Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ideology and science fiction

Lou Anders has an interesting post (found via SF Signal) on people's enjoyment of books being affected by the religious or political views expressed in the book.  I can't think of a book that I otherwise would have liked that I disliked because of its political, ideological, or religious content, though maybe that has more to do with my reading choices than any innate tolerance; I really couldn't say.

There are two ways I can think of for a book or author's ideological stance to diminish a reader's enjoyment, and I think people almost always talk about only the first, which is when a person finds the author's viewpoint morally or intellectually objectionable in itself.  This is the kind Anders is talking about, I think, and is the kind usually discussed when the issue comes up.  Orson Scott Card is probably the most prominent example of an author some people won't read for this reason.

There is another way in which I can see a book's stance or viewpoint marring someone's enjoyment of the book, however, particularly in regards to politics.  Every adult who is not oblivious to the society around him has an ideology, consciously embraced and held or otherwise.  Political ideologies do, of course, have a purely moral component, beliefs about how things should be.  However, in large part, an ideology is a set of beliefs about how the world works, a sort of physics of society. Can government central planners do a better job of creating prosperity than the market economy?  Can despotic foreign countries be turned into successful democracies through invasion?  Will increased welfare spending have undesirable cultural effects on the recipients?  Is human nature as we know it fixed, or would it change significantly under different socioeconomic conditions?  These are questions full of moral significance, but they are not themselves moral questions.

If a character in a story is forced to watch as his beloved family is slaughtered and never feels any distress about it, most readers would think, "Hold on, people don't work that way."  If you're reading a science fiction story where normal people routinely survive 500-foot drops in Earth's gravity without being harmed, the implausibility of it will make it harder to believe in the world of the story, and thus harder to enjoy it.  My father, an attorney, can't watch TV legal dramas for more than five minutes without yelling at the television.

Politics can be similar.  When someone's ideology clashes with yours, he doesn't just disagree about moral values, he disagrees about how the world works, and how people work.  Thus, when reading a work of fiction, a violation of one's ideological expectations can be jarring in the same way that poorly done characterization, bad science, or technical mistakes can be.  If you believe that unregulated markets inevitably result in monopolies and plutocracy, a story with a world based on libertarian assumptions about society and economics will be that much harder to buy into.  If you think that the state is by nature an exploitative institution, a setting where the government works the way good-government liberals say it does (or can) is not going to be believable.  You won't believe in a setting based on a free-love paradise if you believe promiscuity causes unhappiness and social breakdown.  And so on.

There are ways around this.  (Perhaps everyone in the free-love paradise has been genetically engineered so that they don't feel jealousy or form strong pair-bond ties.)  And you can still enjoy a story even if you think it's based on bad assumptions about society and human nature, if it's other virtues are enough to compensate.  Nevertheless, I don't think it's at all unreasonable for enjoyment of a story to be affected by these factors, any more than it's unreasonable for it to be affected by the realism of characterization or science.

This goes deeper than bad physics, for me and I think for most people.  It's relatively easy for me to imagine that the laws of physics are other than what they really are, so that FTL travel or whatever is possible.  But ideology is in large part about the causal laws of human beings, and it's much harder to bracket what I know about human beings than it is to temporarily put aside what I know about physical science.  I can read about and contemplate special relativity, or not, as I choose; I can't stop living in a human society and thinking and feeling with a human mind.  Almost everyone has strongly held beliefs about how people work that are fundamental to their worldview; most people don't have such beliefs about science, even if they like the subject and are knowledgeable about it.

Of course, people who care about the subject mostly agree about the laws of physics, except on the cutting edges, and there's fairly broad agreement about at least the basics of how most people behave, at least on the individual level.  Ideology is far more contentious.  Most people would be intolerant of a story, if allegedly set in the real universe we know, where people enjoy being tortured or rivers flow uphill, but such intolerance never shows itself because everyone agrees on those points, and so there are no stories like that to be intolerant of.  There's plenty of opportunity to be intolerant where ideology is concerned, on the other hand, because no comparable consensus exists.  Whatever you believe about politics and society, the world has plenty of people who believe things that will strike you as the equivalent of "rivers flow uphill," and who would say the same thing about your beliefs.

So, yes, my enjoyment of stories can be, and has been, affected by the ideological stance or assumptions in a book, and I don't think there's anything unreasonable about that.  (Though I do my best to bracket that aspect when writing a review, since "Are the book's setting and events in accord with John Markley's social and political views?" is probably not a question SF fans are dying to know the answer to.)  Now, I don't give this consideration a huge amount of weight.  There are far too many different authors with different views for me to limit myself to people who agree with me, and my reading would be greatly diminished if I decided that, say, Iain M. Banks was too doctrinally impure to read.

What about you?  Has this issue affected the way you read or experience fiction?  If so, how?

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1 comment:

Yann said...

Iain M. Banks' Culture cycle can be read as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy. The Culture cycle is a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society: