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Personal Canons: Drinking from a Poisoned Well

A guest feature by DongWon Song

In addition to my own reflections and essays purchased from among the many dazzling submissions I received in response to my open call, the Personal Canons series will also feature guest posts from brilliant folks in the writing community. Last time, David Minerva Clover wrote about The Last Unicorn. Today, I’m thrilled to feature DongWon Song.

DongWon Song is a literary agent. Follow them on Twitter at @dongwon. Subscribe to their newsletter at publishingishard.substack.com.

Content Warning: the stories discussed in this post feature sexual violence, abuse against children, violence to women, and involve discussions of homophobia and transphobia.

As a teenager and into my early twenties, I had a deep love for the works of Orson Scott Card. The kind of snobbish, irritating obsession that led me to brush off mentions of Ender’s Game with a “yeah, but I bet you haven’t read Speaker for the Dead.” Heck, I even defended Xenocide (It had Asian people in it. It was a different time. We were desperate.).

Beyond that, I was obsessed with his earlier, stranger work. Songmaster, a book about abuse and exploitation that a young boy suffers for his beautiful voice. Wyrms, in which a young woman carries around the talking head of her dead father on her quest to find — and then fuck — a dragon. His short fiction full of horror stories like Kingsmeat, in which a tyrant cannibal king has the tables turned on him by visiting aliens, or Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory, in which a rapist is haunted by horrifying mutated infants out to devour him alive for his transgressions.

I loved his work, read nearly all the fiction he published, and even managed to get my hands on hard-to-find collections of his short fiction. He’s known for being a science fiction writer, but I think of him as one of the strongest horror writers of the eighties and early nineties. I found his stories to be fascinatingly strange. Appealingly repulsive. Filled with a compassion for the worst humanity had to offer.

Unfortunately, my reading did not extend to his non-fiction. As far back as 1990, he publicly made his homophobic, hateful views known to the public. Since then, he has continued to deride, demean, and deny basic human rights to gay, lesbian, and queer folx. It is profoundly upsetting to learn that work you love is tainted with a perspective and worldview that is anathema to everything you believe in, everything you are. You can choose to walk away from the work, but it is already in you, in your bones and your marrow and your heart.

Card had a profound impact on my life as a young reader. He also made a lasting contribution to my development outside of reading his novels and stories. One with a complex legacy, but one that I am ultimately grateful for. An education I never would have expected. A syllabus, a book club with unintended consequences. I would wish I had never encountered his work, except I would lose this strange, twisted knot of love that I carry in my heart.

Starting in 1991, he published two anthologies of short fiction purporting to collect the best of the 1980s — Future on Fire and Future on Ice. These two anthologies introduced me to many of my favorite writers of science fiction: William Gibson, George R.R. Martin, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Nancy Kress, Pat Cadigan, and Connie Willis. These names were the ones that taught me how to love speculative fiction.

These collections led me to work with Walter Jon Williams and Greg Bear as an editor. They led me to meeting Pat Cadigan, running up to her at a World Con to blurt out that her work was deeply important to me and that Synners was my favorite cyberpunk novel before vanishing into the night. I’ve treasured being in the room with Connie Willis over many conventions, too awestruck, even now, to introduce myself.

The stories in these collections are still some of my favorites. But also, well, they represent a lot of the worst impulses of fiction from the 80s. They play fast and loose with trauma. Many of them are about rape and abuse. They are raw, no punches pulled, and with no regard for the safety of the audience. They taught me how fiction can be harrowing, a cleansing burn. And how fiction can be a wound that cuts deep and sets and festers. Now, I almost never touch fiction that addresses sexual violence as a reader or as a pro and I think these stories are why.

But they’re good stories. Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” is a tale of loss, sexual awakening, and a fight for independence. It’s beautiful and profoundly upsetting at once. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s “Dogfight” is one of my favorite pieces of cyberpunk of all time. Pat Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover” is a cyberpunk parable, skeptical of the singularity, embracing a sort of subtextual queerness. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight” taught me to love coyotes. Connie Willis’s “All My Darling Daughters” is a story of abuse and harm and violation. It is a difficult story that still haunts me decades after I first read it. George R.R. Martin’s “Portraits of My Children” is the story that made me fall in love with Martin’s work and is as deeply fucked up as anything I’ve ever read from him. Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds” is  a story about how important it is to reach across the silent gulfs that keep us apart. It’s a story that feels more relevant to this year than the years that came before. I have felt that is true every year I have lived through since I first read this story. Nancy Kress’s “Out of All Them Bright Stars” has wound its way around my brainstem as a bright spot of hope, because stories should connect us.

Each of these stories was formative to me. I can see how they shaped my tastes. I now have a constant appetite for the dark and gothic. An interest in how trauma shapes people’s lives. A need for a hopeful moment of humanity. Even the pacing and structure of these stories are worn into the grooves of my brain. The rich language, the spiky prose, the raw voice-driven narration.

And yet, there’s the overwhelming whiteness of this list. Butler is the sole exception and wasn’t even included until the second volume. Other stories display a complete embrace of colonialist thinking. Many of these stories use the cheap trick of exoticized locales to add richness and flavor to a story that would be anemic on its own terms. Card celebrates writers for being interlopers in South American cultures and telling the stories of colonized peoples, of exploitation of the global south without any question as to who should have a voice in that story. And misogyny, questionable views on gender and sexuality, and subtle racism runs through the collections.

Orson Scott Card is a poster child for angry old men in SFF. He’s made it impossible to recommend a beloved novel that so many of us cut our teeth on. For me, that love ran even deeper. And now, I have to question my instincts. Question my taste. Question the things I love.

But Future on Fire and Future on Ice taught me so much. They led me to my favorite writers. Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Connie Willis. Brilliant women I feel an uncomplicated affection and admiration for. Willis’s stories have destroyed and rebuilt me time and time again. Le Guin is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and I will fight anyone tooth and nail who says otherwise. Butler has inspired entire political movements and activist communities around her work. Parable of the Sower defined an era of SF/F and her body of work as a whole never fails to astonish, to harrow the reader down to the bone, and leave us with a sense of wonder at her clear-eyed vision of humanity, in all its complicated glory.

While debates about classics and the canon of literature rage on, members of this community of science fiction readers are faced with a legacy much fresher. Thirty or forty years is ancient history to us. We are grappling with an inheritance from writers still breathing, still writing, and still talking. The canon is tainted with the ideals, visions, and ethics of a world we are struggling to right. We live in a culture of white supremacy. We live in a culture of patriarchy. We live in a culture of empire.

The well is poisoned. But that water is all we have. We use it to nurture our crops. To grow ourselves. But the thing about tainted water is that it can be cleaned. It can be filtered through soil, through kelp forests, through oyster beds. It can be sifted and restored. Growing things will, over the course of generations, reintroduce nitrogen, bacteria, mycelium into dead lands and bring forth new growth. The industrial runoff of centuries of empire and capitalism can be reworked into something that will restore all of us.

The canon matters, but not in the way people think. It matters because that’s what nourishment was made available to us. We were force fed, drinking from the tap we had access to. We have little choice, but not none. We can go farther afield to pick waters that are less tainted. We can choose what we put in our bodies. But more than that, we can choose what we grow. What we invest in. The canon is what we have, but it’s not what we can be.

I believe that telling better stories is how we build a better world. That starts with recognizing the poison in the water. That starts with calling it out. But that also means we can let it help us grow. It can shape us and teach us what we want to see in our futures and what we want to prune back.

So, I say read what you want to read. Take from it what is worth taking. The rest is compost. Let it rot and make the land fertile again. Sow in its remains. And we will reap a better harvest.

Personal Canons is a series exploring the works of genre fiction that have shaped us as readers, writers, and people. This series features contributions by established authors, new and aspiring authors, readers, and fans.

Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.