WHY DOES SF HATE ORDINARY PEOPLE?

I have been thinking recently that a lot of the science fiction books I’ve read in the last few months are particularly cruel about the lives of ordinary people. Take this passage by James Lovegrove in Redlaw, which attacks The Daily Mail reader mentality:

“There’s a reason why that rag is as popular as it is,” said Lambourne. “It mines a seam of middle-class paranoia, the dread of the comfortably-off that their prosperous existence could be upended at any moment, all their meagre privilege and material advantage snatched away. It exploits a flaw in the psyche of a particular stratum of society, very profitably.”

What’s notable about this passage is that it does not attack the journalists, editors, owners and supporters of The Daily Mail who pursue profit by cynically playing on their readers’ insecurities. Like most of us, the middle classes live in an unstable world where it is far from inconceivable that they might really lose the “meagre” comfort and security that they value and that everyone, not just the middle classes, seeks for themselves and their families. One might argue that The Daily Mail readers’ constant dread of impending disaster are entirely undertandable, even if they are not always logical. Mail readers are being ground in the maw of predatory capitalism along with the rest of us. That is not the same as having sympathy for the way that political and commercial interests seek to twist those insecurities to foster division and to turn fear into anger. But Lovegrove’s chooses not to attack The Daily Mail and its fellow travellers, in Redlaw he turns his fire on the people who feel insecure – they are the ones with a “flaw in the psyche”.

It’s an interesting passage in a book in which the immigrant poor are made blood-thirsty monsters, tearing innocent natives to shreds and incapable of controlling their desires, a perpetual drain on the society on which they have imposed themselves and who, therefore, must be permanently excluded from it. Redlaw also pours scorn on democracy and politicians while providing the reader with a proto-fascistic hero who rejects the petty rules and regulations that apply to the rest of society and who imposes his own will on the world, sustained by an unshakeable faith in his own righteousness. Redlaw, the eponymous lawman, knows what is right and his special insight, his cross and his facility with the very large gun he totes are enough to justify any action. The strong man makes the rules.

The loathing for ordinary people who live ordinary lives is something that is echoed in Colson Whitehead’s literary zombie novel Zone One. Here Whitehead describes the “stragglers” – a breed of zombie that clings sullenly to the ordinary routines of their old life – they are mocked and tortured and subject to a special loathing:

“They were safe in their houses. In front of the televisions, a host of this type biding their time until the electricity came back on, the problem was solved, and the program resumed where it had stopped. All the time in the world. Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures; now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment. In the bath, fully clothed before the nippled showerhead and its multiple flow settings. Tilting a fluted vacuum attachment towards the scrunched curtains and their legendary hard-to-reach places. Underneath blankets and duvets whose number and thickness referred to a different season, a previous winter of mysterious significance. Slipping a disc into the game machine. Crotch-down on the yoga mat. Spooning bran from a bowl. Surfing the dead web. Yawning. Stretching. Flossing. Wound down and alone in their  habitat.” (p 50)

Whitehead uses his characters to deliver a series of coruscating attacks on what he calls “the straight life” and he has no sympathy for….

“…the dead, a.k.a. the “squares,” the “suckers,” and the “saps.” … The dead had paid their mortgages on time, and placed the well-promoted breakfast cereals on the table when the offspring leaped out of their bed in their fire-resistant jammies. The dead had graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s across diverse sectors according to the wisdom of their dead licensed financial advisers, and superimposed the borders of the good school districts on mental maps of their neighbourhoods, which were often include on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.” (p25)

The survivors in Colson’s book, those who have successfully adapted to the new age, are the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the “burdens” imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together. They are the geeks.

I was going to entitle this post something along the lines of “when did science fiction start hating ordinary people?” but on reflection it occurred to me that science fiction has always sustained a strong thread of elitism. At its most basic, the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence. Insofar as this idea had a philosophical foundation, these characters were clearly Nietzschean supermen as refracted through the decidedly warped lens of Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugging himself free from the inferior humans who prevented him from achieving godhood. From this grew science fiction’s strong libertarian thread, where those who’d spent their childhood getting sand kicked in their face found a space where they could kick back and decided that their future was going to be one where they wouldn’t have to be tied to the ruffians who had once mocked them. The men of the worlds created by Heinlein or Pournelle or Card would always be, by the grace of god, the superiority of their wits and their unchallengeable right to bear arms, free.

But it hasn’t just been right wing libertarians who have sought to escape the horrific drag of the masses. Another, older, book I read for the first time recently was Mack Reynolds’ Lagrange Five. Purportedly a Marxist work, what is interesting about Reynolds’ book is the way he posits that the only way to a better society is if the smart select out the stupid and, literally, leave them behind. His Lagrangists abandon Earth, and all those they judge unworthy, while they construct a post-scarcity utopia in space. Of course certain strands of Marxism have always embraced the “necessity” of elitism and Reynold’s Lagrangists are from the same mould as the Leninist vanguard parties that brought real, existing socialism to the masses of the East, whether they wanted it or not. As with the conservatives, Reynolds’ best and brightest have to be set free from the clammy grip of the ordinary people.

A couple of other books published in 2011, works by authors who clearly intend their writing to make a liberal point, also reproduce science fiction’s long-standing estrangement from the ordinary mass of people.

Adam Roberts’ By Light Alone and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia both feature masses of the poor living apart from the rich and utterly debased by squalor. In both novels this vast swath of humanity are incapable of managing their own communities, they are violent and cruel and cannot control their base urges. Like Whitehead’s Zone One, these books end with waves of dehumanised monsters breaching the walls of the enclaves constructed by the privileged. In all three novels these masses are driven by rage, incapable of coherent expression of their needs and desires and so they are reduced to engines of destruction. While I believe both Roberts and Towfik (and, indeed, Whitehead) are intent on their critique of a modern society in which the gulf between rich and poor is becoming ever more extreme, I think there is something disturbing about the way that, while their rich are personally vile, it is the ordinary people who have  become the irrational monsters. It is the ordinary people who rape and pillage and tear the throat from civilisation and who are never given a voice to articulate an alternative.

We live in an age when the poor are being made to pay the economic price for the failures of bankers and speculators. It is an era when those in need are being demonised as scroungers and thieves. The structures of the welfare state, once seen as the means to a fairer, more equal and, by extension, a better society, are being hacked away, branded as failures and as drags on economic growth (that increasingly only benefits the few). The hard-won victories of sixty years of social democratic advance are being rolled back by a capitalism that is no longer restrained by the post-war settlement or the Cold War need to keep the masses onside due to the threat of communism. It is an economic system that has rediscovered the high Victorian/Edwardian swagger that saw the rich styled as “barons” – a new aristocracy of cash rather than blood – while the majority were sucked dry of value and then left to fend for themselves, if they could.

Perhaps, then, science fiction is just doing what it has always done in reflecting its times. It may be that all we can hope for from the science fiction of the early twenty-first century are ever more brutal restatings of science fiction’s response to modern capitalism’s first wild rush to disaster at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. The poor Morlocks, always rising from their subterranean lairs to smash the comfort and civility of the world created by the effete Eloi, may be doomed to return in ever more graphic orgies of destruction, becoming ever more monstrous in their habits while appearing less human, less capable of self-expression than even Wells imagined. The mass of humanity, visible only as the sludge that lubricates the vast machines in Lang’s Metropolis might smash the engines of their oppression but they will never become their masters.

Or, then again, perhaps we should hope for more from our speculations.

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23 Responses to WHY DOES SF HATE ORDINARY PEOPLE?

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Very well put Martin, but let me offer a different take on the matter:

    I see the world outside as quite oppressive and unreasonable. In fact, I’m so utterly fed up with humanity that the recent history of my creative as well as meatspace life has been an on-going process of retrenchment. From one point of view, it is clear that I am mistrustful of my fellow humans and so I am looking to build an enclave for myself. From another point of view, I am exiling myself because I realise that I lack the array of skills and propensities that might allow me to be a functioning and productive member of my society.

    So I ask this of you… is SF eloi-ing itself because it thinks it is better than the morlocks or is it recognising the fact that it lacks the technical skills required to keep everything working? One of the reasons why I can’t read SF anymore is because it seems to have become almost entirely inward looking and concerned only with recycling and refining old tropes and techniques. Has SF lost interest in the world because it thinks it is better than the world and that its ideas or more important or has it simply recognised that it has nothing to offer other than pandering to an existing (and rapidly aging) fanbase?

  2. admin says:

    Jonathan,

    I think I start from a more optimistic position – that it is both possible for us to create social spaces where everyone can function with a degree of confidence and security (the project that is most often dismissed as “mere” political correctness) and that it is possible for those speculating about the future to imagine paths to a society that still offer something of the old-fashioned notion of “progress”.

    The first process, creating a society that is inclusive, of course requires input from both those elements that are “oppressive and unreasonable” and from people like yourself who feel driven out – and it can be difficult to convince people of the worth of engaging in the negotiations, compromise and “petty politics” required to maintain a balance of interests. But, at the same time, my starting position would be that we are social creatures and that we are all happier, more secure and more fully human when we are engaged with our peers in the process of creating a better society – however frustrating and difficult that job might be.

    On the second point, sf is certainly a conservative genre and there are writers who recycle well-worn tropes, feeding, as you note and shrinking, aging fanbase. There are those of the Analog strain who maintain the adolescent power fantasies of high frontiers and there are New Wavers who have mistaken misanthropy for a post-modern critique of progress and cyberpunks and steampunks who confuse aesthetics and attitudes for radicalism. And, even as we speak, there are probably mundanes, New Weirdies and post-colonials getting bogged down in ruts from which they will never escape. But that’s not only true of science fiction. It’s true of every literary and artistic form. It might be true of every human endeavour. It is certainly true of my other “fandom”, The Labour Party, which doesn’t just have Blairites and Brownites still fighting old battles in a changed landscape but still has Bennites and Croslandites and Bevanites and Atleeists all still trying to find ways to justify clinging to the old faiths.

    But that doesn’t mean I think progress is impossible. It is difficult to achieve and post-modernism did a pretty thorough job of discrediting the entire notion. But I admire Foucault, who could spend his intellectual life knee-deep in criticism of the notion of progress but who spent his political life as an advocate and campaigner for progressive causes. It may be that ultimately we have no agency and little power, but for our own sanity and for the sake of the society in which we live, we might as well keep acting as though what we do makes a difference. And sometimes it does. The lives of ordinary people are still hard but they are far better in 2012 than they were in 1912 and unrecognisable from the way the mass of people lived in 1812.

    That progress was made because people had visions of better societies – some of those visions were political and some were artistic and sometimes they took us the down blind alleys or over the edge of a cliff, but some of them also achieved immeasurable good. And perhaps most of the tropes of the old threads of sf (and Labour politics) only speak to the past and not the future, but I don’t believe that means that we are incapable of inventing new visions and synthesizing the best of the old.

    Which is a very long way of saying I think you’re partly right: some sf has retreated from the world because it is seeking to reinforce only a narrow, greying core but, at the same time, the influence of sf in literature, art and film may never have been more pervasive and the potential for that contact to create exotic hybrids, to develop new ways of seeing, means I think we might be hopeful and look for ways to encourage fresh blooms.

    But then I am, or try to be, an optimist.

  3. Interesting post, Martin. It is certainly true that a lot of SF shows disdain for ordinary people, and you might want to try taking Slan as your ur text for that. But there’s also a lot of complexity here.

    For example, you talk about people restating old plot cliches, but that is what SF has always done. Both Roberts and Towfik, for example, are well aware of their SF history. So if they write a book that repeats ideas from Wells they are not necessarily just aping him, they may be responding to him. It all depends on how they write the book.

    Adam, I’m sure, can defend himself, but Ahmed Khaled may not see this so here are some thoughts gleaned from having met and talked to him. The central thrust of Utopia is that the extreme wealth inequality has corrupted the whole of society. The rich have indeed become vile, but the poor, who comprise at least 99% of society, have, as you say, been debased by extreme poverty. One of the central characters is university educated and tries hard to keep to his liberal convictions. In the end he fails, but that’s not the fault of the poor. Mob violence is triggered, not by mob greed, but by mob anger at the callousness of the rich.

    If you want to find a good example of writers despising ordinary people, you might look for those where the industrial working classes are portrayed as filthy, mis-shapen, brutal and greedy, fit only to be slaughtered by the book’s heroes.

  4. Martin says:

    Fascinating post but I think somewhat confused by the use of the word “ordinary”.

    As you say, SF (even more than other genre fiction) traditionally deals in exceptional protagonists. Of the books you mention, only Redlaw fits this bill. SF also traditionally renders ordinary people completely invisible. All these books are rare examples where ordinary people are brought centre stage. So, regardless of any “cruelty” in the depiction of these people, I think the fact they are actually depicted at all is worthy of praise.

    Ordinary people is also a very broad term (the fact it can be used in this context only shows how rare such people are in SF). The types of people depicted in the texts you mention are actually quite different.

    You say Zone One demonstrates “loathing for ordinary people who live ordinary lives” in comparison to the “geeks” who have successfully adapted. Geeks aren’t ordinary people? Regardless, geeks is a very inapt description the protagonist and the other survivors. Not being a middle class conformism doesn’t make you a geek and nor does it make you any less of an everyman.

    The straggler zombies certainly satirise a strand of middle class conformism from which the protagonist has dropped out. There are plenty of other zombies though and they have been drawn from all walks of life. After all, today’s “successfully adapted” are tomorrow’s walking dead.

    Similarly, in By Light Alone I don’t think the distinction between ordinary people is particularly useful. George may be part of the 1% but is he exceptional in any other way? His life of holidays, cocktails and adultary is very familiar – very ordinary. I also think it is totally wrong to say that in BLA the “rich are personally vile”, Roberts is clearly striving to present a sympathetic character whilst simultaneously critiquing his class.

    So it isn’t suprising that the few SF authors using ordinary people are interested in socio-political critiques but I don’t think those critiques are best understood in terms of ordinariness.

  5. I think all people are monstrous. At higher levels of economic and social power, these monstrous people can project their awfulness over a greater distance. Their reach is long, their influence pandemic. And many of the worst aren’t even people anymore – they are inhuman entities, corporations, which have embraced the most predatory of human traits and shorn off the rest like vestigial organs.

    Those at the bottom are not any better nor any worse. But their ambitions are stunted. The shade cast by their elites forever keeps them in check. Their ability to inflict themselves on others is diminished to a smaller but no less vicious circle. They are only praiseworthy for they have not been given the same chance to suborn themselves wholeheartedly.

    But I have little doubt that if given the opportunity to climb a slippery mound of their own dead or the bodies of the elites, they would be just as able pupils. Those at the top of the heap know this. That is why those that do try, generally are shot.

    SF only weakly recognizes this in its most dystopian moments. It is single-mindedly fixed on the fallacy that there is a solution to the human condition that both embraces large communities and keeps hold of the human. Or that the necessary collapse to reduce us to a tiny fraction wouldn’t be fatally traumatic. I don’t believe this. The future will either be exactly the same with smarter furniture, or we won’t be human or here anymore to witness it.

    But then all fiction is a lie.

  6. admin says:

    Thanks Cheryl,

    I’m sure that both Roberts and Towfik are genuine in their critique of a divided society and that they are both aware of their place in sf&f’s history. I’m not criticising them or their books – I enjoyed and admired both – and hope that neither feel the need to “defend” themselves – I was simply pointing out a trend in my recent reading.

    That said, I don’t quite agree with your reading of Utopia. True Towfik’s mob reacts to an act of violence by the rich intruder into their world, but I found it hard to sustain any sense of belief in their actions as an expression of righteous fury against their harsh treatment by the rich when we see them living in a society where they do far worse to themselves. Where is the mob’s righteous fury against the pimps and drug dealers and gang leaders who Towfik graphically shows us raping and killing and making the lives of the poor miserable by leaching off their own community?

    But the thing I think is notable in all these books is the absence of any sense that the masses are capable of self-expression or constructive acts. The only emotion they allowed to express is rage. Their only goal is destruction.

    I think that is revealing of something about our times even when the author’s intentions are impeccably liberal.

  7. ShaunCG says:

    “But the thing I think is notable in all these books is the absence of any sense that the masses are capable of self-expression or constructive acts. The only emotion they allowed to express is rage. Their only goal is destruction. I think that is revealing of something about our times even when the author’s intentions are impeccably liberal.”

    I think that sums this up nicely, and although I’ve not read the novels you mention in the original post this is something I’ve noticed with various novels in the past as well. I wonder if it might be understood as a side effect of how politically engaged a person is? To those who are involved with social justice causes or follow political blogs and news with some regularity, for example, the riots last July would have been foreshadowed. To those who did not they may have appeared to have emerged from nowhere. This is often the case with large-scale expressions of anger and outrage: they’re rarely predictable, but the extent to which they take you by surprise depends on your familiarity with the factors that played a role in provoking them.

    I’ve no intention to imply anything about any of the authors mentioned above; the idea just occurs.

  8. As for the fear of the lower and middle classes – this suspicion of the mob has a long tradition in fiction.

    You can see it in Charles Dickens’ _A Tale of Two Cities_ and it permeates a great many works of English literature. And not all directly corresponding to a fear of the historical Terror.

    The idea that the masses can only express their inchoate fury in orgies of violence, hovers frequently nearby in middle-class fiction. I don’t see this as a reflection of our times, save in the sense of our modern times stretching back to the very beginnings of the literary form. The modern novel is mostly this: the trotting out of middle-class anxieties and preoccupations. SF despite being genre, doesn’t escape this trend either. It is very middle class for the most part so I’m not surprised to see this pattern being followed.

    There are always examples of constructive collectivism to be found in history, even in contemporary society. Despite many people’s misgivings, the current Occupy movement could be posed as an expression of this – being if not traditionally constructive, a wide scale demonstration of grievances with no signs of imminent mob violence. Harder to argue is if this is a middle-class or an even elite movement or truly representative of the “99%”.

    But novels rarely focus on this side of popularism or on the sort of alternative communities which quietly get on with their own affairs. It is our fears that most motivate our fictions, becoming prime targets which we pin up and let loose at. To laud is less common, as there is less to perhaps say and it is more controversial to say what is universally good, than what is universally bad.

  9. Neal Asher says:

    Wouldn’t it be better to simply say that fiction shows distain for ordinary people? Even when it recognizes the ‘plight of the ordinary’ it always does so from outside it.

  10. @Neal Asher

    No.

    I don’t think William Faulkner shows distain for ordinary people to take an example. Or Kafka for another.

  11. Eve says:

    Doctor Who LOVES ordinary people. “An ordinary man, that’s the most important thing in existence.” – The Ninth Doctor

  12. Great post. The fact of the matter is, the more we actually look at those homogenous masses of people, whether in shantytowns or Levittowns, the more we discover their persistent ability to adapt, organize, and improvise around extraordinary constraints. Resolving faceless mobs into particularity has been one of the most interesting projects of historical and social study over the last several decades. It would be nice to see more SF that reflected our growing understanding that a mob is just a bunch of people whose social structures, knowledge, skills, and connections we don’t happen to be familiar with yet.

  13. I share your concern, Martin, and I might point at Ken MacLeod, China Miéville, Gwyneth Jones, Suzy Charnas and Laurie Marks as writers who have taken a more nuanced line on social revolution. This might make a good podcast or convention panel.

    As to Towfik, I think my point is that he’s not idly speculating about how a revolution might happen, he’s writing from within a real one. He’s not saying that they, the poor, are brutal, he’s saying that we, the Egyptians, have become brutal, and this is how it happened. I think there’s a qualitative difference between facing oppression from within your own community, and oppression from global economics backed by overwhelming military force. In the latter case, violent rage might seem like the only option.

  14. admin says:

    Martin,

    “All these books are rare examples where ordinary people are brought centre stage. So, regardless of any “cruelty” in the depiction of these people, I think the fact they are actually depicted at all is worthy of praise.”

    Again, I’m not questioning the good intentions of the authors – I think all the works discussed at any length here mean to side with the many against the few. Even so, I couldn’t help note the one-dimensional representation of the mass of ordinary people – their lack of voice within the narrative and the limited range of responses they are given to the challenges they face.

    Actually, I think in Zone One Whitehead makes explicit the fact that his survivors are not “ordinary” – but I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t back that up. It’s probably worth pointing out that the second quote refers not just to the “stragglers” but to all the dead, walking or otherwise, who failed to adapt. And it is far from the only passage that displays a sense that the majority represent an always latent threat (here’s one passage I didn’t use in the first article):

    “The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters. It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends and neighbours as the creatures had always been… The secret murderers, dormant rapists, and latent fascists were now free to express their ruthless nature.” 197

    In relation to By Light Alone:

    “George may be part of the 1% but is he exceptional in any other way?”

    Well I think George is exceptional in his class, as presented by Roberts in By Light Alone, because he retains (or rather develops through the course of the book) a sense of self-awareness and elicits some degree of personal sympathy. By contrast his friends, his wife, his son, his wife’s lover and everyone else we meet in his class are all, more-or-less, without redeeming features. And, to me, his life of “holidays, cocktails and adultery” doesn’t feel familiar or ordinary, but perhaps we come from different backgrounds? Nevertheless, is certainly marks George out as an exceptional person within the world of the book by comparison to the vast majority of humanity.

    Perhaps you’re right though, perhaps the phrase “ordinary people” isn’t helpful. But it felt preferable to more loaded clauses such as “the lower classes”, “the masses” or even “the mob.”

  15. admin says:

    Shaun,

    I think this is true, but I also think that those those activities would also give you an insight that went beyond just anger. It is certainly my experience growing up, through my work in trade unions and as a former councillor that the capacities of ordinary people to organise and sustain their communities are too often undervalued and ignored.

  16. Martin says:

    Perhaps you’re right though, perhaps the phrase “ordinary people” isn’t helpful. But it felt preferable to more loaded clauses such as “the lower classes”, “the masses” or even “the mob.”

    That’s the point though: not only is “ordinary people” not synomous with those three terms, those three terms aren’t synonmous with each other and they can’t be applied to your examples.

    In your example from Redlaw, the ordinary people are Daily Mail readers. They aren’t the lower classes, the masses or even the mob; they are predominantly a group of educated middle class people with a particular political philosophy. So criticising such people doesn’t say anything about the whole set of ordinary people and it doesn’t exclude the person criticising from being part of that set. Indeed, a lot of scorn of Daily Mail readers comes from Guardian readers: predominantly a group of educated middle class people with a different political philosophy.

    The example from Zone One is again all about the middle class as both your quotes show. Ordinary people, certainly, but not the lower classes, not with their “admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s across diverse sectors according to the wisdom of their dead licensed financial advisers, and superimposed the borders of the good school districts.”

    You suggest that your latest quote shows that the “majority represent an always latent threat” but it isn’t about “the majority” (whatever that is), it is about humanity as a whole. There is no suggestion that those secret murderers, dormant rapists and latent fascists come from the lower classes, the obvious implication is that they are spread throughout society.

    As for the survivors, they are not ordinary by dint of that survival. However, if anything the loners and the socially inept (ordinary people all) who you suggest make up the survivors are more likely to come from the lower classes. That is too broad a decription though; we see survivors (his small town hook up, his squad leader) who come from mainstream middle class backgrounds. It is character rather than class that differentiates them.

    It is only with By Light Alone that you get the conflict between the elite and the masses that is most relevent to your argument. This is because Roberts’s novel takes place in a future where inequality has run rampant and all class subtleties have been squeezed out. In that world George is part of a tiny, tiny elite but his lifestyle is not appreciably different to any wealthy individual in our world. When I say his life is familiar, I mean I read about it in novels and newspapers all the time. He is not part of the elite in the sense of the “political and commercial interests” you mention, he is not really an actor, and in that way he is an ordinary person.

    It is notable in your list of other members of his class who we meet that you miss off his daughter. (Of the others you list, we only actually see his wife’s perspective internally and I’d say it is more rounded than you suggest.) With his daughter and false-daughter, we see neither the vilely rich or the irrationally monsterous poor, we see ordinary people.

    So I’d completely reject that idea that ordinary people lack a voice within the narratives; the fact Zone One and By Light Alone deploy one-dimensional representations of the masses (in two very different way) is a different question.

  17. admin says:

    Neal,

    I don’t agree that all fiction shows distain for ordinary people but I would concede that sf is far from alone in its tendency to use the less fortunate as either window dressing to lend a sense of faux verisimilitude or as an excuse for a “pornography of poverty” to titillate their better off viewers/readers.

  18. Kip W says:

    It’s been noticeable for a long time, even in classics like The Marching Morons, to pick an obvious one, and it’s already a cliche to say that the lonely fans, picked on for being smart as kids, want to believe that it will turn out we were better than them all along.

    Taral wrote a devastating little tale on the ‘fans are slans’ meme some time back in which the character is musing on a roach motel (anachronistic, but it’s worth it) and how the foolish insects are suckered in by pheremones that anything with a brain would know were too good to be true — then he sees a sign advertising the first World Science Fiction Convention and, delighted to see a venue that recognizes the innate superiority of his type at last, walks in that door. Fanfic at its most cautionary.

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  20. Randolph says:

    Kip, I think you’re badly missing the point of “The Marching Morons,” which I take to be quite the opposite of what you make it. The moral point of TMM, which I remember as schematic in its directness, is that even if you are a genuine superman, you have no right to abuse even exceptionally weak ordinary people. Kornbluth seems to me a writer who genuinely loved ordinary people. Another one was Gordon Dickson, who often made the point that extra-ordinary people are expressions of, and responses to, the needs of the human race: servants of ordinary people, not masters.

    This needs more thinking-about, and more current cites, but I will tentatively say that I do not think there is more elitism in sf than in other literature.

  21. Chris Lawson says:

    Interesting post, Martin, and I certainly agree that there is a nasty elitist triumphalist streak within science fiction, but I think there are a few caveats to make:

    1. It is not true of all science fiction, or even most science fiction (see Le Guin, Budrys, Ballard, Bester, Egan, Willis…and so on and so on).

    2. It is not exclusive to science fiction — in fact, I’d say that there is only one genre that focusses on the ordinary lives of ordinary people and that’s modern realist literature.

    3. I don’t think it’s fair to attribute the thought that poor masses + oppression -> irrationality to those authors (I know you’ve said you didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it read to me), especially since any reading of history involving riots of the oppressed shows the pattern you’ve described: periods of awful exploitation yielding an explosion of violence, often triggered by a seemingly minor incident (think of the current wave of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East started by one street merchant setting himself on fire). And yes, those mobs often are irrational during the rioting phase. But I would have thought (without having read those books), that the economic elites are also portrayed as irrational in that they cannot see that their world is going to blow up in their faces one day. If anything, a sudden outburst of irrational behaviour after sustained and exhausting exploitation is a lot more understandable than preserving an irrational and unsustainable social contract that gets worse every generation just so you and your family can have some nicer toys than you would otherwise.

    Having said that, I very much agree it’s worth kicking stories that extoll the Randian prerogative. There are plenty out there and some of them won Hugos.

  22. There are no “ordinary people”. Normalcy is a construct.

    This might make a good podcast or convention panel.

    This would make an *excellent* con panel. I might suggest it to Liz as such, if you’re amenable. 🙂

  23. Patrick H says:

    A great post! Quite by coincidence, I got the exact same impression from Redlaw: http://www.zone-sf.com/wordworks/redlawjl.html. I’m pleased I wasn’t the only one who found it objectionable.

    What is most depressing, I think, is that it’s not a wilful expression of a political creed, but just what accidentally slips out when a writer’s not paying attention. There’s something about the structures and assumptions of pulp/super-heroic fiction that trend this way. It’s a terrfiyiing lack of empathy.

    I have a half-written post somewhere (from years back) about the relationship between early SF and the growth of totalitarian politics – it’s kind of there in the margins of Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, and more explicit in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. I should dust that one off, but it’s such a huge topic and I’m not sure I’m up to the task, philosophically speaking.