Lois Tilton August 6th, 2008
When I recently reviewed the Summer issue of Helix SF (http://www.helixsf.com/) for the August issue of IROSF (http://www.irosf.com/), I made no mention of the controversy then [and now still] festering over Senior Editor William Sanders’ use of the term “sheet-heads” to describe jihahis/Musims/Arabs –- the target of the reference is not quite clear, although Sanders has insisted it refers only to terrorists. He has also argued that his use of this term can not be considered racist, since neither Muslims nor Arabs are strictly speaking a race; nonetheless I think it is clearly species of bigotry, as the argument is a species of sophistry.
In fact, I had for some time been aware of his use of this term, well before the present controversy. But I do not consider it my job as a reviewer to discuss or condemn the political statements of a magazine’s editor –- bigoted or not. My job is to review the magazine’s fiction and not its politics.
It is not possible, though, to pretend that politics does not exist in fiction. Fiction has always been a vehicle for political statements. But a reviewer, I believe, should critique the stories, not the politics. Analog, to take one example, often appears to be taking a right-libertarian stand in both its editorial content and its fiction. This is not a position with which I am particularly sympathetic, but I consider my job as a reviewer to consider whether a libertarian story is a good story, not whether its ideology suits me. Grounds for condemning it might be cardboard characterization, clumsy plotting, awkward dialogue, or heavy-handed polemic, but not the ideology itself. If I find a well-written libertarian story, I will recommend it as readily as any other.
Unfortunately, it often seems to be the case that there is an inverse relationship between political zeal and quality of fiction. One way this manifests is in characterization: the ideological opponent is cast as the Bad Guy. When I was a kid, watching crummy westerns on the black-and-white TV, it was always easy to tell the Bad Guys; they were the ones wearing the black hats. They were there in the story to be shot down by the Good Guy. They are villainous because they are villains, bad because they are Bad Guys. Like the Nazi.
Everyone knows that a Nazi is a Bad Guy. He is there in the plot to be killed by the Good Guy, to demonstrate the superiority of the Good Guy and the triumph of the Good Guy’s cause, when he kills the Nazis. We know he is the Good Guy because he kills the Nazis. It is always OK to kill the Nazis. That’s what they are there in the plot for, to provide someone who can be killed without moral compunction. The Nazi is not really human. His death means nothing.
This is bad writing, bad characterization. It is sloppy, cardboard, one-dimensional writing. Nazis might have been created on purpose for lazy authors. Their uniforms clearly identify what they are, like the villains who sneer and snarl and twirl their mustachios. They kill and torture gratuitously and kick dogs and steal candy from babies, all to make sure that the reader knows that they are the villains.
And very often these villains reflect bigoted stereotypes. The Jap. The Injun. Dehumanized figures, like bug-eyed aliens, who exist only to be hated and killed in order to advance the author’s hero, or some cause the author approves. And the “sheet-head” phenomenon concerns me now, because I see a tendency to make the Arab/ Muslim the new Nazi, the latest non-human villain who exists only to serve the author’s ends. And this is why I must disapprove of terms like “sheet-head.” “Sheet-heads,” whatever they are, are a stereotype. “Sheet-heads” are the thinnest, one-dimensional cardboard villains, the latest incarnation of the stock Bad Guy.
This is a phenomenon I must condemn as a reviewer, because it is bad writing. But beyond this, I feel it is necessary to condemn the sort of bigotry that produces such stereotyping in fiction, that enables it, that publishes it.
An example is the story “The Contractors,” by William Sanders, published in Helix #3 (http://www.helixsf.com/archives/Jan07/fiction/Q3_sanders_contractors.htm). In this piece, the protagonist is a hitman in the employ of the devil, and both the targets we see him take out are Arab terrorists, the implication being that these are characters so evil that even the devil can’t stand them. Sheet-heads: the new Nazis.