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