Fantasy, science fiction, and the future of derp.

I have read some stupid assertions about Science Fiction and Fantasy over the years.  As I have internet access, this is inevitable.  People say idiotic things occasionally.  Then I read this from the Daily Kos, and watched as the bullshit  reached such a density that the article collapsed through it’s own event horizon until the pull of the derp became so strong that not even a coherent thought could escape.

We start with a intro about the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is admittedly difficult on the margins. We already know we’re in troubled waters because the referents used seem to consist entirely of Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings.

This is going to be fun.

There’s an easier way to define the two biggest categories of speculative fiction, and it has nothing to do with which one has pointy-eared people called elves and which one features equally mucronate Vulcans. Instead, it’s all about time. More specifically, it’s about Time’s Arrow.

We then get a slug from this Wikipedia article after an explanation of all the Google hits we’re not referring to.

Ok, Second Law of Thermodynamics, gotca.

It’s like this: fantasy works backward. That’s not to say that fantasy fiction is filled with self-assembling tea cups. In fantasy, what’s reversed is progress.

Progress is simply the idea that the world becomes better at making buildings, better at making gadgets, better at medicine, better at communicating, better at explaining the world, better at providing a decent life for everyone. Better … over time. And surely the future shall be better for thee than the past, etc., etc.

In fantasy worlds, that’s often not the case. In many fantasies, there was once a time of Great Ones, a category including Noble men, Stately Elves, Impressive Giants, Personally Involved Gods, Bearded Wizards, and Interstellar Mollusks of Ill-Defined Colors. In this past time Great Deeds were done. Great Deeds that include raising of Impregnable Castles that stand still on lonely peaks, the digging of Great Mines that delved deep into Unknown Depths, the weaving of Great Spells that worked Mighty Wonders, the construction of Darkly Towering Towers that shielded deeds of unforgivable self-aggrandizement, and the forging of Great Items that no artisan today can match (this paragraph brought to you by Fantasy Capitals. Fantasy Capitals, lending Terrible Significance to ordinary words for a Very Long Time).

And thus begins the spiraling collapse of any intellectual heft this argument might have had. The above assertion is so mindlessly reductive that I doubt the author even read Tolkien, and simply formed an opinion on the genre based on the trailers for the Hobbit movies. But that’s not even the worst of it. We are using the concept of “Time’s Arrow” as a metaphor for the idea of “Progress.” Really? I know quite a few libertarians that would probably equate ideas about historical materialism with societal entropy, but I doubt that was the author’s intent.

Needless to say, the view of science fiction is also insanely reductive.

Science fiction, that is proper science fiction according to this 100 percent not original definition, has its arrow firmly pointed toward progress. Yes, things may be worse than they once were due to war, famine, or alien invasion, but it’s perfectly possible for our spunky audience surrogates to match and exceed previous achievements. You can build that spaceship, plant that flag, go where no one has gone before without regard to pedantic protectors of infinitives. Star Trek is science fiction not only because it imagines a future world where things are better than today, but because that world is firmly anchored in the idea that things can be better still. Transporters will transport over greater distances. Warp drives will be warpier. And both captains and crew expect to end their lives in a world that is measurably better than the one they were born into.

So Science Fiction is defined, pretty explicitly, as “that fiction that buttresses the stupid argument I’m making here.” Forget H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine. Orwell’s 1984. Most of Phillip K. Dick’s oeuvre.

Lord of the Rings is fantasy because everything of import originated Long, Long Ago. Our characters move against a backdrop of awe-inspiring ruins toting swords, armor, and rings embued with power by people that Knew Stuff. Stuff the likes of us are unlikely to ever cipher.

Thus, so is every single space opera that uses the trope of the ancient progenitors.

From that solemnly pronounced idiocy, the author devolves into the real argument he is attempting to make.

But there’s a problem with our politics. Somehow, for reasons that are not at all clear, we doubt the existence of progress.

Too often we treat an 18th century quote as if it’s the final card in an argument. Too often we look at yellowing documents as if they came not from politicians as venal and self-important as anyone on the stage today, but from marble demigods. Too often we weigh the best possible data available today, discover the best possible course of action available today, then say to ourselves, “Now how would a guy in a powdered wig have handled this?”

Oh, progress happens. There’s a sweet relationship between Time’s Arrow and the Arc of the Moral Universe. Greater knowledge has brought not only increased acceptance, but increased freedom. Only the arc isn’t just long, it’s much, much longer than it need be. A big part of that all too often we live in fantasy democracy … Fantocracy.

How do you know you’re in Fantocracy? If you’ve ever cited Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin as an authority in an economic debate, you’ve put a foot in Fantocracy. If you believe no politician today can match the erudition and political brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, you’re in at least knee-deep. If your philosophy of good governance is based on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even a Roosevelt to be named later, you’re fully in Fantocracy. If your argument for the Second Amendment is based on anything said by Noah Webster, James Madison, or anyone else who died before the invention of the rifled slug … well, Mr. Bilbo, let me see if I can rustle up some taters.

And there you go. The inane literary argument exists solely to reach a preordained conclusion.  To wit, if you reference prior philosophy in arguments about social policy then you politics wrong.

Not only do you have the arc of the moral universe’s descent into sweet sweet entropy, you have the ahistorical assumption that somehow continuing forward in time inevitably leads to more enlightened political thought. I mean, what the hell happened to the arc of the moral universe in Iran and Afghanistan between 1950 and now? The fact something is old or new has very little bearing on its worth. Especially since the “progressive” thought espoused herein is over a century old itself.

Really, this is just a case of whether you prefer 19th Century German political philosophers to 18th Century English ones.

Our knowledge is steadily increasing. That includes the knowledge in how to form and manage a stable government. That includes the knowledge in how to run an economy. That includes the knowledge of how to regulate business, how to manage the environment, how to provide the greatest freedom to the greatest number.

I got a book for you.

You. You. Yes, you. You can understand economics better than Adam Smith. You can grasp the relationship between church and state better than Washington, fathom the balance between legislative and executive branches better than Jefferson, and wrestle with a thousand, a million, ideas they never knew existed.

So, being able to Google stuff makes everyone smarter than those poor old white dudes that lived before iPhones. And someone who wrote an article as intellectually sloppy as this one understands the balance of powers better than the folks who designed the system.


I think this guy was the one in class who asked why Newton’s theory of motion still worked if Einstein disproved it all.

SF as Thriller/Thriller as SF

FoldFor various reasons I’ve been pondering thrillers as a genre lately, considering the directions of future projects.  One of the nice things about SFF is the fact that it is the universal donor of literary genres.  Tropes from science fiction and fantasy can be mixed with almost any other genre you can name.  They seem to do particularly well in mystery/thriller contexts, see the Dresden Files for an example marketed as SFF, see Repairman Jack for one marketed more more as thriller.

So, thinking thriller thoughts, I grabbed The Fold by Peter Clines from Audible.  If this is the first you’ve heard of this book, you are lucky.  If any book deserves to be read (or listened to) spoiler free, it is this one.  This is structured as an excellent thriller that’s best read without any preconceptions where it is going.  We have all the requirements: unexplained goings-on, an interesting protagonist, a research lab populated with a cast of characters that are keeping secrets, and a project that seems to be running perfectly fine. . . until it doesn’t.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, because the less you know where you’re going, the more fun it will be.

Utopias are scary

So SF Signal led me to a review of a rather odd play with the provocative title (review title, not play title) “Why Are So Many Fictional Utopias as Terrifying as Dystopias?

This is a subject I’ve touched on before.  But the review’s author hits on something I haven’t touched on, one that should be seriously considered by any writer who wants to tackle a real utopian setting:

The issue with the audience’s conditioned expectations:

In watching this play, we bring in all of our abundant, engrained ideas of what lurks behind the copacetic veneer of utopia. For that reason, when a character (played by Catherine Brookman, who composed and performs all the soaringly layered music) disappears, it doesn’t seem a stretch to wonder if she was murdered by the leader.

This is despite the fact that the intent, and text, of the play in question is utopian. However, as Moze Halperin points out, we just aren’t used to real utopias:

False utopias — art’s favorite variety — tend to be more sinister even than dystopias, because they initially present themselves as Solutions. The key difference — the thing that makes these communities seem utopian at first — is that they’re typically extra-societal. Their sylvan or generally remote settings start by providing a sense of beauty and a return to simplicity, of de-corporatization and a sort of society-wide re-personalization. But that woodsy setting also soon reveals its happy micro-society to be a smaller version of exactly what went wrong elsewhere: notably, leadership as pure megalomania. The “personalization” created by the smallness of most utopias means that tyrants can physically govern — they can actually oppress people with their own bare hands. (John Hawkes’ Patrick, the leader of the Catskills cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example, uses rape as an initiation ritual for the titular character — whom he also named as another assertion of his authority.)

And the woodland promise — the optimism of the marriage between humans and nature, of a return to nature as a symbol for wiping the slate clean — soon reveals itself to be a trap. In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Lepucki’s California, the central communities have built spiky ramparts (The Village‘s in the form of a spiky “creature,” California‘s in the form of actual massive “Spikes” made from sharpened detritus of a former society) to keep residents in and the outside world out. The below-the-surface tyranny of “utopias” — insomuch as they’re often small and rural — is also in some ways more direct than in urban, bureaucratic dystopias. These two prevalent forms of nightmarish society in art are disheartening because they suggest that imagining anything better than the status quo will lead to one of two options: either living in an urban center controlled by labyrinthine forces (which represent extremes of the private of public sectors) put in place only to keep you oppressed, or moving to the woods, donning braids, and getting sexually assaulted.

While this only refers to one particular type of utopia (there are as many kinds of utopia as there are political philosophies philosophers) the point holds for all of them.  How often, outside Star Trek, have you seen any fictional utopia and unconsciously primed yourself for the other shoe to drop, for the ugly secret to be revealed?  So, if you make the attempt, remember that I’m not the only reader who’ll poke around your utopian society looking for the mass graves.

A random thought about SFF and sexual politics

Two things converged in my head recently.

I didn’t comment about the whole Game of Thrones rape kerfuffle last month.  Mostly because I don’t watch Game of Thrones. But the controversy about it seemed (to me) to spring from a deep conflict between the contemporary ethos of sexual morality and a fiction portraying a world that does not share that ethos. (In my mind, such arguments tend to sound similar to those who wish to ban or censor Huckleberry Finn because Twain wrote “nigger” too much.) I won’t argue the particulars here when others have done so much better and are familiar with the source material.

But today I read a post about children’s author Enid Blyton that referenced a post about gender roles in SF by John C. Wright (in addition to Eric Raymond’s post about “Literary Status Envy,” which is outside the point of this post, but of interest to understand the current puppyish Hugo divisions.)

Now Mr. Wright is very Catholic. He is also persona non grata in much of fandom for reasons that should be clear upon reading the above link, reasons largely similar to the reasons many folks in fandom despise Orson Scott Card. Both are shunned and derided because they do not share the same ethos of sexual morality as those doing the shunning.  Some might argue that this is not why they dislike Mr. Card, or Mr. Wright. They’d argue that their dislike stems from the “hate” ascribed to such views.  That, I think, is simply rebranding the source of the disagreement, since those who call the views of Wright and Card hateful would feel likewise about any moral framework that defined homosexuality as wrong.

Mr. Wright has a religious view of sexual morality that historically was developed around procreation and preservation of the family unit. The exemplar sin here would be homosexuality, the epitome of the non-procreative sexual act.

Those that dislike Mr. Wright have a secular view of sexual morality that is based on mutual consent. The exemplar sin here would be rape, the epitome of the non-consensual sexual act.

Circling back to Game of Thrones then. The current secular western view of sexual morality is a relatively recent invention. If one writes about different times and places, the sexual mores of that time and place will not duplicate those of the current era. It strikes me then that those who cannot understand John C. Wright’s point of view on these matters (not share them, mind you, simply understand them) will not be able to convincingly imagine a society significantly different then the one they happen to inhabit.  It also strikes me that those responding so viscerally to the Game of Thrones might be having the same internal moral panic that John C. Wright experienced watching Legend of Koraa