Rachel Swirsky

Guest Post from Rachel Swirsky: Coping with Harassment (Also, Butts!)

Rachel Swirsky is one of the founding editors of PodCastle, served as Vice President of SFWA, and is a prolific author as well. She’s twice won the Nebula award, and has also been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Sturgeon, and the World Fantasy Awards. Her second Nebula win was for her story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” which was also nominated for the Hugo.

Like every other award-winning story in existence, you had people who loved this story, and others who didn’t. And just like the rest of us, when faced with a story they didn’t like getting such honors, everyone calmly accepted that different people have different tastes, and looked for worthy work to nominate and support for next year.

Yeah, not so much. A small group set out to harass the hell out of the author, up to and including “jokes” about killing her.

Swirsky responded with a fundraiser, “Making Lemons into Jokes,” which has so far raised more than $700 for Lyon-Martin health services, one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the LGBTQIAA community — especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. As part of the fundraiser, she’ll be writing a new story that riffs in part on this year’s Hugo Award mess, “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.”

I asked her to talk a bit about coping with this kind of harassment. Read on for her thoughts.

Also — and this should go without saying — if you start trolling or bullying in the comments, my web goblins will ban your ass so hard you’ll spend the next month farting through your nose.


My warm thanks to Jim for letting me come into his space to talk a bit about the fundraiser I’m doing for Lyon-Martin health services through my Patreon. We talked a bit about what subjects I might want to discuss. For Ann Leckie, I wrote about why advice to ignore the bullies misses the point. For Mary Robinette Kowal, I wrote about a few of the many threads in my life that make advocacy important.

Jim asked me to write about how to cope with harassment. That overlaps a little with what I wrote for Ann, but on her blog, I wrote about how to be part of a community that was coping, not how to be an individual who copes with being a target.

A few years ago, there were a lot of pieces circulating about how hard it could get for women online. The VOLUME of hate and harassment; the INTENSITY of it; the terrifying PERSISTENCE. It spoke not of ordinary road-rage-type flame outs, but of something with more emergent structure. Not just drivebys, but pack hounds, stalking victims.

I wrote to a woman who had published such an article. “I so admire your courage,” I told her. “I don’t think I could stand up to it. I’m a weak person.”

It’s strange, I suppose, to identify yourself as a weak person. I am, though. A long time ago, I was on a panel about apocalypses, and someone (I believe it was the keenly insightful Eileen Gunn) said that viewers and readers always identify with survivors, assuming they too would survive.

I don’t. I’d die.

That’s fine. There are zombies or there are Rachel Swirskys and the twain shall not meet, except for the bloody moment of skull-breaking and brain-scavenging. I hope the zombie comes out of it with nagging depression and Star Trek pedantism.

I could write a whole essay interrogating the concept of weakness as I’m using it, of course. But that’s not this essay. I want to talk about how I feel about myself, not culturally critique the feeling.

I am weak because I am vulnerable. It’s dangerous to admit being vulnerable. Bullies go for the vulnerable. That’s one of the things they do.

When I wrote to the woman mentioned above, to tell her that I admired her courage, she expressed concerns. In retrospect, I think she meant that it does not take unusual courage to stand up to harassment. The women who stand up to it are not superhuman. They have done and are doing a difficult thing that no one should have to do, but they undertake that labor as people, with their own strengths and stresses.

I do not need to look at that woman and think, “You are brave. I am not.”

I can look at her and think, “Courage is work you do, not who you are.”

(A complication: Some people really are less vulnerable and more buoyant than others. Often, they’re the ones who speak more, which is perfectly natural.  They do everyone a great favor by using their resources and energy to speak out. But it can feel intimidating sometimes, which is no one’s fault.)

Personally, I complain to friends a lot. I really, really like listening to the audio recording of Alexandra Erin’s John Scalzi Is Not a Very Popular Author, and I Myself Am Quite Popular. I subtweet; over time, that’s mostly become overt tweeting. I suspect specific solutions are very personal.

This I’m sure of: for me, it feels better to talk than stay silent.

If you’re vulnerable as I am, and you become a target as I have, this is the best I know to give you: You’re not alone.

Don’t count yourself out.


Hugo Novelettes

Most of the Hugo-nominated novelettes are available online, and I’ve linked to them where I could. Attending and supporting members of Worldcon can read them all through the Hugo Voters Packet.

My thoughts on the short story ballot are here, along with links to the stories.


Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders. The opening line is, “The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.” I really like this setup, and the conflict it creates between the man who sees a fixed, unavoidable future and the woman who believes she has free will to choose from various possibilities. I love how Anders presents the characters, both of whom have known for a long time that this relationship was coming and how it would go, but who still stumble through the same awkwardness as the rest of us. I loved the details, like the game Judy plays with her friend, picking random destinations and predicting what would happen if they packed up and went there that very day. Anders’ characters are so very human, and the conflict between them — is the future really fixed (Doug), or can you choose your future (Judy)? — is thoughtfully explored.

The answer Anders gives to that conflict is simultaneously tragic and scary and hopeful, and felt right for the story. This is the first story I’ve read by Anders, but it certainly won’t be the last.

Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky. “When Dennis died, he found himself in another place.” While exploring the possibilities of the afterlife isn’t exactly new (really, what is?), I like a lot of what Swirsky did here. Structurally, the things Dennis did and didn’t accomplish on his various lists of goals worked well, giving insight into his life and character. I particularly loved the celebrities who showed up, not as actual dead famous people, but as collective manifestations of the mundanes.

Overall though, the story didn’t work for me as well as it might have, because I didn’t really like the characters. They tended to be a bit too unpleasant for me. It’s a stylistically interesting and well-written story, but purely as a matter of personal taste, not my favorite.

The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell. Instead of giving you the opening line, I’m going to jump to this bit about Isaac Newton:

“[O]ld Isaac’s in his garden, an apple falls on his head, he picks it up and sees this tiny worm crawling across its surface, and so he starts thinking about the very small…”

I read this as a key to the alternate history Cornell presents, one with carriages exploring the solar system, spies manipulating what act like tiny wormholes, and a very different and well-detailed present-day (I think?) world. Jonathan Hamilton is a spy who encounters a woman named Lustre Saint Clair, a woman he knew fifteen years ago…who appears no older than eighteen years of age.

This draws Hamilton into a plot involving twin arms dealers who have been exploring space, discovered the relativistic effects of near-light-speed travel, and made not-so-successful contact with aliens. (Though the ending calls all of this into question.)

I believe this is the third of Cornell’s stories about Jonathan Hamilton. I’ve not read the others, which might account for some of my disorientation. I love the ideas and the worldbuilding, but I felt a bit disconnected from the story. I may reread this one if I have time, to see if that helps.

Ray of Light ($1.49 on Kindle) by Brad Torgersen. “My crew boss Jake was waiting for me at the sealock door.” Max Leighton is one of the thousands of surviving humans who fled to the ocean bottom after aliens blotted out the sun for reasons we never knew. His daughter is part of the first generation to grow up never having seen the sky.

I liked the classic SF feel of this one. Torgersen does a nice job with mood, conveying the sense of desperation and desolation on the sea bottom. And I thought the idea of the children developing their own religion/cult, and setting out on a possibly suicidal mission to the surface ice, made for a good story.

But it wasn’t a great story. I think my main complaint was that it felt a little too easy. I didn’t feel the urgency, and the reward at the end of the story felt … unearned, if that makes sense. The weight of the setup didn’t match the weight of the resolution.

What We Found by Geoff Ryman. This story won the Nebula award for Best Novelette. Set in Makurdi, Nigeria, it presents two intertwined narrative threads. One of Patrick and his family, which includes a schizophrenic father, an abusive grandmother, and a brother I’d describe as a bit of a trickster. The other story shows Patrick as a researcher who discovers that stress and trauma are passed down from father to son. But over time, other researchers lose the ability to duplicate his results, leading to another revelation:

“Simply put, science found the truth and by finding it, changed it … Some day the theory of evolution will be untrue and the law of conservation of energy will no longer work … Atoms will take only 50 more years to disappear.”

The science is a fascinating game of “What if?” and also presents an interesting lens with which to examine family, whether we inherit the flaws and pain of our ancestors, whether recognition could give freedom from such inevitabilities.


Having read through the short stories and novelettes, I have a lot of respect for the ambitious stories, and for authors who push to explore new ideas and possibilities, even if the end result isn’t perfect.

For those of you who’ve read them, what did you think?

Jim C. Hines