Science fiction is not a safe space!
It can’t be. For if it is, it betrays its reason for existing: the unfettered extrapolation of technological and social change.
Hordes of “woke zombies” have invaded science fiction. They inhibit free extrapolation and free speech through aggressive gatekeeping and social and professional ostracism, inspiring fearful writers to self-censor.
My new story collection, “Hazardous Imaginings: The Mondo Book of Politically Incorrect Science Fiction,” pushes back against the closing of science fiction’s collective mind. It and its forthcoming sequel, “Again, Hazardous Imaginings,” an international anthology of politically incorrect science fiction that will be published in December, feature stories that would not be published by editors of commercial science fiction magazines or anthologies in the current climate.
By publishing these stories, I am screaming “NO!” at the strictures of the reigning zeitgeist. I’m trying to inject some sorely needed antibodies into our cultural bloodstream. In order for science fiction to serve as an early-warning radar for dangerous technological and social trends, its practitioners cannot wear blinders.
Below is an excerpt from Hazardous Imaginings’ Introduction.
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Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore was a landmark, both for America’s science fiction community and for its home, Minneapolis, Minn. Founded in 1974, it was the nation’s oldest independent science fiction specialty bookstore.
Later joined by a sister store, Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore, in 1980, the two stores stood side-by-side on Chicago Avenue, hosting book signings and readings in a culturally vibrant district of Minneapolis, a city long known for its “Minnesota Nice” vibe.
Uncle Hugo’s is no more. It wasn’t the economic precariousness of the book-selling industry that did the store in. Nihilists did. Depending on the legal vagaries of owner Don Blyly’s insurance policy, with its civil insurrection carve-outs, Uncle Hugo’s may never be rebuilt.
Rioters burned Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s Bookstores to the ground in the early morning of May 30, 2020, along with numerous other businesses on both sides of Chicago Avenue, supposedly in response to the police-involved death of George Floyd. Massive protests against police brutality and racially discriminatory policing began in Minneapolis on May 26. These were initially peaceful, but late in the evening, violent members of the crowd began vandalizing police buildings and vehicles and physically clashing with police.
Over the following three nights, several Minneapolis commercial corridors suffered severe damage from rioters, looters, vandals, and arsonists, the prelude to weeks of protests and riots in cities across America and the Western world.
The mob came for Uncle Hugo’s during the early morning hours of Saturday, May 30. Owner Don Blyly received a call from his security company at 3:30 AM. Motion detectors had alerted the company Blyly’s store had been broken into. He immediately threw on a set of clothes and headed for his business.
When he was two blocks away, he received a second call. This one informed him that smoke detectors had been activated in the store. When he arrived, his two bookstores were ablaze. Arsonists had broken every window in the stores and had spilled accelerants through each window prior to setting the fires, ensuring the destruction would be total. Blyly ran to his back entrance, hoping to access his fire extinguisher, but choking black smoke billowed through the door as soon as he opened it. He then attempted to limit the damage to his neighbor’s business, a dental clinic.
That building also proved too far gone to be saved.
I doubt very much that the arsonists had a particular animus against science fiction, the mystery genre, or even books in general. Rather, I think they burned down Uncle Hugo’s due to their love for destruction, an adrenaline-fueled high that came from their exercise of nihilistic power, and a savage joy in tearing down what they had not built up.
Upon carrying out their arsons, the perpetrators, all young white men, did not evince anger, bereavement, or resentment. They acted as though this were a festive occasion. Blyly did not witness rioters screaming or crying or expressing rage. He saw arsonists and vandals dancing on Chicago Avenue, the uproarious flames on both sides of the street illuminating their exultant faces.
As of late, science fiction has accrued its own arsonists, vandals inside the field, both professionals and fans, who brandish a far more particularized sense of grievance than that displayed by the destroyers of Uncle Hugo’s.
Cancel Culture Crosses Genre Boundaries
So-called “progressive” elements within the science fiction community have successfully canceled a handful of “problematic” icons from science fiction’s past. Their victims included the most influential editor in the history of the field, John W. Campbell, arguably the father of modern science fiction, a contrarian who inspired his stable of writers to new feats of extrapolation through speculative discussion sessions and editorials that did not steer clear of controversy, whether social, technological, or political.
In 1973, Dell Magazines, publisher of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, began awarding the annual John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, meant to honor the worthiest author whose first science fiction had been published within the past two calendar years.
In 2019, winner Jeannette Ng denounced John W. Campbell in her acceptance speech, calling him a “fascist.” Dell, the award’s sponsor, immediately cowered and renamed their award.
Weird horror pioneer H. P. Lovecraft has had his visage removed from the annual trophies given to the winners of the World Fantasy Award, due to concerns over racist and anti-Semitic comments found in Lovecraft’s correspondence.
The late Alice Sheldon, who had written under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. and had long been a feminist icon in the science fiction world, has been subjected to a similar posthumous cancellation.
Beginning in 1991, the feminist science fiction convention WisCon had awarded annual James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Awards to honor works that advance the consideration of gender issues. In 2019, however, the awards committee, responding to complaints that Sheldon had shown herself problematically “ableist” by choosing to honor a suicide pact with her disabled husband, decided to strip Sheldon’s pen name from their awards.
The Jacobin wing of the science fiction community have not limited their cancellations and online shaming-and-shunning campaigns to deceased luminaries. They have also targeted a number of the field’s elder statesmen. Robert Silverberg is perhaps the most honored living science fiction author.
In 2018, following the third consecutive Hugo Awards ceremony at which woman-of-color N. K. Jemisin was awarded the Hugo for Best Novel (she had published a trilogy), Silverberg commented in a private online chat room that he considered her acceptance speech to have been particularly graceless.
Despite Jemisin having won an unprecedented three consecutive Best Novel Hugos, a triple honor that greatly boosted her earning power and prestige, the honoree had opted to deliver an angry, condemnatory speech focused mainly on the alleged racism and sexism rife within the science fiction and fantasy field.
Silverberg, who has dedicated his entire life to science fiction, was understandably perturbed when Jemisin chose to turn the Hugo Awards ceremony into a Maoist reeducation session. His private comments leaked to a public forum. Internet purity enforcers thenceforth tarred Silverberg, who has exemplified the best aspects of liberalism throughout his long career, as a racist and a sexist, branding him with the contemporary Scarlet Letters “R” and “S.”
Artists Can Never, Ever Be ‘Woke’ Enough
In 2013, award-winning writers Barry N. Malzberg and Mike Resnick were fired from their quarterly gig of writing the “Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues” column for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFFWA) Bulletin.
They wrote a series of articles celebrating the little-remembered women editors and assistant editors who had staffed the offices of several science fiction, fantasy, and horror pulp magazines of the field’s Golden Age. The articles praised these women in the most effusive and adoring terms.
But Malzberg and Resnick stumbled into a “wokeness” trip wire when they used the term “lady editors,” certainly period appropriate for a remembrance of the 1930s and 1940s, while admiring their beauty.
The resulting explosion — Resnick and Malzberg were variously excoriated online as “misogynistic, irrelevant dinosaurs,” “old men yelling at clouds,” “hideous, backwards, and strangely atavistic,” “blithering nincompoops,” “antiquated,” “gross,” “s***ty,” “prehistoric,” and perhaps most colorfully, “giant space d***s” — provoked a six-month hiatus in the publication of the Bulletin, a panicked hunt for any signs of atavistic attitudes within SFFWA, and the end of what had been the magazine’s most informative and entertaining feature.
Science fiction — unfettered, uncensored science fiction — can serve as our telescope, allowing us to ponder what is coming and prepare.
In the years since Resnick’s and Malzberg’s defenestration, several prominent authors and editors have been forcibly evicted from science fiction conventions where they were attending as speakers, either because other attendees, objecting to their right-of-center views, claimed to the convention organizers that these men made them feel “unsafe” or because the authors or editors dared to raise the issue of political correctness’s encroachment within science fiction.
The science fiction community is not alone in possessing these neo-Puritanical tendencies.
The community overlaps with and emerges from larger communities where cancel culture and obeisance to the tropes of wokeness are especially prevalent — academia (particularly the liberal arts and studies departments), media, government, and the non-profit sector.
Yet science fiction in particular cannot survive as an intellectual and artistic pursuit (as opposed to a flavor of adventure and suspense media) in an atmosphere of fear and pervasive self-censorship.
Speculation and extrapolation — asking what if? and why? or how? — are the life’s blood of science fiction. Its writers can’t mentally wrap themselves in yellow CAUTION tape; if they do, they creatively cripple themselves and the field they profess to love. They need to be free to follow their what ifs? wherever those speculative rabbit-holes may lead… even if they lead to unpleasant, disturbing, or frightening places.
Science Fiction Hearts Heretics
Traditionally, science fiction has prided itself on making room for contrarians, for heretics, for the unfashionable and unpopular, for dreamers at the fringe. This freedom of entry and freedom of thought has resulted in a rich, century-long conversation between generations of writers, a conversation that lies at the heart of science fiction.
This ongoing dialogue has inspired the field’s greatest works. An environment of self-censorship kills the conversation. It results in work that is derivative, stale, and decadent… lazy fictions that reek of commonplace pieties and socially-enforced ideology.
In this time of accelerating technological change and resultant social change, we need a healthy, vigorous, daring and courageous science fiction more than ever. We are entering an era when many of science fiction’s classic scenarios are becoming realized: pervasive, technologically invasive population surveillance and social control (in China); human and animal genetic modification; asteroid mining; radically decentralized weapons production in the home; cyborg technology; and, perhaps most portentously, the creation of artificial intelligences.
Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” may have been deferred for three decades while Western societies took their collective right foot off the technological accelerator pedal, allowing themselves to be mesmerized with the Internet and social media. But future shock is fast approaching.
And those writers who wish to take upon themselves a responsibility to help their fellow citizens understand and cope with the rising wave of technologically-driven societal disrupters will need to get back to science fictional basics.
They need to stop self-censoring in accordance with “woke” dogmas.
The best of science fiction was never meant to be escapist literature. The only way to escape the future is to die. Those of us who live to inhabit the future will be forced to cope in one way or another with all the changes the future brings.
Science fiction — unfettered, uncensored science fiction — can serve as our telescope, allowing us to ponder what is coming and prepare.
“Hazardous Imaginings” and “Again, Hazardous Imaginings” represent my efforts to clear the dry kindling of “woke” restrictions from the ramparts of science fiction, so that no arsonists will succeed in burning down the fabulous edifice the way Uncle Hugo’s was burnt to its foundations… all its thousands of books, monuments to science fiction’s promise, turned to ashes the same way as the condemned tomes in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Andrew Fox has been a fan of science fiction and horror since he saw “Destroy All Monsters” at the drive-in theater at the age of three. His books include “Fat White Vampire Blues,” winner of the Ruthven Award for Best Vampire Fiction of 2003; “Bride of the Fat White Vampire”; “Fat White Vampire Otaku; Fire on Iron,” a Civil War dark fantasy; and “The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501,” selected by Booklist as one of the Ten Best SF/Fantasy Novels of the Year for 2009. His next novel, “The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club,” revolves around an alternate Hurricane Katrina and will be published in February 2021. He lives in Northern Virginia with his family, where he works for a federal law enforcement agency. He can be reached at his website, Fantastical Andrew Fox.