"SF Lit-Critterdom and Political Correctness as a Means of Temporal Tariff"
Jordan S. Bassior
I was recently looking through the Table of Contents of Weinberg, Dziemianowicz & Greenberg's excellent anthology 100 Wild Little Weird Tales (© 1994) and reflecting upon the fact that almost all these stories were now in the public domain owing to the expiration of copyright. And I thought that I was fortunate to live in an age where so many really excellent old stories were now available for free. (In fact, I got the anthology as a present from someone who bought it at a library book sale, so it was close to free for both me and my benefactor).
Then (as I tend to do, because I take a relative and historical view of Time) it occurred to me to ask myself: would the same thing be true if I were in the world of 40 years ago, when my 10-year-old self started to become seriously interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror? And the answer is "No," and the reason for this answer is interesting.
I. The Science-Fictional Conversation
Before the 1920's, science fiction did not self-consciously exist as a separate genre. Though the pioneering work in the field had been done by Jules Verne in the last half of the 19th century, and by H. G. Wells in the 1890's through 1910's, and some science fiction and science fantasy series of great later importance had already been started (Edgar Rice Burroughs had already written the first John Carter and Tarzan novels, and L. Frank Baum the early Oz books), there was no explict concept of "science fiction" or "science fantasy" as distinct from general adventure fiction or straight-out fantasy. Science fiction stories were published in mainstream literary or adventure magazines.
In 1923 J. C. Henneberger founded Weird Tales, and in 1926 Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories. This was the start of the explicit genres of science fantasy and science fiction, and what this meant was that a lot of people who liked such stories were all reading the same magazines and writing letters to the editorial columns. This meant that the start of the conversation of science fiction, the trading of ideas which allowed the genre to build upon its past achievements. It had been a big imaginative step for Verne to conceive of projectiles round the Moon or Wells of super-technological alien invasion, but now every new concept was digested and used as the basis for even-better concepts by the authors who filled the pates of these magazines (which of course included some Verne and Wells reprints, the more so because some of Verne's stuff had already become public-domain).
As a result the Interwar Era stories -- those from the 1920's through 1930's -- feel "modern" in a way which earlier science fiction does not. This is due not so much to cultural assumptions shared with the present day as it is to intellectual assumptions shared by the writers and transmitted to later science fiction and fantasy by the medium of the old stories. Every science fiction and fantasy author grows up reading the work of his predecessors, and this is a good thing, because one sees farther when one stands on the shoulders of giants. Knowledge of the work of the past helps keep one from re-inventing the wheel -- and more importantly, it lets one use the already-invented wheel to serve as components in one's own vehicles of the imagination.
II. Upon the Shoulders of Giants
Of course, there's a downside to this, particularly when a would-be author is simply not all that imaginative. If I'm not aware that hitching a ride on a comet is a concept that has been done before, I'm liable to write my own off-on-a-comet story in total ignorance of the work of Jules Verne in 1877, Raymond Gallun in 1953, or Gregory Benford and David Brin in 1986. And I'm going to look pretty silly in the eyes of knowledgeable fans when I hop up on my dunghill and crow the credit for being the first ever to come up with the idea.
Does that mean that I must avoid the topic like the plague?
No! It does mean that I should be aware of the work of those who have preceded me, so that (1) I don't just wind up rewriting their stories with characters typifying today's ephermal cultural fads, and (2) I can use their work as a basis atop which to build my own story.
For instance, a lot of Benford and Brin's novel hinges on the problems caused by social and political change in any decades-long duration space mission. The colony planted on Halley's Comet suffers serious social fissures and even small but violent civil wars, and change that in part comes from the life forms they discover within the comet. At the same time, the Earth they left behind changes in ways that render them intolerant of the cometary colonists.
So, if I want to write my own story about colonizing a comet, I can take the existence of such social and political problems as a given, and proceed from there. Perhaps the cometary colonists have also read The Heart of the Comet, and institute safeguards designed to prevent civil wars or estrangement from Earth. Perhaps these safeguards work. Perhaps they fail. Perhaps the safeguards themselves pose additional dangers to the colonists, or the Earth. Perhaps what they find in the comet is far more disruptive than mere alien parasite / symbionts.
This was once not a problem, because up until the 1970's - 1990's, science fiction writers and fans were led (to the extent that anyone can herd cats) by writers and publishers and editors and fans who actually knew the history of science fiction. This occurred for two reasons: (1) science fiction's history as a genre was much shorter, and many of them had been fans during the Interwar Era; and (2) science fiction was not yet trying to be "literary" and written to impress those with lit-critter standards (the New Wave was experimental, mostly a failure, and the parts of it which succeeded were primarily just good stories).
III. Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid's Tale
The first sign of the Doom That Came To SFWA was the appearance of a pretentious little hen by the name of Margaret Atwood, who in 1985 laid a book called The Handmaid's Tale. This was in many ways a rehash of themes familiar to science fiction dating all the way back to the 1940's, most obviously Robert A. Heinlein's If This Goes On (1940), which probably pioneered the concept of an American fundamentalist Christian religious dictatorship, complete with its leaders enjoying harems.
This was not what made Atwood, or her book, so objectionable. The objectionable part was that, having written a fairly normal and cliche (though unusually boring) science fiction novel, Atwood both claimed originality for its premise and complained to everyone who would listen that the novel was being considered "science fiction."
In the process, she demonstrated so complete an ignorance of the nature of science fiction that it ironically gave credence to her claim of originality, since it's hard to see how she could say things like this for publication if she had really read much science fiction. As she told the Guardian.
I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.
That is a fair statement of the difference between "soft" and "hard" science fiction, though it's a sign of Atwood's parochialism that she obviously believes that Only Earth Is Real. Even more importantly, it would classify Atwood's story as science fiction in her own terms, since as far as we know a decline in fertility due to pollution and sexually-transmitted diseases as extreme as the one in her story is outright impossible -- meaning that some sort of new and especially virulent pollutants and STD's must have been introduced between then and now. Which is to say this has "things" in it "that we can't yet do."
She. on a separate occasion and referring to a different book, said to New Scientist:
Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals.
Now, aside from the hilarious assumption that "chemicals" and "rockets" are purely science-fictional subjects (when chemistry and rocketry are both centuries-old fields of intellectual endeavor, something it is perhaps too much of which to expect a lit-critter to be aware), again The Handmaid's Tale is "science fiction" by Atwood's definition, since the whole setting, and future society postulated, hinges on widespread female sterility caused in part by chemical pollutants!
These two excerpts demonstrate Atwood's inability to reason clearly, since presumably she's thought about her own book in terms of her own definitions before -- unless she's a total airhead. But then, of course, her definition was made-up to absolve her of the sin of writing "mere" science fiction.
The problem of course, was not that Margaret Atwood was pontificating upon a subject of which she was laughably ignorant. The problem was that the science fictional professionals treated it as an honor that One So Great as Margaret Atwood (who had been almost unknown outside Lit-Critterdom before this) had deigned to bestow a work of Speculative Fiction upon their unworthy little genre ghetto, and started taking her criticisms to heart.
Science fiction began to morph into a more literary genre.
IV. Invaders From Below
Why is this a bad thing? Because, for a very long time now (at least since the 1950's) literary fiction has become increasingly a denizen of the academic and literary hothouses, and one which actively scorns the clear writing of good stories in favor of incomprehensibly-dense allusions and the exploration of immortal themes in favor of tooting the trumpet of whatever current cause has seized the limited imaginations of political activists. What's more, current Political Correctness holds that Western Civilization and even Science and Technology as a whole are Evil, and science fiction is a creation of the West which explores Science and Technology as its main subject matter.
So when science fiction accepts the opinions of ignorant lit-critters over its own professional writers, and tries to subordinate itself to the whims of modern academia, what it does is to turn against its own nature and write stories in which all it can do is mock and despise its own heritage. What's more, this results in identically boring and depressing futures: "Due to __X__, civilization has fallen and the survivors struggle amid the ruins / all die helplessly / become enlightened and adopt a grim and endless but sustainable non-technological way of life."
Also, this has all been done before. The global disaster novel is one of the earliest forms of science fiction. None other than Mary Shelley, one of the founders of science fiction, essayed such a tale, in The Last Man (1826). And one could make a case that John of Patmos' Revelation (written ~ AD 60-90, and included in the canonical New Testament of the Bible) was such a work. Which is to say that this "new" direction in science fiction, recently called "Mundane" (and dissected by none other than myself on Fantastic Worlds), is either almost 200 years old, or almost 2000 years old, depending upon which inspiration one assumes.
What's more, because lit-critters pretending to be science fiction writers rarely know much real science, the reasons for the catastrophes are often laughable. The Handmaid's Tale, for instance, involves a heck of a lot of Artistic License for biology, chemistry, biochemistry and demographics -- and even its sociology is also more than a little dubious. When reading global disaster novels written a half-century or more ago this is often obvious; and it's often the case today with such works not written by the scientifically-conversant, from the point of view of someone familiar with real science.
In contrast, consider Stephen Baxter's Flood (2008) and Ark (2009), which actually manages to come up with a scientifically-plausible reason for a global flood of Biblical proportions -- and then examines the consequences. Somewhat pessimistically, to my mind -- but then Stephen Baxter's always been a certain kind of pessimist (he tends to posit great catastrophes which due to human political stupidity cause tremendous loss of life and culture, but which due to human courage and tenacity Mankind winds up surviving anyway). Stephen Baxter, of course, is both a real science fiction writer and an actual scientist.
Of course, the works by the lit-critters are rarely very good -- they have flat characterization and depressingly-illogical settings in the pursuit of boring and tendentious themes, leading to hackneyed plots written in the most opaque imaginable style. This translates to "poor sales figures," despite all the efforts of politically-biased editors to promote them by including them or excerpts from them in "Best of" annual anthologies, or politically-biased activist fans to vote them Hugos and Nebulas.
So why do the editors, writers and fans do it?
V. The Time Patrol
Many fans will have noted that one big difference between the supposedly-great science fiction stories of the past -- from before the Invasion of the Lit-Critters -- and those of the present, is very simple. The older stories are plainly and simply better. Some may have wooden characters, or stilted plots, or recycled settings (though the last is something of an illusion, as in many cases these are the stories that pioneered ideas which later science fiction reused); but what they have in common is that they are good stories. They engage the reader's attention, thrill him with wonders or horrors, and expand his mind with meditations upon the strange and unknowable depths of space and time.
This bothers the lit-critters pretending to be science-fiction writers, because it means that they are facing superior competition. Who would bother to read Yet Another Boring Story Where the Global Economy Collapses and We All Live on Dungheaps Forever Until We Miserably Die, when one can read The Wizard of Oz, A Princess of Mars, At the Mountains of Madness, The Legion of Space, Galactic Patrol, Red Planet, The Demon Princes, Mirkheim, The Chronicles of Amber, Ringworld, or pretty much any major science-fiction story from before 1990?
Or, for that matter, modern greats such as Gregory Benford's Galactic Center Saga, or Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space series, or John Wright's Golden Oecumene trilogy, or ... (insert favorite here). Actually, we're living in a Golden Age of Science Fiction, despite all that the lit-critters can in their spite and envy of better writers do to damage the field.
So why the rejection of the past? Because, if fans read the earlier stories, they will both see how much better they are than are the lit-critter droppings that now win Hugos and Nebulas, and that writers like Benford, Brin, Wright, and Reynolds are far more writing to that superior tradition, continuing a more interesting science-fictional conversation, than are the lit-critters.
By choosing as a standard for acceptance that stories conform to the political fads of today, no matter when they were written, the lit-critters are in effect prohibiting the importation of ideas from earlier times, and any ideas of today which are in any way based on the importation of said ideas. By furthermore enforcing these restrictions in a cliquish and inconsistent fashion (their favorite writers get away with astonishing degrees of racism and sexism, provided that they don't attack the editors' Sacred Cows) they ensure that they can limit the field to that fiction which does not challenge or threaten them -- they cut down the tall poppies before they can reach too dangerous heights.
If successful, the consequences would be terrible. The tremendous quantity of thought and effort devoted to imagining the possibilities of the future would be thrown aside, to be replaced with boring and depressing predictions of unavoidable doom. Science fiction as a genre would perish: who would bother to write or read stories in entirely-fictional settings which weren't even any fun?
VI. Free Minds and Free Markets
In classic fictional fashion, the lit-critters are being defeated by that which they scorned: the power of free minds in (mostly) free markets. They failed to monopolize the executive posistions in science-fiction publishing -- the success of Baen Books has doomed their hopes in this regard. And now, increasingly, they are being circumvented by the ability of electronic publishing and increasingly cheap forms of physical self-publishing to ignore their gate-keeping.
They fulminate and foam against this, but of course it was inevitable. Even had they managed to control the publishing houses, new ones would have emerged; and, offering the readers the kinds of stories they wanted to read, outcompeted them. Even had neither computer, word processor nor internet been invented, readers would have bought these stories. Barring some sort of totalitarian political control over the press, they had no hope of making their literary embargo practical.
Since they are socialists, they respond with rage. It's the fault of saboteurs and wreckers, of foolish fans who didn't appreciate "true" quality and of traitors within their own ranks. We are now witnessing the fall of the whole rotten lit-critter establishment, and its purging from our field, by the processes of the market.
Science fiction is the most imaginative, highest and most extensive form of human literature. It embraces within it as subgenres all mundanity. Its fall would have been terrible; thankfully, because we do still live in a free society, it shall not fall.
A century from now, fans will still be enjoying the fun and exciting fictional settings great science fiction writers create today, and those which they created a century ago. And, of course, new science fiction writers will be creating stories beyond our present imagination.
And the lit-critters will be, deservedly, forgotten.