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An open letter to the fellow conference attendee who asked me if I write “real science fiction”

Note: this format is unashamedly stolen from McSweeny’s Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond. Check it out.

Dear Fellow Conference Attendee Who Asked Me if I Write “Real Science Fiction,”

Let me begin by saying that on the whole, I had a very good time at the Colorado Gold Conference a couple of weeks ago. My critique session went well and I was invited to send pages. (Though yes, I need to polish the novel first.) I also attended a workshop entitled An Agent Reads the Slushpile, and it was rather gratifying when, over the course of the two hours, my “entry” was the only one that the agents read all the way through. These are signs that I am doing something–or perhaps a lot of things–right.

Considering that we spoke for less than five minutes, Fellow Attendee, I doubt you much care about my particular conference experience, other than a vague sort of neutrality that might lean a tiny bit toward benevolence. It is the attitude one often expresses toward the mass of humanity. We don’t know the individuals well enough to truly care what happens to them, but we do have an attitude of “Sure, enjoy yourself at various things, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” I don’t mind that perception. It was what I exhibited toward you, after all.

But despite my enjoyment of the conference, Fellow Attendee, there is one encounter that elicited at least a head tilt on my end. It is the conversation I had with you. To jog your memory:

You spotted my FINALIST ribbon and said, “I see you’re a finalist. Congratulations! What category?”

I thanked you and said, “Speculative fiction.”

You said, “Oh? What subgenre?”

I said, “Science fiction.”

“Oh,” you said. Then: “Is it real science fiction?”

Fellow Attendee, I hope you did not mistake my dumbfounded pause for one during which I seriously considered your question and doubted my writing. No, it was a furrowed-brow pause. It was a pause I required to process your question and repeat your words silently to make sure I understood them, because who would ask that?

You may not understand my reaction. Well, let me explain. When you ask, less than five minutes after meeting me, if what I write is “real science fiction,” you ask it because you feel there is a strong chance that I write “fake” science fiction. When you ask that question without ever having read my pages, you are asking that question because there is something about my physical presence that makes you think I might not write “real science fiction.”

So then I ask myself, just what is it about my appearance that indicates to strangers that I might write “fake science fiction”? And maybe I’m wrong on this, Fellow Attendee, but your age (at least two decades older than I, maybe three), sex (male), and ethnicity (white) put me in mind of a certain class of person who thinks that women can’t write “real science fiction.”*

However, let’s set aside your misogyny for the moment and instead address the matter of whether I know my own genre. I do. I understand that there are writers who don’t know exactly what genre they’re writing. I’ve read stories about writers getting agents who essentially tell them their true genre. They’re the lucky ones, because if a writer doesn’t know his or her genre, then he or she is unlikely to query the proper agents. But I am not one of those writers, Fellow Attendee. I do know my genre. My entry in the Colorado Gold Contest, in which I was a finalist (did you forget about my ribbon?) received full marks from both its judges on my identification of my subgenre of science fiction. And that critique group I mentioned, in which I was invited to submit pages? Every single person in the group got my genre. Science fiction. If I had listed my genre as something else–urban fantasy, perhaps? Is that what you were expecting me to have written, on account of my having breasts?–I would have gotten it wrong. (Please note: “Fake science fiction” was not an option on the contest entry form. But you ought to know this, having been a finalist in the speculative fiction category a few years ago, as you informed me.)

Now let’s turn to “real science fiction” itself. I admit you have me here, Fellow Attendee, because I’m unsure what you mean. Perhaps that science fiction must include hard science? That it has to be written by sixty-year-old white men, or white men who are dead? That Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Octavia E. Butler did not and do not write science fiction? In that case, you’d better inform the SFWA to have these authors’ Nebulas rescinded. Surely if the books in question are fake science fiction, the SFWA would want to know it dispensed the Nebulas erroneously. I mean, someone has to be a gatekeeper, right? And that might as well be you, Fellow Attendee, because if you don’t expend the time and effort in keeping the field of “real science fiction” pure, who will? There are already thousands of “fake” science fiction works on the bookshelves, both physical and virtual. You have a lot of work cut out for you, Fellow Attendee, to retake the field and then keep it sacrosanct. After all, people reading books that purport to be science fiction but actually are not, and actually enjoying the books is a bad thing. They might enjoy the book so much that they seek out more fake science fiction, thus enacting a vicious cycle. Who knows, such books might then interest them in “real” science fiction, too, but because these hypothetical readers enjoyed fake science fiction, the plebeians must not taint the real thing with their interest. They would sully the whole field.

So have at it, Fellow Attendee. Knock yourself out. I suggest you start with getting the SFWA to revoke those Nebulas I mentioned. Might give you the most bang for your buck. Me, I have my own books to write, and truthfully, I’ve wasted enough of my time on you as it is.




*And really, Fellow Attendee, I might have suspected my being half-black was also be related to your reaction, if it weren’t for the fact that I look white.


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