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.