Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.
That would be fine if Moorcock extended the same understanding you think we should show him to other writers rather than beginning his essay by equating The Lord of the Rings with Mein Kampf.
Yeah, that's a point, and generally speaking I don't think he's on the money about LOTR or Tolkien. He tends to use hyperbole and radical language and sometimes goes too far for dramatic purposes, or maybe to get attention. I don't think that invalidates his larger points about sci-fi and fantasy's reactionary bent, and neither do his failures to consistently rise above the tropes in his own writing.
The fact that he sometimes stooped to writing things he lambasted others for writing is less important, I think, than his observations that many authors were perfectly happy to always write in that mode.
I mean, we could look at other last-generation progressive authors that way - Octavia Butler for example fought against racism and sexism in genre fiction, but did sometimes use racist and sexist tropes herself (which is the reason she later kept Survivor out of print). I don't have more trouble taking her seriously because of that.
Hmm, I guess Moorcock wants his readers to implicitly understand that by "radical" he specifically means egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and anti-elitist, which from everything I hear rules out Heinlein. This was probably taken as read in the venues where he originally published it, so perhaps it's all right that he didn't spell this out?
No doubt. I should have specified I was replying to that reading list in the book of interviews of anarchist writers and why someone would put Heinlein there, who by some works could be considered anti-establishment and against state authority. But then again, in some cases not. I wonder about Tolkien and Herbert though. But a wide net is probably smart, given that radical or even anarchist are not unambigious terms.
I've only read his original Elric stories the once, and on the strength of Arthur's recommendation, probably won't ever check out Hawkmoon or Corum. Those Elric stories didn't strike me as particularly anti-establishment, but I'm not the best at reading between the lines. I'd be interested to get Arthur's perspective on Moorcock's fantasy works.
There's also a subplot about an aristocrat who's also a Robin Hood shout-out in The Coming of the Terraphiles, the only other Moorcock book I've read to date. I found this a little difficult to reconcile with Moorcock's stated contempt for Robin Hood in the article, especially since his character doesn't even rob from the rich and give to the poor. Anyway, the subplot is all about this good-natured but impoverished aristocrat who wants to persuade a nouveau riches to give or sell him back his family's ancestral planet of Sherwood, so that he can set everything right with it again and put a Virgin King on the throne. The end to this subplot is that Sherwood ends up going to the guy's best chum after said aristocrat himself has gotten caught up in the obligatory NuWho noble sacrifice climax. Again, if there's anything subversive going on in this subplot, it went straight over my head - it read more like a straightforward English upper-class comedy of manners a la Wodehouse (but much less entertaining) than anything else.
@Janne: Hmm, I guess Moorcock wants his readers to implicitly understand that by "radical" he specifically means egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and anti-elitist, which from everything I hear rules out Heinlein. This was probably taken as read in the venues where he originally published it, so perhaps it's all right that he didn't spell this out?
I find the bad faith of everything Moorcock writes on the relationship of politics and literature so overwhelming that I can't take him seriously even when he does have a good point.
Well keep in mind we're examining the views of a human being across a career that spans 50 years. He changed his mind sometimes, he wasn't always careful about what he wrote or said. The problem with his potboiler heroic fantasy stuff was that it typically sold much better than his more politically-minded works - The Ice Schooner, The Black Corridor, the Colonel Pyatt and Jerry Cornelius series - so he absolutely made concessions in his politics for money and fame. Arguably, however, it was all to fund and find an audience for his politically radical fiction, which is what he's been focusing on almost exclusively during the latter part of his career.
Let he who is without compromise throw the first stone.
The thing with having the central character be someone of higher class might have an explanation in expediency, as well as a hidden desire for conservatism in the social order. A character who is of higher class has more opportunities for different plots on the face of it, much like affluene in real life allows more choice in life decisions. If you want the character be educated, or free from some societal constrains without wanting to spend narrative effort to explain the situation, the conventional choice is a higher class male, which might be something that a great many writers of educated, upper middle class backgrounds think they understand and identify with better. Which of course brings with it all sorts of unfortunate implications which might easily overshadow anything else the narrative is ostensibly trying to achieve.
On the subject of reactionary vs. radical authors, one thing to consider is the relativity of one's own political position and also to the different interpretations of what it is to be radical or reactionary. Since if radicalism is taken to be the willingness to change society in deep and (most probably) disruptive ways, which is the original meaning of being on the left(in the context of the French revolution) and of being radical in its political aspect, it is possible to consider Heinlein to be radical, since he can be considered a libertarian or a right leaning anarchist.
Carrying from this definition of radicalness, or being on the left, it could be argued, that those arguing for the dissembling of states and the absolute freedom of the markets are quite radical and on the left, since they are aiming at disrupting the society as it is to create something better, no matter what the short term costs are.
Of course we could then start to dissect whether this free market ideology, call it what you will, is really all that new and it is arguable that it is only reheated classical liberalism with problems raised by the socil liberals and socialists handwaved away and sweeped under the rug of impressive sounding (but ultimately too idealistic and unrealistic) economical theories and political philosophies from the start of the 20th century and especially those that were in their context just very strong reactions to the rise of the Soviet Union in the 20s'.
But getting from that back to the idea of relativity, what we consider reactionary or radical depends very much on our own position politically. If we think that the difference between reactionary and radical is not a discrete thing, but rather a continuous spectrum from one end to the other, with a middle point a sort of mixture of both positions, it seems to me by my own experience, that if one is very radical, everything towards reactionary is reactionary to a degree, even if on the spectrum it is still nearer to the radical end than the reactionary end. It might be a bit too abstract a way of considering it, but I tend to think that it is part of why social democracy was often considered a form of class betrayal by stalinists or why in the american political discourse (and to a degree elsewhere) being on the centre right or social liberalist can be called socialist or communist and there are plenty of people who accept this sort of simplification.
That was a bit long. Apologies.
Moorcock has a lot of problems -- not least of them that his name is, as Metafilter would say, eponysterical -- but he's always been pretty unabashedly anti-establishment.
Ah yes, I remember when that essay was first linked in this site years ago. It's not a very structured argument, bouncing from topic to topic and back again, but the content and the slightly histrionic writing style keep me engrossed.
The central argument: most "classic" science fiction and fantasy is fundamentally reactionary, and so are its writers, seems to me at this point uncontroversial. I have no illusions about Tolkien's politics*, but I must admit I find his storytelling much more engrossing than, say, le Guin's (heresy!). And I could run down a whole list of others, encompassing most of my favorite fantasy and science fiction works, Star Wars certainly included (I have no expectations of radicalism from Pratchett, either, but he still sometimes manages to shock and disappoint me, especially in his last few novels). Then again, we could justly lay charges of sexism and xenophobia against several of the the authors Moorcock holds up as exemplars of radical fiction (mirroring the historical and contemporary problems of sexism and xenophobia and a host of other -isms in radical movements).
*Then again, there's always this, and this.
I'm not nearly so well- or widely-read as some genre fans, but to my knowledge there hasn't exactly been an explosion in far-left sci-fi/fantasy since Moorcock published that essay (though there have been some notable works: The Fifth Sacred Thing being a standout example both in terms of its political sensibilities and its literary quality, by my reckoning). Then again, radical politics are, by definition, a niche interest, and it seems to me the height of silliness for anarchists, communists, and other radical leftists to search for hidden left-wing messages in "classic" and mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Far better, it seems to me, to accept that most of these stories - as with so much else that we interact with on a daily basis - is going to be at odds with our values and sensibilities to a lesser or greater degree, and consume them or not based upon whether we derive enjoyment from them. There, was that really so hard?
(As a sidenote, I recently read a book of interviews with anarchist fiction writers - including Moorcock, natch - with a glossary of other anarchist fiction authors at the back, and another glossary of authors who were not themselves anarchist but were still of interest to anarchist readers. Included among the latter were Frank Herbert, Heinlein, and Tolkien. The book seemed to take a "big tent" approach, not subjecting its candidates to rigorous screening for political and ethical acceptability. Given the penchant of leftists to disown and denounce each other over the most minuscule points of doctrinal or strategic disagreement, this was likely the best approach, but it means some truly puzzling figures made it through the net.)
Also of interest, there's this more recent, more coherent, and less hyperbolic - also much longer - essay by David Graeber on the underlying political sensibilities of the Superhero genre.
*i.e. melodrama up to eleven
When I was at University of Chicago, Westboro Baptist once came to campus. My Episcopalian friend met them with a "God Hates Figs" sign (Mark 11:12-14)
I'm not sure if they noticed him though, because apparently the fraternity brothers had also decided to counter-protest, by stripping to their briefs and blasting "It's Raining Men" on the boom box.
However, it seems that one player with a social conscience and a sense of humor has bequeathed the notorious Westboro Baptist Church gym with a Clefairy (fairy-type, natch) named LOVEISLOVE as its Pokemon guardian. Ah, sweet Schadenfreude.
As a sidebar, this story has gotten me thinking, and now I want to attend a Westboro Baptist Church rally with a sign reading
*People who wear any kind of blended fabrics
*Anybody who touches a woman while she's menstruating
*People who use the wrong kind of shingles on their roofs
etc. (those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head)
It feels so point-missy, it reminds me of Dan's Tam Lin argument. Like someone's going "You know what would make the panic-inducing confusion of slowly realising you are stranded alone in a strange place surrounded by people who view you as an alien intruder and plot your horribly-unspecific doom for reasons you don't even understand but vaguely associated with mysterious cults, and whose unknowability gradually unfolds into not actually being human at all, even more terrifying? If they also do ordinarily horrible things for ordinarily horrible reasons."
On the other hand I have never read any Brian Lumley to my knowledge. I actually quite enjoy both pastiche and the pulpier end of weird fiction, partly because I actively shy away from genuine horror. Still, what I've heard of his work so far hasn't managed to enthuse me.
Necroscope I remember being something of an exception, but not much of one. The first novel mashed up Cold War psychic espionage with a pretty unique body horror-type conception of vampires, and that was quite fun. But at the series went on he just tacked on more and more stuff until it became this totally ridiculous, unwieldy cartoon which entirely lost the atmosphere of the first book. (There is an entire sub-series that is basically set in a fantasyland run by vampires.)
I don't think he's quite as bad as Robert E. Howard, who I felt never really wanted to write horror so much as adventure fiction with horror affectations because he really didn't want to write about situations of helplessness (see how Howard's protagonists can get out of most situations with their fists, with only occasional exceptions), but I think Lumley does tend to slip into adventure fiction mode if he isn't careful, which is a shame because there's glimmerings of him being able to really deliver the goods on the horror front but I feel that he rarely (if ever) has, with the first Necroscope book being as close as he's got.
But I hasten to add that it's been years and years since I read the series. It'd probably be good fodder for a Reading Canary article.
(1) The early Titus Crow stuff was OK in a August Derleth/Lin Carter cheap pastiche sort of a way.
(2) The idea that Azathoth is just a nuclear explosion, for instance.
(3) Like Kthanid, Cthulhu's good twin brother - you know he's the good twin because he's sparkly!
(4) In particular, I seem to remember him writing a bunch of stuff that took the whole Shadow Over Innsmouth premise and doubling down on it, entirely failing to consider how racist the idea is and adding a whole bunch of rapey stuff in the bargain.
On Star Trek, the biggest obstacle to a good show in the tradition of Star Trek might be that it is such an established franchise that the product is seen as something that money can be made of, which means pandering to the supposed audience, which might lead to conventional and "safe" content and avoiding any meaningful progressiveness or social commentary. On the other hand, it is made for the small screen, which might very well mean that they will get more freedom to push the envelope and make something not seen before and courageous. Courageous from the point of view of those people that always think the audiences want something safe and uncontroversial. In other words, will they just go for the nostalgia button or will they actually try and make something new?
I'm also really digging these ideas for potential debates around issues of science, religion, nihilism, and similar themes. It's definitely the sort of stuff I could see a good Trek show exploring in some really interesting ways.
Sunnyskywalker: Uhura being not just a black woman, but a black woman from Africa whose first language is Swahili
You know, I don't think I'd realized that before. Cool.
James D: Well, Julian Bashir was of course a prominent Arab crew member, and the actor who plays him is Muslim in real life, but I don't think his religious views were ever brought up one way or the other.
I don't think they were, either. And actually, it took me a long time to realize he was Arabic, but I was pretty young when the show first aired.
On which point, DS9 concluded its run in 1999, two years before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, and the subsequent explosion of anti-Arab racism in the US (and at least some parts of Europe). Since then, no official Trek show or movie I'm aware of has had an Arab among the main cast, when we need positive portrayals of Middle Easterners in movies and TV more than ever.
And I do think it needs to be (at least one) Arab character, because while the hateful rhetoric is couched in religious terms, the actual violence and discrimination laps over onto non-Muslim Middle Easterners, Sikhs, and the like.
@Janne: You raise an interesting point about people from former Soviet countries as the go-to mooks of our era. I confess I hadn't noticed it, personally, but I can easily believe it.
Now I think about it, it's interesting to consider the politics of who gets cast as generic bad guys in American TV and film. Specifically, I don't think there's much popular sentiment of distrust or hatred directed toward people from former Soviet-block countries (well, except for a bit of anti-Russian bias, mainly). Similarly, US film studios and networks are notoriously enamored of casting English villains (also Germans, because World War II still has a lot of cache out here), but the popular mainstream view of England and Germany still seems to be highly positive, and moderately positive, respectively.
As for the movies, iirc, Uhura is supposed to be from Kenya. Let's see if she ever gets a line or scene establishing in passing whether she's Muslim. It won't be quite as topical as if it had come up in passing in 2009 that btw, this long-beloved and heroic character is a Kenyan Muslim, but better late than never...
A glumatheists meeting with a Q like presence would be interesting, especially if a pessimistic nihilist would expect a superior being to be a cthulhu like creature in behaviour at least. So it might be an arc for the character to evolve in his nihilism, perhaps.
And of course I don't mean that in TOS Spock and McCoy can be reduced to such caricatures completely, but I'm talking more about character dynamics. Similarly, those philosophical aspects would not have to be everything about the characters, but to have the science vs. religion debate to be had by two protagonist characters neither of whom are christian, would be a fun and fresh angle.
If going by contemporary political expectations, the muslim character could well be from Chechnya or turkmenistan. I've spotted several chechens playing the role of villainous terrorists or being your basic mooks. Perhaps it is because they have a familiar name, but are sufficiently unknown to serve as base-line villains. Former Soviet ethnicities seem to be one of the main sources of cannon fodder these days.