We have entered the age of the woke space opera where war crimes and mass slaughter are perfectly acceptable as long as they form part of a journey towards redemption and self-improvement.
Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.
The only means I have to stop ignorant snobs from behaving towards genre fiction with snobbish ignorance is to not reinforce their ignorance and snobbery by lying and saying that when I write SF it isn’t SF, but to tell them more or less patiently for forty or fifty years that they are wrong to exclude SF and fantasy from literature, and proving my argument by writing well.
Ursula K. Le Guin, in the interview “A Lovely Art”, published in The Wild Girls, from PM Press.
Writer Steve Rasnic Tem is interviewed in issue 269 of the SF magazine Interzone, the below is an extract:
UBO is an exploration of the roots of violence. Why does this theme intrigue you? What are the benefits, to both you as a writer and to your readers, of exploring violence?
I hate violence, the way it warps and diminishes us. Violence against ourselves, against each other, and against the environment. It’s what disturbs me most about humanity. And we are all affected by it in one way or another. And yet it’s not something I’ve written that much about. In my short story work I generally focus on subtle, more ghostly effects (the major exception being my collection Ugly Behavior), and my novel Deadfall Hotel certainly reflects that. Violence occurs in my southern gothic/horror novel Blood Kin, as you might expect, but except for a rather horrible scene witnessed through a crack in the door it’s mostly off stage violence. With UBO I wanted to write a meditation on violence – my biggest fear – in all its forms. I wasn’t proposing to “solve” anything exactly – I’m a writer of fiction, not a social scientific genius – I just wanted to take the reader through an interesting journey where we could contemplate some of the dynamics involved.
As for the benefits of such an exploration, well, that’s always hard to say isn’t it, when we’re talking about a work of fiction? On one level you’re trying to entertain with an intriguing story. And certainly that’s enough. But especially as I get older with fewer books I’m going to be able to read, and fewer books I’m going to be able to write, I want a little more out of my fiction. Most of us would rather avoid violence. Most of us – myself included – live our lives in ways to keep violence away from ourselves and our loved ones. For myself I keep violent people out of my life – I want nothing to do with them.
The reason to confront violence – as with all unpleasant subjects – is that you can’t really successfully avoid it. Violence will touch you – in small ways for most of us, in profound ways for those of us who are unlucky. At some point you have to find a way to deal with it. Violence touched me when I was a child, and it touched the lives of my adopted children before I knew them – and we still have to deal with the shockwaves of those experiences. And it touches all of us when our governments are involved in violent activities.
Our society isn’t great at empowering people. We’re generally not that great at raising our children to feel empowered. People who feel they are helpless against change, who feel they are denied the positive drama of love and accomplishment, tend to turn toward the ready drama of violence – whether they commit it themselves or they commit it via a surrogate (games and entertainment are one such surrogate, but politics and government are also surrogates, as are our tendencies to destroy and exploit the environment). The first step toward preventing horrifying things in ourselves is learning to acknowledge them in ourselves and others.
Actors often speak of the stress they experience when taking on “difficult” roles. Is there a similar toll on you as a writer when you try to get inside the head of people like Himmler, Jack the Ripper, Stalin etc? How do you cope with that sort of pressure?
The writing of fiction is often very close to the art of acting. So there is a similar toll when you climb inside the heads of some of these characters. And when I really started working on this novel every day we had two small children at home. So I’d spend hours inside the heads of these awful people, and then I’d go play and read stories with my four and five year old. It was too much. After a while I couldn’t do it anymore and put the book aside. After I picked it up again within a few months our son Anthony died, and I put it aside again, this time for decades (although I was always thinking about it, working it out in my head). I think it’s no accident that I didn’t finish UBO until both kids and grandkids were out of the house.
As far as coping, I’m generally a positive, optimistic guy. That may sound like a contradiction for a horror writer, but that kind of balancing act is what keeps me sane. I tend to see the world through a filter of humour, and I devour comedy – movies, stand-up routines, humorous writing etc – it’s a rare day that I don’t laugh out loud at least once.
I really didn’t want to write/think about A Little Life any more, but reading this interview, it was so striking; Rasnic Tem is a genre writer, a horror writer, and his take on violence is so much more intelligent and insightful than Yanagihara, a supposedly ‘literary’ author, who tells us how fun it is to write evil characters, that she ‘inhabits darkness joyfully,’ and makes grandiose claims about her ‘duty’ to write about child rape and self-harm in explicit, titillating detail.
I had never heard of Rasnic Tem before reading this issue of Interzone, the review of UBO does sound interesting (it calls it ‘required reading’), but I am not sure if I want to read it – if I do, it may turn out that I don’t like it, or don’t feel its violence to be justified. Rasnic Tem’s short story in the same issue of Interzone ‘The Common Sea,’ which I did like, is a gentle tail of environmental collapse, which doesn’t give any real clues about what UBO will be like to read.
It is also interesting to note that, in his guest editorial, Rasnic Tem uses the opportunity to talk about the environment and climate change. Yanagihara, on the other hand, uses her much wider platform to disseminate her dubious ideology about mental health and suicide.
I have serious doubts about the value of art, about its ability to affect the world. This is not something I have just started thinking about, but global political events over the last few years have made these doubts stronger. Reading A Little Life, ‘award winning literature’, that was garbage on every level, makes me doubt art has any real value at all, if it can ever be anything other than entertainment, escapism.
During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in – and which we lost – every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.
I used to distrust the term “literary SF” as a coinage employed pejoratively by SF militants, implying that as science fiction writers we should concentrate on turning out gristly, tech-based novels packed with abstruse conceits, since questions of character, language or formal aesthetics were irrelevant side-issues best left to the namby-pambies of the literary mainstream.
Recently, though, I’ve found this epithet creeping into my discourse more and more. If there is a better shorthand for describing a novel that uses the trappings of science fiction as fashionable upholstery rather than as an engine then I wish someone would enlighten me. I for one would have hoped that the increasingly widespread adoption of science-fictional concepts into the mainstream lexicon might have led to an integration of all the talents, a proliferation of novels in which literary excellence and speculative curiosity performed equal roles, thus opening the genre up to wider recognition and more broadly informed debate. What we seem to have instead is a steep rise in the number of hand-wavy novels that attempt to hide their literary blandness behind the woo factor of commercially commodified tropes, and in terms of their science fiction do absolutely nothing. […]
“Worldbuilding” is another science fictional term I have previously shied away from as representing a Tolkeinian ideal I would naturally react against. Yet the fact remains that if as a writer you are intent on constructing a literary polemic about an imagined future (or past, or alternate reality), then without a convincingly realised backdrop your argument is likely to flounder.
There is no rationale for any of this – no argument. I felt so frustrated by this illogic, I found myself positing that tired old science-fictional interrogative: how the hell did we get there from here?
Bradbury seems to think that the Oz books are disdained because they are considered “mediocre” by literary snobs (the same people who do not take seriously Science Fiction?). But I think that he is wrong. After all, since most American English teachers, librarians, and literary historians are not intellectuals how would any of them know whether or not a book was well or ill written? More to the point, not many would care. Essentially, our educators are Puritans who want to uphold the Puritan work ethic. This is done by bringing up American children in such a way that they will take their place in society as diligent workers and un-protesting consumers. Any sort of literature that encourages a child to contemplate alternative worlds might incite him, later in life, to make changes in the iron Puritan order that has brought us, along with missiles and atomic submarines, the assembly line at Detroit where workers are systematically dehumanized.
It is significant that one of the most brutal attacks on the Oz books was made in 1957 by the director of the Detroit Library System, a Mr. Ralph Ulveling, who found the Oz books to “have a cowardly approach to life.” They are also guilty of “negativism.” Worst of all, “there is nothing uplifting or elevating about the Baum series.” For the Librarian of Detroit courage and affirmation mean punching the clock and then doing the dull work of a machine while never questioning the system. Our governors not only know what is good for us, they never let up. From monitoring the books that are read in grade school to the brass hand-shake and the pension (whose fund is always in jeopardy) at the end, they are always on the job. They have to be because they know that there is no greater danger to their order than a worker whose daydreams are not of television sets and sex but of differently ordered worlds. Fortunately, the system of government that controls the school system and makes possible the consumer society does not control all of publishing; otherwise, much imaginative writing might exist only in samizdat.
Ray Bradbury makes his case for America’s two influential imaginative writers, Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator not only of Tarzan but of John Carter in the Mars series. “John Carter grew to maturity” (in pots?) “two generations of astronomers, geologists, biochemists, and astronauts who cut their teeth on his Barsoomian beasts and Martian fighting men and decided to grow up and grow out away from earth.” A decision that would never have been acceptable to our rulers if the Russians had not put Sputnik into orbit, obliging an American president of the time to announce that, all in all, it was probably a good thing for our prestige to go to the moon.
Bradbury then turns to “L. Frank Baum, that faintly old-maidish man who grew boys” (in a greenhouse?) “inward to their most delightful interiors, kept them home, and romanced them with wonders between their ears.” Through Bradbury’s rich style, a point is emerging: Inward to delightful selves. Kept them home. Romanced them. Wonders. Yes, all that is true. And hateful to professional molders of American youth. Boys should be out of the house, competing in games, building model airplanes, beating each other up so that one day they will be obedient soldiers in the endless battle for the free world. Show us a dreaming boy (or girl) at home with a book, and we will show you a potential troublemaker.
Got in post re-issue of WAS from Small Beer Press. Damn fine novel if I do say so myself. Wish I was still that writer.