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Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals

Since I don’t know any longer what socialism is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge China Mieville’s list of sf/f works for socialists. It’s such a heterogeneous list that the set of books seems unnecessarily short. With such diverse reasons for inclusion as genre subversion, utopia, satire, and working class sympathies, the list could have easily been expanded. Socialism evidently contains multitudes.

So instead, here’s my own list of works for liberals: specifically, liberals of the United States of around this time. And there is one theme in particular that these books reflect, which is how myths (i.e., lies) occupy the collective mind of society. More than anything George Lakoff has to say about “frames”, the idea of collective myth is one that the Republicans have embraced with great success, while the Democrats have utterly lost the fabled images of strong workers and social welfare that once fueled them. This is less about the content of these myths than the compelling aspect of their totality.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

The ultimate novel of how we forget our past and recollect it as fable and allegory.

Olaf Stapledon, The Flames

Amazing, and amazingly depressing, novella of rise and fall of an alien society around a shifting religious myth. As much a tale of the Crusades as a prediction of America’s fundamentalist near-future, it’s frightening.

Mark Geston, Lords of the Starship

Neoconservative/Straussian politics put into play in a post-apocalyptic world. Not too uncommon a theme, but Geston’s book is one of the comparatively few negative portrayals of it.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people’s existential senses of themselves.

R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions

A tall tale about secret powers at work. As a conservative Christian, Lafferty is rather good at playfully saying “Damn it all” to the world. More Hawthorne-influenced than it at first appears.

Kobo Abe, The Ark Sakura

Nuclear and survivalist paranoia from a Japanese point of view. The handful of main characters spend so much time locked in an underground cavern that they nearly create their own reality.

Carol Emshwiller, Various Stories

I’ll have to go back and pick some specific ones, but there is such a constant undercurrent of societal expectations being undermined in her work that nearly anything of hers seems to fit the bill. Probably the name I was most disappointed to see missing from Mieville’s list.

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo

Crazy Freudian dystopian novel that’s at war with itself, but so fevered that its societal hysteria is more vivid than most.

Three Versions of Politics

In the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunamis, the Bush administration pathetically found itself spending more money on its second inauguration than it initially committed to disaster relief. Even now, its contributions are not especially impressive. I donated to relief organizations, and then, left to my own thoughts, I went through three responses: anger, despair, and detachment.

I was infuriated when I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Liberal Waterloo. Zizek proposes that it is for the better that Bush won the 2004 election, since it will

dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. … Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush&#x92s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush&#x92s politics.

Zizek spends a good deal of space lambasting liberals for their faulty faith in Kerry and his empty vision, instead proclaiming the ascent of a new counterweight that will not seek unity with the United States. I disagree (except on the empty vision part), but it is not this that bothers me. Nor is it throwaway lines like this, which make me fear that his grasp of economics is quite weak:

Further, Bush&#x92s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

No, it was the words “painful but necessary” that were maddening. I pictured Zizek sitting in his safe European home, gently telling his dialectic-minded followers that it is all for the best, that the nightmares that await are part of a cleansing clarity of darkness through which the new sun will rise. I thought it displays a faith not so different than that which informs the Left Behind books that he mentions. I exaggerate, but I was upset.

From Edmund Burke, a philosopher I despised for a long time before coming to a tenuous rapprochement, I learned not that revolution was wrong, but that it is absurd to believe that a ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, can be faithfully transmuted into a working polity. Zizek does not offer statecraft, but inflated theory with which he cheers the coming crash. I have no doubt that life will get far more unpleasant, but I will not allow myself to believe that the decreased education, increased poverty, and burgeoning intolerance will yield a better world or revivified political debate through anything except pure accident. I will not applaud the clarity gained when the U.S. refuses to ante up more than a pittance for the damage wrought by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.

Nor do I believe that the “lessons” learned from these horrible experiences by the vast majority of Americans (or others) will be anything other than instinctive reactions towards some new random vector. Even the ultimately optimistic economist Joseph Schumpeter was sober and cautious when considering the failure of capitalism and the successful rise of socialism, offering only an equivocal endorsement of what he believed would come to pass.

Zizek portrays an America of uniquely extreme religious fanatics. But the United States’ problem is that through an unlucky confluence of events, a group of crazies have taken over, people who do not act, in general, in line with the beliefs of those who voted for them. This is not because Americans are particularly close-minded or bloodthirsty, but because most people everywhere are irrational and ignorant.

After the election, I felt an alienation from huge chunks of my country far greater than anything I’d previously experienced. I could not find words for it, but Steven Shaviro sharply articulated the paralyzing despair: Nothing.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice.

I believed this too in darker moments, but then I asked myself: what duty? I remind myself that this President hardly articulates policy, especially given how often it reverses. His steady, agonizingly simple personality is the foundation for any policy; (I don’t think Tom DeLay could have gotten elected with the same rhetoric, and so far, he agrees with me.) With any luck, this version of politics too will fall away after Bush leaves public office (whenever that may be), and there is no longer a cowboy hat on which to hang the current policies.

Looking to the future, I think that India has it right. The Road to Surfdom has a piece on India’s attitude towards America that gives probably the best-case long-term scenario. Dunlop paraphrases the Indian government’s attitudes as such:

[The Congressional delegation] spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don’t much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That’s our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You’ve encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix – terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don’t care about sanctions.

That seems about right. The resistance of so many people to embrace a non-Western-centric view of the next half-century years (and I include Zizek here) is as much a product of parochialism as it is of short-sightedness. The view of a battle between European progressivism and American fundamentalism (Zizek calls it fundamentalism; I, who can’t see a competent hand at the wheel, would just term it insanity) seems obsolete, an artifact of half a millennium of Eurocentrism.

Given the damage wrought to it by the tsunamis, India certainly regrets the United States’ lack of assistance, but is probably not surprised by it. The United States’ total inability to lead in aiding South Asia, or even to feign appropriate sympathy (pace Burke), is ironically appropriate. I still wish that the richest country in the world would shell out a few billion, and I do believe Kerry would have wrangled a bit more, though not as much as I would like. But either way, change is coming through economic realignment, not through Zizek’s advocacy of the repoliticization of the economy (which itself seems to be synonymous with a re-Europeanization of the world).

Likewise, the damaging acts of the United States, assuming they don’t wipe us all out, will be self-marginalizing, rendering the decline of liberalism and the increased polarization of Europeans and Americans irrelevant. So when I am set upon by the black mood of despair that Steven Shaviro described, I regretfully welcome the decline of the United States’ influence, so as to minimize the impact and scope of what Zizek ominously describes as “the confrontations to come.”

Ominous to me, at least.

New Grub Street, George Gissing

New Grub Street does not, as you would expect, justify its five-hundred page length, which gets padded with detours and subplots about inheritances and the melodramatic deaths of several characters, but it is very finely etched when it focuses on its two fundamental incompatibles: writing and money. Gissing is so relentlessly materalistic in his focus that the writer’s life looks inconceivably horrible by the end of the book: his characters exercise their meager talents towards prostitution or invisibility.

Gissing is similarly impersonal in discussing the rationales his characters give for writing, and the effect is savage, even when Gissing pleads for compassion. The overall impact is similar to George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but that book’s Gordon Comstock is able to renounce writing for a happier career and existence, as Orwell himself did for a short period. Gissing is utterly fatalistic about people saddled with an artistic temperament.

It’s late 19th century London. Jasper Milvain writes witty crap for slick weeklies while Edwin Reardon toils in obscurity on unpopular, uncommercial novels before trying his hand unsuccessfully at hackwork. His friend Harold Biffen works on his self-proclaimed revolutionary work of social realism, Mr. Bailey, Grocer. Meanwhile, the elderly Alfred Yule writes academic literary essays that no longer appeal to the magazines, for which he recruits the uncredited help of his daughter Marian, who, it is implied, is the most talented writer of the lot, not that anything ever comes of it. All of them follow painfully predictable trajectories, enlivened by the unceasing machinery of thought, justification, and bitterness around their particular situations.

Gissing is so attuned to the peculiar and not entirely attractive self-indulgences of the decent, uncommercial writers that, fairly late in the book, he delivers a straight-up apologia for them:

The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem to you inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don’t they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make place in the world’s eye–in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr Jasper Milvain?

But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of society, and they are admirable citizens. Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character which is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man. These two were richly endowed with the kindly and the imaginative virtues; if fate threw them amid incongruous circumstances, is their endowment of less value? You scorn their passivity; but it was their nature and their merit to be passive. Gifted with independent means, each of them would have taken quite a different aspect in your eyes. The sum of their faults was their inability to earn money; but, indeed, that inability does not call for unmingled disdain. (425)

To underscore his point, he then kills off both of them, Reardon by sickness and Biffen by pathetic suicide. He pleads compassion for these as others did for Little Nell, Tess, Sister Carrie, and the Rudkus family, which is not an unusual technique except that it is rarely deployed towards someone as seemingly gifted and spoiled as a rational, workaday writer. Gissing’s apologia is compassionate without being wholly supportive; he seems to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. And conspicuously absent from his case is any appeal to the utilitarian benefits of books and creativity, or to the transcendental nature of art. These virtues are, evidently, private. After a genuinely beautiful passage where Reardon describes a sunset in Athens, he says:

I am only maintaining that [this contemplation] is the best, and infinitely preferable to sexual emotion. It leaves, no doubt, no bitterness of any kind. Poverty can’t rob me of those memories. I have lived in an ideal world that was not deceitful, a world which seems to me, when I recall it, beyond the human sphere, bathed in diviner light. (370)

It is the paradox of the book that this, even next to Jasper’s craven instincts, is a more convincing case for Reardon than Gissing’s apologia, but only to people already inclined to be sympathetic to him. Many, even after reading both passages, will still feel more of an attraction to Jasper’s aims:

My aim is to have easy command of all the pleasures desired by a cultivated man. I want to live among beautiful things, and never to be troubled by a thought of vulgar difficulties. I want to travel and enrich my mind in foreign countries. I want to associate on equal terms with refined and interesting people. I want to be known, to be familiarly referred to, to feel when I enter a room that people regard me with some curiosity.

And how reasonable his aims seem. Reardon’s momentary bliss is the exception rather than the rule; mostly he is caught up in unceasing misery in which he writes more out of compulsion than for any pleasure. (Gissing spends a good deal of time discussing the almost physical anguish that he undergoes while attemping to write more commercially.) Following from the apologia, much of the book is an attempt to justify the fatalist view that Reardon, Biffen, and even Yule were destined to end up in their unhappy situations. The afflicted made no conscious sacrifice; they had no choice in their fates, so there is no tragedy. When he is the only one left standing, Jasper sounds a melancholy note of social Darwinist triumph, destined for moderate success and moderate fame, and the book ends, as though by default.

The most striking thing is how New Grub Street doubles back on itself, striving to become as unsentimental a tale of the arbitrarily unfortunate and fortunate as anything by Hardy (or Mr. Bailey, Grocer), but adding in melodrama and other plot machinations to keep things rolling. Gissing’s motives seem fairly uncontaminated, but his case is difficult: social realism and writers are an incongruous pairing, because, as Gissing mentions repeatedly, the average person will think the writers aren’t acting in good faith. Gissing counteracts this inclination through focusing in fine detail on finances and making occasional explicit pleas for mercy. But he has to let in some of the writers’ rationales, frivolous as they may seem, and he paints Jasper as a bad man to help elevate the unfortunates. Gissing’s strategies to maintain the balance between soaring, useless artistic success and hard social realism are at least as fascinating as the gloomy pronouncements on the London writing scene and the literary tastes of the plebes.

Ironically, New Grub Street is finally more effective than what I’ve read of his other, more Hardy-like books. While the particular Victorian miseries have transmuted and migrated, the self-deceptions and self-inflations of artists remain universals, as does the public’s lack of sympathy for those who sustain a Reardon-like existence off of the dole and arts council grants.

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