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.