For a number of reasons I have limited time in which to blog, so most of this stuff is “shooting from the hip” – typed as fast as I can, and with little time for revision and correction. So I sometimes leave things out.
This is a follow on of my post on the “Sad Puppies” stuff. What I forgot to add is that preachy political clichés are always fatal to good art. Or even passable, “let’s read it because there’s nothing better to do” art.
Since I usually rag on the left, let me start with a couple of examples from broadly my side of the political spectrum. Zoltan Istvan – in addition to having one of the most badass names in the world and having a life story to back a lot of that up – is someone I am in complete accord with on a number of issues, starting with the fact that the biggest problem today is that people keep dying, to the tune of a hundred thousand a year, from something completely unnecessary, namely aging.
This does not change the fact that his book, The Transhumanist Wager is unreadable. I mean – I’ve tried, but I cannot make any headway. Mary Sue – Marty Stu? – is the least of it.
Second example, Dan Simmons. Great writer – anyone who says that Hyperion is a bad book doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Song of Kali is another astonishing work, along with most of his other books.
With one glaring exception: Flashback. Now I happen to agree with most the political themes mentioned in the book – that US debt is going to lead to something really horrible unless drastic measures are taken, that Islam is a filthy menace. It’s still a rotten book, because it declares, completely unironically, that all this is a major disaster only because of the election of Barack Obama, and hammers this home with all the subtlety of a mallet.
Again, you don’t have to be a lefty to find that insane. Yaron Brook argued, far more convincingly, that the beginning of US and broader Western appeasement of Islamic aggression is with George Herbert Walker Bush’s wimping out infront of the Ayatollah Khomeni’s Rushdie fatwa.
Just to make the point in another way, Simmons wrote a short story that was truly amazing – The Time Traveler. I still recommend it as the best introduction as to why Islam is a threat. It’s also an illustration how you can put the same point across in fiction and have a good work.
The problem with so much “message fiction” is droning cliché, rather than politics per se. For example Victor Hugo. Amazing writer, and there is one point in Les Miserables where he spends about twenty pages explaining how Napoleon Bonaparte was a failed messiah. Being a genius, he did this so well, I ended up with strongly Bonapartist sympathies until I eventually read Black Jacobins (another fantastic book).
Reviewing my many authors, I find their positions all over the place. Victor Hugo is explicitly Jacobin. Naipaul a dissident reactionary. H.G. Wells a Fabian socialist. Orwell a democratic socialist. C.L.R. James a Marxist and a Communist. H.P. Lovecraft was an out and out racist and had some views that were openly proto-fascist. Borges was sympathetic to the Pinochet dictatorship. Evelyn Waugh… well, you don’t need to be told. I have no idea what the heck J.G. Ballard’s politics were but he once wrote:
“I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel, in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel, watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
And also a short story called Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, which, I assure you, isn’t an endorsement. Make of that what you will.
To make the same point yet another way, no one who knows me doubts that I am a loud and proud Islamophobe. I regard Islam as inherently fascistic, the oldest and worst totalitarianism, and the principle enemy that stands in the way of human emancipation. I still think Frank Herbert’s explicitly Islamophile Dune – in which the hero unleashes a galaxy crushing jihad that culminates in three millennia of theocracy – is an excellent book.
(And as a Warhammer 40,000 buff, I think there is little use in pretending that part of the appeal of the 40K universe is its deeply fascist vibe).
To link this to atheism, one reason why I rebelled against Christianity was that I hated the idea that some clowns who simply ‘held the right opinions’ considered themselves superior to those who actually did things. That’s the same thing that repels me about Social Justice Warriors today. Enforced orthodoxy encourages the worst sort of people – the pick-noses, the tell-tales, the bullies and apparatchicks.
Thinking over those books, I am struck by how many would be completely unacceptable in polite company today, especially not to the SJWs. I’ll tie both of my hands behind my back and cite as my example Black Jacobins. You could never get a serious dramatization of that today. You might say, “But surely the story of has everything SJWs love! Black slave revolt being the reason that the United States even exists today?”
Well, yes, that’s all true. But unfortunately, because C.L.R. James was a great writer, a great historian, and a real Marxist, his history would be completely unacceptable. No one would have the guts to show the real cruelties of slavery, and they would not have dared touch the atrocities of the rebels – babies on pikes, women raped on the corpses of their husbands etc. James is completely unsparing there but if you read the book, you still find it impossible to do anything but support the rebels (you don’t want to know the kinds of atrocities the slave owners committed. Seriously, if you think Twelve Years A Slave was bad… no, you really do not want to know). Nor could one show that Toussaint L’Overture starts his revolutionary career by trying to sell his fellows back into slavery in exchange for personal freedom. C.L.R. James insisted on showing things as they were, to the best of his ability to do so, and his observations would be absolutely unacceptable today, at least in the United States.
Not least his comment:
The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous.
Yes, just try and raise that argument in SJW circles. Just try.
(For a time I used to amuse myself by trolling internet lefties by citing some statement – about the value of capitalism, say, or that the net effect of British imperialism was positive – wait for them to work themselves into a lather about my evil right wing views, and then point out I was quoting Marx, or Trotsky. That is partly why I decided to troll the racialists by defending Nelson Mandela by citing Julius Evola).
For that matter, try pointing out in many US right wing circles that the reason their nation exists in its current form is Toussaint L’Overture, his rebel forces, and the French Jacobins. Good luck with that.
It is cliché – the unconsidered, automatically repeated idea that is toxic. It is toxic everywhere, but in literature it is particularly toxic. One of the biggest pleasures in literature is finding a new thought, a phrasing that reveals something about the world – the literal feeling of I didn’t see it like that before now. Cliché – and there are few clichés as boring as political cliché – completely wrecks that.
Courtesy of this article, I find out that Ursula LeGuin has been talking about art as “a tool of change”, which may explain why she’s become completely unreadable.
And it’s not just creating that get’s ruined. Ultimately consumption also becomes ruined, as people lose their sense of taste and discernment. Perhaps the most intelligent and subversive science fiction film of the last ten years was District 9. It’s a blistering satire of xenophobia in modern day South Africa, tackling themes that made my jaw drop when I saw it, and doing so with great acting and neat effects.
Now take a look at this review by the blogger The Last Psychiatrist who apparently passes for insightful and profound in certain circles:
“District 9” is an allusion to the 9th district of New Orleans submerged by the movie Hurricane Katrina almost exactly 4 years ago; for this reason the aliens in the movie are referred to as “prawns.” As everyone knows, prawns are delicious; this is why some of the black people in the movie try to eat them. This entire subtext is a blistering critique of the Bush Administration who, as early as 2001, had advocated for eating Katrina victims
Got that? A South African film, set in South Africa, with the most South African cast you can imagine, clearly has to be about US politics and the title has to be an allusion to New Orleans’ ninth district, and not a reference to the famous forced clearing of District 6.
The Skeptic Conclusion
I’ve previously written that Naipaul can make you a better person in that he is an education in how to look directly at the world. Theory is all very well, but without a deep study of the world as it directly presents itself to each of us individually, we are lost.