One of the greatest dividing lines in current Science Fiction is the debate over “Message Fiction”. It was an issue that began to rear its ugly head decades ago, long before it became the genesis of the Sad Puppies. But this isn’t yet another Sad Puppies post. I want to look at the topic of Message Fiction because I recently came across a particularly arch example.
Now, when it comes down to it, short of pure action-adventure stories, almost all science fiction has some kind of idea or message behind it – the “What if” that makes the fiction speculative. Exploring those possibilities is what drives the story. 1984 was a dystopia that asked the question “What would life be like if the UK became the ultimate expression of an authoritarian socialist state?” But to have a story, one needs a conflict. Thus, 1984 has Winston Smith, a cog in the government machine, start to have doubts and go against the system, much to his misfortune. Certainly there have been stories that are little more than a travelogue through the author’s vision of the future, but other than the title, how much do fans really remember about Gernsback’s Ralph 124C41+? But even the action-adventure stories have something to say, something about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and having something worth defending even at great personal cost. I myself am an absolute sucker for heroic self-sacrifice, as long as the author doesn’t use that too cheaply.
But while almost all stories have a message, if the story doesn’t come first, then all you have is a lecture. If characters have to act in ways no reasonable person would, because the message demands it, even if the plot would refuse, then you are dealing with Message Fiction.
And yet, there are some people who actually like that sort of misery. And so, in an attempt to understand them (since not one of them would dare to try to understand me – it would go against their preconceptions), I took a little dip into a short from one of the queens of Message Fiction, one they love so much they gave her an unprecedented three consecutive Hugo Awards, Nora K. Jemisin. I saw an announcement for her recent short story compilation, How Long ’til Black Future Month?, and I read the sample. Well, I tried to. The first story kicked me out pretty hard, but it fueled this blog entry, so I’ll try to get through it, just for you.
“The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is the first story in this collection. But “story” is somewhat of a misnomer, since there is no plot to speak of. It’s more of a narration than a story, but I’ll still call it one. It’s also billed as Jemisin’s answer to Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (pdf link), and includes one sentence taking a cheap shot at it. While it’s clear that Jemisin has tried come up with an answer to it, it’s also clear she didn’t understand the question. While aping Le Guin’s format and style (If you’re feeling generous. If not, you could go so far as saying “ripping off,” but I won’t), she misses the point. There are plenty of articles analyzing Omelas, including Le Guin’s own words, so I will not duplicate them here. That’s not where I’m going with this.
Exactly like Omelas, the story starts by setting the scene in a Festival in the city of Um-Helat. The Day of Good Birds is a celebration of how wonderfully Equal everyone is. The Narrator tells us it’s all about Joy, and rainbow-colored decorations, and costume bird wings, and so forth. The Narrator tells us about how wealthy and well-cared for the people in their society are, long-lived and with ample opportunities, and then in almost direct contradiction, tells us that there are homeless, but they can have apartments if they really wanted, but if they don’t, the spaces under the bridges are swept daily, and all the park benches are padded for comfort, and there are caretakers who will protect them from their follies and keep them away from weapons. (There are weapons in paradise?) But the city and the citizens are all about caring for each other, even over profit.
But the bestest thing about Um-Helat is the diversity! But it is the section where it talks about this that things really begin to take a darker tone. Because in spite of the place being filled with folks from all over the world, and everyone being a polyglot, and nobody exhibiting any hatred, and everyone having every opportunity to become what they want with no barriers, there’s this:
If one wanders the streets where the workers and artisans do their work, there are slightly more people with dark skin; if one strolls the corridors of the executive tower, there are a few extra done in pale. There is history rather than malice in this, and it is still being actively, intentionally corrected – because the people of Um-Helat are not naive believers in good intentions as the solution to all ills. No, there are no worshippers [sic] of mere tolerance here, nor desperate grovelers for that grudging pittance of respect which is diversity. Um-Helatians are learned enough to understand what must be done to make the world better, and pragmatic enough to actually enact it.
Yeah, everyone has choice and opportunity, however being tolerant and color-blind doesn’t cut it. But when they start taking direct and decisive action, you’d better stand back, bud. We will see later on what they mean by “actively, intentionally corrected”.
And the writing begins to get out of hand, from description to scolding. The Narrator starts directly addressing the reader, but worse, starts putting words into the reader’s mouth so as to shame you. The very next line:
Does that seem wrong to you? It should not. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by those concealing ill intent, of insisting that people already suffering should be afflicted with further, unnecessary pain. This is the paradox of tolerance, the treason of free speech: we hesitate to admit that some people are just fucking evil and need to be stopped.
Yeah, if you believe in tolerance and free speech, and are a little less than sanguine about folks who “pragmatically” take action to make the world “better” you’re on the side of the “fucking evil” you awful reader you. Although the logic connecting this and “ill intent” and the infliction of suffering is tenuous at best. And then there’s this:
This is Um-Helat, after all, and not that barbaric America.
I had almost glossed over the previous paragraph the first time, but that line right there kicked me out. This is followed by the cheap shot at Le Guin’s story. But this also leads to a structural problem with the tale, because further down Um-Helat is described as being in a dimension parallel to ours, with only information passing between the two if you can read electronic signals from the other. And the Narrator is in our world. So the usage of the word “that” is just a little peculiar.
And it immediately gets worse. The Narrator suddenly unloads on the reader. It would be excessive to quote it here. It’s in the sample. But in short, you don’t believe this place is paradise because you’re polluted with racism, sexism, homophobia, and believe it’s the natural way of the world. And it culminates with these words being put in your mouth as a denial of this.
“Impossible!” you hiss, your fists slowly clenching at your sides. “How dare you. What have these people done to make you believe such lies? What are you doing to me, to suggest that it is possible? How dare you. How dare you.”
You are offended be the idea of equality, the Narrator speculates. And after yet another attack at our (and the Narrator’s) world as a hellscape, the Narrator tells us that we have no right to be offended by his accusations. The Narrator keeps calling you “My friend” but to me that comes across with all the sincerity of a used car dealer, or a stereotypical Middle Eastern merchant calling you “Effendi”. (Oh dear, Did I say something naughty? Did I Offend you? Or just tell you something true?) But how can we be offended by the idea of Equality when it’s already been made clear that even in the paradise of Um-Helat there is still some that needs active measures to address?
Now, during the festival, the narrator introduced us to a character. Not much of a character, mind you. She is unnamed, has no actual dialogue, and the only active thing she does is call a crowd’s attention to an introverted man’s small home-made pin created for the festival. But with the glowing terms with which she is described, you would think that she is the author’s self-insert, rather than the Narrator. She is black and bald and powerful, Uniformed in Gray, graceful, and assertive, and gone in a paragraph until later.
After the tirade against the reader, we are back to this woman, being described as a “social worker,” one of the self-sacrificing individuals who make the society of Um-Helat work. But her next job makes her sound more like a Cop, or worse. And in retrospect this throws a completely different shadow over her actions at the festival.
Remember Free Speech earlier being denigrated? Well they also say “But some knowledge is dangerous.” That dangerous knowledge being knowledge about any world other than Um-Helat, like our world. This is a bit strange because at some point in Um-Helat’s past they were exactly like us, and even the remnants of their wars still survive, and the kids at a certain age are carefully educated about this – much like how the citizens of Omelas are all taken to see the child to know where their happiness comes from, except instead of the bare, unvarnished, brutal truth, the account is apparently heavily edited to inspire maximum conformity. Now, using the same quantum receivers that the Narrator apparently uses to learn of their world is a criminal act. Still, there’s a shadowy underworld of folks with a thirst for knowledge, who share what they’ve learned about us, and horror of horrors, have ideas that are not in tune with the actively enforced ideas of Um-Helat. How actively enforced? It’s the death penalty. I guess that’s what they mean by some people must be fucking stopped, eh? Yup, Paradise is enforced at the point of a pike, somehow humanely driven through both the heart and spine simultaneously by these grey-clad “Social Workers” who are judge, jury, and executioner, literally. As they stand over the body of one thought-criminal, his young daughter swears revenge. Thought Crime! She is to be detained until she comes around to the proper thinking – that her father should be dead for selfishly believing anything other than what they’ve decided is best for everyone to think. They will put her in what we would call a re-education camp in our horrible world. (This is based – in fact, the entire premise of the tale is based – on the idea that simply being exposed to an idea can influence one’s thinking, “polluting” it, as it were.)
The Narrator crows that this dirty secret must make the paradise of Um-Helat more believable to us. Well, no. It makes me believe this is no paradise at all, no more than Airstrip One would have been paradise if they didn’t have to lower the chocolate ration. Whether Big Brother is a mustachioed man or a bald black woman with silver studs in her skull, he is still a tyrant. The Narrator, being the crazed analogue of the dead man in Um-Helat, believes that just telling us about that world will somehow infect us with the idea of their “superior” culture the way our ideas infect them. He wants to get our world to resemble theirs.
Well, you know, some people are fucking evil and need to be stopped.
Why do people inflict this kind of stuff on themselves? It’s not doing that horribly in the Amazon rankings, in spite of the truly shitty pricing that the Big 5 put on e-books. (#7651 overall on Kindle ($14) at this writing). So there must be some audience for this sort of plot-less misery. I could have made an even shorter summary: Paint a visual picture of a place, tell the Reader he’s a shit, and fantasize about killing people for thinking the way you’ve accused the reader of thinking. That’s what it boils down to. I really don’t see the appeal.
The idea that this is some kind of answer to Le Guin’s story is cosmetic at best. In Omelas, yeah, people had a paradise but it was predicated on the suffering of a single child, and they all knew about this. But the folks in the title of the story, the ones who walk away from Omelas, those are the people who ethically believe that they cannot partake in a society where everyone knowingly inflicts horrible suffering on a single scapegoat child as the price for everyone’s pleasure. They reject unlimited joy for themselves because the weight on their conscience is too high. Sure, it’s a message, but it’s delivered without the narrator straw-manning the reader and impugning his motives. Yes, she does engage the reader on two points, but only hypothetically on points they might also consider pleasure in the “Paradise” of Omelas: Sex and Drugs. (This is also a reflection on the times it was written in. Those were the transgressive shibboleths.)
But The Ones Who Stay and Fight? They silently and secretly dispatch enemies of the state. Jemisin calls them Social Workers, but a better word might be Stasi. No matter how benevolent they think they are, they are still agents of Thought Control. And it’s pretty clear from the context, unlike Orwell, she is not writing this as some kind of cautionary tale. Whether she views herself as the beautiful black female character, or the Narrator, berating us for our culture and who somehow believes that telling us about this world will make us wish for it here, either way, this is what she believes. The title characters do not reject a false paradise, they enforce it.
I suspect though that her audience believes in the same way. Lord knows I’ve seen enough of this from the ranks of the Social Justice Warriors. People who hypocritically oppose the death penalty for mass murder or terrorism, but would gladly see someone stomped to death for the thought-crime of wearing a MAGA hat. Look, the idea of killing people until the only ones left are the ones who agree with you does not produce a perfect society, no matter how much you believe it would.
But even then, it doesn’t quite make sense. If they agree with her, why eat up stories that accuse them of being rotten sexist racist homophobes?
Well, it’s because they ARE. As the book says, “SJWs Always Project.” If you scratch a Liberal, underneath you find that they are exactly what they hate. In this case, the driving force is what they call White Guilt. The reason they believe that white people are inherently, unchangeably, and institutionally racist is because they see it in themselves, and they therefore believe it is true in everyone else (Hint: It isn’t). But they believe themselves to be better because they acknowledge it, and go through all the rigamarole to make up for it and be a good ally.
In short, reading shit like this is penance for being white. Subjecting themselves to a stream of invective about their failings for being white gives them absolution. It’s kinda like those folks in the BDSM community who seek out a black dominatrix to work out their guilty feelings, and having paid for verbal abuse and a beating, feel that they’ve done their bit for race relations, and for the liberal side of the SF community, Mistress Nora is just the ticket, and they are paying her with sales and awards for all the abuse they can stomach.
(I apologize to those of you afflicted with the mental image that might conjure up. Believe me, I know your suffering. I edited out even worse.)
In summary, Le Guin’s message was that you can’t build a true Utopia based on the suffering of a single person. Jemisin’s message is that surely you can, if you make sure the right people are suffering.
This story also points out another problematic issue, one that is the focus of the entire collection (or indeed, Jemisin’s entire career): Racial Identity. This issue could probably be the subject of another whole essay, and the fact that I would be excoriated up and down for writing it would be a condemnation of the rigidly politically correct conformist turn SF fandom has taken, and greater society as a whole.
The reason Racial Identity fails in Science Fiction is because there are only a few ways to cover the topic, and they are extremely limited in impact. They’ve been done to death, and there’s virtually no way to breathe new life into them without making them even less authentic.
The first is what you see in this story. Race as an utterly unimportant factor. We are told by the Narrator that it doesn’t matter – that racially specific descriptors are still used but they don’t carry the negative connotations they do (or at least that she claims they do) in our usage. But if the race of the one highlighted character doesn’t matter in a postulated SF world, then guess what, it doesn’t matter at all. The story could be told with a character of any race in that role if it truly did not matter in that world. Race would be mere window dressing. The only use of that character’s race in this story was to bludgeon the reader with accusations of racism while being straw-manned into saying that who she is is somehow shocking.
Even worse, this opens up the author (unless she’s a black woman) to criticisms of tokenism, or ignoring racial issues, or whitewashing over them. Our friend the “Social Worker” could be accused of “Acting White” since her behavior isn’t specifically ethnic. (This unavoidable criticism becomes a straitjacket on the writer.) But addressing that leads to the next sort of problem.
The second way that Racial Identity fails in Science Fiction is a current-day parable set in the future. If your story set a hundred or a thousand years in the future has race relations that haven’t changed a bit from the current day attitudes, then what is the point? Are you saying that they will never improve? Is racial equality a futile dream, destined to be sabotaged forever by society? That’s pretty dismal. But it could be worse…
The third way, rarely seen, is that relations could be even worse. I haven’t yet encountered any in my own reading, but I imagine the result would take the form of stories set in some kind of racial civil war. And even if the author takes the side of the Black Union, the result really isn’t that far from the fever dreams of the readers of The Turner Diaries. Oh, I suppose it might find an audience in the self-loathing white SJWs who hand out Hugos who feel they deserve to see themselves destroyed by proxy, or militant racial separatists on the other side. But are either of these really that large of an audience, and even if they are, do you really want to serve them?
I suppose the fourth is the Inversion tale. But given how the audience for the third way to write these things reacts to an example like Farnham’s Freehold, their desire to read a racial revenge fantasy has to be tempered by the risk of being declared a racist by their fellows.
By the way, you could say the same thing for almost any form of identity politics. And while it’s possible to have these as an element in the worldbuilding of your stories, to make them the centerpiece of your tale simply kneecaps your tale from the outset. There are four ways to do it, but all of them are wrong. Social Justice has made it so, and the only way to get a pass depends on the skin color of the author.
Is there a way out of this trap? Maybe, but I don’t know what it looks like. All the roads have been blocked off by the same old no-win rhetoric. But the one road I will not take is the one traveled by the fans of this sort of work: I will not just shut up and take this abuse.
The message has been received, and rejected.