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Author of queer, quirky sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Saturday, 18 February 2017

God's Away On Business: Moral Ambiguity in Sci Fi

Hello hello!

Been a while, hasn't it? I have an enormous backlog of ideas, but I'm letting my fragile brain rest after completing a draft of The Meaning Wars, so that means it's time to return to my blog. I'd love to write more often this year, and any reader suggestions or requests for content are very welcome. What do YOU want to see?

Until I know the answer to that question, I'm going to share some thoughts that are, shall we say, pertinent to the current sociopolitical situation in the world. Specifically, when it comes to science fiction, who calibrates the heroes' moral compass? To understand authoritarian organizations and to resist them better, it doesn't hurt to look at a couple of the 'nicer' examples. It's hard to fight what one doesn't understand, and unlike a Lovecraft story, fainting isn't going to get us out of this situation. So let's talk about goodest of the bad guys!

Who are we rooting for?

Sure, it's easy to romanticize the rebels, but what are the consequences of that action? I'd argue that giving protagonists in dystopian fiction carte blanche in terms of resistance methods is a bad idea. People have to do what they have to do, but let's be honest about those actions and their cost. Still, doing the nice things or not punching Nazis isn't always an option. Every dictatorship story requires a cast of tough, ethically grey people in the spotlight, because the nice people tend to be the collaborators.

In the case of The Hunger Games, the resistance movement has some very fractious members who seem keen on seizing power. In Rogue One, it's clear that the Alliance isn't as tidy and unified as it seems in the later films. Cassian's actions, which I won't spoil, also make it clear that horrible tactics aren't out of the question. In my beloved Farscape, the storyline soon makes it clear that while Peacekeepers are sometimes hypocritical or oppressive, they do have some ethical standards, and are still often less evil than some of their employees or collaborators. However, standing up to them drives the characters to steal ships and sabotage infrastructure, as well as kidnap people. Sometimes they even just walk away from a situation when the more morally correct answer would be trying to interfere and support the people in fixing it.

However, the balance between altruism and self-preservation in dystopian settings is one of the things that makes them so captivating. Therein lies the appeal. As in real life, even good people have to make bad decisions, and the lingering popularity and love for Firefly over a decade and a half later show that people need imperfect heroes. But one of the interesting things about the show is that the organization the heroes are resisting, The Alliance, isn't...all bad, and the heroes are highly questionable.

 And Mal isn't exactly a portrait of consistent ethical actions and good decision-making, so the Firefly crew certainly count as somewhat unreliable narrators. The treatment of Shepherd and Inara is really unsettling, and the show frames them both as somewhat whiny or demanding - even when they are being reasonable.

Not bad (Or even drawn that way) 

The Alliance allows sex workers to control their own situations and at least tries to make sure colonists have food. Obviously, the secret science torture program and the initiative that created Reapers are bad, but the rest of the systems exist in a functioning democracy that doesn't have to bow to warlords like Niska, To put it another way, there aren't all that many differences between The Alliance and Starfleet.

In the context of authoritarian benevolency, Starfleet deserves a mention. They do have a lot of power within the interspecies alliance, and sure are happy to let their somewhat colonialist explorers to regularly break the Prime Directive ('we don't interfere except that it's what we do on every episode').  They have good intentions and mostly function well, but have done some really sketchy things. All governments have dirty laundry. It doesn't justify crimes against humanity, but what about times when crimes against humanity are the 'solution' to taking down an enemy? Certain events in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind, and the Japanese internment camps of WWII or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are vitally important real-world instances.

The ends of taking down an oppressive state may justify the means, but how far? The collaborators deserve what they get, but how far does that go? There is a point where the demand for justice shifts into a thirst for revenge, and the reasons for this are perfectly understandable. The thing is, a state IS its people. Rebelling against the state does also mean fighting people with wives and kids and pet dogs at home. Yes, they chose to be there, but questioning why and how can also help prevent further mobilization of bigotry and injustice. If, that is, the (usually white) heroes can restrain themselves from gleeful payback time.

The price of peace and stability

One of the reasons dystopian governments are often very controlling is that it's perceived as the trade off for mere survival. Warhammer 40K and the Cthulutech setting both make use of this, so that there are no 'good guys' and one ends up rooting for the totalitarian side just because they're ultimately working for preservation. In this respect, there's an uncanny overlap with a lot of rebel factions, in that ends do sometimes justify the means.

Sometimes, however, the price is far greater than the results; the populace in 1984 is in poor health, tends to die in the army, and is very ignorant. At least many dystopias, such as the one in The Giver, try to justify their techniques by pointing to the over all health and sustainability of the population. Even then, the government in 1984 is very ineffectual in its way. It's NOT a stable system. The government keeps a huge chunk of the population ignorant and keeps the intellectuals working so hard on propaganda that they can't question what's going on. The crumbling infrastructure of plugged sinks and stinking cabbage and food shortages - in contrast, to say, the Alliance's elegant infrastructure in the Core - shows how badly this particular system is running.

Are dystopias hyperbolic and foolish?

However, all of this may sound very objective and distant, a problem that does plague sci fi. Talking about monster hoards and invasive alien species and plagues and sexual and reproductive control can feel ludicrous in the context of current events, which aren't usually as lurid. And sometimes rebelling in fiction quells the urge for real action when necessary, imply naysayers.

There's a lot of salt and contempt for dystopias these days, partly because people assume that they are frivolous make-believe experiments in losing privilege for mostly white readers. That's not entirely without merit, but considering how many dystopias are aggressively post-racial and diverse, I'd argue that it's more about showing oppression in more than one context.

And finally, fiction offers opportunities to explore both sides of a discussion without having to invoke real atrocities or cheapen them, which can be stressful for survivors. Israel and Palestine's relationship certainly looks like a modern-day dystopia, not to speak of the current American government, but trying to talk about ethics in that context seems insensitive at best. Fiction allows us to explore possibilities without exacting a human cost for the experiment. And because of that safety, understanding how the rise to power happened can just be easier and less horrible when viewed through the lens of sci fi. And that is important, because seeing institutions as a group of people rather than an immobile and immortal bloc also makes them easier to defeat.


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