WRITER’S JOURNAL Mostly a way of recording progress. Boring.

The second Commonwealth Empires book is done!

2019 might have had some real low notes in it, but it ended well: I finished the second book in the Commonwealth Empire series, and booped it off to Swati Daftuar at HarperCollins India.

I’ve written about this particular beast before.  I had a great deal of trouble with the thing. I finished the first version quite early – somewhere in March – but it just didn’t feel right: there were several interesting characters I wanted to bring in, among which was a prototype Inquisitor called Eliott Grimme. He, Charlotte Plague, and Gregory Mars were three of the first four Horsemen – the Reaper, Plague and War, respectively. To a large extent the novel was a dialogue between different generations of Inquisitors fighting against, and coming to terms with the fact that the little machines in my fictional Colombo would be their successors.

Unfortunately, the balance was off. Much of what made the novel Sri Lankan simply fell by the wayside: Ceylon through Eliott Grimme’s eyes was yet another backwater colony, yet another hostile topography to walk over. These people are, after all, colonial instruments.

Version two was finished in July. This time the balance was closer, but the background detail of Ceylon was still . . . not up to what it was in my notes, which went something like this:

  • WHAT IS THE CHINESE PORT CITY’S GAME HERE
  • HOW DOES CEYLON WORK UNDER THE BRITISH
  • EXPLAIN WHY THERE IS NO INTERNET IN THIS WORLD
  • HOW DOES THE INQUISITION FUNCTION
  • HOW DO THE BOTS ACQUIRE A LANGUAGE COMPLEX ENOUGH TO ENGAGE WITH THE WORLD AROUND THEM

So I sat down in December, after Christmas, and told myself version three would be the final. I’d use the material from version one and two, but fundamentally reconstruct the whole story from scratch – including typing it out line by line, swapping the point of view of Eliot Grimme out for characters that would play a greater role in things to come, and exploring the city of Kandy in more detail. I also wanted the book to fit between the two halves of the story shown in THE INHUMAN RACE – to show how and why Kushlani de Almeida, the protagonist of the second half of the book, goes from being in second-in-charge of what is essentially a battle Royale with humanoid machines –  to sacrificing her career and her life to make a legal case for giving those same machines fundamental rights.

The result: THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS, standing at a little over 88,000 words – cut, refined, reforged. That’s a little over 350 pages on Kindle – larger than THE INHUMAN RACE. I had teasers of the Lanka Resistance Front and the political unrest in Kandy while the story happened: those were brought out more, and certain characters took on a life of their own when it came to making hard choices. The name changed: what started out as THE INHUMAN PEACE became what it is now after one person (in the book) made an offhanded remark on the political situation in Kandy.

And it fits right where I expected it to be.

 

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Update on the Inhuman Peace (Commonwealth Empires #2)

Saturday. Powercut. I’ve been lying in bed going through the editor’s feedback on the Inhuman Peace (book two of my Commonwealth Empires trilogy).*
The feedback for book one and two has has been largely the same: “show us more of this alternate Ceylon!”

I had intended the first book to be short, sharp, a setting of the gameboard, as it were, and I was wary of over-writing and over-describing. I opened the second book with alt-Britain, and then moved on to alt-India; Goa, to be precise. Then I launched into the Ceylon, which my Sri Lankan readers know and can intimately connect to – but not something that a reader elsewhere would understand with such easy shorthand.

Now I need to a) dial down alt-Britain and b) sketch out the Ceylon scenes with as much detail – really take those notes and maps and describe my Pearl of the Indian ocean more.

This is good, because I can talk about the world more, and in light of the recent April bombings in Sri Lanka I feel I have more things to say about how people recent to shock and loss. This is also going to be tough, because it means I’ll have to take apart large chunks of the story and redraft – I don’t want to do a Robert Jordan and weave in endless descriptions for the sake of detail. Things have to make sense. Different characters notice different things, and all of us privilege some types of information over others; there’s a limit to how much omniscience I can pull off here.

I’ve technically written one novel and five short stories this year (and led another large project I can group under ‘futurism’). It’s been a really good six months of writing. But as I approach the end of my workload, I feel heavier, because some of this stuff won’t be out for years.

*Book one seems to have been more read by writers than readers – it’s cited in articles and so on, but Goodreads shows only a handful of reviews (maybe that’s a facet of it only being available on the Indian subcontinent). I hope this situation changes.

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South Asian science fiction: roots, strains, influences, themes, and a personal re-examination

I first met my agent, Kanishka Gupta, on a cold afternoon in Delhi. February, 2018. It took me several tries to get to his place, because apparently he lives bang in the middle of Delhi’s military zone; to compensate, he rolled out a truly magnificent lunch spread, and over many sandwiches we discussed my writing and what I wanted to do next. One of the things that he said to me gave me pause: “you don’t write like other South Asians I’ve read. Or even South East. It’s very different.“.

I’ve had this rolling around in my head for a while. Was it language? Themes? The style, the texture? Obviously, my first instinct was to read more South / South East Asian SFF writers, to see how exactly I differed.  I wasn’t exactly convinced by the point: after all, the sheer diversity of South Asia is insane . . . it is strange to think that my voice, in the middle of four billion people, was somehow unique. Generally, we humans like to think that we are different and unique and all that, but as a whole we are rather predictable and comformist. But this neatly set the basis for a deeper exploration into common themes and styles from science fiction in South and South East Asia.

First, a disclaimer. As Waddell once noted,  ‘words like ”Southeast Asia” and ”unicorn” enable us to discuss topics about which we would not otherwise be able to hold a conversation.” Modify that to ‘South Asia’ and it still applies. This area is old, and it is rich in difference and diversity; this is merely a personal ramble through the history books, broad strokes rather than deep over something that would require a lifetime of study. That said, let’s begin.


Roots: South Asia

Science fiction work from South Asia is sparsely documented. To the best of my knowledge, two writers – both of whom I am fortunate to count as friends, albeit from a distance – have tried their level best, and done a decent job: Gautam Shenoy [1] and Mimi Mondal [2]. The histories they compile are slightly different and deserve reading in full, but they, and other sources, confirm a genesis set somewhere in the 18th century:

  1. Kylas Chunder Dutt (1835): A Journal of 48 hours in 1945, about an Indostan uprising against the colonial British
  2. Jagadananda Roy (1879) : Shukra Bhraman, about a Venus full of ape-like aliens
  3. Hemlal Dutta (1882) Rahashya, about a smart house
  4. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1896) : Niruddesher Kahini, about weather events
  5. Begun Rokeya Hossein (1905): Sultana’s dream, which flips the power dynamics and envisions a land ruled by a woman with men on lesser rungs on the social ladder

Bose is really the most prominent example here, his fame generated by his legendary life: a Calcutta Professor and old-school polymath who become a pioneer in several fields, from biophysics to early work on what eventually became WiFi. This story of his  is about a cyclone being quelled with a bottle of hair oil with a strange history[3]; the whole thing hinges on an approximation of what we later came to know as the butterfly effect.

It’s interesting to see the innovation here. Hossein wrote the first real piece of feminist science fiction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland , which dreams up a utopian society consisting only of women, didn’t show up until ten years later. Bose’s story talks about the butterfly effect and did so before Ray Bradbury, though perhaps less clearly. Dutt seems to have been on point for his time; this was, after all, the 1930s, the decade where Mary Griffith produced Three Hundred Years Hence and Vladmir Odoevsky put out The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters.  Roy and Dutta  I cannot seem to find anywhere, but Dutta’s story speaks of  “A mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.” [4]

Women ruling men, lone passengers controlling weather with ease, smart houses, the British being sent packing…these were utopic projections, then. This wasn’t that uncommon in the 1800s. Seeing the Industrial Revolution happen around you must have naturally prompted questions of “what happens next?” and “what should we aim for? Along wish that British trooper’s head, I mean?”

They were also worldbuilding exercises, rather than stories – the purpose, as far as I can make out, seems to be to paint a picture; the characters are there mostly just as excuses to gawk at the doors and windows. Camerapeople.  But this was a popular format in the 1800s – the novel was still on its way, the power of story and conflict had yet to be really explored in the genre.

The events around Indian independence, the ripple effects from the World Wars – these seem to blow a hole in the growth of scifi beyond this. Shenoy tracks a few in between, but acknowledges that language tensions made many of these stories inaccessible. Things start again with Amitav Ghosh (1995): the Calcutta Chromosome, a book that academics even now refer to when reviewing scifi from the region[5] (I haven’t read it yet).

For me, this history really picks up with Samit Basu (2004). Then we have what Shenoy calls the period of greatest hits; Anil Menon and Vandana Singh happen, weaving both myth and science together. And then there’s Tashan Mehta, Indrapamit Das, Shiv Ramdas and others.  South Asian science fiction from this era stands out to me for two things: the first is the seemingly wholehearted embrace of ‘speculative fiction’ as opposed to ‘science fiction’; a sort of acknowledgement of intertwining of science and fantasy in our lives.

I once went to a national science fair, as a young student, where one of the busiest booths was where an astrologer had hacked a scanner to realm palms and pass data to a Visual Basic program that generated horoscopes.  Fast forward ten years, and I was reading about the President / Legal Dictator of Sri Lanka consulting his astrologer to hold elections. [6]. This sort of mysticism is a part and parcel of life; in a sense, religion and spirituality is the true cyborg of South Asian societies, adapting faster than the humans can.

The second thing is a sense of characters tethered by the societies they live in. I think the most brilliant example of this is from Samit Basu’s Turbulence, which explores mutant and superheroes; in it ,  Tia’s superpowers – the ability to replicate herself at will – come from the oppression of wanting to live different lives, but being unable to because of family attachments. Likewise, his Kalki is worshipped as a god-avatar and slotted neatly into prophecies.


 

Okay.

In general, I can see why my writing might elicit a comment like Kanishka’s. You see, despite me having read these works, I wouldn’t call them influences in any way. I’ve done one novel in the old tradition: Numbercaste.  Patrick Udo, who most people read as an empty, slightly sociopathic narrator, was meant to be a blank-slate reporter describing the future as it came along. He’s really at a second remove from the conflict in the story (people either love it or hate it).

But this was not intentional – it was the only style I knew how to write at the time. I was a journalist. I wrote long tech features and somewhat political investigations written in the gonzo style [7]. If anything, Numbercaste hews to David Eggers and Cory Doctorow more than it does to anyone.

My short stories, on review, are strange in that they have very little of the social bonds tugging on South Asians. This is perhaps because of my characters. My friend Navin Weeraratne says that “you write alienated people … because you feel alienated.” Certainly I like exploring people who are forever on the outer circles of their societies, peeping in: in the Inhuman Race, all of my protagonists are the same … mistfits, outcasts, rejects. I like exploring the world through characters like this. Perhaps it’s a large function of who I am as a person, and perhaps I have not truly dissociated my character from myself. None of them subscribe to the mysticism, either. I avoid it. I dislike it. I dream of more rational people and wake up knowing we will never have this; we are pan narrans, not homo sapiens.

But on the whole, I think, something more complex is due.  I think I need to immerse myself again in people – even the mystics – before I make myself too alien for my own origins.


 

 

 

[1] https://factordaily.com/indian-science-fiction/

[2] https://www.tor.com/2018/01/30/a-short-history-of-south-asian-speculative-fiction-part-i/

[3]https://web.archive.org/web/20140905235504/http://strangehorizons.com/2013/20130930/3bose-f.shtml

[4] https://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2006/05/early-bengali-science-fiction.html

[5] https://www.thedailystar.net/book-reviews/efflorescence-south-asian-sci-fi-1512136

[6] https://www.hindustantimes.com/world/mahinda-rajapaksa-s-astrologer-who-advised-early-election-packs-bags/story-ioP1WkF9Zcpz87mb6FntsO.html

[7] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/this-is-the-colombo-port-city/

 

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“Incidentally, there is support for Wijeratne’s story”: part two – aftermath and decision trees

 

Continued from previous.
So,  recap of recent events [1]:

  1. Many in the writing community expressed their sorrow that this had happened. Some in the Sri Lankan Comic-con community, angered [and, I feel, with good reason], went a step forward, responding quite harshly [2].  I have been unable to talk them out of it, so needless to say the search record will stay tainted. Despite my dislike for Bellet’s actions at this stage, I conveyed news of these events to her through Amy Duboff.
  2. Jonathan Brazee, with great integrity, posted an apology for his list and the events it had touched off [3]. I was told it was made available to the SWFA membership as well, although where, and how it was received, I do not know. Pertinent is this:
    “I love SFWA. I love 20Booksto50K. I love award season and reading for them. Joining SFWA has been a dream of mine since 1975, and 20Booksto50k had helped me, and countless others, become better at the business side of writing. I would never purposely do anything to harm either of them. I have worked hard to help SFWA in every way I can, and I have tried to help others not just within 20Books, but to all writers. I hope I can still be a positive force for both groups, but if I’ve wrecked that, then I accept the consequences of my mistakes.”
  3. Bellet, in a fit of what I can only assume to be colossal hubris, made a first stab at playing Victoria while demanding her pound of flesh.
  4. Sorry, no. Having likes on Twitter does not a moral argument make. Conflating Twitter attention with ethical argument is a dangerous game.
  5.  However, she was gracious in response to this. Graciousness demands graciousness in response, and I appreciate the gesture and a return to civil discourse, and conveyed my feelings.

    6. This back-and-forth continued in a generally chummy way [4] and ended up in her expressing that we should not withdraw, and that she agreed that Jonathan’s intent in this was good. Many people I respect expressed relief that there was de-escalation and some solidarity at the end of this affair.

While I agree that Jonathan Brazee could perhaps have worded his list better, I remain truly sad that he had to apologize in that manner for an act of good intent. My sadness is, equally, tied to my dismay in seeing this dark underbelly and ugly histories that continue to govern the actions of some within the US SFF community. I’m reminded of something that the great Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Earthsea filled up much of my childhood, said not too long ago: “Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous… It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.

There are no doubt still people who want to fan the flames, or are using this as material for other, longer-running conflicts. As a case in point, this blog post by one Jon del Aroz [6] paints this as some epic war between political views, when I have made it clear in previous tweets that we are not here to play US politics – merely to avoid it with our dignity intact.

The view from 30,000 feet

Poring over comments, and reading over histories of squabbles, I’m reminded of Cixin Liu’s Dark Forest theory, which asks us to imagine a two civilizations coming across each other. 1. Each civilization’s goal is survival, and 2. Resources are finite (in this case, resources are mindshare and money from readers). Like hunters in a “dark forest”, a civilization can never be certain of an alien civilization’s true intentions. The extreme distance between stars creates an insurmountable “chain of suspicion” where any two civilizations cannot communicate well enough to relieve mistrust, making conflict inevitable. Therefore, it is in every civilization’s best interest to preemptively strike and destroy any developing civilization before it can become a threat.

1. Much of this boils down to information asymmetry: the US SFF community clearly has a lot of group norms and contextual behaviour templates. However, if they are to welcome authors from other parts of the world, it remains a mistake to assume that everyone walking in will know what these norms are.

How does one work around information asymmetry? General practice is to increase transparency and the amount of information in the system. Group norms can be:

A) Compiled in an accessible, official capacity (i.e:  Here’s a link to timeline of what happened in the past!), or
B) Captured with robust, adaptable rulesets (i,e: What is a slate? What is a list? What are withdraw conditions?

The second is preferable; it reduces the need for assumptions and provides decision-makers a clear ruleset on which to fall back upon.  This is how it is done in public policy (I work in public policy).

2. Votes. I want to return to one comment that I have been thinking about, namely, Bellet’s assertion that 10 votes can swing a title onto the Norton list. However, the Wikipedia article for SFWA marks 1,900 members registered worldwide.

Keep in mind that I have no data on the actual voting numbers, and I’m entirely speculating from this one point, but as a numbers guy, this seems like a critical weak point in the Nebula system. While I find it difficult to believe that professional writers would vote for anything other than quality of their work, nevertheless, the barrier to bloc-voting seems remarkably low.

A) One method would be to very tightly define what an acceptable list is. Or approach is by defining !list. Any violators of this rule could them be removed from consideration, although this opens up potential attack tactics: someone could put authors they don’t like on a list purely to clear the competition. Also this would only be enforceable on lists that are public in some form.

B) Another would be to get more of the membership to vote, effectively increasing the sample size enough to iron out blocs. Active measures could include exhorting members to vote frequently and often. Passive measures, which I am more interested in, could include making voting mandatory. This brings to mind the work of Richard Thaler and the UK’s government’s Behavorial Insights Team, otherwise known as the “Nudge Unit” [6]. By applying principles of behavorial economics to form design, they have managed to make certain increases in citizen pension enrollment.  Such form design could be coupled with a requirement to vote in order to maintain membership – this is a method used by some governments.

C) Blind judgement. This is most interesting.  A study investigating gender bias in orchestras found that “…a number of orchestras adopted “blind” auditions whereby screens are used to conceal the identity and gender of the musician from the jury. In the years after these changes were instituted, the percent of female musicians in the five highest-ranked orchestras in the nation increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.”  [7]

By allowing the musician to compete on pure talent alone, a systemic bias against female musicians was corrected. I feel this could not only correct for accusations of bias I have seen lobbied around, but also reinforce the impartiality of the jury. A version of this would be to strip identifying information (author, publisher’s mark) from a title, thus allowing a more merit-based system. However, I must add the caveat that this privileges demographics that are collectively capable of greater volume, and put minority representation at risk. In the case of the orchestra, the reason it was 21% in 1993, and not 50%, could very well be that fewer women attempt the audition in the first place.

This is a tricky business that eventually leads us to the concept of fairness. One of our most recent ongoing investigations at LIRNEasia, the think tank where I work, has been into algorithmic fairness and bias.

Fairness is a concept that constantly mutates bases on space, time, social constructs and practicality. Kleinberg et al. [8] posited that, assuming a population divided into groups (as the Nebula voters seem to be), the output can be shaped by one of three mathematical notions of fairness:

  • Calibration within groups – for each group and each bin the expected number of members with a positive outcome should be proportional to the score assigned to that bin.
  • Balance for the positive class – the average score of members with a positive outcome should be the same for each group.
  • Balance for the negative class – the average score of members with a negative outcome should be the same for each group.

They posited that that no method can satisfy all three notions of fairness simultaneously, with the exception of highly constrained special cases:

  • Perfect prediction – for each feature, we know for certain what the outcome is.
  • Equal base rates – the two groups have the same fraction of members that have a positive outcome.

These special cases are improbable. Complex deterministic systems exhibit chaos, described by Poincare as high sensitivity to initial conditions, and extended by Lorenz as the property by which “the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future”; thus, prediction so accurate is the realm of fantasy. The second condition implies an improbably high degree of similarity between groups, rendering them so similar as to possibly negate need for fairness. Both are unlikely to occur in real-world data and applications.

Thus, most models are going to be fundamentally unfair. Practical adequacy will then have to prevail, and SFWA may have to intentionally select the type of mathematical fairness (and unfairness) that the Nebula voting model should optimize, for based on what is most in keeping with social ideals of its constituency. SFWA should make this explicitly clear. The system is always going to be unfair. Every system is. This not a fault of SFWA, but a property of any decision system that analyses groups. Transparency at least offers a way of reducing hurt.

A more personal decision

So, in light of all we have learned, what do Ronnie and I do?

As with Brexit, there are two possible decisions:

  1. Withdraw
  2. Remain

Because we’re not Nigel Farrage’s lot, we’ve asked for advice on the implications of each decision from a range of authors, most of whom are either highly successful, have been on that list, or won major awards such as the Nebula, Hugo, Locus or World Fantasy Award. Collecting the input and distilling it has perhaps taken up too much time, but it was useful. Here’s a reduced space of what we’ve received

Withdraw:

  1. You preserve your honor and refuse to bow to US SFF politics / drama
  2. The awards are not worth it, the readers are the only thing that matter, it’s not worth your time
  3. You maintain the precedent set by the actions of Annie Bellet and Marco Kloos in the Hugo controversy, thus honoring community norms
  4. You’re letting our side down [where “side”, from what has been sent to me, includes indies, Sri Lankans, South Asians, POC in general]
  5. You confirm Jonathan Brazee as guilty through your actions, and thus equate him to the actors of the Rabid Puppy saga
  6. You’re setting a precedent to be bullied out by fringe actors. Future voters will use this tactic against other authors.
  7. You make SFWA’s efforts for more diversity and inclusion look really bad.

Remain:

  1. The hate you have received is not from a representative sample of the SFWA community. You cannot make decisions on a nonrepresentative sample.
  2. We do not doubt the quality of your work, and you should remain (notable public proponents, surprisingly: Annie Bellet)
  3. The voting process has generated votes for you from both indie and trad. The process works, you should trust it.
  4. You’re making a mockery of what Annie Bellet and Marco Kloos stood for in the Hugo controversy.

 

And, regardless of whatever choice we make, various tangential battles seem determined to use it as ammunition.

We seem to be in a true damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Game theory would suggest that we be selfish in such situations and take what is given to us.

Thus, a personal decision: neither of us are authorities on this subject. We cannot satisfy all factions, and there are certain people we do not want to harm even by implication, such as Jonathan Brazee (if we are forced to pick any side against him, rest assured that we will pick his). What we can do is satisfy ourselves and honor the officials of the community: we will show attend the Nebula conference and partake of what it offered to us – and fulfill our obligations to panels and such that we have been placed on. As I mentioned on Twitter, we will fly in a day earlier so we can meet members of the board and ask their opinion as to what we should do.

Whatever they ask us to do, be it remain or withdraw, we will. As I said in my earlier post, we have gone from being excited to being jaded over this.

And in the future, in both our capacities we will continue to work with whatever anthologies we want to, including involving Craig Martelle and Jonathan Brazee. We do not require that their goals and ours align, but we appreciate the fact that neither has ever judged us on anything but the quality of our words. This debacle has indeed reinforced the view that they are some of the very few who do so. Secondly, we wish to preserve our freedom to work with whoever we want to, and do not intend to have that taken away from us.

My sincere and humble thanks to everyone who sent in messages of support, took the time to help us understand the issue, and gave us advice in how to proceed.  We have also been warned that things may get violent, and that there are some nasty sharks in these waters, and that in light of the Hugo controversy, there may be death threats and so on. Some have even opined that the political views I expressed in my former piece (gender equality, Keynesian intervensionism and so on) are enough to mark us as targets.

That is fine. Death threats are something I am intimately familiar with, having been on the receiving end of the ire of racist mobs and errant politicians in my home country. Violence is a language we both understand well. There is an old Japanese saying: the nail that sticks out gets hammered (出る釘は打たれる). We will try to avoid drama, but unfortunately, we have decided, with all due respect, to make it very difficult for the hammer, unless it be wielded by an official.

I look forward to attending my first-ever convention of science fiction and fantasy fandom. In more charitable messages I have been told to expect many wonderful people there.

I apologize for the fact that it is under these circumstances.

I leave these two posts up as a cautionary tale to all from South Asia who attempt to enter the US SFF community, either by choice, invitation or mistake. Be careful of the stories you are told, for almost all exhibit some form of bias or cherrypicking of narrative (see the comments on my previous post as an example). It is difficult to tell who is right, what is right and what is not. I choose to put trust in the process and the officials: your mileage may vary. I’d recommend you start by reading this Wired article [9]. I would advise that you then go over to the blog of Camestros Felapton [10], for whom I have developed great respect as an independent observer. And if you need to clarify, please feel free to reach out to me through email or on Facebook. Here ends this chronicle.

Best,
Yudha

REFERENCES

[1] Over the past forty hours there has been an immense outpouring of support from authors on every possible front. I admit imposter syndrome hit both Ronnie and myself very hard during this stage. My science fiction is often turned down by reviewers and publishers as being “too literary” for their tastes. Ronnie specializes in urban fantasy. Messenger was an experiment in both content and style for both of us, and being roasted over a mighty flame was an unhappy experience.

[2] https://scifinavin.com/blog/2019/3/1/annie-bellet-is-pissing-on-sri-lankas-first-nebula-finalist

[3] https://www.facebook.com/groups/781495321956934/permalink/1794035240702932/

[4] https://twitter.com/anniebellet/status/1101607851582197760

[5] https://thefederalist.com/2019/03/04/indie-sci-fi-authors-upending-traditional-publishing-turned-war/

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/behavioural-insights-team

[7] Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of” blind” auditions on female musicians. American economic review90(4), 715-741.

[8] Kleinberg, J., Mullainathan, S., & Raghavan, M. (2016). Inherent trade-offs in the fair determination of risk scores. arXiv preprint arXiv:1609.05807.

[9] https://www.wired.com/2015/08/won-science-fictions-hugo-awards-matters/

[10] https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com

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“Incidentally, there is support for Wijeratne’s story”: a response to file770 and a record of the Nebula Award madness

I’m going to tell you a story. This is about being nominated for the Nebula Awards [1], and accusations, and fury. I’m going to tell it slow and in much detail as I can, because I want to, and because context is important. I have seen much slinging of words but no context.

When I started writing this, it was 8PM. I had intended to use the writing of this piece as a piece of string, to re-order my own thoughts and try to figure out what the hell I’m doing here [2].  But in the writing of this I’ve gone from trying to figure out this madness to just being jaded. My inboxes are inundated with legions, my notifications toss up numbers like a slot machine, and I am absolutely done with explaining myself to random asshats on Twitter who demand answers under fake names and profile pictures.

So I’m going to chronicle this.

And at the end of it you may judge whether I have acted with the best information available to me, or not.

THE BORING STUFF: HOW THE STORY CAME TO BE

First, Ronnie Virdi, otherwise known as R.R. Virdi. I can’t recall when he and I became friends on Facebook, but over a short period of time he and I grew to like each other. He is a first generation Indian American. I am Sri Lankan.

This is Sri Lanka. Many Americans do not seem to know where the hell we are, so I’m pre-empting questions putting this here.

We both have shared culture and mythos – the Ramayana and such. We both had very similar experiences – too Anglicized and too liberal to ever fit in properly in our source societies, and too, well, brown to fit in anywhere else. Our tastes in literature, gaming, movies and inspirations overlap significantly. Like attracts like. This is a fundamental principle known as homophily [3]. So in a general week we would each kick back in our respective timezones and discuss stuff – our parents, careers, ambitions. In one of these conversations, we started discussing why aliens always attack America.

This particular trope in science fiction has always puzzled us. America is currently the most powerful nation on earth – at least in terms of GDP and military spending. But an invading armada would have no way to grok trade flow volume or budget allocations. 

Our belief was that any sane hostile alien should compute the population of the Earth and attack the centers of highest mass – i.e. India and China. That is about 36% of the world’s population in one go; furthermore these regions are expected to undergo significant population growth [4]. The one place a logical alien would really want to avoid is America, a country with a declining population [5] where ordinary citizens are armed and will likely form a decentralized partisan resistance. The ROI is significantly lower.

We’re also both fans of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, though not the second movie. And to be quite frank it’s a little bit annoying to see Japan, the birthplace of giant robots, without any giant robots of its own. And, for that matter, where the hell are the Japanese pilots? Why is everyone Asian just a set piece?

So we decided to do our own thing. To start, we brainstormed the setting: the Bay of Bengal and Neo-Delhi. I came up with a plausible excuse to bung in aliens – if they were silicon-based life forms, it made perfect sense to hit the Earth: 90% of this planet’s crust is made of silicate [6]. Seriously, I don’t know why we’re carbon-based meat puppets.

Anyway. We paid homage. We took cues for Lovecraftian monsters from del Toro. We looked at Jaegers from Pacific Rim and traced the lineage upwards to the anime that we figured del Toro took inspiration from. We brainstormed our own Jaegers: metal and machine representations of the great Hindu gods we were so familiar with, piloted by digitized Indian soldiers.

From Neon Genesis Evangelion [6] we took the depression of the pilots, which strongly resonated with us because we both suffer from bouts of depression, and we felt we could depict that experience with some accuracy. From Gasaraki [7] we took the form of using mecha in a contemporary setting, support squads and environmental damage included. I put some Bolo [8]. Then we built a shared internal wiki and started putting the text together.

I must admit that it was delightful to decree that the Kali-jaeger drive all pilots utterly gibbering mad. For Kali is the goddess of creation and destruction, the ultimate form of Brahman, and she wears a garland of skulls. Kali is not a thing you control. You either appease her or die screaming.  

And lastly, because we do not believe in preachy political texts (Ayn Rand, anyone?), we buried these bits deep into the worldbuilding and wrote the actual story in a style that we thought made it fun to read – in the contemporary “action style” with a closely-held narrative camera, focus on military jargon and fast sequences. We may or may not have succeeded: that is up for readers to decide, not us.

Anyway, we wrote an initial story. It was called Messenger, as a reference to Oamuamua, the strange interstellar body that went through the Solar System recently (we bastardized it into an alien 3D printer that could land on the moon and print volumes of creatures of iterative complexity, dropping them down the gravity well).

…. and we realized that nobody would read the damn thing. The majority of English scifi readers are Americans, and they do not particularly care about metal Hindu gods. We contemplated shopping it to a traditional US/UK publisher, but this requires contacts we do not have, and agents, and meetings, and my publisher (HarperCollins India) would probably be risk-averse – science fiction and fantasy here is just barely picking up.

Which is where Craig Martelle happened.

MARTELLE’S EXPANDING UNIVERSE

Craig Martelle is a prolific American science fiction writer, editor and publisher. He runs the annual Expanding Universe series of military science fiction anthologies. At this point I’d worked with Craig before – a story for The Expanding Universe III, titled Dreadnought. In it an AI starship is sung The Charge of the Light Brigade [9] and contemplates the foolishness of human war, and its own role as a pawn in this game between foolish creatures (a pertinent theme, as we shall see later).

Craig Martelle has always been extremely professional to me and to many writers I know on Facebook. Whereas local publishers would require meetings, introductions, agents and the lot, Martelle sent me the spec, wordcount, asked to see the first page of the story, accepted it, sent it back with edits and a contract with clear rights reversion clauses, and the story was sold.

Because the Sri Lankan Central Bank does not allow inbound PayPal payment, Martelle even switched to Payoneer to accommodate me.

So when he put out the call for TEU4, I tagged Ronnie, and we sent the story we had up. To our very great surprise, the story was well-received. And the story was out. I did a very happy post on September 17, 2018, announcing it [10].

THE NEBULA NOMINATION

A short while after the story came out, Jonathan Brazee, SFWA’s Director of Education and former Nebula finalist, sent me a message saying it had been voted onto the “recommended reading” list for the Nebula Award.

To say we were over the Moon is an understatement. There are no words in Elvish, Entish or the tongues of Men for the excitement we felt. Except we had no idea what “recommended reading list” meant, so Ronnie, who is a recent SFWA member, ran around a while trying to figure that out. And then we grokked the general structure of things. We happily shared the good news with everyone we knew.


~~~~

Now I must backtrack here a bit and explain how I know Jonathan Brazee, because of some accusations of “having friends”. I met Brazee in Bali, to a 20Books conference I had been invited to attend. I did not have the funds to do so, so Martelle, after everyone who had signed up was done, had an extra room and agreed to waive the conference fee if I met the rest of the costs myself and put in back-end work, like handling microphones, for the rest. Bali is significantly cheaper that getting to the US. so I took the chance to meet authors while they were in the neighborhood. We had a drink – as I am doing now – and fell to a discussion of utopias and our own personal idealized worlds. I judged him to be one of the most widely-travelled men I had met, and had a nuanced and complex understanding of South and South East Asia, and closely in line with my own preferences: freedom of press, gender equality, and Keynsian interventionism[11].

At the end of the conversation Brazee told me SFWA was actively looking for new, more diverse voices in the field, and invited me to join SFWA and participate in the US scifi community. I declined on two fronts, because as I understand most of what happens in the US scene happens in conventions. Unfortunately, flights to the US are extremely expensive, and at most I could travel to the US once a year on work-funded research trips. At most I could relegate myself to forums. It seemed like bad ROI.

He said that was a pity, and offered to pay my membership fee for me. I declined again, because I did not want to burden him for anything – his wife was pregnant at the time – and we parted ways happily after some more drinks. I left with great respect for the man, his integrity, and his vision of a global, all-inclusive SF&F community

~~~~

Forward to the story. This is bad structure created by worse arrack.

We became aware of being on the reading list somewhere around the 9th or 10th. I’m not exactly sure. By the 15th, going by the reader vote data available to SFWA members, we were in a solid third place by votecount. People seemed to love the damn thing. It was reviewed on podcasts, praised, and recommended.

On the 16th, Jonathan Brazee put up a post in 20Booksto50k, which I am part of.

20Books seems to be a large part of the reason I am being tarred and feathered, so I am going to explain what I see of it: it is large group of some 22,000 authors, and while not all I see there is useful to me, it has been a fantastic resource in learning the rudiments of getting my work out to an audience beyond Sri Lanka.

It is public in practice – joining took me a click – and I also regularly watch for anthology announcements there (like the Expanding Universe) and cheer other authors on.  

There are people there who are full-time authors and make enough from their work to continue doing more work without needing a second job etc. This amazes me. I have received advice that I can and should write faster, but I write slow and good research takes me time. My contracts with HarperCollins also have reasonable durations (roughly one book a year, for five books), so I am happy with my pace.

~~~~

Ronnie, too, writes 600-page doorstoppers filled with clever plots and deep worldbuilding. While not a member of 20Books, he knows very fast writers. We have discussed speed and agreed that we’ll plod along at our own pace and build up a solid backlist. We’re here for the long run anyway.

~~~~

Nevertheless, 20Books has been a great place to make friends online – from it I have set up the Legion of Science, a tiny 70-person group where we have writers, engineers, scientists of all stripes, as we get to debate everything from economics to graphene tech. The only other Sri Lankan scifi writer I am aware of is Navin Weeraratne, who co-founded Lanka Comic Con with comics writer and lawyer Thilani Samarasinghe.

So this has been a fantastic avenue for us to discuss things we don’t have anyone here to discuss with. The only other Sri Lankan scifi writer I have actually spoke to is Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away.

~~~~

There are not many of us [12]. We hope to have a community some day, but right now it is just Thilani, Navin and myself having dinner on every other Tuesday.

~~~~
Sec. Chasers.

Anyway. Brazee put up a list of all stories on the reading list coming from “indies” – small electronic presses, self-publishers, and some anthologies like TEU that, while published by an incorporated entity with editors and staff, are for some reason also bagged under this label.

We both thanked him, and switched to discussing the Messenger sequel. The BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) countries are expected to surpass the G7 countries soon [13] and significantly shift the existing world political order. So we had to design Jaegers for all these countries, and that is still an ongoing process. And Ronnie wanted to do a much larger book.

On the 19th of February Ronnie and I received emails from Jim Hosek, Nebula Awards Commissioner. The email said simply, “Yudhanjaya, I would like to speak with you at your earliest convenience,” and gave me a phone number and asked how he could contact me.

Throughout the day I had been getting weird signals from Ronnie – he was excited, and would only say “you’ll get the same call I did!”. So I waited up and called at night, and was told that Messenger was officially a Nebula finalist.

WHOA.

I was so excited I actually laughed, because I thought it was a joke. And then reality hit and I realized I couldn’t afford to make it there, so I explained this to Jim and he referred me to the financial assistance program. Then I went back inside. Someone pointed out that the last person to be on a Nebula list from Sri Lanka was Clarke himself [14]. We celebrated.

It was a good night. I had other reasons to celebrate. Aethon, a small American publisher specializing in scifi, had offered me a three-book deal for a story I’d always wanted to write – a somewhat hard-science first contact scenario based around survival and language. My debut novel, Numbercaste, had been optioned for film by a huge global conglomerate; my agents were happy, I was happy, and this was the perfect hat-trick.

~~~~

Ronnie and I a brief discussion as to whether we were the youngest ever Nebula finalists (I’m 26, and he’s 28) and I pointed out that no, that was Ted Chiang. Which is great thing to aspire to – Chiang’s Tower of Babylon [15] is right up there with Borges’ Library of Babel [16].

Over the next few days I was added to a Slack channel for Nebula finalists (very cool), made the digital acquaintance of Lawrence Schoen [17], who not only was a very prestigious writer, but had somehow translated the Dao De Ching (道德經) from the original Chinese into Klingon. I mean, this is incredible stuff. How the hell do you translate a deliberately contextually vague text from a morphologically rich, highly-evolved language into an artificial grammar made for Star Trek? I asked if I could meet him to talk language and he happily agreed.

~~~~

But I digress. It was good. The Nebula award is voted on by registered SFWA writers who have to prove that they are professionals with work out there, so it is a jury-of-peers thing. The next day the news had spread out and journalists were calling me to ask how it felt to be the first natural-born Sri Lankan to make the Nebulas, and what plans I had in mind for the future of Sri Lankan scifi. I mumbled my way through a few responses and it resulted in stuff like this.

Even if I couldn’t physically be there, it was good.

NOT-A-SURPRISE

The weirdness started when a random Twitter account (with the usual egg) popped up, tweeted at me, congratulating us for being “the token brown pick”, and disappeared. An hour later a similar one popped up, tweeted something about “the secret to being noticed is nobody being able to spell your name”, and again vanished.

I thought little of it. Look, I study bot networks and hate speech at scale. One of the recent digs was a report where I analyzed 200,000 tweets, and unearthed thousands of bots popping up after Sri Lankan political campaigns [18]. Competent bots use names from census lists and life profile pictures from Instagram.

Whoever this was, this was a moron. I have a simple script that blocks stuff like this. I moved on to Reddit, where there was some surprise at the number of finalists this year from nontraditional sources [19]. There I explained why I put out short stories in nontraditional anthologies. My handle is Icaruswept.

To wit:
~~~~
<Introduction>

Why do I do this?

  • Friends. I like working with authors I know and care about. A lot of the folks I work with are people who I communicate with daily on Facebook, chat with on podcasts, even play Overwatch with.
  • Responsiveness. I gravitate towards smaller indie presses by default, because they are inevitably far faster to respond and give me more leeway to experiment. I don’t enjoy waiting months for an email – I have other things to do.
  • Profit. I’m not going to lie: the percentages on most trad pub projects are terrible. I have my day job as a data scientist, so I’m not starving. Nevertheless, picking a higher number is a logical decision, especially if the first two criteria are satisfied. I like being able to do the work I want, with the people I want, the way I want, and get paid slightly more for it.

I have seen no indicator that being published by a traditional process is a guarantee of quality. There is genuinely terrible stuff out there with both major and minor imprint labels out there. Even my most recent book, the Inhuman Race, is riddled with typos in the print version – and that’s a book that went through the trad pub process of a Big Five entity.

~~~~

The poster (thenixondive) was very happy with this response.
~~~
Thank you for taking the time to make these illuminating points.

In retrospect, I really regret allowing myself to get sidetracked into the qualitative comparisons between “major” presses and “minor” presses. My initial observation was that several nominees came from non-traditional sources. I initially meant to make clear that I wasn’t in a position to judge the quality of the nominated works. I mainly wanted to point out that some of the short fiction nominees broke with established patterns of Nebula nominees. The changes in publishing that you and other point out provide a reasonable explanation to this new trend, and I can see that my initial comment might have come off as more conspiratorial than I intended.

~~~

Cool! So it looks like people are seeing a difference from the usual pattern. Not sure if good or bad, so I moved on.

On the 22nd people started sending me links, and posting links to groups I’m in, of blogposts by one Cora Buhlert [20].

The most surprising (at least to me) finalist in this category is “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a military science fiction story which was published in an anthology called Expanding Universe Vol. 4, which was edited by popular indie science fiction author Craig Martelle. R.R. Virdi also was a two times finalist for the Dragon Award, an award which I hadn’t expected to have much overlap with the Nebulas.

I personally see absolutely nothing wrong with this. It is laughable to expect American writers to know the Asian. General inference: a few people are surprised by our existence.

This is not that odd. My friends are quite used to people being surprised by what we do. Generally, when I find myself among a group of Americans or Britishers, a common thread that pop up is surprise that “you speak good English! Where did you learn it?

So this kind of thing is nothing out of the ordinary.

I told Ronnie of this post and toddled on by.

THE FAN HITS THE SHIT

And then one Annie Bellet happened. I started seeing links to her rant on Twitter.

She was referencing the Felapton post and seemed apoplectic. And the tweet was exploding everywhere, on both groups and my timeline.

My understanding at the time was that “slate” is either a fine-grained, metamorphic rock or a major US media corp. A search for “Slate award” turned up a magazine from Phuket. Because of the vote-call nature, I tried “Slate politics”, which turned up a podcast.

So I clicked through to the post, which is by one Camestros Felapton. Felapton, from the “about” page is either a small organization or a person with several ingenious alter egos [21]. The post seemed ruminative about 20Books, and noted gently that

So was there a 20bboksto50 slate? Well, they have a closed Facebook group but it’s not a particularly mysterious group or highly exclusive and I don’t thing it is a secret (but perhaps not well known) that they’ve had a recommended reading list for the Nebulas for a few years…

So clearly it’s a political-vote-list-thing. And people are riled up because a SFWA official put up a list in the 20Books group – a list which included myself and Ronnie.

Annie Bellet was raging at it being unethical and wondering how we can live with ourselves for our names being on this list. Implied accusation is that indies are gaming the award system somehow.

This was a bit confusing. The Nebulas are voted on only by SFWA members, who are made members are proof of professional work. So whoever the hell is voting in there are professional scifi and fantasy writers. So somehow there is a cabal of indie professional writers within a circle of professional writers voting in a different way?

Now, I do not know Annie Bellet from Adam, and I wanted to find out why she was screaming about this list. Sequence of actions:

Her Twitter bio says “USA Today bestselling author”, so I googled for
Annie Bellet USA Today

Which showed Twitter, Website, Twitter. Okay. Didn’t see the USAT page, but she’s clearly quite a prolific author. 

So I tweeted and asked her five questions [22]:
~~~~

Hi, Annie. My name’s on that list. May I introduce myself?
0) I’m a hybrid – I’m a traditionally published author who does short story work in indie anthologies. Being a newcomer, I have one point and some questions.

1) I understand that we South Asian writers may not exactly be well known to you and your community, but I urge you to use our good friend @Google. Creds: 5-book deal with @HarperCollinsIN. I do have some understanding of how difficult it is to compete with trad pub. Firsthand.

2) How is this recommendation list, which uses what I understand to be publicly available (to SWFA members) recommended list data data, different to these lovely “nomination recommendation lists” which I’ve read for years?

3) Are there enough indie authors in SFWA to swing a vote without trad pubbed authors also voting on these works?  

4) Lastly, have you actually read any of the work herein, to judge them by their merit as you so rightfully advocate?

~~~~

I read the post again and it seemed like some serious foaming-at-the-mouth insinuation that the indies are rigging votes somehow.

So, two more adds:

~~~~

5) If there are works you deem worthy or unworthy, unless indie outnumbers trad pub, why has the SFWA community vote not reflected your opinion?

6) Or is it taboo only when your friends don’t win?

~~~~

Right. I’m going to have another drink and rant.

I asked most of these questions because this whole business seemed odd, and these seemed reasonable questions to ask: if I could get at the ratio of indie: trad, then I have a better understanding of how the system can be gamed, because the list was a) not something we signed up for, ever and b) posted by a reputable source.

And I will be perfectly honest. The last question I asked because I’m a snarky ass on occasion and have no intention of being derided by some rando. 

Accusations were made, but no useful information was obtained.

And I am “super obtuse on purpose out of guilt of whatever” about a list made by a SWFA director on a group and she cannot tell me what about being on this list makes it ethically evil. Lists are either allowed or not allowed. A professional organization has rules or it does not. At some point she tweeted “JFC YOU KNOW THE NORTON CAN BE SWUNG WITH 10 VOTES FFS”.

No, I did not know. I assumed the Norton was a separate award altogether. And hearing that ten votes can swing anything seemed, quite frankly, ridiculous. The SFWA website and the Wikipedia article say that this is voted on by a substantial membership of professionals.

The conversation with Bellet went from bad to worse. She followed up:

Okay.

“Like, I’m sorry you felt to cheat to need to get noticed, but like…that doesn’t make it okay.”

Like, you just took an argument about rules and dragged race into it and straight-up told me I cheated. While, like, being beyond condescending, like, this.

Wow. Really, lady.

We did not “cheat” to “even the score” because people of color find it hard to get published. I am far more aware of the difficulty of getting published than you are, because I fucking live on the other side of the world from all the publishers and the readers. But never once have I dragged my skin color into my writing. Ronnie and I wrote a fucking story. We got it published.

We did not ask to get it published because we were brown. We submitted it to an anthology as per protocol and contract, 12-point fucking formatting and all, and we never asked for consideration of skin color.

People voted it in there. Professionals, as judged by SFWA, because, like, nobody else can use or see your systems.

We did not ask them to with our skin color or that crap. We are not some brown Oliver Twist, sitting at your little writers’ table, palms upraised, asking “please sir, may I have some more?”

That is an ugly fucking accusation. And the bottle is three-fourths gone.

I grew irritated. I told her Asia is a large place. It is, and quite frankly there’s enough here without me trying to even cultural bias in America. And quite frankly, I do not and will not bend over to people accusing me of cheating to even racial scores, especially when they can condescend from a damn high horse and accuse me of some reverse Affirmative Action but won’t answer a simple bloody question.

It is so fucking obvious she can’t even. At this point Bellet’s little gaslighting brigade has already stepped in, and my notifications are filling up with people calling me a sealion and blocking me instantly.

At roughly the same time, this article went up on a site called file770 [27]. File770, I gather, is a long-running community fanzine. I would have liked to read it on a good day. Unfortunately, I landed on what seemed like an extraordinary comment shitfest. I’ll leave it to the reader to pursue.

Well done, Bellet.

Well co-ordinated.

Meanwhile, Craig Martelle informed us that this was probably a grudge Annie had with him – something involving a story last year. The thick plottens.

At this point, I received news that Pakistan had just shot down two Indian jets in their airspace [23]. War between those two countries could go anywhere and destroy damn near everything, so I switched to watching that instead. Pretty soon the videos began to leak to us of a crashed Indian Wing Commander being mobbed by villagers at the crash site, and then of him being taken in, blindfolded, by the Pakistani Army.

Local geopolitics is more concerning than some American dox brigade on Twitter. So I focused on the important.

HISTORY LESSONS

By the time I came back, some people who had actually read my questions stepped in: Mary Anne Mohanraj, longtime SFWA member and editor of Strange Horizons, Matt MIkalatos, who has been in both SWFA and the 20Books group, and JA Sutherland. There were others who stepped in – Rogers Cadenhead, for example, whose books I had once read. Between them they began filling me in on the reason for Bellet’s rage – the Puppies.

Until this point I had vaguely been aware of Puppies and some sort of phenomenon in the Hugo Awards. As much as we heard of it, it went like this: there was a conservative group within the Hugo community who called themselves the Puppies. For some reason they maneouvered an author called Chuck Tingle into the Hugo, and some company called Vox Day plagiarised a book by John Scalzi. I had once looked up Chuck Tingle and seen something like this:

 

At the time I looked at this, thought “that’s too much Internet for the day” and went back to life.

Between Mohanraj, Mikalatos and and Sutherland I was filled in on the story of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies – what Wired called “the Hidden, Wildly NSFW scandal of the Hugo nominations” [24]. It is an ugly, political affair – American right-wing vs left, racist insults level at authors, a huge split in the fanbase, and it happened four years ago.

Bellet was an author who was nominated for a Hugo, and as she said, was forced to withdraw because of an intentional, internal effort to break the voting structure and patterns of the Hugo.

I read everything they sent with great dismay. I had assumed that science fiction and fantasy authors, of all people, could get along together and be professional. But no, clearly not here. There are even editors from major publishing houses involved. There tweets, he-said-she-said, vitriol on both sides, hate brigades on both sides . . . American politics in a nutshell.

As for Bellet, she did not go gentle into that good night:

But eventually she did. It is truly sad to see what happened. You can see her breaking over hundreds of posts. I would not wish this on my worst enemy.

Matt MIkalatos’ point was that Annie Bellet is still extremely raw and angry when it comes to matters of this sort. There is still trauma. And I can now understand: this is an ugly thing to happen to someone.

We understand trauma. I come from a country where 30 years of civil war [ending in 2009] and insurrection has created psychological wounds for generations (and I’ve lost family to bombs, but let’s not harp on that). An editor I was once writing for, told me a series of stories about the JVP insurrections that claimed his friends. From his blog, lest you disbelieve [25]:

“Who has heard of Senadheera from Kurunegala, a teacher and who of Dassanayake from Matale, born with a congenital defect in an eye that made it impossible for him to hide behind a disguise? Dassanayake knew his time was coming and he refused to escape: ‘I have brought too many people into this to leave now,’ he said. He was drawn and quartered, literally, and his body parts hung from a tree in Katugastota. His question/exclamation marks don’t have identity tags. Neither did those of Lalith from Kuliyapitiya, the medical student Atapattu, and countless others, including Thrimavitharana of the Colombo Medical Faculty who had nails driven into his skull, who was tied to the back of a jeep and dragged along a gravel road.”

And yet even when this editor met a person who had played a role in the opposing party at the time, he was civil. Curt and a little short, perhaps, but there was coherent discourse.

So if you want to tell me about people who are raw from their grief, rest assured there is enough grief here to flood you. We understand it all too well. But even here, after bloodshed and pain, civility and basic coherence exists. This may be the realm of fantasy to you, but this is how it works in this part of the world. Pakistan just shot down a combatant from a country they’ve been at war with for 70 years and they gave him tea, for God’s sake.  We leave the screaming to politicians, who are understood to be boors. I understand that communities, by nature, privilege certain individuals over others, but I expected better.

And I had expected there to be some sort of coherent process, and then we meet and greet people, talk starships and wizards and clap for the best works among the finalists. Instead there is layers and layers of politics.

I’ve tried understanding American politics before, and it’s a bizarre mutation. Their conservatives are, like ours, highly religious, but they also champion freedom of speech, like our liberals, and they want a minarchist state, preferring to let market economies work. Their liberals are, like ours, pro-equality, but unlike ours they seem to disfavor freedom of speech and prefer heavier government structures. This is interesting, because this markets bit at least comes from the economist Hayek, who championed free markets at all cost. Hayek’s views were considered liberal in his day and would be considered a liberal pretty much anywhere else; it was Keynes who was the conservative.

This is like driving on the left side. They take something normal and do it the other way around.

So I started asking people if I could email the, and what the protocol is in these sort of accusations. We both started reaching out to writers who seemed affiliated or awarded by SFWA. We were given four types of feedback, which I’ll merge and paraphrase:

  1. This is a community norm and should have been communicated clearly from the start. Now that you know, you should withdraw.
  2. This is on SFWA. They either have rules or they do not. You should not withdraw.
  3. This is not SFWA. Twitter and file770 is not a representative portion of the actual community.
  4. Give up. You are not them. You aren’t really part of this community and never will be, and Twitter is the tip of the iceberg.

We understand point 2, which was communicated to us by a surprising political spectrum. But both Ronnie and I come from collectivist cultures where the rights of the community are generally privileged over the rights of the individual. So we looked for evidence of vote swings. Neither of us have access to voting lists, but the public recommended reading data from the earlier list revealed a lot of authors we respect (with eight hidden names that Ronnie can’t see – apparently one needs higher access for this), among them several bestsellers and a Locus Award winner.

Meanwhile, there was a rather persistent battalion of these anonbots. By this time I was both tired and irritated. Whatever joy the award nomination had once held had been completely obliterated. Pournelle’s Rods from God could not have done a better job of smashing my respect for this to pieces. I had imagined this to be some hallowed community where the very best celebrated each other’s work. Instead all I saw was lies, ugliness and incoherence, and the remarkable hubris of people who expect everyone in the world to be updated on their conference gossip. I had told Ronnie I didn’t want the damn thing anymore. I have no intention of being bounced around like a game piece for other people’s entertainment. 

This thing is supposed to be merit-based. By all means, vote on Messenger, don’t vote on Messenger, it is *entirely* up  to the reader. At the end of the day, we never expected Messenger to go anywhere in the first place. It was a pleasant surprise, but beauty, like contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. But instead it seems to participate in this mess we need not just to write, but magically intuit the unwritten drama and soap opera crap of a handful of people several thousand miles away. We had reached out to SFWA officials for a response, but we got none. Ronnie, who at the best of times has to deal with extreme depression, was oscillating. Amy Duboff, who was feeling singled out and extremely hurt, was turning into the eye of the storm in a circle of angry authors.

I understand that the SFWA board was investigating – the board members had responded to us and passed on their apologies and agreed to meet. But there was still nothing in public, which might explain the ire you will see below: 

Yeah. It’s a fucking mess. And I have the dirty impression that Amy got a hell of a lot more flak than Ronnie and I did.

There was at least some progress. Mikalatos, after we had some discussion about the history, offered to reach out to Bellet and open communications. I said the obvious thing: yes, please go ahead. I communicated my intentions to write a response to the file770 piece, and we had a conversation about how much this whole thing sucked.

And I went back to this endless rabbit hole of vitriol and venom and to chat with Ronnie about what the actual fuck to do about this mess.

It is 3 AM here, so I’m going to stop here and publish it when I wake up. Our thoughts and analysis will follow soon, and hopefully serve as a permanent record for any others from my region who may someday end up here. There is still thread to unravel, but I’ve later, after work, once I have some time to write without killing sleep. 

REFERENCES

[1] https://nebulas.sfwa.org/

[2] I believe I think better when I write.

[3] McPherson, M.; Smith-Lovin, L.; Cook, J. M. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks”. (2001)

[4] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. ESA/P/WP/248.

[5] Passel, Jeffrey S., and D. V. U. S. Cohn. “US population projections: 2005-2050.” (2008).

[6] https://chem.libretexts.org/Ancillary_Materials/Exemplars_and_Case_Studies/Exemplars/Geology/Silicon_Dioxide_in_Earth’s_Crust

[7] Evangelion is a dark science fiction story from the mecha sub-variant of Japanese science fiction manga. Evangelion’s key feature are its bio-tech tanks, its brutally depressed, mentally damaged pilots, and its overture of religious themes. The name in Japanese is 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン – Shinseiki Evangerion, or “The Gospel of the New Century”. It was directed by Hideaki Anno.

[8] Gasaraki, on the other hand, uses this trope to depict contemporary warfare. Key features are the present of support squads, news reports, environmental damage, and heavy cultural elements, for example, Shinto and samurai armor. It was co-created by Ryousuke Takahashi and Hajime Yatate and written by Toru Nozaki.

[8] A series of military science fiction books from the 1960’s and 1970’s by Keith Laumer, featuring “Bolos” – AI tanks that get steadily more complex and intelligent over the series. One particular story featured Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and I liked it a lot.

[9] Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Not though the soldier knew // Someone had blundered. //  Theirs not to make reply // Theirs not to reason why // Theirs but to do and die.

[10] https://www.facebook.com/yudhanjaya/posts/10215703411714770

[11] https://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142348310/keynes-consuming-ideas-on-economic-intervention

[12] https://thamara.blog/the-science-of-sri-lankan-sci-fi-8c93ddb5ee34

[13] https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/IJOEM-07-2012-0063?journalCode=ijoem

[14]http://pulse.lk/kindleleaf/sci-fi-writer-yudhanjaya-wijeratne-2019-nebula-award-nominees/

[15]https://www.amazon.com/Tower-Babylon-Vintage-Short-Chiang-ebook/dp/B01DRXF6OQ

[16] https://libraryofbabel.info/Borges/libraryofbabel.pdf

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_M._Schoen

[18] https://groundviews.org/2018/04/23/weaponising-280-characters-what-200000-tweets-and-4000-bots-tell-us-about-state-of-twitter-in-sri-lanka/

[19] http://corabuhlert.com/2019/02/21/some-thoughts-on-the-2018-nebula-award-finalists/

[20] https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/the-nebulas-20booksto50-not-a-nudge-nudge-slate/

[21] https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/about/

[22] https://twitter.com/yudhanjaya/status/1100440376333107201

[23] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/india-pakistan-tensions-latest-updates-190227063414443.html

[24] https://www.wired.com/2017/04/hugo-nominations-who-is-stix-hiscock/

[25] https://anniebellet.com/hugo-nomination-and-thoughts/#comment-941

[26] http://malindawords.blogspot.com/2014/07/remembering-richard-and-forgetting.html

[27] http://file770.com/annie-bellet-criticizes-20booksto50k-slate-and-members-of-the-group-respond/

[28] https://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Hayek.html

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