It doesn’t matter what critical distance you adopt from the media you consume, it has an impact on you. So it is not without some trepidation that I bought, downloaded and began reading The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi’s bestselling and Hugo finalist space opera. For context for new readers, a significant amount of my time since 2015 has been spent reading the various arguments, discourses and ramblings of the far-right in science fiction for whom John Scalzi, in particular, has been a subject of intense hatred.
In that time, I’ve also read a lot of what John Scalzi has written but not a lot (if any) of his fiction. That’s a bit weird. I’ve exchanged a couple of Tweets, had one of my more absurd projects mentioned on his blog and written a fair amount about the “alt-Right” Vox Day’s ongoing feud against him. I’ve also, inevitably, read an awful, awful lot of Sad and Rabid Puppy complaints about his writing – mainly that it ‘used to be’ good and that somehow it has become bad or derivative or single-handedly making Tor/Macmillan bankrupt.
The nature of the Puppy hatred for all things Scalzinomic is multifold but straightforward:
- He was president of the SFWA during a period when the left-right conflict in SF was using the SFWA as an arena.
- His blog had an active comment section that prior to the Sad Puppies becoming a thing included people like Brad Torgersen who ended up having some of his comments moderated (a trauma from which he appears still to recover from).
- Vox Day hates him – partly this is Vox Day transferring his even deeper hatred for Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden onto the more public figure of John Scalzi.
- John Scalzi’s early big success (Old Man’s War) was exactly the kind of Science Fiction that many Sad Puppies want to be the norm but he then sided with the ‘wrong’ side in the cultural-ideological conflict.
- He is very adept at polite putdowns.
Scalzi’s ‘Collapsing Empire’ in particular received a lot of attention from the SF far-right. Axiomatically it had to be bad from their perspective – Scalzi had long been established as the figurehead villain in their narrative of SF’s culture wars with Tor as the Galactic Empire to Scalzi’s Darth Vader*. That their perspective on the book made little sense in a competitive commercial market was neither here nor there: they just knew it was bad and that it was going to fail and that Scalzi had run out of ideas years ago etc.
Bizarrely, one of the main points thrown at it was that the book was derivative – that Scalzi was simply borrowing ideas from Azimov and Heinlein. I say ‘bizarrely’ because this was exactly the kind of return to the past that many Puppies were calling for. Again, the Puppy attacks on Scalzi’s role in SF was that he was somehow worse than all the other writers writing things that the Puppies DEFINITELY hated precisely because he was writing things so close to what they claimed they wanted.
Ah but was he? There’s the thing. I’ve been wading through perspectives that I knew were skewed biased and poorly thought through for years now when it comes to John Scalzi’s fiction. I know from other Puppy arguments that even their misconceptions can be misconceived on the issue that they are misconceived about.
The extent to which I’ve engaged (all be it critically) with the Scalzi-hate from the right without actually engaging with his more recent fiction, includes reading and reviewing Vox Day’s attempted spoiler book called variously ‘Corrosion: The Corroding Empire Part by Johan Kalsi and/or Harry Seldon Edited by Vox Day’. That was over a year ago and I suspect I’m one of the very few people to have read it and one of the very few people who have a copy for reasons other than thinking that owning a copy is some kind of propaganda by deed in a bid to restore medieval style monarchies or whatever it is the alt-right actually want to do.
The issue is whether my perspective is now so thoroughly skewed in reaction to alt-right hatred that I can’t really read The Collapsing Empire? Will finding flaws feel like I’m conceding ground to Krypto-fascists, will I doubt myself if I find it praiseworthy – that I’m overcompensating for saturating my brain with anti-Scalzi propaganda? Oh dear! I’m just reading a book – I’m not some John Le Carre like character who has spent to long on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall**!
There is, only one solution. Dive in and read The Collapsing Empire but first write a rambing post to debrief myself from the baggage. It is time to go with the Flow.
*[Yes, this metaphor might be politically backward]