer. I have no intention of attacking Jonathan Strahan, who it seems to me is genuinely interested in science fiction having less racism and sexism in it.
Here’s the thing–it really, really matters who’s asking this question. It really, really matters whose criteria you’re going by when you try to determine if a work is “really” significant. I think that if Strahan had not been a white straight cis guy, he would not have asked this question in quite this way.
I love analogies! Let’s have one.
Imagine that you dearly love, absolutely crave, a particular kind of food. There are some places in town that do this particular cuisine just amazingly. Lots of people who are into this kind of food hold these restaurants in high regard. But let’s say, at every single one of these places, every now and then throughout the meal, at random moments, the waiter comes over and punches any women at the table right in the face. And people of color and/or LGBT folks as well! Now, most of the white straight cis guys who eat there, they have no problem–after all, the waiter isn’t punching them in the face, and the non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-guys who love this cuisine keep coming back so it can’t be that bad, can it? Hell, half the time the white straight cis guys don’t even see it, because it’s always been like that and it just seems like part of the dining experience. Granted, some white straight cis guys have noticed and will talk about how they don’t like it and they wish it would stop.
Every now and then, you go through a meal without the waiter punching you in the face–they just give you a small slap, or come over and sort of make a feint and then tell you they could have messed you up bad. Which, you know, that’s better, right? Kind of?
Now. Somebody gets the idea to open a restaurant where everything is exactly as delicious as the other places–but the waiters won’t punch you in the face. Not even once, not even a little bit. Women and POC and LGBT and various combinations thereof flock to this place, and praise it to the skies.
And then some white, straight, cis dude–one of the ones who’s on record as publicly disapproving of punching diners in the face, who has expressed the wish that it would stop (maybe even been very indignant on this topic in a blog post or two*) says, “Sure, but it’s not anything really important or significant. It’s getting all blown out of proportion. The food is exactly the same! In fact, some of it is awfully retro. You’re just all relieved cause you’re not getting punched in the face, but it’s not really a significant development in this city’s culinary scene. Why couldn’t they have actually advanced the state of food preparation? Huh? Now that would have been worth getting excited about.”
Think about that. Seriously, think. Let me tell you, being able to enjoy my delicious supper without being punched in the face is a pretty serious advancement. And only the folks who don’t get routinely assaulted when they try to eat could think otherwise.
There isn’t only one axis on which something can be significant, or advance the genre. And declaring that only the axes that are important to you matter–particularly when the axes being dismissed are ones that matter a lot to women, LGBT, and POC–is a move straight out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing.
*No, I am not referring here to Strahan.