Recently, author and activist Daniel Jose Older started a petition to change the World Fantasy Award statue from a bust of author H.P. Lovecraft to one of Octavia Butler. On the surface, this may seem to be a change from one distinct thing to an opposite one: moving from a white, male author who was racist, misogynistic, paranoid, and possibly without much skill as a writer, to a black, female author who is seen as one of the best-known writers of color in the field of genre fiction. However, this isn’t the difference between one side and another. Both options represent aspects of the same side, and both are wrong.
Lest you think I dislike the idea of changing the bust because I don’t read or enjoy either of these writers, you should know that I’m actually a fan of both Lovecraft and Butler. I’ve studied Lovecraft extensively, have published (to great reviews) Mythos fiction, and even edited an anthology of Mythos-inspired erotica. At the same time, I’m well aware of his repugnant aspects, and have long argued that we can only celebrate his influence if we include an effort to bring much-needed diversity into the work he inspires. Butler wasn’t on my radar until a decade ago, but since then I’ve read most of her published work and can clearly see why she’s so admired. Each author deserves their fan base. Problem is, that fan base isn’t global enough.
The World Fantasy Awards began in 1975, when it was certainly more difficult to read widely from a pool of international authors than it is today – because the Internet and ebooks have allowed us access to writers we may not have heard of 40 years ago. But the award was always meant to recognize excellence amongst all fantasy authors, everywhere. At the time it was proposed, the cartoonish head of Lovecraft (designed by Gahan Wilson, a noted cartoonist) seemed like a good idea. After all, weird fiction was having another resurgence, and many of those involved in creating the award had been strongly influenced by HPL’s writing, or those of his pulp contemporaries. Giving “the Howard” out wasn’t meant to be a symbol of racism, or sexism, or general disrespect to the very authors and artists who might be receiving it… at the time. Now, many of the recipients are simultaneously honored by the concept and also disgusted by the man whose face graces their trophy.
The many reasons for this unease have been covered by Nnedi Okorafor, China Miéville, Nalo Hopkinson, and too many others to count, over the last several years. Whether Lovecraft was never the right choice, or is no longer the right choice, most in the genre community now agree that the HPL bust is too problematic to continue. Enter Older’s petition to replace it with one of Butler. While there are certainly great reasons to suggest her over other authors, I suggest that we don’t limit ourselves to choosing a different writer’s head every couple of decades. Doing so leads to what we already have now: two sides arguing over two faces of the same coin, and ignoring most of the rest of the world.
Butler may be more palatable to many fans because she is a woman, because she is a person of color, because she may be a better writer, but ultimately, Octavia Butler is still a 20th century American author. That she’s black does not make her international. That she’s a woman does not make her representative of all writers everywhere. Her influence is great, but she certainly hasn’t influenced all fans of fantasy fiction who have ever lived, or even all of those who are currently alive on the planet. Part of the current argument is whether she wrote fantasy at all (I believe she did, for the record, but not everyone agrees). Suggesting that Butler is the worthy alternative to Lovecraft still limits what is supposed to be a World Fantasy Award to a very privileged, very American point of view.
The Hugo Award, the science fiction cousin to the WFA, has been (save for 1958) a finned rocket ship for every year of its existence. Each year, the base has a different design, to allow for changes in theme, popular style, and so on, but the iconic rocket ship remains. This is inclusive because it represents no one person; it relates to SF in that space flight has been an inspiration for the genre since its ancient beginnings; it looks forward to a future of both the genre and the world. Nearly everyone on the planet knows what space and space flight are, even if they don’t quite recognize the specific shape of this award. Astronauts – both male and female – from most of the major countries of the world today have been aboard a rocket, and the dream of going into space is very strong for children all over the globe.
The World Fantasy Award can easily evolve into a similarly inclusive trophy by changing the design to a symbolic creature, rather than an individual’s head. Other suggestions have been made that are better than “the Howard”, but still limited by a very American or Western perspective. Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Nick Mamatas gave us the idea of a chimera, which is a fantastic monster, but a Greek invention. Kurt Busiek’s globe with fantasy maps would probably feature well-known staples like Middle Earth, Oz, Greyhawk, Westeros… all invented by white, male, Western, authors.
My suggestion? A sea serpent, wrapped around the World. Sea serpent sightings have been reported for thousands of years. The creatures appear in Norse mythology, in folktales from the Philippines, in the Bible, and throughout our historical record. Respected sailors have spotted them off the coasts of Africa, India, China, Japan, Russia, the US, and more, making it a truly global phenomena. Your average sea serpent is nearly identical in shape to the Chinese dragon, save for the legs, and similar to early descriptions of Indian nāgás. The Filipino Bakunawa is a gigantic sea serpent; the Ikuchi appears in the sea close to the southwestern shore of Japan. The Leviathan of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) may be considered a whale now, but for close to two thousand years, it was drawn as a giant serpent. The lindworm Jörmungand is a sea serpent; the Kraken has evolved into a giant squid in our imaginations, but wasn’t so classified until Carolus Linnaeus identified it as a cephalopod in 1735. Before then, the Kraken was a sea serpent, too.
We do so love our monsters, we fans of fantasy. In a way, H.P. Lovecraft has become one of our monsters too. Popular culture has transformed him into a grand old wackjob living in a dilapidated house down the street, scaring children and inspiring madness in writers, but we’re probably giving him more credit than he deserves. He wasn’t the precursor to all modern fantasy, wasn’t even the greatest inspiration to weird fiction writers today. He certainly shouldn’t be the face of all fantasy authors, everywhere. Rather than replace him with another of last century’s American writers, let’s instead create a trophy that every author and artist and fan of genre, from anywhere in the world, can look at and think, “That’s my award. That’s for me.”
Carrie Cuinn is an author, editor, bibliophile, modernist, and geek. Her work often references and subverts classic science fiction, blending SF tropes with feminism, anti-colonialism, hard science, myth, magic, poetry, and more. Recent fiction can be found at Unlikely Stories, Daily Science Fiction, Chaosium, and in her latest collection, Women and Other Constructs (June 2013). In her spare time she listens to music, watches indie films, cooks everything, reads voraciously, and sometimes gets enough sleep. She’s online at @CarrieCuinn and at http://carriecuinn.com.