Dear Noah Berlatsky;

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Noah, I wanted to drop you a line for writing an essay about one of my essays. I think this is the first time someone has ever written an essay about me. Unfortunately, it’s about the tempest in the teacup I caused over at SF Signal. I’ve found it quite educational to be publicly shamed by that incident, especially when it leaves readers believing things about me I don’t think are true. I am impressed with your essay because you come closer to attacking my thesis and not the false impression everyone got, although you do get caught up in that too.

Most people read the title, “The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction” and then looked at the list of books and assumed they were books I claimed were top science fiction books. They weren’t. You at least read the essay, though you put a narrow spin on it that I really didn’t intend. First off, my essay was saying the cutting edge of science fiction are those science fiction stories written after a scientific discovery that speculated on that discovery and before additional scientific discoveries would close down that speculation. It was never meant to be specific books. And the list of books I gave were never meant to be a list of great books, but only science fiction books that covered my sample subject: emerging AI.

marginalized

Anyone familiar with science fiction should have known that list contained some awful books. They’d Rather Be Right is considered the worst novel to ever win the Hugo award, and no one reads it today. Vulcan’s Hammer is bottom of the barrel PKD. What I assumed is readers would know enough about AI to match real history with science fiction history. They’d Rather Be Right came out the same decade the discipline of artificial intelligence emerged as an academic subject.  The authors learned about AI, and speculated a very large computer could create artificial consciousness. That turned out to be wrong. In the sixties, after we started networking computers, Heinlein suggested network computers would lead to AI. All the books in that list reflected a writer using current ideas about computers to imagine how a self-aware artificial intelligence could emerge. Later on Robert Sawyer suggested the world wide web might spin off one. Or the movie Her, suggests the AI in smartphones will grow into an intelligent being. Actually, if you think about, very little of what I’m calling cutting edge science fiction does any big thinking. Only Richard Powers and David Gerrold actually tried to explore what it takes to program an AI, and their books are hardly read today.

Noah, your essay assumes I meant only gadget oriented stories could be science fiction. I didn’t mean that, but I can understand why you’d assume it. My sample was about computers, and you assumed all my samples would be about machines. You also assume I think science fiction is only about progress. I didn’t mean to imply that either. Science fiction can be about anything, but I do think SF is generally speculation coming between two time points. The first time point is when a new concept emerges. The second is when another concept comes around that squashes speculation that arose between the two points. One of your specialties is the history of Wonder Woman. I bet you have seen ideas emerged about her through the years that were later dismissed. My essay was only meant to suggest there is a cutting edge of speculation that moves through public awareness as ideas change. The “cutting edge of science fiction” was never meant to be specific books, or even specific kinds of ideas, just a time when science fiction speculates about specific ideas. I was also suggesting that writers had to keep up with such speculations because quite often they’re eventually shot down.

Noah, you suggest I should read more novels like those by Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. And I have—for over fifty years. Delany was my favorite writer back in the 1960s, and I often write about him here at my web site. Delany is still one of my top 3 SF writers.

Most of the attacks on essay claimed I didn’t know about women science fiction writers. This hurt because I’ve been paying attention to women writers in science fiction since I started reading the Judith Merrill annual anthologies of best SF back in the mid-1960s. This topic is not new. I’ve bought nearly every annual best of the year anthology for SF since 1965, so I’ve watched how the field has changed. I’m also a long time reader of fanzines, and I’ve read Locus Magazine off and on since it was published in New York City on plain white paper. The topic of women writing science fiction is not new, and I’ve read lots of science fiction written by women. Sad to say, I often like male writers more often than female writers , at least in science fiction. But in general literature, especially, literary works, I’m more partial to women writers. My current all-time favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. But I hold absolutely no store in the fact that it was written by a women. I love books, not writers.

But this brings up another problem. Even though my list wasn’t a list of great SF novels, I have to question the assertion that my attackers made that lists of books should contain a percentage of women writers. You mention the intrusion of the Sad Puppies into Hugo awards. I felt my attackers were demanding a political stance just like the Sad Puppies. If I ever make up a list of my favorite science fiction books I’m not going to consider the writer. I’ll only consider the books. Too many of my favorite books have been written by folks I wouldn’t have liked, so if I considered various aspects of who wrote the book it might cause all kinds of problems. I only love books. I really don’t care about the author. But there’s more at issue than that. I’m a bookworm and consider the books I love the most defining aspects about my personality. To be told I what my favorites should be is incredibly insulting. To me, that’s far more offensive than the Sad Puppies pushing their political agenda at the Hugos. It’s also embarrassing that people would think the list of books I used were my favorites. Some were very bad.

The thing about the reaction to my article that was so upsetting is everyone assumes I’m an old conservative. I consider myself an ultra-liberal and have been since the sixties, and hate the idea of being lumped in with conservatives. Basically, you and the commenters at SF Signal used a false characterization of me to promote your beliefs. No one took the time to even read the other essays I have at SF Signal. In an earlier essay, “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want To Hear” I begged audiobook producers to publish editions of books I loved so I could hear them. Ironically, that list included a book by one of the women writers who was attacking me in the comments for excluding women. Sure, even that list didn’t have 50-50 ratio of men to women writers, but it had a number of women writers. But even here, it was a personal list, and I think it’s unethical to tell people what to read based on political correctness.

Back to your essay Noah. I agree that science fiction is about more than technological progress. If I wrote my essay knowing what I know now, it would be very different. First off, I’m not going to include book lists in the future. The internet is full of people that make snap judgments about lists. Not every list of books is a list of great books. I also need to explain myself more explicitly, and clarify my statements better.

My editor said 11,000 people came to the article that afternoon. I don’t know how many read the essay the way the comments implied, or how many read it based on my intended assumptions. I don’t know if I can ever write any essay that will be read perfectly as I intend, but I obviously need to do better. I’ve taken up essay writing as my retirement hobby, and I know I need to improve, so this experience was a great writing lesson.

I’ve learned a lot from my public shaming, but not quite what my shamers expected. One thing I’ve learned is don’t write about people I don’t know, especially drawing conclusions about them from one essay. I don’t want do to any writer what I felt was done to me. I feel most of what people assumed about me is not true, and it’s disturbing to think that’s how some people do think of me.

Overall, I liked your essay “Why Cutting-Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned by Marginalized Writers.” It would have been better if it hadn’t been based on an attack on me, but just on your own thesis about writing and reading in general. By the way, I’m not a sci-fi writer—I wish. I’m only a blogger. I still stand by my statement: “Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality.” Don’t you think that’s what Le Guin and Delany were doing in their books? I believe The Left Hand of Darkness does that perfectly. By the way, I’m currently rereading Dhalgren by listening to it, since it just came out on audio, and it meets my requirements too. Dhalgren is extremely cutting edge by my thesis, because it went way beyond the territory of traditional science fiction. You see Noah, I think the knowledge we gain from science covers more than just gadgets, and you and I might not be that far apart on what we want to label as the best of science fiction, by any label.

JWH

13 thoughts on “Dear Noah Berlatsky;”

  1. Hi James. It was never my intention to publicly shame you. I was responding to your piece, which I disagree with in a number of respects. (And I think still do after your clarifications.)

    I would just respond briefly to your argument that you shouldn’t have to think about which books are your favorites based on who wrote them. I think this is akin to the claim that people “don’t see race”. In an ideal world, race and gender wouldn’t affect how we see people, or what books are famous, or who has access to publishers, or what books we read. In the actual world, unfortunately, race and gender and sexuality have a huge effect on how people are treated and in whose stories get told or valued. It can be really painful to realize that, and to confront the fact that yes, our own selves, and passions, and pleasures, exist in the context of prejudice, hatred, and power. I think trying to confront those uncomfortable realities is part of trying to be a better critics, reader, and writer.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Noah

    1. I meant the people who left comments at the original articles were trying to shame me.

      Noah, I don’t buy that argument. The cultural and social philosophy we need to learn should come from inside the books. Books are a reflection of their author’s insights into reality, but we don’t need to know about a writer, such as Samuel Delany, to appreciate their work. As works of art, books have to stand by themselves. What we know about writers is often just speculation. I think that’s why writers write, because what they really care about they put into their books.

    2. “In an ideal world, race and gender wouldn’t affect how we see people…”
      “In the actual world, unfortunately, race and gender and sexuality have a huge effect on how people are treated and in whose stories get told or valued.”

      I too disagree with this claim. In the actual world, there are already a lot of people who don’t care about the author’s sexuality, race or gender. If the author’s work is worth reading, its merits or failures will be made plain to the reader without any of the baggage from the author. People who get too wrapped up in the identity of the author attempt to make assumptions about the author’s thought processes and worldview and their effects on the work, and that doesn’t make for great, fun or, as you say, beautiful or startling reading.

    3. “In an ideal world, race and gender wouldn’t affect how we see people…”
      “In the actual world, unfortunately, race and gender and sexuality have a huge effect on how people are treated and in whose stories get told or valued.”

      I too disagree with this claim. In the actual world, there are already a lot of people who don’t care about the author’s sexuality, race or gender. If the author’s work is worth reading, its merits or failures will be made plain to the reader without any of the baggage from the author. People who get too wrapped up in the identity of the author attempt to make assumptions about the author’s thought processes and worldview and their effects on the work, and that doesn’t make for great, fun or, as you say, beautiful or startling reading.

    4. “It can be really painful to realize that, and to confront the fact that yes, our own selves, and passions, and pleasures, exist in the context of prejudice, hatred, and power.”

      Yet, that context doesn’t just contain prejudice, hatred and power. It also contains the author’s individual expression, which is certainly not denied, even if it isn’t valued as the author would like or told in a venue that the author deems inferior.

      it’s better to divorce the struggles of the marginalized author from the quality of her work. It’s more beneficial to the author and her supporters if the context of her marginalization is dealt with away from the work. The author and her work are two separate entities, after all.

      1. Some writers become more interesting than their work, and that’s when I take note of them. I agree with upi Rhiain, because I like to separate separate book from author too. But I will admit that sometimes I do like to study writers. It’s actually possible for some writers to overshadow their work. I think Virginia Woolf and Louisa May Alcott are far more interesting than their stories. And then some writers become their stories like Jenny Lawson and Roxane Gay.

  2. I think that’s a very good response. Intelligent and measured. Unfortunately, the internet furies will still hound you like rabid dogs.

    On Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 11:39 AM, Auxiliary Memory wrote:

    > jameswharris posted: “By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 5, 2016 > Noah, I wanted to drop you a line for writing an essay about one of my > essays. I think this is the first time someone has ever written an essay > about me. Unfortunately, it’s about the tempest in the teacup I” >

    1. Thanks Mike. Dealing with controversy is hard on me physically. I’ve gotten old and wimpy. I actually feel the stress in my heart. But I’ve got to learn how to deal with it. Either that or stop writing. When I was young I would have been more argumentative. I can’t be that way anymore. Actually, I’m sorry I was that way. I’m learning that ideas are just ideas, and not to get too crazy about them. I love to discuss concepts, but I don’t want to fight over them. I love to make distinctions I see in reality, but all too often other people object to how I see things. And that’s fine. I just wished they wouldn’t get so riled up.

      Actually, the more I think about the distinction I made in that essay, the more I realize the cutting edge of science fiction is often dull. Compared to actually computer scientists, the speculation made by science fiction writers hasn’t been that creative. That’s what I would really like to talk about now. Heinlein though the conscious computer Mike arose out of computers being networked. That’s not much of a theory, is it?

  3. Hi James

    I reread your SF Signal essay, and flipped through the comments briefly. Wow, it certainly got strange. It did provide me with a good lesson on writing for the internet and posting in general. Sorry it was at your expense, I do wish people had looked at your other posts before rushing to judgement. On an entirely different topic, because I think you might be interested. We exchanged views on Simak’s City stories, I just found out he did publish a 9th City story called Epilog for The John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology Ed. Harry Harrison, 1973, not sure if you have read this, but I did enjoy it, and Simak also provides a one paragraph introduction.

    All the best
    Guy

  4. Although I write from a rather antique standpoint the one characteristic of SF I always enjoyed in science fiction was the impact of theoretical scientific concept on conventional individuals and accepted social structure. I dove into contemporary current SF in its pulp stage at the age of 12 back in 1938 after gulping down H.G.Wells and Verne at the age of about 9. Astounding SF was my base point and many of the short stories and novelettes there strangely still retain some vigor now when the Moon and Mars have lost much of their mystery in this current age of living in much of the science fiction I read about as a kid. Hollywood still dips into that era for some of its material and a good deal of the stories have yet to be latched onto for film. Back then in those early days the literature now deemed classic was relegated to the trash pile as so far from the interests of the bulk of general literature. I have my own concepts as to the accepted structure of reality and how tightly that is entwined with the nature and structure of consciousness. Heinlein’s acceptance of merely bulking up computer complexity as in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress strikes me as rather naive although many of even the minor elements of many of his stories were remarkably perceptive as to their depth of the oddity of the universe. Routine adjuncts to the internet such as tailoring information on search engines to conform to the tastes of the individual searcher does all sorts of nefariously wicked things to freedom of information and the nature of perceived reality that have potentials of catastrophe to current civilization as dangerous as global warming yet they are swallowed universally as helpful. What other assumed neutral “improvements” are doing to people unobtrusively is quite frightening and might be a good exploratory base for fiction.

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