Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am a fervent believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And let us further suppose that I am utterly convinced that the tenets of the Pastafarian Church not only represent the present pinnacle of human progress, but are guaranteed to remain valid and morally definitive for so long as our species shall fail to evolve. And finally, let us also suppose that many of the classics of the science fiction and fantasy genre are deemed to infringe in a variety of ways upon the tenets of Pastafarianism. Am I then justified in claiming that these works are not classics, indeed, cannot be considered classics because they violate the Pastafarian sensibilities that every right-thinking human being knows are true? Am I perhaps even justified in claiming that no one should be permitted to read, much less enjoy, works that offend fundamental human decency as defined by the true interpretations of the various blots and sigils left to humanity by the Flying Spaghetti Monster as he passes overhead in all his noodly goodness?
Even if we cannot justify these things, surely I, as a fine, upstanding human, Pastafarian, and scholar, cannot be expected to slog my way through any literary work that is insufficiently respectful of the societal mores that, if not necessarily dominant today, are assured to one day be accepted by all of humanity in the fullness of time!
Now, I assume this would strike most readers here as a perfectly absurd perspective, especially since many who disagreed with my literary criticism of the ahistorical nihilism that presently infects the fantasy genre did so on the basis of a false assumption that my critique was based upon morality. And yet, Mur Lafferty’s problem with the classics is nothing but the very same moral one that would rightly be considered manifestly absurd when it is presented by Pastafarians or religious traditionalists of various creeds.
I suspect very few Black Gate readers would find it to be a convincing argument that Sandman does not merit classic comic status due to the violence and sexual immorality it contains, or find it credible that the Harry Potter series is difficult to read because it contains magic and a juvenile interracial romance. (I found it difficult to finish because it is borderline brain-dead and increasingly boring as the series lumbered on, but that is an entirely different matter.) And yet, there are far more people on the planet who are offended by violence, sexual immorality, magic, and even interracial romance than are bothered by some of the criteria that happen to offend the present sensibilities of Mur Lafferty.
Now, not all of Lafferty’s criteria are misplaced. The “cardboard characters” of many classic novels are a well-known literary flaw of the genre, and indeed, one that I would argue has improved very little over the years. Instead of calm, cool, collected space studs who never doubt themselves, know every relevant technology, and always make the right decision under pressure serving as our cookie cutter protagonists, we now have strong, independent, supernatural sluts who never doubt themselves, intrigue every attractive male, and always produce the perfect snarky quip under pressure. This is a lateral move, not an improvement. And there is a reason that science fiction from the Golden Age was featured as “a literature of ideas”; it was the ideas that were the focus of those books and they are best read with an understanding of that focus in mind. It’s probably not the place to go if you are interested in the intelligent contemplation of the great philosophical questions.
That being said, Lafferty’s comments betray an extraordinarily limited perspective that is all too often seen in the SF/F genre. The expressed inability to “root for a rapist protagonist” does nothing more than illustrate a total incapacity for understanding the skill and sensitivity with which Donaldson addresses the topic of complete moral failure and the desperate desire for atonement. Simply dismissing Thomas Covenant as a “rapist protagonist” is indicative of the moral flatness that pervades the genre and prevents most of the genre’s authors from ever reaching the literary heights of a Doestoevsky, or even a Donaldson.
Try to imagine to what extent the haunting weight of Covenant’s conscience that eventually leads the reader to the metaphorically rich scene of the Giants’ fiery ritual of cleansing would vanish if the Unbeliever had merely been insufficiently polite to the young girl, or perhaps used the wrong fork while dining with her at the dinner table. And refusing to read books for the mere sake of their protagonists’ moral failings would require avoiding such works as The Iliad, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, and in fact, nearly every work that is recognized as a literary classic.
Lafferty is not only not well-read, but her standards preclude her from ever being well-read if they are consistently applied. And it is laughable to claim that reading synopses and critiques in any way permits one to claim that one is not “in the dark” concerning the “redeeming qualities of these books”. This Cliff’s Notes notion of familiarity is a pox on the genre as it is in other fields as well.
I once had a conversation with a legendary game designer about the shortcomings of the current generation of electronic games, which he blamed on the near-complete ignorance of the designers concerning gaming history. Lacking that knowledge, in attempting to solve design problems, they tended to slavishly imitate solutions from the previous generation of games without understanding the underlying assumptions and decisions that had gone into them, and since the problems were not precisely the same, the solutions did not work well in the new game. Writers will tend to make similar mistakes and limit their literary horizons if they are not fully cognizant of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the classic works in their field.
None of this is to say that Lafferty, or anyone else, should not read whatever they want, enjoy whatever they want, or write whatever they want. But it defies history and human nature to believe that the present snapshot of secular and progressive morality that presently dominates the field is going to remain static for the next 55 years, which happens to be the period that now separates us from Alfred Bester and The Stars My Destination. Who is to say, especially on the basis of current demographic patterns, that five decades from now, the chief moral criticism of the character of Thomas Covenant will be that he did not marry Lena after raping her, as Sharia demands? Who is to say that the plethora of fierce female protagonists will not be as offensive to future generations as the sexist male protagonists are offensive today, due to their failure to cover their hair in public? Who is to say that honor killings will not replace necrophilia as the excitingly outre act du jour? And yet, the great works of the genre, both past and present, will survive and transcend these short-term temporal mores, just as the great works outside the genre have survived and transcended countless swings of the pendulum over the centuries, because they speak to the eternal verities of the human condition.
So, here is my advice to Mur Lafferty. Read the SF classics with the understanding that they are reflective of a different period in history and that your opinion of their basic assumptions and biases are no more relevant than your opinion of ancient Roman politics. Read them as if you were a literary archeologist, and trace the ways in which they laid the foundation for the books that you enjoy today. Read them and attempt to understand what it was that made them classics, what separated them from the other books of their time that did not become classics. And most of all, read them with the understanding that the moral and ideological biases they contain will one day be viewed as valid, and as outdated, as your own moral and ideological biases.