Political Correctness

Away from a theory of a village so insignificant it isn’t even there creating a roadblock

There’s a major controversy currently underway in academic circles.  A study that attempts to expose non-scientific practices among major academic journals, where buzzwords and politics allegedly outweigh solid research, has the social sciences world abuzz.  Our contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens gives her reflection on the ultimate importance and consequences of the study.

 

Scene from Catch 22

-That sounds like a lot of crap.
-It is a lot of crap, Sir.

In Catch-22, Yossarian receives a medal for releasing his bomb load over the ocean. Realizing that both the target and the mission have no military value, whether considered strategically, tactically, or psychologically, he toggles his bombs three minutes before reaching the target, determined to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Because his plane is leading the formation, every bombardier in the group toggles their bombs on his cue. Yossarian’s insubordination is now mutiny, for which the commanding general wishes to bring Yossarian before a court martial. However, he immediately recognizes that a court martial will precipitate no small amount of negative publicity, much of which will reflect badly on Yossarian’s commander; that is, on the general himself. Luckily for both the general and Yossarian, there were no German fighters protecting the sea, and no flak defending it. Consequently, the group was undisturbed and in perfect formation, meaning their bombs fell in a perfect pattern. For achieving this perfect bomb pattern, Yossarian and several other officers of the group receive medals, and the general’s public image is enhanced commensurately.

Yossarian’s refusal to strike the intended target wasn’t cowardice or treason, but an awareness not only that the mission was pointless, but that his commanders were as aware of this fact as he was.

After the war, Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, attended both USC and NYU, and received a Masters in English from Columbia. He was also a Fulbright Scholar who taught at Penn State and later wrote ad copy full time for a small but successful agency. He spent more time in academia than in uniform, and didn’t just know bullshit inside and out, but was sufficiently proficient in flinging it to make a living, although selling the movie rights to an internationally successful novel is what made him a millionaire.

The day before Catch-22 premiered in theaters, Canadian-American psychiatrist Eric Berne was delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Golden Gate Group Psychotherapy Society. He had titled his address “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation,” and admitted midway through that the title was a sham. In that speech, he speculated that the reason people went into psychiatry was “that they’re not required to do very much except to have staff conferences to explain why they can’t do very much.” Anyone who has read or seen Catch-22 recognizes instantly what Eric Berne meant: You can only see the Major when the Major isn’t in.

After admitting to the sham title, he explained that he’d decided upon that title because psychiatrists were always presenting papers titled “Toward a theory of…” one thing or another, but actually several things conflated for importance; not an importance of content but of context and resonance. It had to sound like something it wasn’t, really, without being too clear about what that was. He also explained that he decided on “Away from a theory” because he felt that it was only when you stepped back from any theory, and got a good look at it from a clear vantage point, that you could make any sense of it. He also noted that in the real world, no one goes “toward” something. When you get on an airliner, for instance, the pilot never says, “We’re going toward Chicago.”

Obviously, the hypothetical supposition that nonsense which sounds good and flatters someone in authority can be accepted and even applauded had been tested and proven even before Sokal successfully rose to the challenge in the late twentieth century. That three academics could give new life to a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip by cobbling together some trendy buzzwords isn’t exactly the stuff of firestorms.

Calvin and Hobbs Academia

It’s actually more of a tempest in the tea party. Yes, four facetious papers were actually published. Out of twenty. And three more had been accepted. But the four published papers were not acclaimed as brilliant by readers; rather, they were spotted as nonsense, even if there was no initial presumption of disingenuous intent or bad faith. And the brilliant scheme to expose something ended by exposing only the schemers, who prudently chose to confess to their duplicity somewhat ahead of schedule.

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Taking Another Look at Gardner Dozois

We’ve discussed Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction series here before.  These books are the longest-running and most complete overview of the short fiction in the genre that money could buy.  The Summation–Dozois’ comprehensive essay about the state of science fiction–at the beginning of each book is worth the price of admission on its own.

I’ve been a bit down in my reviews of some of these volumes lately, mainly because I saw them following the same depressing trend as the rest of the genre–while the writing is uniformly excellent, the stories themselves are boring, and they are beginning to fall into a predictable pattern.  With all of time and space to play with, is it possible that so many of the “year’s best” stories harp on the same theme?  It’s always the same: someone with no power (usually from an oppressed group or subgroup) does something and the reader comes to understand how power works and how the oppressed feel and act.  The American culture wars writ large… and yawn.  Individually, the stories can be inspiring and interesting… but a dozen of them together make for a dull slog.  Thankfully, there’s usually a dark and twisted Alastair Reynolds tale in there somewhere to break up the monotony.

In fact, I have often pointed to Dozois as being one of the main motors of this trend.  After all, he spent more than thirty years as the single most important tastemaker in the genre.  If he said it was good, then it was good.  No questions asked.

And then Dozois went and died on us in May.

Though I never knew him personally, never sold him a story and had been critical of some of his recent selections, he was an important literary figure in my life (and even more for others).  Collections he edited, alone or with others, take up quite a bit of lineal yardage in my bookcases.  I knew his name very well as a teenager, long before my first story sale, or even before it occurred to me I might have stories worth telling.

So I decided to take a step back and to look at his work in the context of the current state of the genre by dipping into two of the Year’s Best books, one recent and one a little earlier.

The Year's Best Science Fiction - Tenth Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

The earlier volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 10th Annual Collection, chosen precisely because it comes from a time before I was writing in the genre and from a time before the culture wars overran the SF world.  This one collects stories from 1992 – I was in high school then.

This one was interesting indeed.  You see, the trends that were to shape the nineties and noughties were already there: despite the fact that a lot of the stories had a very eighties feel to them (eighties feel in SF is hard to explain except to say that I know it when I feel it), the choice of some writers who would come to make a deep impact on the field, and themes such as environmentalism and diversity were already present.  Dozois wasn’t so much leading the charge as he was reading currents that it would take others a decade or more to recognize.

The Year's Best Science Fiction- Thirty-First Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

The recent volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 31st Annual Collection, which covers stories published in 2013.  My verdict?  This one was a little better than the preceding pair, and the hope from the thirtieth edition was realized.  In this volume, the trend to have fewer and fewer of the more preachy stories continued, and the quality and enjoyment factor, as a consequence, increased.

I still need to read four more of Dozois’ volumes (I hope the publisher clearly and explicitly either ends the series or assigns a new editor instead of keeping Dozois alive as a zombie) to see if this trend continues, but I suspect it might (stay tuned for future reviews).

If it does, it will be Dozois’ greatest prediction: while the 2018 Hugos were, due to internal politicking in the SF world, a tinny and hollow celebration of one group’s politics, with absolutely no relationship to literary merit (through no fault of the winning writers, I hasten to add, all of whom probably do have literary merit), Dozois was looking forward to the time after the politicking was done, and a new SF genre more accepting of both racial and political diversity came into being.

While everyone else was shouting, Dozois was busy reading everything, regardless of politics, and thinking.  My suspicion, pending the few volumes I still have left to enjoy, is that the shouters on both side’s of SF’s divide will catch up to Dozois sometime in the next decade.

His adult voice among squabbling children will be sorely missed.  And so will his summations…  man, those were awesome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest Science Fiction novel is entitled Outside.  You can buy it here.

Remembering a Time when Political Discussion was the Province of Intelligent People

Social media seems to have given us a new paradigm: everyone, no matter how uneducated or unprepared for public discourse, posts political opinions, and we’re supposed to respect them, even if they’re moronic.

So what we end up with is that someone with perhaps four working brain cells posts a political statement which is based on a popular view or a piece of news fabricated by the Huffington Post or by Fox News – both sides are equally stupid when it comes to this, so not making any distinctions by party today).  Perhaps they just copy and paste some one-sided meme. Then, an equally ignorant individual from the other side jumps in and refutes the argument.

No one, of course, uses the media bias chart where everything under the midpoint of the yellow rectangle needs to be ignored if you have aspirations to being an intelligent human being… And any news further to the right or left of “skews” is worthless.

Media-Bias-Chart_Version 3.1

Eventually, the discussion dissolves into name calling in which people who aren’t racists get called racists, people who aren’t Nazis get called Nazis, and people who aren’t Communist get called Communist.  Of course, all of the people who call people these things are idiots…

Like all religions, politics has become dogmatic: if you don’t agree with the virulent left, you are a racist, if you don’t agree with the virulent right, you are a commie.

And then there’s Trump, who stirs the pot for unknowable reasons of his own which only makes things worse.  But this isn’t limited to the US… it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

in 1928, things were different.  Back then, political discourse was for thinkers.  There were expendable idiots even then, of course, but they were just rank-and-file members of different political parties who could be counted on to grab king’s horses or die trying.  But the actual thinking was done by individuals with qualifications.

Which is why, ninety years later, A Room of One’s Own holds up so well.

Now, those who know me well, know that I think extreme leftist thought (like extreme rightist thought) is hugely unproductive.  Making everything about identity politics, attempting deconstruction and brushing off a hundred years of evidence that shows that certain economic models simply don’t work unless you hold the population to them at gunpoint don’t strike me as the actions of intelligent people with everyone’s best interest in mind.  In fact they are more akin to the thinking of the religious fanatics they supposedly oppose.

Worse, I’ve gone on record disagreeing with Woolf’s opinions about Middlemarch, so I’m emotionally invested in disagreeing with her in particular…

Nevertheless, any fair reader will admit that Virginia Woolf wrote a revolutionary, angry book that is, at the same time, cogent and calm in its delivery.  As a means to attain a goal it strikes me as a hugely superior method than going out and calling everyone a racist.

In fact, this book-and the speech it was based on-are a political tract disguised as a bit of advice given to a group of women who wish to make their way in the world as writers.  It highlights an inequality by way of a series of remarks about a fictitious women’s college and then focuses on the one thing that would help the women in her audience overcome that unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t put everyone in a position to help them in the role of the enemy (which, at best is counterproductive and at worst can lead to Trump and Brexit).

So, am I recommending that you read a political essay from ninety years ago, from a side of the spectrum that isn’t my favorite?  Yes, I am.  I believe more people need to read this and to think about why it works, and why it hasn’t been out of print since its initial publication in 1929 – and long after its initial goals have been reached (remember that, today, there are many more female writers than male writers being published).

Maybe if more people did so, political discussion would return to something approaching semi-evolved subhuman intelligence.  Even that would be a vast improvement.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who prefers to explore the ramifications of technology as opposed to politics.  This makes him very different from almost all science fiction writers published today.  His novel Outside is a prime example of this preference.

Writing the Other

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself.  I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us.  And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one.  It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining.  They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction.  It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale.  While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind.  But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it.  The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t).  I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea.  They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.

Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged.  It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons.  Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.

The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”.  This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles.  Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations.  Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).

I happen to disagree.  I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story.  If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.

An author needs to tell a story.  It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.

Will it be perfect?  No, probably not.

Does that matter?  No.  Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring.  Nobody matters but your readers.  If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).

I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem.  Why?  Because they’ll weed themselves out.  As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.

So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything.  Ignore them.

And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here.  By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were.  He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is.  He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

The Fascination with Lost Worlds

In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown.  The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.

Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving.  It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La.  Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice.  Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness).  Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.

The Lost WOrld and Other Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.

The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written.  Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece.  These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.

Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character.  A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.

The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism.  In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.

That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories.  While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains.  The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.

Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.

My response to this is twofold.  I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?

But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year.  It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.

Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing.  No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).

Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature.  The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place.  And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist.  He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.

Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them

Monsanto.

For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 2

For Part I of this series, see here.

Dozois Year's Best 30

As lovers of all literary forms, from Romance to the classics, we don’t turn our noses up at anything, mainly because we know that everything is interesting in its way.

But not everyone shares our eclectic preferences or polymath tendencies.  For decades, the literary establishment considered Science Fiction writing to be little more than a lowbrow diversion suitable for children and the lower classes.  The pre-pulp and pulp eras of the genre are probably the most illustrative of the times when that attitude was prevalent.

After WWII, however, the tide shifted and the stereotypical science fiction fan was a pimply male who was better in the classroom than on the playing fields of the world.  Fans of SF clustered together and fandom–a pioneer that showed today’s myriad fan communities the way forward–was born.  The fiction, of course, was still dismissed as something that was fine for teenage boys: you know, rocketships and robots and that sort of thing.

Both of these stereotypes over-generalized, of course.  The literature being published in the pulps was often excellent… and the postwar fans were not all pimpled nerds.  Having said that, there were arguments that upheld both of those assumptions, and no one was particularly concerned with debunking the prejudice except for SF fans themselves, and no one really cared what they thought.

In the sixties, those postwar teens had become adults, and deeply resented the ghettoization of their beloved genre.  They set fingers to typewriters to prove that SF could be grown up as well, and proceeded to bombard the world with reams of mostly-forgotten prose (Dune being the major exception) that proved that the genre could do character-driven stories, stream-of-consciousness, literary sexuality, drug-addled confusion, angsty existentialism and pop psychology just as well as the literati of the day.  It was the New Wave.

Luckily for the genre, that particular tendency soon died out and SF went back to its roots in the seventies. After the new wave, the genre was more mature and held a much higher profile (more thanks to Star Wars that anything the New Wave did for it), but it was still easily recognizable as the genre which had been born in the pulps and not some weird thing that Andy Warhol would have written had he been a writer.

The eighties, which we discussed here continued the pendular swing towards action-driven SF, but the pendulum swung back decisively in the nineties.

With a few honorable exceptions, the more visible genre is now dominated by character-driven, agenda-driven literary fiction, and is bitterly split roughly along political party lines in the US.  At the risk of over-generalizing, Democrats seem to appreciate the high-quality writing of the genre the way it is, and are at the helm of many of the established magazines and also at least one of the major houses while Republicans find the current iteration of SF to be mind-numbingly dull and overly focused on politics over substance (this is the essence of the famous Sad Puppies schism).  They are also the core audience of one of the publishing houses.

Other than the two we’ve mentioned, the rest of the houses don’t actually care about the color of the politics if they think they can sell the book, so there is more literary diversity on the bookshelves than in the magazine spectrum but, as the talent in SF is supposed to come up from the magazine world, even the big houses’ output does tend to skew a little to the left.

So why am I rehashing and oversimplifying the history of the SF genre?  Easy, I’ve been catching up on my reading of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies.  Though I’m still a couple of years behind, I recently read #29 and #30.

A quick note for those new to the genre: Dozois, a former editor of Asimov’s is the current taste-maker of the SF genre.  Vastly experienced, he is hugely respected in the field and can be essential in making (or ignoring) promising young writers.  He specializes in the short form, which means that he can turn an obscure story in a mag into a famous piece just by including it and praising it in one of his anthologies.

Anyhow, Dozois’ taste has evolved over the years, perhaps matching, perhaps leading, the genre’s swing towards more literary sensibility and political activeness and less entertainment.  The two or three Year’s Best books before #29 had been pretty dull and more concerned with diversity of voices than diversity of content, broken only by the occasional Alastair Reynolds tale (Reynolds is always high-concept fun and I honestly think he doesn’t care about politics at all… at least that’s the impression I get from his fiction).

Dozois Year's Best 29

And #29 was just another one of these.  Kind of a slog.  Some good stories and some great writing in there, but not enough to become a memorable collection.  Sort of another grey monument to the “diversity” era of SF.  The worst of it is that the individual stories are all generally good.  The problem is that, when taken together, they put the problems of the genre into sharp focus.  No one seems to want to deviate from the norm and after two dozen tales, it does get monotonous.

Number 30… gives me hope.  There seemed to be less grey porridge in there, and a few more tales that march to their own drummer.  Reynolds, of course, but also a brilliant one by Stephen Popkes.  It just seemed… better than any of the prior ones, perhaps a sign that, after a couple of decades, the pendulum is swinging back towards the sense of wonder that has been lacking in the genre for so long.  (or it might have been the fact that they re-used the cover art from Foundation and Earth, and this colored my thinking!)

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Of course, this might just be a flash in the pan.  Both of these came before the Puppies controversy.  That ended with the establishment simply retrenching and covering up their ears, trying to yell louder than the opposition–as it does in every walk of life–and widening the gap.  Time will tell if Dozois took the same line.  Our review of the anthos from the next few years should answer that.  Stay tuned!

Reading vs. Writing: A Reflection

A contributor’s copy* I read recently made me stop and think.  This is a rare enough occurrence that I thought I’d immortalize it here.

First, some background.  As a reader, the best description for me is omnivorous.  From Tolkien to Dostoyevsky to Joyce, I’ve read a little bit of everything (yes, I finished Ulysses, no, I haven’t yet dared take on Finnegan’s Wake) but if you told me that my memory of a single book would be erased so I could enjoy it again, I’d choose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Admitting to lowest-common-denominator tastes–not just science fiction but science fiction and humor–instead of citing Pliny the Elder might get me tossed off the Classically Educated editorial board** but I stand by the choice.  It’s probably the book I love most in the world.

Of course, looking at a good portion of my writing, this doesn’t shine through.  It can very often be dark and grim.  Sometimes it takes itself very seriously.

I also like happy endings… but most of my characters, at least in my short fiction, come to endings that are anything but joyous.  In fact, they are often messy, painful and protracted endings which are also untimely in the extreme.  And they often don’t enjoy what comes before.

Finally, I don’t care if the fiction I read is particularly inclusive or politically activist.  In fact, stories that get preachy tend to get a thumbs-down from me even if I agree with the politics.  Which is why I will equally cheerfully demolish the writing of Ayn Rand or the writing of most of the current left-leaning SF genre.  Both are crap, and the only people not admitting it are Rand’s fans and the people in the SF echo chamber.

Which brings me to my own writing and the book I was reading.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 2

First, the book.  It was while reading the Apex Book of World SF Volume 2 that I asked myself how I ended up participating in a project that has a very specific and very political objective: to encourage greater diversity in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres by bringing in writers from countries not usually represented in the genre. I came in as both an Argentine and a Latin American (which is weird, because at the rate I sell stories, I would have thought that Argentina was way over-represented, at least in the short fiction world, but there you have it).  My story in the book is called “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever”.

It’s very definitely not the kind of book I would have picked up of my own volition.  And many of the stories are clearly aimed at making the world a better, more inclusive place (not something I like to be able to identify in the fiction I read – if there’s a message, make it sneaky, not overt).

But then I realized that, far from standing out (or even just standing apart), my story fit in perfectly.  Without spoiling it for anyone wishing to read it, my tale has the following in common with the rest:

  • It’s written in a style that would have made the Golden Age writers denounce me as some kind of literary elitist (and my writing style is pretty straightforward compared to some in the genre).  Some might simply say well-written (every single tale in this book is well-written) but my definition of well-written is more based on writing for your audience, which means that, to me, Golden Age and Pulp Fiction was perfectly well written.
  • It focuses on a not-so-often seen culture.
  • It respects that culture’s beliefs and shows how valuable that respect can be… or else (my stories always have an “or else” factor some of the others in the book, not so much).
  • It’s strongest character is a woman.

I didn’t set out to do any of these things, of course.  I just set out to write a story about Portuguese explorers in Tierra del Fuego inspired by the reports that the natives built dozens of campfires that could be seen from  the sea, hence the island’s name.  If you think about it, fires burning in the darkness of an unexplored land is a powerful image.

But any reader whose political or social justice leanings is specifically looking for those elements will see them and nod approvingly.  They aren’t what the story is about, and they aren’t (in my opinion) an important part of the story’s message.  I don’t care about those things except as far as to treat everyone decently.  I’m definitely not an activist of any sort.

But what happens when a reader who HATES the modern trends in SF sees some of these same elements in a novel?  This review is what happens.

Interestingly, I am about as left-leaning as, say, Genghis Khan, which means that my friends on both sides of the political spectrum have ribbed me ceaselessly for this review.  But you have to respect it: it talks about what the reader SAW in the book.  Not what I tried to put in there (for the record, it’s a military SF novel chock full of action and things that go boom… that just happens to have two female protagonists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence making them main characters).

Isaac Asimov told a story that illuminated this phenomenon (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember it word for word): It seems he was at a talk where a critic discussed one of his books and the motivations and themes that were present.  After the presentation, Asimov, it seems, went up to the critic and told him that he, the critic, had misread the work.  The critic said: “What do you base your opinion on?”  Asimov pulled himself up to his full height and said: “I wrote the thing.”  To which the critic responded: “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”

I assume that pretty much ended the conversation, but the point is made.  A writer’s control over the meaning of what he writes is essentially zero.  Readers (and critics, unfortunately) will find that for you, and they will always find stuff that you didn’t mean to put there.

And yes… you will find yourself writing fiction that you might not have thought to read, and appearing in anthologies you would never have picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent you a copy.

Life is a funny old thing.

 

*For those who are unaware of what a contributor’s copy is, it’s a copy that an author receives of his work.  Often, this is a periodical or book in which a story by the author is included.

**they can’t, I’m the boss.  Besides, the manifesto specifically states that we’re supposed to talk about a bunch of different stuff.

Today’s post was written by Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Bondoni.

 

The Single Biggest Issue with Postmodernism

It’s interesting to note that, of all philosophical trends in history, only modernism was declared dead due to a failure of architecture.  The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis was hailed by everyone from serious sociologists to literary critics as the end of one era and the beginning of the next, which they imaginatively called “postmodernism”.

pruitt-igoe implosion

Pruitt-Igoe complex demolition – hailed as the end of Modernism.

Of course, the aspiring postmodernists had were simply using a fortuitous event to further their cause and ignoring inconvenient truths.  While it’s true that Pruitt-Igoe was undoubtedly designed on modernist principles, its failure had more to do with mismanagement and public policies than with modernism itself*.

In the long tradition of social reformers, however, the postmodernists ignored the facts and pushed their way of thinking forward – successfully.

In its original form, postmodernism was a typical adolescent rebellion by social theorists against what had come before, turning a skeptical eye towards both antique institutions and modernism itself.

So far, so good.  They say nothing is more predictable for intelligent people than the avant-garde, and postmodernism was living up to that truism from the outset, and would soon settle down to become the established norm with new rules and values.

They did this admirably.  Nowadays, if you know what is particular pet topic is, you can write a postmodernist scholar’s paper for him before he knows he is going to write it**.

And therein lies the problem, and ultimate barrenness of postmodern thought.  At some point, postmodernism began searching for tools with which to give form to what began as a rejection of what came before, and they seem to have taken a wrong turn.

The central tenet they ended up embracing is, in layman’s terms, that there is no such thing as a “big picture”, and that it is perfectly valid to analyze individual elements separately – and in a separate, but ultimately equally damaging turn, that the observer is a critical part of the analysis.

While subjectivists were alive in Ancient Greece, the idea that single-element analysis is valid it’s called deconstruction, BTW) has been particularly detrimental in combination with it, damaging fields as disparate as History and Architecture.

We can dispense with the architectural elements easily – all one needs to do is to envision a building where the elements are meant to be viewed individually with no concern for the whole.  There are some out there (you can see one below – and it isn’t even the ugliest), but most architects have a grounding in art history, and an appreciation for aesthetics, so they have, on the whole, rejected the idea that the big picture is irrelevant.

k2_building_tokyo

The K2 building is Pure postmodernism.

Where things do get unfortunate, however is in the softer sciences such as history or literary criticism (I won’t repeat the XKCD joke here – go find it yourself!).

History students suffering the postmodern wave of revisionism (every movement has its revisionist wave) are being taught that unimportant groups and people were just as important as the movers and shakers of their era.  That slaves were historically important in societies where they were just used as human cattle, or that minority groups were politically influential in ancient India, or whatever.  The justification seems to be that the history of anyone who ever existed is important, so it must be taught as important.

The reality is that the suffering of minorities, slaves, or any other disenfranchised group is only important in times when the group managed to get some kind of power… if not, their suffering actually was in vain.

And yet, historians today are telling a different story.  It’s all very democratic, but will ultimately prove as damaging to the science as any other philosophically-based prejudice (see Eugenics for another 20th century attempt to fit history to philosophy – that one didn’t turn out so well either).

Criticism is often a butt of jokes about the academic worth of its practitioners, but we have to admit that, lately, the discipline has earned the scorn.

The problem is that with deconstruction allowing one to choose the focus one wants, it becomes easy – nay, obligatory – to focus on a single dimension when evaluating a work of art.

Warhol Campbells Soup

Soup Can: very pretty, but how does it speak to animal rights?

So a novel that touches the human spirit can be attached for not being feminist enough, a beautiful sculpture is worthless because it doesn’t address the plight of oppressed minorities.  Postmodernism’s obsession with minutiae blinds it to everything other than minutiae, to its own detriment.  Political arguments in the early 21st century seem to be imbibed with the same kind of narrow-gauge thinking.

It ends up feeling like postmodernism is the whiny self-absorbed teenager of philosophical movements…  Even to the point where there are already rumblings of a post-postmodernism.

However, like whiny teenagers, it will be hard to steer this one to a good port.  You see, the death blow to postmodernist thought has already been dealt, nearly two decades ago.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted an intentionally flawed, parodical academic article to peer-reviewed postmodern journal Social Text.  Not only did the ridiculous piece pass the peer review process, but, after Sokal came forward to announce the hoax, some of the journals defenders actually said that (and I paraphrase) “Sokal didn’t understand the actual depth and significance of the piece he had written”.

Now that is more embarrassing than a simple demolition, don’t you think?

 

 

 

*Modernism clearly had its moronic moments, but Pruitt-Igoe wasn’t its fault.

**For example, that last sentence would be rewritten by a feminist post-modernist using “her” in place of “him” and “she” in place of “he”.  A multi-gender postmodernist will attempt to use an invented gender-neutral word in its place, etc.

Why I Fight Against Political Correctness – A Very Personal View

no political correctness

Today, Classically Educated’s Editor-In-Chief answers exactly why he’s been so outspoken – sometimes controversially so – against organized expressions of political correctness.  These are his views, and clearly might not reflect that of all our contributors (see here if you happen to doubt that – or read any of Scarlett’s posts).

I am often asked why I react negatively whenever a practicer of the dogma of political correctness pops up.  Those who know who I am and how I think are puzzled by the strength of my feelings towards this.  “After all,” they say, “the PC brigade is merely fighting for things you believe in strongly: freedom and equality regardless of race, gender sexual orientation, etc.  You should be on the bandwagon with a megaphone.”  Even this very blog has a number of female guest bloggers (many more than the men), Bloggers who are notable members of the LBGT community and even people who enjoy Tango!  That clearly shows an open mind.

Well, they’re partially correct.  The stated intentions behind the PC onslaught are good – but jumping on the bandwagon implies looking past certain extremely difficult issues.  I will ignore the obvious agenda-driven stuff (we’ve covered that elsewhere), but will look at the root problem I have with it.

But first, I’d like to see if you can guess which system gave rise to the following phrases:

A) …man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution

B) Do not give opinions or advice unless you are asked. Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them.

C) It is always more difficult to fight against faith than against knowledge.

D)  Experiment shows that drinking but one small bottle of beer or one glass of wine may impair a man’s driving capacity… Practically all the hit-run fatal accidents are caused by drunken drivers, says Frank A. Goodwin, Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

Weird Car Crash

Let’s see how well you did:

A) Fascism (from an article by Benito Mussolini)

B) Satanism (from the commandments of the Church of Satan)

C) Nazism (Hitler quote)

D) Prohibition (Temperance Movement propaganda pamphlet)

What do all four of these movements (plus communism, populism, Christian Fundamentalism and almost all the other isms you’ll encounter) have in common?  They all believe that the world would be a much better place for all mankind if only people would think the way they do.

They essentially come up with a set of rules to try to tell adults how to think and act that go beyond what the social contract has evolved to look like.  Now, it is understood that society works on the tenet that, if we all agree on something, we make it a law in some way – but that should not extend to thought.

In particular, I am concerned by the tendency of the PC crowd to attack innocent bystanders for not doing enough to promote their agenda.  I’ve been told that being truly colorblind isn’t possible (with which I vehemently disagree), but that even if it was, it isn’t enough. One must actively work to address all inequality inherent in the patriarchy (their silly concept, not mine).  Patently ridiculous – people who peacefully live within the accepted social norms should not be bombarded with internet hatred by weirdos because they aren’t perceived to be doing enough.  That is a violation of individual rights and freedoms which I feel is unacceptable.

The second thing that all these movements have in common is that humor is off-limits.  What I personally enjoyed most about Seth McFarlane’s Oscar show in 2013 was watching the backlash on social media the following day.  The PC crowd went nuts. But then, fledgeling totalitarianisms where aberrant thought is illegal tend to be composed of humorless apparatichiks.  I happen to believe that adults should be allowed to laugh at whatever they want, and that it can still be funny, even if it’s lacking in sensitivity.

Another thing I am completely against is quotas.  Otherwise intelligent people in the PC community swear that they don’t favor quotas, and that quotas are a myth, especially in corporate society.  Perhaps things have changed since I was last employed a World 500 company, but as of 2007, I can say the quota system was running beautifully, and that finding a competent female minority among your candidates was celebrated like a sudden-death touchdown.  They might not always have been the best candidates, mind you, but they were good enough and ticked two boxes at once, allowing you to optimize for talent in the rest of your structure.  Some equal opportunities are more equal than others.

The same thing, of course, has been happening in the literary world, especially in some genres.  There are sad, bored people out there who dedicate their lives to reading tables of contents with a fine-tooth comb to try to see whether women and minorities are acceptably represented (don’t believe me?  Look here).  So editors tend to skew towards the safe call, and tokenism results, often at the cost of quality*, which is unacceptable to me.

On a slightly more technical note, the current PC movement is philosophically based on postmodernism and, even worse, on the utterly ludicrous (and inexplicable even by its own creator) concept of deconstruction.  Now, while I understand that it’s easier to create an army of PC parrots** if you only look at things from a single point of view, exhaustively analyzed, it doesn’t change the fact that things do not exist in a vacuum like ideal gases.  Most objects of criticism need to be understood in many phases, which is why things like critical race theory or feminist criticism can usually be picked apart with little training.  They simply omit too many important factors to be relevant.

impostor

Please see original comic on XKCD (plus mouse-over), here

I won’t get into the “postmodernism is dead discussion” other than to say that postmodernism should have been aborted at conception.  Preferably violently.  Of course, modernism had its issues, too, so it’s a thorny question.

Finally, like all totalitarian regimes, PC-Parrotism is trying to tell people what the right way of thinking is.  There is a tendency towards revising history to show more “balance” (I would love to ask a 10th century serf if he felt a balanced view was accurate), a tendency towards progressive education which attempts to level the playing field between the talented and untalented, and any number of other tools attempting to create a “right” way of thinking.

I believe that the only way of of creating people who think correctly is to give them the facts, to teach them all the points of view and the thinking behind them, and to let them go out and figure it out for themselves.  Starting from the conclusion is a stupid way to try to teach stuff – which is probably why it only occurs in the social “sciences”.

Of course, this is all open to discussion.  Context is important.  The last time I called Prohibition the dumbest thing ever invented until the PC movement, I was told that, in the context of post Civil War and WWI America, many men were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, and drinking was a real problem.

Perhaps, but removing a pleasurable experience for every other adult in the country on those grounds seems unacceptable.  Individual freedom is too valuable to sacrifice on the altar even of something so important.

If I’d been alive back then, I would have invited them to discuss the issue over a nice drink.

Hmm.  I probably would have gotten in trouble even without the internet…

* In my particular case, this works in my favor, as no one would confuse my name with that of a random white guy.  But I still HATE it.

**Called that way because most of its proponents are simply repeating empty phrases that sound good to people without critical faculties.