Politically Incorrect Ramblings or The Metrosexualization of Short SF

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“The Insane Ones” by J.G. Ballard (Amazing, 1962)
While reading Robert Silverberg‘s “Reflections” column in the April/May 2005 Asimov’s, which deals primarily with what Orwell termed “thoughtcrimes,” I couldn’t help but note the irony. What irony, you ask?

It is a common assumption from the Liberal political Left today that it is the Conservative political Right that is infringing on our individual personal freedoms—and they’ve done a darn good job of convincing many of us of this over the past forty years. You say something often enough and people will believe it, so goes the adage. The Left cites issues of Freedom of Choice when it comes to abortion rights, and more recently the misinterpreted and misunderstood Patriot Act, as but two instances where the Right seeks to remove individual rights.

Personally, I’m staunchly in the Pro-Choice camp when it comes to abortion rights (though I find myself not willing to give that identical, total freedom when it comes to late-term abortions, except when the health of the mother is in definite question). I find myself in favor of the Patriot Act, but only if there are the stringest possible safeguards written into law. I am also an agnostic, which puts me at odds with many of the positions of the conservative Right; stem-celI research and, with proper safeguards, euthanasia, just to name two. I am not an ideologue for the Left or the Right, which infuriates many of my friends.

That said, I find that many more of our personal freedoms are in danger from the political Left than from the Right, and Robert Silverberg points up but one instance of this in his column. Politcal Correctness (and in the case of the instance written about in Silverberg’s column, the fallout from Political Correctness, but that’s another essay), has run amuck. Now, it seems, an active imagination and artistic freedom are under siege by those on the Left who have the power to punish us for what we think, and it ain’t those mean old, uneducated, bible-thumping, red-state bubbas who are to blame. It is those on the Left, often-called the Elite Left—those who believe, in their heart-of-hearts, that they know what is best for us, that we are incapable of making our own decisions (again, fodder for another essay).

All of which led me to wonder if SF is going soft these days. One doesn’t often see hard-edged political stories in short SF anymore—at least not many of them in the past twenty, twenty-five years or so. We’ll see the occasional story dealing with gender (a very tired theme these days, as more often than not a predictable Left/liberal agenda is espoused, but not really, dispassionately explored; the agenda is so predictable as to make for comfortable reading for those in the choir, but also terribly boring as SF—or as Judy Merril had it in the ’50’sSpeculative Fiction. Occasionally, we’ll see something by way of satire (humorous, as in Esther Friesner‘s “Johnny Beansprout” from the July, 2004 F&SF; or darker, as in some of Terry Bisson‘s or James Morrow‘s short work), but they are too far and few between, when taken as a percentage of the tonnage of short sf/f foisted on readers today. Most of which deals with character interaction, or the feelings of characters, or how they feel about whatever milquetoast situation lazy authors choose to put them in (yet another essay).

It’s as if much of today’s short sf has become metrosexualized, a term I’ll co-opt from one coined to label the metro-sexual male. You know, a yuppie sort who isn’t ashamed to be seen in the male equivalent of a beauty salon, a contemporary male who struts around with his hair carefully coiffed and shaped with Product, his carefully manicured nails bling-blinging in the sunlight as he straightens his Queer Eye for the Straight Guy tie, who has been convinced by his small circle of elitist, liberal, faddist (and also mostly brainless) friends who keep him insulated from the rest of the world outside the yup fashion district. Sometimes I have this unnerving and spine-chilling thought that too much short SF today is naught but metrosexualized SF. Boy, it sure looks great in its polished and coiffed literary clothes, but is what is underneath any different—or better? Is what is underneath (the actual story itself) any better for the clothes? My feeling is a definite no. There’s a dearth of imagination on any real, cutting-edge level today. Too often, SFWA’s Nebula awards reward the singer over the song (i.e. how a story is told, rather than what is actually related in the story (yet another essay). It is my hunch—and only that, but a feeling I can’t shake—that this is because many of SFWA’s voting members hold to this vague liberal literary agenda whereby the cleverer an author can be, how suave and effete their story-telling techniques are, the better. Who cares if the story itself is a tired one, the theme is trite or lacks true imagination without anything new to say. But boy, how cleverly the author left the resolution to the story so opaque as to render the reader scratching his head in bewilderment. But then the reader, not wanting to feel as if he doesn’t get it, turns to reviews in a few major publications where liberal “critics” spin the story as one of wonderment and progressive story-telling, and how mahvelous and insightful and avant garde the newest little darling (or metrosexual male author) is. And the confused reader buys it, not wanting to feel left out, wanting to be with the “in crowd.” Yup, the age of metrosexual SF is upon us, and reinforced by an elite group of cookie-cutter reviewers and critics who buy into everything they’re led to believe is cool, or progressive.

So I was surprised to remember J.G. Ballard‘s wonderful, satiric slashing of the Left (he being a Brit, which is a notoriously socialist-leaning country), in his 1962 short story from Amazing, “The Insane Ones.” In this story, published forty-three years ago, before many of you were born, the liberal agenda has run amuck. We have a United World government (a perennial favorite of liberals-socialists since Day One, especially in early sf), and psychiatrists have been banned. The reasoning being that it is everyone’s individual right to be insane if they want to be (as long as restitution is made for anything they do of a destructive manner). The protagonist, one Charles Gregory, M.D., has just been released from a three-year stint in prison for operating an illegal psychiatric clinic. One of his former patients, despite his help, committed suicide, and according to the Mental Freedom act, it is he who is to blame and not the suicide. This quote explains the crux of the story:

“The Mental Freedom legislation enacted ten years earlier by the ultra-conservative UW government had banned the profession outright and enshrined the individual’s freedom to be insane if he wanted to, provided he paid the full civil consequences for any infringements of the law. That was the catch, the hidden object of the MF laws. What had begun as a popular reaction against “subliminal living” and the uncontrolled extension of techniques of mass manipulation for political and economic ends had quickly developed into a systematic attack on the psychological sciences. Over-permissive courts of law with their condoning of deliquency, pseudo-enlightened penal reformers, “victims of society,” the psychologist and his patient all came under fierce attack. Discharging their self-hate and anxiety onto a convenient scapegoat, the new rulers, and the great majority electing them, outlawed all forms of psychic control, from the innocent market survey to lobotomy. The mentally ill were on their own, spared pity and consideration, made to pay to the hilt for their failings. The sacred cow of the community was the psychotic, free to wander where he wanted, drooling on doorsteps, sleeping on sidewalks, and woe betide anyone who tried to help them.”

Get the picture? Ballard had it 99% right. Switch his “ultra-conservative” government for “ultra-liberal” and we pretty much are living what many on the Left are preaching today. Individual rights trump everything, all the time, regardless of the effect on society as a whole. And how timely is the line about the mentally ill being left to their own devices, in light of the Terry Schiavo case in the news. Ballard puts Nostradamus to shame. The irony in the Schiavo case is double-edged, by the way. While the Left screams bloody murder when it comes to individual rights, it is the Democratic Left position in the Schiavo case that she be allowed to die, while the Republicans take the position that it is her individual right to live, and her feeding tube not be removed. A case so complicated (even as to the basic facts), that even the Left and Right have seemingly changed their stereotyped positions 180 degrees. What a mess!

The overall point of bringing up Silverberg’s column, Ballard’s forgotten story, and my own comments, is perhaps to strike a spark in today’s short sf/f writers. Not just in a political sense of awareness, and what isn’t being written about very much anymore, but more importantly not to forget the story. If you’re not writing about much of anything, it doesn’t matter how well “nothing” is written. SF, Speculative Fiction, or whatever you want to call it, is still a literature of the imagination. So use your imagination to its fullest, work it, and many times the style of the story will take care of itself.

Further reading:

“The Marching Morons” by C.M. Kornbluth (Galaxy, 1951) – Where the elite practice birth control, leading to unintended consequences.

“The Circuit Riders” by R.C. Fitzpatrick (Analog, 1962) – Where individual emotions are monitored at “police stations.” When the readings get too high they are pinpointed and the cops are soon at your door.
There are many more, but space prohibits. Besides, finding and reading them on your own holds its own rewards.