14 October 2001
The following "open letter" was drafted prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, indeed, shortly after the "Millennium Philcon" of 2001. Indeed, I was going to run it off and mail it to Locus on the very Tuesday of September 11th. Needless to say, I did not do so.
I hesitate even now to bring it to the attention of anyone, considering the relative triviality of its concerns, e.g., discrimination, prejudice, censorship, partisan programming, intellectual policing, and such. One feels, in the aftermath of September 11th, these pettinesses, however deliberate and arrogant, and however beneath contempt, might best be allowed to lapse into dust bin of the unnoticed, and perhaps the best forgotten.
Is it not like the squabbles of children in the kindergarten, while buildings crumble outside the windows?
On the other hand, concerns relatively trivial are nonetheless real, and ideological cancers, however small in their inception, are worth the therapy of attention, and, ideally, excision, lest they be allowed to metastasize to the detriment of a small but precious genre of literature. Accordingly, with some reluctance and embarrassment, I submit some thoughts, herewith, to the attention of the tolerant and the open-minded, the lovers of a literature which refuses to be prostituted to ideological ends, and, in general, to the practitioners and respecters of reason, the lovers of a free marketplace of ideas, the seekers of truth, and the believers in, and guardians of, freedom.
So, hoping not to make mountains of molehills, and not ostentatiously taking arms against "a sea of troubles," but rather with some reluctance against a puddle of prejudice, let us proceed.
The Millennium Philcon
59th World Science Fiction Convention
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U. S. A.
I do not know, of course, how many of you were actually closely involved in programming decisions at the recent "world science fiction convention." To those of you who objected to, or were innocent of, ideological activism, the following remarks are not addressed. In particular, they are not intended to express anything critical of my many friends in the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society who have time and time again welcomed me to their community. It must be clearly understood that the convention was not in their hands, but in the hands of others, and that the taints of the recent convention in no way apply to, or affect, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. There seems little common ground, other than the accidents of geography, between that esteemed group, so significant in the history of our genre, and the corporation to which the 59th world science fiction convention was entrusted.
For those in the science-fiction community who are interested in freedom of speech, a free and open marketplace of ideas, in debate, dialogue, reason, and such, the recent convention is a considerable embarrassment. It seems a shame that the Millennium World Science Fiction Convention will be remembered for its suppression of dissent, an absence of authentic dialogue, its exclusionistic criteria for participation, and its parochial PC mentality. The past cannot be undone, though, I suppose, it is easy enough to lie about it.
I received a note, dated June 21, 2001., in response to a letter of inquiry, dated June 7, 2001, my letter pertaining to the possible refusal of certain members of the programming committee to countenance an intellectually open convention. My first letter was dated April 7, 2001, and the program-participant list was several times added to, and updated, after that time.
The following is my response to the note.
Thank you for your note of June 21, 2001.
Your note reads, in part, as follows:
Thank you for your interest in being a Program participant at the Millennium Philcon. However, we are unable to accept your offer for this Worldcon.
However, we expect to be able to have a mass autographing session at the Worldcon. Any writer in attendance will be welcome to come in and sign.
It will be noted, in connection with the first paragraph above, that it was not made clear why the "acceptors and rejecters" were "unable" to accept my offer of participation. I thought they were in charge of programming. Without being sanguine to edit another's discourse, I think, perhaps, they might have said something like "we refuse to let you participate" or, perhaps, "because of political pressures, from certain authors and/or fans, we feel it might our jeopardize our position in a personality network, to have an open convention."
I was sorry to be unpleasant, but how else could one possibly have construed such a lame and implausible remark.
With respect to the second paragraph, their offer was empty, and insulting. For example, as my name did not appear on the list of program participants none of my fans would know that I would be there, and, accordingly, would not bring any books to sign. It is hard for me to suppose that this detail escaped the notice of the "acceptors and rejecters."
The grounds for my exclusion were clearly not logistic or professional. For example, I wrote to the committee months before the convention, arid their membership list had been updated, with new additions, several times since that time. That rules out the rationalization of not enough chairs in the hotel, or such. Similarly, the grounds for my exclusion could not plausibly be professional. Had I not sold enough millions of books? For example, I have had several million books published in the genre of science fiction, have a worldwide fandom, am available in several languages, and have had two movies made which were putatively based on my work. I think there are very few, if any, authors, much as we love them all, who had objectively made more of a contribution to the genre in the past fifty years.
To be sure, one could always define 'contribution' in a certain way in order to make things come out in a certain way, a way in which one would like them to come out.
Whereas it is always unpleasant to be the victim of discrimination, to be misunderstood, denounced, slandered, libeled, and such, as I have often been, there is really more at stake here than discriminating against a particular author, or authors, in order to have a politically correct convention, and one that will appease and please certain insecure and narrow-minded individuals who want to keep science fiction a one-restaurant town. What is at stake here is more than, say, one author, and whether he is a bastard or not, and so on; what is at stake is the integrity and openness of a genre of literature; is it to be free, or not; is dialogue to be permitted, or not; is restriction, exclusion, and censorship to characterize the genre, or not?
There was an attempt on the part of an author, whose name I omit, as I don't think the reflection on his moral character would do him, or anyone, much good, some years ago, to keep me from the San Antonio World Science Convention. But he did not get his way. Unfortunately for him he was dealing with Texans, folks from the Lone Star State, and they believe in freedom, perhaps having won it in war. One prizes such things. But it seems that the same values did not obtain in Philadelphia this year.
The acceptors and rejecters had every right, of course, to close their convention, to yield to the censors and haters, but it disappoints me that they did so. It is not good for the genre, and I do not think it is really good, morally, for them to have done so. After all, they will be what they do.
I made it clear in my correspondence with the "committee" that I was perfectly willing, incidentally, in public debate, or in an independent lecture, to explain and defend my views, my position, on a large number of topics. For example, I am a libertarian, and not an establishment neosocialist, and I would have been happy to discuss the demonstrated shortcomings and dangers of statist positions. I would have been happy to talk about social dynamics, statism, collectivism, authoritarianism, the altruist-collectivistic morality, to talk about the incentive problem, the totalitarian problem, the information problem, the values of a free market, the utility of invisible-hand processes, and such. Similarly I made it clear that I was ready to explain and defend the right of consenting human beings to apply to sexual relationships the delights of fantasy and the joys of the liberated imagination. Sex, as Ayn Rand tried to convince the prudes and bigots of her day, and seemingly failed, is not low, degrading, evil, and such. There are more possibilities for sex than five minutes in the dark twice a week. I thought that perhaps some of the puritans and censors, excluders, hypocrites, slanderers, and liars, would have cared to discuss these issues publicly, before an open-minded, attentive audience, rather than hide, hoping to keep the members of the science-fiction community ignorant of a large variety of interesting alternatives to their own unquestioned dogmatisms and complacent bigotries But I was wrong.
I informed the committee that they cannot really keep censorship, blacklisting, and such, secret. I told them that if they ran a closed convention, one denying dialogue and the appearance of views not congenial to a current establishment, that that will be clear.
I would not want such a stain on my honor, but I suppose one man's stain is another's convention ribbon of self-preening rectitude.
Science fiction should not be limited to the "over-and-over stuff." There should be room, too, for the "never-before stuff." Someday perhaps the Berlin wall of science fiction will be brought down. But I do not think it will come down in the near future. In my view science fiction has driven on the left side of the road long enough. She has been a one-restaurant town, with only item on the bill of political fare long enough. Why has science fiction, standard science fiction, a ghetto existence, and small audiences? Guess. There is a population out there which might well be interested in hearing what science fiction has to say, if it thought it had anything to say.
Science fiction's future deserves more than to be a literary backwater despised by serious critics, and held in contempt by the average intellectual; it deserves more than to be a vehicle for an endless potlatch of prizes.
One thing I think the programming committee should clearly understand, and I am not sure it did, is that there are many people in science fiction, and a number of them are very well-known and famous people, who do believe in free speech and an open marketplace for ideas. They are not afraid of such things. Indeed, they believe such things are essential for an open genre, and, indeed, for an open society. Not everyone finds discrimination, censorship, and such, acceptable. Whereas exclusion may please the thought police of science fiction, it does not, I state for a fact, please everyone in the genre. Whose good opinion did the program committee desire? That seems clear. It had a choice. I am disappointed at the choice it made.
Incidentally, I was amused to see that the programming committee was supposedly interested in strengthening its serious or literary side. I have a Ph.D. from a major Ivy League University in philosophy, and have appeared on panels having to do with Verne, Stapledon, Wells, Asimov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cordwainer Smith, Murray Leinster, Ayn Rand, and others. I also proposed a panel, rejected without explanation, having to do with the science fiction of Poe and Hawthorne. I suppose that is not literary enough.
I am not the only individual, of course, who found the programming inexplicable except on grounds of buddy-buddy politics, and ideological nepotism. On the other hand, of those excluded, I suspect I have a pretty good business and literary argument. If millions of sales in the genre, and such, are not good enough to earn a place on even one panel, while dozens of individuals who are unknown, or practically unknown, appear on several panels, something, if not rotten in Denmark, is certainly surprising somewhere. It is my hope that this convention will not be an ill omen for the future of science fiction. She deserves better.
I have attended five World Science Fiction Conventions. The last one, ironically conducted in the very city in which the Declaration of Independence was signed, which must be an embarrassment for anyone with any historical sense, was the first in which I was denied permission to participate. What are we to gather here, that the first four conventions were wrong? That science fiction is to remain tile province of a political backwater, an enclave of uncritical, smug, effusively emoting, self-righteous leftist Bourbons who after a hundred million deaths and the collapse of civilizations have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, that it is to be forever the sanctuary of the "religious left," the captive of proponents of a historically refuted, bankrupt ideology? She deserves better.
Monothink is not the salvation of science fiction; it is its death knell as an intellectually stimulating branch of literature. Science fiction could be so much, and it is confined to so little.
I do not need this genre, but I love it. Indeed, I must love it, to have put up for years with the abusive, predictable crap of the politically blinkered ideological Pavlovians, the psychologically insecure, the emotionally immature, the morally benighted, and the sexually retarded, of which science fiction has more than her share.
I will close on a personal note, which is trivial, but interesting. I wanted to purchase one of Tom Kidd's wonderful prints at the convention, but I did not do so, for a simple reasonevery time I would look at it on the wall, I would be reminded of Discriminationcon.
My wife put it very nicely: "In Philadelphia the Liberty Bell does not ring."
I wish you well,
John Norman is the pen-name of John Lange of Great Neck, New York, and as such the author of the popular though controversial Gor series of novels, numbering more than 20 volumes published since 1966. Priest-Kings of Gor, the third volume in the series, has just been re-issued by New World Publishers.