There are some dangerous people in science fiction fandom.
This should not surprise anyone who’s ever been to an actual SF convention, and no, I do not mean the cosplayers. From what I’ve seen, that particular subset of fandom tends to comparatively normal; humans have been playing dress-up for literally millennia, whether for religious, ceremonial, or entertainment reasons, and even the wildest cosplay is based firmly in a well established tradition of masquerade, mummery, and other serious play.
(yes, that includes the couple in blood-stained 1940’s outfits who run up to anyone dressed as Batman, yell, “Son!” and then fall over while one holds up a sign that says “The Wayne Family”)
(No, I am not making this up)
Aside from the possibility of being crushed to death tugging on a bolt of fabric and bringing an entire display down on one’s head, the biggest risk faced by cosplayers is stepping on a needle or a minor burn thanks to a hot glue gun. Verdict: a bit strange but dangerous? Not really.
Nor am I talking about the sort of fans that the late, great, Harlan Ellison described in an epic rant in one of columns, who ranged from someone who sent him obscene fan art of Flash Gordon to an individual who liked to do obscure bird calls at random intervals. Conventions attract eccentrics the way apple cider vinegar and dish soap attract suicidal fruit flies, and aside from the poor taste involved in sending NSFW art to strangers, well, every group of enthusiasts has its lunatic fringe. Aside from the possibility of being verbally attacked by Harlan’s angry ghost, have fun, and try not to attract a flock of California condors to poop all over the rooftop bar and hot tub.
I don’t even mean the libertarians who show up professing their devotion to Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, or both. Politics is every bit as normal as playing dress-up, and aside from the occasional Free Stater who tries to persuade everyone to move to New Hampshire to create a freehold or somesuch poorly understood tax-free paradise, the libertarians are easy enough to avoid/ignore. They make a lot of noise and even give out their own awards, but in absolute terms there aren’t all that many of them. Factor in that the average convention program is so crowded with panels, workshops, films, gaming sessions, anime, and costuming tips that it’s quite possible for attendees to forget to eat, sleep, or bathe, and the average congoer probably isn’t even aware that the libertarians even exist.
No, I mean people who are actually, genuinely dangerous, and as much most fans don’t want to admit it, they indeed exist. There aren’t many of them, thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy or another fictional deity of choice, but they’re there, and their influence runs much deeper than a lot of fans either know or are willing to admit. SF fandom has had an enormous and largely positive impact on modern popular culture — just look at Star Trek, for heaven’s sake, and then there’s The Lord of the Rings — but there’s definitely some very poisonous chaff amongst the wheat.
This isn’t the time or place to explore famous fannish scandals like the Breendoggle, Ed Kramer’s reign of terror at Dragoncon, or Vox Day’s infamous Rabid Puppy attempt to coopt the Hugos either to own the libs, promote his own fringe publishing house, or own John Scalzi, take your pick. Nor is there time to go into horrors like the recent SCAdian king who murdered his girlfriend, then headed straight to the airport for a flight to California, where he was arrested at a large event by bewildered state police, or the infamously ill-mannered, terminally creepy stalker with the initials A____ A_____ who besmirched New England cons. I wrote a diary about some of the more unusual scandals a couple of years ago, including the career of notorious grifter Andrew Blake/ThanFiction/Victoria Bitter/Jordan Wood/Amy Player/fifty million other names, so the curious might wish to check it out.
For all these messy incidents, I’ve found fandom overall to be a pleasant and quite tolerant place over the last forty-plus years. I’ve edited fanzines, been on panels at multiple cons, and co-founded the oldest college SF club at a women’s college, and I can truthfully say that I met some of my dearest, closest friends through fandom. Every sub-culture, from wargamers to quilt collectors, has its unsavory characters, and science fiction enthusiasts are no exception. I am well aware of the problems, the scandals, and yes, the occasional danger, but fandom is still home on a very deep, primal level, and I’m not going anywhere.
And then there are the writers themselves.
Now. By this I do not mean curmudgeons like Harlan Ellison (who did not throw a fan down an elevator shaft no matter what your favorite book dealer’s second cousin once removed who plays D&D with the throwee says, that’s called “murder” and they arrest you for it), or even socially inept horndogs like Isaac Asimov (who was so notorious for pinching pretty women in the gluteal area that Harlan Ellison used to position himself so that Asimov would have to pinch him instead). Writers tend to be strange people
no, really? You’re certain? I never would have guessed! and quite a few of the older generation of SF writers were not only weird, they were writing in a subculture that the average well-educated reader/critic thought was one step up from Bazooka Joe bubblegum inserts. That kind of environment is not conducive to mental health or normal behavior now, let alone forty or fifty years ago.
Nor do I mean SF writers who happen to be politically conservative. John Ringo makes Dick Cheney look like the reincarnation of Eugene Debbs, but he’s not actively destructive; cripes, he wrote several books with the late and much-missed Eric Flint, a former Socialist union organizer, which says a great deal about both of them. I’ve never heard anything bad about David Drake (Hammer’s Slammers) or the late Roland Green (Peace Company), both of whom wrote excellent military SF, and and by all accounts archconservative Jerry Pournelle’s views were far more complex than the average conservative’s. Even libertarian stalwart J. Neil Schulman wrote an entertaining book about laser art, The Rainbow Cadenza, which I’ve read more than once and thoroughly enjoyed even if the worldbuilding is questionable and the politics faintly absurd.
The same cannot be said of tonight’s author. Once a popular, reliable author of hard science fiction, his career and reputation were seriously damaged after word of his political views leaked out. It’s a sad story, or would be if the said political views weren’t roughly as toxic as a PFAS-laced shot of Love Canal’s finest well water washed down with a good hit of contaminated sludge from the Housatonic River:
Like so many other authors I’ve profiled in these diaries, little about James P. Hogan’s early life hinted at his later views. Born in London to an Irish father and German mother, he became a voracious reader after a mobility issue confined him to bed for part of his childhood. He first thought about becoming a writer when he was sixteen, then shelved his ambitions after a friend pointed out that, y’know, sixteen year olds really don’t have the experiential background to make for decent fiction.
He still had to earn a living, so after winning a scholarship to study engineering, he worked for a succession of electronics and communications companies during the 1960’s and 1970’s, including a stint selling early computers for Honeywell. He married (twice) and had children (six), and on the surface he looked like any middle-aged, mid-career, middle class man.
Except that he’d seen Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s magisterial SF movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and begun reading science fiction with the same attention he’d devoted to his engineering studies. Soon he came to two conclusions:
- He still wanted to write, even after spending the last twenty years designing and selling electronics.
- He did not understand the ending to 2001 and figured he could do better.
He shared these sentiments with his co-workers in the early 1970’s. After they finished laughing, especially at the idea that he could outdo Arthur C. Clarke, they bet him £5 apiece that he not only couldn’t write a better ending than the future knight, he would never get a book published. Hogan, who was not only intelligent but seemingly quite stubborn, said “you’re on, hold my beer,” and set to work.
Little did they know! For Hogan not only had an idea for a better ending to 2001, he had the imagination, discipline, and scientific knowledge to do more than boast about it. His first book, Inherit the Stars, came out in 1977 to excellent reviews (and presumably several £5 notes from his friends), and by 1979 he’d written four books and was making enough money to quit his corporate job and be what he’d always wanted to be.
A steady stream of novels, short stories, and essays soon followed. So did two more marriages (one of which lasted until his death), two Prometheus Awards for best libertarian SF novel of the year, three Seiun-sho Awards from Japanese fandom, and critical acclaim that included no less than Isaac Asimov saying “watch out, Arthur C. Clarke!” in a glowing review of an early novel. He even became friends (or at least friendly) with Sir Arthur himself, who admitted that maybe Hogan’s ending for 2001 made more sense but pointed out that the movie, novelization, and subsequent sequels/tie-ins made a lot more money than Inherit the Stars and its sequels.
So far, so good. I never met Hogan — his brand of hard science fiction was not and never has been my favorite — but I saw him at a few conventions and he seemed like a perfectly amiable sort as he signed autographs, gave readings, and interacted with his fans. There are plenty like him in fandom, and most of them are about as dangerous as Gil the Wonder Cat when he’s basking in the sun on a lazy weekend afternoon.
Then I heard rumors about some of his beliefs (Hogan’s, not the cat’s). Nothing concrete, but word began circulating that some of his views were, shall we say, not precisely orthodox. Oh, his books were still reasonably popular, and still sold reasonably well (especially The Giants series, an alternate history of the universe which had begun with Inherit the Stars), but neither book nor author was quite as popular as before, or at least as visible at conventions and in book stores.
Now. This was not uncommon for mid-list, mid-career authors. There are always new books to read, new authors to enjoy, and fresh ideas to revitalize the field, from steampunk to urban fantasy, and authors who can’t or won’t at least try to adapt often find themselves in trouble. Worse, Hogan’s specialty — space opera with a hard science underpinning — did not lend itself to either deep characterization or finely written prose. Readers wanted more than he either would or could give, and his attempts to lighten up his somewhat heavy style resulted in what the Science Fiction Encyclopedia termed “leaden flippancy” instead of actual humor.
And then what his friends called his contrarian streak manifested itself in a series of blog posts, bulletin board comments, and published essays that made it very clear that the rumors I’d heard were not only true, but that James P. Hogan had gone well beyond reasonable skepticism and deliberate contrarianism into what Sherlock Holmes would have called “deep waters — deep waters indeed”:
Kicking the Sacred Cow: Questioning the Unquestionable and Thinking the Impermissible, by James P. Hogan —
Science fearlessly pursues truth, shining the pure light of reason on the mysteries of the universe. Or does it? James Hogan demonstrates in this fact-filled and thoroughly documented study that science has its own roster of hidebound pronouncements which are not to be questioned.
So read the tagline for Hogan’s 2004 compendium of what he and his fans called “contrarianism” and the rest of the world called “blatant crackpottery.” He evidently had decided to apply the same impulse behind seeing a popular movie and thinking “I can write a better ending” to science as a whole, with plenty of research that went against the scientific norm to prove that hey, science isn’t always right! No one is! So here are some thought experiments for you to chew over and maybe change your mind! Enjoy!
All of which sounds like jolly fun if you’re of a certain mindset; remember, Charles Fort, the beloved author of Wild Talents, The Book of the Damned, and Lo!, also challenged scientific and historical orthodoxy with his fascinating collections of oddities. One can’t help wondering if Hogan was inspired by the greatest contrarian of all, especially after a search through the Wayback Machine reveals that his old website contained a list of what he called “heretics” that espoused allegedly unorthodox theories, even if some of the writers (Naomi Klein, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jimmy Carter) were not heretics in any sense of the word. He seemed to believe that skepticism was good, and to a certain extent he definitely had a point.
It was only when one actually went through the list of books, and the ideas expressed in Kicking the Sacred Cow, that it became clear that what might have started as a healthy and normal impulse had mutated into something ugly, dark, and sometimes verging on — dare I say it — genuinely evil.
You think I exaggerate? See for yourself:
- Repeated defenses of the crackpot cosmology of Immanuel Velikovsky, who believed that Venus had been a comet, that Biblical accounts of the sun standing still were literally true, and the manna consumed by the Hebrews in the Sinai Peninsula was composed of “hydrocarbons” produced by Comet Venus’s tail.
- A ringing defense of DDT, the pesticide that came within an inch of killing off every raptor native to North America, on the grounds that it was very effective against the mosquitoes that carry malaria, and never mind the poisoned groundwater, dead birds, and ruined ecosystems.
- Weirdly cherry-picked denunciations of evolution that likely would have made Stephen J. Gould’s head explode, perhaps literally.
- Discussion of how AIDS isn’t caused by a virus but is actually triggered by poverty, drug use, and malnutrition, and hoo boy is it a good thing that Hogan died before the arrival of Covid-19
- Quite a bit of ink insisting that global warming is a hoax, efforts at population control are bad, and we should all listen to Bjorn Lomborg about sea ice melting instead of all those scary nasty people with their hockey stick charts.
- A very skeptical view of the Big Bang theory, plus a dedication to Big Bang skeptic Halton “Chip” Arp.
- A partial chapter devoted to debunking the theory that asbestos is bad for us, especially if inhaled. Why he bothered he is not clear, since the dangers of asbestos have been known for, oh, around a hundred years, but contrarians gotta contrary, y’know.
Again: questioning orthodoxy is not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself. As Hogan’s obituary in The Guardian put it, “His purpose [in writing the book] seemed to be to question accepted wisdom and apply the methodology one would expect in scientific investigation to physics, history, medicine and other subjects.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and it’s possible that Hogan genuinely believed his readers could use a little shaking up.
Except that, well, he actually believed quite a bit of this — the last two books in the Giants series could have been co-written by Velikovsky the way they shuffled planets around — and the quality of his work suffered a noticeable decline as he became more and more convinced that he was right, the scientific community as a whole was wrong, and why wouldn’t those silly physicists and doctors and biologists simply listen?
And then there was the announcement he made early in 2006: that the Holocaust was a hoax.
No, I am not joking. He really did say that. And professional contrarian or not, he meant it.
The occasion was pseudo-historian and Nazi apologist David Irving being sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison for denying the Holocaust, and you would have through that Hogan’s bestest buddy had been falsely accused of murdering newborn kittens on pay-per-view based on a blog post entitled “Free-speech Hypocrisy.” Hogan not only defended Irving (who’d admitted he was a denier), he claimed that Mark Weber of the Institute for Historical Review, the leading Holocaust denial “think tank,” and Arthur Butz, a tenured professor at Northwestern University who’d written an absolutely awful book claiming the Holocaust was an anti-Nazi hoax, were, and I quote,
“more scholarly, scientific, and convincing than what the history written by victors says.”
To say that this did not go over well with Hogan’s fans, fandom in general, or the general public is putting it mildly. Being a contrarian is one thing, but a lot of SF fans, writers, and professionals are Jewish, including some of the very best and most influential writers and editors the genre has produced. Announcing on your blog that “hey, this whole genocide thing was an Allied propaganda thing, your zayde with the numbers on his wrist was lying and all those films you watched in history class were made up” was not precisely a great way to attract more readers, especially when your sales were already in decline.
Despite the outcry, Hogan not only did not apologize, he continued to insist that he was just being skeptical, like any good researcher. That there were literally millions of witnesses, survivors, and historians who had demonstrated/testified/written multi-volume accounts of the Holocaust did not seem to impress him. Weber and Butz were better than all them, from Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel on down to the ordinary GI’s who liberated the death camps.
Worse? A few years later he doubled down, with an appalling 2010 blog post entitled “Here’s To You, Ernst Zundel: A Lonely Voice of Courage” lauding the mild-mannered publisher who’d been one of the major figures behind the whole Holocaust denial movement as an unjustly imprisoned truth seeker. That Zundel was an avowed neo-Nazi who’d spent literally decades publishing one anti-Semitic and/or Holocaust-denying pamphlet after another did not matter. No, he was a brave freedom fighter standing up to “a number of countries in today's European gulag” and had been subjected to a “medieval-witch-style of court hearing” by that notorious human rights violator, Canada. He then linked to two more posts praising Zundel and purporting to tell “the real story,” not the propagandized version.
Even Charles Fort wouldn’t have gone that far, and that is saying something.
James P. Hogan died not long after his paean to Ernst Zundel, leaving thirty books, six kids, and his fourth (and last) wife. He still has his fans, but it’s safe to say that his reputation has never really recovered from the effects of his own insistence on being a contrarian, regardless of the consequences.
Have you ever read a book by James P. Hogan? Seen 2001: A Space Odyssey? Questioned received wisdom? It’s a steamy summer night here at the Last Homely Shack, so crack open a cold beverage, draw round the whirring box fan, and share….
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