I have oft written about politics and fiction (… politics in fiction … politics of fiction …) but other than a few forays into the nature of evil, I haven’t touched much on fiction and morality. This actually seems kind of odd, since much of my late work has dealt with the idea of morality and speculative religion from a number of angles. Anyway, I came across two essays that cover the topic from two very different angles themselves.
“The Taste for Magic” by Tom Simon is a great read (though if you’re of a pagan bent, you’ll need a thick skin to get through the middle and the harsh— albeit second hand— critique of occultism) that I think offers some deep insights into the moral implications of magical systems from a Catholic perspective. And if you don’t think that’s quite relevant, you probably don’t think Tolkien or Lewis are relevant, and I can’t help you. The money shot is this graph:
There is an Old English proverb, Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile: ‘A man does what he is when he can do what he wants.’ Of all the devices invented by man to make his will effective in the physical world, magic is the purest and most direct. There is no better way to show what a man is really made of than to grant his wishes. What things will he wish for? Will they be good or evil? Will he take care and forethought in his wishing, or will he be swept away on a flood of unintended consequences, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? And above all, what will he do when he is faced with the outcome of his desires? Having made his bed, will he lie on it, or try (in vain) to shift the responsibility? And if he has done harm to himself or to others, has he the character to clean up after himself? These questions are at the very heart of character, both in fiction and in life. In reality they are never unambiguously answered, because our means are inadequate to our ends, and most of our wishes are beyond our power to enact. But in fantasy, where wishes are horses, we can ride wherever we will. We can see the naked moral act and judge of its quality
And for something completely different, so much so that it could have come from another planet, we have, “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change” by Nick Admussen. This one does not address SF/F as a genre, but its rationale is arguably sfnal on some meta level. The vibe one gets from this article is much akin to the vibe one gets from the Mundane SF movement, which makes sense since the authors’ heads seem to be in the same place as to where our planet may be going, and what literature should do about it. If you ever saw my reaction to the Mundane SF manifesto, you’re probably guessing my reaction to Admussen’s “Proposals.”
Well, yes and no.
Certainly I will not be following these “Proposals” myself, as most of them align against my individualistic ethos, and some of them feel as if they align against the whole Western tradition of story. However, there is a “but” here. Even if I will not answer Admussen’s call to arms, he does an excellent service to any author who reads him, even for, maybe especially for, those who do not ascribe to his views. By proposing these particular shifts in the structure of literature, he highlights the fact that there is a moral component to the structure of literature. And while I don’t advise anyone to start writing polemics (though more power to you if you can make that stuff entertaining) I do think it improves anyone’s fiction to be conscious of the moral statements they’re making with their fiction, not to lecture or instruct, but simply to avoid the dissonance that happens when a story’s implicit morals and explicit moral pronouncements aren’t in sync with each other and/or the author’s own moral outlook. Knowing what your story’s structure might be saying on a moral level is a keen insight that should be worthwhile in any author’s metaphorical toolbox, whatever their own particular beliefs.