Expanding the Tower
Last week author Leah Bobet wrote an extended commentary on Twitter,  which I wanted to talk about. Part of it:

~10 years ago I went to a Wiscon panel on the Princess in the Tower trope, & someone mentioned reversing it, putting the guy in the tower.

I don't think that's the actual trope reversal. Getting everyone out of the damn tower together is; breaking that power structure is.

I have not yet, in a decade of thinking about it, figured out how to enact power structure equalization without hitting anyone in real life.

I'm in the last stages of moving out of the science fiction community, for a lot of reasons. I've been moving into a community of fine artists, theatre companies, crafters, and makers, which is, at least in Minnesota, a far healthier group of people. There are things about my experience of working in this new-to-me community that I think enlighten that question, and to get to them I'm going to torture Leah's metaphor a bit.

The thing about towers is that towers are pretty cool if you're not locked in them. They provide useful things (especially when modern) like shelter from the elements, beds, climate control, food storage, and bathrooms. It's nice to say "get everyone out of that damn tower" until everyone ends up hungry and sleeping in the rain.

From my perspective, science fiction seems to be all about getting out of the tower. There's the idea that the community can reach some sort of conceptual equality, at which point each person will be free to do everything themselves; that tearing down the structures of patriarchal and white supremacist thinking is the goal, and if enough of that has done, we'll magically get to the Promised Land. 

That's not the way people in the arts are doing things. We're at least as concerned about power structure equalization - I don't know if we're more concerned, but we're a lot better organized about how we talk about it, and somewhat better organized about how we work on it.

Here, the approach has been more about making sure everybody has a tower they can go in and out of when they want, and then building fancy bridges between them. Some of the towers aren't as nice as others, and that's still a problem - but it's progress. Once you've got a tower, you can improve it. Tearing one down only happens all at once. 

There are quite a few organizations here building towers for disadvantaged communities, but I want to call out Juxtaposition Arts in particular, because they are amazing and effective at supporting North Minneapolis youth artists and turning them into community builders. 

The science fiction community has few of these sorts of things, and they're less effective because there's nobody building bridges, while some people are actively trying to burn them. One of the reasons I entered the community sixteen years ago was that I loved the work but saw a field lacking in vision and scope. Everybody kind of works in their own little corners, and there's nobody out there looking out for the whole.

Science fiction as a concept has exploded in the 21st century; science fiction as a written art form has less market share than ever. Authors and publishers promote mostly to each other, build community basically with each other, and that leads to a field that doesn't grow even when the environmental conditions have been great for growth. And that ties back into the power structure question, because we only have enough building materials for one tower and nobody's willing to go out and quarry new ones. So we end up fighting over the one tower we have.

I'm going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they're basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose - coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there's a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don't accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner's perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that's spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it's a bad idea for everybody.

At 21, I had plenty of vision but not enough skills and resources to have an impact on the community. At 37, I can still muster the vision, and I have the skills and resources, but I don't have the motivation. When I talk to artists and arts organizations, I get the sense that everybody really wants to be more effective. That's something I've never gotten out of science fiction. I can think of a few people who fit that description, but the field in general does not strike me as a hospitable place for a visionary partnership-builder. 

But if you do want to go after that, I can offer some strategic advice on how to accomplish things without tearing others down.

1. Think less about authors, and more about audience and market-building. For instance, if you want black authors to do better, figure out how you can help build a greater audience for science fiction in communities which will appreciate them. This is much more sustainable than trying to force the current audience to behave the way you would like, and it grows the field in general rather than tearing it apart.

2. If you're a publisher or organization, especially if you're a nonprofit, actively seek out creative partnerships outside of the science fiction community. There are arts organizations out there who would love to build community with you. Some of them even have people dedicated to doing that. But they need to have you show up and tell them you exist.

3. If you're a leader for a convention, ask yourself or your board a question: ten years from now, what do I want people to say was accomplished at Mycon 2017? Come up with an answer, and work to make it happen. Once you have a mission statement, pursuing it becomes surprisingly easy.

4. if you're an author, fight less, write more. The best advertisement for the field is amazing work.

5. Find the amazing work the author from #4 is doing and promote the hell out of it outside the science fiction community. Every time you find a book or story that appeals to someone who has never appreciated this sort of thing before, you win, and you win for everybody.

6. If you have a really good idea that needs more people, or funding, tell people about it and don't stop. Critical mass for a major project doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen.

7. If you really, really want to do the work of a top-level visionary, I'd love to hear from you, and we can talk about specific ways to accomplish your goals.

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