In the last few weeks, I’ve been reading stories nominated for the Hugo awards. One of them, the first choice of an SF/F author whose judgment I trust, gave me pause. The concepts were interesting, although the story was a variation on Total Recall. But the characters tasted like cheap cardboard and the style was equally flat. This led me to ponder yet again the much-discussed decline of SF. And from there, with the help of yet another Dr. B. (not the Dr. B. I discussed in Camels, Gnats and Shallow Graves, though they’d fall into a bromance at first sight), my thoughts segued to empathy.
Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, neatly falls into the “feminine” virtues. Certainly, it is a requirement for successfully rearing children. It is also is a survival tactic for the powerless. So it’s not surprising that it’s a cultivated and praised attribute in women and slaves.
Three kinds of adult humans lack or have difficulty with empathy. The first group cannot help it: they are the people with autism spectrum disorders who often find it hard to understand or interpret the emotions and motivations of others. The second group consists of fundamentalists of all stripes who are convinced they verily possess the stone tablets of Truth and are ready to smash dissenters’ heads with them. [ETA: the second group includes narcissistic socio/psychopaths, who invariably regard themselves as messiahs].
Finally, we have the obnoxiously smug. Invariably these are comfortably off white men who feel free to smirk and sneer about Other’s issues, but when called on it insist that they are misunderstood free spirits persecuted by the humorless PC police. Which brings us to Dr. B.
A few months ago, a pingback showed that someone had referred to my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Being a curious cat, I followed the link. It led to the blog of Dr. B., an academic astronomer who also writes hard SF. He advocates science literacy, calls himself progressive… so, ever hopeful, I started visiting, happily prepared to join the conversation.
Yet almost immediately, I couldn’t help but notice that several of Dr. B.’s stances “ain’t evolved” (to paraphrase Clarence Thomas). Among them was gratuitous, strident misogyny skulking under the “fairness” veneer. The trend culminated in a recent post in which Dr. B. commented approvingly on an anonymous screed from the National Post, the Canadian equivalent of Fox News:
Women’s Studies programs removed from Canadian universities: “These courses has done untold damage to families, our court systems, labour laws, constitutional freedoms and even the ordinary relations between men and women.” I guess I don’t shed a tear if these are gone. Where are the Men’s Studies? I guess some would say every other course and department out there, but that’s not exactly fair. // Well, that should be provocative enough for some comments.
The Post article itself is the usual venomous tripe about the horrific harm feminism hath wrought, though it missed one obvious talking point – that them dastardly feminazis caused 9/11. It’s the sort of thing Marc Lépine might have written before he murdered fourteen women students of engineering in the Montréal École Polytechnique.
Being a believer in giving people a long rope, I went through four rounds of exchanges with Dr. B. In his responses, he covered every single square of the misogynist bingo board, from the demand to “educate him” to the opinion that women bring down standards in the hard sciences, to whining about the humorlessness of feminists. The gist of his replies was: Enough about women and their imaginary problems. What about oppressed tenured white male ME???
People of this ilk infest self-labeled “progressive” groups – SF authors, transhumanists, “futurists”. Their mindsets are so similar that I wonder if pod-style human cloning isn’t already with us. Their sense of entitlement is as vast as that of any three-year old. They sulk and throw furniture when they’re thwarted in any way, consider their monoculture experience to be universal truth, and believe that their muddled self-serving ideas should be accepted without question because… well, because they are “liberal, leaning libertarian” (translation: it’s fine to bully Others, as long as it’s not state-imposed).
At this point, my readers will justifiably say: “Yet one more obscure navel-watcher is dragging his knuckles on the Internet. Maybe he had a messy divorce, maybe the Diversity Office in his campus took a corner office he was eyeing. Why are you wasting your time and ours on him?”
The answer is, because this man has assumed the role of thought leader and storyteller. A person with a mindset like his is highly unlikely to write absorbing fiction or convincing characters. The empathy that would make the works anything beyond a mirror of the author’s blinkered self-involvement is absent. I found one of Dr. B.’s novels on the Internet. I gave up after slogging through sixty painful pages. Bear in mind that I like hard SF, from Egan to Mixon, and I’ll endure infodumps, shallow characters and tin-ear dialogue if a story’s elements captivate me.
To write well (let alone live well), people need to have open, informed minds. What constitutes such a worldview goes beyond just imaginative extrapolations of concepts and objects. Curiosity and empathy toward others are equally crucial components. If an author can’t (won’t) do that, s/he won’t be able to create credible elves or andromedans either. By encouraging and rewarding lopsided parochialism, SF/F contributes to its own ghettoization and puts a stamp of approval on being junk-food escapism by/for the emotionally stunted.
When people in relatively privileged circumstances live as Others even briefly (John Howard Griffin comes to mind), their outlook changes radically. If I ever became Supreme Dictator, one of my edicts would be that everyone spend at least one year in another culture during their adolescence. Even a brief stay in a different environment peels away the complacency that arises from being embedded in a single context. The double vision that results from such exposure forever alters people’s perceptions. Layered, nuanced storytelling, free of navel-watching and whiny angst, can arise from these jolts.
Most fiction works are slated for oblivion. “Cool” concepts date fast, genre fashions even faster. But storytellers who see into others’ minds create characters that haunt and compel us, whose actions and fates matter to us. Through them, they burst past genre confines to make great literature that is long remembered, retold and sung.
Passed-out-cold bookworm: Gutenberg Project.
“Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland, Oslo.
Tales from Earthsea cover: David Wyatt