Just recovering from a whirlwind weekend in Chicago for Think Galacticon 3, a self-described radical leftist science fiction con, for which I was one of this year’s Notable Guests. (The other was community organizer, activist, and all-around cool chica Adrienne Maree Brown. Y’know how you get that instant “friend” vibe from someone? Yeah, that was us.) This was my first time doing the guest of honor thing, and it was a nice way to cut my teeth on it — and fascinating, to get exposed to concepts I haven’t before, like anarchist organizational development. (Yes, anarchists can organize — quite effectively, too.) The panels were good “thinky” stuff, which I love — frex, I ran a panel on Servitude in Fantasy, partly using the enslaved gods of 100K as an example. Also, it was right in the middle of downtown Chicago, which was a real treat! So in a couple of years — it’s a biannual con — check it out!
Also, this is the text of my Notable Guest speech (cutting for length). It’s my first-ever guest speech, so apologies for its ramblyness. The folks at TG seemed to like it okay.
When I first got invited to be a guest at this con, I thought, “Yay! My first time being a Guest of Honor-ish-thing.” I’d heard of TG, and knew it was a science fiction and fantasy con that embraced progressive values, but that was all I really knew. So then I looked up the con’s website and saw a scary word on its “About” page: radical.
And I thought, “Uh-oh.”
“I’m not a radical. I’m boring. I pay my taxes and don’t live off the grid. I use credit cards, and eat meat. I even, sometimes, shop at Target.
“I’m perpetrating a fraud. I accepted this invitation and I’m not a radical. Nobody even called me that back in the Eighties, when ‘radical’ was a compliment. I was a nerd then. And I’m not radical now.”
And then I looked up my co-guest, Adrienne Marie Brown. I saw a video of her talking about the US Social Forum in Detroit, and I thought, “Oh, (BEEP). This woman is trying to FIX AMERICA. What the hell am I doing that even compares? I’m just a writer.”
And then I went home and finished writing a book about an impoverished queer Asian god utterly transforming his world.
When I was a little girl I was a writer. I think I was born a writer, and a reader. According to my parents, both of whom tend to lie, I was never taught to read; I just suddenly started reading street signs and magazines lying around the house. I was found thumbing through my father’s porn stash at one point. My father sat down to try and uncomfortably explain to me what those men and women were doing with each other and why they weren’t wearing any clothes, and I cut him off to complain. They weren’t talking, I said. There weren’t enough words. What was the point of books that didn’t have words?
When I got old enough to write, I started writing science fiction. Had no interest in stories of ordinary things. I wrote about nuclear holocausts and talking animals, people who could turn into dragons, people with psychic powers. In that nuclear holocaust story, I focused it on a young woman who decided to lead her band of survivors across a hellish landscape because that was better than the alternative: staying in a nice shelter and being enslaved by the people who controlled it. Those psychic people? The story was all about their search for a safe place to call home, because everywhere else in the universe, they were put into camps and exterminated by the million. The dragon-people got insulted one too many times by humans who declared them half-breeds and mongrels — so they lost their shit and started setting fire to the whole world.
Was this radical? I was a child having fun. I wasn’t trying to change the world. No one read my stuff except my father, because I was convinced it was terrible. I was twelve; it was. But my father was a socially-conscious man, a veteran of the Civil Rights struggle, and he saw things in my terrible writing that spoke to him. He realized I was using science fiction and fantasy to process what I’d learned from my parents — and what I’d begun to experience in my day to day life — about the real history of this country, racism, sexism, and what it meant to be working class. So slowly, stealthily, he started introducing me to new concepts. No particular reason, he said. Just wanted me to know stuff. Like, oh, historical revisionism. And the military-industrial complex. And how free-market capitalism really works.
Slowly, those things began to appear in my fiction. But I still never had black protagonists in those days, and most of them were men. I didn’t want to be too, you know, radical.
So I have a problem with the word, “radical.” The problem is me: I find it scary. But why is that? As a fantasy writer I’m in the business of creating new worlds. Or I take existing worlds and reboot them, or destroy them. In a fictional sense, I am God — and a serial killer. I build and destroy not for any ideology or purpose, but because I find creation and destruction beautiful.
Is this radical? There are those who say that all art is radical in that it forces you to think, to see something familiar in a new light, to engage with whatever it’s trying to say. But I’ve seen a lot of crappy art, so I don’t think this is a universal thing. And there are those who seem to believe that all science fiction is inherently radical, because it’s all about speculating on What Could Be. “Technology is progressive!” they say. “It makes the world better!” (They never ask, “For whom?”) There are even those who consider epic fantasy radical, in that it re-connects us to the past in a way that can help us see the patterns of present reality. I could agree with that, if those people didn’t then start clamoring for the next doorstopper set in an idealized, lily-white, strangely clean medieval European analogue.
I am afraid of the word “radical” because I, like most Americans, have somehow absorbed the notion that change is bad. That instability is bad. Newness is bad. That the way things are is the way things should be. That what is is right, and what is not, is wrong.
This notion does not emerge from a vacuum. It comes from many sources: media, education, our leaders — the ones we’ve chosen and the ones who’ve appointed themselves. Speculative fiction has been just as complicit in promoting the status quo as the way to go — and it shouldn’t be. It’s the literature of imagination, not the literature of fear. Yet that is what lies at the root of every backwards-looking, old-days-loving, exoticism-fetishizing, same-old-story-telling piece of SF that gets published today: fear. Fear that wealthy white men might no longer wrap the rest of society around their fingers. Fear of the poor creating a world where poverty doesn’t exist, and they aren’t needed. Fear of technology turning out not to be the panacea for society’s ills.
To assuage these fears, most speculative fiction offers an illusion of change rather than its actuality. The genre as a whole has marginalized and vilified its own rare attempts to depict actual change — and thus we see feminist SF relegated to the genre’s fringes, China Mieville treated like the only socialist to exist in the genre evar, and endless blog posts asking, “Where’s the Third World SF?” even as China’s SF WORLD outsells all the Big Four combined, and even as a Nigerian-American SF writer wins Africa’s equivalent to the Nobel — the Wole Soyinka prize.
(Where’d that Third World go? It’s around here somewhere.)
In this constant shying away from real change, SF encourages its audience to think less. Expect less. Change less.
I want more. I expect more from the world than the status quo, and to get that I need to imagine more from the fiction I read, and the fiction I write. I’ve taken baby steps towards what I want to see, what I want to be, but I think I can go farther. (I have nice big footsteps to follow in, after all.) But in order to write the kind of fiction I’d like to see — fiction about real change — I need to change myself. And I need to start by embracing the things I fear.
So, step one, which I take before all of you right now: I am a radical. And I do not fear myself.