Saturday, May 11, 2019

Problems in Science Fiction-No. 1

A long time ago, I wrote about Fritz Leiber, Jr., and the problem of the weird tale. The problem was and is this: How do we write convincingly about the supernatural, the rural, and the irrational in a thoroughly materialist, urbanized, and (supposedly) rational age? Leiber tried to solve that problem and I think he succeeded. Part of his success comes from the fact that he recognized the problem straightaway and treated it directly in his work. You can see the results in stories such as "Smoke Ghost" (Unknown Worlds, Oct. 1941) and "The Hound" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942).

Science fiction, too, has its problems. For example, as early as the 1950s, people began asking, Is science fiction dying? I have written about this problem, too. (See the label on the right.) If science fiction is dying, though, the dying is sure taking a long time. So maybe dying isn't a problem in science fiction after all. Anyway, the problems that I see in the genre are manifold, but in this series I want to cover just two of them.

* * *

Earlier this year, I read a short science fiction novel called The Ballad of Beta 2 by Samuel R. Delany (Ace, 1965). I like these short novels from the 1950s and '60s, the kind that you can read in an evening and that don't break the back of your bookshelf. Mr. Delany's novel is interesting and entertaining, but as I read it, a thought occurred to me. Not a thought so much as a problem. That problem shows itself right in the title with the word Beta. It's inside, too: Centaurian, Sigma, Gamma, Epsilon, Delta, Alpha. It's elsewhere in science fiction, too, especially in the original Star Trek.

So what is the problem?

These and so many more names and terms in the science fiction of the future are from classical sources, from the culture, history, philosophy, literature, and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome.

And how is that a problem?

Well, despite the fact that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were pagans (at least before the Romans became turncoats by converting to Christianity), they were white Europeans (1), most of the names we know today were those of men, and they together founded a now hated thing, Western Civilization. Our politically correct culture is against these things, of course, and though you might comfort yourself by thinking that the standards of political correctness are by definition ever-changing, you should also know that hostility towards the classical world as the root of Western Civilization (along with the Judeo-Christian tradition) is rampant not only in academia in general but also in classical studies themselves and among classical scholarsFor example, classical scholar Mary Frances Williams was recently giving a talk at a conference, one of her points being this:
It is important to stand up for Classics as a discipline, and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and artistic foundation of Western Civilization, and the basis of European history, tradition, culture, and religion. It gave us the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which we should teach and promote. We should not apologize for our field [. . . .] (2)
when she was interrupted by a fellow scholar who heckled her with these words:
"We are not Western Civilization!" (3)
I don't know anything about Ms. Williams or her heckler, and I don't really know very much about this controversy except that it appears to be part of a far larger one that, like a great, black hole, has engulfed everything within reach, including the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. My purpose here is simply to point out that a prominent scholar of classical studies would shout these words and believe this idea:
We are not Western Civilization!

So what does any of this have to with science fiction?

Well, if we ignore the question of whether a navel-gazing culture like our own will ever go into outer space, then we're left with the likelihood that nothing out there will ever be named for a person or concept that has come to us from ancient Greece or Rome, or for that matter from any other period of the history of Europe or the United States or Western Civilization in general. In addition, everything that is currently named for people or concepts from those periods will be renamed. Everything that we have will sooner or later be judged impure, and all of it will go into the memory hole. In other words, if, as a science fiction writer, you're going to make extrapolations into a fictional future, then you won't use any Greek or Roman names or roots or words or concepts in your work, as Samuel R. Delany and countless others have done before you. In fact, you won't use anything of real value from our past because all of it is or soon will be considered tainted by the sins of racism, sexism, imperialism, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and so on and on, seemingly infinitely, into areas of sin that we don't yet know about but may yet sense. In their stead, you might try naming things after undocumented transgender Muslims, gay indigenous atheist revolutionaries, gender-fluid Marxists of color, and other peoples dwelling or soon to dwell at the intersections of oppression and resistance. (And you can forget about naming things after women and feminists. After all, they want to protect themselves from the abuses and depredations of people higher up on the ladder of victimhood. What a bunch of oppressors they are.) We already have people talking about racial and gender diversity in a proposed real-life Mars colony. That is, after all, the most important consideration when you're planning on how to survive on an alternately deeply-frigid-to-scorching-hot planet with barely any atmosphere and almost no water. (4)

At this rate, we'll never reach the stars.

To be concluded . . .

(1) "White" can be a pretty loose term when applied to Mediterranean peoples. If you want white, look at an Irishman or Scotsman.
(2) These words are not--I don't think--taken verbatim from her talk but from her written summary of her talk.
(3) Source: "How I was Kicked Out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting" by Mary Frances Williams, dated February 26, 2019, and published on the website Quillette, here.
(4) Douglas Adams, who was, we have to admit, a numbskull of a different stripe, anticipated all of this when he wrote his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the last episode of the BBC-TV show, a population of numbskulls arrives on Earth in the distant past. When someone points out that their design for a a wheel--it's hexagonal--can't possibly work, one of them responds, "All right, Mr. Wise Guy, you're so clever, you tell us what color it should be."

The Ballad of Beta 2 by Samuel R. Delany (Ace, 1965), with cover art by Frank Kelly Freas (1922-2005), who of course did work for Weird Tales.

Text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I have just discovered your blog and am enjoying it immensely. Many thanks.

    This post is particularly sound and (sadly) relevant.

    1. Hi, Bob (drink),

      Welcome and thank you. And I agree with you at just how sad a development this is. But if we think of classical ideas and values as having survived because they have truth in them, then they will go on surviving, even as the lies of our current age wreck and wear themselves out against them. There is hope.

      Thanks for writing.