Fairness in Fiction
I recently wrote an article in this space on the difference between propaganda and art. Like a philosopher, I attempted to divine the first principles or essential of both species, and to define them.
But it occurs to me that the philosophical approach is exactly backward when discussing art, since art is based on the intuition that grasps an abstraction by means of the concrete. All art is this attempt to find an ideal, such as, say beauty, by means of a perfect example or counterexample, such as, say, a marble nude.
Therefore to aid our blind and groping search for truth during the thunderstorm and shipwreck of life, let me offer, by way of seeing eye dogs, some examples of works which I hold cannot be propaganda, merely because they so adroitly tell both sides of the argument.
I will not use examples from Shakespeare or Milton or Herman Melville because I am a philistine who only reads the juvenile trash called science fiction. Although, actually, I have read those books, and those writers allow each man to have his full say, from Yago (whose motive is as impossible to discover as the Nolan’s version of the Joker from BATMAN) to Captain Ahab to Lucifer.
Indeed, Milton allowed Lucifer so eloquently to plead his case that some famous men were deceived into thinking the author was of his party. (I will not embarrass a famous name by calling anyone an idiot, but I will mention parenthetically that on midnight of the full moon, rain or clear, summer and winter I paint myself from head to toe with blue woad and stand naked in the town square screaming ‘William Blake is an Idiot!’ at the top of my lungs until the constables can subdue me with truncheons. )
Now that the bone fides of both my expertise and sanity have been established, let me mention some works which I think exemplary in telling both sides of a question. I will deliberately select authors who write works not to my taste to show the reader I am not merely flattering these stories.
Here is the best example, and it is an example I have mentioned in other essays:
A book of the Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley whose name I forget (perhaps it was HAWKMISTRESS) has a short scene near the beginning where a character from the technologically superior spacetraveling civilization is speaking with one of the natives of Darkover, a semi-medieval world. I forget how the dispute begins, but the native expresses outrage that the bureaucrats of the spacefaring culture never made decisions of their own, whereas the native’s liege lord, right or wrong, is responsible for what he says and does, and even if he is in the wrong, he makes the decision; and so too do the other lords of Darkover. The spacefarer nods, as if to admit the point, but says in reply that no one among his people has ever been killed in a duel.
What I liked about this scene, when I have forgotten everything else about the book, was the balance of it. There was no way I could deduce which side of the argument had the authoress’s sympathy, if either. I don’t recall which character spoke first or who had the last word. But there is something passing brave in the greatness and glory of a medieval civilization where the buck stops with the decision maker, and he lives and dies by his word. And something bloody in it, too. And, again, there is something petty and disgusting in the labyrinthine maze of lawyerly rules modern society wades through. And yet there is something civilized, peaceful, orderly, and great in it. The lists where nobles joust at tourney is a glorious thing; but so is an agora where trade in peace is conducted, and even the police need not be armed.
Second best of the several other examples that come to mind appeared in TUF VOYAGING, a fixup novel of short stories by George RR Martin. The premise of the story is that a chubby nebbish by happenstance becomes the owner of an operating ecological seedship of the long-lost First Empire, and all the secrets of a biotechnology forgotten on all human worlds are his alone to command. The main antagonist is a planet which indulges in dangerous overpopulation called S’uthlam (Malthus backward-get it?) so that her number outstrip her food supply, and she is a constant danger to her neighbors, whom she repeatedly threatens to invade. After attempting to get the S’uthlamites to contracept and abort their children voluntarily, Tuf uses the ship to sterilize the population against their will.
Now, reading this as an innocent child, I had no idea what Mr Martin’s political beliefs were, nor did I care, and the story was (as one would expect of a writer of Mr Martin’s caliber) very well told.
Unlike the case with Marion Zimmer Bradley, however, even a relatively inattentive adult can tell that this story is in the same philosophical ballpark as Harry Harrison’s MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM or John Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR, and many another quaint and curious scare stories about overpopulation that seem ironic, now that we live in an era of underpopulation.
But Mr Martin was not writing propaganda, on the grounds that the S’uthlamite officer is given a chance to have his say: he says, in effect, that the next baby born could be a Shakespeare or an Einstein, and that the alleged dangerous of overpopulation are insignificant compared to the benefit such a child would bring, therefore they dare not impede his birth.
Oddly enough, even as a child, I knew enough to see the sense of the S’uthlamite officer’s argument. He was, in effect, arguing that life was holy. It was an attitude Captain Tuf did not share, and the story is arranged so that there is no ambiguity about who is right: Tuf’s universe backs Tuf’s position. Nonetheless, while I forgot nearly everything else about the story, the argument about the unwisdom of contracepting and aborting potential genius babies stuck with me my whole life, and haunted me.
The reason why this is in second place is because the story clearly slants toward one position; the umpire of the universe is on one side. But that does not make this or any story propaganda. Even a slanted story where who is the good guy and who is the bad is utterly unambiguous escapes the dishonesty of propaganda if both sides get their say.
This is true even in simple boy’s adventure stories.
Let me use an example of two-sidedness from a story I liked: in the novella THUNDERHEAD by Keith Laumer, a lone military officer on an outpost forgotten by the Naval bureaucracy he once served has to make a desperate ascent to the top of a mountain to trigger the beacon when an alien warship, the last and desperate thrust of a dying race, attempts to trespass into human space. The aliens are portrayed in a convincingly alien fashion — few writers capture a truly alien look and feel better than Laumer — and these are clearly buglike enemies bent on the death of innocent humans. And yet, Laumer portrays them in a sympathetic light, underscores their courage and hopeless devotion to their lost cause, which parallels the hopeless loyalty of the main character’s devotion to a Navy that has forgotten him.
Even as simple and grand an action story as A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs, merely by telling the tale of Tars Tarkas, the one Green Martian who, among all the Green Martians otherwise raised by the collective like Spartans, knows and loves his wife and child, Burroughs eludes any accusation of onesidedness. (Any serious accusation, that is. Leftist would accuse God Himself of racism for choosing the Chosen people.)
Now this is not to say that stories without sympathetic villains are propaganda. Far from it! Both GALACTIC PATROL and its unadmitted younger brother STAR WARS are about heroes without flaws fighting villains without virtues. The Boskonians and Darth Vader (at least in the first film) are irredeemable Black Hats we are supposed to enjoy ourselves hissing and booing.
Indeed, a sympathetic villain, as we might see in Shakespeare … whoops! I forgot I was a philistine there for a second … as we might see in Blackie DuQuesne in SKYLARK OF SPACE, or the sad but treasonous figure of Dr Yueh in Frank Herbert’s DUNE, make the work impossible as a work of propaganda, if the villain enunciates his point of view, and, that is, not as a strawman argument.
But let me emphasize that point that works where the villain is made into a victim, so that the villain is now allegedly exonerated but in actually just as evil as before, are indeed pure quill propaganda. I am thinking of works like WICKED or MALEFICENT or INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. The propaganda message is always the same tired postmodern nihilism, preaching that wrong is right and right is wrong and nothing means anything.
An example might make this clear. Boromir is a character in conflict in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, tempted by the easier and darker path of seizing the Ruling Ring and using its evil magic to defend his threatened city. He is, so to speak, a gray chessman, partly good and partly evil. But the chessboard on which he moves is particularly distinct for having the white and black squares clearly marked: the black is unabated and inexcusable evil, and the white pristine with heartbreaking loveliness. But Boromir is not a bishop, so to speak, and so he ends on a different color where he starts. He is a villain, or, at least, a hero who succumbs to overmastering temptation, who redeems himself by a valiant death.
Works like WICKED or MALEFICENT are merely the opposite of this. They darken the white squares, such as by making the harmless comedy-relief father in Disney into a raping and pillaging evildoer, and brighten the black squares, by making the evildoers into victims who were pushed or prodded into their evil without the magnificent blasphemies of Milton’s Lucifer. Oops. Showing my lack of philistinism again. I mean, without the magnificent will to evil of Doctor Doom or Darkseid of Apokalips. The point of such stories is to turn the chessboard gray, because this is part of the political worldview of the perpetrators of these vile defilers of childhood.
Catwoman is not necessarily considered a sympathetic villainess, but I am mentioning her only to have the flimsiest imaginable excuse to post a photo of her:
Let me use only books I very much enjoyed as counterexamples of what really are propaganda disguised as fiction. There are the two examples I mentioned in my previous essay.
The buglike aliens in Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS are completely unsympathetic, merely targets. None comes on stage, expresses any emotion, has any say, has any justification, nothing. We do not even get a scene, as in the movie THE LONGEST DAY, where an enemy attempts to surrender and is shot. They are just bugs, something to spray with insecticide.
But having an unsympathetic villain is not enough to make a book propaganda, nor is having a point of view, or a message, or portraying things from the artist’s own viewpoint.
What makes STARSHIP TROOPERS propaganda is that the message is beaten into the plot even when there is no plot, such as scenes in school or OSC, and the only voice speaking against the message are strawmen so flimsy that even the Scarecrow of Oz would be embarrassed, as when a bubbled-headed blonde breathlessly whines, “My mother says violence never solved anything!” She is merely the Abbott for the Costello of Heinlein’s zinger, “Tell that to the city fathers of Carthage.” (This was dumbed down in the movie version to ‘the city fathers of Hiroshima’ but since Hiroshima is still standing, I think the dumber-downer did not get the point of the zinger.)
So, again, we are not restricting our remarks to unsympathetic characters, but to unsympathetic points of view.
Heinlein’s book is only framework to preach his message about civic militarism. It is a message I like and I agree with, but no one not agreeing with this message is likely to like this book, because there is nothing else to it. Except the cool power armor. And it was the first book told from the point of view of a grunt, not a hero, who never learns either the causes nor the final resolution of the war.
Likewise with ATLAS SHRUGGED. Despite what its detractors say, the novel is written with extraordinary artistic skill. Anyone who says Ayn Rand is not a great novelist is shallow.
What Ayn Rand did, and I know of no other author who attempted something so ambitious, is invent her own theory of aesthetics, the meaning of beauty, and attempt to write a novel according to that theory.
Hence her every choice of wording, characterization, description, plot and so on, is in the most severe iron discipline of any work I have ever seen aside from Dante, but in this case the theory was her own, not classical examples of disciplined Cathedral-like symmetry as we see in Dante. You can read the opening five paragraphs of Ayn Rand and see why she selected the words and images she selected in order to produce the mood and atmosphere, and everything down to the last comma points to her moral philosophy she is trying to capture in storybook form.
However, this disciplined philosophy of art, a sort of streamlined classical modernism, leaves no room for the other side. No St Thomas Aquinas, however logical he may be, is allowed as a character in Galt’s Gulch among the other so called Men of the Mind. No human weakness or sentiment is allowed, even when a woman is choosing which lover to cleave to. And certainly no socialist or collectivist is allowed to do or say anything even the slightest bit sympathetic: their every nuance, even the way James Taggart blows his nose when he has a cold, must be monstrous and evil because he is a symbol of a monstrous and evil philosophy.
This distinction between art and agitprop is not that hard to make, but everything in our modern Left-controlled culture, which is hell bent on muddying and abolishing the distinction between propaganda and debate, expressing opinions and oppressing the downtrodden, makes that distinction hard for most people to grasp. I hope the examples here help.
In the case of Tuf Voyaging, the story universe was on the side of Tuf and on the side of Malthus (I say nothing about which side Mr Martin is on, since writers are a tricky breed, and we don’t necessarily let the reader in on our secrets).
But the story was not written to drum an idea into my young head, but to get me to think about the idea, or otherwise there is no point in letting the pro-Catholic villain of planet Overpop have his say. His say was say enough that, despite the slant, even as a youth, I thought he won the argument. Someone else reading the same story might think Tuf won the argument, or Tuf’s cat. Be that as it may: his art was enough like life so that living readers could have more than one reaction to the debates and disputes in the plot.
Not so with STARSHIP TROOPERS. No one could read that and say, “Hmm, although I do not agree with the bubble headed blonde dumpling, she makes a good point that violence never solved anything! And it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, for even the light yoke of gratitude to the all-Highest Creator, if extended to infinity in time, is a burden thereby grown infinite — and that my proud luciferian spirit and sense of injured merit will not tolerate!” The art is not like life, unless you think that there is no argument to be made on both sides of the issue.
Novels are about the search for truth. STARSHIP TROOPERS and ATLAS SHRUGGED are novels only by courtesy: they are really essays or exhortations in novel form. Now, I protest yet again that I enjoy both of these works very much, and I assert that both (unlike Phillip Pullman’s execrable AMBER SPYGLASS) are constructed with great craftsmanship, and, in Ayn Rand’s case, genius craftsmanship.
However, they are sermons. Good sermons, mind you, and sermons I like, but sermons nonetheless. Perhaps it would be more accurate not to call them sermons but to say these two books are something a would-be Moses might proclaim as he descends from the mountain of truth to address students, children, and inferiors.
Someone who has the one and only right answer is not doing what a seeker after answers does.
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And it should be mentioned that the Catwoman is a seeker after jewels, not after truth. I mention her again only to have a flimsy excuse for posting yet another image: