Wartime vs Peacetime Scifi

These are some comments about science fiction as a community and culture. If that isn’t your thing, feel free to ignore this post.

I caught a plane down to LA this week to see some friends from the old life. On my way back up, trying to ignore the incredibly loud lady behind me in 3E, I saw the guy next to me reading from Ben Horowitz’ book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. He has some incredible insight about the world business and CEOs. I’ve read it before, but this time, I focused on his discussion about a ‘wartime CEO’ vs a ‘peacetime CEO.’

Applying his logic, one can see a few underlying causes of the tension within the sci-fi community from the past few years. We largely operate under philosophies of a peacetime-type culture: we have protocol, we talk about consensus-building and we think about the big picture. No one is ‘leading’ the community because the community is both self-organized and self-regulated, but the similarities in culture are obvious.

This culture has made our community successful for over a hundred years. However, as Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel said, “success contains the seeds of its own destruction.” The lessons learned from other enterprises absolutely apply to the science fiction community, since both groups include the carbon-based life forms of our wacky little planet.

We experienced what it felt like to have those seeds exploited when we read Laura Mixon’s report on Benjanun Sriduangkaew. We experienced those seeds poking out the ground when we saw the likes of Vox Day and the Sad Puppies attempting to ‘burn the Hugos down.’ Cynicism and disdain for science fiction as both an art form and community became a toxic distraction to the past couple years of sci-fi. Life has moved on, thankfully, but I can’t help but wonder where the next outbreak of toxicity will come from. Why did these toxic actors (TA) succeed, though, if they were so bad for us? Let’s go back to the ‘Wartime CEO’ example, because the answer is there:

  • Where our community cares about protocol, TA’s clearly violated protocol to win.
  • While sci-fi focuses on expanding its market, the TA’s sought to win the market.
  • Where we try to minimize conflict, TA’s heighten contradiction.
  • When sci-fi was discussing culture definition, the TA’s were allowing war to define the culture.
  • Where sci-fi focuses on the big picture, TA’s cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s bum if it interfered with their prime directive.

Those toxic actors succeeded in the short term, because they exploited the natural loopholes of our open culture in the same way a disease uses infectivity to spread to a healthy host. Then, like any other organism, the sci-fi community responded. It created antibodies to repel and eventually neutralize the threat. Will our body be healthy enough to do it again? Did we treat the symptom or did we treat the disease? To be honest, I have no idea.

Personally, I consider the toxic actors as a strategic inflection point; the point in the life-cycle of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. As Grove says, ‘it can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.’ How the science fiction responds to this teachable moment can echo years into the future. Its robustness can signal to new readers and creators that this community is both resilient and inclusive. Or it can signal that before you can become a successful participant, you must focus on the politics and cliquishness before you can focus on the art.

I’m not personally advocating any course of action. This blog post is simply an observation about culture and community, applying lessons learned elsewhere to science fiction. If you find it valuable, great. If not, no worries; I need to be focused on telling stories, anyway.

Author’s Note – This originally started as a post on Reddit and it was fairly well-received. Decided to post it here and I welcome your feedback. I’m also giving away short stories now, so pick one out for yourself if you’re into that kind of thing.