In defense of someone I really don’t know too much about

Elizabeth Moon.

Unless you’re a sci-fi/fantasy fan, you’ve never heard of her. If you are a sci-fi/fantasy, you still might not have. Moon is a prolific and well-regarded writer, but it’s possible to consider yourself well-read in the genre without waiting breathlessly for her next publication. You can’t say she’s a pioneer of women sci-fi authors — Ursula K. LeGuin and Andre Morton beat her and Lois McMaster Bujold by a generation. Still, she was among the first to present strong female characters with military bearing and tactical competence. (She herself was a Vietnam-era Marine Corps officer.)

I haven’t avoided her, but I say with some embarrassment that I never got around to reading any of Moon’s novels. I’m sure I’ve read her short fiction in the digests, but nothing stands out for me.

So ordinarily, if Elizabeth Moon were to say something stupid, it wouldn’t effect me and I’d probably never even know about it. But we live in the internet age and she has a blog.

My introduction to Moon’s writing, then, is an off-the-cuff posting about how people in her community have gone far out of their way in recent years to be nice to Muslims — essentially to avoid even the appearance of hostility toward a minority that is being demonized. I’m not going to reprint her words or even link to her blog, because her comments are best forgotten. Suffice to say, Moon comes across as a well-intentioned but clueless and condescending matron from middle America. Guess what: She is a mom who’s active in her smallish city(McAllen, Texas, about the same size as my native Allentown, Pa.). And, yes, she comes across as clueless and condescending in this post.

But it’s one post. She has written 30 novels and about as many short stories in the past 25 years, winning the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and Compton Crook awards. (Hmm, maybe I should give her books a chance.)

So how did this post even come to my attention when a quarter century of critical acclaim wasn’t enough?

Because it’s gone viral.

People who pride themselves on being tolerant and understanding have been pillorying her on their own blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook. These include a number whose opinions I broadly respect and whom I personally adore. Although I haven’t taken the time (and won’t) to verify this, I’m told that comments on Moon’s blog have prompted the author to dig in, doubling down on her unsupportable position. But isn’t that a natural, human reaction? When you’re under attack, don’t you defend yourself? Moon’s original comments weren’t intended to be taken personally, and yet they were. Maybe the same could be said about the responses: People were attacking Moon’s stance, not the person herself, but she took it the wrong way and things just spun out of control.

I would remind my fellow genre fans that blogging is not a natural act for someone who’s used to having beta readers, editors, proofreaders and reviewers comb through her work before it sees daylight (or, for high-end ebooks, backlight). Also, remember that we writers are are considered by some to be artists — we’re supposed to elicit a strong response. And even the most brilliant of us occasionally miscalibrates our words or takes a position that, had we thought about it or bounced it off someone else before committing to it, would’ve reconsidered.

Everybody, please give Elizabeth Moon the space and time to walk back her untenable statements.

In the meantime, I hope you don’t do or say anything stupid yourself. Your friends might never forgive you.

3 thoughts on “In defense of someone I really don’t know too much about

  1. Due to security restrictions on my web browser, it appears to me that there are no comments to this post. If there are, and I’m beating a dead horse, my apologies.

    But –
    Perhaps you are unaware of the context of Moon’s comments. This is part of a long-standing discussion in the SF/F community which can be said goes by the name RaceFail.

  2. allochthon,

    Thanks for your post. I was aware of racefail as a topic but wasn’t aware of the degree to which it has been documented.

    It seems to me that racefail was originally defined as getting cultural rubrics wrong when writing about people from backgrounds different from the author’s (an African-American using slang 30 years out-of-date, a dalit from Mumbai with a Punjabi surname and so on). These, to me, suggest poor fact-checking or lazy research rather than inherent racism. Any good author would be mortified when readers call this out, and some good-natured ribbing is inevitable assuming that everyone is willing to be generous of spirit.

    But, as you say, there’s a larger context. From the links you provided, it’s clear that people are inclined to think the worst about someone. Moreover, they no longer confine their criticism to an author’s published work, but rather to every stray thought they might unfortunately put in the public domain by blogging.

    There may be an even larger context, though: extending to others the same courtesy you would have them extend to you. One of your links illustrated this better than I ever could. Lois McMaster Bujold, when caught saying something that gave offense, tried to explain her position — which of course just made matters worse. When she finally realized her error, she made a humble apology which — and this is the part where I get a little frustrated — wasn’t accepted. It was greeted with an over-the-top rant. (I just think it’s bad form to use “goddamn” repeatedly when you’re telling someone else how offensive she’s being.)

    In my opinion, if you’re going to preach tolerance, you have to be tolerant. If someone is, as an ordering principle, dedicated to propositions that suggest one race or religion or sexual orientation is to be blotted out or eliminated, it’s certainly our moral duty to call them out. But when someone — a friend, someone for whom insensitive statements are out of character, someone with whom we’re disappointed but not really an adversary — is simply putting her foot in her mouth, maybe a more mild response is in order.

    What’s to be gained by flushing decades of great work down the toilet because of one remark?

    And, if we’re all afraid of losing not just our readership and our livelihood but our friends as well by saying something they might not accept, they might take issue with, which might even be dead wrong, then won’t we start self-censoring? Won’t we start limiting our thought on our way to limiting our speech?

    What great literature, what great art, what great idea was ever born out of the imperative not to offend?

  3. Update: I picked up my first Elizabeth Moon book at I-Con 30 this past weekend. “Oath of Fealty” is now in my briefcase and I’ll get started on it the moment I find myself in an airport or train station.

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