Monday, June 27, 2011

An opinion in five facets


I started reading science fiction in 1979. My mother taught a high school literature course on it...this was before public education got strangled in its cradle, before the rise of the Christian Right, before Reagan and the Contract With America, long before No Child Left Behind was even a malign daydream. My rural school system in southern Appalachia had a healthy vocational program, and also art, music, civics classes that taught you how government worked, local history...and science fiction.

The book was called Science Fact/Fiction
and had an introduction by Ray Bradbury, in which he talked about short stories he'd written and found difficult to sell because of their political and religious content. One dealt with civil rights, another with the question of what is or is not "human" (one of the great themes of science fiction, surely), another with the skin-color-based caste system and classism. That had been in the 1950s, and from the vantage point of the mid-Seventies he said, "It is hard to remember an America so involved with such shadows and such fears."

I was eleven years old.


There was a conversation not too long ago about a comment made by Eric James Stone on a post titled "Perfecting the Saints in Utero" in which he proposes that eugenics is just dandy as long as it is rooted in homophobia instead of racism. The comment was made several years ago; the present conversation was prompted by the fact that his novelette "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" won a Nebula and some folks were saying, "Do we really want to be giving this guy awards?"

My position on that was that I saw plenty of problems with the story in and of itself without bringing in any extraneous data. Also that considering how many talented writers are also jackasses, I felt a strong sense of impending impracticality.

I also, to be clear, think that the correct response to a problematic statement is to address it directly, and to a problematic piece of writing is to respond any of the ways that writers have challenged each other down the centuries...with open criticism, with parody, with creative responses of various types. Leaving out the occasional brawl. I think it's perfectly appropriate for someone to call him, or anyone, out. Or to write a different story...


So, apparently Lavie Tidhar wrote a microfiction called "The School." I won't spoil it with summary...suffice it to say that it calls out several science fiction authors by name, including Eric James Stone, and effectively skewers the "metaphor for race" trope among other things. According to Tidhar, two different markets declined to publish it as it was, because of "potential fallout."

I note in passing that Stone's story, with its triumphalism and homophobic subtext (not to mention ham-handed Austen references), was not (to my knowledge) rejected due to fear of "potential fallout." Nor do I think it should have been. I think we should fear not to challenge controversy: publish 'em all and let God sort them out.

I also believe that authors giving each other a hard time is an ancient and honored practice; at least as old as the Greeks and likely older than that. There is probably an as-yet-undiscovered cuneiform tablet of Enheduanna, the first recorded individual author in history, slagging off one of her upstart rivals in the hymn-writing business. As long as it is done elegantly and with substance, it contributes to the discourse.

The story is indeed substantive. Godwin's Law is not a can make the reference to Hitler when the comparison is apt. Which, when your story is about a future where humanity's ambition has been reduced to genocide, it is.


One commenter on "The School" complained thusly: "Just in case you forgot to feel guilty for a few hours while reading escapist sci-fi, Lavie Tidhar has followed you into your fantasy, nagging you from behind. Now there is nowhere safe from White Guilt."

You know what? Nobody held a gun to your head and made you read it, dude. Nobody chased you down, either. Plus, the premise that science fiction is and must be escapism is one I deeply loathe. Those of us who act like it has relevance in the real world...that is, who take it seriously...are not parade-raining spoilsports who peed in your cornflakes.

The presumption that some kinds of science fiction are "escapist" and therefore politics-free, and that those should be free from criticism, is simply wrong. It asserts that ideas and tropes and values which the speaker finds comfortable are not political. The implication is always that only the ideas they find uncomfortable are the political ones.

Let me go all old-school Second Waver feminist on you for a minute here: It's all political. Just because you are comfy with the notion that, say, some people are genetically superior to others, or it might be unquestioningly accepted by your social circle, does not mean the idea is not political. It just means you are complacent about it.

Besides that...anyone who thinks that science fiction = escapist adventure stories, and (by implication) it's just these modern blacks and wimmenfolk and gays who want to muck up your perfect Boy's Life nostalgia genre...hasn't really been paying attention.

The "Golden Age" of science fiction was dominated by people who came of age during and shortly after World War II, many of whom grappled seriously with the implications of nuclear weapons, imperialism, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, political paranoia, and perpetual war. Heinlein (whose issues in other areas I could write a dissertation about, but won't) wrote a story about sexual harassment on the job called "Delilah and the Space Rigger." It was published in 1948...when the propaganda push to get women out of the factory and back in the home was in full swing, and hardly anyone else had even heard of the concept. One of the stories in Science Fact/Fiction,
"Disappearing Act" by Alfred Bester,was a ferocious indictment of militarism which began, "This one wasn't the last war or a war to end war. They called it the War For the American Dream." That one was originally published in 1953. Judith Merril's short story "That Only a Mother, " published in 1948, has similar themes and was voted one of the best science fiction short stories of all time.

I grant you that women, people of color, and sexual minorities are often culpable for the promulgation of such notions. However, we have been doing it for at least sixty years. That ship has already blasted off.


Octavia Butler, in her essay "Positive Obsession," talks about being told "Negroes can't be writers" by a well-meaning aunt, and later, that black women didn't write science fiction. She also talks about being asked, "What good is science fiction to Black people?" At this late date, the "debate" about representation and inclusion of women and minorities in awards, tables of contents, and discussions is still raging...underneath which in the subtext is a question from the Implied Default Humans, why should we have to read their stuff? What good is it to us?

To which I must respond...why were you reading science fiction in the first place, again?

"What good is science fiction's thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider other ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what 'everyone' is saying, doing, thinking---whoever 'everyone' happens to be this year."

Tell it, Ms. Butler.


  1. Bravo Sara. Thanks for saying so much of what I was thinking about earlier but couldn't get said anywhere near as well.

  2. Wow, Sara. Just: wow. Incredibly well said. Thank you.


  3. For the sake of pointing out where a lot of the discussion about Stone's comments began: see The Outer Alliance, which exposed me to his comments and led me to write this:

    For which I received flak, which is amusing.

    Good post!

  4. S.M.D. I actually was, with some of your commenters, not crazy about your presentation (in particular, holding people accountable for the connection between LDS official doctrine and their own stated opinions, without seeming to attack "Mormons" in general). HOWEVER I agree with you in sentiment, understand where it is coming from, and in any case tend to think "you're saying it wrong!" is a variation of the tone argument. I'm not sure making it is ever helpful.

    I'm also a bit disturbed that people spent more time chewing you out than addressing the substance of what you said...which is that talk of "correcting" homosexuality in the womb IS eugenics, eugenics has a nasty history connected with genocide, and the rhetoric sounds disturbingly familiar...especially in light of the fact that eugenics was used as justification, not only for rounding people with disabilities ("defectives") up in Nazi Germany, but for some truly horrifying abuses in the good ol' United States of America. Look up "forced sterilization" some time.

    I could actually write a whole essay just on Stone's comment and its horrifying implications. Maybe I should.

  5. I also agree with you that the notion of genetic "correction" of certain kinds of traits destroys the potential future self, and there's something deeply wrong there...especially since the assumption that OF COURSE that would be a good thing is never questioned. There's a big chunk of evolutionary theory fail mixed in with the rest of it. (There's some research that suggests that not only is homosexuality NOT a "defect," it's an adaptive trait...because aunts and uncles with no offspring of their own spend more time helping raise their siblings' offspring, thus increasing their survivability.)

  6. ...I'm glad you commented because it has sparked off a whole train of thought. Some of which may manifest in a story, if I can corral all the ideas and get them riding in a narrative direction.

  7. Superb post, thanks very much. Much thought provoked.

  8. Sara: I actually never intended to implicate all Mormons, only to suggest that people of that particular persuasion who are Mormon are a crazy bunch. The most recent comments on my post have had me defending Mormons against arguments that suggest they are the new Nazi party. I have no doubt there are Mormons who align themselves with a Nazi-style eugenics agenda, but the say they are all that way, or that there aren't Mormons who disagree with the Mormon Church, is really to say something bordering on lunacy. There's actually a Mormons for Gay Marriage group out there...


  9. I know what you meant, it was more how it came off on first read. Anyhow, I have started on said story. It's kind of awesome in a broken-glass shiv kind of far I've mocked the current health care system and insurance companies, the cult of parental hyper-responsibility, love-the-sinner rhetoric, and made a subtle reference to thalidomide. I am on a roll.

  10. Wow. Once again, Hoyt is an ass.