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The SF classics and the Human Condition

Sunday, December 4th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

spagetti-monsterLet 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!


sandman-greenNow, 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.

the-iliadTry 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.

stars-my-destinationNone 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.

15 Comments »

  1. Although I think you should have kept to the Pastafarian metaphor in the later paragraphs, I tend to agree with you on this one.
    Times and tastes change. The sad thing is that so often reading any form of “classic” is made into a chore either by one’s on unwillingness or a lack of a good teacher.

    Comment by sftheory1 - December 4, 2011 12:10 pm

  2. Utoh…

    You intimated that a religion (other than fundamentalist christianity) isnt some inclusive progressive heaven…

    The pillorying shall commence forthwith!!!

    Comment by TW - December 4, 2011 5:17 pm

  3. The irony is that the list of problems includes a lack of “inclusiveness.” Therefore, you carefully censor your reading list — to be broad-minded and inclusive.

    Comment by Mary - December 4, 2011 5:49 pm

  4. Mur Lafferty is free to dislike works by Asimov, Donaldson or Bester in precisely the same way that Theo is free to dislike the novels of Joe Abercrombie.

    Comment by jeffreycrogers - December 6, 2011 12:00 am

  5. likes and dislikes are inarguable.

    Criticizing a work for moral or aesthetic flaws is eminently arguable, since one appeals to principles.

    Comment by Mary - December 6, 2011 12:13 am

  6. Mur Lafferty is free to dislike works by Asimov, Donaldson or Bester in precisely the same way that Theo is free to dislike the novels of Joe Abercrombie.

    Of course. But there is a threefold difference between my criticism of Abercrombie and her criticism of Messrs Asimov, Donaldson, and Bester: a) I have actually read the novels of Joe Abercrombie whereas Ms Lafferty, by her own admission, has not read most of the novels she is criticizing. b) The works of Asimov, Donaldson, and Bester have stood the test of time and are still rightly considered to be classics of the genre. The current works of Abercrombie have not, and in my opinion, will not. c) I don’t dislike the novels of Joe Abercrombie. I like them, I simply find it disappointing that he ihas thus far failed to realize his full potential as a fantasy writer by virtue of his limited philosophical perspective.

    Comment by Theo - December 6, 2011 6:36 am

  7. I have usually disagreed with the commentaries that Theo has had in the past, but I agree with this one.
    Very insightful and well argued, Theo.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 6, 2011 11:40 am

  8. “Lafferty’s comments betray an extraordinarily limited perspective…” Physician, heal thyself.

    Comment by jeffreycrogers - December 7, 2011 11:01 pm

  9. Physician, heal thyself.

    It appears, like Lafferty, that you didn’t actually bother reading what you are attempting to criticize. My literary perspective is not limited to my own personal perspective because, unlike Lafferty, I actually read the books that feature a different point of view than my own.

    Which is probably just a little different than the average monolingual, monocultural American’s, given that I don’t live in America and speak four languages.

    You see, astounding as it may seem, a “limited” perspective is not defined as “a perspective that differs from that of the conventional SFWA member”.

    Comment by Theo - December 8, 2011 5:00 am

  10. That’s the Theo I remember.
    “Which is probably just a little different than the average monolingual, monocultural American’s, given that I don’t live in America and speak four languages.”

    I’d watch that crap if I were you. That’s awesome that you can speak 4 languages, but living outside America has got nothing to do with anything. One doesn’t have to live anywhere to have the ability to seriously look at things from multiple perspectives.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 8, 2011 9:58 am

  11. One doesn’t have to live anywhere to have the ability to seriously look at things from multiple perspectives.

    Of course one doesn’t have to, but it helps significantly to be directly exposed to and immersed in alien points of view if one is to develop the ability to look at things from various perspectives. This should be obvious if one merely contemplates the etymology of the word “perspective”.

    That is why travel is said to be “broadening” and why people who never travel far from home are commonly described as “provincial”. The differences between poor Japanese workers doing manual labor on American military bases and wealthy Italian bankers having three hour lunches accompanied by $200 bottles of wine far outstrips those one sees between the rural, suburban, and urban Americas. It’s actually a little embarrassing at times to discover how far one’s original romantic notions about a place or a people are from the actual reality of them.

    Until one has experienced such things, one can only imagine them within the framework of one’s own perspective. And speaking foreign languages also tends to modify one’s perspective, as there are concepts one literally cannot even articulate properly in English, or the other way around.

    One of the amusing things I have learned is not that those Americans who divide the world into a binary “we smart and good and educated/they bad and dumb and uncredentialed” are the most provincial of all, although it is often true, but rather the way they do not realize that the rest of the world does not even perceive that distinction to which such significant import is assigned.

    Comment by Theo - December 8, 2011 11:07 am

  12. Theo- Based on your blogs and commentaries that I’ve read, you seem to be a pretty passionate guy, and I can relate because I am too.
    But you have to see where as soon as a person makes a negative statement toward the “average” anyone, regardless of nationality or whatever, that person must be considering him or her -self to be above “average.” And how the hell does anyone define average anyway?
    On occasion I’ve taken a hard look at myself, and I can’t figure-out if I’m average or not. But I can honestly say I don’t fit your description of an average American, neither do most the Americans I know, who I guess are average too. And this is coming from a guy who could be called a hillbilly and I couldn’t deny it.
    As to Americans not being multi-cultural, I really don’t understand how that can be, but of course I’m not well traveled like yourself. Though I have to point-out; my daughter is in kindergarten at a public school, and tonight I’m attending a “Holiday” program. I readily admit that it does kinda bother this “average” American that they can’t call it a Christmas program anymore, but I think it’s good thing that they do include songs celebrating Hanukkah along with Christmas.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 8, 2011 2:53 pm

  13. How does anyone define average? Add up the sum and divide by the number concerned. But that’s irrelevant, I was merely replying to jeffreycrogers’s silly attempt to equate my perspective with Mur Lafferty’s.

    America has a distinct culture. It has been watered down somewhat since the 1965 and 1986 immigration reforms, but it is still immediately recognizable. And it is very, very different from Japanese culture, Italian culture, French culture, or any of the various regional subcultures.

    Anyhow, there is nothing wrong with average. What you want to avoid is mediocre….

    Comment by Theo - December 8, 2011 3:10 pm

  14. Nothing wrong with average? You just slammed the “average” person of a whole nation, but then again, it seems that so does most every other country claims we’re all the devil too.
    Funny you should mention Japan, a Filipino friend of mine told me stories of his visit. I think he would disagree. And that’s just an example that immediately comes to mind. Not saying things here are necessarily better, but I can’t see where we’re much worse.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 8, 2011 3:42 pm

  15. […] western world itself? Turns out he’s still blogging at Black Gate on occasion. What is more, he takes Mur Lafferty to task for not wanting to read supposed genre classics, because the racism an…. So Theo ranting against Joe Abercrombie and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a sign of his […]

    Pingback by Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition | Cora Buhlert - January 9, 2012 1:27 am


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