a glimpse of progress

“The throne is empty and we are orphans. What shall avail us now?”

~from Lucifer, the graphic novel by Mike Carey

This weekend I read about the #SadPuppies campaign, which is an effort to take back the Hugo (prestigious scifi/fantasy awards) from the clutches of politically correct “SJWs” (that’s social justice warriors, and it’s an epithet). I have a more than passing interest in the genre, but I am no trufan. I haven’t read any new works of scifi this year, for starters. While perusing #puppygate, this tweet gave me pause. It reads:

My personal favorite on there is Robert Heinlein. Hypothetical question, if Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in 2014, could he get on the Hugo ballot now? Or would he be labeled as a fascist with troubling ideas, and a product of the neo-colonial patriarchy?

I don’t know about Starship Troopers. It seems to have some genuinely interesting ideas about the Polity and the Individual’s relation to it that can’t be dismissed as mere fascism. I definitely found it too militaristic for my liking, but hey, I’m a pacifist. I do, however, wonder about Stranger in a Strange Land, one of Heinlein’s other Hugo winners. S P O I L E R to follow for whatever that’s worth for a 50-some-year-old book.

There is a kind of enlightenment that the characters in the book undergo once they start taking the Martian’s way of life seriously. As they do this, the women (but not the men) all begin to literally look and act the same as one another. The enlightened men maintain their distinct personalities (not to mention body shapes), but the women all become young, attractive copies of one another. And it’s clear from the free love aspect of the Martian’s ethos that the main purpose of the women is to act as sexual furniture for the men, with no serious life projects beyond this. Add to this a famous line by one of the female characters that nine tenths of the time women are partially at fault for rape and it amounts to an outrageously misogynistic book.

If Stranger in a Strange Land were written in 2014, I sincerely hope it would not make the Hugo ballot, even if the plot and every other aspect of the storytelling were original and compelling. The values conveyed by a novel are a fundamental part of that novel. If those values are wrong or repulsive, then that has to reflect on our total evaluation of the book. A novel is supposed to tell us something about the human condition–scifi and fantasy novels usually tweak that condition in some ingenious way and we watch the consequences fall out–but if the book gets the human moral condition vastly wrong, then it has simply failed as a novel, much as it would fail by having cardboard characters or a boring, hole-riddled plot.

Now, quickly before I’m misunderstood. Of course Stranger in a Strange Land shouldn’t be banned. Banish the thought! And it shouldn’t be stricken from the Hugo pantheon or “corrected” or suffer any other kind of hideous revisionism. And it should be continue to be read. Other scifi authors since Heinlein have read his works and their own contributions to the genre comprise a vast conversation, spanning generations. Stories are told today because other stories were told yesterday. Blotting out the bits we later discover to be embarrassing mistakes will prevent us from learning from those mistakes.

So what do I mean to say? I make no claim to non-partisanship in this scuffle. I’m an SJW straight through to my cold, dark, twisted heart. Sapient individuals (or morally relevant agglomerations) of all (or no) genders, races/species, religions, sexualities, national/planetary origins, and life-sustaining subtrata deserve the positive liberty to formulate and execute their life plans free from hostile interference, and they also deserve the presumption of dignity, defeasible only by evidence of failure to extend similar dignity and liberty to other sapient (or sentient?) life-forms. As these values (continue to) take over society, we will see fewer awards going to works where a small ethnic subset of a population of humans gets all the principal protagonist roles. There will be fewer stories where the histories and struggles of marginalized groups will be conveniently swept under the rug for the ease of storytelling. More books will be written where the lives and perspectives of all of (trans)humanity will be given voice, and more ears within the audience will be receptive to these perspectives. And yes, the video games of the future will be altogether less bedecked with the bodies of dead sex workers.

What then will we do with the great works of the past that, at least in moral terms, have failed to speak beyond their time? And what will we do with the authors and artists who fail posterity in this way? This is a constant, burning question for the moral entrepreneur, who believes moral progress is possible; the very reality of that moral progress turns the past into an eerie country inhabited by ghouls. Sacrifice realism and we trivialize our ability to condemn the worst monsters. Keep realism and our heroes appear before us with bullseyes on their foreheads for every revisionist with a vendetta. Robert Heinlein had a juvenile, sexist disrespect for women and the American Founding Fathers owned slaves.

We can try to lessen our need for heroes. We can try to focus on understanding the virtues of our heroes, and salvage something precious from Fallen souls. Or maybe wrestling honestly with this tension might just be our fate, the best we can do, impaled as we are on the horns of dilemma. Or perhaps our task is to realize that our progress, moral and otherwise, has been made possible by those who have come before us; our conjective with the past is our scaffolding. If we see further than our predecessors, it is not because we have stood on the shoulders of giants, but because we have constructed a rickety tower out of crooked corpses.

2 thoughts on “a glimpse of progress

  1. Dallas

    I’ve never read Stranger in a Strangeland, so I have to ask. What makes you think the book is actually *promoting* the idea that women are sex objects? You say that women in the group of Earthlings that adopt the Martian way of life become carbon copies of each other whose only purpose is to sexually please the mean of the group. Okay. That does sound like a very sexist group of people. But just because the book depicts sexist people doesn’t mean it is actually promoting those values.

    I ask this question because I think there is a big difference between “depiction” and “endorsement” that often gets ignored when trying to evaluate books or movies through a political lense.

    An example I’m more familiar with is Pulp Fiction. Just last year the New Statesman ran a piece on how this 20 year old film is racist and homophobic. I’d disagree. The film features racist and homophobic characters, but it never actually tries to promote those views as worthy of adoption.

    It’s true that this movie isn’t a morality tale where all the racist characters either meet bad ends or learn their lessons. But that is okay, imo. One of the joys of being an adult is being able to read books and watch movies that don’t have straight-forward moral lessons like you get in Sunday School.

  2. paulcrider

    There’s definitely a difference between depiction and promotion. I think it’s clear from the messianic nature of the Martian character that he speaks more or less with the author’s voice. Short of reading the book yourself, I can only recommend you ask other folks their opinions on the matter. For what it’s worth, I agree with your assessment of Pulp Fiction.

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