“Get your girly stuff out of my SF, for SF should be sciency, manly and hard”

At Amazing Stories, Paul Cook rants about SF which is – at least in Paul Cook’s opinion – not SF. This includes such luminaries of the genre as Gene Wolfe (just Arthurian fantasy), Lois McMaster Bujold (romance – ick), Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (romance – ick) and Cherie Priest (zombies – ick).

It’s a grossly offensive piece, which can be summed up as “I like my SF hard, masculine and sciency.” Which may be fine for Paul Cook, but lots of us want different things from SF.

Here is a quote:

But the romance elements creep in very early on. 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.

Here is another:

Bujold is a closet romance writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but some of us aren’t that interested in romance. For me, personally, it takes much of the dramatic urgency out of a story if the hero is already married or if during a skirmish comes back to canoodle or wine or dine with his beloved before rushing back to the fray.

And another:

True, steampunk is considered a fantasy genre, but the best of what I’ve read in steampunk oscillates between good, extrapolative science fiction (drawn from what the Victorian age might have had to offer by way of science and invention) phrased in a fantasy story-telling mode. I have no interest in reading about zombies, fancy dress balls, smooching warriors, or star-lit dinners on the terrace overlooking a waiting army about to go to war.

Now the idea of romance writers disguising their work as SF to trick the SF readership into buying their books is flat out ridiculous, because romance vastly outsells SF, so a writer foregoing the romance audience in order to “trick” the SF audience into buying their books would leave a lot of money and sales on the table. No, people write SF – even SF with romantic elements or straight up SF romance – because they like SF, not because SF is such a big selling genre.

That said, I’m not actually surprised that Paul Cook dislikes Lois McMaster Bujold and Sharon Lee/Steve Miller, since a lot of the macho SFF brigade does, usually without ever having read them. But I’m quite floored that he also hates Gene Wolfe, since the sort of SFF fans who dismiss Bujold as lightweight (Have they ever read her?), usually adore Wolfe, because he writes about torture, which is oh such a macho subject. But I guess Paul Cook doesn’t like anything that doesn’t have shiny future tech.

Here is another quote, this time about Gene Wolfe:

I was never once convinced that I was reading science fiction in these books. These are fantasies. The earth does not wobble on its axis (as it would if the moon were gone) and without vulcanism and tectonic plate induction in the ocean, carbon dioxide would not be removed from the atmosphere and recycled into the mantle where it can stay out of the atmosphere and not smother life. These things don’t matter to the fantasist. They didn’t matter to Wolfe.

So it seems that Paul Cook likes exactly the sort of endless tech infodumps that usually cause the book to meet the wall very quickly for me. I translate tech specs for a living. I certainly don’t want tech specs in my leisure time reading, because – guess what? – I read that stuff all day. And sadly, a lot of tech heavy SF is only distinguished from the sort of specifications I translate by the slightly better grammar and lack of overt typos (many engineers are not on good terms with language). Now I don’t mind worldbuilding at all, but it should be woven into the narrative, rather than sitting in the middle of a given novel in huge blobs. My response to overly info-dumpy, tech heavy SF is usually, “I only read through pages of tech speak, if I’m paid to translate it.”

Under normal circumstances, Paul Cook’s post would be only be one guy’s opinion, albeit badly phrased and deliberately confrontaional. However, he digs himself in even deeper in the comments (until Amazing Stories disabled them) by responding to every “Dude, you’re entitled to your opinion, but that was kind of misogynist” comment and every “Have you actually read Bujold?” question in a passive aggressive “You just hate me cause of my opinion” way. Dude, no one hates you, you’re just very hard to take seriously.

A piece as contentious as that is bound to elicit responses, so here are a few:

First of all, here is a fairly lengthy comment thread at The Passive Voice.

At the Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk says that it’s all just marketing, though she thinks that anything with a strong romance element is romance rather than SF. But then, the Mad Genius Club seems to be a site for people who wish Heinlein were still alive.

Joshua Reynolds has a rebuttal on his blog and points out that people might be more willing to engage with Cook’s points if he did not phrase his opinions in such an offensive way. Yes, it’s a variation of the tone argument, but sometimes the tone argument is appropriate.

Finally, Foz Meadows has a great point by point rebuttal of Paul Cook’s article.

Here is a quote:

Dear Mr Cook, if you’re reading this: you’re not the most hated person on the internet. Michael Brutsch couldn’t even claim that much, and he might actually have deserved it. Nobody is sending you rape or death threats; nobody is telling you, in graphic detail, the things they’ll do to your children or pets in revenge for what you’ve said (though all those things have happened to women writers just for existing on the internet, let alone saying anything controversial). All they’re doing is sharing their opinions of your opinion, as they – we – are entitled to do; and because we think your opinion is bullshit, you’ve elected to view our response as persecution. You aren’t being persecuted; you’re being argued with, and the fact that you can’t tell the difference is a sign of the privileged echo-chamber in which, until now, I suspect you’ve spent your fannish life. I’d tell you to grow up, but seeing as how, the last good story you read was apparently written almost fifteen years ago, one suspects it wouldn’t help.

And another:

As far as I can tell, your tastes are so firmly fixed in the stories of your youth that every development undergone by the genre since then is something you’ve elected to view with suspicion. And that wouldn’t bother me, but SFF is my genre, too, and I’m sick of watching bitter old men try to claw away and disparage everything about SFF that’s welcomed me and drawn me in by saying that it isn’t really SF; that the genre is changing, not because the audience and the world are changing together, but because shallow people just want to make money. I’m sick of it, and so I’m arguing against your opinion – at length, in my own time, even knowing that, unlike you, I am actually risking a genuinely abusive backlash by doing so, because that’s what happens to women on the internet when the really ugly trolls catch wind of us.

She certainly hit the point with that last bit. For the SFF genre is changing and evolving and some people like e.g. Paul Cook really don’t like that. Which is their right, e.g. I don’t like many of the directions in which the romance genre is moving (domineering billionaires, stone age gender relations, over-the-top angsty college romance, jerky alpha heroes) either, but I don’t go around telling those who write or enjoy such works that their works are not “real romance”.

And indeed the very fact that the SFF genre is evolving and that more and more fans and writers are rejecting attempts by self-styled genre gurus to tell them that the SFF they enjoy is “not proper SFF” and that they are bad fans for liking/writing it (a variation of that attitude drove me away from SFF for several years, even though I clearly loved the genre, I just didn’t love the right books), lies at the heart of most controversies in the SFF genre in recent years, whether it’s Racefail and the various follow-up fails, the criticism of Orson Scott Card’s increasingly bigotted views and the subsequent criticism of those who criticise Card as “hateful” and “intolerant”, the grimdark debate, this year’s Hugo debate and the “sexism in SF and SFWA” debate earlier this summer.

SFF is a big genre and it’s getting broader and more inclusive of different and traditionally marginalized voices. And that is a wonderful thing, even if people like Paul Cook disagree.

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33 Responses to “Get your girly stuff out of my SF, for SF should be sciency, manly and hard”

  1. Lindy Moone says:

    I love your posts, Cora! They are always worth reading to the end, and always get my heart pumping.

    I don’t have time to follow these debates everywhere, so I just come here and watch you duke it out for me! Then I follow your links…

    ‘Bout time I link to you on my blogroll, huh?

  2. Andrea K says:

    I always find this argument bemusing because old-school male-written SF is full of romance. Romance from a male viewpoint with the girl as a reward, but still definitely and absolutely romance. Heinlein had scads of romance. No need to even get into EE Doc Smith’s married couples ‘gunthering’ around the universe (probably not sciencey enough).

    You do have occasional books which omit romance – but they also tend to be the books with no women main characters at all.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, old school SF is full of romance. Heinlein and Asimov both had romance, let alone Herbert, Bester and McCaffrey (probably doesn’t count, cause female and dragons) and the whole pulpier end of SF with Burroughs, Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, E.E. Smith, etc… I also read and enjoyed an Arthur C. Clarke novel with a definite romance plot as a teen, but that was a collaboration with Paul Preuss, so the romance element may have been Preuss’ rather than Clarke’s contribution. Alfred Bester actually did borrow a plot from Alexandre Dumas for The Stars My Destination.

      I also agree that it was mainly those books without female characters at all, that were free of romance elements, largely because including those in a book with only male main characters would invoke an even worse case of cooties, namely gay cooties.

      • Daniela says:

        I also agree that it was mainly those books without female characters at all, that were free of romance elements, largely because including those in a book with only male main characters would invoke an even worse case of cooties, namely gay cooties.

        Yet some of them are unintentionally very homoerotic or make it easy to see an emotional relationship between the hero and his best friend that goes way beyond ‘friendship’.

        • Cora says:

          The homoerotic subtexts in many classic works of both SF and general literature are so totally obvious to modern readers that we often wonder why they couldn’t see it back in the day. Yet even older readers often have problems seeing the homoerotic subtext. I recall an elderly professor of German literature who was shocked that many of us thought that the relationship between Marquis Posa and Don Carlos in Schiller eponymous play was totally slashy.

          • Daniela says:

            Even younger readers (well, my age) sometimes have problems with that. I have a friend who’s massively into Sherlock Holmes and yeah, he can’t see it. Not at all. Same btw with Winnetou.

            I sometimes think part of the problem is that human interaction and communication has changed, especially among men. It especially shows when you read letters. People came across as a lot more emotional and sentimental.

            Oscar Wilde used a lot of hidden references and symbols in his writing which you would only be able to understand if you knew the hidden meaning. For the average reader a green flower is just a green flower, for those in the know it meant something very different.

            • Cora says:

              Changed attitudes to emotions and interaction certainly play a role. It’s why the sentimentality, especially among men, in 18th and 19th century novels can often seem rather silly and overwrought to the modern reader. That’s also why the tough, harsh, unemotional, monosyllabic alpha heroes in modern historical romance so often make me groan and roll my eyes, particularly if someone defends those characters with, “Well, they may come across like jerks, but that’s the way men were back then.” Because if you read romantic novels actually written during the period, you get a wholly different image of masculinity. Instead of the stoic, jerky hero you get whiny Werther who falls to his knees to kiss the pale red ribbons on Charlotte’s gown (and doesn’t have a single thought of untying said ribbons and undressing Charlotte). Instead of Jamie Fraser you get Osbert, Earl of Athlin, from Ann Radcliffe’s Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, who is about to be beheaded by the villain and promptly faints upon seeing the executioner’s axe, ironically after Radcliffe has spent several pages extolling his courage in the face of death. That scene is so unintentionally hilarious to modern readers that it made me laugh out loud in the London tube during rush hour, to some very confused looks from my fellow commuters.

  3. Daniela says:

    Always love your posts 🙂

    The marketing argument was also one I thought off first. If I had a novel that could go either way (SF or Romance, or Fantasy or Romance) I would go with Romance because it simply sells better. The whole *disguising the romance*-argument really makes not much sense.

    Unfortunately comments were already disabled by the time I got around to reading Cook’s article; otherwise I might have been tempted to point out to him that if he wants to diss a genre he maybe should educate himself about the genre first. His whole article shows that he has no idea about the Romance genre. Romance-elements or simply depicting a relationship and the way it evolves doesn’t make a novel a romance.

    I don’t recall that it says anywhere that SF only has to be about shiny tech and blazing guns. The field of science is much vaster than just technology. I actually love SF-novels that deal with the issues of linguistics and communication. Some of the earlier Star Trek TOS-novels focused on that, as did MZB in a few of her Darkover-novels.

    And I feel the same about tech-dumps. I translate those too and don’t want to have them in my leisure reading.

    • Cora says:

      Whenever I run across a person with similar views to Mr Cook’s, I usually ask, “Dude [cause it usually is], have you ever read a romance novel?” The answers are mostly, “I read Nicholas Sparks and I hated it” (Me, too, but Sparks is not romance), “I read The Bridges of Madison County and I hated it” (Me, too, but it’s not romance) or “I tried reading one of my mother’s/grandmother’s/older sister’s Harlequin romances when I was ten and I hated it.” (Well, with the volume Harlequin puts out, it’s easy to catch a dud. Care to share more about the book.) Some people simply know that romance is bad, because the covers are silly and isn’t there a formula for Harlequin books?

      I like linguistic and sociological SF, too, but there is far less of it than the tech and “hard science” stuff.

      • Daniela says:

        I can understand why people make judgement-calls without informing themselves. While that’s in itself problematic, it’s something one can deal with in normal conversation, but when one writes an article one should at least do basic research or talk to someone who knows more about the subject to get some more information. Or simply be honest and state that there are things one doesn’t like instead of slamming other writers and a lot of readers.

        But I guess that takes an amount of self-reflection that some people simply aren’t capable of or not interested in. Mr. Cook’s reactions in the comments-section clearly showed that.

        I doubt that he’ll be too happy with the reactions he’s getting. He might have found an in with a tiny group of SF-readers/writers but the majority (especially the lurking majority) is shaking their heads at him and probably putting him and his books on their ‘do-not-read’-shelves. I know I did.

        • Cora says:

          Writing an article and including clearly wrong facts about three of the four authors you single out as “not really SF” is certainly problematic. Of course, no one is forcing Mr. Cook to read books and authors he clearly doesn’t like, but if you’re going to write an article about them, you should at least get your facts right. Never mind that it’s possible to say “I don’t like X” without being a jerk about it.

          I suspect Paul Cook may be trying to appeal to a subset of the SF readership who think SF should be serious and free of all the icky, mushy stuff. Those people were out in force, when the 2013 Hugo nominations were announced, complaining that the nominated novels were not worthy, except for Kim Stanley Robinson (manly, sciency, hard) of course. The question just is how big that subset really is and how many more people he pissed off with his article and his subsequent behaviour.

      • Daniela says:

        em>I like linguistic and sociological SF, too, but there is far less of it than the tech and “hard science” stuff.

        Maybe I should unearth the notes for the project that dealt with making contact with a lost colony and the communication-issues that brought with it. It also dealt with gender and had a lesbian romance-subplot.

        Or I could poke the friend who was working on a story that involved an AI and the issue of personhood.

  4. Mark says:

    Since when is “staying within the usual parameters” a good thing? Staying within the usual parameters sounds extremely boring.

    But then I really only see this as “one guy’s opinion, albeit badly phrased and deliberately confrontaional”. Not sure if the Amazing Stories website has any significance, never visited it before. This reads like a harmless, not very original opinion piece (the discussion about that there is only one kind of true blue Science Fiction is as old as the genre itself) on a personal blog that has one or two readers, so I’m baffled by all the response it spawned. I guess the only person who is truly happy about this is Paul Cook himself.

    • Cora says:

      Amazing Stories bills itself as a continuation of the eponymous pulp mag (which makes Cook’s rant doubly ironic, given that the Amazing Stories of old was not exactly known for publishing serious SF) and has attracted some attention over the past few months. A lot of the posts are slight and some are downright dreadful, but e.g. Chris Gerwel’s series on crossgenre fiction has usually been very good.

      Though I agree that Paul Cook probably wrote that post as linkbait and is now basking in the attention.

  5. Good retort, Cora. Keep ’em coming.

  6. lkeke says:

    I’m not actually certain how Cook sees this as a problem. SF has always been romantic. It’s one of the reasons I started reading Space Operas as a kid. I believe that’s the reason its called Space Opera. Also Star Trek and Star Wars is pretty romantic, as well all of the writers listed above.

    So, what’s to complain again?

    • Cora says:

      I guess Cook doesn’t view Star Trek and Star Wars as “proper SF” either and probably dismisses most space opera (unless written by Heinlein) as well. Nonetheless, he totally seems to miss the fact that SF, including male written hard SF, is full of romance and has always been. Even someone like Charles Stross, who is very much the poster child of contemporary hard SF, includes romance subplots in many of his works. Now granted, the romances aren’t always convincing, but they exist.

      BTW, in addition to the sense of wonder factor, one of the main things that drew me to SF in general and space opera in particular as a kid was that SF had many great female characters, who could fall in love and still be cool and kick arse, and that SF had more egalitarian relationships, which was a far cry from the way most mainstream romances portrayed relationships in the 1970s and 1980s.

  7. Kaz Augustin says:

    If he hadn’t phrased things in such an arsehole fashion, navel-gazing all the way, it might have been an interesting discussion, regarding the evolution of SF, perhaps some stats on the kinds of stories people read, where they come from, what concepts appear to resonate, based on various Awards, and so on. But he would have actually had to put his frontal lobe into gear for that, as well as developing a better understanding of genre fiction as a whole, and I think it was all beyond him, poor lamb.

    Pity, because this was a great opportunity at a popular venue gone a’wasting but, on the plus side, it’s given me a name to avoid reading! 🙂

    • Cora says:

      I agree that it might have been an interesting discussion about the shifts in the SF genre, if Cook had managed to keep his personal prejudices out of it and hadn’t acted like a butthurt diva in the comments. For example, he might have examined how the Book of the New Sun, though SF, is nonetheless a precursor of sorts to today’s grimdark epic fantasy or how Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels manage to be adventure novels, war novels, tales of political intrigue, mysteries, caper novels, spy fiction, novels of manners and yes, romance, while still remaining SF. But Cook isn’t interested in discussion and not really all that familiar with genres apart from SF and classic fiction (and he isn’t even all that familiar with the books he criticizes, since he misremembers many details). He is mainly interested in provoking and then whining how the whole Internet hates him.

  8. ULTRAGOTHA says:

    Cora, he wouldn’t have been able to have that conversation as it’s obvious from his article and his response in the comments that he hasn’t read Sturgeon, at least, nor Bujold.

    Sturgeon wrote some of the most human-oriented works of his era. More Than Human is profoundly moving and hardly Cook’s teeny-weeny limited vision of SF.

    He says Wolfe was influenced by Card (!!) “Card’s touch is everywhere in these books.” Um, no. By 1983, when the last Book of the New Sun was published, Card had published Capitol, Hot Sleep and The Worthing Chronicle. Period.

    “…but Bujold, over time with novels such as Miles in Love and Cordelia’s Honor, you can see that Bujold is a closet romance writer. ”

    He thinks Cordelia’s Honor and Miles in Love are novels (they’re omnibuses) and compounds that error by stating they are *later* Bujold works (Shards of Honor and The Warrior’s Apprentice were her first two novels).

    The Comments show he doesn’t know that Barrayar is the title of one of her novels, not just the planet.

    He states she hasn’t broken any ground with her novels. Which, even if true (Disabled protagonist! Happily married protagonists with equal partners! One series that handles so many different tropes so well! The social changes to a society caused by Hard Science (Uterine Replicators)–in three wildly differing directions! How an isolated pre-technology world deals with a sudden influx of high tech!) wouldn’t make them romance novels overall. Lacks gravitas? Has he even read the cover blurbs for Barrayar or, by God, Memory? It seems not.

    The ignorance is breathtaking. Amazing Stories publishing this in the first place, and then their cowardly shutting off the comments shows them in a very poor light.

    • Cora says:

      The cluelessness and lack of research was truly amazing, especially since Paul Cook apparently couldn’t even be bothered to look up basic facts such as publication dates and original titles. He certainly hasn’t read Bujold, Wolfe and Lee/Miller, at least not recently.

      I stumbled over his addition of Sturgeon to his list of “proper” SF writers as well, since Sturgeon does not really fit in with Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, since he was more human than tech focussed. Never mind that there is plenty of romance in Heinlein, some in Asimov and I even recall one in a Clarke novel, though that was one of those he wrote with Paul Preuss.

      As for Bujold not breaking any new ground, I guess uterine replicators aren’t groundbreaking enough for him, since they cannot fly into space or terraform Mars. But unfortunately, it’s a common misconception that Lois McMaster Bujold writes light SF romance, usually held by people who have never bothered to read her and base their opinion of her work on the cheesy covers Baen slapped onto her novels. Ditto for Lee and Miller. Several years ago, a first time Bujold reader posted at a forum where I was a member, “Wow, why didn’t anybody tell me that Bujold was so good?” – “Uhm, we did. You just wouldn’t listen.”

      I’m still surprised that he hates Gene Wolfe, though, since people who dslike Bujold based on flimsy prejudices usually adore Wolfe, because he writes about “important” subjects such as torture.

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  12. Anna says:

    Yes, yes and yes. I never got the ‘you are a bad fan’ thing really. I mean, I like something the way I like it and if you don’t like it the same way, that’s fine. It’s like having butter or no butter on your bread before you put peanutbutter on it.

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