A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, December 27, 2013

Crimes Committed Inside Other People's Heads

A intriguing comment on another writer's blog responds to the plaint that too few today read or even know of the seminal works in fantasy and science fiction. The anonymous commenter writes :
so much of what is Classic or Seminal in this genre (along with many others) is problematic or inadequate in some fashion. You mentioned the sexism in one story, which is enough to keep me from reading it. You can get past it, perhaps, because sexism doesn't affect you the way it would me. And that's fine and I'm not pointing fingers and calling you a name, I'm just saying it would be a bigger problem for me.

And then there's racism, homophobia, antisemitism, and any number of other bigoted attitudes lurking in those old stories and stories. No, thanks.

Then there's the issue of how much early SF/F is decidedly Western. Euro-centric, US-centric, and all about the superiority of anglo white men. These days there are so many amazing novels and stories that arise out of non-European/non-Western modes of thinking and folktales or myths, why would I bother soaking myself in a history that erases or ignores such things?

I agree that an understanding of the history of this genre is important, but that doesn't mean having to actually read that stuff. 
Sure, and it is a burdensome life when even the act of reading fluffy entertainment and adventure stories must be a political act. To the contrary we have the well-known dictum of M.Tullius Cicero, in Orator Ad M. Brutum:
"Nescire autem quid antequam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum."
("To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.")

Crimes Committed Inside Other People's Heads

Now, in defense of Unknown Commenter, life is too short to waste it reading stuff you just don't like. That is how your typical high school student feels about Silas Marner (with good reason) and Julius Caesar (with less).  In fact, it's how most people feel about SF in general. However, Unknown has come up with a reason for nonlectitation that enables him (or her) to feel morally smug about it.

But TOF notes that s/he has reached her state of ignorance in the F/SF classics without any actual first-hand knowledge of that body of work. She has not read it and found it politically wanting; she expects it to be politically incorrect and will not read it. Not only does she hold the old authors responsible for their thought-crimes, but for the thought-crimes they have committed inside her own head.
NB: TOF has converged pari passu on the second declension pronoun "she" by proofing on the text: You can get past it, perhaps, because sexism doesn't affect you the way it would me. This is the familiar gnostic plea of special knowledge or at best the Avicennian claim to the "double-truth." Fortunately, she is not pointing fingers and calling ... name[s], an assertion of cognitive privilege, much as a woman of another age might have said of a sister, "I'm not calling her a harlot and a tramp, but *I* would not do such things." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
The Catholic Church is a much kinder judge, for she does not hold one guilty of grave sin unless one has formed the intention of actually committing it. But here we have an entire epoch of writers of escapist romances condemned for offenses that Unknown only believes that they must have committed. This is a second aspect of the Condemnation, which we may call...

The Triumph of Theory

One finds much discussion in academic circles of something called Theory. This is especially common in such things as Studies Studies. Here we have "Post-colonial Theory," "Queer Theory," "Feminist Theory," and so on, all to be discussed with grave sobriety. This is not to say there is nothing substantive to any of it -- there is -- but all too often theory seem to be used a priori as a prism through which one may view the facts.

Birth of Theory
Of course, one views certain facts through the prism of Maxwell's Theory, also. But while the scientist's claim to view the world with total objectivity is a bucket of fimum equi, it remains that electronic devices built to Maxwell's Theory actually work as predicted. Scientific theories are in large measure derived from careful examination of facts. Other sorts of theory seem to emerge by a sort of parthenogenesis.

This is exemplified by Unknown, who simply knows that the fantasy and science fiction she does not bother to read is all full of sexism, racism, homopobia, antisemitism, and other sorts of cooties.

Find this book and read it. TOF 
knows one of the authors pretty well.
Now, if you would like to read a book that really is racist and anti-semitic, there is a futuristic adventure called The Turner Diaries, which describes a rebellion of "true whites" against ZOG, the Zionist Occupation Government,* in which the Jews and their "black dupes," along with the "weak whites," are slaughtered by the really-truly patriotic whites. But be sure to have plenty of eye-wash to clean your eyeballs afterward. It will turn your blue eyes brown.
(*) ZOG. When the FBI raided the compound on Whidby Island in which the white supremist Bob Matthews immolated himself, some of the agents wore baseball hats with ZOG embroidered on the crown. Who says the FBI has no sense of humor?
Now read The Worm Ourobouros or From the Earth to the Moon and tell us how racist and such they are. But Theory says they must have been, and so the text must be searched... and by golly they find it.

The Perils of Presentism

There is a problem-solver's adage that runs:
If the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

which we may reformulate here as:
If your heartfelt theory is a hammer, you tend to see nails wherever you look.

Now what does Unknown mean when she says that racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, ismism, and other bigoted attitudes are "lurking" in old fantasy and science fiction? They are "lurking" because, unlike The Turner Diaries, they are not especially evident. You have to hunt for it. But here we run into the Perils of Presentism.

Presentism is the disposition to view the past through the mental categories of the present. It is the spirit of any age to believe itself the pinnacle of Human Enlightenment, and so the Late Modern views the past with no sense of irony regarding how the future might one day view the present. But it distorts the past to apply the categories of the present.  
Exemplia gratia: The Romans of the Late Imperium were famously libertine in their sexual behaviors. Late Moderns, whose obsession with pelvic issues is well known, see in this a direct link between the glory that is themselves and the grandeur that was Rome. Neither of them is Uptight like them moralistic and [gasp] judgmental Christians. Except that the Romans would have viewed the modern hook-up culture with horror and disgust. While it is true that they did not want any taboos to come between a man and the enjoyment of his penis, they were free with sex, not sexed with the free. That is, their sexual objects in the main were slaves, boys, prostitutes, and Those Who Cannot Say No. They did not take sexual liberties with women of their own class.
In this regard, it is useful to note with Peter Brown, "Rome: Sex and Freedom" that "scholars in the field began to appreciate the strangeness of the Romans, in matters of sex as in so much else, starting in the late 1960s." Ah, the Sixties. What a time it was. We started to get sex on the brain, and therefore began to appreciate the strangeness of Roman sex.  "A man hears what he wants to hear," wrote the prophet Simon, "and disregards the rest."*
(*) Na na na nana na na na nana na na naaah.

Yes, But

Helpless female waiting to be rescued
by Big Strong Male
One does oft find stereotypes in older fiction. The same is true today; only the stereotypes are different.  "Write what you know" is an old adage, and most writers in the Golden Age of Skiffy did not know any people from the Enlightened 2010s. Maybe they should have. They were writing about the future, after all. But recall how many writers in the 70s wrote of a future that was all sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, because that was the milieu in which they knew.

The estimable John C. Wright recently wrote a series of posts provocatively entitled Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters. The Late Modern, obsessed with formality can often not get beyond the words to the subject matter, and so will have a knee-jerk reaction to his title, and without the knee.  But among several interesting points, Mr. Wright makes the following: that women in pulp and serial fiction of the 30s and 40s tended not to be dumb blondes. Those came in the 50s with the Marilyn Monroe cult. Of particular interest is his parade of pulp-mag covers from the earlier decades which shows a preponderance of kickass women.

1954: Demure stay-at-home
mom providing poor role model
Golden Age young girls.
It is also the case that simply because a female character does not conform to today's stereotypes does not mean that the portrayal is ipso facto sexist.  In reader discussions of Game of Thrones, the character Arya, a young girl, is often praised as "kickass," while her sister Sansa is disparaged for being a wuss. But when one thinks on it more, Arya is praised and Sansa dispraised precisely in proportion as they behave like boys.  A freer thinker than some might wonder whether it is sexist to thus privilege masculinist behavior.

1957: Helpless female Martha
Dane translates extinct
Martian language
This is one problem with presentizing the past. Folks of that era might read our own portrayals of masculinized women and regard us as the sexist ones for devaluing feminine values.

So's Yer Old Man

Much the same can be said of the portrayal of other protected classes in classic SF.  The hero of Black Amazon of Mars, Eric John Stark, despite the cover art above, is clearly described in the text as black, and is running guns to natives oppressed by imperialist-colonialist Earth.  Rod Taylor, the protagonist of Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, is a black teenager -- although art directors have steadfastly refused to portray him as such.

They lightened his skin for the actual cover art!
(And yes, Heinlein intended that he be a black HS student.)
Now the point is not that such characters were two-a-penny, but that classic SF was not relentlessly "sexist, racist, homophobic, or antisemitic." The most that can be said is that they were not always depicted according to modern sensibilities. What some people cringe at today was actually cutting edge progressive at the time.  "Omnilingual" portrayed a woman scientist on Mars, competing with other scientists to be the first to crack the Martian language, but no one in the story makes any issue over her being female, either to praise or condemn. It's just a fact. But Late Modern readers are likely to obsess over the women in the expedition being referred to as "girls." As in fact my mother referred to herself and her cronies: it was just the way of speaking in the 1950s, and did not have the same connotations to the people at that time as academics now suppose by parsing the term. (There is that emphasis on words, again.)  Everyone in "Omnilingual" is smoking and drinking cocktails, too.  In a way, that seems even more jarring to Late Modern puritans.
Try watching old episodes of Perry Mason, if you have a cable channel for "old time TV." You will notice that very few of the female characters are shown as weak or silly. But they are often called "girls" and everyone smokes and drinks.
1974: "Catalyst Run" featured a
black trucker whose blackness

was not essential to the story.

That's liberation.

Last Night I Met Upon the Stair...

Classic SF, while sometimes featuring cardboard stereotyped portrayals, seldom featured genuinely nasty or degrading ones.  In fact, a common complaint regarding Golden Age SF is that all characterizations were cardboard stereotypes!

Without having made a study of the matter, the impression is that classic genre SF was rather more ahead of the curve on the Other compared to the mainstream.  Compare the popular coon songs of the turn of the century:
A friend in college had an old Edison machine and a collection of cylinders. One particular song (1907) turned out to be titled "If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon." I kid you not. My friend giggled in embarrassment -- He giggled a lot -- and said, "Isn't that awful?" 
Well, yes. It was.

But more often than not, in SF it was the absence that mattered.  No black characters that TOF knows of were portrayed as Sambos or chicken thieves. The real problem was that not many were portrayed at all.

The vast majority of the readership of SF back in the day consisted of white boys. And since protagonists are generally of the same age or a decade older than the target audience, most of the characters tended to be white boys or twenty-somethings. You won't find a lot of old fart main characters in genre fantasy or science fiction back then, either. That's not age-ism. That's marketing.

Census Takers

But this raises a philosophical question: Is one guilty of ism if one does not portray a particular class of character? Nowadays, authors are expected to make sure the requisite proportions of designated classes are portrayed in their fiction and to self-criticize if they fall short. (In Catholic convents, this was called the Chapter of Faults.) Not too long ago, Battlestar Galactica was criticized for not having any overtly homosexual characters, and the producers duly tugged their forelocks and made obeisance. No one was so rude as to mention "artistic freedom." Back in the 60s this sort of thing was called "tokenism," so such "inclusiveness" can be judged as enlightened or cynical depending on viewer discretion.

But how far does it extend? Up to 4% of modern women suffer from bulemia.  A similar percentage of the population engage in kleptomania. Does this mean that a like percentage of our fictional characters should be portrayed as such?

That depends on the purpose of the fiction. Kleptomania may be a distraction from the Story Purpose, even if one out of twenty-five characters "ought" to be kleptos. The fictional universe may not be a representative sample of America-2013. This is especially the case when the fiction is set in the future, the past, or another world. Or it may comprise a specialized class which for one reason or another reflects a different profile. (A story set in a science lab, for example, may have more Indian or Chinese characters, including foreign-born, than one set in the general population.) Hence, writers of classic F/SF may be guilty of nothing more than writing what they were familiar with.

One wonders whether the objective is to staff one's fiction with the requisite roster of designated persons -- or to be applauded for doing so.


Unknown made the addition comment:
Then there's the issue of how much early SF/F is decidedly Western. Euro-centric, US-centric, and all about the superiority of anglo white men. 
Classic SF often dealt with science, and science was a decidedly Western, European invention; so the charge must stand as inevitably true. For a very long time virtually all SF was written by Western, European, and American writers for the simple reason that that was where Science-with-a-capital-S was happening.

However, this is not "about" the "superiority" of "anglo" white men. (Some protagonists in these older stories were actually Irish or even French,  rather than Anglo.)  The superiority of white men cannot be a theme unless non-white men are featured, and as previously asserted, they are not. Folks like Unknown often confuse "accomplishment" with a sort of generic "superiority," so when Verne envisaged a voyage From the Earth to the Moon as being made by Americans launching from Florida, it is simply an accomplishment of certain people living in a certain milieu, not necessarily a statement that Americans were "superior." It is hard to imagine any such launch in the early 1900s by non-Western people. It hasn't been done yet; although the Chinese claim to be working on it. (A China that has been "Westernizing.")

Jules Verne also wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas and The Mysterious Island featuring Captain Nemo, an anti-imperialist crusader who, as Prince Dakkar, was the son of an Indian rajah. How does this genius inventor and activist demonstrate "anglo" superiority? In Verne's The Mysterious Island, one of the five main characters who escape their Confederate captors is Neb:
During this time Cyrus Smith was rejoined by a devoted servant. This man was a negro, born upon the engineer's estate, of slave parents, whom Smith, an abolitionist by conviction, had long since freed. The negro, though free, had no desire to leave his master, for whom he would have given his life. He was a man of thirty years, vigorous, agile, adroit, intelligent, quick, and self-possessed, sometimes ingenious always smiling, ready and honest. He was named Nebuchadnezzar, but he answered to the nickname Neb.
 It's hard to see this as being about anglo superiority, too. The white boys who read this book back in the day would have finished it with a subtly-induced favorable impression of the adroit, intelligent Neb. (This is a technique used also by Heinlein, who often let his young readers "identify" with a character only to later reveal him as black or Filipino or Maori.)

The case of fantasy is less clear-cut. But one may ask if whether the mythos of The Worm Ourobouros or The Moon Pool may seem derived somehow from European myth, this is so terrible a thing. They correspond in fact to no particular European myths. The projected readership was certainly European, and it would seem contrary to place more obstacles in the reader's path than necessary.

Unknown concludes by saying:
These days there are so many amazing novels and stories that arise out of non-European/non-Western modes of thinking and folktales or myths, why would I bother soaking myself in a history that erases [sic!] or ignores such things?
No doubt there are many such non-Western mythoi. But Chinese folktales, myths, and "modes of thinking" surely "ignore" the exploits of Haruman or Coyote or the voyages of Sinbad. It's one thing to broaden one's horizons or (more satisfyingly) criticize others for failing to do so; but it always seems a bit like those Ko-ko complained of: "the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/All centuries but this, and every country but his own." 

It is a peculiarity of the West to take an interest in non-Western cultures. One does not find Nigerian writers exploring the mythoi of the Chinese; nor Chinese writing of Arabic tales. Thus, to take interest in other cultures is simply one more aspect of a Western outlook. So much so, that confused minds will reflexively criticize those who do as "exploiting" the culture of the Other. (This provides the satisfactory state of damning those who do not employ non-Western cultures and those who do.  A win-win situation.)

In summation, the words of Paul D.Miller in "Book Hunters in the New Dark Ages" (The City, Fall 2013):
Academia dismisses the literature and philosophy of dead white men as patriarchal, imperialistic, sexist, racist, and homophobic -- and it is precisely because of this dismissive attitude that much of academia is the chatter of barbarians, and is in large part responsible for no one reading great books anymore. To be sure, some great literature is sexist and racist, but much isn't. Go read and find out for yourself.

(Some grammatical corrections and clarifications added: 12/30/13)


  1. 'You can get past it, perhaps, because sexism doesn't affect you the way it would me. This is the familiar gnostic plea of special knowledge or at best the Avicennian claim to the "double-truth."'

    You make some fair points, but I wouldn't quite agree with this. If someone with allergies says, "You can get past it, perhaps, because strawberries don't affect you the way they do me," she isn't claiming special and superior knowledge, or asserting that what is true in science is false in religion, but pointing out that she is allergic to strawberries, and I am not.

    I don't know how many of the "classic" SF tales for which she expresses disapproval Unknown has actually read -- too few, it may be -- but she may be more sensitive than some of us to having her reading enjoyment spoiled by the racism, sexism etc. to be found in some old stories, which doesn't make her a horrible person.

    1. she may be more sensitive than some of us to having her reading enjoyment spoiled by the racism, sexism etc. to be found in some old stories, which doesn't make her a horrible person.

      No, but it makes her an uninformed person, and likely to remain so, because she has determined in advance that she will not read the most influential works in her chosen field unless she is assured in advance by her ideological preceptors that they will contain no ideas which she may find offensive. Science fiction has deep roots in satire; it has always lived by slaughtering sacred cows. You simply cannot learn anything useful about the field without exposing yourself to ideas that you do not personally agree with and are certain not to like. To attempt it would be as futile as trying to swim without getting wet.

    2. It is well-known in metrology that an instrument that is more sensitive to a substance will not only detect is more often in smaller quantities, but will even detect it when it isn't there.

      Is it here: And if so, where is it? (There are three or four sources.)

      Many women used to have similar attacks of "the vapors" when exposed to locker-room language; but I'm not sure that nurturing such a reaction is a plus.

      The problem with using the same term to cover milder and milder instances, including eye-of-the-beholder incidents, is not that it elevates the importance of such things, but that it devalues the importance of genuinely ugly incidents.

    3. I had a friend who was upset with the almost total absence of women in the movie Master and Commander. I told her that it was true to the time, but she was unmoved. There are people like that, and I do my best to avoid them.

  2. This was absolutely outstanding. I might end up bookmarking it (like I did this classic post of yours:

    You are indeed a terrific writer, and these gems are a joy to read.

  3. "The Catholic Church is a much kinder judge, for she does not hold one guilty of grave sin unless one has formed the intention of actually committing it"

    Technically one can be also be guilty of grave sin by committing it in a state of supine or affected ignorance. Merely vincible ignorance doesn't do it -- if you made a not quite reasonable effort to know what you should do, it does mitigate your guilt -- but if you made no effort at all, either out of sloth or fear of what you would find out, or worse, avoided learning, you can be just as guilty as if you acted with full knowledge. Possibly more so.

    Given that the PC complaints would require superhuman knowledge, it doesn't exactly save their case.

    1. You may have identified the reason why political correctness conditions those indoctrinated with it to ignore sources of knowledge that may challenge their preconceptions. This obdurate ignorance insulates them from guilt and instills an unearned sense of moral superiority.

      Mr. Flynn wrote well when he invoked neo-puritanism. Many of Unknown's ideological brethren profess intellectual freedom yet are far more wanton with accusations of heresy than the Index or Inquisition ever were.

    2. Chesterton once wrote in his own time that the Church, when she had accused someone of heresy at least took some pains ahead of time to have spelled out publicly what the heresy consisted of.

  4. Do you occasionally get books thrust upon you as a corrective to your future dead white man status by the zealous?

    I ask because a few times women have tried to undo my supposed mental colonization by putting books in my hands *because* they were written by women and/or "Others." This is especially true of SF. For example, an acquaintance was scandalized I didn't know Octavia Butler and then more scandalized I wasn't much impressed after reading the proffered volumes. So I wonder if anyone's tried to impose on you the same way.

    1. Octavia Butler is a very good writer, though not to everyone's taste; but the same is true of many writers. To read her works because she is a woman is to devalue her work -- much as Sally Ride was irritated at the fuss made over her being a woman rather than her being a physicist and astronaut.

      There is a wide variety of women authors in SF, going back to Sophie Wenzel Ellis, C.L.Moore, "Andre Norton," Pauline Ashwell, Zenna Henderson, E.M.Hull, Sylvia Jacobs, Katherine MacLean, Anne McCaffrey, Vonda N. McIntyre, "James Tiptree," ... more recently, Elizabeth Moon, Amy Bechtell, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Julia Ecklar, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, and many others. None of them have any need to demand readership because they are women. Their fiction speaks for itself.

      (But we do note that early on some writers felt they had to adopt masculine names or ambiguous initials!)

  5. It could be I'd appreciate Butler now more than I did then, during a stretch of several yrs. I wasn't reading (or watching) sci-fi at all.

  6. In my youth, visited a group of Dominican seminarians, one of whom quipped, during a discussion of the fairly rigorous education they were undergoing: "I can't wait to be ordained so I never have to learn anything again!"

    While he was being witty (and poking fun at his instructors, most of whom were priests) it seems in much of academia in general the implied rule does apply: once the designated rules and filters have been mastered in a process known by the Orwellian tag 'critical thinking', the subject human is freed from actually learning anything. Every zebra in the herd will explain how they independently and freely arrived at exactly the same conclusions as the rest of the herd, and just so happen to be going in the same direction.

    The richest irony is contained in contrasting the goals of education as expressed by the founders of our system with the exalted opinions of the their own enlightenment held by the products of the education so designed: “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” - William Torey Harris, US Commissioner of Education, 1889 - 1906.

    The 1 out of 100 who does comply is more likely to be found fixing your car (a completely honorable and necessary task) than anywhere in academia, which is, after all, the fire in which such conformity is forged.

  7. This comment on the triumph of Theory over Fact has appeared elsewhere:

  8. Camille Paglia, feminist iconoclast, is no fan of Feminist Studies which involves Theory over practical reality:

    A "good read" is apparently not a criterion to consider above a Quota System of Characters and Party-Line Plot Elements.

    My late aunt was a founding member of NOW in South Jersey. She left, she told me, when the "man-hating, radical lesbians" took over the organization. Economic and political equality as a goal, she expanded, was not enough for them: they sought dominion.


  9. I was sitting in a shop one day working on molding chocolate. At a table near me was an ideological high school student jabbering about the nature of the book she was writing. She was making sure that all the mythological creatures in her book were based on REAL mythological creatures.

    1. REAL as opposed to.... Hmm.

      Did she ensure that she used mythological creatures from an assortment of non-Western mythoi?

      If she did not do so, she is guilty of Euro-centrism.
      If she did, she is guilty of "appropriating" indigenous cultures.

      It's a win-win situation for the guilt industry.

    2. Everything is win-win for the guilt industry. All it takes is a study of Spin City.

  10. Let's be forgiving at this time of year and say maybe your intriguing commentators experience of 'seminal works in fantasy and science fiction' is based on old movies and TV shows viewed in his/her youth rather than from any 40's/50's written genre novels we consider classics.
    That might explain a lot.

    1. An interesting point: movies and TV tended to be more backward than print.

  11. "Up to 4% of modern women suffer from bulimia. Does this mean that a like percentage of our fictional characters should be portrayed as such?"

    I think it would be fantastic if they got the number of women on television who look bulimic or anorexic down to 4%. What is it at the moment? 90%? 95%?

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I have this belief that I learned things from books like Hole in the Sky.

    1. It is better to be scared and alive than to be brave and dead.
    2. Not having a gun is a good way to not show up at a gunfight with a knife.
    3. Horses don't need supply lines.