Anatomy of a Duck-Billed Platitude

Politics is a lot like a washer and dryer. The issues go before Congress, get sloshed around, then put through the spin cycle from which they emerge soaked through with controversial riders that have nothing to do with the original legislation. Then they go to the Senate where, as they now have a chance of becoming law, things become intensely heated. Just as in Congress though, centrifugal and centripetal forces are combining to push the issues away from the center. The main difference between your laundry and politics, though, is that the clothes go in dirty and come out clean.

Emerging from any political debate feeling clean is next to impossible, however, and the issue of Sad Puppies and the Hugos is no exception. If you’re not familiar with the feud, a group of writers, mostly white male in orientation, who advocate a more traditional form of science fiction (read raygun-toting, rigidly masculine hero dominated stories) recently hijacked the nominations for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America literary awards (aka the Hugos) in much the same way that sports fans hack annual All Star Game votes.

Overnight many of the more progressive nominees had been replaced by more basic, less original fare. By definition science fiction and fantasy fiction challenge the realm of possibility. One should expect dynamic new ideas to be embraced and staid nostalgic conservatism to be given a back seat. Perhaps it’s an indication that our society is indeed in decline if the leading artistic vanguard of progressive thought does an about turn. Or maybe it’s just a reminder that we have a long way to go.

The latter would seem to be the case if the furore on my favorite writer’s group is any indication. There is an ongoing debate over whether the Puppies’ hacking operation was a sort of modern-day Boston Tea Party or a racist attack on diversity. Phrases like Conservative Bigotry and Liberal Domination were hurled from bunkers on either side, and the notion of conservative ideals being underrepresented in the genre was sincerely lamented. Again, science fiction is about progress both in the technical and societal sense. Conservatism is definitely perceived as clinging to the status quo. Is there a place for it in such a genre?

For me that depends on your level of absolutism. If you believe that conservatives resist all change, progress, initiative, and adaptability, then no. If, however, you subscribe to the more sensible definition as described by Merriam-Webster; “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change,” then why not? Are proverbs like look before you leap and one step at a time not good advice? They don’t preclude change; they just advise deliberate caution over recklessness. That seems sensible.

When you consider the proliferation of dystopian themes in contemporary science fiction it’s even possible to argue that conservatism is well represented. How many of those societies fell into ruin through unchecked advances in technology? Think dangerously fatal contagions being developed for military reasons inadvertently unleashed on the public as in Stephen King’s The Stand, artificial intelligence becoming self-aware and genocidal as in the Terminator franchise, and the ubiquitous nuclear holocaust as in both of the previous examples and literally hundreds of other novels, films, television series, graphic novels, and short stories. All were progressively minded societies which permitted scientific experimentation to evolve at breakneck speeds, resulting in disaster. Is that not an argument for at least a measure of conservatism?

One of my favorite science fiction franchises, the Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis series, often cast conservative government and bureaucratic oversight in an adversarial light, but the supposedly enlightened protagonists continually made very conservative, even inhumane, choices when faced with serious threats. On several occasions they betrayed allies who sided with them rather than their own kind, the humans feeling that they could not trust their new friends to remain benevolent. I still can’t decide whether those stories were criticism of conservatism, or advocacy.

Personally, I’ve always believed in balance. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself but don’t fall behind either. To my mind any good science fiction should have elements of both conservatism and liberalism, an understanding of the benefits and dangers of each, and an even-handed perspective. I look around me at the political forces that have pulled virtually all ideology towards the extreme, leaving a wasteland in place of the moderate middle ground, and wonder if balance is even possible anymore.

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