It was all framed as nothing but good fun
January 8, 2020 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Hugo nominee Alec Nevala-Lee on the unpleasant truth about Isaac Asimov. [CW:sexual assault]
posted by Chrysostom (80 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
Another inductee into the League of Disappointing Authors.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:29 AM on January 8 [36 favorites]


As a lifelong sci-fi fan this is disappointing but unsurprising. I read a lot of Asimov growing up but never really understood why other better authors of the era didn't eclipse his fame. On the one hand I'm glad a few people called him out at least privately or took steps to guard women from him, but it damns the whole industry of the era that he wasn't checked more publicly.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:36 AM on January 8 [6 favorites]


Not terribly surprised... Dude writes women as objects at best, so not so shocking he treated them as such.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:46 AM on January 8 [6 favorites]


I mean, it is, though. I read the article. It's pretty shocking.
posted by amanda at 8:54 AM on January 8 [19 favorites]


That entire era of SF is incredibly hard for me to read now, simply because it's a vision of the future so incredibly limited by the unexamined perspective of the dominant authors. Even authors I really admired like Bester or Cordwainer Smith get a bit rough with "oh, let's spice this up with a sexual assault" and the like.

Anyway, from reading accounts at the time it sometimes seems like SF cons existed at the time primarily so that white male authors could grope their fans.
posted by selfnoise at 8:55 AM on January 8 [24 favorites]


“Whenever we walked up the stairs with a young woman, I made sure to walk behind her so Isaac wouldn’t grab her tush,” the writer Harlan Ellison is quoted as saying in Nat Segaloff’s biography A Lit Fuse (2017). “He didn’t mean anything by it—times were different—but that was Isaac.”
The phrase "Harlan Ellison, protector of women" has never before crossed my mind, but here we are.
posted by hanov3r at 8:56 AM on January 8 [102 favorites]


Unfortunately, this really was common knowledge for decades. I heard about Asimov's lechery long before #MeToo...he was a real creep. I never liked his sci-fi but I suppose that's besides the point. The sad thing is that all the joking about the subject probably encouraged a lot of young men to think that such behavior was all in good fun.
posted by Edgewise at 8:57 AM on January 8 [21 favorites]


....that such behavior was perhaps the point of fame and power! Corollary point: women don't tend to use their fame and power to pinch the bottoms of men so therefore they are not suited to fame and power.
posted by amanda at 8:59 AM on January 8 [10 favorites]


it sometimes seems like SF cons existed at the time primarily so that white male authors could grope their fans

I think that's all cons (not just SF), and all times. I was at Dragon*Con a decade and some change ago and overheard a young geek offering up the 'services' of his girlfriend to a very famous (in the perl community) author and at-the-time-felon, who rather enthusiastically agreed.
posted by hanov3r at 9:01 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]


The phrase "Harlan Ellison, protector of women" has never before crossed my mind, but here we are.

The funny thing about Ellison was that he actually was pretty sympathetic to the feminist movement, published some non-fiction pieces in support of feminism, published a very strongly-worded essay about violence against women in slasher movies and also mentored Octavia Butler.

I mean, he was also mean and sometimes creepy, but he's a much more complicated case, politically, than Asimov. He did sometimes try pretty hard to put his money where his mouth was.

If anything, I look at Asimov and think "ew" but look at Ellison and think "jesus god, I hope I am not doing right with one hand and wrong with the other without realizing it".
posted by Frowner at 9:01 AM on January 8 [82 favorites]


This is a good article, clear and straightforward and well-framed.

I read a tonnnn of Asimov back in the day, though most of it ended up being his non-science fiction work, especially the Black Widowers mysteries and eventually his autobiographical stuff. And it strikes me just how much he talks about this exact aspect of his life and behavior--both in the autobiographical books & forewords/afterwords, but also in the fictional stuff, where he will often have a character either based on him, or talking about Isaac Asimov as a public figure, and making the same straightforwardly predatory ha-ha remarks about chasing secretaries around the desk and so forth.

He loved doing it, but it seems like he loved almost as much being The Man Who Always Does It And Is Known For Doing It. In the article, there's the quotation:

Asimov’s biographer Michael White quotes “a friend’s wife” who was pinched at a party: “God, Asimov, why do you always do that? It is extremely painful and besides, don’t you realize, it’s very degrading.”

I think he did realize that, and I think that's exactly why he did it. Not just his own sexual gratification, but the denigration of his categorical targets, and his notoriety as the bulletproof denigrator thereof, perfectly cloaked in "ha ha", "that's just Isaac", and other time-worn predator disguises.
posted by theatro at 9:03 AM on January 8 [24 favorites]


I don't know if the boyzone con culture was set by behavior like this or if it's implicit in the kind of people who like sci-fi. At the same time that sci-fi constantly reinforces the message that we need to understand differences and bridge gaps and fight oppression we have this horrible misogyny baked into the culture. It bewilders and infuriates me, and is part of why I'm somewhat soured on comics, movies and video games.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:03 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]


Asimov has always meant a lot to me, and the best qualities of his work—his rationality, curiosity, and imagination—changed thousands of lives for the better. Yet the visible edifice of his hundreds of books needs to be balanced against the unseen wall that he built around the heart of science fiction.

I think this captures the problem, and contrasts with the usual "Well, he was a bad writer anyway, so it's no wonder" response that comes up with Asimov. We can throw him in the trash because he was a bad person and a bad writer, and we can consider those linked, somehow.

But Asimov wasn't a bad writer. His books spoke to millions of people. They're still speaking to people today. I look back on his fiction fondly--hell, I nearly burst into tears at some of the later books, as R. Daneel Olivaw became a sort of Christ figure in the stories. There is a warmth in his writing, a charm. He was essentially writing cozy puzzle-box mysteries with robots and far-flung galactic civilizations.

That's why this is so shocking and awful. He knew better. He knew those pats and squeezes and fondles were harmful. But he didn't stop. His enablers didn't stop him. Nobody sat him down and said, "Listen, this is going to be your damned legacy, years after your death, people are going to remember you as a sick, abusive groper, whose behavior sets the tone for misogyny in science fiction for decades to come. It's not funny and it's not cute. Stop."

What an unfair thing to do. To hold out your talent, to make people fall in love with your worlds and your stories, and then to abuse them, either directly with your hands, or indirectly when they find out what you've been up to. It's grosser than just "bad writer behaves badly." It's worse than that, and calling out his writing style and characterization just seems like a way of deflecting the awfulness.
posted by mittens at 9:05 AM on January 8 [46 favorites]


I mean, [Harlan] was also mean and sometimes creepy, but he's a much more complicated case, politically, than Asimov. He did sometimes try pretty hard to put his money where his mouth was.

Connie Willis may have a slightly different opinion of this.
posted by hanov3r at 9:06 AM on January 8 [18 favorites]


I don't know if the boyzone con culture was set by behavior like this or if it's implicit in the kind of people who like sci-fi.

The women Asimov harassed were largely "people who like sci-fi". Most of the people participating in discussion here are "people who like sci-fi". The problem isn't "people who like sci-fi", it's misogynists and harassers.
posted by Lexica at 9:09 AM on January 8 [98 favorites]


I recommend The Secret Feminist Cabal, which is a history of women in SF fandom, for a bit more on Asimov. He is also famous for, as a teenager, writing a letter to, I dunno, Astounding or something in which he complained about how people put women in SF stories and what was even the point of women in science fiction anyway, etc etc. He had a lot of hostility toward women from the very start.

It's true that up to a point, someone might be "a man of his times", but there were lots of men in SF and only a few are really personally famed for persistently harassing women in this way.

The other thing is that Asimov didn't get away with this by himself - men and women in SF fandom enabled it. I don't even think people had the bad excuse of "but we're so enlightened, of course people will freely express their sexuality" as you see in some of the fandom scandals; it seems like it was more Providing Victims For Asimov Because He Is Important.
posted by Frowner at 9:10 AM on January 8 [28 favorites]


He is also famous for, as a teenager, writing a letter to, I dunno, Astounding or something in which he complained about how people put women in SF stories and what was even the point of women in science fiction anyway

I have that book, and that letter is just... urgh. He claimed a female character was useful for nothing but romance, and asserted that SF should have no romance, therefore there was no reason to have female characters.

I don't think I'd ever before seen such an overt statement that women are only useful for sex and have no other purpose in society.
posted by suelac at 9:14 AM on January 8 [21 favorites]


Wow, that picture.
posted by Slothrup at 9:15 AM on January 8 [18 favorites]


Connie Willis may have a slightly different opinion of this.

Don't you ever think, "it's disturbing that people can do actual [good political work of one kind] in part of their lives, obviously out of some serious commitment, while also apparently unconsciously doing [bad things that directly contradict the beliefs they act on]"? I think that all the time.

I don't think, "well, obviously Harlan Ellison was a liar, cynically mentoring Octavia Butler and publishing somewhat unpopular work in support of feminism solely so that he could go up on stage and grope Connie Willis"; I think, "it's really hard to parse, morally, that people can be actually educated and committed and still do shitty things". I think, "I am educated and I would like to believe that I'm morally committed, but maybe I'm waltzing around doing shitty things while thinking that they're fine".

Sometimes people are authentically terrible and selfish and carry on doing awful things for years in the face of education, requests and complaint, which is obviously Asimov. Sometimes people do terrible things because people are terrifying mixtures of monstrosity and decency.
posted by Frowner at 9:17 AM on January 8 [151 favorites]


Connie Willis may have a slightly different opinion of this.

That seems to miss the point being made, which I think was that Ellison genuinely did terrible things, while also apparently genuinely trying to do good things. It's not an answer to that to say "what about this genuinely terrible thing he did?": Ellison doing terrible things is part of the premise.
posted by howfar at 9:17 AM on January 8 [32 favorites]


it sometimes seems like SF cons existed at the time primarily so that white male authors could grope their fans

I think that's all cons (not just SF), and all times.


It's not specific to cons, y'all. It's really not. There's not a mystery here.

It's men. Usually white, usually in groups or crowds. Get enough men together who enjoy a certain level of privilege, and set a stopwatch, and it won't be long before one of them assaults a woman, or speaks fondly about how much they enjoy assaulting women, or et cetera.
posted by palomar at 9:19 AM on January 8 [44 favorites]


Don't you ever think, "it's disturbing that people can do actual [good political work of one kind] in part of their lives, obviously out of some serious commitment, while also apparently unconsciously doing [bad things that directly contradict the beliefs they act on]"?

I understand that kind of compartmentalization quite deeply. It factors quite a bit into something I've struggled with for years. But, without signs of obvious change and attempts to stop the bad things (which I'm not sure we saw from Harlan), being judged for the worst of your behavior is a thing that happens. See mittens' comment from earlier this morning - imagine saying to Harlan "This is going to be your legacy. Not mentoring Octavia Butler, not your pro-feminist non-fiction, but groping and humiliating an author who's won more Hugos than you have".
posted by hanov3r at 9:34 AM on January 8 [7 favorites]


Unfortunately, this really was common knowledge for decades. I heard about Asimov's lechery long before #MeToo...he was a real creep

I knew it from his own writing, joking about it, talking about the "posterior pinching" speech, the "lovable lecher" appellation etc. I think there's some truth to the idea that Asimov's cohort and community were as responsible as Asimov the man simply because they really consistently seem to have enabled him.
posted by atoxyl at 9:39 AM on January 8 [11 favorites]


being judged for the worst of your behavior is a thing that happens. See mittens' comment from earlier this morning - imagine saying to Harlan "This is going to be your legacy. Not mentoring Octavia Butler, not your pro-feminist non-fiction, but groping and humiliating an author who's won more Hugos than you have".

But there's judgement and judgement.

Let's imagine that I'm writing a biography of Ellison. Is the take-away of the biography supposed to be "Harlan Ellison - a shitty person, that's his legacy, being shitty" or is it supposed to be a narrative that tries to put the different aspects of Ellison's life in some order?

There's immediate political judgement, like "should Ellison be invited to panels" and there's "one event will overshadow everything else about you in the public mind because the public is by its nature not composed of specialists" judgement, and that's one thing - there, of course, Ellison is forever going to be misogynist groper Ellison, because that's what he did.

But there are various different ways and reasons to judge people for different purposes. I don't think it's a dubious kind of compartmentalization to say that it's a long study to try to fit together all the seemingly-contradictory parts of someone's behavior - on the contrary, I don't think it's compartmentalization at all. Compartmentalization would be saying, "well, Ellison may have groped Connie Willis, but we're inviting him to give a talk about his childhood, so that's not relevant".
posted by Frowner at 9:48 AM on January 8 [8 favorites]


Good article but I thought this was already well known for years.
posted by octothorpe at 9:49 AM on January 8


I have known it from his writing for quite a while. It made me uncomfortable, but it took me a while to really put my finger on what made me uncomfortable. Now that I know the word “rapey”, I think it applies. We have some Asimov books around- I’ll definitely want to talk to the kids about this if they take an interest in them.
posted by Anne Neville at 9:53 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]


I've done it before but I highly recommend the book Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee covering the early years of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog) with biographies of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard and Campbell. None of them come off well, especially in respect to their behavior toward the women in their lives.
posted by octothorpe at 9:54 AM on January 8 [10 favorites]


Oh, duh. Nevala-Lee wrote this article.
posted by octothorpe at 9:55 AM on January 8 [6 favorites]


A take I saw on Twitter is the inevitable (& bullshit) "man of his times" argument that goes something like "Oh, geez, but what are WE doing NOW that will be looked down on in 50 years?"

It's bullshit, because people KNEW AT THE TIME that groping women was wrong. There is no "man of his times" exemption for shit that people knew was bad back then.

The same goes for US Founders; Jefferson apologists love to say "oh, but slavery was normal then," except plenty of people in 1776 were already arguing for abolition on moral grounds. People who knew better kept slaves because the power structures of the time allowed them to, not because they thought doing so was moral or just.

The tl;dr is that hey, if you treat ALL people with respect ALL the time -- or at least to the best of your ability -- then you're probably gonna be fine. If you're living on the margins of this, and doing shit because your position allows you to get away with it, then yeah, you might end up the villain.

And you should.
posted by uberchet at 9:56 AM on January 8 [54 favorites]


octothorpe: "I've done it before but I highly recommend the book Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee covering the early years of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog) with biographies of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard and Campbell."

I still have a fondness for the fiction of that era, but boy that book was a depressing read. JWC was just the worst person.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:05 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]


> uberchet: It's bullshit, because people KNEW AT THE TIME that groping women was wrong. There is no "man of his times" exemption for shit that people knew was bad back then.

Exactly. It's not that they didn't know it was wrong, it's that they knew (as powerful white men) that they could get away with it.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:08 AM on January 8 [9 favorites]


JWC was just the worst person.

Second worst, Hubbard wins first prize.
posted by octothorpe at 10:09 AM on January 8 [11 favorites]


There is no "man of his times" exemption for shit that people knew was bad back then.

"Man of his times" means "oh, he knew he wouldn't face any legal consequences for it, and everyone around him knew that too, so they all agreed that there was no point in making him face social consequences, no matter how much everyone knew it was wrong."

Once in a while, the it-was-the-style-at-the-time argument truly hinges on some aspect of ignorance or public culture that has since changed. That's definitely not the case here. "Being a predatory creep" was never a matter of "that's just what guys did in that era." That's what some guys did, because they could be nearly certain that no woman could get them arrested for assault and battery nor cause them to lose their jobs.

If that was "what guys did in that era," Asimov wouldn't have a reputation for being a groper.

Note that nobody has reputation for "calling all women 'girl' or 'sweetie' or 'little lady,' no matter what status they had." That was just "what guys did" at the time. Not all, but enough that nobody got a reputation for referring to women as ornamental objects.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:52 AM on January 8 [9 favorites]


because people KNEW AT THE TIME that groping women was wrong.

So - /yes and no/.

The sexual and ethical mores of Asimov’s time did indeed feel it was wrong to grope women, but /not intrinsically/. There were very complicated and shitty rules about how far you could grope women and a sliding scale of how bad it made you, and Asimov, it seems clear, stayed on whatever side of the line would brand him “a cad” but not the kind that would, at the time, rule you “a predator.” And what we recognize now is that those lines and how they were drawn focus on “what other men would think of the actions” and not “the autonomy and feelings of the women involved”. And the attitudes of the men-even Ellison- make it clear, it’s perceived as “an annoyance to the women” rather than “a violent assault”.

And a large portion of this is because at the time, the inviolability of women was considered merely as a function of their property value to men - their virginity, or their reputation of sexual availability. And this allowed men to think that as long as they weren’t affecting those two, that they were a stand up guy.

So Asimov talks openly about how he’s a dirty old man, about how he pinches bottoms and “steals kisses” /and how the women are annoyed by it/ as part of the story, because he thinks, because he has so internalized the idea that women are essentially a form of male property, that this way, he’s keeping the women he harasses “safe and undamaged”, because the only form of damage he can conceive of is damage to the women’s relationships with other men. And since he is neither “taking their virginity” nor “taking their good name”, in his eyes, he has done nothing wrong.

And I suspect, because I see the impacts of toxic masculinity everywhere I go, that his behaviors had little to do with the women in question and the dubious pleasure of bottom-pinching. I think, because I see the world that Asimov has written and how full of the eyes of men it is, that his behaviors are /because/, not in spite of, he was a bookish young man without much romantic success, because he was unsuccessful in gaining the marriage he felt he deserved and that other men would have. And so it looks, to me, like he took this publicly performative lechery as a way of proving himself and his masculinity to other men - and just never thought, like he never thinks in his books, about how women would perceive it.
posted by corb at 10:55 AM on January 8 [87 favorites]


To be clear, this shouldn’t make it less damning. It just means to be more clear about the precise type of wrong.
posted by corb at 10:57 AM on January 8 [13 favorites]


Ugh, that's depressing. Yet another person I once looked up to...Asimov's books were a big influence on my when I was a teen back in the 70's, as was sci-fi in general. I guess I was too young and naive to notice the failings in his characterizations of women, and insulated enough that I hadn't heard before of his shitty behavior. I guess it's a good thing I wasn't planning on re-reading any of his (or other personally-terrible classic sci-fi authors') works again.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:00 AM on January 8


I feel like a lot of us have the same reaction reading this kind of story. A mix of "wow that's really awful" and also "I'm totally not surprised". It's a sort of awful capitulation to rape culture that we expect of course men behave this way. It's easier to accept with the Asimov story because it's in the past, so we can maybe think things are better now. OTOH Harvey Weinstein.

The stumble for me reading this article was this Asimov quote
The question then is not whether or not a girl should be touched. The question is merely where, when, and how she should be touched.
That is a hideous sentiment. I gather the book it comes from is a sort of parody. OTOH those actual words were written and apparently intended at least partly at face value.
posted by Nelson at 11:01 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]


Ellison is a particular case because I can believe he thought it was a joke, and uncharacteristic of himself? I'd be surprised if he didn't generally treat women at least as badly as he treated everyone else, but he seems to have thought that everyone should know that groping breasts or pinching posteriors in an Asimovian way was beneath him. And maybe they did... until he did it on stage in front of everyone.

It's like the "they don't call me McGregor the bridge builder..." joke.
posted by atoxyl at 11:02 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]


So - /yes and no/.
No, just "no."

Men who might have done some of their own groping knew very well they wouldn't have wanted their wife or daughter unaccompanied around Asimov or someone like him.

People knew this behavior was wrong. They would not have wanted it done to them, or to women in their families. There's no "grey area." There was just an understanding that they could get away with it.

As for Harlan, I get the idea that at least some of the time he was doing these things in a way he thought of as ironic, but that's not a shield here if the groped parties weren't consenting.
posted by uberchet at 11:06 AM on January 8 [6 favorites]


In terms of being "a man of one's times":

So there's this Margaret Drabble novel from 1975, The Realms of Gold, which is about a mid-career archaeologist, her family, her work and her long-term relationship with an academic who was a refugee as a child. Margaret Drabble, as you may be aware, is sort of feminist, vaguely left, from a sort of arts-academic-and-soft-left background.

The archaeologist's partner, Karel Schmidt, is described as a wonderful person. He's caring and emotionally available to the protagonist, he's good with kids, he cares for her when she's sick, he recognizes that she is having sort of a breakdown when she breaks things off with him and pursues her which is what she wishes he'd do, he's basically depicted as a decent, feminist guy. It is directly said that he's a model new man, and in general in the text we see him act in ways that are genuinely kind and admirable....And he's just getting out of a marriage where he has physical fights with his wife and "gets provoked" into hitting her. Drabble does not suggest that there is any contradiction between these things. "Getting provoked" into hitting your wife is a totally normal thing for someone who is also outstandingly caring, woman-sympathizing, good with his kids, loving to his partner, materially supportive, etc. And it's not a significant part of the text - the book isn't making an argument justifying hitting your partner. It's just tossed off, like Drabble assumes that it wouldn't stand out to anyone.

This is the type of thing where I feel like neither the "he is a man of his time" position nor the "there is no Man of His Time, there are only misogynists and non-misogynists" position is quite adequate. Drabble, a woman with some general interest in feminism, clearly does not think that hitting your wife "if provoked*" is unfeminist. Obviously she's wrong, but it's weird that she, in particular, would be wrong in this way.

I'd argue that much less feminist people than Drabble would, in 2020, find hitting your wife "if provoked" totally unacceptable.

*She writes other characters who physically abuse their partners "unprovoked" who are written as bad people.

To tell the truth, I'm not sure what to think of the "writer of her times" angle here. Obviously, getting hit by your husband wasn't any better in 1975 than it is in 2020. Obviously, there were plenty of men in 1975 - and in 1950, and in 1850 - who would never have raised their hands to their wives, "provoked" or not; it's not as though "don't hit your wife" was some kind of extremely sophisticated, novel intellectual position that the character would never have encountered.

And yet an educated, left-leaning, feminist-adjacent writer like Drabble feels that it is hardly worthy of remark that a guy hits his wife. I mean, in a way she's "of her times" but where do we go with that?
posted by Frowner at 11:21 AM on January 8 [39 favorites]


I would like to thank the above poster for the phrase "people are terrifying mixtures of monstrosity and decency." I don't know if it's their own coinage, but it's well-put.
posted by Sterros at 12:11 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Mainstream human culture just sucks at establishing and enforcing ethical norms. It sucked in 1770, it sucked in 1970, and it sucks in 2020. Life involves an endless series of skill checks to see whether you can notice that the "normal" behavior other people act OK with is wrong and whether you can figure out what is right and do that instead.
posted by value of information at 12:31 PM on January 8


Metafilter - terrifying mixtures of monstrosity and decency.
posted by Chuffy at 12:31 PM on January 8 [14 favorites]


“The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”
posted by clew at 12:33 PM on January 8 [7 favorites]


I have a question about the absolutism of his behavior. It seems to me he added a bit of adolescent meanness to his groping behavior, pinching and bra-snapping aren't just groping behaviors, they are pain-inducing, which is a combination of bullying behavior mixed with domination. Hair pulling, arm punching and other rather puerile behaviors that are associated with flirting aren't specifically mentioned here, but I can see the types of things he was doing coinciding with the "you're going to get slapped a lot and you're going to get laid a lot," approach.

Does this work on some people? I'm not trying to justify it, I'm just curious if, like most forms of variable reinforcement, there were there "targets" that liked it? At which point, his behavior became a "just do this all the time, it will eventually 'work'..." - and the privilege and status he enjoyed enabled it.
posted by Chuffy at 12:50 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


Frowner: "I mean, in a way she's "of her times" but where do we go with that?"
Like "staring into the abyss", don't go there.
posted by aleph at 1:21 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


To tell the truth, I'm not sure what to think of the "writer of her times" angle here. Obviously, getting hit by your husband wasn't any better in 1975 than it is in 2020. Obviously, there were plenty of men in 1975 - and in 1950, and in 1850 - who would never have raised their hands to their wives, "provoked" or not; it's not as though "don't hit your wife" was some kind of extremely sophisticated, novel intellectual position that the character would never have encountered.

And yet an educated, left-leaning, feminist-adjacent writer like Drabble feels that it is hardly worthy of remark that a guy hits his wife. I mean, in a way she's "of her times" but where do we go with that?


The answer - the sincere, thoughtful answer - is that women have effectively been both an oppressed class and an exploited labor force for hundreds if not thousands of years, and that like any other exploited labor force, the dreams of what was possible are set by the experiences they see and know, and that they have always tried to carve out better positions in the shitty and terrible world that they live in.

In a world where men had all the economic and most of the social power - it's worth noting that 1975 is also noteworthy for being the first year that banks had to stop discriminating on the basis of gender when issuing credit cards, and that marital rape was still legal in multiple states during that year - then I imagine as a woman, I imagine you would look at the options you were presented with, and decide how to make a life in a world where those options existed. And I can easily see where "hits only when provoked" would seem like a reasonable standard, much better than 'controls the purse strings' or 'is probably going to leave me impoverished as I start aging' or 'beats the children'. Much as right now, heterosexual women accept shitty standards because they don't have better choices even right here on left-leaning Metafilter. Look at the emotional labor thread, where woman after woman after woman talked at length about the ways in which their heterosexual male partner expects them to perform a significant part of labor, for which they are not compensated properly, or in many cases, at all. I don't know a single heterosexual woman, not one, in my entire life, which is currently spent largely socializing on the left, where their longterm cis male partner does not exhibit at least some form of sexist entitlement which frustrates and upsets her. Not one.

It is a matter of choosing, in a world of limited choice, which choice is least terrible. Which also speaks to Chuffy's point. Did that kind of behavior work on some people? Well, yes, probably, because everyone was existing in a prison built of terrible choices. Do you go for the guy whose way of showing interest is terrible, but who doesn't seem to have a violent temper? Given the expectations of marriage at the time, as a heterosexual woman at the time you're essentially choosing an employer. Do you choose the boss that belittles you but that doesn't engage in wage theft? Or do you choose the boss that treats you with dignity and respect but will fire you the first time you make a mistake? Your answers to that are going to depend on your personal tolerances of the terrible choices you have in that employment market.

tl;dr there are no equal relationships possible under the sexist oppression which makes capitalism function; analysis proceeds accordingly.
posted by corb at 2:00 PM on January 8 [39 favorites]


No no no, if Ellison's writing is any indication he was an ultra-creep too.

Anyways yeah, I thought we all knew Asimov was a lechy perv. I'm really glad that I read him when I was around 10 and couldn't pick up on all the awful sexism in his writing. But also I'm pretty sad that I read him when I was like 10 and probably got influenced by all his sexist writing. Actually I was in love with 50's/60's sci-fi from ages 10-15 or so and my feelings about it are so mixed now.

I still have a love for it. In a way it's so fresh and exciting. There are so many bizarre, fascinating ideas, so much hopeful possibility, so many unexpected and imaginative concepts. Aside from a few select modern authors- Ted Chiang comes to mind- a lot of current sci-fi writing seems to simply rehash existing notions or play politics or drama or action- in- spacesuits, instead of kicking me in the brain with some wild new idea.

Don't get me wrong- there was tons of that in the old days too! But it seems like the old days had a lot more "what if..." And "wow" in the world of sci-fi.

And yet so much of that bizarre, fun, old-school amazing "what if" and "wow" is totally embedded in this quagmire of sexism and racism (and don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of that now too). It's such a sharp contrast to all of those creative, almost miraculous ideas. It can be hard to overlook. Jarring. Disappointing.


I don't know if the boyzone con culture was set by behavior like this or if it's implicit in the kind of people who like sci-fi.


Uh. I'm a woman, and I am the kind of people who like sci-fi.
posted by windykites at 2:45 PM on January 8 [23 favorites]


Does this work on some people? I'm not trying to justify it, I'm just curious if, like most forms of variable reinforcement, there were there "targets" that liked it?


Think a bit about what you mean by "worked" when you wonder if assault "works" on some people. The attacker formed an intention and carried it out. Every time he laid hands on someone it "worked." He did what he wanted to do. For it not to "work" would mean his intended victim saw it coming and moved away in time. If he did it, it "worked." It "worked" on every one of them.

Or do you mean something else by "does [assault] work on some people"? What?

If you mean "Do some women enjoy being assaulted," please express your curiosity more clearly.

groping behavior, pinching and bra-snapping aren't just groping behaviors, they are pain-inducing, which is a combination of bullying behavior mixed with domination.


All groping is a combination of bullying behavior mixed with domination. Specific physical sadism is just an add-on.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:43 PM on January 8 [12 favorites]


he was a bookish young man without much romantic success, because he was unsuccessful in gaining the marriage he felt he deserved and that other men would have. And so it looks, to me, like he took this publicly performative lechery as a way of proving himself and his masculinity to other men

I haven't had my coffee and my brain is being slow, but this really reminds me of the physicist, Richard Feynmann, who also transitioned from a stereotypical "good Jewish boy" to performative lecher. In each case it reportedly occurred after they had achieved some measure of success; and, in Feynmann's case, when he lost his wife to tuberculosis, and in Asimov's case after a painful divorce.

I feel that there's a common element here: that they were rule-bound people suddenly released from societal expectations. In neither case do they seem to have been especially bad people: it's as if they were formerly playing one part and then got told "OK, now you get to play the bon vivant who chases women." Which is what they did, because it was easy, and pleasant, and someone would have stopped them if it were wrong. Except that's not how it works or worked, except in egregious cases; they had just never internalised the idea that their predatory behaviour could be wrong, without also being against the rules.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:01 PM on January 8 [8 favorites]


If your introduction to sex is through assault and your associations with sex are that it is assault, then you very very often respond positively to sexual assault overtures. It's a really fun side effect to deal with.

I loved the Foundation series by Asimov for the ideas - although the Mule remains the stupidest antagonist, come on there are more drives than biology! -but fortunately read him early and moved on. He wrote with less craft than speed, and I like the ideas more than his prose. He isn't an author to revisit the way you can with Bradbury and Le Guin who have things to say about life. He had clever ideas, not stories.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:25 PM on January 8 [10 favorites]


I attended my first and last Con in the 1970s, aged 19. One of the first things that I was told by the more experienced attendees was that Asimov and the other male authors were letches, with Asimov being the biggest letch of the lot. He groped me in an elevator as a few other men laughed, and when he left the elevator they congratulated me for the experience.

As I say, that was the first and last Con for me. I am flabbergasted that his behaviour comes as news.
posted by tumbling at 5:15 PM on January 8 [25 favorites]


I think that one reason that there have been a lot of exposes of science fiction scandal in the past few years is that science fiction is becoming more mainstream and more of an interest for people other than hard-core fans/readers.

So for instance, I knew about Asimov for years because I've read a lot of SF history and memoir. But as science fiction becomes more respectable, there are a lot more people who just, you know, like the occasional SF novel or show, and they don't know.

I read a lot of Asimov when I was a kid (and found him bafflingly creepy and hateful, I remember quite clearly thinking about the Susan Calvin stories for instance and finding them really upsetting - in retrospect because they were hateful and sexist, of course). But if someone is a young SF reader today, they're probably not going to read much Asimov - only maybe a couple of greatest hits. There's a lot more recent stuff, there's a lot more enticing stuff, there's a lot of less racist and sexist stuff. So where I might think "oh yes Asmiov is creepy, of course he is", it might come as a distinct surprise to them.

And as SF becomes less of an isolated scene, there isn't the same social pressure keeping a lid on things. Do you, a girl, like science fiction? Well, you don't need to ignore bad behavior and sexist subplots just to get to the space fantasy part, and you can meet other fans who won't be huge creeps.

I mean, we are absolutely living in a golden age of science fiction right now. I've been reading SF fairly systematically for much of my life and there is just so much more good-quality, non-mean-spirited, non-self-serving work available now than I can recall prior to about 2010, and that's true whether you're talking about literary science fiction, alternate history, space opera, adventure stories, romance in space, etc etc.
posted by Frowner at 5:41 PM on January 8 [17 favorites]


Does this work on some people? I'm not trying to justify it, I'm just curious if, like most forms of variable reinforcement, there were there "targets" that liked it?
Well, I’ll give that a highly qualified yes. Inasmuch as if you engage in the process of touching people without their consent, you will encounter a majority of people who are offended and/or disgusted and some small subset of people who would have consented if asked and not repulsed completely by the act of touching without consent. So, sure, it “works” a small frequency of the time because some women were attracted to you and willing to overlook the rapey way you expressed it.

Moreover, because of the horrific power imbalance and nature of the times, very few women could actually react in a way that would really make you uncomfortable. You’d get uncomfortable laughter or “you scamp” comments or just be avoided by everyone who could do so. Pretty much the worst case scenario would be a slap to the face (which was somehow seen as “funny” to many folks)b. There were different levels of creep with labels like “handsy” or “flirty” or “gropey” and few of these dudes faced any real repercussions.

To my shame, as a child of the 60s, some of these guys seemed cool to me at the time and I wished I could have their “confidence” with women and it wasn’t until I was older and married that I really realized just how fucked up this all was.

Additionally, and I recognize this may be incomprehensible to younger readers, some people who were horrible humans whose behavior towards women was reprehensible like Asimov and Ellison also were staunch advocates of feminism in the sense of equal job opportunities support of the ERA, belief that women are the intellectual equals of men, etc etc.
posted by Lame_username at 6:00 PM on January 8 [8 favorites]


A bit of trivia relating generally to Asimov’s historical milieu and the gender demographics of SF.

On Wikipedia you can find the list of nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. If you look down that list, which begins in 1956, and continue onward through the decades, how many years do you think you have to wait until you come across the name of a woman nominee?

No years. You don’t have to wait at all. That very first year, Leigh Brackett was nominated for The Long Tomorrow. You know who else was nominated that year? Isaac Asimov. He lost. (Robert Heinlein won.)

In fact, it wasn’t until three years after Ursula Le Guin won Best Novel for her masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness that Asimov won the Hugo. It was 1973.
posted by pickles_have_souls at 6:43 PM on January 8 [6 favorites]


Pedantry: The Hugo was first awarded in 1953. It's true there weren't public nominees until 1956.

Less pedantic: That's a accurate fact that's seriously misleading. The Hugos reflected the field, which was staggeringly sexist until recent times. Take a look at the overall % of women nominees for the big categories.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:12 PM on January 8 [7 favorites]


Some odds and ends.

I had the misfortune to spend some time on a road trip with a woman who was really looking forward to spending some time with Asimov and kept saying it. So yes, his approach presumably works on some people.

In addition to Ellison's other support for feminism, he published Joanna Russ' "When It Changed" in Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, The story is about a pleasant all-women society-- first contact with men presents men as clearly making life worse.

I read and for the most part enjoyed Asimov's writing in the 70s and 80s, but I hated the portrayal of Susan Calvin-- an expert on robotics whose character seemed to mostly consist of being pitiable for her lack of human relationships. Thinking about it now, it would have been interesting there'd also been a presentation of the fun of doing intellectual work.

windykites, I agree that sf is less fun than it used to be-- there was a sort of playful aspect of just making things up which isn't as present in the field. I think part of it is more knowledge of science-- there's less freedom to have aliens and faster than light travel and ancient mysteries. Part of it is commercial-- there's more money in the field which tends to make writing more cliched.

Dianna Wynne Jones wrote about having more freedom to write what she wanted before YA became a thing.

Let me know if I'm missing something, but I'm not seeing writers as weird as Cordwainer Smith, R. A. Lafferty, or Samuel Delany.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:22 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


I agree that sf is less fun than it used to be-- there was a sort of playful aspect of just making things up which isn't as present in the field.

You know what I miss? Old-timey spaceships that were basically campervans in space. I must have read a hundred stories where the hero jumps in their spaceship, takes off, lands on a planet and meets some aliens. Now space travel is all such a big deal: there's no room for tiny space craft and their mechanic/captains anymore. Even when space travel doesn't involve wormholes or teleportation the ships are huge; they're powered by sentient black holes or by deconstructing colours or by the thoughts of fetal philosophers in jars; and they never land, only dock. I could do with less of the sexism and colonialism, yes, but I miss comfortable stories like the ones I grew up with.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:19 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]


Joe in Australia, have you read Hellspark (1988) by Janet Kagan? Fits that description well.
posted by pickles_have_souls at 12:27 AM on January 9


No, I recall seeing people mention it before but I'll look it up. Thanks!
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:35 AM on January 9


There's also The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

And on that topic almost all the recent Sci-Fi I have been reading has been by women - Leckie, Jemisin, Martha Wells, etc. - which makes me wonder if Asimov's antics kept us from enjoying even more sci-fi from women in the early days. If so, it is possible that his contributions to Sci-Fi are outweighed by the damage he and others like him wrought, however unquantifiable that may be.
posted by vacapinta at 2:52 AM on January 9 [10 favorites]


Yes, I don't follow SF statistics, but it's interesting how few SF authors I've read recently haven't been women. I don't know if it's just what I'm being recommended or what. This sounds like the sort of thing that someone here probably knows?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:38 AM on January 9


they're powered by sentient black holes or by deconstructing colours or by the thoughts of fetal philosophers in jars

Please tell me these are actual examples from actually-existing books I just haven't come across yet.
posted by mittens at 5:58 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


there's no room for tiny space craft and their mechanic/captains anymore
Have you read "The Expanse" books? It doesn't tick the rest of your boxes but there's a lot of scrappy-small-crew-in-a-ship going on, with zipping from place to place.

Some of the old timey space opera stuff you miss has, i think, gone by the wayside because of an increased understanding of some aspects of the realities of space and physics. Well, that and the legacy of Trek and its never-landing starships.
posted by uberchet at 6:06 AM on January 9


See also Kagan's Mirabilie-- some of the most cheerful science fiction I've read.

The completely unscientific premise is that, to save weight, a colony ship is sent out with many extra species folded into the DNA of live plants and animals. The computer is damaged, so they don't know what's going to appear from what.

The viewpoint character is a woman whose job is to track down and deal with various odd animals.

A review
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:22 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


"I agree that sf is less fun than it used to be-- there was a sort of playful aspect of just making things up which isn't as present in the field."

Ooooooh I don't know about that.
posted by jscalzi at 10:54 AM on January 9 [32 favorites]


windykites, I agree that sf is less fun than it used to be-- there was a sort of playful aspect of just making things up which isn't as present in the field. I think part of it is more knowledge of science-- there's less freedom to have aliens and faster than light travel and ancient mysteries.
Yeah, that's a bananapants assertion. I mean, are you READING SF and still saying that? Two of the giants of the relatively-current field -- Reynolds and Banks -- both trade in FTL and alien cultures, and Reynolds adds a side order of ancient-ness. And that's just off the top of my head.

You can fold any impossible thing into a story you want as long as it makes sense internally. Even very-hard-SF playgrounds like The Expanse -- which takes enormous pains to use real-world space physics and acceleration as plot points -- adds some Magic SF Dust (an acceleration drive) and, obviously, the initial Big Bad of the protomolecule and all that comes from it.
posted by uberchet at 2:28 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


[Couple deleted -- Chuffy, this isn't a fruitful thought exercise to push and you say you don't want to dig in, so: don't.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 5:25 PM on January 9


SF is always less fun now than when one was 14. That says more about age than SF, sadly.

I regret only that I am too late in this thread to join the piling on of the "misogyny and assault: intrinsic to SF fans?" comment.

But I'll chime in with others that I obviously overestimated how broadly the knowledge of Asimov's terrible behavior had percolated. I thought basically everyone knew this by now but clearly not. Next you'll tell me some people can still read _Mists of Avalon_ without gagging.
posted by Justinian at 9:11 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Two of the giants of the relatively-current field -- Reynolds and Banks -- both trade in FTL and alien cultures,

I haven't read much Reynold, but Banks in particular is notorious for having very, very big ships powered by Unfathomable Science. Even when his heroes get away from the ships they're almost always accompanied by a drone to mind them. I'm trying to think of a human viewpoint character who gets to spend time alone, but I can't.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:21 PM on January 9


It's been years but I would assume that Bora Horza Gobuchul is an example since he's with the Idirans.
posted by Justinian at 10:55 PM on January 9


I'm trying to think of a human viewpoint character who gets to spend time alone, but I can't.

dajeil in excession. I mean, alone-ish *on a gsv*, but living in solitude.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:38 AM on January 10


uberchet, for some reason I never seem to finish Alistair Reynolds novels. When I'm reading Banks, I feel like I'm in the hands of a competent commercial writer but it just doesn't work. I get that same competent commercial feeling from GRRM, but I like his work better.

cstross, I like your Laundry Files a lot and they're wildly inventive, but they're too horrific to be full-on fun. You get credit for getting me to actually pay attention to military details. Few writers manage that.

Justinian, you have a point about age. If nothing else, the ideas aren't going to be as novel when you've been reading the field for a while.

One more thing about Asimov-- there's a tribute volume for him-- stories set in his universes and people's memories of him, and *that* mentions him harassing women.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:00 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


cstross, I like your Laundry Files a lot

I think you're replying to jscalzi, not cstross?
posted by umber vowel at 7:15 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


umber vowel, you're right. I'm sorry for the mistake.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:47 AM on January 10


Justinian: "SF is always less fun now than when one was 14. That says more about age than SF, sadly."

Peter Graham, is that you?
posted by Chrysostom at 9:20 AM on January 10


they're powered by sentient black holes or by deconstructing colours or by the thoughts of fetal philosophers in jars

Please tell me these are actual examples from actually-existing books I just haven't come across yet.


He doesn't do a lot of spaceships, but if you want scifi that's absolutely bonkers conceptually, I enjoy the works of Greg Bear. He picks a weird idea, and then he runs with it as far and as hard as he possibly can. City at the End of Time in particular was a delight of compelling ideas that don't make a lick of sense.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:29 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


they're powered by sentient black holes or by deconstructing colours or by the thoughts of fetal philosophers in jars

Hah. I was thinking I couldn't have made that one up. John Varley has a sentient black hole hunted for use as a ship's drive, in his short story Lollipop and the Tar Baby.

Varley is a bit of a disappointing author himself, incidentally: he took a sharp turn from boundary-pushing SF shorts to right-wing Heinleinian pastiche. Also, a surprising number of his stories involve sexually desirable children, even when the viewpoint character is an adult.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:36 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Varley's early stuff is very engaging, science-fictionally speaking...except that about 3/4 of it involves some form of creepy sex between young teens and adults. My perception is that he's much more coming from a "swinging seventies kids' lib we're all groovy here" standpoint than a real Piers Anthony pedophilia-apologist standpoint, but it's not easy reading. It's a shame because the rest of his world-building is so appealing - the weird resort inside a hollowed out moon with ths vast artificial ocean and the gills for tourists! The Disneylands! The future world with the storm artists! The field trip around the sun on a captured comet!

I think, if memory serves, that "Overdrawn At The Memory Bank", "In The Hall of the Martian Kings" and "Equinoctal" and "The Funhouse Effect" are all both good examples of Varley and not full of creepy relationships. "Manikin" is also worth a read, and "The Phantom of Kansas" has IIRC some creepy sexual stuff but not immoral-creepy, just gonzo seventies SF creepy. I myself also like most of his Anna-Louise Bach stories about a police officer in a domed lunar city that is a little bit libertarian, a little bit luxury space communism. I'd say that anyone who likes older SF would probably find these engaging.

I mean, the thing is, he took disability seriously as a subject (his partner for a long time IIRC was a disability activist) and - far more than a lot of SF writers of his generation who engaged with feminism - he wrote women characters who often seemed to exist for themselves and who were as well-realized as his male characters. So again, he's one of those "frustrating-mixture" people. I don't usually recommend his work except from a genre-history standpoint because of the sexual stuff.

If you're interested in SF-as-a-genre and want to read stories that are problematic but influential in order to better understand the genre, "The Persistence of Vision" and "Beatnik Bayou" are biggies, and you could do a lot worse than read his short work more generally.

You know what's really nice? I feel like from about 1990 onward, the number of Very Famous but also apologist-for-sexual-creepiness male writers has really declined and I can think of a number of excellent ones whose work you can read from start to finish and basically not be intensely creeped out. Even with writers like Iain Banks, where there are occasional politically lousy creepy scenes that really don't advance the story, those things represent a lapse of writerly judgement, not a worldview.
posted by Frowner at 5:29 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]


uberchet, for some reason I never seem to finish Alistair Reynolds novels. When I'm reading Banks, I feel like I'm in the hands of a competent commercial writer but it just doesn't work.
I bounced off Reynolds at first, too. I'm glad I gave him another spin, because there's some good stuff in the Revelation Space universe.

I have some issues with Banks, and absolutely wouldn't describe myself as a Banks true-fan or anything, but he gets enough accolades that I feel like he's worth mentioning.

In a LOT of ways, Reynolds is kinda Banks-lite.
posted by uberchet at 6:48 AM on January 13


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