Individual Pieces vs. the Larger Puzzle

kaiweilau posted photos of the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague.  From Wikipedia, “The ossuary contains approximately 40,000-70,000 human skeletons which have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.”  This blows my mind on multiple levels.  Just … wow.


Yesterday’s discussion about the Mind-Blowing SF Manthology was interesting.  Some of the comments reminded me of things that were said about the Realms mermaid cover.  With Realms, a number of people said it was unfair to attack the magazine’s new staff on the basis of a single cover; wait and give them a year to see how things go.

With the anthology, the point was made that you can’t condemn the editor and his anthology without even reading the stories.  You can’t expect every anthology to have a perfectly PC balance of race and gender, and if these stories were chosen on merit, why bash them?

What struck me is that these are valid points.  In both cases, if you take the example in isolation, it’s not that big of a deal.  The Realms cover was much less annoying to me than others I’ve seen. A number of people really liked the artist’s style. By itself, I don’t think it’s a horrible cover.

Likewise, with the anthology, I imagine these are all good stories.  I’ve no doubt the editor believed every one of those stories were good, powerful, mind-blowing SF.  As such, why shouldn’t he be allowed to compile a collection of his favorites?  If those favorites happen to all be written by white* men, that might be unfortunate, but it’s still his choice as the editor, right?  He’s not evil, and he’s not trying to be sexist or oppress women and minorities or anything like that.  He’s just picking stories he likes.

Most of the frustration I’ve seen expressed over this sort of thing, my own included, comes from a very different place.  My sentiment about the anthology wasn’t so much “This editor is a horribly sexist oppressive Nazi” as much as it was “Here we go again.”  If you see this as an isolated incident, it might not feel like a big deal.  If you see it as yet another white-male-dominated project in a long history of such, then it becomes more frustrating.  As an isolated anthology it’s annoying; as a symptom of a larger and ongoing problem within the genre, it’s both discouraging and highly troubling.

Likewise with Realms.  If Fantasy Magazine had used that same cover, I’m betting it would have passed with much less notice.  But Realms of Fantasy has a history of cheesecake fantasy covers, and seeing the mermaid as the first cover of the “newly reincarnated” magazine meant it was seen in the context and history of those earlier covers.  Fair?  Maybe not.  But that history is there, and a lot of the people who have been troubled by it were waiting to see whether the new editor would steer the magazine in another direction.

It makes me think of road trips with my little brother when we were younger.  The first time I poked him in the arm or bumped his foot or jostled his book, it was no big deal.  Add them up, and you end up with a full-blown brawl in the back seat.  None of my individual actions were really worth fussing about.  Taken all together, I was a jerk in need of an ass-whooping.  (Sorry, Brian!)

As a straight white male, it’s easy for me to ignore a lot of these issues.  When I was younger, I did exactly that.  Not because I was an evil, horrible person, but because I just didn’t see it.  I’ve tried to change that.  I still have my blind spots.  But I’ve found that the more I become aware of this sort of thing, the more I see these individual incidents in a larger context.  It’s the difference between the first poke and the hundredth.

Are the new staff of Realms of Fantasy or the editor of the Mind Blowing Manthology responsible for all SF/F sexism that came before them?  Of course not.  But if we divorce them from the larger context, if we only look at these issues as isolated, individual events, we miss the larger pattern.  I believe these are patterns we really need to change … and we can’t change them if we don’t see them.

I hope this all makes sense.  I wrote it mostly to sort out my own thoughts, but as always, I’d love to hear what the rest of you think.

*As I said yesterday, I don’t know that the ToC is all white.  This is a guess based on the names I recognize, but I’m willing eager to be proven wrong.