There has been a lot of upheaval in the writing world recently, especially in science fiction and fantasy.
Me, I’m a fan. Let me get that out there now. I am a fan of change, of expanding and pressing boundaries, of engaging critically with our roots, our history, our ways of seeing the world. I think that the things that attracted me to SFF were always these things. Even as a child, reading Tolkien, the narrative that I grasped, that I clung to, was not a narrative of convention. How can you read Tolkien and take away from it “be like everyone else, think like everyone else?” Neither Frodo nor Bilbo fit into the boxes of their conservative Hobbit society. Both Frodo and Bilbo, one perhaps more willingly than the other, leave their tiny lives and set out to see a broader, more vast world, full of cultures and ideas they had never conceived of.
I start with Tolkien because for me that is where SFF started. This is not to say that is the same place someone else might start. People come into this genre from all directions. There has been some form of SFF around for a long damn time. Fairytales in England, mythologies of men and women with terrible powers in Greece, time travel and spirits in Japan. The imagination of humankind is wild. It runs amok. Speculative stories, speculative fiction, is not a new thing, only an evolving one. But I digress. The point is, people come at SFF from all sorts of ways because it is vast. It contains multitudes. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be SFF.
So I am a fan of diversifying fiction. I want new stories, new ideas. This is why I read what I read and write what I write. But we all know it can get sticky. It can get hard to know when you are being supportive and when you are absconding with a story someone else would tell better. And it can be hard to look back at those writers that you loved as a child, at their stories, and realize that those writers may not quite be such great people. That their stories might have flaws, might not be accessible for others. That the world isn’t black and white, but muddled all through with gray.
Look, for example, at the controversy with Lovecraft. No one argues that Lovecraft wrote poorly when they critique him, of course. We all know he was a master of horror (I know it so well I don’t read him because I don’t want to get nightmares, but his influence on pop culture is undeniable). The problem is that when an artist becomes famous, it becomes impossible to separate their ethics from their works. When we admire the man without acknowledging his flaws and issues with vast swaths of our community, when we honor him at the expense of that community, when we ignore the shadows and stains in favor of an altered view of history, in favor of erasure – that is the problem.
How we avoid that is a political issue, of course. It’s a decision we all have to make together, through negotiating and civility and protest and all the other ways a community works towards a decision. But the need for avoiding glossing over the hurtful views expressed by Lovecraft is not predominantly political, but ethical. When we do not acknowledge darkness in our lives and in ourselves, we give it the power to continue existing and growing. Our stories become less when they don’t shine a light in the dark places. I certainly don’t think Tolkien would disagree with that sentiment, would he?