I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.
Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.
On the one hand, you have a faction that is broadly left-wing in its politics and believes it has a mission to purge SF of authors who are reactionary, racist, sexist et weary cetera. This faction now includes the editors at every major SF publishing imprint except Baen and all of the magazines except Analog and controls the Science Fiction Writers of America (as demonstrated by their recent political purging of Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day). This group is generally frightened of and hostile to indie publishing. Notable figures include Patrick & Theresa Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi. I’ll call this faction the Rabbits, after Scalzi’s “Gamma Rabbit” T-shirt and Vox Day’s extended metaphor about rabbits and rabbit warrens.
On the other hand, you have a faction that is broadly conservative or libertarian in its politics. Its members deny, mostly truthfully, being the bad things the Rabbits accuse them of. It counteraccuses the Rabbits of being Gramscian-damaged cod-Marxists who are throwing away SF’s future by churning out politically-correct message fiction that, judging by Amazon rankings and other sales measures, fans don’t actually want to read. This group tends to either fort up around Baen Books or be gung-ho for indie- and self-publishing. Notable figures include Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Tom Kratman, John C. Wright, and Vox Day. I’ll call this group the Evil League of Evil, because Correia suggested it and other leading figures have adopted the label with snarky glee.
A few other contrasts between the Rabbits and the Evil League are noticeable. One is that the Evil League’s broadsides are often very funny and it seems almost incapable of taking either itself or the Rabbits’ accusations seriously – I mean, Correia actually tags himself the “International Lord of Hate” in deliberate parody of what the Rabbits say about him. On the other hand, the Rabbits seem almost incapable of not taking themselves far too seriously. There’s a whiny, intense, adolescent, over-fixated quality about their propaganda that almost begs for mockery. Exhibit A is Alex Dally McFarlane’s call for an end to the default of binary gender in SF.
There’s another contrast that gets near what I think is the pre-political cause of this war. The Rabbits have the best stylists, while the Evil League has the best storytellers. Pick up a Rabbit property like Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 and you’ll read large numbers of exquisitely crafted little numbers about nothing much. The likes of Correia, on the other hand, churn out primitive prose, simplistic plotting, at best serviceable characterization – and vastly more ability to engage the average reader. (I would bet money, based on Amazon rankings, that Correia outsells every author in that collection combined.)
All this might sound like I’m inclined to sign up with the Evil League of Evil. The temptation is certainly present; it’s where the more outspoken libertarians in SF tend to have landed. Much more to the point, my sense of humor is such that I find it nearly impossible to resist the idea of posting something public requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week. The screams of outrage from Rabbits dimwitted enough to take this sort of thing seriously would entertain me for months.
Alas, I cannot join the Evil League of Evil, for I believe they have made the same mistake as the Rabbits; they have mistaken accident for essence. The problem with the Rabbits is not that left-wing politics is dessicating and poisoning their fiction. While I have made the case elsewhere that SF is libertarian at its core, it nevertheless remains possible to write left-wing message SF that is readable, enjoyable, and of high quality – Iain Banks’s Culture novels leap to mind as recent examples, and we can refer back to vintage classics such as Pohl & Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants for confirmation. Nor, I think, is the failure of Rabbit fiction to engage most SF fans and potential fans mainly down to its politics; I think the Evil League is prone to overestimate the popular appeal of their particular positions here.
No, I judge that what is dessicating and poisoning the Rabbit version of SF is something distinct from left-wing political slant but co-morbid with it: colonization by English majors and the rise of literary status envy as a significant shaping force in the field.
This is a development that’s easy to mistake for a political one because of the accidental fact that most university humanities departments have, over the last sixty years or so, become extreme-left political monocultures. But, in the language of epidemiology, I believe the politics is a marker for the actual disease rather than the pathogen itself. And it’s no use to fight the marker organism rather than the actual pathogen.
Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.
People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.
The victims of literary status envy resent the likes of David Weber, and their perceived inferiority to the Thomas Pynchons of the world; they think the SF field is broken and need to be fixed. When they transpose this resentment into the key of politics in the way their university educations have taught then to do, they become the Rabbits.
The Evil League of Evil is fighting the wrong war in the wrong way. To truly crush the Rabbits, they should be talking less about politics and more about what has been best and most noble in the traditions of the SF genre itself. I think a lot of fans know there is something fatally gone missing in the Rabbit version of science fiction; what they lack is the language to describe and demand it.
That being said, in the long run, I don’t think the Evil League of Evil can lose. The Rabbits are both the beneficiaries and victims of preference falsification; their beliefs about where the fans want the field to go are falsified by their plummeting sales figures, but they can’t see past the closure induced by their control of the gatekeeper positions in traditional publishing. Meanwhile, the Evil League thrives in the rising medium of e-book sales, in indie- and self-publishing.
The Rabbits have a sort of herd-instinct sense that these new channels doom them to irrelevance, which is why so many of them line up to defend a system that ruthlessly exploits and cheats them. Contemplate SFWA’s stance in the Hachette-vs.-Amazon dispute. for example; it’s plain nuts if SFWA claims to be representing authors.
But it will be a faster, better, cleaner victory if the Evil League of Evil gets shut of political particularism (and I mean that, even about my politics) and recognizes the real problem. The real problem is that the SF genre’s traditional norms exist for very good reasons, and it’s time we all learned to give the flying heave-ho to people who fail to understand and appreciate that.
The right (counter)revolutionary slogan is therefore not “Drive out the social-justice warriors!”, it’s “Peddle your angsty crap elsewhere, lit-fic wannabes! Let’s get SF back in the gutter where it belongs!”