On the one hand, I’m pleased that people outside the coterie of Black Gate writers are interested in the question of morality and the new nihilism within the SF/F genre. On the other, I’m a little disturbed by the way in which so many people with opinions on the subject appear to have an amount of trouble grasping some of the most basic issues involved. While we can certainly agree to disagree when our opinions on the subject happen to diverge, we can’t even manage to do that when there are fundamental misunderstandings concerning the subjects being discussed. To explain what I mean by this, it is first necessary to quote the German writer Cora Buhlert’s recent post entitled Morality in Fantasy – 2012 Edition.
And even the defenders of morally sound fantasy have often no qualms with a piece of morally questionable fantasy, as long as they enjoy it. Remember Theo, who was involved in last year’s nihilism in epic fantasy debate and felt that morally ambiguous epic fantasy was not just fiction that was not to his taste, but apparently heralded the decline of the 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 and misogyny and the prevalence of violence against women puts her off. So Theo ranting against Joe Abercrombie and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a sign of his moral superiority, while Mur Lafferty ranting against The Stars My Destination and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a sign of her lack of education and moral flatness? Sorry, but this doesn’t work. If Theo enjoys Thomas Covenant, more power to him. But that doesn’t change the fact that Thomas Covenant is a rapist and no more moral than the protagonists of the Joe Abercrombie novels he singled out for destroying western civilization. But since Thomas Covenant is really sorry for what he did, spends much of the series wallowing in self-pity and finally apparently redeems himself, at least in the eyes of Theo (I can’t say if it would work for me, since I never got that far), that apparently makes The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant okay. Though I guess what really makes Thomas Covenant okay for Theo but not Joe Abercrombie is that he enjoyed Thomas Covenant but didn’t enjoy Joe Abercrombie. Which is a perfectly acceptable aesthetic judgement, but does not automatically make one book morally superior to the other.
There are several erroneous statements here that I must clarify. First, I enjoy morally ambiguous epic fantasy when it is done well. That is why I very much liked A Game of Thrones and loathed A Dance with Dragons, and why I rated The Heroes more highly than The Thousand-Fold Thought.
Moral ambiguity neither makes epic fantasy good nor bad, although it does usually tend to make it considerably less epic since it is done with an increased degree of difficulty, as anyone familiar with Homer or the Norse epics should recognize.
Second, I don’t care what Mur Lafferty wants or doesn’t want to read, I simply took her to task for attempting to pronounce judgment on books she had not read. Her opinion about whether certain books should be considered classics or not is totally irrelevant for the obvious reason that she has not read them, and indeed, the fact that she has not read them intrinsically calls into question the likelihood that she possesses sufficient reading experience to distinguish between a classic and a non-classic.
Third, my opinions concerning Joe Abercrombie’s works have nothing to do with my moral superiority or inferiority, and since I have never read nor written a single word about The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, I fail to see what a completely nonexistent rant could signify about anything.
Fourth, Buhlert is failing to understand the difference between immorality and amorality, or to recognize that moral ambiguity is not necessarily amorality. My primary criticism of the likes of Abercrombie and Bakker is that their works are morally flat.
Reading their books is rather like looking at the paintings of a painter who is colorblind, and their flaws in this regard particularly stand out because both authors are so talented in other aspects of their writing. Their characters are not morally ambiguous, they are clearly amoral.
George R.R. Martin, on the other hand, is clearly not moralblind, as some of his characters are morally ambiguous while others are quite consciously immoral, as is the case with Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant.
And Covenant is much more than “okay” for me, as I would argue that he is one of the greatest and most memorable characters in the SF/F genre because his moral transgression is merely the entry point into a lengthy exploration of various morally relevant topics such as guilt, shame, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption, topics which are inherently off-limits to the amoral characters of nihilistic or moralblind authors.
Buhlert is also incorrect to state that I did not enjoy Joe Abercrombie’s books. I absolutely did. I merely didn’t think they were as good as they were billed, (which is to say as good as Martin’s first three books in A Song of Ice and Fire), or as good as they could have been. But one must give her credit for recognizing that I have always been making an aesthetic judgment about the various books under discussion and not, as many people have wrongly assumed, a moral one.
That is precisely the point that I have been making from the very beginning of the discussion begun by Leo Grin. The Space Trilogy of CS Lewis and Embassytown by China Mieville are both works that are deeply concerned with morality, even though their moral perspectives are not so much different as directly opposed, which not only distinguishes them from the amoral works of the New Nihilism, but makes them aesthetically and philosophically superior as well.
And one can quite reasonably argue that while the Lewis works are immoral from the perspective of the Mieville book and vice-versa, both are also morally superior to the amoral perspective, since any position is superior to no position at all. For, as Walter Sobchak said: “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”