Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wake UP!



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 fiancĂ© (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.

46 comments:

Brendan said...

Winston loved Big Brother

Ori Pomerantz said...

And what are the ideas that make you recoil at the thought that someone, somewhere is thinking them?

I recoil at the thought that someone, somewhere, believes they can manage society to run it better. In my defense, such people have a track record of being dangerous.

More seriously, I recoil at the thought of somebody thinking of child abuse as a good thing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan

Got it in one

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori,

Both of those fall under "doing harm to others" when put in practice. Unlike, say, thinking there are differences between men and women that explain different interests in life. Which can be proven for the group (never for individuals) and which is an observation, not a "let me do this."
I still would not see it as a crime to THINK those things, or even to write stories that involved those concepts. And I wouldn't think a person who wrote such was approving of them OR practiced them. Thoughts are never crimes.
Which is a good thing since at our local con several old-style sf/f writers advocated an "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" society would be perfectly fine, if run by computers. I chose to believe they were tossing it out there to discuss and not seriously and HAD in fact read Martin Caidin's The God Machine.
BTW, neither of those two ideas -- though you recoil from them -- would be considered "heresies" in SF/F. The second maybe, but depends on how its dressed. The first would be considered mainstream.

Ori Pomerantz said...

For the first one, I was somewhat kidding. The world is full of people who believe in the ability to manage society - either in themselves or their chosen leaders. I have regular arguments with some of those.

I agree that thoughts are never crimes. I recoil from the idea of child abuse as a good thing, but that does not mean it should be criminalized. It just means I'll probably have to take an anti-histamine to read such a story. As opposed to, say, Tom Kratman books which contain a lot of ideas I wish I could prove wrong, but which I can process.

MataPam said...

Fred Saberhagen shocked me. He was the first author I read with the concept of good vampires.

Then everyone else did it, very much to my dismay.

Hello? We're talking serial murders, here.

(Sorry Sarah, just escaped from a politic/taxes discussion and it sort of morphed into SF in my head. The government as a vampiric metaphor, sucking us dry. Yes, some are honorable. But they still drink blood.)

C Kelsey said...

Anne Rice shocked me before she went totally off the deep end. In Interview with the Vampire, Lestat is evil and fairly unsympathetic. In The Vampire Lestat, he's and antihero who is oddly sympathetic while Louie just makes you cringe.

Kate said...

No idea is verboten. Acting on said idea is a different beastie.

That's where SF and fantasy really excel - you can play with things like what the world could look like if, say, there was no reason for an incest taboo. Or if races were more different than just skin color. Or... well, anything you like, really.

Getting it published is a different beast again, of course. And to make your playing with ideas realistic, it helps to have some idea what makes people tick - something that can be rather... lacking in some of the Custodians of the Received Wisdom.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah said:

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.

LOL

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, how much time do you spend preparing these posts, or does it all just pour out of you?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

My friend Rebecca Lickiss published a story in Analog in which all IRS agents are vampires. If I convince her to put it up somewhere do you think dinerites would hit her tip jar? ;)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

And they are the world's most romantic couple...

Never mind. She got around that by making them er... incapable...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

Custodians of received wisdom? Is that like IF? A term that will stick to my family's parlance forever?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

er... there was this book we read in college where the PURPOSE was for nothing to happen. It was "a great breakthrough." :-P

As for preparation -- sigh, you remind me I need better proofreading. It sort of depends. I'm one of those people whom it takes VERY LONG to be brief.

Today, I didn't have the time, so excuse the length.

MataPam said...

No, no, no. We like your long essays/treatises/rants. We just stand back in awe and wonder how you do it.

C Kelsey said...

Sarah,

Romeo and Juliet they are not. Well, maybe they are. I, err. I never thought of it that way. Never really wanted to either. Brain floss please.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

I felt guilt EVERY step this went towards this length. But it was very early and I had a headache.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

they were so whiney, too. It's like Luke Skywalker in love with himself.

Kate said...

Sarah,

No, no... Luke Skywalker was a wholesome whiner.

Brendan said...

Good writing can make acceptable a multitude of sins.

I know I have certain revulsion triggers that a writer has to work really hard to get me to accept if I see them in a story(eg. enforced mind altering behavior change) but some of the books I think are the best ever feature those very triggers. The reason they are so good is the writer was able, if not to get me to accept the trigger, at least to get me to read past where my skin starts to crawl.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah, as Allen Wold keeps telling me, "it takes as many words as it takes". The content was worth every word of the length.

My favorite heresies? The idea that people who've made sufficiently bad choices should be abandoned to the consequences they have earned ... The idea that government is our employee, and can be "fired" if the provocation is great enough ... A book in which the race/ethnicity of most characters isn't even mentioned, because it genuinely doesn't matter to any of them. (Oh, wait, Weber kind of did that last one ...)

Dave Freer said...

Hmm what are my favorite heretical ideas that would be shocking...
1) Colonisation is an intrisic part of all living species natural behavior. If it is wrong then so is breathing.
2)your gender, skin color or orientation does not actually make you a hero. Your intellect, moral convictions and courage do. Likewise for villans.
3)the evils ascribed to Male chauvinism are by-products of dominance not testosterone.
4)It is possible for a hero be totally out of fashion and to hold veiws which are not politically correct and still behave heroically. A hetrosexual white male Christian could be (gasp) a hero.
5)Outlawing of personal risk (be it taking heroin or skydiving) is contraindicated for a strong gene pool and a healthy society.
6)A despotic society eventually becomes repression of one's relatives. Ghengis Khan's descendents outnumber everyone else's - although Jacob Zuma is working on this)

I'd love for someone to dare to write things like that.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave, that's nice. Now, where are your heretical ideas? Most of your list seems like the common sense of the matter if you mostly hang out with the same people I do, except maybe #3 and some versions of #5.

BTW, I can see both Eric Flint and Tom Kratman signing off on most of this list.

Ori Pomerantz said...

BTW, it might be interesting to have a hero that hold ideas that are not only wrong but stupidly so, and still behaves heroically when push comes to shove. It would take a good sense of humor to do that, but I'd love to see you do it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

I'm working on the firing the government thing. In the current novel, I mean. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave,

Yes. Just yes.

BTW -- I wish I could go to worlcon for your reading and Rowena's and Kate's (and I presume Chris's too). Any chance you guys could record each other and post somewhere?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori,

Curiously, the current space opera, my character has so far mouthed off about the rightness of a government spying on innocent citizens AND the inherent rightness of gun control. Does she change opinions -- yeah, though it's forced on her. Does she still behave "correctly" and become a hero? Yeah. It's... complex.

Stephen Simmons said...

Sarah - my high school offered semester-length "electives" for our junior and senior year English courses. They weren't truly "elective" in the sense that we had to take *something*, but there were eight or ten different choices each semester. My junior year I made the mistake of taking Dr. Nash's "Great American Novel". After suffering through every interminable page of "Moby Dick" (even the chapter about golf) and giving up halfway through "Babbitt", I began to suspect that the course title was meant ironically, because there was no such thing. Then I thought about all of the science fiction I had already read by that point (my first act of fandom was committed with "The Hobbit", at age 9), and realized that the professor was simply looking in the wrong places.

Dave Freer said...

:-)Ori - I was being sarcastic/ironic. Those are all in Slowtrain. As is the pacifist who does not believe in killing or weapons shooting someone dead, heroically. Look up the concept 'manifest destinty' - possibly the most non-PC concept existant today. Slowtrain's core thesis (based on 1) is that William Gilpin was right for evolutionary reasons. The idea of colonisation happening has of course been in a number of books. The idea that human societies founded by colonialism might allow more freedoms has also. But the idea that colonising is what our species (and every other, from redwoods to microbes) does as core factor of existance, I can think of no other sf book that does so. (I can think several that posit the opposite, likening humanity to a cancer on all that is good etc.) The idea that might be a good thing (and for example good for aliens and good for us) is an anethema that is not be spoken.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I don't do readings.

I'm terrible at them and I'm philosophically opposed to them.

A book is meant to be read inside your head. If i meant it to be read aloud, I'd write it for that purpose.

Fake Paul Keating said...

Sarah:My friend Rebecca Lickiss published a story in Analog in which all IRS agents are vampires. If I convince her to put it up somewhere do you think dinerites would hit her tip jar?

As an Aussie tax collector, I can deny we are all blood sucking vampires.

However, I feel that tax collection has gone downhill since we stopped public floggings

Scott W. Clark said...

How about the concept of evolution in the first place? Or rationality, at least the reductionist kind that we are all steeped in today as being right or the ultimate in good?

Sorry, I'm a lurker here who finally unlurked.

Kate said...

Fake Paul Keating,

Of course tax collectors aren't vampires. Vampires can't get blood out of stones.

(BTW - LOVE the handle)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Luke Skywalker was NOT wholesome. He was an unreconstructed teen. I want to slap him every time I start watching the movie, like I did to many other teen males when I was a teen. (My boys? Heavens, no. They're not THAT teen.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan,

Exactly. Though I confess that the very well written novel about the all-canibal planet went against the wall. Hard. There are limits. Do I think it shouldn't have been written? No. I just didn't want to read it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave,

Interesting -- I got in trouble for positing something very similar, in this case that it was a good thing that the US broke with the shackles of Europe in a unique way. Eh. Now I realize it was ideas you planted in my head. It's your fault, you subversive element, you.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Well -- grump -- you COULD film the Klatch!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Fake Paul Keating

There is a reason the Bible has injunctions about tax collectors, there is!

Ditto on Kate and blood from stones, a fact your kind routinely manages. Uber-vamps. :) Count Dracula is afraid of tax collectors! (Shush Kate!)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

Yeah, people keep asking me if I'm writing the Great American Novel soon and I want to give them the sargent's answer "Don't say that. I WORK for a living!"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Scott,

Welcome to the unlurked ranks.

I don't think you could question evolution and get it published -- yes, it is one of the sacred cows -- but I would love to see a novel that does it well.

As for rationality, I've long thought that was sort of what fantasy fulfilled. No, not being snide. I mean the idea that we took a wrong path when we turned to science over magic, since magic was usually intuitive and "feeling" over science's logic and "thinking."

BTW Diana Wynne Jones explores this idea some in her multiverse. And Heinlein has elements of it in some of his books -- the use of psi powers, for ex and other non-linearly logic ideas.

It would be a wonderful thing to read -- and might even get accepted/published -- if you can write it so it doesn't sound like you're going insane.

MataPam said...

Sarah,

Given Time Travel and careless contamination, I think it would be possible to set up the appearance of evolution as one huge tangle of time paradoxes.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah: I don't think you could question evolution and get it published -- yes, it is one of the sacred cows -- but I would love to see a novel that does it well.

Ori: James P. Hogan wrote some astronomical heresy. However, that is less dangerous than biological heresy. Biological heresy can feed the religious right, which is considered a real threat(1).

However, the religious right is considered a real threat precisely because it is real. There are plenty of Christian publishers who might publish books that question evolution.

(1) Not necessarily a threat to you and me, but a threat to the humanist orthodoxy that rules in some places.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave, you're right - it's all in Slow Train. However, most of the ideas in that book were for me the common sense of the matter. I realize there are people who think colonialization is inherently wrong and that the Prime Directive is a good idea, but I've always considered them to be a fringe group.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

um... I'm not saying you couldn't make it believable. I'm saying NO ONE will touch it. Notice how out of favor even once popular ideas are like "we came from the stars. NO ONE = gatekeepers. The public would. It's one of the perenial "interesting things."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori -- Sigh, what you MUST remember is that "common sense" was named by the law of contraries.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Why else do you think he kept putting them up on stakes?

Ori,

Common sense is the rarest and least valued commodity in existence.