Speaking Freely

I’ve been offline for a while. I’ve had a lot to think about, not least being my Masters degree — which is very nearly done, thank the dark gods.

There are other matters, though; matters which kept me from writing anything other than fiction for a while. Things I had to think through.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. I picked up  my first Conan paperbacks when I was about seven years old. I loved them for the adventure and the imagination, the dash and heroism. It made absolutely no difference to me, as a child, that Robert E Howard’s works reflected deep-seated issues with racism and sexism. And now? No: it still makes no difference. I don’t read Conan much any more, but it has nothing to do with the politics of the work. It’s simply that I have an excellent memory, and there’s not much fun for me in re-reading what is essentially rather simplistic fiction and prose. Don’t get me wrong: if I was coming at it for the first time, I’d be very likely to suspend my judgement and simply kick back to have a good time with some cracking storytelling. But the first time is a long time ago for me.

I read Ursula leGuin’s Earthsea trilogy when I was about twelve, maybe thirteen. I loved those books. It bothered me not at all that most of the characters were dark-skinned Islanders. I lived in northern Queensland at the time, and I had no trouble visualising Sparrowhawk and his contemporaries in the manner that Ursula leGuin described. It didn’t concern me that the “white-skinned” people were largely a violent lot, seen as dangerous, uncivilised monsters by most of the people of the islands. What I loved were leGuin’s beautifully envisioned world, the marvellous characters she created, and the wonderful stories that unfolded as a result. The fact that the stories inverted the social order I saw around me was an interesting, delightfully thought-provoking plus. It gave me something to think about.

I didn’t get involved with fandom or organised SF until I was past thirty years old. There really wasn’t much to get involved with up in north Queensland, after all. I don’t know what it “used to be like”. I’ve heard from older fans, lamenting the passage of speculative fiction into the mainstream. I’ve seen conventions declining in numbers. I’ve seen events like Supanova explode in size and popularity. I’ve seen science fiction and fantasy movies make billions of dollars around the world.

It’s no skin off my nose. I don’t own speculative fiction. My way — whatever that may be — of doing it is not the One True Way. I know that. I’m glad of it. The diversity of ideas in science fiction and fantasy has led me down many fascinating byways of political, philosophical and cultural thought. Some of those journeys have been revelatory. Some of them have been unpleasant. All of them have helped me build a deeper, stronger understanding of the world around me.

That brings me to what I really want to say: science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, genre fiction, horror, fandom, pop culture, comic books — this is not a zero-sum game I am describing, folks.  There are countless “right” ways to do this stuff, and extremely few that are genuinely wrong. You may have your preferences. You may have your politics. You may have your opinions and beliefs. That’s fine. They belong to you. If someone else’s chunk of pop culture isn’t to your taste, I suggest very strongly that you move along and find something that is more to your liking. Better still, get creative and build something that appeals to you.

There’s plenty of room.

The clearest and most incontrovertibly wrong way of going about this, so far as I can tell, lies in telling other people that they’re doing it wrong and they don’t have the right to read and write and sing and dance and enact and perform whatever they want, within the boundaries of consenting adult space. And if you’re reading that line, thinking “hear hear!” and imagining I’m directing it at whoever your personal political/cultural opponents may be right now… you’re one of those that are doing it wrong.

We love the concept of “free speech”, don’t we? It keeps cropping up all over the place. The problem is, very few people are truly prepared to accept it for what it is. “Free speech” is utterly meaningless if it means only “freedom to say whatever I agree with”.  Free speech has value and meaning if and only if people are free to express views which you disagree with.  And write them, and publish them, and dance them, and sing them and illustrate them and…

I’m white. Middle-aged. Male. Middle-class. I just won an Aurealis Award for my story Vanilla, which appeared in the anthology Kaleidoscope, from Twelfth Planet Press. The story is about a sixteen-year-old Somali girl being raised by her sole-parent father in Melbourne. It’s a story about refugees (there are aliens at the girl’s high school) and about love and loneliness and uncertainty and point-of-view, and I’m quite proud of it. I’m also quite proud to be associated with Twelfth Planet and Alisa Krasnostein, who is very much one of the people who has taken to heart the idea of being creative and building a space that appeals to her — and to many others, judging by the awards and plaudits her work has garnered.

I’m also proud of my Red Priest stories — dark tales of medieval monster-haunted adventure with more than a hint of Conan to them. They’re a lot of fun to write, and by most accounts, fun to read as well. I doubt Alisa would consider them appropriate for Twelfth Planet, but that’s okay because there are other places for those stories. There’s room, remember?

My point is simple. I like telling stories. I’m glad there are plenty of different outlets — and if the day ever comes when my stories are either “too political” or “too insensitive” for any publishers out there… to hell with them. I can publish for myself these days.  So can pretty much everyone else. And what does that mean?

It means you’re absolutely wasting your time if you’re trying to tell other people that their version of fandom,  pop-culture, gaming, geekery, comics, etc is wrong. It means you need to go back to what you enjoy and allow others the same privilege. It means that if you don’t think “free speech” includes ideas that you find unpalatable, you are so far up shit creek that — like Ulysses on his final journey — the very concept of a paddle is unknown to the locals.

Me? I’m going to stay here. I’m going to speak freely, and I’m going to respect the rights of others to do likewise.






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