Unempathic Bipeds of Failure: The Relationship Between Stories and Politics
The Axis trilogy (published in the US as the first three novels of The Wayfarer Redemption)
Owing to recent political developments, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about politics in SFF, not just as a general concept, but in relation to my own history with the genre. So often when we talk about politics in SFF, it’s in the context of authors – rightly or wrongly, consciously or unconsciously, skilfully or unskilfully – conveying their personal views and biases through the text, the whens and hows of doing so and why it matters, depending on the context. As a corollary conversation, we also talk a great deal in personal terms about the importance to readers, and particularly young readers, of representation; the power of seeing yourself, or someone like you, in multiple sorts of narrative. These are all vital conversations to have, and to continue having as both culture and genre evolve. Yet for all its similar importance, I haven’t often seen discussions about the ways that SFF informs our concept of politics in the more institutional sense: the presentation of different systems of government, cultures and social systems within narratives, and the lessons we take from them.
Which is, to me, surprising, because as far back as I can remember, I was always aware of the role of politics in genre stories, even if I couldn’t always articulate that knowledge at the time. At the very start of high school, Sara Douglass’s Axis trilogy became my entry point to the world of adult (as opposed to YA or middle grade) fantasy. In hindsight, there’s a great deal in that series – and in the sequel trilogy, The Wayfarer Redemption – that I now find deeply unsettling, but which, as a tween, I absorbed uncritically. But at the same time, I also recognized the predatory, insular monotheism of Artor the Ploughman as a deliberate analogue to certain toxic expressions of Christianity, its displacement of and propagandising about the Icarii and the Avar reminiscent of lies told about various native populations by white invaders. I wasn’t yet literate enough to identify the racial stereotypes underpinning the Avar in particular – a dark-skinned race who claimed to “abhor” violence, yet were externally said to “exude” it – but something in that description still unsettled me; I remember feeling strongly that it was an unfair characterization in a way that went beyond the story, but couldn’t explain it any more than that.
Thank you so much for this powerful piece. It has made me re-think my own introduction to morality in SFF in 1980’a America. Mine was all the weirder, where as a testosterone -laced white male, I began somewhat brainwashed by a Reagan goose-stepping father, but was fortunately sent to a peacenik Philadelphia Quaker school by my mother (thanks, MOM! 😉
Sometimes this exposure was overt, like reading such classics as Animal Farm, 1984, Fareheit 411, etc, and sometimes much less so… I too read Feist as a teen, and consciously, don’t recall considering any of the parallels you raised here.
It must be horrifying for people like Orwell and Michael Moore to glimpse a dark future, do their damndest to forewarn us (Moore told us far ahead of most who was going to win the election), then have to sit there horrified as your dire predictions unfold.
Excellent post! I’ll be looking for the books you mention (I have the Raymond E. Feist and Goodkind volumes but haven’t read them yet). I think Sara Douglass is an underrated writer.
” that dictatorships, imperialism and fascism are worth fighting against ”
You ever consider that those evil Trump supporters might feel the same way and think they are doing it?
TW – first I don’t think anyone’s saying ALL Trump supporters are evil, or even most…
and if they are, they’re jerks painting with far too broad of a brush.
But I have a hard time accepting the argument that those jacklegs tearing off women’s hijabs, spraypainting swastikas, or claiming reverse discrimination at starbucks and calling black baristas “animals” are somehow fighting against imperialism and fascism.
“Holy giant sentences, Batman!” But that notwithstanding, excellent essay about the utility of our beloved silly stories. This is one of the reasons we spend collective money on libraries, and why they have fictions sections, even SFF sections.
While I hate it when an author is obviously preaching their personal political or religious views. I do think a story lacks depth if it doesn’t have some overt but open-minded message to it.
Goodkind’s Sword of Truth always come to my mind first when the subject of an author openly pushing their own agendas in a book. I barely was able to complete The Wizard’s First Rule, and never considered reading the rest. Later after finding out about Goodkind’s infamous snobbing of the fantasy genre, and the fact there is so much good fantasy out there, I just haven’t he’s worth useing any of what precious little reading time I have.
Great piece. Thank you.
My experience is somewhat different, as I live in a country in which fantasy was colonised by politics in the early ’70s, when Tolkien was co-opted by the extreme right as a propaganda tool.
As a fantasy and SF reader in the early ’80s, I soon found out that what I was reading and enjoying was perceived as politically aligned (e.g., fantasy = fascist), and I started paying attention to the actual politics in the stories.
Being a Leiber and Moorcock fan, it was soon obvious to me that something in popular perception was off.
I still think that imaginative fiction is ALSO a good tool for developing the sort of critical thinking that anyone accepting fast and loose political labels seems to lack.
The difference is, Feist can inject politics without it seeming overtly obvious, while Goodkind—being a not very good writer, or at least someone who has transformed into a not very good writer—cannot. I add the “has transformed into” because I actually liked the first five books in the series. The politics was subtle, although I do think Goodkind was working out some sexual predilections of his own. I even had to have it pointed out to me that the “bad” characters in the fifth book had the same initials as Bill and Hillary Clinton. A little less subtle, but still not wooden at least.
Starting with the sixth book, the writing became so wooden that it was almost hard to believe it was the same author; it was like he was trying to win a Ayn Rand Bad Writing contest…and succeeding.
I don’t want to call out Goodkind without pointing out an author whose politics I agree with who also is not that good at injecting politics into her work. Sheri S. Tepper is one of my favorite authors, “Grass” is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, but her later works, where she injects politics, become almost painful to read in spots. “The Family Tree” is a great book, and I loved it, but there’s a speech by the protagonist midway through the book that—while the politics are exactly 180-degree, very smart turn from Rand’s—could have been ripped in style right out of the Ayn Rand playbook. (It also amused me that Tepper called out works of horror (?) in “Beauty”—another book I otherwise loved—but wrote horror novels under a pseudonym early in her career.
The point is, if you’re going to inject politics into a work, do it organically, try to make it subtle and not “in your face.”
[…] This article by Foz Meadows is a good read https://www.blackgate.com/2016/12/07/unempathic-bipeds-of-failure-the-relationship-between-stories-a… […]
[…] THE WORK THAT STORIES DO. Foz Meadows’ well-written piece “Unempathic Bipeds of Failure: The Relationship Between Stories and Politics” found a home at Black […]
Fantastic piece. Thank you, Foz and Black Gate.
I am just getting into the fantasy genre (I’ve stuck to mostly SF) and I really enjoyed this article partially as an intro to the genre, but also as political commentary. You’ve made a fan!
So, I point out that the Sad Puppies are neither fascists nor run by Vox Day and my comment is deleted?
Keep it classy, Black Gate.
An excellent piece and spot on.
The objections by T. Beale to being called a neo-nazi are semantic in nature. He’s chosen to identify as “alt-right” or, more specifically as “alt-right west”, and plenty of sources have made the connection between an ideology called neo-nazism and one called alt-right.
When you step in dog shit, you don’t stop to analyze what breed; you know you’ve stepped in dog shit and the immediate concern is to remove it as quickly as possible.
> So, I point out that the Sad Puppies are neither fascists nor run by Vox Day and my comment is deleted?
No, your comment was deleted because in your first sentence you called the author a “blatant liar.” That’s a reliable way to get your comment deleted, before I even read your second sentence.
I enjoy a good debate. But hurling accusations or insults at my guests will get you ejected. Simple as that.
Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I seem to remember Almuric’s comment to read something like, “This post contains a blatant lie. . .” If I’m remembering correctly, then Almuric’s first sentence in the deleted comment did not explicitly call Foz Meadows a blatant liar.
Given that Foz Meadows says “For the past few years, the Sad and Rabid Puppies – guided by an actual neo-Nazi. . .,” an uncritical reader might believe that Foz Meadows is saying that both the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies are guided by a neo-Nazi. The construction of the sentence is poorly worded, and I wonder if Foz Meadows was deliberately implying the association between the two groups. I would call that a smear tactic if that is the case.
Seems like you should call for a clarification or a correction from Foz Meadows (and perhaps an apology).
Long but interesting article. I have not yet read Goodkind or Douglas. Maybe I am just too simple or accepting but a lot of the political and/or religious stuff just goes over my head. I recall the Ashtar series by Angus Wells. I fair enjoyed it, not the greatest of series for sure but a bit of mindless fun. Passed it onto a friend and he commented on it being such a Christian parallel, something I just didn’t pick up. That said I vaguely (it was years back) recall empathising with the commander in Darkness at Sethanon. Aah, maybe just each persons ability to suspend their disbelief.
Beale doesn’t “guide” the Sad Puppies: Larry Correia founded the movement before Beale became infamous. I don’t care much for Beale, but Larry is no Nazi, and neither are the men and women who have led Sad Puppies afterwards.
I don’t believe anyone’s calli g Larry Correia or other Sad Puppy leaders neo-nazis here, and I think it’s fairly obvious that the description is aimed only at VD because the term is singular (an Neo Nazi) and the hyperlink goes to an article about him alone.
” you called the author a “blatant liar.””
You know John, maybe if the author didnt include deliberate misrepresentations that would be less likely to occur…
“A lot of the political and/or religious stuff just goes over my head.”
Tiberius, believe me when I say, if you read the sixth and beyond books in Goodkind’s series, it will not go over your head. It will whack you over, beside, and under the head repeatedly, in the most wooden writing this side of Ayn Rand. (Well, uh, I assume; I never actually read past the sixth book despite how much I enjoyed the earlier ones—the sixth really was that bad. Reviews I’ve read seem to indicate not reading further was a good decision.)
Mark: When the article reads “the past few years, the Sad and Rabid Puppies – guided by an actual neo-Nazi”, it makes it seem as if Meadows is saying that Beale runs both groups. If that wasn’t her intention, she should have worded it better.
While I appreciate the need to form a united front against the current resurgence of racial hatred, I do have to stare in absolute amazement at this particular bit of Meadows’ call to arms –
‘…we’re a bunch of bipedal mammals with delusions of morality, a concept we invented and which we perpetuate through culture and manners, faith and history and memory…’
But otherwise business as usual – really? Are we supposed to just ignore this? How can you expect to build a movement on such a foundation?
‘Good and evil are nothing but delusions – but don’t be a racist, because that would be wrong!’
Am I the only one bothered by this? I’m pretty sure the (overwhelmingly religious) people fleeing the violence in Syria wouldn’t be too fussed on a culture that preaches this either, and who could blame them?
Also – Beale’s fans complaining about his being mis-labeled; come on, son. Would you prefer the term ‘neo-fascist’? Perhaps ‘racial-realist’ in lieu of ‘racist’? If you swallow his garbage, at least have the courage to own it.
Almuric: I didn’t address “guided” in my comment but I will now if you like. I wouldn’t agree that she’s saying VD ran both groups, because she uses the word “guided” rather than “ran” or “led”. “Guided” implies influence, not control.
Now, is that fair to say about the Sad Puppies? Well, we don’t know the full details about what happened during the planning stage for SP3/RP1, but do we know from public comments that VD was involved in the planning stages, that Torgersen and Correia talked to him, that he was in contact with Hoyt. We know that there are some big gaps in who decided what – how did some of the nominees who weren’t suggested publicly make it to the SP3 list? How did 3 Castalia House publications make it into SP3?
You may disagree, but I’d suggest you can infer a strong level of involvement by VD in SP3’s planning, and ultimately it was an effort that played into his hands, with his extra choices locking out categories and eventually a fair number of SP moving over into the RP leaving him in the driving seat the next year. So, that’s a strong level of influence. It’s possible to debate whether “guided” was the perfect word choice, but I think it’s justified.
Aw come on! At least half of my deleted post was not offensive. Is Dumbledore off limits too? And is the science on Sad Puppies settled just like global warming or is it just blasphemous to disagree?
The conspiracy theories about the Puppy groups secretly coordinating the ballots has been debunked ad nauseum.
@Almuric—They know what you are saying is true. They rely on fear spreading and rumor mongering. It’s like watching the villagers go after Frankenstein but without the ‘charm’. I think Vox Day was right that the Hugo establishment would rather destroy the award than to give it to someone outside their narrative. The Hugo is irrelevant. The best thing that ever sparked life into it was the Puppies. They will never let go of the conspiracy theory (some might say lie).
My reading of those passages was different. I saw Meadows as acknowledging the fragility of compassion as a moral norm, the difficulty that we can have, individually and together, recognizing and doing the kind thing when faced with people different from ourselves.
Maybe I was inclined to interpret Meadows as saying something I already believed in that part of her essay. I just didn’t see her advocating for absolute moral relativism. Looking back at that passage now, I still don’t, though I can see where another reader might.
Though I’m not a developmental psychologist, I’ve been fascinated by research on how the human capacity for empathy changes over the course of early childhood. The short version of what I got from all that reading is this: Nearly all humans have an inherent capacity for empathy and compassionate action from infancy, but we also have some glitches that can get in the way. A lot of external circumstances that seem pretty arbitrary can set off those glitches.
Apart from what Meadows is or isn’t saying, my personal take on things is that compassion is a universal capacity, but which limits we put on our compassion are culturally and historically specific — which for practical purposes is to say, arbitrary, because if we were born in another place or time, our limits would be different.
If we want to make conscious effort to choose compassion over selfishness (which maybe not everybody in this comment thread would claim as a goal — Ayn Rand wouldn’t have), figuring out which limits on our compassion to accept in ourselves and which to resist seems to me a pretty important part of the process. Story helps us do that.
Remember when I didn’t yet know there were significant differences between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid ones?
I don’t know Foz Meadows, but I’m going to ask you, just temporarily, to consider the possibility that she hasn’t had the kind of conversation we worked so hard to have. And the possibility that, if she had had that kind of conversation, she might have made the distinction you’re concerned about.
If I hadn’t been hanging out here at BG, to see you working so hard to understand the people you disagreed with, and decided to try as hard as you did, it could have been me lumping the factions together.
I actually want to hear what your thoughts are about the rest of the essay. Whatever they are, they’ll have different stuff in them than mine.
Believe me, I know how annoying it can be to see a piece that misrepresents people like me, and be asked to try to set that aside and give at least temporary consideration to the ideas around the misrepresentation.
But you and I have a history of friendly and productive mutual annoyance, so I’m going to ask you anyway, because I really am curious about your take on Foz’s ideas about story and empathy.
Almuric, “secretly coordinating” isn’t something I said. I suggested influence in one direction. It’s a matter of public record that Brad and Larry were talking to VD in the run up to SP3, ditto Hoyt (probably others, but those are the ones I can recall confirming it right now). The inclusion of VDs own publishing house in SP3 is also a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean any SP were involved in designing the RP slate, but it is reasonable to infer VD influenced the SP slate.
If that’s not true, then it would be very easy to debunk by giving full details of how SP3 was put together. No SP leader has ever done so. Again, there’s a reasonable inference from that.
In short, Meadows didn’t actually say what you think she did about the SP – she didn’t call them Nazis and she didn’t say they were led by VD – and what she actually said is (IMO) reasonable. You’re free to disagree, of course, but please disagree with what she actually said.
@Sarah—That is a tall order but I’ll try. I think our friendship proved her point mote about empathy but we were both willing to listen. I don’t see Fox as seeking to understand but as demanding to be understood. She speaks to the audience using sympathetic example that leftists and #NeverTrump, Puppy Kickers, and sad clowns would understand in order for them to believe her point. Not everyone here is her target audience.
I would like Foz to lead by example and show us how empathy and self reflection work. How are we supposed to see the humanity and connect with the enemy. Personally, I don’t believe she believes a single word she preaches because it would be easy to pick a common enemy and do it…say…Vox Day, or the Sad Puppies, Torgerson or Correia. It would be easier to virtue signal with a sympathetic audience and demand that your enemy change than give any real meaningful example that her audience could use. It might be cowardice but I think she would rather be a fraud than demonstrate real leadership. I hope I am wrong but I don’t think she will.
It is ironic that she uses Goodkind’s character as an example. For all her talk of politics she misses that for years people tried to end the abuse by using reasonable measures but it took a hard headed character to end the abuse. She laments the rise of Trump and the UKIP and yet she cannot make a connection between Sad and Rabid Puppies. Fox, if you don’t like Vox Day you might want to rethink lumping the two Puppy camps together. What you are doing is pushing the two together and you risk making Rabids of them all. People did that with the Tea Party who were very reasonable but the left just had to make them all out to be white supremacists. If they only had empathy they might not be quaking in fear of what Trump is going to bring. Y’all brought Vox Day on yourselves. Empathy would have saved y’all a lot of heartache. Instead you obfuscate and alienate and end up looking more like tyrants than human beings. Walk the walk Foz. Show us how empathy is done. Be a leader.
Sad and Rabid Puppies – were in direct league initially, until Day saw an opportunity to promote himself and his press. It’s pretty obvious that Torgerson et al tried to distance themselves to some degree or other (if there was no obvious coordination, why the need to distance) and one author who was SP nominated (whose name escapes me at the moment) likened Torgerson’ attempts to deny the relationship as two people driving in the same car – what the passenger says is irrelevant.
The two groups were pretty much created at the same time, and have done NOTHING publicly to create any separation between them. If nothing else, they are fellow travelers who see the benefit of the other’s existence; Day can attempt to minimize his very personal nominations by pointing to another group doing the same thing, Sad Puppies the same.
The logos are the same, the conspiracy theory rantings are the same, the followers are largely the same and, again, when asked repeatedly to show some daylight between the two, the sad puppy spokespeople have refused to do so explicitly. (No need to ask Beale, he’d just respond with deliberately unspecific BS that he can later claim says anything he wants it to say.)
[…] December 11, Black Gate truncated its version of Meadows’ post. What remains now are two introductory paragraphs and a link indicating the rest can be read at […]
[…] this week, The Black Gate posted an article that included a libelous […]
[…] article originally appeared on the Blackgate magazine website. For a full explanation of its journey, please see the notes […]
[…] Foz Meadows – another writer who I’ve linked to previously, most notably for this piece at Blackgate that made baby-vox cry https://www.blackgate.com/2016/12/07/unempathic-bipeds-of-failure-the-relationship-between-stories-a… […]
[…] Day notes that he’s the subject of an article at the Black Gate that calls him a neo-nazi. He’s more than adequately capable of defending himself, and […]