Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Science Fiction Belongs to the World

Singapore-based Chuang Shyue Chou, in his blog, The Garden of Forking Paths (great title!), gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to Theodore Judson's The Martian General's Daughter.Now, I'm not taking issue with Chuang's review, and I'm thrilled he enjoyed the book, but one comment struck me as food for further thought: "A final note on The Martian General's Daughter, strangely enough, the novel is marred by a few lines of unnecessary Christian propaganda near the end. I wonder why."

It struck me as similar to the way that some readers and critics felt that China Miéville's Iron Council(my personal favorite of the Bas Lag books) was "marred" by the inclusion of overt Marxism.

Now, I am neither a Marxist nor a Christian, and I'm no fan of propaganda in fiction whether I'm a fan of it's object or not, but there's a difference between propaganda and an author writing from out of his/her own perspective. I don't have to share an author's belief system to enjoy their craft, any more than I have to endorse human sacrifice to admire the construction of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán (and that would be an extreme example.)

So, not taking issue with Chuang, and very glad he's reading Pyr books all the way in Singapore (awesome! keep it up!), but do people feel they have to agree with an author to enjoy them? I've always loved science fiction for its extreme wealth of ideas of every size and stripe, and don't feel the genre - which is ultimately a set of tools, not a school of thought - should be limited only to a liberal/socialist world view, even if I happened to share that world view. I love that Heinlein can write a book in 1959 that gets him accused of fascism and two years later in 1961, write a manifesto of the free love movement. That's the kind of, oh, let's call it infinite diversity in infinite combination, that I've always loved about our genre.

More of that please.


John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

I'm with you. I can enjoy a writer's craft without labellings his work propaganda. I have done so in the past, (to Eric Brown's Helix in particular because I felt that he was propagandizing at the expense of his story.) but I try only to do so when I think the message is overriding the value of the story.

As someone from a conservative/religious point of view, I rarely get to read books from my perspective in this genre. That does not in any way mean that I cannot enjoy the novels from a liberal/socialist view of the world. I can and do, quite often.

So long as the novel, etc is first a story than the book can be enjoyed. If it is first propaganda, then Chuang would have a point. However, MGD is anything but propagandistic. It is a retelling of the story of Rome in a sf setting. To do that, you must, you have to recognize the persecution of Christianity. It is historical, and no retelling Rome would be complete without religious persecution. But this is not propaganda, only fact.

Lou Anders said...

Absolutely. They are there because this is a retelling, and Chuang may not be as up on the source material, as his comment suggests - "my impressions are that these are more of a straight re-telling of facets of Greek and Roman history that have been transposed to a futuristic setting." And, again, I'm not taking issue with Chuang (who I see is also reading a book by my parent company at the same time!) I just used this as a springboard for thoughts concerning SF as "a tool not a school" that have been building in me for some time.

Christian Berntsen said...

I read The Martian General’s Daughter a few months back, and the thing that stuck with me was indeed the Roman parable and the melancholy of the world I felt in general. Honestly I don’t even remember the specific lines the reviewer is talking about (I found a sense of contentment if not resolution at the end -- I do wonder what became of the world but am OK if we never find out), so I guess that means it didn’t mar the book for me. I think that may be what it gets down to: for me, for him, for you. For individuals. I paid little mind to the Christian allegories in the Narnia series (granted I first read them as a kid in a rather non-religious household), but later when I was aware they were there, they didn’t take away my enjoyment of the story. I would say any kind of propaganda was more prevalent in those stories than in Judson’s.

I do agree with him on one point, I enjoyed the brevity of it. I think there is a lack of balance between the super-sized-eight-in-the-series novels we see dominating things now and the shorter novel, with just as powerful storytelling happening (if not more so because of the economy), such as Judson’s book. In the series world, Mike Resnick’s Starship cycle I think strikes a nice balance with shorter novels within a series.

Now his review of Scalzi’s OMW series (another one with a nice balance as above), well, he’s just all sorts of wrong. That, however, is another discussion.

Lou Anders said...

Now Narnia is an interesting case. I'm always astounded when I meet someone who read it and didn't pick up on its Christian subtext, especially since Aslan transforms into Jesus in front of the children in the final book. It's also a book series that I really appreciate as being seminal British fantasy - the notion of time dilation between parallel worlds being just one example of a crucial concept Lewis introduces here - and yet probably strays too close to Christian propaganda for me to be able to share it comfortably with my own children given my own beliefs. I'm not sure, still thinking this over.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Then juxtopose Narnia against Middle-Earth. Whereas Narnia is more propgandistic, Middle-Earth, becasue it is such a great story, has been used as propaganda for Christianity, environmentalists, and against female empowerment and others.

I think that becasue it is a great story each reader sees the propaganda he or she wants to see in it, even though the only true propaganda was Tolkiens' attempt for a British mythology like the Norse Sagas.

Point being, a good story will resonate with all sorts of propaganda, depending on the reader, whereas a true propaganda tale will make itself evident to all readers regardless (as in Narnia).

Lou Anders said...

Totally agree. There's a difference between Aslan being an exact analog of Jesus's resurrection and the resurrection of Gandalf, where Gandalf figures as a "Christ figure" among other things.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting point. The 'Christ figure' has such symbolic force, it's used by lots of writers regardless of their religious viewpoint, purely for the mythological weight. I have more trouble with Lewis for his treatment of girls - one of them (Susan? Ages since I read it) - is pretty much damned for wearing make-up.

I think it's the point when a story crosses the line into polemic that would grate with me. I can take right wing views in SF (and fantasy - I read Norman's Gor novels as a teen) as long as they are there in the background for me to intellectually consider/contend/ignore. But if Rush Limbaugh wrote an SF novel, I think I might struggle to engage with the story.

ces said...

QUOTE: "I don't have to share an author's belief system to enjoy their craft, any more than I have to endorse human sacrifice to admire the construction of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán (and that would be an extreme example.)"

I totally agree Lou!

Haven't read The Martian General's Daughter yet - and have never read (or am interested in reading or seen the movie C.S. Lewis), so I can't comment further.

Ted said...

do people feel they have to agree with an author to enjoy them?

It's not clear to me that that's the basis for the blogger's complaint. I have no idea what his religious beliefs are; it's possible that he actually shares the author's beliefs (whatever those may be), but simply feels that certain aspects of the novel's ending are crudely executed. That is, he could be making an aesthetic criticism rather than a political one.

Lou Anders said...

Ted, I take your point, but I also think I've gone to great pains to say I'm not taking issue with this opinion, but using it for a springboard into discussion of those people who do take issue with overt discussion of belief in a work, as in the China/Iron Council example.

Joe said...

Lou: Not to mention the whole Aslan / Crucifixion scene in the first book.

I suspect I am guilty of this, too, but it is very easy to confuse the contents of a novel with the beliefs of the author. Christianity may be an essential part of the story Judson was telling. Witchcraft is essential to other stories.

I try not to believe that Joe Abercrombie shares the anger of Inquisitor Glotka. So, do we only believe there is propaganda when we notice it or if it is against what we personally believe?

I try to just accept the storytelling for what it is and not what I may want to read into it (except when published by Aqueduct Press, because there is a clearly stated feminist perspective from the press...but even then I accept the story on the story's terms)

Paul Cornell said...

What I love most about Lord of the Rings is that it's quite clearly a Christian story, written by a man who's determined not to put any Christian elements into it. That is to say, Tolkien's own Christianity (which, harsh as it is to say, I see as much more whole and thorough than that of the busy and enthused Lewis)informs the ethics of the text, not the text itself. I find that beautiful. Perhaps it's just that Tolkien was a much better writer. I think there are two scales here: how much of the other point of view one can take as a reader, and how much point of view in general gets in the way of a story. One effects the other. I tend to enjoy stories where the author thinks we're grown up enough to not have to share the POV of their lead at all to come along. You wouldn't want to live under Scalzi's military, compelling as they are, nor with James Bond or my own hero, Jonathan Hamilton.

Lou Anders said...

And this touches on the larger issue of the unlikeable protagonist. I'm thinking of an extreme like Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley? Does SF have anyone like that?

grey_tinman said...

"Does SF have anyone like that?"

Thomas Covenant? He's pretty unlikable. I didn't have any problem caring about him, but I see a lot of people who can't finish the first book because they hate him so much.

Lou Anders said...

Oh, good example!

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Characters not exactly likeable could be.

Abercrombie: Glokta and/or Jezal

Edelman: Natch

Rothfuss: Kvothe, love/hate on this one

Anybody else seeing a trend?

Anonymous said...

Who says that authors actually believe or subscribe to the belief systems they write about in the first place? This is fiction after all, correct? Maybe we're just disagreeing with an author's stance in any given book - and that stance might be there as a plot device or to flesh out a character.

Anonymous said...

This topic has come up on SFFWorld and it's come up for me lately because I'm having a tough time reconciling Orson Scott Card's rants about his beliefs with his fiction, some of which I really like. Most of the time, it's not an issue. I too read Gor novels in the past, and I am not a Christian but loved A Canticle for St. Liebowitz by Miller, etc. And I'm not quick to always confuse what an author puts in a novel with that author's personal beliefs. But sometimes the issue does come up, because we're not always going to agree with what an author puts into a story. But I agree; it does make it interesting.

Lou Anders said...

I'm a huge David Bowie fan. If you read his biography (Alias David Bowie being a good one if you can find it), you find out that during the height of the Ziggy Stardust period, he treated people horribly, using them up and dumping them when his mercurial personality jumped to the next phase (which it did every album). Really not a nice guy back then. Approving the behavior of the individual is separate from absolutely loving the music. Didn't Shakespeare desert his children?

David B. Ellis said...

My biggest problem with propagandistic novels is not the propaganda. I'm perfectly happy to read them to engage with the ideas (isn't that part of the joy of SF) whether I agree or disagree.

What bugs me is how thoroughly most blatantly partisan stories distort human psychology in the interests of making their case---turning the characters who represent the opposing position into two dimensional cardboard cutouts.

That's just thoroughly boring.

A great example of someone writing about religion (one of the prime subjects of propagandistic novels, along with politics) in SF who DOESN'T do this is Michael Flynn in EIFELHEIM.

The book has both christian and atheist/agnostic characters and both are portrayed so richly and sympathetically that I couldn't guess, on finishing the novel, where Flynn himself stands on religion.

That was a refreshing and all too rare experience.

Lou Anders said...

I just listened to an Agony Column Podcast with David Weber, in which they were praising him for being able to do this same thing in his current Safehold series (which I've bought but not yet read). It, and this, reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson's advice to smoke a joint and read Christianity Today, with the intent of totally grokking it, and then the next day, do the same thing with something like The Humanist, the point being it is always important to work at getting out of your individual "reality tunnel."