Rachel Swirsky (rachel_swirsky) wrote,
Rachel Swirsky

New Science Fiction Site Transcriptase Launched

The Background

A magazine I've published in was recently involved in an internet kerfuffle of some magnitude. It began when the editor, William Sanders, sent out a piece of professional correspondance (a rejection letter) in which he invoked racist stereotypes and epithets:

No, I’m sorry but I can’t use this.

There’s much to like. I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people - at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can - and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.

However, as I say, I can’t use it. Because Helix is a speculative fiction magazine, and this isn’t speculative fiction.

Oh, you’ve tacked on some near-future elements at the end, but the future stuff isn’t in any way necessary to the story; it isn’t even connected with it in any causal way. True, the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty); he was headed in that direction from the start, and if it hadn’t been the encounter with the stripper it would have been something else.

Now if it could be shown that something in this incident showed him HOW the West could be overthrown, then perhaps the story would qualify as SF. That might have been interesting. As it is, though, no connection is shown and in fact we are never told just how this conquest - a highly improbable event, to say the least - came about.

There are some other problems with the story, but there’s no point in going into them, because they don’t really matter from my viewpoint. It’s not speculative fiction and I can’t use it in my magazine.

And I don’t think you’re going to sell it to any other genre magazine, for that reason - though you’d have a hard time anyway; most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads. I think you might have a better chance with some non-genre publication. But I could be wrong.


William Sanders
Senior Editor

After this occurred, several authors requested that their work be removed from the archive of Helix Magazine, as they felt they could not support a magazine that was affiliated with anti-Muslim bigotry. (For the record, I was not one of those authors, though I support those authors.) These three women: N. K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, and Margaret Ronald, were met with yet more bigoted harassment. For instance, William Sanders wrote to Yoon Ha Lee, diminishing her writing on the basis of her race:

Certainly I would not want to continue to publish a story against the author’s wishes, especially a story like this one that never did make any sense and that I only accepted because I thought it might please those who admire your work, and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.

He did remove the material of Yoon Ha Lee's, N. K. Jemisin's, and Margaret Ronald's. However, he replaced their stories with a sexist insult: "Story deleted at author's pantiwadulous request."* Screenshots of his defacement of his own magazine can be found here.

Sanders' actions were unprofessional in other respects as well (for instance, the photograph of bent-over monkeys he posted on his own journal to represent "those people" who were upset over his racism, an image that's particularly galling in terms of its racial implications in context). A detailed summary by N. K. Jemisin containing many excellent links can be found at this site. I strongly recommend that those who are interested in SF or publishing go over and read the detailed history of the disaster, complete with links to comprehensive analyses of the racism and unprofessionality at work at every stage.

The Reaction

A number of writers were disturbed by this sequence of events. We were disturbed by Sanders' racism. We were disturbed by his bizarre and unprofessional treatment of writers, and his willingness to deface his own magazine.

I have not asked Sanders to remove my work from his magazine. However, I am proud of the poem I published in Helix, and believe that it deserves a forum free from racism and abuse of authors. I respect my readers, and want them to be able to access our work without being forced to support a publication run by someone who brings racism into his public dealings.

A group of us have decided to solve this problem by creating a mirror site that contains our content from Helix. This site is called Transcriptase. It's a group effort, featuring content and statements by a number of authors.

We are Helix writers who believe in a speculative fiction community that welcomes all readers—inclusive of all races, genders, and marginalized people of all backgrounds.

In July 2008, Helix editor William Sanders stirred up controversy in the community with remarks that many found offensive. The blogosphere exploded with discussion. You can find a summary of the events here.

As the controversy continued, several Helix writers asked to remove their work from the magazine and were met with unprofessional treatment. This upset all of us. We agreed that we would not stand by in silence.

Transcriptase hosts reprints of our stories and poems originally published at Helix. During the controversy, some of us removed our work from Helix; others left it up. There are valid reasons to make either choice, and we hope you’ll respect that we had difficult decisions to make. We offer our stories and poems at Transcriptase so that you can enjoy our work away from Helix, if you choose.

It’s difficult to summarize how we feel about the incident, since each of us feels differently. Our reactions range from disappointed to sad to angry.

Many writers have chosen to add personal statements to the group declaration. I'll quote from a couple of them:

N. K. Jemisin:

I will never forget the first time I heard a young cousin of mine—only a little older than 12, the “golden age” as they call it in this genre—say, “Why do you write that stuff? That’s white people’s stuff.”

Science fiction and fantasy, he meant. White people’s stuff.

There are a lot of reasons why he might’ve said this. The visual landscape of SF/F has showcased the fantasies and futurism of one fairly narrow demographic cluster for a very long time. We’ve seen the predictably monochromatic, monocultural results of this in films, TV, and games, of course, but it’s also visible in SF/F fiction, even though fiction isn’t supposed to be a visual medium. Of course it is, since nearly all books have cover art, and textual description is usually meant to appeal to the inner eye. So most fantasies are set in medieval England analogues and showcase heroes described as blond and blue-eyed, or heroines with “porcelain” skin. Most science fiction takes place in futures in which everyone who isn’t physically perfect, straight as a board, and European-American has apparently been wiped out by a comet, with the exception of a token Canadian or two. And while not all books feature author photos, it’s not hard to see that the creative face of SF/F is collectively a pretty pale one: just pick up a copy of Locus sometime and peruse the photos. Or go to an SF/F con. These are colorful in many ways, but not so much on the diversity front.

But there’s another reason why my young cousin might’ve decided that SF/F is the sole province of one group of people, and that is because there’s a stunning amount of bigotry rampant within the SF/F community itself. In just the past year I’ve seen prominent, bestselling SF/F authors calling for the criminalization of homosexuality, advocating the death-through-medical-neglect of Spanish-speaking immigrants (just the illegals, note, as if that’s better), and trivializing rape and sexual objectification. The Helix incident is only the latest salvo in a long-running war by a few individuals in the SF community against several million other members of the human race.

Ann Leckie:

Mr. Sanders is, of course, free to have and express whatever opinions he thinks right. He is also free to run Helix in any fashion that seems good to him. As I am free to be unwilling to work with an editor who treats his writers so disrespectfully. Who despises "political correctness," insists on the right to fling ethnic slurs, but then
demands that anyone around him approve of his actions, banishing anyone who might question or disapprove--essentially instituting his own brand of political correctness.

I think there are quite a lot of people who sincerely don't believe they're racist, who say and do racist things out of ignorance or the blindness of privilege. And if everyone refuses to speak up and say, "Look, that's wrong," because in their hearts they know the person in question isn't really racist, it'll just keep happening. Is Mr. Sanders racist? I wouldn't presume to say. Is the use of ethnic slurs racist? Absolutely. Racism might not be the intent, but it is certainly the result.

The full text of these and other author statements can be found here.

Personally, I liked Helix Magazine a lot. Helix published fiction by women writers and writers of color. It published fiction that was shocking - sometimes viscerally, but often because it was politically radical. It was a forum for some excellent work, much of it written by writers who are passionate about social justice. I was not initially - and still am not -- sure whether the editor's willingness to employ racism in his business correspondence outweighs the inherent anti-racist good of the magazine. However, as a writer, I am damn sure that it's poisonous to support or work for someone who is willing to fling racist and sexist insults at dissenters, and to deface his own product.

The content that's up at Transcriptase is a smattering of work from some very talented writers. I strongly recommend that those who like science fiction and fantasy, particularly SF&F that's daring and political, check out the work on the site.

I'll end with a couple of excerpts from stories published on Transcriptase:

"The Snake's Wife" by Ann Leckie, a story of court intrigue that deals intimately with gender roles in the ancient world

My father gestured to a slave. “Send the girl,” he said. We didn’t wait long — my sister was ready, had been for some time, most likely. She came in a side door, my mother behind her.

She was beautiful. Skin the color of honey, hair like polished wood. She wore a green dress, embroidered with darker green, and gold had been braided into her hair. Her face was flushed — she, or more likely my mother, had guessed what brought the king here. Prince Atehatsqe smiled when he saw her. My breath grew tight, and I wanted to stand and run, be out in the trees and the rain, anywhere but the hall. I must have realized what my father was planning but not been willing to believe it.

“Girl,” said my father, “the prince of Therete wants to marry you.”

She flushed even deeper, which I hadn’t thought possible, and knelt. “My father, I will obey you in all things.”

“Will you, then?”

“Yes, Father.”

He stood, and drew his sword and swung the edge with all his strength into her neck. Blood spattered his legs, and my sister fell dead on the floor.

"Kill Me" by Vylar Kaftan, a tale considering the necessity of masochism in its heroine's life

He walks in front of me. I look up at the man who brought me all the way from Denver. He looks like a black dog, matted and angry, and growls like one too. My eyes travel to the cluster of thick hair springing from his shirt neck. He folds his arms over his chest.

“The night’s almost over,” I remind him.

He scowls. “Get in the trunk.”

I hesitate - he paid me to do the shy-girl act, a popular one - and he grabs my arm. He hauls me over the rear bumper into the trunk of his ‘33 Axis. He slaps me once across the face - not as hard as I expected - and crumples me into the tight compartment. He slams the trunk closed, catching my hair in the door. I try to pull free, but it’s no use. I don’t think he meant that part, but he doesn’t seem to notice the long trail of hair hanging out of the trunk. The car door opens and the ignition starts. I tug on my hair once more and then relax, concentrating on where I hurt, where my body throbs with pain.

As many times as I’ve done this, I still try to experience it all. Because it’s not every day you experience death. Only every three months.


*Personally, I was more upset at the insult than the sexism, because it made it very clear that this editor was willing to seriously undermine the value and integrity of his own project for the purpose of getting in a cheap shot at someone who disagreed with him.
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