The literary merit of right-wing SF

The results are in for the 2014 Hugo Awards. I’m pleased with the results in the fiction categories—a little sad that The Waiting Stars didn’t win its category, but it is the sort of thing that would not be to everyone’s taste.

Now that it’s all over, people are chewing over the politics of this year’s shortlist, particularly the infamous sad puppy slate, over on John Scalzi’s blog, and this was going to be a comment there, but I don’t seem to be able to post comments there, so y’all get the expanded version here instead. I’m responding particularly to this sentiment, which I believe accurately characterizes the motivation behind Larry Correia’s original posting of his slate, and the motivations of those who might have voted for it:

I too am someone who likes, and dislikes, works from both groups of authors. However, only one group ever gets awards. The issue is not that you cannot like both groups, but that good works from the PC crowd get rewarded and while those from authors that have been labeled unacceptable are shunned, and that this happens so regularly, and with such predictability that it is obviously not just quality being rewarded.

BrowncoatJeff

I cannot speak to the track record, not having followed genre awards closely in the past. But as to this year’s Hugo shortlist, it is my considered opinion that all the works I voted below No Award (except The Wheel of Time, whose position on my ballot expresses an objection to the eligibility rules) suffer from concrete, objective flaws on the level of basic storytelling craft, severe enough that they did not deserve a nomination. This happens to include Correia’s own novels, and all the other works of fiction from his slate that made the shortlist. Below the fold, I shall elaborate.

(If you’re not on board with the premise that there is such a thing as objective (observer-independent) quality in a work of art, and that observers can evaluate that independently from whether a work suits their own taste or agrees with their own politics, you should probably stop reading now. Note that this is not the same as saying that I think all Hugo voters should vote according to a work’s objective quality. I am perfectly fine with, for instance, the people who voted Opera Vita Aeterna below No Award without even cracking it open—those people are saying Vox Day is such a despicable person that no matter what his literary skills are, he should not receive an award for them and that is a legitimate critical stance. It is simply not the critical stance I am taking right now.)

Let me first show you the basic principles of storytelling craft that I found lacking. I did not invent them; similar sentiments can be found in, for instance, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, the Turkey City Lexicon, Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, Robert Schroeck’s A Fanfic Writer’s Guide To Writing, and Aristotle’s Poetics. This formulation, however, is my own.

  1. Above all, a story must not be boring. The reader should care, both about what happens to these people, and about the ultimate resolution to the plot.
  2. Stories should not confuse their readers, and should enable readers to anticipate—but not perfectly predict—the consequences of each event.
  3. The description, speech, and actions of each character in a story should draw a clear, consistent picture of that character’s personality and motivations, sufficient for the reader to anticipate their behavior in response to the plot.
  4. Much like music, stories should exhibit dynamic range in their pacing, dramatic tension, emotional color, and so forth; not for nothing is monotony a synonym for tedium.
  5. Style, language, and diction should be consistent with the tone and content of the story.
  6. Rules 2–5 can be broken in the name of Art, but doing so demands additional effort and trust from the reader, who should, by the end of the story, believe that it was worth it.

With that in hand, I shall now re-review the works that didn’t deserve (IMNSHO) to make the shortlist, in order from most to least execrable.

Opera Vita Aeterna

This is textbook bad writing. The most obvious problem is the padded, purple, monotonously purple prose, which obviously fails point 4, and less obviously fails point 5 because the content isn’t sufficiently sophisticated to warrant the style. The superficial flaws of writing are so severe that it’s hard to see past them, but if you do, you discover that it fails all the other points as well, simply because there wasn’t enough room, underneath all of those purple words, for an actual plot. It’s as if you tried to build a building entirely out of elaborate surface decorations, without first putting up any sort of structural skeleton.

The Butcher of Khardov and Meathouse Man

These are both character studies, which is a difficult mode: if you’re going to spend all of your time exploring one character’s personality, you’d better make that one character interesting, and ideally also fun to be around. In these cases, the authors were trying for tragically flawed antiheroes and overdid the anti-, producing characters who are nothing but flaw. Their failures are predictable; their manpain, tedious; their ultimate fates, banal. It does not help that they are, in many ways, the same extruded antihero product that Hollywood and the comic books have been foisting on us for going on two decades now, just taken up to 11.

Khardov also fails on point 2, being told out of order for no apparent reason, causing the ending to make no sense. Specifically, I have no idea whether the wild-man-in-the-forest scenes are supposed to occur before or after the climactic confrontation with the queen, and the resolution is completely different depending on which way you read it.

Meathouse Man was not on Correia’s slate. It’s a graphic novel adaptation of a story written in the 1970s, and it makes a nice example of point 6. When it was originally written, a story with a completely unlikable protagonist, who takes exactly the wrong lessons from the school of hard knocks and thus develops from a moderate loser into a complete asshole, would perhaps have been … not a breath of fresh air, but a cold glass of water in the face, perhaps. Now, however, it is nothing we haven’t seen done ten billion times, and we are no longer entertained.

The Chaplain’s Legacy and The Exchange Officers

These are told competently, with appropriate use of language, credible series of events, and so on. The plots, however, are formula, the characters are flat, the ideas are not original, and two months after I read them, I’m hard pressed to remember enough about them to criticize!

I may be being more harsh on Torgerson than the median voter, because I have read Enemy Mine and so I recognize The Chaplain’s Legacy as a retread. (DOES NO ONE READ THE CLASSICS?!) Similarly, The Exchange Officers is prefigured by hundreds of works featuring the Space Marines. I don’t recall seeing remotely piloted mecha before, but mecha themselves are cliché, and the remotely piloted part sucks most of the suspense out of the battle scenes, which is probably why it hasn’t been done.

The Grimnoir Chronicles

Correia’s own work, this falls just short of good, but in a way that is more disappointing than if it had been dull and clichéd. Correia clearly knows how to write a story that satisfies all of the basic storytelling principles I listed. He is never dull. He comes up with interesting plots and gets the reader invested in their outcome. He’s good at set pieces; I can still clearly envision the giant monster terrorizing Washington DC. He manages dramatic tension effectively, and has an appropriate balance between gripping suspense and calm quiet moments. And he is capable of writing three-dimensional, nuanced, plausibly motivated, sympathetic characters.

It’s just that the only such character in these novels is the principal villain.

This is not to say that all of the other characters are flat or uninteresting; Sullivan, Faye, and Francis are all credible, and most of the other characters have their moments. Still, it’s the Chairman, and only the Chairman, who is developed to the point where the reader feels fully able to appreciate his motivations and choices. I do not say sympathize; the man is the leader of Imperial Japan circa 1937, and Correia does not paper over the atrocities of that period—but he does provide more justification for them than anyone had in real life. There really is a cosmic horror incoming, and the Chairman really does think this is the only way to stop it. And that makes for the best sort of villain, provided you give the heroes the same depth of characterization. Instead, as I said last time, the other characters are all by habit unpleasant, petty, self-absorbed, and incapable of empathizing with people who don’t share their circumstances. One winds up hoping for enough reverses to take them down a peg. (Which does not happen.)

Conclusion

Looking back, does any of that have anything to do with any of the authors’ political stances, either in the real world, or as expressed in their fiction? Not directly, but I do see a common thread which can be interpreted to shed some light on why works from the PC crowd may appear to be winning a disproportionate number of awards, if you are the sort of person who uses the term PC unironically. It’s most obvious in the Correia, being the principal flaw in that work, but it’s present in all the above.

See, I don’t think Correia realized he’d written all of his Good Guys as unpleasant, petty, and self-absorbed. I think he unconsciously assumed they didn’t need the same depth of character as the villain did, because of course the audience is on the side of the Good Guys, and you can tell who the Good Guys are from their costumes (figuratively speaking). It didn’t register on him, for instance, that a captain of industry who’s personally unaffected by the Great Depression is maybe going to come off as greedy, not to mention oblivious, for disliking Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his policies, even if the specific policy FDR was espousing on stage was a genuinely bad idea because of its plot consequences. In fact, that particular subplot felt like the author had his thumb on the scale to make FDR look bad—but the exact same subplot could have been run without giving any such impression, if the characterization had been more thorough. So if you care about characterization, you’re not likely to care for Correia’s work or anything like it. Certainly not enough to shortlist it for an award honoring the very best the genre has to offer.

Now, from out here on my perch safely beyond the Overton window, politically correct, to the extent it isn’t a vacuous pejorative, means something which jars the speaker out of his daydream of the lily-white suburban 1950s of America (possibly translated to outer space), where everything was pleasant. (And I do mean his.) Thing is, that suburban daydream is, still, 60 years later, in many ways the default setting for fiction written originally in English. Thanks to a reasonably well-understood bug in human cognition, it takes more effort to write fiction which avoids that default. It requires constant attention to ensure that presuppositions and details from that default are not slipping back in. And most of that extra effort goes into—characterization. It takes only a couple sentences to state that your story is set in the distant future Imperium of Man, in which women and men alike may serve in any position in the military and are considered completely equal; it takes constant vigilance over the course of the entire novel to make sure that you don’t have the men in the Imperial Marines taking extra risks to protect from enemy fire those of their fellow grunts who happen to be women. Here’s another, longer example illustrating how much work can be involved.

Therefore, it seems to me that the particular type of bad characterization I disliked in the above works—writing characters who, for concrete in-universe reasons, are unlikable people, and then expecting the audience to cheer them on anyway because they’ve been dressed up in These Are The Heroes costumes—is less likely to occur in writing that would get labeled works from the PC crowd. The authors of such works are already putting extra effort into the characterization, and are therefore less likely to neglect to write heroes who are, on the whole, likable people whom the reader wishes to see succeed.

Responses to “The literary merit of right-wing SF”

  1. njn

    It takes only a couple sentences to state that your story is set in the distant future Imperium of Man, in which women and men alike may serve in any position in the military and are considered completely equal; it takes constant vigilance over the course of the entire novel to make sure that you don’t have the men in the Imperial Marines taking extra risks to protect from enemy fire those of their fellow grunts who happen to be women.

    Nicely said.

  2. Joe Reader

    This question, and many like it regarding discrimination against the right-wing politics (e.g., in writing, in academia, etc.) embrace and assume a moral and intellectual relativism. The assumption is: 1) Because left and right-wing ideas are associated with different parts of the political spectrum, and 2) because a value in our society is to tolerate differing political viewpoints, then 3) left-wing and right-wing ideas are intellectually and morally (and otherwise) equivalent.

    The right-wing uses this to claim equivalent merit for many ideas which are inferior. But #3 doesn’t follow from #1 and #2. Climate change denial is not intellectually and morally equal to climate science. Racial discrimination and white power are not morally and intellectually equal to civil rights and tolerance. (Yes, there are right-wing ideas that are superior. But IMHO, the right’s standards are low, especially when their only standards are the assumption described above or tradition, and it results in an inferior body of ideas.)

    Who is to say what idea is superior? Yes, there is no absolute authority who can make pronouncements, but again, the lack of a definitive answer doesn’t make the ideas equivalent.

  3. Cat

    It takes only a couple sentences to state that your story is set in the distant future Imperium of Man, in which women and men alike may serve in any position in the military and are considered completely equal; it takes constant vigilance over the course of the entire novel to make sure that you don’t have the men in the Imperial Marines taking extra risks to protect from enemy fire those of their fellow grunts who happen to be women

    Especially since you shot yourself in the foot (possibly for effect, in which case, bravo; you got it exactly right) at the start by calling it the Imperium of Man.

    But I think you have put your finger on the main issue I had with Correia’s novel. His main character is a jerk who leads with contempt, but receives respect in return. It’s as if nobody in the novel realizes he’s a jerk, despite how he acts. (The scene where he walked into the Japanese Embassy struck me as particularly unbelievable in that regard.)

    I suspect, in fact, that this is because the right-wing crowd think that he ought to be able to behave contemptuously to the people around him. He’s a strong man, right? And the people he is treating with contempt aren’t real Americans for one reason or another. And they will respect him in return because he is strong and brave, and because his contempt is honest–and if they don’t respect him they are evil and deserve their death or defeat.

    And I’m over here going ick, a bully; I don’t care how strong he is and I don’t care if he faces death bravely, and I don’t even care if he is nice to his friends and people who agree with him, a contemptuous bully is still a jerk. And the main character being unlikeable just makes the whole book a lot less enjoyable.

    Different worldviews, I guess.