Science Fiction Repair Shop: The (In)Human Agenda Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-09-17 14:00:00 No comments

One of the books I've been keeping by the nightstand and dipping into a chapter at a time is The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, a series of conversations between Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda over a wide range of topics. Heady stuff; sitting and reading the whole thing through in one sitting would have the same congestive effect on the brain that gobbling a whole Whitman's Sampler would on the stomach. Like the box of chocolates, I've been sampling one morsel at a time. (Make a Forrest Gump joke at your own risk.)

Tonight's section was "Literature's Influence", and it opened with Ikeda hearkening back to Sartre's comment about what, if anything, literature could do for the hungry. Toynbee was of the opinion that literature worked best when it embodied any social program it wanted to bring about, that self-consciously socially conscious work ran the risk of limiting itself to dogmatic answers and trite tracts. Case in point: Tolstoy. After his religious conversion, his work became strident and narrow; the once-great novelist and storyteller degenerated into a mere pamphleteer, and even the merits of his ideas correspondingly contracted because they were all the more detached from the direct engagement with life's paradoxes that being embodied in good fiction required. I contrasted him on my own with Dostoevsky, whose faith made his work more interesting, not less, because it inspired at least as many questions for him and his audience as it did answers, and sometimes no answers at all. (A man with dogmatic certitude in his soul does not write something like "The Grand inquisitor".)

The same thing happens with SF&F — mainly SF, where social agendas tend to be embodied that much more directly and forcefully into the work. This could be anything from Heinlein's libertarianism to Cory Doctorow's technological progressivism to the reactionary pounding of any number of Tor or Baen authors. It's not that I get turned off by an author who injects opinion; an author without an opinion might as well not write. It's that most of the time, the opinions in question borne of such technocratic aesthetics are so lacking in nuance, so one-sided, so unempathic, that they are apt to sour the soul of any reader who has one.

Seeing such things reinforces my earlier theory that most SF, even its most allegedly progressive varieties, is written by and for people who aren't much interested in people but in things. Such  subliminal misanthropy is excused by arguing that these things are what affect our lives most directly now, and so we need a literature — maybe not a terribly deep or thoughtful one, but a literature all the same — that looks at such things. Slavery was most directly undone by the likes of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and so the surveillance state and copy protection will be most directly undone by the likes of Little Brother. Only the SF authors can save us!

Maybe so, and I don't want to sound like I'm arguing against the creation of such work on the grounds that they are ineffectual. What I do argue is that if SF sees social sloganeering as its highest purpose and most noble calling, it will impoverish itself just as quickly as if it had never engaged with a single technical issue of the age at all. It will only be read by those who walk out knowing, and caring, no more than when they walked in. It will achieve a momentary topical relevance at the expense of having anything else. It will commit a sin greater than that of being disengaged. It will commit the sin of being boring — of being unengaging.

Because most SF tends to be about things and not people — and because so much of it definitionally is like that — the highest form of "doing something for the hungry" many SF authors can envision shooting for either takes the form of soapboxing or saber-rattling. Their understanding of how SF can and ought to be about people first is easily impoverished, or at least undermined, by the commercial success of endless bad examples, by an unearned contempt for varieties of literature that they themselves wouldn't write (why is it that the one genre of writing that pays the most lip service to "imagination" is too often lacking in real examples of it?), or by a simple dearth of perspective and empathy on their part for things that ultimately matter far more than the most recent Slashdot headline.

You could write a good SF story about copy protection, or a war with beings who change their sex at will, but you could only write a great story about a person (even if they're not biologically "like us") — about a character. The last thing SF needs is a humanism that doesn't have any actual humans in it.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop philosophy science fiction writing