Down the Rabbit Hole

Many others today have written about Harlan Ellison’s groping of Connie Willis at the Hugo awards ceremony. (Gwenda) (Gavin) (Patrick) (Ed). What happened was unconscionable.

It makes me wonder–how must a woman just entering the field feel about this? Younger female readers? What could they possibly think about this? Could they possiblly think anything good about SF/F? As a field? A community? I tend and like to think as a field we have our shit together. But, much as we have the “digital divide” on the Internet, we have the “sanity divide” or “asshole divide” in science fiction! I’m sure shit like this happens in other fields–but in such a public arena? Where the award-winner gets treated like shit?

And this isn’t Just About Harlan–there are those who (within the comfy, nonpublic confines of SFWA private forums, so they don’t have to show their faces to the big, bad public!) have circled the wagons around these reprehensible actions–or been “ho hum” about it. The difference, then, is quite stark: it’s between dead-enders and people who actually have some kind of connection to the 21st century world at large–you know? The 21st century? Where shit like this shouldn’t happen?

That world.

I like that world. I like to live in it. It’s pretty cool because it’s chock full of what I like to call “adults” and “adult, non-groping behavior”. And I can’t fucking stand the fact that a proportion of the community that is supposed to–I don’t know–provide nurturance? A “we’re all in this together” spirit?–is at such basic odds with human decency. I would understand if, being in the audience, someone would never attend another SF convention again.

And I wouldn’t blame them. To put up with that shit again? Because it’s not going to stop until…well, I don’t know what would make Harlan personally stop. But what would make the dead-enders stop? There are real wars going on, and a 1-year anniversary of a Katrina disaster, and all sorts of miseries in the world. This is merely a blip in relative terms. So maybe perspective is skewed. But then I keep thinking: we DO have so much to deal with–and we have this great, compelling lexicon of speculative fiction to really engage with these problems, our world now, and what connects us and tears us apart.

And we have to deal with THIS crap?

This goes beyond merely disagreements in discourse, or even a generational divide. Hell, I’m sure a lot of the people I’d disagree with vehemently with in terms of aesthetics, etc. find what happened at Worldcon just as reprehensible. This goes beyond literary values, and into human values. I’ve met so many kind, generous, warm, funny, dear friends through the world of science fiction. How long are we going to deal with this? How long until alternative structures are developed so that the dead-enders can drive whatever they think is the field of SF/F into the ground, and the rest of us can move on into actually getting to work?

Update: Leah and Chance have great posts which go point-by-point into the mindset of apologists.

36 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Pingback: Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Harlan Ellison: The Norman Mailer of Speculative Fiction

  2. Lis Riba

    It makes me wonder–how must a woman just entering the field feel about this? Younger female readers? What could they possibly think about this? Could they possiblly think anything good about SF/F? As a field? A community?

    Part of my reaction was that if Harlan can get away with something like this against a 60 year old multiple-award-winning GOH at a formal event, then how much easier will it be to excuse actions against younger women in casual settings. Will dress or actions be used to say “she was asking for it”?

    As for how this appears to outsiders, I stumbled upon this while Googling. Many of her stereotypes seem horridly dated, but this is exactly the kind of behavior one would expect of the “boys’ club” that SFF reportedly once was.

  3. Leah Bobet

    Speaking as a woman writer newer to the field (two years since my first pro sale), it feels like…well, a punch in the kidney.

    I do not like the thought that no matter what I achieve, I will always just be a pair of tits to someone. And that it’ll be okay to other people.

  4. Mike Moorcock

    As an active pro-feminist whose wife, also a very active and effective feminist, worked for Harlan for some time, as a close friend of Andrea Dworkin and a supporter of many of her arguments, I have to say that Harlan’s action was appalling. However, it is also not the Harlan I know. He has always enjoyed good relations with many powerful women and has supported others. He sweated in a non-air-conditioned trailer in Arisona as a GOH of a Worldcon in, as I recall, 1978 in order to demonstrate against Arizona not ratifying the ERA by refusing to spend any money in the state and has supported NOW and other causes designed to improve the political power and self-esteem of women. He has made a statement in which he apologises for his actions. He hasn’t always behaved perfectly in the past, any more than I have, but he has attacked sexism and come out strongly against it. One of the reasons I found Isaac Asimov absolutely impossible was his dreadful behaviour towards women at conventions and I have known several other ‘much loved’ sf writers who have behaved infinitely worse than Harlan and never once apologised for it. Nothing justifies what Harlan has done, but this should not be used as evidence by those who wish to represent him as a villain. He has done a great deal for sf writers in many ways, frequently unpublicised, and in the view of those who know him well his good deeds have far outweighed any childish or aggressive behaviour. I am not justifying what happened, of course, but do wish to point out that it is not in any way typical behaviour.

  5. Alan Post author

    Thanks for your POV on this. One of the things, hopefully, that is brought more to light–or at least to discussion–from all of this (and one of the things I tried to stress in my first post) is how this is a larger issue, and not just about this one incident (which might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back). That there are larger structural issues in condonement of this behavior–that, as you say, stretch back quite awhile. But it’s still an ongoing problem. At the last ICFA we went to in 2002 (someone correct me if I’m wrong), my wife was groped from behind at a party–twice in one night, and we had to witness an awards banquet that was egregiously sexist and racist. We’ve never been back. So I think a lot of the firestorm is about those larger issues of power, etc. that have been building up for awhile.

  6. Ellen Datlow

    Context is everything Alan. Most of those who have been blogging about the incident were not there and don’t have a clue as to what actually went on.
    This is what I posted on Harlan’s blog and elsewhere:

    “I was offline for a day or two after the con and then when I got back I discovered this whole brouhaha over Harlan’s baby schtick -and that’s what it was. A schtick of Harlan acting like a baby. Thus, he went up to the mike when Connie called him up–he put the mike (a round one) into his mouth, swallowing it like a lollipop, Connie took it gently out of his mouth and wiped it off. He gurgled –like a baby– and then grabbed her breast like a baby and she smacked his hand off. A few seconds later she kissed him….Cmon people. Please put this into perspective. It was NOT sexual assault. It was a joke/schtick gone a bit over the top. I was not offended as a woman watching this. I thought it was silly (but yes, I admit I personally thoughth the schtick funny). I also know that Connie and Harlan have a history of ribbing each other. I’ve seen it in the past. So please keep the incident in context and calm down.”

    Saying this, I’ll add that Harlan has apologized to Connie–no response from Connie yet. I’d also like to add that this is between Connie and Harlan, NOT the community.
    There’s a self-righteousnes abounding here that I as a woman and a feminist find offensive. Connie is a grown woman who is more than able and willing to defend herself.
    This is just an over the top joke gone sour.

  7. Gwenda

    It wouldn’t involve the community, if it hadn’t happened at an uber-public forum. So, frankly, the incident and the responses to it do involve and reflect on SF at large. Pandora’s box is open on this one, and I don’t think it’s possible to quell the discussion about it until it reaches its natural end. I also echo what Alan says above, that the conversation taking place is about something larger.

    And I do respect that it wasn’t offensive to you, Ellen, but quite a few others who were also there have said they found it very offensive.

  8. Gavin

    Hey Ellen,

    I think people are using this incident to consider the general atmosphere within the genre.

    Moving from the specific (where Ellison admits fault and apologises) to the general: there are a lot of (mostly) older (mostly) men in the field whose behavior is sometimes unacceptable but who are not censured for it.

    To me it is the power imbalance between person A (groper) and person B (gropee) which needs to be accounted and corrected for. Where I might slap someone for touching me inappropriately, someone else may feel intimidated, etc., and not able to react.

    This brouhaha is (hopefully) the field correcting itself so that those persons A realize that what seems to them friendly behavior can seem to persons B an abuse of power and they will stop.

    Very optimistic, I’m sure, but: why not?


  9. Christopher Barzak

    I think that’s a good attitude to have about it, Gavin.

    I personally do think that all sorts of crap goes on at cons that is line crossing or close to it or perhaps confusing to get a grip on and almost all of us has been involved in something like that in some way, even as just a spectator, so it really is best to pursue something like this not on the individual level specifically, but yes, like Gavin said, as a community corrective discussion of mutual respect for one another.

  10. Ellen Datlow

    During the two decades of being in the field I’ve had beer thrown at me by a drunken jealous editor/writer who thought he deserved a job I held. I’ve also experienced unwanted passes and touching on occasion. I would never want or expect the “field” to publically announce these incidents and call for apologies from the perpetrators. I dealt with them myself, one on one. I would have felt _less in control_ if someone else (or especially the masses) has confronted these people.

    Obviously this is my own opinion and my own reaction.

  11. Christopher Barzak

    I agree with you on this particular point, Ellen. I’ve had some similar experiences as well that I’ve handled, or tried my best to handle, alone. I prefer it that way too. I understand that people often want to come to the rescue of their friends or people they love in situations like this, too. But yeah, in my own case I’d ask for help if I felt I needed it. I think if anything can come out of all this, it might be a change in the general atmosphere concerning stuff like this. I doubt that there’s any way to truly implement some standardized treatment of these situations by the field, but there may be even a subtle shift in people’s own codes of conduct to make sure they do realize that it’s generally frowned upon behavior and that people will talk, as they always have and will.

  12. Susan Groppi

    Ellen, I think in general I would agree with you that any individual incident of inappropriate behavior should be handled on an individual level. But the problem here is that a lot of people (myself included) have been really annoyed for a really long time about the fact that there’s a kind of prevailing attitude in the community that inappropriate behavior isn’t _really_ inappropriate if it’s being perpetrated by someone who also writes great books. What you’re saying looks like self-righteousness, to me it just looks like a bunch of people calling bullshit on a tradition of bad behavior.

  13. rick bowes

    I’m coming to this very late, as usual. I’m uneasy at this incident being made to “stand” for anything but what it is. Connie is the victim here and needs to be allowed the time and space to decide what if anything she wants to do about it.

    It was a different circumstance and in a time long enough ago to be historic, but I do know that seeubg anger and a hue and cry get raised in other cases make it much less likely that a victim, especially a young one, will testify if it happens to him or her.

    I’m glad that Alan and Chris were willing to write in more specific terms about unwelcome groping and advances. I have no idea how this would be done in the genre, but there needs to be a mechanism to take reports like these out of the realm of gossip and to have them compiled in a confidential manner.

    There need to be clearly defined codes of conduct clauses at conventions, conferences etc.

    There needs to be the certainty that this kind of behavior will be reported and punished.

  14. Ellen Datlow

    I’m sure people get groped and have unwanted passes made at them in fandom and at conventions–just like in the outside world. I don’t buy your contention that there’s a prevailing attitude that condones it for anyone.

  15. rick bowes


    I’ve noticed that a major shift has occured in the standards of behavior expected by younger members of conventions and the genre in general. Their model is something much closer to the one that prevails at educational institutions. I think there’s good in that idea.

  16. Ellen Datlow

    Sure, Rick–usually. Although I certainly would not want our field to end up with some of the “regulations” that colleges have enacted over the years. There’s a difference between common sense and rigid ridiculousness.

  17. Pareux

    – Thursday, August 31 2006 21:21:38
    …AND MARK:

    Would you be slightly less self-righteous and chiding if I told you there was

    NO grab…

    there was

    NO grope…

    there was

    NO fondle…

    there was the slightest touch. A shtick, a gag between friends, absolutely NO sexual content.

    Would you, and the ten thousand maggots who have blown this up into a cause celebre, be even the least bit abashed to know that I apologized WAY BEYOND what the “crime” required, on the off chance that I HAD offended? Let me ask you, Mark:

    1) Were you there?
    2) Did you see it?
    3) Are you standing on your soapbox to chide me via 3rd/4th-hand reportage by OTHERS who weren’t there?
    4) Do you also buy the infinite number of other internet brouhahas that turned out to be misreported?

    Here it is, Mark; and for any others who fit the shoe:

    In the words of that great American philosopher, Tony Isabella,
    “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.”

    Does not anyone READ WHAT I WROTE within fifteen minutes of learning of this? Does not anyone wonder why, if it was such a piggish thing I did, as one of those jerkwad blogs calls it, Connie Willis hasn’t, after twenty-five years of “friendship,” not returned my call on Monday … or responded to the Fedex packet of my posting here on Monday, which Fedex advises me she received at 2:20 pm on Tuesday?

    Can the voluble and charismatic Connie not even pick up a phone to tell the man whose work she “admires deeply” that he has gone a bridge too far? Is she so wracked by the Awfulness of it that she is incapable of saying to his face, you went too far? No one EVER asked her to “bell the cat.” She decided that was her role toward me, long ago. And I’ve put up with it for years.

    How about it, Mark: after playing straight man to Connie’s very frequently demeaning public jackanapery toward me — including treating me with considerable disrespect at the Grand Master Awards Weekend, where she put a chair down in front of her lectern as Master of Ceremonies, and made me sit there like a naughty child throughout her long “roast” of my life and career — for more than 25 years, without once complaining, whaddays think, Mark, am I even a leetle bit entitled to think that Connie likes to play, and geez ain’t it sad that as long as SHE sets the rules for play, and I’m the village idiot, she’s cool … but gawd forbid I change the rules and play MY way for a change … whaddaya think, Mark, my friend, am I within the parameters of brutish pigginess to suggest if she WAS offended, then I apologize … even if you and a garbage-scowload of asinine pathetic internet wanks get up on their “affront” and tell me how to behave?

    I’ve sat here for four days, quietly, having done as much forelock-tugging and kneeling as I feel — as I — I — not you — not fan pinheads in far places who jumped and bayed and went after me in a second — but I –who is responsible for my behavior — as I feel is proper. And for four days I’ve waited for Deeply Outraged and Debased Connie Willis — an avowed friend and admirer of my work for more than a quarter century –to get up off her political correctness and take her pal off the gibbet.

    I spent more hours traveling this benighted country, for eight years, state after state after state, lecturing in defense of women’s rights and passage of the ERA than any of you have spent mouthing your sophomoric remonstrances.

    As the Great American Philosopher Tony Isabella has said, “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.”

    My last word on this clusterfuck. If Willis wants in, she knows where you all are. She knows where I am.All the rest is silence.

    Harlan Ellison

    P.S. Including Mark’s post that precedes this one, I URGE YOU all to post this everywhichwhere, and let the poison drip where it will. Gloves come off now, onlookers.

  18. Pareux

    The preseding wasin response to this;
    – Thursday, August 31 2006 20:12:58
    just some thoughts…
    You know what bothers me more than What Happened? The reactions here.

    As has been stated, how Willis deals with it is her business.

    But consider a few things here:

    1. I would expect an adult to be cognizant of the fact that there are children and young people present who would not necessarily understand the context of a boob grab (should an acceptable context exist).
    2. One does not joke or use purposefully exaggerated hyperbole in a true apology. An apology is contrition, not another poorly thought-out comedy routine.
    3. If you apology has the phrase “if I offended…”, it is not an apology. It’s a passive aggressive way of saying “You’re offended, but I don’t see why.”
    4. Harlan has lots of fans. Lots of people exist who do not read him, know his personality or, most importantly, care about either. They can be offended and not have to take his accomplishments and personality into account to excuse his behavior.
    5. One’s accomplishments and personality are no excuse.
    6. One’s accomplishments and perosnality are often the very reason some people think they can get away with bad behavior.
    7. One does not lob an apology on his own website to someone he is supposedly good friends with for something that obviously upset the friend and a lot of other people. Good friends call each other in such circumstances. The offender does not passive aggressively put on a public show to effectively embarrass the person further by forcing them to demand an apology.

    I could go on, but let me share how I have dealt with guys who grab boobs without permission. I’m an out gay man. Four times now I have been witness to “playful” unwanted boob grabs. Each time, I have “playfully” reached over and cupped the guy’s crotch. Each and every one–including the one gay guy–were horrified and offended–including two I’ve known for years. Familiarity has nothing to do with it. It’s an invasion. All you guys here who think it’s no big deal, please stop by so I can hold your balls. All you women here who think it’s blown out of proportion, get some self-respect.

    Ellison has completly lost it

  19. rick bowes

    Why and for whose benefit is it considered necessary to have this endless, tired schtick as part of all awards ceremonies? Does anybody really travel long distances to watch professional writers as amateur sketch commedians?

  20. Gwenda

    Why and for whose benefit is it considered necessary to have this endless, tired schtick as part of all awards ceremonies? Does anybody really travel long distances to watch professional writers as amateur sketch commedians?

    This seems like a side issue, but I am all for the elimination of this too. It’s offensive in a whole other way. Is genre really full of frustrated stand-up comedians?

  21. rick bowes


    That comedy routine format, needing new and bigger laughs, was what gave rise to the incident.

  22. Kim Owen Smith

    As an (older) (male) writer (I’m a screenwriter, not a writer in the genre, though I have written SFnal films) who started conventioning in 1976,though I’ve only attended five in the past 22 years, I am stunned at the apparent dislike of older writers in our genre evinced by the term “deadenders”.

    Apparently I am massively out of touch with what is going on in the field, if this is any sign of the current state of affairs on where the genre is going.

    I saw the New Wave vs. Golden Age writers bit, and the “Cyberpunks” taking on the field with both hands, but in neither case was their this sheer disdain for those on whose shoulders the current generatino of writers stand.

    Like it or not, those before you bulit the field. You may dislike their style, or substance, or both, but how about a little respect? After all, you want them to respect you, right? The best way of getting respect is to act in a respectful manner, even when it’s not immediately reciprocated.

    In that vein, I respect the new writers, and what they ahve done for SF to bring us forward, AND I respect the older weriters who have granted so many of us their dreams and imaginary worlds.

    Civility, anyone?

    Kim Owen Smith

    My apologies for any typoes, this was written swiftly and no time for proffreading.

  23. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Ellen, you said, “I’m sure people get groped and have unwanted passes made at them in fandom and at conventions–just like in the outside world. I don’t buy your contention that there’s a prevailing attitude that condones it for anyone.”

    I’m not sure condones is quite the word — it’s less visible than that, less explicit. But I do know that several young Clarion female graduates (in multiple years, usually at a big convention like WorldCon) have come to talk to me, quite distraught, after being fondled, grabbed, etc. at conventions by senior male writers and editors in the field. And they weren’t sure whether theirs was an isolated incident, or what, and whether they should do anything about it, or even what they could do, other than try to stay out of grabbing range — which is often quite difficult to manage someplace like a crowded Tor party. (I don’t want to give specific names of offenders in public, but I’d be happy to discuss this further with you in private e-mail, with concrete details.)

    I didn’t know what to tell them honestly, especially if they were a shy, anxious young writer, terrified of upsetting someone powerful in the field and potentially damaging their chances at a future career. I couldn’t guarantee that wouldn’t happen if they made a loud noise in protest, and that’s tragic, a disgrace to a field that has been so forward-thinking about women’s issues in the literature.

    I’m not sure why these young women came to me, other than that I was a female editor of about their own age who seemed potentially sympathetic — I wonder how many other women there are who never say anything to anyone.

    Sadly, I hear far more reports of this in sf/f publishing circles than I do in mainstream circles — which is unsurprising, perhaps, given the extent to which sf was an old boys’ club for so long. It’s changed radically in the last few decades, in no small part due to your own presence and efforts. But we still retain the legacy of those earlier decades, and it’s clear that many of those men have made no adjustment to their behavior.

  24. Kim Owen Smith

    A Modest Proposal:

    We Shall Institute At All And Several various Gatherings Known as SF Conventions A Body Of Officers To Be Known As The Comedy And InterSexual Relations Police To Be Under The Command Of The World SF Committee For The Enforcement Of Anti-Comedy In Awards Ceremonies And Anti-Boorish Behavior On The Grounds Of Any SF Convention For All Time Anywhere In The Universe. Said Body Of Officers Shall Compile Records Of All Alleged Incidents Of Comic Behavior At Any Gathering Of Three Or More SF Writers And Furthermore Shall Also Compile Reports Of Boorish Behavior By Any SF Author Or Fan. All Comrades In SF Will Support The Committee And Their Officers In The Pursuit Of Cleansing The SF Community Of The Bacillus Of Comedy And Boorish Behavior. I Hereby Propose Comrade Bowes As The First Chairman Of The Committee. All Hail The Committee, All Hail The Cleansing Of Deadenders And Their Bacilli Of Deadender Behavior. Long Live The Committee And The Body Of Officers Who Shall Cleanse SF With An Iron Broom!

    That oughta show them, eh?

    Kim Owen Smith

  25. Ellen Datlow

    Mary Anne,
    I’m appalled to hear this–Yes, please contact me directly. You’ve got my email address.

  26. Pingback: Conversations « Torque Control

  27. A.R.Yngve

    First: No, I wasn’t there. I got to hear about the incident from all the accounts that popped up in scores of weblogs — and eventually, I saw the video clip on the Web.

    1. My initial impulse when I read about it was to condemn Ellison, without any ifs and buts: This is unacceptable. Show some respect for a great writer like Connie Willis. I didn’t know any context, except that Ellison grabbed Willis’ breast on stage.

    2. Then I read the more detailed accounts and started thinking: Was Ellison merely being pathetic in his old age? Were the writers acting out some personal feud?

    3. Then I saw the video.
    Boy, does Connie Willis look tall next to Harlan Ellison!
    How feeble the Hugo Awards ceremony suddenly seemed, in the stark imagery of a digital video camera… how cringeworthy the “comedy” on stage. I quickly shut off the video out of sheer embarrassment. I really, really didn’t want to see Ellison grab Willis… it was quite enough when he stuck the microphone in his mouth and acted like a big baby.

    4. Then I started to wonder what role the Internet and mass media played in the incident — perhaps this “closed” SF community had suddenly found itself exposed on video, and was just not used to the attention of countless bloggers and Websurfers. (McLuhan was right, again. It really is a global village.)

    5. Then I read Mary Anne Mohanraj’s comment here, about other “incidents”, and all the pieces fell into place.

    This isn’t about Harlan anymore. It’s about the frickin’ “boys’ club” attitude. It’s “the grab that broke the camel’s back.”

    While I don’t expect the “boys” (whoever they are) to suddenly become saints, they should be made aware that this IS the 21st century. Try to treat women like your personal playthings, and you WILL be confronted for it.

    Face the facts: The “Science Fiction Boys’ Club” is closing. And it’s about time.

  28. Nikki

    I don’t know HE, the owner of this blog, or Kim Owen Smith, but I’d like to respond to the latter.

    I believe you’ve misunderstood the author’s use of “dead-enders.” It seemed to me that it referred to people in the SF/F community who are out of touch with modern conventions of polite behavior, not “older writers.”

    “Dead-enders” as used here could (and probably does) include people of all demographic characteristics.

  29. Alexandra

    This is why I backed out of my plans to actually go to the convention–I’m 18, and I would have been going alone. I’m not very good at defending myself, so if he had touched me (not groped me) I would simply have run away (if he had groped me on the breast, I would have given him a right hook to never forget).

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