Uncharted territory. Here be dragons

I suppose part of the appeal of sf and fantasy are that the stories go off into uncharted territory. That of course appeals to those who are open to such exploration.  We want to find the dragons. You know, our species would be long extinct in some obscure corner of Africa if this was not part of our genetic make-up (yes, pretty certain our lineage traces back to Africa. Africa is your ancestral land, if you’re human. Lizard-people of course come from elsewhere. At the moment the jury is out as to whether they come from Betelgeuse or Hollywood. I favor Hollywood, as the logic employed there is so alien and inimical to human life.)

Of course, if you LIKE the status quo and are terrified it might be wrenched away in some unknown or feared direction… you’re probably going to dislike stories that go off into uncharted territory. You want the familiar, the direction you believe the status quo is heading at most as a change. Your tastes dwell on the certain (or at least believed) past (no matter how rewritten) rather than the uncertain future. This is quite relevant to the kind of public that a type of book will appeal to.  Those in power, those controlling the status quo, are, regardless of what name call themselves, in behavior and tastes, arch-conservative.  The term ‘conservative’ has nothing to do with political parties but refers to a behavior which insists maintaining the status quo. If that status quo is that everyone goes naked and paints their genitals iridescent purple – resisting change from that is still ‘conservative’.

I read an interesting take on the political bent of sf and the writer’s argument that sf was often libertarian because of this feature. Fair enough, I accept that possible argument. Certainly what I know of libertarianism would indeed make an exploration of the unknown and unfamiliar attractive. I’ve yet to meet a libertarian who didn’t think space exploration was absolutely a brilliant idea. I suppose they may exist, and my experience is far from wide. But it makes a kind of logical sense that those who want less control and less government, and individuals to be free to take their own decisions would yearn for places and situations where this might be possible or inevitable.

The writer makes the observation and I quote : ““drift[ed] away from the opinions and tastes of… mass audience[s],” prioritizing progressive messaging over plot development, the response from the Left is uniform: Science fiction is by its very nature progressive. It’s baked into the cake, they say. This is a superficially plausible claim. With its focus on the future, its embrace of the unfamiliar and other-worldly, and its openness to alternative ways of living, it is hard to see how the genre could be anything but progressive. In fact, studies indicate that interest in SF books and movies is strongly correlated with a Big Five personality trait called openness to experience, which psychologists say is highly predictive of liberal values.”

Hmm. Now as I said: I have no problem with the thesis that people of Libertarian bent would naturally be drawn to sf because they are open to new ideas. (I’m not one. I’m not a pigeon, I don’t fit well into any pigeon-holes. The nearest I can come to me is ‘contrarian bastard’ – which is very odd shaped beast and really doesn’t fit anywhere well. I do find some aspects of Libertarianism attractive.) That seems sound.

But I do wonder about the underlying logic of the rest of what the author gives as the position of the left.  I think a large part of my problem is poorly defined terms, or words adopted because their value. Kind of like the People’s Democratic Republic – all sounds good but you can be sure it isn’t the property of the people in general, or democratic, or a republic. It must be these pernicious capital letters. They skinsuit words for the respect people had for them, but they mean something else entirely. George Orwell wrote about that at some length.  Apparently some people think his books were an instruction manual not a grim warning.

What is ‘progress? I gather for the Mullahs in Iran tossing homosexuals off buildings was considered ‘progress’.  I’d guess the Aztec priests getting a sharper chert knife to increase the efficacy of human sacrifice was something they considered ‘progress’.  The Taliban considered destroying the Bamyan Buddhas ‘progress’ – they were idols of a conquered culture in their eyes. The ‘Progressive’ rioters considered destroying statues of a conquered culture as ‘progress’.

So: what people consider ‘progress’ is plainly something that depends somewhat on viewpoint: Something that improved human health, survival and longevity would be progress in my eyes. In the eyes of a modern “Progressive” that something would increase the burden humans would thus place on the ecology of the planet would –at least by those crusading for human extinction (just not starting with them) — be regressive and bad.

It’s much like ‘so what ARE liberal values?’ (perhaps the question the psychologists really needed to establish first). Are they the same as(capital) Liberal values?  Given that these are increasingly narrow and intolerantly doctrinaire, and thereby restricting their experience… I think we may have the core problem with traditional Publishers sf sales.

You see: while they trumpet labels like ‘Liberal’ or ‘Progressive’ in practice they have moved to being the establishment, certainly in publishing and academia.  They ARE the status quo. They are in control, in near absolute power. And while absolute power certainly corrupts (amply displayed, not just in publishing), it also seeks to retain that status quo at all costs. It resists change with every shred of its being, because that would threaten its power.  It is the original meaning of the word ‘conservative.’ And the last thing it wants is ‘new experiences’ that might challenge that status quo.

So: while the genre appeals to those want real new horizons, different ideas, the sf Establishment – which is overwhelmingly left wing and has been (increasingly) for generations now, produce the diametric opposite. Books where the last new idea was explored in the 70’s when they were indeed new and rebellious and ‘dangerous’. They produce sermons on a future – about which they had certainty, which they were on right side of history, and had won – a narrow and defined future, where anything strays from the doctrine of what they presently consider good is verboten, and subject to attack.

It’s working as well as getting blind people to produce cover art would. Occasionally you might get something that appeals to the wider audience who can see, but it’s likely only to appeal to those who experience it by feel.

So: time for a few more different and dangerous ideas, the antithesis of ‘popular’ with the establishment of sf or academia and their dreams of keeping the status quo.

First off. One of the underpinnings of the future the establishment of publishing and academia believe inevitable is the fact that – on average – each generation for quite some time (with indeed localized and individual exceptions) are measurably better off than the last. Yes, even the poor, the oppressed, the abused… because health, technology and wealth have trickled (very unevenly it is true) down. Look, there ARE some downsides (more pollution, more overcrowded cities, worse diets in places), but on average, people live longer and conditions are better than their parents had. My father grew up in a remote part of Africa where many people had never owned fabric (leather and fur-on skins were common) (then Basotholand, now Lesotho. My paternal great grand was a hopelessly idealistic missionary there, meaning he was one the very few Europeans allowed in). Where a blanket was the epitome of luxury and wealth. Where women were chattels and died on average in their thirties. It’s still a desperately poor country, but blankets are ubiquitous, so is the cell-phone, and while women have a rough go still, it’s nothing like the life they lived, and life expectancy is low compared to the US but it’s what I would call ‘progress’.

‘Progress’ which they saw as inevitable. Each generation wealthier, more educated and closer to their utopia.

But is it?

I think (and I really don’t like the idea, but still think it possible, because history has done this before, at least on a local scale) this may be the start of generation that is poorer, less healthy and less educated than their parents.

Zimbabwe… on a grand scale. (Zimbabwe was not a bad place to live when I visited 1998. Lots of well-educated and friendly people, and few obvious racial tensions compared to South Africa.) With few places to flee to, and less to send relief (remittances sustain Zimbabwe).

What does that do to the way people think? The way people behave?  Their regard for the gods of yesteryear’s establishment?

Interesting times… for sf writers to explore new territory.

Image by 272447 from Pixabay

33 comments

  1. All too often too many on the leftoid side of things sees improvement in places like Basotholand/Lesotho as a bad thing and it needs to go back to being it’s original brutish life of blankets as a mostly unseen luxury.

    1. They would phrase it as, “We’ve destroyed the native culture, and all these people who used to be wearing traditional handmade goods made from leather and fur are now in cheap, mass-produced crap.” But ultimately it boils down to the same thing. The words sound bad, but “mass-produced” means that there’s a lot of it, and “cheap” means even the poor can afford to have it.

      1. And as a lot of the country is over 5000 feet above sea level, they have embraced that cheap mass produced stuff with GREAT eagerness

  2. If people ask about my politics, I’ve found that saying, “I’m a libertarian subsidiarist” terminates further questions, and we go back to important things, like space exploration and “Will there be a baseball season this year so we can rag on [insert team name here]?”

  3. Actually, the oldest positively hominid fossil that’s more or less anatomically modern comes from southeastern Europe — and predates African development by about 5M years. It’s starting to look like African hominds may have been a relict population that eventually re-seeded and interbred, rather than universally foundational.

    1. Really? Because not long ago I copied a lengthy list of human evolution fossil remains. I’ve been working on sorting them by estimated age, assigned species, and location, and date of discovery. I do find plenty of gaps where, based on what was found that dates to earlier perieds and farther away, there ought to have been something, but nothing has yet been reported. My list is not complete, but is more likely to be missing younger finds than older ones. The weight of evidence I have assembled does indicate a pattern of African origin and later dispersion to Asia and Europe. 5M years? Southeast Europe? More or less anatomically modern? This would be a *severe* outlier, and without more evidence, I would hesitate to trust it.

  4. The true radicals these days are the people yelling “Get off my lawn!!!” Anyone suggesting -less- government and -less- control of the “seething mass of humanity” is looked upon as a maniac by the Left AND the Right.

    Both sides of that Right-Left continuum want to have a firm grip on what everyone can do and say. They vary on the details, not the method. Because their core value is that people are stupid. They have to be controlled. They take from history that all the great wars and disasters happened because there wasn’t enough management and supervision of the stupid people. Meaning you and me.

    I see -nobody- but a very few voices in the wilderness making the reverse argument. That people are smart, or at least smart enough to manage their own affairs. Get out of the way and they will do great things.

    There used to be more SF with that message. The noble pioneer, the explorer, the high-tech sod buster on Planet Zed getting his wheat in and dealing with the crazy local lobster-elephants. The Bolo standing guard for centuries on some forgotten rock in the back of nowhere, slowly repairing its burned out systems as it waits for the Enemy that the humans have forgotten about.

    We don’t get to see that stuff anymore. The closest we get from the Big 5 is the plucky cyborg fighting Meanie Corp. Everything else treats Humanity as a disease looking for a cure.

    There’s been some suggestion out there (by certain odious individuals who are banned for life from this blog and who shall not be given a free click) that Dave’s purpose with his ongoing series of “Get off my lawn!” posts is “to keep the “SF community” divided”. To keep the Sad Puppy Hatred nice and fresh.

    I disagree.

    Dave is one of the very rare authors still writing anything that doesn’t characterize humanity as a plague on the Earth. He is never-endingly screeched at to SHUT UP from all sides, all the time. The fact that he refuses to bend the knee is an inspiration to people like myself who are sick nigh unto death of the current mono-culture imposed by the Left. People who equally do not want it to be replaced by a mono-culture from the Right.

    Get off my lawn.

    1. > We don’t get to see that stuff anymore.

      Not in tradpub. Not for a long time.

      “It will never sell.. because we’re not buying any.”

      Funny, that.

    2. I appreciate the comment 🙂 Nice that someone realizes what I am doing. I don’t think many people realize that that is my intent. Now there some individuals I might think differently about, but the choice of a universe without humans (smelly, grubby, difficult and dim as we can be) and one with humans (and all we can do and be) I come down hard on the latter side. There are things humans bring and do that make what they take damage worth while. For instance: I’m originally a kind of biologist. I hear all these angry rages about how humans are driving species to extinction and destroying the ecology and it would all be better without them. Look, a wallaby getting into a patch of some plant – be it ever so rare he likes will eat every last shoot. So will a goat or a rat etc. etc. There are a few species that ‘farm’ desirable food for tomorrow. But as far as I know we’re literally the only species that willfully and deliberately conserves things we don’t eat and/or would harm or kill us.

    3. You’re honest and truly, a bright light that shines against the darkness that cultural Marxists want to bring. They hate humanity because it isn’t perfect, you see humanity has positives and negatives.

      Humanity, Fuck Yeah! I say.

      1. We are Cheerful Happy Space Orcs. (Don’t piss us off, but other wise. ‘ooo can we play with that?’ “no its poison will kill you.” *plays with it anyway. Makes it a pet. Finds proper antivenom*)

  5. “The ‘Progressive’ rioters considered destroying statues of a conquered culture as ‘progress’.”

    Can’t tell if you’re talking about the Taliban or the Woke Mob.

    1. Just call them the Woke Taliban and you’ll be close enough. Philosophically there’s not a lot of difference between them.

      (Yeah, I can hear you screaming out there Progressives. You don’t like that one, do you? Go look in a mirror, you morons.)

      1. They are attacking statues of abolitionists for the crime of not woke enough and not successful soon enough.
        Still sussing out the reasoning on the attack on the 54th Mass. memorial.

        1. They don’t know who the statue is of or what that person did. It’s a statue of a White man, that’s good enough reason to tear it down. It exists, therefore it must be destroyed.

          I’m against it, myself.

          1. I still have $10 riding on a bet that they go after a Martin Luther King statue before the end of the year. All those statues look alike, you know.

            If any of them actually read any of his stuff he would be Literally Hitler.

            1. If they get the one that makes him look like Chairman Mao, I might not get all that upset, at least not on aesthetic grounds.

              1. Maybe it will fall on them, and crack into a million pieces, to be replaced by a new, better statue of MLK.

  6. The Progressives talk about “Speaking Truth To Power” but in too many cases “They Are The Power”. 😡

    1. It’s like Pradva. They have to put truth somewhere, so might as well put it in the title where it will do the least damage.

  7. — So: what people consider ‘progress’ is plainly something that depends somewhat on viewpoint: Something that improved human health, survival and longevity would be progress in my eyes. —

    This requires some qualification by constraint. Consider a test case: what if it were possible to improve the health of 99% of Mankind quite radically — perhaps even to make death an optional experience — if it were to require the enslavement of the other 1%? I wouldn’t be in favor of that. Neither would I consider it progress.

    The best definition of progress I know of goes this way: “Progress is the improved satisfaction of human desires, morally, with lessened input.” (Kevin Cullinane) The moral constraint is as important as the definition of the end to be sought.

    Concerning the “high frontier:” Most freedom weenies like the idea of opening space to human expansion for more than one reason. Given the importance of the land frontier to the constraint of governments’ behavior during the 19th Century, I’d imagine that most people who prefer freedom to ever-encroaching totalitarianism would like it, too…whether or not they were personally inclined to go “up and out.”

  8. Lately it seems to me that a whole lot of people who really love the idea of space travel love it because they imagine that they will be able to order and enforce their idea of how a community should be. That might include libertarians wanting to get to have their libertarian experiment. And that’s okay, I think. A thousand different experiments would be good.

    Still, too often I think that the appeal is the appeal of control and order and having an excuse that everyone else has to do what they’re supposed to do.

    1. Your comment put me in mind of an intriguing passage in Robert Nozick’s classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia. His approach to Utopia – a genuine one – went like this: Imagine that you have the power to create whatever sort of world you desire, sociopolitically. Imagine further that everyone else has the same power. Now imagine that no matter who you imagine into your Utopia, he can imagine himself out of it to some other world of his preference. Thus everyone could have his own personal vision of “the best of all possible worlds,” but he can’t compel anyone else to live there.

      The result might never “converge,” in any sense. It might remain permanently dynamic, such that individuals keep imagining, creating, and populating (or depopulating) new sociopolitical arrangements for eternity. Or it might coalesce around a few arrangements that suit the great majority of Mankind, while a great many others are inhabited by small populations of eccentrics or dissidents. But whatever were to emerge, no one would be compelled to endure any arrangement he found “sub-utopian” by his own metrics.

      That seems to me to be closely comparable to what we might expect from an open space frontier, if ever the stiff problems of life support, the ongoing sustenance of a human population, and the rigors of space travel are solved. If you like SF, compare it to the “Glitter Band” environment / society Alastair Reynolds described in his novel The Prefect.

      1. Hmm. I would think that the scenario would soon devolve into something like Asimov’s Solaria. “Every man an island.”

        My utopia is not the utopia of $SPOUSE$. Nor is hers the utopia of $DAUGHTER1$. Nor is hers the utopia of $DAUGHTER2$. Or that of $SON$.

  9. Socialism in all its guises is fueled by resentment.
    Whether it’s a pauper burning with envy, out a scion of old money consumed by pride, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about shaking your grubby little fist in someone’s face, and declaring that they have no right to be successful.
    .
    For the footsoldiers and leaders alike, it’s about tearing down those who think better of themselves than they should.
    It doesn’t much matter if they’re feeling cheated by a merchant, or worried about an upstart undermining their powerbase.
    There will be blood.

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