Breakfast of Bullshit: Futurephobia, the Hugos and the Invention of SF’s Past

Today we have a guest blog by MD Lachlan who has a lot to say about the recent Hugo fiasco. Many of you will be familiar with Mark, who has cemented his place as one of the UK’s top fantasy authors with his Wolfsangel series (the forth of which, Valkyrie’s Song, has just been published by Gollancz) and the incredible Son of the Morning (written under the pseudonym Mark Alder).

What you doubtless wanted when you sparked up this blog was another comment on the Hugo’s controversy, where – summing it up – a bunch of right wing idiots have been acting like right wing idiots and annoying the good and sensible folk of the SFF parish. Okay, then.

Alien with Zap GunScience Fiction (SF) – and the debate seems centred on SF rather than fantasy – shouldn’t be about social issues, they say, it’s about rayguns and aliens. (I’m obviously making their argument slightly more complex than it is – it seems to reduce to “er, girls, thinking, ugg, sissy, me feel insecure.”) Particularly annoying to them seems to be the inclusion of a diverse cast of protagonists – transgender people, homosexual people, female people and black people. They actually say this, which seems surprising in 2015 as opposed to, say, 1915.

Rightist light sabre rattler Brad Torgersen says on his blog that buying SF with a spaceship on the cover nowadays is like buying one kind of cereal but getting quite another. Stay with this, it’s not easy to read but bear with it. Really, once you’ve realised what he’s on about it’s hilarious.

Nutty Nuggets (box)Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.

Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else.

This is as long a cereal analogy as one’s heart can bear, though Brad – henceforth in this blog and, is it too much to hope, perpetuity? – known as ‘Nutty Nuggets’ stretches it out to about the length of Dune.

His rather laboured point is this:

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings? … Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy?

SubtextThis is interesting to me, as a novelist, creative writing teacher and person who lives in what we have consensually decided to term ‘reality’. What he is objecting to is sub text. That’s right, the magical fourth dimension of every story ever told. I mean, do you remember when you used to be able to just listen to a story about a boy who cried wolf and just concentrate on the fight scene at the end, rather than, these modern authors who put all this moralizing stuff about the risk of making stuff up into it? And, while you’re at it, what’s all this stuff about Nutty Nuggets? Say what you mean, goddamit! I clicked on your blog expecting to read about breakfast cereal!

Brad ‘Nutty Nuggets’ T is far from finished. Read this sentence and remember an SF writer wrote it.

Our once reliable packaging has too often defrauded our readership. It’s as true with the Hugos as it is with the larger genre as a whole. Our readers wanted Nutty Nuggets because (for decades) Nutty Nuggets is what we gave them. Maybe some differences here and there, but nothing so outrageously different as to make our readers look at the cover and say, ‘What the hell is this crap??’

I am a fantasy writer and occasional SF reader – interested, engaged, but no mega-fan. And the question this raises for me is this:

‘Nutty Nuggets, where have you been since, like, the beginning of time?’

Metropolis, 1927 (screenshot)Beyond this, another question. ‘Have you actually ever read any SF, or have you just looked at the covers and imagined what it’s like?’ Because I don’t remember these mega popular ‘lasers and no social commentary’ stories you are talking about. Social and political comment in SF isn’t some addendum, something which popped out of a creative writing class on post-Marxist theory. It’s what SF is. It’s the fundamental matter of which it is comprised.

SF has social comment running through it like a quark through a proton. You might not see it but take it away you have nothing left. The question ‘what might we become?’ is SF’s central concern and it is fundamentally one of society and politics. I’m not going to list everything here but here’s some names. HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and, uh, absolutely every other SF writer. Look – just Google science fiction. You’ll find it doesn’t really resemble what you think it is.

The shallowness of Nutty’s appreciation of the genre in which he writes can be seen in the following quote:

But first, a warning.

Hold on to your hats here. If you’re standing up, I recommend you sit down. Certainly if you’re drinking anything, swallow before reading on. I don’t want you billing me for soaking your electronica.

Why did we think it was a good idea to put these things (social and political issues) so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

Nugs, if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you. Really, I can’t. It is expressly and openly, from conception, a liberal political project designed to show the benefits of diversity – one massive social comment set in space. I hate to be the one who breaks this to you. Uhura and Kirk? Ever wondered why there are so many different nationalities on The Enterprise? Oh, never mind. Here’s Gene Roddenberry himself on Star Trek:

Gene RoddenberryStar Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

Nutty Nuggets, have you not noticed that what most space opera is about is confronting or accommodating other cultures? Ultimately that Star Trek wasn’t about ‘strange new worlds’ but the strange new us? Maybe Nutty Nugs would prefer a space opera where we go in search of new worlds to discover they’re exactly the same as ours and completely confirm our every idea about how life should be lived. ‘Hey we beat the alien and it didn’t change us a bit. Phew.’

Having a diverse cast of heroes and tackling issues important to those people is not some deliberate adolescent provocation. It’s a reflection of the world in which we live and, crucially, the world as it will be.

Varangian GuardsI write about the 11th century and don’t give much thought to the future but even I have noticed, like, globalisation, international travel, the coming of the age of reason and the slow, twitchy death of religion, the lifting of restrictions on what we can be, sexually, intellectually, socially. The birth of huge possibility beneath the teetering threats of catastrophe and the controlling ideologies of the past, does that mean anything to you Nugs?

I live in a town where one in four people is gay. It’s unremarkable and prejudice is not seen as unacceptable so much as just a bit weird. I used to live in the best city on earth – London – where four out of ten people were born overseas. You have to surely, reflect this sort of thing in any convincing vision of the future.

We are more mixed, more various and, in the end, more tolerant than we used to be. If my kids read about a transsexual hero they don’t think, “Oh, they’ve hijacked the story again,”’ but “Hey, there’s someone like our neighbours!” Maybe they’ll even see themselves in it. Expanded and less constrained sexuality is going to be part of the future, unless the forces of conservative extremism of one sort or another win the day. Good SF has to reflect that.

Your normality, Nugs, is not everyone’s. In fact, I’d guess that to most people in the world, the way you live your life and the things you believe look pretty odd.

SF Captain by N D HillNutty Nuggets has a major problem for an SF writer: He thinks he objects to the inclusion of social and political issues, the over-representation of minorities in SF. That’s not really it. It’s tempting to say that what the Nutster objects to is that these people have a voice and, while there is truth in that, that’s not his real problem. His real problem is this: He does not wish to consider the future.

We are not going to all stay in our little enclaves forever. People with funny accents and odd ways are going to move in at the end of your street. You, with your funny accent and odd ways, may move in at the end of someone else’s street – or your children might. And as a white, middle class American male, Nugs, you are a minority. Most people in the world aren’t like you. You know what sickens me, is when I pick up a book with a spaceship on the front thinking it’s going to be about the future and it just turns out to be a bunch of straight American males in space. Talk about an over-represented minority! This is just a cowboy story with lasers! Here they go again ramming their faith in guns down our throats.

In fact, it’s not that straightforward space opera has dominated the genre until recently. Quite the reverse. Here’s the back cover of Galaxy Number 1:

You'll Never See It In Galaxy

That was written in 1950. So much for the new tide of thoughtful SF.

I shouldn’t have to tell an SF writer this, but the past is not the future. Things will change, have always changed. SF has been engaged, and driving, that process since the genre recognisably began. There was no golden age of zero political content. It did not exist. So not only is Nuggeto scared of the future, he is woefully misinformed about the past. I suspect the two might be linked.

A Clockwork Orange (cover)Better writers than me and better writers than The Incredible Nugget – you’re right, I don’t like you when you’re angry – have been scared of the future and it’s produced some brilliant dystopian fiction. Anthony Burgess, for instance, appalled by the coming of pop culture, the liberal society and what he saw as an increasing tide of violence but equally uncomfortable with the possibilities of the technologies of control, gave us Clockwork Orange.

Why this book was so brilliant was that Burgess looked inside himself, examined his most uncomfortable feelings and put them on the page. Like much great fiction, it explored a huge and almost irreconcilable contradiction. He didn’t just think, “Wow, man, Droogs!”

Nutty’s point is, in the end, ridiculous. It’s just favouring one kind of politics in writing over another. Writing – novels at least – is irredeemably political. In fact no novel, not The Da Vinci Code, not the latest Andy McNab, not the latest heart-pounder from Warhammer, not whatever Nutty writes, can avoid making social comment, or rather doing social comment. A piece of writing, any piece of writing, is a product of the society that makes it and the work reflects upon that society – like it or not. Portraying a world where baddies are totally alien, scary and malicious and bigger villains are dealt with by getting a bigger gun is political comment. In fact, in the context of US foreign policy, it’s harder to imagine a more vivid portrayal of a political point of view.


By M.D. Lachlan

is a pen name of Mark Barrowcliffe, author of works such as Girlfriend 44 and Lucky Dog. The series he writes under this name, Wolfsangel, is a historical fantasy/horror hybrid that reflects Mark's childhood reading on the occult and witchcraft. 'If it makes you laugh, I've done something wrong' says Mark.

21 thoughts on “Breakfast of Bullshit: Futurephobia, the Hugos and the Invention of SF’s Past”
  1. The whole Nutty Nuggets things is a ridiculously flawed analogy because seriously, what branded food product hasn’t gone through a “brand new recipe” change at least once over the course of its existence? Oh noes, the cereal companies are defrauding people!

    There are so many problems with the way people like Mr. Nuggets are approaching things, which bother me on multiple levels. Quite apart from the desire to “take back” an award that was never theirs to begin with, there’s the constant demand that people like me be seen and not heard. And preferably not even seen. Definitely not seen as human!

  2. That might actually be a really good plot hook for a sci-fi story. A future which has to deal with people who can’t deal with the future being different.

  3. I haven’t read the post you’re commenting on, but my guess is that he’s lamenting the loss of what Rust Hills calls “slick fiction,” which can be seen on TV if you really want it. Plenty of SF&F can pass for it, but the best SF has always had the subtext you speak of. We should consider that his complaint is more literary than political, even if he is out of touch with literary reality.

  4. The thing that amuses me about this insistence that covers reflect the story within, is that, as any published author should know, the artist drawing your first edition cover never used to have more than a sketchy idea of the story*. Pissed off no end of writers, IIRC.

    Hell, I have a copy of an Asimov book – Asimov, for goodness sake, not some unknown author – with a rampaging robot on it. I bought it literally to find out how the fuck his 3 Laws were going to square with that cover. It turned out that it was one of his non fiction books – a collection of essays that barely mentioned robots.

    So the idea that a cover should reflect the story within is just…not in touch with any reality that actually happened.

    *I understand that this has changed, in some publishers, based on the posts from happy authors showing off their covers on Twitter.

  5. Well said, and thanks.

    Torgersen really does not understand the genre of SF AT ALL.
    ‘m stunned that somebody claims the genre of science fiction is what they turn to for their comfort reading – – their reassurance that Change is illusory — and that Everybody Else Is Doing It Wrong.

    Yes, I know that people read for different purposes – but that’s why there are different genres; the entire POINT of ‘science fiction’ is to ASTONISH, not to reassure..

    1. I have a beautiful painting of a scaled dragon on our wall.

      The original artwork was commissioned for a book that my partner was the editor for ,some15-20 years ago. It’s of a winged dragon, standing on the ground, with lots of sharp pointy scales around its neck and down the ridge of its back. There are also two figures on the ground holding metal swords.

      Except… the book it was commissioned for had a culture without swords – not enough metal. And they rode the dragons… something not possible with all those sharp scales…

      The artist had no excuse. It was the 2nd book of a series. And there was no time to find new art.

      Sometimes covers are extremely wrong…

  6. I think his real problem is that he hasn’t won a Hugo and he has convinced himself that the only possible explanation for that is a conspiracy against “his kind” of science fiction. The rest is just posturing.

  7. Nice article. You summed up the issue that’s had me scratching my head since the beginning of this whole issue. Even more baffling was when I discovered that Torgerson and Correia are actually quite young. I sort of imagined them as very, very old, since SF wasn’t the way they describe it when I was growing up. Heck, the Left Hand of Darkness is close to 50 years old. And even Heinlein (their deity) had (eeeeeewwww, icky) romances in some of his novels. A few gay characters too. I sometimes wonder if they’ve actually read the work of the masters they’ve deified.

    As for the Nutty Nuggets analogy: is Torgerson honestly insinuating that SF fans usually choose books based on cover art alone? Don’t they read the back cover copy and at least scan the first few pages?

    The main problem, though, is the constantly moving goal posts. Each time someone points out that one of their claims is inaccurate, they shift to another, until they’ve gone in a full circle and are back where they started.

  8. ‘As You Know’ Bob: I‘m stunned that somebody claims the genre of science fiction is what they turn to for their comfort reading – – their reassurance that Change is illusory — and that Everybody Else Is Doing It Wrong.

    Yes, I know that people read for different purposes – but that’s why there are different genres; the entire POINT of ‘science fiction’ is to ASTONISH, not to reassure..

    Hey now. I re-read SF for my comfort reading. I absolutely refute the implication that I’m somehow doing SF wrong.

    There’s a lot of comfort and reassurance to be derived from reading and rereading SF. It all depends on what one finds comfortable and reassuring.

    There’s the joy of revisiting stories, characters, and worlds one loves.

    There’s the reassurance that things will not always be this way, that we can reinvent ourselves and our societies for the better.

    There’s the comfort of a brand new book by a familiar, respected author whom you’ve come to trust implicitly, so that it’s safe to let go, let your defenses down, and take the sure-to-be-astonishing ride — and not suddenly turn a corner and get punched in the face by random, pointless expressions of bigotry.

    It’s not Torgersen viewing SF as comfort reading that’s the problem. The problem is what Torgersen seems to require for his comfort–and that, rather than being content with finding it in the works of his favorite authors, he expects the entire SF field to cater to him. And that he screams “affirmative action! SJW! Nasty nasty politics!” when he sees that works marketed as SF that don’t cater to his sense of comfort are popular, selling well, getting talked about, and winning awards.

  9. Great article, Mark! I was blown away by the Galaxy cover image. Who over the age of 14 thinks a book cover is a reliable indicator of the book? The whole “SF is not political” notion of the Puppies is boggling. It occured to me this weekend that his idea that Star Trek of all things was not political is because he and his friends are too young to have seen ST:TOS on original television, and lived in that era. A lot of the issues on Star Trek aren’t really issues anymore, largely because of ST.

    1. Yes, Mirhaxa. I actually have a lot of hope for the future. I think the forces of good are winning, though not everywhere and not without a titanic struggle. We are becoming more tolerant, more various. I think my kids will inhabit a freer world than I did when it comes to who and what they are allowed to be.

  10. It’s not really like Nutty Nuggets, because it’s not as though people are going to their bookshop and buying the exact same book every time, they’re buying different books in the same genre so if we take breakfast cereal as = SF then it’s more like some people thinking that some things shouldn’t be in breakfast cereal but are. For example, it’s fair enough that most breakfast cereal involves some form of baked grain, and we accept that additions such as dried fruit are customarily found within breakfast cereal. But what’s this? Chocolate in a breakfast cereal? Some people don’t think that chocolate has any place in a breakfast cereal. So perhaps he’s saying that people who like Nutty Nuggets but don’t like Cocoa Pops might mistake the latter for the former. But generally if breakfast cereals have chocolate in them, they say so in large letters on the box, visual representations of chocolate on the box, and extensive advertising campaigns, so you’d have to do no research whatsoever on your breakfast cereal not to know that there’s chocolate in Cocoa Pops, even if the boxes might look superficially similar if you squint, in low light conditions. Even then, just because you don’t like chocolate in breakfast cereal, is that sufficient reason to say that nobody should have chocolate in their breakfast cereal, and that awards for the best breakfast cereal have been dominated by cereals with chocolate in them for far too long, and we need to restrict industry awards to baked cereal (but dried fruit is OK).

    I can’t believe I just spent fifteen minutes of my life exploring that simile.

    1. Matthew – well worth, it though. I may actually turn my life into one long Nutty Nuggets analogy. As Lee Dorsey might have said, everything I do gonna be nutty from now on.

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