Last month, we talked money.
This month, let's talk attitude.
There's a lot of fear in the country right now. Much of it makes sense. The future is uncertain. But some of the fear comes from the careless hyperbole of our news media. For example, on the night that I write this column (in late February), Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, called the current economic crisis "the worst ever."
Now I'm not sure if he skipped a phrase from the TelePrompTer—
There have been a lot of "economic downturns" in American history. Until regulations were put into place during the New Deal of the 1930s, Americans lived on a continual boom-and-bust cycle.
The busts were catastrophic: bank closures—
Such things happened regularly. In the 19th century, the decade to own the title of the Great Depression was the 1870s. And let's not even discuss what happened economically to the American South as a result of losing the Civil War.
The problem with our media's coverage of this current crisis is not just caused by the occasional mistaken phrase. Part of the problem is a lack of education among journalists. If some day trader tells them it's the worst crisis ever, the modern journalist doesn't know how to check that fact (and, with the 24-hour news cycle, might not have time to do so).
The other part of the problem is that many of the people covering this crisis are under forty. Most of them don't remember the recession of the early 1980s, let alone the horrible economic conditions of the early 1970s. For a lot of the journalists and talking heads, this is the worst crisis ever.
Ooops. Missing a phrase there. The worst crisis ever in their lifetime.
It colors how they report the news. The way they report the news colors how we react to it.
This applies not just to the major news media covering the current economic crisis, but the science fiction news media covering our genre. Recently, I participated in one of John DeNardo's Mind Meld columns for the SF Site because he posed the perennial question about whether SF discriminates against women, although he tried to pose the question in a new way for a new century by asking if gender bias played a role in SF.
My first reaction to the question was a heavy sigh. I wrote a long piece about the ways that gender bias no longer exists in SF. Then I read what everyone else wrote.
I learned a few things. First, the question came about because a couple of editors had produced anthologies in the same year with few or no female names on the table of contents. One of the editors defended himself on the site, by stating he had invited women into his anthology, but the women either missed the deadline or bowed out at the last minute, forcing him to go to writers of his acquaintance who worked quickly and weren't already invited into the anthology. As a result, he produced the accidental womanless TOC.
Every editor has similar problems. The all-fantastic issue with no well-known fantasy writers (how I suffered through that for one issue of F&SF), the science fiction anthology with only slipstream stories (no one ended up writing a hardcore SF story) and so on. Such things happen.
But a group of people got upset about the lack of gender equality in these anthologies and wrote letters of complaint. And the editors responded, first with apologies and then with making certain that their future anthologies had a more diverse tables of contents.
What amazed me was that the same group of people believed this to be evidence of gender bias in SF publishing. And as I poured through the names of the complainants on the site and on linked blogs, I realized that all of these people were much younger than I am.
These young writers stand on a platform built by the writers who came before them. That platform states that gender bias is a bad thing. And so these writers complained, were heard, and got an explanation and an apology, because the editors involved shared the belief that gender bias is a bad thing. The editors were embarrassed and promised never to do such a thing again.
But what the writers don't seem to realize is what the real gender discrimination fight was like. I have an inkling, because I'm part of a crossover generation. I came in after the battles were won, but not every person was comfortable with the victory. I got a lot of hate mail that first month I edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction because I was the first woman to take the job.
I wasn't surprised by the vitriol of the letters. I'd encountered these attitudes about women from the moment I entered the workforce. I lost opportunity after opportunity because I was female. For example, I was one of the kids in my high school whose name was placed into consideration to be a Senate page in Washington, D.C., but the senator who was hiring the pages asked that I be removed because I was a girl. He wanted only male pages because females were "too much trouble."
That was 1977. I could have made a stink about the whole thing and actually received sympathetic press coverage. Had it been 1957, the press would have thought I was ridiculous for wanting a man's job.
The pioneering women in SF went through a great deal, some of it overt and some of it subtle. No one has written the definitive history of this part of the genre and someone should. Most of the pioneering women—
We are all influenced by the times we are born in. Our reactions to everything from gender bias to economic crisis comes from the events of our lives. I remember the economic downturns of the 1970s. I remember thinking in 1982 as I graduated from college that I would never be able to buy a house because I wouldn't be able to afford a mortgage with an 18% interest rate.
I think it's great that it's illegal for men to grope women on the job. I can't tell you how many times I got hugged or pinched on the butt or accidentally brushed across the breast. And I never suffered at work the way other women I know did. Or experienced the biases they would have to put up with.
But there's no way I can impart this information to that group of complaining women writers today without sounding like some cranky old fart. Just like I can't say that this economic crisis isn't the worst one I've lived through without defending that statement with statistics and charts.
It's difficult to convey the things you've lived through. And even if you do manage to convey some of it, you miss the emotional context.
For many people around the world, times are suddenly and inexplicably hard. They weren't prepared for this downturn. Many people didn't even realize it could happen because it hadn't happened in their lifetimes.
Nor do a lot of folks in the United States understand that they're standing on a platform built for them by earlier generations. In the Great Depression, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance. Or federally insured bank deposits. If you lost your job, you could live on your savings—
We all stand on platforms. Some of them are the places we start from. Those of us born fifty years ago stand on different platforms than our children do. Our grandchildren will stand on yet other platforms, higher and firmer ones, we hope.
It's science fiction's job to try to understand these platforms and see what they're building toward. But you can't do that job unless you understand the platforms of the past.
History teaches us the most about ourselves and our futures. With an understanding of what came before, we can't predict everything, but we can predict some things.
For example, I know that the arguments about gender bias in SF will eventually disappear. They're fewer and farther between now than they were when I came into the field, but they're not finished yet. (Although I think they should be. There are other things to argue about.)
Just like I know that this economic downturn will never be as bad as the crisis of 1931-33, the worst of the Great Depression, because of the safeguards put into place by the folks who lived through that time. We may be living through the worst economic disaster of the past seventy years. But other folks lived through tougher times.
Including science fiction writers. Think how many SF writers started their careers in the 1930s. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, just to name a few. Others sustained existing careers through this period. In his autobiography, Wonder's Child, Jack Williamson actually records how much writing income he earned for each year of the 1930s.
Jack's income in those days, sporadic as it was, was pretty high. For example, he out-earned my grandfather, who had a great job working for the postal service. And Jack continued to earn this money year in and year out, even as the country sank deeper and deeper into economic darkness.
I hear a lot of gloom and doom from science fiction writers right now. Some of it is accurate: times are tough. But I go back to my history. If science fiction writers managed to start and sustain careers in the 1930s, then SF writers can do the same now.
The keys to our present lie in our past. The clues to our future lie there as well. We can't always predict what will happen, but we can learn the patterns of history.
Once we know those, then we can be calm in the face of any crisis.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn't being glib when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He was being accurate. Attitude is, perhaps, the most important survival tool we have.
We will get through this downturn. Science fiction will survive. Books will survive. And these tough times will become stories to tell our grandchildren—