SF writer Paul Cook warns of science fiction’s infection by girl cooties

Okay, I know I’m feeding the troll here, and I feel bad about that, but I do feel it’s worth calling attention to this level of complete stupidity when I see it. Patrick Nielsen Hayden had this to say about the subject of my rant: “It’s rare that one gets to see somebody being a complete and total idiot. But Amazing Stories comes through!”

The article in question is by Paul Cook, and it goes by the provocative title “When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction.” Cook, it seems, is upset that writers such as Lois McMaster Bujold and Sharon Lee and Steve Miller get their icky girl cooties all over his precious manly science fiction genre.

Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas.

(So, wait, what? Dumas? Three Musketeers is chick-lit?)

“Not that this is a bad thing,” Cook then disclaims disingenuously, “but some of us aren’t that interested in romance.” (So? Judging by the popularity of writers such as Bujold and Lee and Miller, any of us are.)

He also complains about steampunk and zombies. (“Because I am as interested in zombies as much as I’m interested in eating beets,” he says. Boy, he doesn’t know what he’s missing. Boneshaker is awesome, and borscht is tasty.)

The whole thing is ridiculously silly. He’s trolling. He as much as admits it in the last paragraph, where he says, “Of course, I’ve offended everyone who’s read this far—simply by having an opinion.” (No, you twerp, you’ve offended people by expressing that opinion offensively. Lots of people somehow manage to have opinions without offending people. Thousands of them, every day!) Just because something has elements of romance, mystery, horror, comedy, or whatever doesn’t mean it can’t also be science fiction.

Apparently enough people got offended that comments were closed on the article after only 25 were posted. Trolling successful. And I’m feeding the troll further here. But really, shouldn’t we be past this by now? Pointing fingers and saying, “That’s not real science fiction because…?” (Or for that matter, “You’re not a true fan because…”) For that matter, it’s also reminiscent of the kerfuffle a few months back when the sexist stuff got posted in the SFWA Bulletin. It’s little kids in the playground pointing at each other and yelling, “Are not!” “Are too!” It’s stupid.

But every so often it’s helpful to point out something this stupid as an excellent example of what not to put up with, so we can better calibrate the Bayesian filters in our heads.  So look. And point and laugh, if you feel like it. And celebrate the fact that nowhere in the definition “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets” is there anything saying “but no girl cooties.”

6 Comments on SF writer Paul Cook warns of science fiction’s infection by girl cooties

  1. Ironically, this diatribe against ‘soft science fiction’ is on a page labelled ‘Fantasy’ and seems intentionally trolling. And you’ve gotta love how the comment section discussion is shut down when the defenders of Cook are outnumbered by the offended. Can’t say I’m impressed. And it certainly doesn’t make me want to read anything he’s written.

  2. I think Cook misses the point, though I think I know what he’s trying to say, in his mudled way. Though genres are not ironclad, generally speaking genres are defined by the central focus of the book. Romance books, whether traditional, historical, paranormal, or whatever, are defined by the central theme of the romantic relationship between/among characters. Westerns focus on certain core themes framed by the setting. So a romance set in the Old West is not the same as a western.

    A science fiction book, to be science fiction, should have “fictiony science” central to its them, even if other themes are also important. 2001 would have been a ghost story without its setting and “fictiony science,” for example. I believe what Cook is trying to say is that some stories have been mislabeled science fiction, and should really be labeled romantic sci-fi, for example, because the romance is central, not the sci-fi. Zombies have traditionally been the province of horror, but have migrated to sci-fi for the thinnest of reasons – a scientific premise for the zombies rather than a supernatural one. I could cite many other examples of the broadening, or adulteration, depending on your viewpoint, of science fiction.

    A lot of this has to do with transparency and expectations. When I look at the various top 100 categories on Amazon, I see a lot of mislabeling, probably deliberate mislabeling. I see thoroughgoing romances masquerading as sci-fi just because their setting is futuristic, but folks, when there’s a windblown-haired beauty with her fec buried in a guy’s chest, and the look inside confirms that it’s all about the love love love – I have to agree. That’s not science fiction.

    But! I don’t see the authors Cook cites as falling into that misleading category. Plenty of sci-fi could be easily labeled “Three Musketeers in Space” or “Hornblower in Space” or “Les Miserables in Space” or even “Pride and Prejudice in Space,” almost. I believe the most important thing is for the cover, the blurb, the sample portion and all of the other labeling of the book to he honest and transparent, so that if Cook or I or any other reader wants a military sci-fi book, that’s what we get. Or if we want a book of politics, swashbuckling and sleeping around in space, all fine and dandy – as long as the publisher does not misrepresent it as something else.

    I just recently edited a new author’s first book, which had one fundamental problem: she was intending to market it as a new adult paranormal book, when in reality it was a very romantic NA paranormal. While the externals made it look like a supernatural/paranormal muder mystery, the central theme of the book was the love triangle between the heroine and two heros of different stripes. It would have been misrepresentation, had she not been convinced to significantly tweak the presentation.

    I believe that the key is to give the reader, broadly speaking, what he or she expects when the book is bought. Nobody likes to buy a book in what they think is the genre they like, then find out the author/publisher has fooled for some reason.

  3. The issue seems to be the nerdy insistence on everything having an identifiable category–or, rather, having specific flavors which can be teased out and described using broad terms. Tagging, in other words. “Oh, this book is zombie, postapocalypse, lone hero, quest, gender-normative, multiracial. I like four of the six things on that list so there’s a 60% probability I’ll enjoy it.”

  4. If we accept the notion that the central point of a novel is the only thing that defines a novel’s genre, then he should have removed Asimov from the list of reliable Science Fiction authors; the Elija Bailey novels, are clearly mystery novels (They are even fair play who done its at that).

    I also find it amusing that he dumps Bujold into the category of Romance. Certainly several of her novels qualify, and a couple of others have romantic themes, but she in fact has seemed to always mixed multiple genres in her work. One of the novels she cites (actually two novels republished under a single title) is actually among her earlier works.

  5. Hey, Guys,
    All I was trying to say (if badly) is that sometimes elements of other genres creep into sf. Some writers do seem to be closet romance writers. I have a great review of CONSTELLATION by Miller and Lee coming out in Galaxy’s Edge. Which I loved. I have 8 Bujold books, all of which are excellent. But here and there elements of clear romance (which I do not like) creep in. That’s all. Jeez. (And I cop to the fact that what I said may have been said inartfully.)

  6. At the root of all these “fakeness” disputes is that the every human everywhere is inclined to promote their own wants and desires (and those of their tribe) ahead of the wants and desires of other people. One popular way of doing this is through the technique of Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

    Embrace – Identify an existing group with traits and resources that you desire. IE Science Fiction is a well establish genre with hundreds of millions of fans world wide.

    Extend – Your individual tastes may not match those of the group you have joined so import them. IE Zombies and paranormal romance have fantastic and sciencey elements so start incorporating those into the existing community and its discussions.

    Extinguish – Bring enough like minded individuals into the existing group and you can co-opt the existing group’s infrastructure into serving your individual needs. IE The creative industries notice how much Zombies and paranormal romance is being talked about in Science Fiction circles and fill the slots earmarked for Science Fiction works with zombies and paranormal romance.

    There is nothing wrong with humans wanting to have their own needs met and we’re hard wired to do it. The onus is on the existing groups to maintain high standards and keep out those that would seek to radically change the groups priorities and focus.

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