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Amorality is Not a Moral Position

Monday, January 9th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

irondragonsdaughterOn 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.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (six volumes)

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (first six volumes)

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.

the-heroes2Fourth, 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.

Out of the Silent Planet, Book One of The Space Trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet, Book One of The Space Trilogy

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.”


  1. “Any position is better than no position at all”? I assume the final remark is meant satirically, but I must be missing something here, because if it’s the aesthetic and philosophical difference between an “ethos” that calls for genocide and one that takes no position on it, I’ll take the latter (even though the latter implies the lack of action to address genocide, at least it doesn’t instigate it).

    Comment by Soyka - January 9, 2012 10:08 am

  2. @Soyka, Interesting position to take. Problem is their are three inherent positions not just two: “for”, “against” and “do nothing”.

    The “do nothing” position is like the people who watch a kid get ran over by a truck but do nothing to stop it or even give aid to the child afterwords. At least they can say “I didn’t instigate it”. Not sure how it helps them sleep at night but they are right, they were not responsible for the tragedy, but they did nothing to show compassion for their fellow human either.


    Comment by ZTiger - January 9, 2012 11:26 am

  3. The question you raise, Soyka, is what is your basis for ascertaining that an ethos that calls for genocide is inferior, be it aesthetically, philosophically, or morally, to an ethos that takes no position on it?

    Which, of course, is strikingly similar to the central point of the original discussion concerning nihilistic epic fantasy.

    Comment by Theo - January 9, 2012 11:37 am

  4. @Soyka – Are you unable to distinguish between a discussion regarding literature and real life? Given your stance (e.g. prefer to take no position re genocide), then, when it comes to abortion, do you do nothing? Now, you may not consider abortion as genocide like I do, but then, what genocide are you speaking of. Is this genocide real or imaginary – and how does this again fit into a discussion regarding literature.

    Comment by JDC - January 9, 2012 11:40 am

  5. Theo, okay, I think I see what you are getting at. So nihilistic fiction would be something that might, say, employ genocide merely as simply a plot device, without any moral reaction from the characters other than beyond that’s the way life is.

    JDC: I’m well aware of the difference between real life and literature. Is Sophie’s Choice any less “real” morally or aesthetically because it is fiction? What’s your point, other than it give you an opportunity to declare that you think abortion is genocide?

    Comment by Soyka - January 9, 2012 12:13 pm

  6. Theo, okay, I think I see what you are getting at. So nihilistic fiction would be something that might, say, employ genocide merely as simply a plot device, without any moral reaction from the characters other than beyond that’s the way life is.

    Precisely. In the work of authors like Abercrombie, there is no moral component to the slaughter. There is no moral component to sexual infidelity or sexual deviations. The characters simply do what they want to do without much in the way of reason, motivation, or justification.

    So, the perspective is intrinsically lifeless and boring, which is why this literature is so reliably grotesque. Lacking any moral conflicts in and between the characters, the author is therefore forced to attempt to provoke a moral reaction in the reader through events, usually exaggerated greatly for effect. So, we have the stacks of bloody corpses and the raped children, all to try to simulate the feelings provoked by writers with a larger moral palette from which to choose.

    Try to imagine the nihilistic version of The Scarlet A. Or Maugham’s famous short story “Rain”. It’s not hard to see that without the moral aspects and consequent moral failings, there aren’t even any stories there!

    Comment by Theo - January 9, 2012 12:32 pm

  7. @Soyka – Yes. Abortion has nothing to do with this – in a truly amoral world there is no inherent evil or good in anything, including abortion.

    Re Sophie’s choice – she existed in a moral world, which made her choice all the more difficult – which made the story so painful to experience. In an amoral world her choice would be meaningless, because, murder, rape, and the killing of children are not inherently bad, so what’s the big deal.

    Comment by JDC - January 9, 2012 12:45 pm

  8. @Soyka – My apologies. For some reason I was under the impression that you were the author of the critique of Theo’s previous amoral / moral posts. I was arguing from that position. Again, my apologies.

    Comment by JDC - January 9, 2012 12:56 pm

  9. Okay, putting aside whether or not there is an objective morality or whether the universe is in fact uncaring and nihilistic, might it not be the authorial intention to provoke a moral response from the reader by presenting a nihilistic story. “The horror, the horror” as Kurtz puts it.

    Comment by Soyka - January 9, 2012 1:34 pm

  10. Okay, putting aside whether or not there is an objective morality or whether the universe is in fact uncaring and nihilistic, might it not be the authorial intention to provoke a moral response from the reader by presenting a nihilistic story.

    Of course it theoretically could be so. But that’s not what any of the authors we’ve been discussing are doing. In fact, I have had a fairly lengthy discussion with R. Scott Bakker concerning his complete (and self-confessed) inability to even comprehend the issue being discussed. That is why I tend to refer to their work as being moralblind; they no more see the moral absurdities and deficiencies in their works than colorblind people perceive reds and greens. That being said, they’re not true nihilists, it is faux nihilism presented from a crippled and ad hoc moral perspective that is now as conventional in the genre as it is intellectually incoherent.

    To utilize nihilism as a means of demonstrating the intrinsic monstrosity of the nihilistic perspective requires a conscious moral perspective on the part of the author that is much more developed than anything we’re seeing here. Mieville or Lewis could do it, but even Martin couldn’t.

    Comment by Theo - January 9, 2012 2:29 pm

  11. Provoking a moral response from the reader generally requires a moral response from at least one of the characters. Absent that, the story is what Theo aptly describes as morally flat.

    Picking up the discussion about the difference between fiction and reality, a world without moral reactions from the characters screams “fiction – not real” in a way that dragons and magic and three-headed aliens who speak flawless English don’t. It ruins the suspension of disbelief.

    Comment by JMHawkins - January 9, 2012 2:43 pm

  12. I still don’t get Theo’s previous contention that Feast For Crows > Charlaine Harris > A Dance With Dragons.

    I would put it exactly the other way!

    A Dance With Dragons > Charlaine Harris > Feast For Crows.

    I consider that Charlaine Harris writes horrible dreck, and to say something is worse than hers is harsh criticism indeed. ADWD does not merit such criticism, but sadly AFFC does.

    These are all aesthetic judgments, of course. =)

    Comment by Lugo - January 9, 2012 5:06 pm

  13. I’m in the middle of Bakker’s White-Luck Warrior at the moment and I don’t agree with Theo’s characterisation of the books as amoral. Certainly mass slaughter and rape of the innocent is the norm during any of the wars of conquest that occur, almost unremarkable, but the characters themselves are far from amoral and the fear of damnation is recurrent. The Consult are evil incarnate, and hell appears to exist. Kellhus could justifiably be called amoral but not in a way that damages the suspension of disbelief: his ‘humanity’ has been bred out by a bloodline selected for its rational as opposed to its emotional faculties.

    Comment by camelite - January 9, 2012 10:24 pm

  14. and Bakker’s come up with one of the most convincing and appealing reasons for explaining the motivation behind the actions of the Big Evil I’ve come across… the only one really that goes much beyond, ‘they like to do bad stuff because they’re evil bad guys & feed on pain & fear etc’

    Comment by camelite - January 9, 2012 10:28 pm

  15. […] struck a chord, because I’ve been getting a lot more hits than usual in the past two days. Black Gate Theo (does he have an actual surname?) also responded. Needless to say he disagrees with […]

    Pingback by Taste Hierarchies and Genre Talk | Cora Buhlert - January 11, 2012 1:43 am

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