Saturday, January 9, 2010

SF in the age of the irrational: Shall we fight?

Writer Ian Sales recently posted on his website a thoughtful article titled Science Fiction: last bastion of the rational in which he examines whether or not sf as a genre ought to be didactic. He says he never subscribed to the Hugo Gernsback attitude that sf ought to be about "educating the public on the possibilities of science," and he also initially doubted the "Mundane SF" movement  of writers like Geoff Ryman as well as the call from Jetse DeVries to have sf be a deliberately optimistic genre.

"To me, sf is a literary mode," says Sales, "not a teaching tool, not futurism." But he goes on to discuss the continuous attack upon science, reason and fact by the right wing in the US and the UK and wonders if perhaps sf should take a stand against this and play a real educational role. He also takes a swipe at the fantasy genre and its current popularity as something that supports or is maybe symptomatic of the retreat from rationalism in our cultures. That may be overstating the case since, while there are currently a lot more avid fantasy readers than avid sf readers, the total reading population of all books of any kind at all is incredibly tiny in this country (I think reading remains more of a habit in the UK, but I'm not sure). The genre that is more popular by far than even fantasy is, sadly, right wing political screeds by douchebags like Bill O'Reilly and sociopaths like Ann Coulter. 

I wish I knew if there was a productive role that our genre could actually play in blunting the march of lunacy and denialism and bugfuck craziness that seems to be overwhelming every discussion in the US and (I hear) in the UK as well. We live in a world where not that many people do any long-form reading and where so many people are simply not interested in facts or reasonable arguments. People pick their facts, or simply invent them, to support their opinions. 

Here's a recent example of people making up shit: A few weeks ago NPR reported that some gun nut group (not the NRA, a different smaller one, can't remember name, something like Gun Owners of America) sent letters to all of the United States senators asking them to not support health care reform on the grounds that it would be an assault on gun owners' rights. How so? Well, first the evil Obama would presumably decree that having a gun in the house is a health risk. But how would the health system itself have knowledge of who owns guns? Because the Big Government would somehow enter this  information into the "national medical records data base" created  earlier this year by "the stimulus package." Senators who support this, these gun nuts warned, would face some consequences, because this groups next action would be to focus their efforts on those states with the best chance of recalling their Senators.  Ok, well, here's just some of what's wrong with that: 1) There is not now nor is there likely to ever be this national medical records data base. It doesn't exist and 2) it certainly was not created by the stimulus legislation; it's paranoid fantasy, delusion, totally made up, no such goddamned thing, and probably even impossible or at least discouragingly difficult to do; 3) And about recalling the Senators?  Can't be done. No provision exists in the Constitution to recall a United States senator. Very few ways exist to remove a Senator aside from death in office or losing an election, and one of those ways is not voter recall. 

So the entire thing is a fiction designed to shore up a ridiculous political position and insert still more hysterical propaganda into the "debate." It should be embarrassing to the people behind it. But it's not. They don't care. They're True Believers in their own made-up "facts." And now there are probably a lot more people running around this benighted land thinking there is a Big Government Medical Database with notes in it about their bloody guns. What can the remaining rational people do against a giant phenomenon like this? Will reason and fact perish forever or will there eventually be a backlash? Does science fiction have anything important to say about it? I hope so.

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Anonymous said...

I would like to say that none of this is new, but I can't.
There has never been anything like the tea party movement before. Fringe groups, delusional conspiracy theorists, racist douchebags, they have all come together under one umbrella, and all with the constant support of a giant 24 hour media outlet. This is fucking scary.

Ed Robertson said...

SF is actually a pretty brilliant genre to do this within, because you can suck people in to a story by promising robots, pew-pew-pew guns, and space squid, and then sneak in whatever it is you want to say about politics, socioeconomics, critical thinking, etc. Iain M. Banks does this awesomely, though "sneak" might be too subtle a word for some of his methods.

I find outright didacticism tiresome as a reader and impossible as a writer--you have to be really good at howling and/or making jokes to pull that off--but I think you can get away from outright preaching so long as you make your ideological subject matter (poverty, torture, the necessity of rational thought, whatever) the background or jumping-off point rather than sticking it front and center in your story.

I tried to do this in my story in issue #5, where I was thinking about how being poor in society's fringes leads you to make desperate, dangerous choices. Then I thought about how much I like explosions. The end.

mbranesf said...

SCH: This teabagger movement does seem to be a different formulation of lunacy than we've seen before in our history. There have certainly been fringe movements, and even populist-outrage movements with racism and paranoia behind them (like Father Coughlin's anti-Semitic campaign in the Depression era or George Wallace's anti-civil rights movement that he turned into a fairly credible third party presidential run in 1968), but this one seems to be a different thing in the way it's been assembled and the way it behaves, and certainly more dangerous. What it looks like to me is a kind of proto-fascism and I worry that things like it are cropping up in Europe again as well.

Ed: I concur about didacticism and how difficult it can be to do. That last thing anyone wants to read is a heavy-handed lecture thinly disguised as a story. But of course a lot of brilliant commentary and subversive attitudes have been woven into speculative fiction, and I suspect that we'll see more of it.


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