Wednesday, August 25, 2010
What should it be permissible to think? What can we allow people to believe? What should never be whispered, even in the dark? How can we shut down people who think incorrect thoughts?
If you are giving serious thought to those questions, congratulations. You are an authoritarian and the only thing distinguishing you from Stalin is that you lack the power to enforce your wishes.
So, why do I start the blog with those questions? Because (yes, that again) I’ve been Heinlein blogging and it made me think of heresy and the price of being an heretic and what I always thought was the whole point of science fiction and fantasy.
The first Science Fiction book I ever read was Have Space Suit Will Travel, but that’s not important right now. The workings of the family in it were so “natural” to what my real family was like (no, not the same, but on a continuum) that it never occurred to me there was anything fantastic about it. Oh, the space thing was cool, but it wasn’t that far off. We’d gone to the moon, right?
The next sf/f (turns out fantasy, though the spine said Science Fiction) book I read was Out Of Their Minds by Clifford Simak. And that was the one that captured me into reading the genre, partly because it shocked me to the core.
Picture a child raised in a religiously conformist society who is all of a sudden faced with the idea that the devil might be created or at least shaped by human minds. I didn’t know the phrase but “blew my mind” would be appropriate. And then I went in search of more books like that. I wanted to see what other heretical thoughts people had. I wanted to know what avenues of reasoning I’d missed.
Over the next few years I must have read hundreds of science fiction books, many of them the inevitable load of nonsense, but all of them interesting and different, because if they weren’t I’d set them down and go find one that was. My being young and of a romantic disposition I was inevitably attracted to those ideas whose appeal seems to be baked in to the human race: a superior civilization before ours; aliens who can guide us; universal peace. But the truly irresistible books – to me – were the ones that turned those thoughts on their heads: A Canticle For Leibowitz, with its hint of circular time; Childhood’s End, with the aliens that “guide” us; City where the universal peace exists only in the absence of humanity.
I might reject the thesis utterly, but I enjoyed thinking in unusual directions. On my own, I came up with the thesis that Heinlein proposed at Denvention: the purpose of science fiction, in so far as it had a purpose, was to limber up minds. This was needed because humans are creatures of dogma and tradition (shush. We’ll get to that) who take a long time – as a species – to change direction, and because the pace of human technological discovery is changing life faster than normal human society can adapt. Our social behavior is being required to race faster than evolution prepared us to do. Science Fiction -- I thought, after observing the behavior of friends who read sf/f and those who didn’t -- made the mind more adaptable, so we could better deal with challenges.
But it is not like that now. Part of it is because – see above – the human animal is one of dogma and “fitting in”. You can see how this would be important in our evolutionary history. The hominid band where there were more opinions than members would be at a great disadvantage when facing a cohesive one. (This by the way is why I think everyone tends to romanticize the idea of a “great leader”. It’s built into us. But that’s a side avenue we won’t explore right now.)
Given time and the ability to ossify, the establishment absorbs the young Turks. Either they subdue or the young Turks become the establishment and their mad, wild ideas become the new enforced and enforceable conformity. Think of it as the oyster laying down a barrier between itself and the irritant inside the shell. (If you think the results aren’t as pretty as a pearl, you haven’t paid much attention to award banquets. The sparkly dresses, alone...)
The other part of it is that the young Turks, as they age, want recognition. If I hear one more SF person telling us that their goal is to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, I’m going to hurl. (I have a degree in literature. The literary establishment are those people who have so successfully made their books boring that they need to be assigned for anyone to read them.)
And the other part is something more basic and human, the need to enforce “conformity” and “right thinking”.
If you’re shaking your head and saying this is not true and you can write about whatever you want to – WHICH world have you come from, and do they have an easy immigration application?
Sure, you can write about whatever you want to. By law no one can stop you. Humans don’t need the law to stop other humans thinking saying or doing things. Look at smoking. Perfectly legal, after 21 (!) but not nearly as many people do it as in the fifties. Science? Bah. The normal person doesn’t give a hang about science. Indoctrination and conformity.
In sf/f what stops most of us from writing truly heretical works is knowing it will never get published. (Look, they’re called gatekeepers for a reason.) And no, it is not because the heretical wouldn’t sell. Rumor in the field has it that John Norman’s Gor books were still bringing in the cash, but he stopped being published because they were in bad taste. (Disgusting? Of course they were. And that’s just the grammar. The ideas... are ridiculous. But don’t go claiming any higher purpose in suppressing them. Most men I know who read them were not going to be influenced by the things. They provided a pressure valve, maybe, but if these men ever got a woman to look at them, they’d treat her like a queen.)
This was brought to the fore by listening, in passing, to a comment yesterday about Pirates of the Caribbean asking if the new Hollywood screen writer contracts require women to rescue themselves. Someone said, “no, they don’t, but–” But the conformity is there, the stultifying conformity, without which you’ll get nowhere. (Mind you, my women tend to rescue themselves, but that’s because it’s boring otherwise. However chickie in P of C couldn’t rescue her way out of a paper bag – as proven by her abandoning the trunk she’d be told to guard to go try to stop the men fighting [spit] )
We all censure ourselves before it gets to the gatekeepers, of course. Some of it is simply because we think we’ll reach more people that way. But some of the self-censuring is ridiculous and would surprise our would be readers, if they knew what gatekeepers turn books back for. I’ve heard of books rejected because: the character isn’t a lesbian (no, it wasn’t a specialty line); communism is described as an evil system in them; a character grieves “too much” over her murdered fiancé (not that this paralyzes her, but she, you know, gives a damn the man she was going to marry is dead.)
Don’t even get me started on “scientific” conformity. Suppose you want to write a novel in which statistics are a dog’s breakfast and the human population world wide has already started to fall. Will it get accepted? Does it have a chance of seeing the light of day? Don’t make me laugh. “Everyone knows” about the “population bomb”. (And no one knows how statistics are produced in third world countries. Well, no one in a publisher’s office.)
How about truly heretical notions, even if you support them in the text: mankind came from the stars; there are aliens among us, controlling our every thought; women are naturally inferior to men (for a fun experiment guess how fast a book will get published that proposes the opposite!); religion was programmed into mankind by the creator.
There are successful, classical novels for all of those. Heck, there are multiples for all of those. From back in the time when science fiction was vibrant and, what was that word? – oh, yeah, READ.
But now, no one would dare publish those. Pity the gatekeepers. They’d be afraid of being shouted down and called racist, sexist, anti-science and possibly uncouth. Which is why 99% percent of sf (and much of the fantasy) published today is pap for restless infants who want to be lulled to sleep – yet again – with the same old story. When a book is called “daring” for positing that all races are equally capable (yes, I had this for my third published book) you have to wonder how far the rot goes. Daring? Because what? All those people who believe in one race’s supremacy will shut me out of jobs and housing? Daring would be to write that in the thirties. Less so, given the avant-guard nature of the then literary establishment, but still notable in the fifties, sixties and seventies. After that, it’s just mouthing the same old platitudes. (And no, that wasn’t the point of the book. Just a critic’s notion.) Which is why SF is bleeding readers. There is only one unforgivable sin in writing – to bore the reader. It’s time we got past the little tin-pot Stalins and dared read (and write) stuff that shocks and thrills and interests people again.
For heretical ideas, I recommend: Simak’s Cosmic Engineers; Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End; Walter Miller Jr A Canticle For Leibowitz; Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment (yes, I know, but you have to dig for the ideas. Stealthing they are); Heinlein’s Glory Road; Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
What are your favorite heresies? And what are the ideas that make you recoil at the thought that someone, somewhere is thinking them? Let’s discuss and explore this. It is in those ideas that the powder keg lies that can wake up those who fell asleep reading us.