The “SFF community” – what the hell is that, anyway?

This post is likely to be long, unfocused and rambling, so you might want to not bother.

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few days about the “science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community”.

I have no real idea what that is.

I understand what the words mean, of course, but I’ve done some fumbling around in the dark and I’m still not quite sure about the shape or size of this particular elephant. What I think it means is that there’s a loose association of people who read, write, publish and generally like the genre. I suppose, ticking two of those boxes, I must be a part of the SFF community. I’m just not sure I feel as though I am, though.

The community as has been referred to in the last couple of days generally seems to be people who pretty much share my political and social views – liberal, left-leaning, equality for all, you don’t have a pop at anyone based on their gender, skin-colour, religion, waist-size, that sort of thing. You know – common human decency. People with similar views tend to gravitate together, that’s natural. However, that’s not necessarily a “community” – it might be a club, or a cell, or a society or a gang.

A “community”, in the most literal sense, to me, is made up of lots of people who try their best to rub along. They don’t all necessarily sing from the same hymn sheet. For example, the place I live is a “community”, but we don’t all have the same politics or points of view. The more extreme ends of the spectrum tend to avoid each other. Everyone else tries to get along, agrees to disagree, and while they – we – obviously all think that we’re right in what we think, people generally don’t stick their flag in the high ground and shout: “I’m right and the rest of you can go and fuck yourselves”.

Because that’s not a community.

And so, I think, it must be with the SFF community. I haven’t mentioned Jonathan Ross’s name yet, but obviously this has all been kicked off by him presenting the Hugos, then not presenting the Hugos, then Twitter, then the wider internet, then the mainstream press getting filled up with all kinds of bile thrown about from all sides like monkeys flinging shit at each other.

Let’s take another example. Let’s pluck Orson Scott Card out of thin air. He writes science fiction. He’s apparently famously homophobic (I say apparently due to my journalistic sensibilities – I have no direct experience of Orson Scott Card’s homophobia and am not, frankly, inclined to look for it right at this moment, but I understand it to be a fact). There are going to be people with wildly differing standpoints on Orson Scott Card, his books, and his homophobia, from people who probably identify as SFF readers.

There are people who read his books and agree with his views.

There are people who read his books but violently disagree with his views.

There are people who give the thumbs up to homophobia but haven’t read his books.

There are people who hate his homophobia and as a result won’t touch his books with a scabby dog leg.

Are these people all part of the same SFF community? Or are there different SFF communities depending on your politics and your viewpoints?

If it’s the latter, then we should stop talking about “the SFF community” because there obviously isn’t just one, there are many.

If it’s the former… then that’s just like any other community. There are people with wildly differing standpoints. Most of the time, like in the place where I live, they’ll avoid each other if their viewpoints are really extreme to each other. If that’s unavoidable, they’ll maybe talk about something else, find some common-ground that doesn’t involve sticking pins into each other’s sensitive bits.

But it feels to me like there’s a more solid idea of the SFF community than that. One of the things I do like about the world of science fiction and fantasy is that, as a reader, especially in these social networking times, you’re offered unprecedented access to writers. It’s the sort of world where I can go to a convention knowing no-one and have several pints with the likes of Darren Nash and Mike Carey, or bump into Jon Courtenay Grimwood and, um, have several pints with him. Or see George RR Martin walking across a hotel lobby and stop him for a chat.

I didn’t feel part of the SFF community before my first convention. I did, briefly, while I was there. Outside conventions, maybe not so much. I’d like to feel part of it, but somehow don’t. Maybe it’s because I don’t attend all the cons – I’ve done one Worldcon and three Eastercons. I’d like to do more. But you know what? I can’t really afford to, both in terms of money and time.

Ah, you might think, if cons were important to you, you’d find the cash and make the time. Well, yeah. But – and I realise all this is my choice, so don’t start telling me that – I have other things that demand my time and money. I work full time, as does my wife. We have two kids. Day-to-day living is fucking expensive, but you knew that. We hardly get out much together, either my wife and I or as a family, as it is. I feel bad about spending money and weekends away at cons. I feel as though I should be spending it with the family. And… oh yeah. I write books as well. I need to make time to do that. It’s generally weekends or late at night. Yeah, boo-hoo, poor me.

But because I don’t do cons that much, I feel outside the SFF Community. I engage on the internet, and have some great relationships on Twitter especially with people I regard as being in the SFF community. On the other hand, there are a lot of people I admire for their writing and feel a connection to in terms of SFF who I try to engage with on Twitter and… nothing. Hey, I understand people are busy and who the hell am I anyway? That uppity northern bloke who writes steampunk. Be nice to get a response occasionally, though.

I also shoot my mouth off on Twitter sometimes, which I’m trying to rein in. I had opinions on the Jonathan Ross thing. I saw the tweets, read the blog posts, thought about it all. My opinion was that yes, I understand that cons are meant to be “safe places”. I understand that there have been problems at cons, especially for women. I understand that if people think Ross was going to make people feel uncomfortable, then he probably wasn’t the best choice to present the Hugos. I also think that a lot of people shot their mouths off before thinking about it and engaging in the proper way. I should probably admit to having a dog in this fight, a small one at any rate. I’ve never met Jonathan Ross but I’ve always rated him as a TV entertainer, even before I knew about his genre credentials. Last year a friend of mine, who works in PR, was due to meet Ross at an event. She emailed me to say I should get her a copy of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl and she’d give it to him.

Why? Because she works in PR and I work in journalism and we both understand the potential for getting your book in the hands of a celebrity. It’s probably quite cynical – I didn’t act out of philanthropy because I thought Jonathan Ross might like a free book. Let’s face it, he can probably afford to buy a copy himself. I did it because a) I like Jonathan Ross b) He likes genre and c) He has 3.6 million followers on twitter. Imagine if he read Gideon Smith and liked it! Imagine if he tweeted about it! Imagine if even a fraction of his 3.6 million followers went out to buy it on his recommendation!

I don’t believe in book sales at any cost. I’d not be overjoyed if Nick Griffin from the BNP or even George Osborne was waxing lyrical about Gideon Smith. Mainly because I know they wouldn’t, because it’s written with my sensibilities. But you’ve read it so you know that, right?

Jonathan Ross is not Nick Griffin. He’s not Hitler. He’s a high-profile guy who likes a lot of the same stuff as I do. So my friend presented him with a proof of the book. He looked at it and said: “Wow, he’s published by Tor! I love Tor Books’ stuff.” He said he’d read it when he had the time. I don’t think he has yet, and he might not ever, but, y’know.

So… where was I? Fuck knows. All I know is that I was dismayed how Twitter descended into a bear pit so quickly over the Jonathan Ross stuff. How people were polarised so rapidly and deeply. How it seemed no-one took a deep breath and said, “OK, let’s talk this through.”

No-one covered themselves with glory. Everyone was a little bit right and a little bit – or a lot – wrong. I made my thoughts known – I was annoyed, to be honest, and thought Ross would have been a great host. Some people I respect unfollowed me. I tried not to give a shit, but, you know… it bothered me. I had an opinion and it was evidently the wrong one for the SFF community.

And now I think… well, I’ll probably never be in the SFF Community. Shit, for all I know, my career as a writer might be in jeopardy. I mean, I’m not Orson Scott Card, but I voiced an opinion that wasn’t popular. And that scares me a bit – I’ve been trying to be a writer for more years than I can count. Shit, I need this gig! But I feel I’ve really got to watch what I say now.

In any community there are people with wildly differing views. But mostly we get along, try to educate each other, have disagreements where necessary and – most importantly – talk about stuff rather than bringing down the shutters and sticking two fingers up to each other.

At least, that’s the sort of community I’d hope for, anyway.

If you read this far, have a lollipop.




  1. Well said.

    I can’t say I’ve ever felt part of the community, and I felt even less so during the whole fiasco. Now I just think there’s a part of the community I will never understand, and they seem to have the loudest voice. So I’ll just carry on on my own.

  2. # No-one covered themselves with glory. Everyone was a little bit right and a little bit or a lot
    # wrong. I made my thoughts known I was annoyed, to be honest, and thought Ross would
    # have been a great host.

    The community, such as it is, covers itself with things that are not glory on a regular basis, and I expect it will continue to do so.

    # Some people I respect unfollowed me.

    Then maybe you’ve been respecting the wrong people?

    # I tried not to give a shit, but, you know it bothered me. I had an opinion and it
    # was evidently the wrong one for the SFF community.

    so, you see how it really is. It’s been that way for a long time, I think, but it’s only when events like this latest debacle occur that people are confronted with what the community has become. The question is though: are you going to moderate or change your opinions, because they don’t fit to the percieved majority viewpoint? Or are you going to persist in thoughtcrime, comrade?

    # And now I think well, Ill probably never be in the SFF Community. Shit, for all I know, my
    # career as a writer might be in jeopardy. I mean, Im not Orson Scott Card, but I voiced an
    # opinion that wasnt popular.

    I can tell you that you’re right to think that. It’s worse if you’re a very minor writer like me, becuase you’ve no standing in the community and no platform to defend yourself from. I’ve voiced unpopular opinions (actually, this isn’t the whole truth, more often I’ve said things that people have chosen to interpret in very peculiar ways) and I’d say it’s had fallout for me (though, of course, I can never really know). You speak of a community as having multiple viewpoints, but if you look at the SF community’s online output, it seems to be a startling political monoculture. How far do you think one can move from the orthodox position in this community, without being attacked or ostrasized? I mean, saying you think Jonathon Ross would be a good Hugos presenter isn’t a very radical political position, is it, but it’s still apparently too much to be allowed?

    # And that scares me a bit Ive been trying to be a writer for more years than I can count.
    # Shit, I need this gig! But I feel Ive really got to watch what I say now.

    Welcome to the club, there’s a lot of people in SF who watch what they say. But do you think you can really be a writer of any standing if you ‘watch what you say’? Some would say it’s a writer’s job to voice opinions that aren’t popular, though they never say where they’ll hope to get them published.

    In the end I guess we’ve all got a choice between our writing careers, and our right to think and speak for ourselves. I guess it depends which is the more important for you.

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