Tuesday, February 7, 2017

On Genre Ignorance & Politics


Trigger Warning:
The following post contains a bit of name-calling and a judgmental, possibly even self-righteous tone.

There’s a reason most writers of speculative fiction, i.e. science fiction, fantasy, horror and magical realism, shudder when we hear some overpaid media pinhead use a clueless expression such as, “It’s like something out of science fiction.” It’s not because there aren’t situations that might actually call for such a dubious phrase, however. It’s because the majority of the time, it’s being used stupidly to make a point better made by just discussing the issue at hand.

The most recent example of this started with an idiot being allowed to speak for an even bigger idiot. That first idiot is Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the *urp* President of the United States. I’m pretty sure you’ve already guessed the identity of the bigger idiot. And unless you’ve been on a self-imposed media blackout the scale of which would be truly impressive as well as enviable, you are probably aware of Conway’s insistence on the existence of “alternative facts.”

Her unfortunate and no doubt intentional phrasing has entered the lexicon in a big and probably unintended way.  Instead of being a viable concept, it’s become a running gag on social media the likes of which we haven’t seen since, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Naturally, not every piece of commentary has been satiricial, and that brings me right back to where this whole thing started: This well-intentioned but ultimately clueless letter comparing science fiction to alternative facts.
 
The letter's author, one Gordon Merseth of Portland, Oregon, seems to be making a case for science fiction and the sub-genre alternate history as being akin to the altered reality the Trump administration seems hell-bent on fostering on the American public. While that attempt might seem to work on the surface, it's a specious comparison rooted in genre ignorance not unlike the writing of a certain English school principal I wrote about last year. In the minds of non-fans and even those who have little appreciation for science fiction, it is little more than a weird distortion of concrete reality bereft of rules and somehow disingenuous as a literary form.
 
Fortunately, no less than one of the greatest living science fiction authors of all time, Ursuala K Le Guin,  took Mr. Merseth to task for his lack of a foundation in the genre in a letter to his letter. In it, she wrote:
 
 The comparison won't work.  We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real - all invented, imagined --  and we call it fiction because it isn't fact. We may call some of it "alternative history" or "an alternate universe," but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are "alternative facts."
 Even if I didn't know any better, I'd side with a woman the Library of Congress named a Living Legend because of her outstanding contributions to the world of English Literature.

I understand the desire to describe the Trump administration's blatant attempts to gaslight as many Americans as possible in terms that clearly and intelligently do so. But when someone tries to do that using concepts and forms of expression of which they are ignorant or simply misinformed, it becomes the focus rather than the original intended subject.

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