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, October 10, 2014

Beyond the Bounds

"The love of Theory is the root of all evils." -- Wm. M. Briggs, Statistician to the Stars

A recent issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction announced itself as devoted entirely to “stories that deal with touchy themes or go beyond the bounds of Political Correctness.”

Now, while PC generally entrains touchiness, the converse is not true. Not all touchy subjects are politically incorrect. Indeed, to treat traditional values in a dismissive way is in many ways the hallmark of political correctness. This is because political correctness has little to do with adherence to the orthodoxy of any particular political creed. Rather, it is the bizarre notion that something must be correct because it is politically orthodox. It surfaced among Marxist "political officers" in the grand old days of the Soviet Union, and was most egregiously instanced in Lysenkoism. It is to be contrasted with the opposite process, by which something becomes orthodox because it is correct.

Now, a mater may be politically correct and factually correct at the same time and in the same way -- though usually not for the same reasons -- but the correspondence is not necessary. It may be politically correct without being factually correct or it may be factually correct without being politically correct. Hence, PC afflicts primarily those who derive their beliefs from Theory. Since they start from a realm separate from Facts, they often reach conclusions at odds with those Facts and, if so, so much the worse for the Facts. Those who come to their beliefs from a close observation of the world and of human behavior, are less susceptible (though not entirely immune). Hence, while the mal odour can be found everywhere, it can be sussed far more often in sociology departments than in engineering schools; more often among those who think from the brain out than among those who think from the senses in.

You see, from Theory we may deduce what the world must be like; but it is generally a helpful thing to check the ought against the is.

The F&SF issue was reviewed in Tangent Online and the transgressions of most of the stories were adumbrated. The reviewer wrote:
In other words, the issue contains stories selected for their potential to offend. ...  Offense potentially arises from religion (whether by re-writing it, or depicting what becomes of it in the post-apocalyptic future) to patriotism (draft-dodging?) to sexual matters (mostly non-heterosexual predilection, but also non-consensual acts).
One is quickly stuck by a notion: How transgressive is it to stand up and bravely face the applause of one's peers? Here are capsules from the review referring to the several stories. (In an instance or two, TOF could not make out what the touchy subject was supposed to be or wherein lay the daring political incorrectness, and these have been omitted.)
  • depicts a young undergraduate whose academic supervisor persuades him in the 1960s to undertake a drug-fueled journey into the future in order to hide, safe from arrest, until he can return without punishment for dodging his draft notice. 
  • presents an alternative to the Christian canon, told from the viewpoint of the carpenter who took over the shop when Yeshua retired to tell tall tales for small change. ... recasts Yeshua as a local entertainer whose beloved fiction became a bestseller in translation.
  • depicts a native American deity seeking work at the 1904 World’s Fair – held in St. Louis to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. White/government characters are parasites too thick to recognize the irony in their sanctimonious condescension of natives who observe them demonstrating the very traits they preach against.
  • the narrator’s animal-control work led to the deaths of little fuzzy animals, and he holds contempt for those who regard vermin as precious little fuzzy animals. But then (sniff) we learn he unnecessarily kills cats when induced by a profit motive – and he enjoys it. Then he’s indignant and angry at the trial witness who caught him on film.
  • The story’s connection to the issue’s theme of risk-to-offend doesn’t derive solely about making a book version of a movie [Noah] made from a holy book. Oh, no. But it’s obviously a send-up, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking serious offense
  • misogynist bully sociopaths or the kinds of people reliably found imbibing suds at frathouse parties
  • a story depicting nonconsensual sex acts and the kind of enslavement that makes national news when it’s discovered in the real world.
  • a science-fiction future in which achieved technology has rendered made-up technology obsolete – and apparently science fiction with it. ... On the way, it quietly proves we ought never stop thinking. And that’s good.
All of these actually sound like affirmations of the consensus reality within the world of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The only one that might get pushback from its own readers is the last one, regarding the obsolescence of science fiction itself. There will certainly be no sense of outrage over the suggestion that Christianity is based on a literary misunderstanding. Instead, there will be knowing nods and a hint of a smile. Contending that "we ought never stop thinking" is hardly a controversial theme.

Apparently, there are those who confuse "politically incorrect" with "uncomfortable to read." For example, including "nonconsensual sex." The idea that this might be shown in a positive (or even neutral) light would be horrifying. Hence, Huckleberry Finn gets banned because Twain used the n-word, even though the novel is a powerful plea for tolerance and human rights. People might object to the portrayal of a man who kills cats for [gasp!] the profit motive, but if he gets his comeupance in the end, what exactly is politically incorrect? If the author really wants to be transgressive, she might instead portray a cat-killer without rendering moral judgment, or even portraying his trial as an unjust oppression!

No one ever finds it difficult to transgress the boundaries set by others. It is only his own boundaries that causes him to shy as a dog from an invisible fence. Years ago, TOF audited a panel at Philcon that was supposed to discuss things that the Future™ would find horrifying about the present day. The panelists came up with a nice list of things of which they personally disapproved: smoking, for example. Of course the present day is busily eliminating that, but no one suggested the Future™ would be appalled at the oppressive micromanagement needed to do so. And you know that no one dared suggest the Future™ would ever regard abortion with horror. Even when challenged from the audience to name something going on today of which they personally approved but which they thought the Future™ might plausibly find repellant, they were unable to do so!

Samuel Butler once wrote:
"I attacked the foundation of morality in Erewhon and nobody cared two straws. I tore open the wounds of my Redeemer as he hung upon the Cross in The Fair Haven, and people rather liked it. But when I attacked Mr. Darwin they were up in arms in a moment." [cited in Lukacs, Remembered Past, p. 73-74.]
 And that is how one knows when he has crossed the border of political correctness. I look forward to the issue with stories that really challenge the dogmas of Late Modern SF readers.

Suggestions welcome.


  1. I think Scott Alexander's recent phrasing was most pithy: I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup

  2. You are forgetting the fundamental conviction about human psychology that drives most social-justice (SJ) criticism. Post-Marxist PC/SJ theory assumes that the human mind is so good at subconsciously retaining propositions that merely enduring sufficient *exposure* to an idea is sufficient to prejudice a statistically dangerous proportion of exposed minds into accepting it as a positive norm and good, even if the individual depictions are all superficially negative.

    In this theory, for example, if enough people watch enough horror movies involving violence against women, even if all the individual movies make it clear that this is evil and wrong, *some* of those people will eventually internalize the idea that "violence against women is common and normal, therefore acceptable, therefore I should have no problems doing it myself", thus perpetuating violence against women in fact. They believe, in other words, that *to depict is to endorse*, and so a story in which such violence simply *happens* is, they think, actually running a grave risk of perpetuating the problem it purports to criticize.

    The tragedy of this particular school of thought is that there is at least one area of popular imagery where they are not wholly wrong. The spread of extreme and easily accessible porn via the Internet *is* skewing our sexuality and our cultural psyche, in ways obvious to anyone who reviews the statistics even for a moment. But it is the hallmark of post-Marxist PC thought -- and, as John C. Wright has observed pace Lewis and Chesterton, of any kind of heresy -- that it takes one correct or good thing and sets it up as the Truth of All Good, with the inevitable cognitive distortions required to twist all the rest of reality into that theory.

    I myself have been working for a while on a fantasy novella set in a magical Renaissance Italy, where a rogue magician has worked out a way to cast healing magic via a machine that makes it much safer and easier to do -- but the machine requires nerve tissue from fetuses carrying mage-talent as a key component, which is why the mage-artificer has been paying a local abortionist for the products of his work with Italian noblewomen. Unfortunately, the spirits of the children thus aborted are very upset by this.... Thinking about it now, I have to admit I am despondent of this getting published anywhere today, but I should still probably finish it.

  3. I think about this some because of the popularity of (fictional) survivor stories, which often have ambivalent endings. It's pretty un-PC to suggest survival is "mere" survival, that as a Christian, anything less than healing & flourishing is inadequate as a model of human potential. (I blame Herman Melville for this.)

    This is probably related to my general objection to survivor/victim as a permanent identity. A really un-PC character development I'd like to see would be someone choose to leave the I'm-a-victim self-identification, not to become an awesome ass-kicker, but just to be normal. What's a happy ending? While I understand the objection to passive female protags in fairy tales, I've also thought the marry-the-prince ending meant she didn't just survive the Big Bad, but she then had a normal life doing normal things. I've always assumed that at some point, Little Red Riding Hood stopped getting the chills when she heard a wolf howl in the distance and just got on with her life.

    But how to do this...? this isn't about survivorship per se, but in the real world, several years ago I challenged the dogmas of a national cancer support group & let me tell you, as far as they were concerned I was Way Off The Script. No one was supposed to point out logical fallacies or stupidities in the mantras that struck me as even less rational than the aphorisms of the La Maze classes I'd just had. Challenging folks' self-congratulation can be even more dangerous than challenging their victimhood.

  4. "Even when challenged from the audience to name something going on today of which they personally approved but which they thought the Future™ might plausibly find repellant, they were unable to do so!"

    What a wonderful experiment! I can't wait to try this on different audiences. I imagine the reluctance to be self-critical can only grow, and so the willingness to question oneself will be the marker of intelligence.

    Which, I suppose, it always has been.

  5. Too easy.

    Seriously, are they for real? The approaches of most of these stories actually look like PC people's wet dreams!
    This is definitely not how you manage such a special issue.

    It took me one shower time to turn out with the gist of ideas that look to me far more convincing for such purpose. Maybe I should consider to have my genius recognised by writing such stories myself (/end[sarcasm], for no other good reasons that I never really wrote anything of the sort and that I am not a native English speaker... or a good trained one, for that matter)

    Anyway, here my 2 cents

    - In a space faring future humanity has culturally evolved being completely homosexual, with bisexualism and any sort of transsexualism or not binary gender feeling deprecated and psychiatrically "cured". Males and females form two separated societies, engaged in a full blown war, which revolves around the fact that gays have to enslave lesbians in order to inseminate them with their sons (daughters get immediately aborted) and lesbians need enough sperm-producing specimens (vice-versa), given the failure of the initially promising monosexual reproductive technologies.
    Just before an important conference between the parties to discuss a truce to further a bargaining, a special homo commando discovers the truth behind the quick rise of homosexuality started with 20th and 21th century and the extraordinary resilience of the normally inferior women forces: it all due to the subtle manipulation of an advanced alien species which started as sexual before evolving in an all-female one, and has striven with fanatical determination to forcibly bring humanity to the next step as well. (We'll call 'em the FemiAliens)
    Given that the aliens intend to show themselves to mankind and annihilate Y's resistance at the meeting, in a manly and ruthless move the men launch their surprise counterattack, in spite of diplomatic pledges, and triumph bot the aliens and the XXs.
    In an open finale the reader is left wondering whether the gays will now revert society to its original heterosexual nature, making sure that spouses stay subjugated to the men in order to eradicate forever the possibility of a new crisis.

    - A 23th century professor struggles to teach its college students the story of humanity's social organization. While no more than an hundred years before the whole world was falling in a state of decadence, disorganization and anarchy, the last public American research centrer made a breakthrough in computer-assisted genomic and social analysis, discovering that through emergent proprieties the antiquate concept of differently gifted races was pretty much accurate, and that the way to produce more physically and mentally fit humans is through limiting interbreeding. Thus the now resurgent USA organized themselves in a more scientific fashion, giving the privileges, power and social belonging according to the race. As such, thanks to advanced biometric measurements the White Caucasians were put on the top, some useful specialization was implemented for other classifications (as for the marvellous efficiency of Asians to bureaucracy maintenance), while plans of encouraged sterilization of the all-round defective Blacks were evaluated and the socially dangerous Jews were exiled. Soon, seen the immediate and drastic rise in life standards provoked by the new status, every other country imitated the method and the world became permanently a stable and pacific place.
    During the whole lesson the students continuously interrupt the teachers and even ridicule him, since they just can't comprehend how nobody had implemented this before and why on Earth the idea had encountered enormous resistances, in particular before the advent of supercomputer analysis.

    1. - Judge Jane Doe is facing a difficult decision.
      In a near future a group of nerdy men experimenting on themselves genetic recombination technologies with the aim of increasing their virility got their libido skyrocket beyond restrainable levels, and started kidnapping and raping women. However they also got the ability of making any woman they have sex with experience pleasure of an intensity unheard before, even if the contact was initially nonconsensual.
      When their unashamed actions got the attention of the civil authorities their trial became a mediatic sensation: all the "victims" vehemently argued than no harm was done, that it was not a criminal aggression but an enjoyable prank and that what happened interests only their private life.
      In the end, the judge can do nothing but release the group, which announces its intention of selling the treatment to anyone who wants it at a modest price.

      - In a society with omnipresent media and neural interfaces a female journalist uncovers the secret of the laws that apparently ensure full liberty of pre-natal and post-natal abortion. What actually happens is that any woman which express the intention of aborting her baby is sent to a standard medical guidance and, in the worst cases, to skillfully disguised psychiatric facilities, which through advanced psychological, neural and drug treatments positively restore their motherhood instinct. People are made unable to realize the fact that there has not been any abort since decades before by subtle media manipulation and fallacies exploitation.
      While she plans to announce her findings to the whole world, by looking at some old documents from before medical advancements made the system possible the journalist realizes that it makes people and society definitely more happy. After talking to her mother and realising that the system was directly responsible for her own birth, she decides to not make it public and to contact its heads to suggest how to hide the clues she had found.

      Of course any of these stories should be written as if it was a completely plausible and even likeable scenario.
      (Please note that I find such possibilities quite hideous and nightmarish, but that's the game).

      What to you think of these?

    2. Norman Spinrad already did the second one, didn't he?

    3. Honestly, I've got no idea... I don't follow SF literature very much...

  6. Why is it that theoretical and practical belief in evolution are in inverse proportions? Those who profess to believe don't notice that the future is going to look like the fertile.

    1. I agree that the politically correct are really stunningly bad about thinking straight about evolution. However, especially in the SF context, "the future is going to look like the fertile" is only unreliably true, because there are so many possible ways for radical tech change to outrace population change so that the ground rules change faster than any simple fertility trend can keep up with. In any future where you exclude that option, by authorial just-because unexplained fiat or by some device like Vernor Vinge setting off a major war to push the Singularity back by a generation, then sure, overlooking natural selection in humans is a huge conceptual embarrassment. But in a world where it turns out that HAL-9141 was powered on yesterday and is going to take about 2 months to learn more than an adult human, after which its state will be cloned into 400 copies each of which cost $100k to build and which think and learn about 30 times faster than a human, even someone who is stunningly confused about human population dynamics is unlikely to be wrong, because things are en route to change so fast that those dynamics are essentially statics for many purposes. It's like how even someone who's very very confused about continental drift can write a very detailed history of WWII or indeed the entire twentieth century without the confusion about continental drift causing much embarrassment.

  7. From what I read on Twitter, F&SF didn't offend anyone other than to have too many male and white authors involved in the project, and that gives one a clue as to what would really challenge SF's orthodoxy.

    Requires Only That You Hate wrote stuff that got her award nominations two years in a row under the aegis of WorldCon and Vox Day booted from the SFWA. It's obvious there are two completely different sets of principles at work depending on your devotion to radical feminism, race and gender. Here's a typical sample of Benjanun Sriduangkaew's blog work under her alias of ROTYH which was an open secret:

    "1. white man goes to Nepal and helps little children! Look at white man, is he not magnificent and virtuous? Why yes he is! Oh yes he is.
    2. white man tries to 're-create (sic) the original expedition to Machu Picchu.' Awww, isn’t that cute.
    3. white girl travels to South America and learns things about life. Deep, man, deep.
    4. white man's 'blow-by-blow account of [...] trip across Europe, the former Soviet Republics, Russia, China, Pakistan and India.' Oh wow, I bet he learns all kinds of amazing soul-deep truths about poverty and stuff. There's something about white man being made to eat sheep's brain. How exotic!
    5. white man does something unremarkable and trivial.
    6. white woman shits out some useless drivel 'set against the fascinating backdrop of modern China.'
    7. white woman and white man do boring shit.
    8. white woman travels to India. Having learned fuck-all about her destination, she is surprised at 'signs that life here is less Westernized than she’d counted on.' Oh man, she’s so culturally sensitive!
    9. white men do useless shit nobody should give a shit about, but many shits are given because, dude, white men! They are the most important people in the world, didn't you know.
    10. white man in New Mexico.

    " I haven't looked closely at the rest, but I’d be very surprised if they too aren't of the 'Adventures of Whitey the Mighty in Exoticland' flavor."

    One of ROTYH's posts alone has "Whitey McWhite," "Caucasoid," "Aryan" and "Ms Honky." Try writing something like that using the word "black" or "gay" and then watch the flood of recriminations come in.


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