Whose Golden Age? A Response to Toni Weisskopf

Look. The Golden Age of science fiction.

Look. The Golden Age of science fiction.

This is what Baen’s Toni Weisskopf thinks about the changing face of science fiction and the cultural divide in its fandom. John Scalzi has summarized and responded to it here, but it goes something like this: In the dawn of time, when noble philosopher-kings like Heinlein and Clarke ruled over science fiction, everything was great. But the rise of icky ideas like “social justice” and “diversity” and “feminism” and probably “the academic cultural turn of the 1980s” have made science fiction sad and dumb. Much like America.

When I read this piece, I wanted to write a series of semi-scholarly blog posts referencing social history from the 1950s to the present and explaining basic feminist and race theory and the surprisingly difficult-too-grasp concept of privilege (for those still struggling, here’s privilege explained via video game metaphors). I wanted to illustrate it all with emotional GIFs and ultimately leave a black, smoking crater in the internet where Weisskopf’s essay had once been.

Tragically—no wait, awesomely—I’ve got a ton of more important shit to do. Like writing Reconstruction-era curriculum, baking cinnamon rolls, hanging drywall, familiarizing myself with West African historiography, and sitting in the sunshine with my dog. It’s a tough life, but somebody’s got to do it.

So this isn’t the four-part epic I imagined. Instead, I want to take a quick look at a single aspect of Weisskopf’s argument: That, in its early years, science fiction writers and readers could all agree that “it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction.” That the Golden Age Greats were so great, in part, because they focused on the pure glory of the genre and not politics.

In short, there was no such politics-free time, and it’s dangerously ignorant to imagine that there was. I’m going to take the route of least resistance and make a list (see: I have better things to do):

Almost every piece of writing more complicated than a pancake recipe has a politics to it. This is even more true of fiction, and a thousand more times more true of science fiction. Which is, for pete’s sake, a vision of alternate and future realities—it’s hard to think of a more inherently political genre. Therefore, these Golden Agers who agreed that they should have nothing to do with world politics had everything to do with world politics.

n1835Therefore, Heinlein has politics. You just didn’t notice, because they’re your politics. It’s a very common and very absurd trick pulled by Golden-Age-believers everywhere that, at some defined point in the past, we weren’t so divided by political and cultural ideas. What they usually mean is that, at some defined point in the past, the dominant conversation was so overwhelmingly dominant that it successfully crushed alternate experiences and ideologies.

Heinlein began writing in an era when being an educated white American male was the unquestioned pinnacle of human existence. At the very least, his writing was imbued with the politics of the status quo (which, in the pre-Civil Rights movement world, were pretty fucking terrible). His protagonists were white males spouting weird versions of libertarianism who would have gotten along very well with Howard Roark. And the ladyfolk? Friday is sometimes touted as a Strong Female Lead, but it’s also got nice dollop of android-woman-eventually-marries-her-rapist-because-why-not. Also, from Red Planet:

“Now, as I see it, this is a frontier society and any man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is an adult, too.”

Which boils down to: Heinlein and other early science fiction writers never divorced politics from their writing, because it’s impossible, and those politics were seriously problematic. If the entire sci-fi fandom of the 50s and 60s could overlook that, it’s only because the fandom was similarly narrow, exclusive, and privileged.

Octavia-Butler_1998_Parable-Of-The-TalentsSo, my Golden Age is different than yours. I don’t like Heinlein. Not, as Weisskopf so tactfully puts it, because I “watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book.” I pick up lots of books. Hence the book blog. But Starship Troopers is a creepy military-fascist wet dream promoting some of the ugliest politics of the late 1950s. I don’t like it. Stranger in a Strange Land is a plotless sex-fest filled with the kind of social commentary which starts cults.

Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov do not form the Holy Trinity of my science fiction experience. Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and George Orwell do. And hey! They have politics, too (and writing that is several million times better, and more interesting novel structures, and Jesus Christ everyone go reread Left Hand of Darkness and forget about Stranger in a Strange Land). But their politics didn’t reflect the dominant conversation of their time—in my view of things, a far braver and more adventurous implementation of science fiction’s commitment to stretching cultural boundaries.

The current fight in the science fiction fandom isn’t the result of hordes of PC marauders coming to steal your genre and Ruin Everything; it’s just what happens when people who aren’t white, male, hetero, patriotic Americans are finally being heard. Which is pretty damn great.

For much better and more complete thoughts on the subject, see:

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One comment

  1. One note about Heinlein: For the first few years of his career, he was flawed but progressive for his time. If only he’d stayed that way! It’s a pity he didn’t. But even with its flaws, “Logic of Empire” can break my heart on the right day.

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