Monday, March 13, 2017

The Stalin in the Soul

In light of the pernicious fiction that science fiction started with Mary Shelley and proceeded to oppress women until Ursula K. Le Guin, it's fitting that Le Guin is herself a prolific essayist, giving us eyes into the pseudogenesis of SFF in the 60s-70s. The collection The Language of the Night has essays that show Le Guin getting it in ways no one else has - "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" is the best explication of Fairyland from anyone not an Inkling - as well as laughably boneheaded mistakes ("Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?").

What's most relevant to Pulprev (aside from "Poughkeepsie," which everyone who wants to write fantasy should read) are her observations on the state of SFF and what she wanted to happen to it. "The Stalin in the Soul," dated 1973-77 with snarky footnotes from 1989, highlights both her naming sense and the irony that Stalin isn't persona non grata in her circles anymore.

She starts with a hypothetical, about a writer named Y. who creates, in her opinion, the finest SF novel ever written, but is unable to publish it in his own country, and who fades into obscurity in exile. This isn't a hypothetical at all, it's Yevgeny Zamyatin and We. She uses the example of Soviet censorship to lead into the real problem facing the West - the bland censorship of the free market.

Some of this argument is enticing to the reactionary:
If art is seen as sport, without moral significance, or if it is seen as a self-expression, without rational significance, or if it is seen as a marketable commodity, without social significance, then anything goes. To cover a cliff with six acres of plastic film is no more and no less "creative" than to paint the Creation of Adam on the Sistine ceiling.
While some of it strikes the reader in 2017 as more of a pathetic irony:
Genuine newness, genuine originality, is suspect. Unless it's something familiar rewarmed, or something experimental in form but clearly trivial or cynical in content, it is unsafe. And it must be safe. It mustn't hurt the consumers. It mustn't change the consumers. Shock them, epater le bourgeois, certainly, that's been done for a hundred and fifty years now, that's the oldest game going. Shock them, jolt them, titillate them, make them writhe and squeal—but do not make them think.
But any goodwill Mrs. Le Guin gains by these examples is utterly squandered in her next hypothetical, an American math teacher named X. X. likes to write, he gets a few stories published, decides to go full-time writing, and writes a sword-and-sorcery story called Vulg the Visigoth to pay the bills, producing the unseemly large amount of fourteen Vulg novels in eight years, and has not yet finished the Real Novel he had planned.

This hypothetical is actually a hypothetical. She doesn't bring up any real authors that she thought had potential who wrote sword and sorcery instead. Charitably, she may have been too close in time to her examples. More realistically, I don't believe she read enough sword and sorcery to see potential in the authors, or to see how Vulg was inferior to Real Novels. It's hard to believe she actually thought any particular schlock author could have been anything else.

Or maybe she was referring to John Norman here? The title of the fourteenth Vulg volume is given as The Rape of the Eldritch Ichor. She gives alternate endings to this disappointingly hypothetical hypothetical, where X. is condemned to writing erotica, or comic books, or spy thrillers, or movie scripts. In Le Guin's opinion, X accepted the censorship of society, and we were all denied the novel he would have written. What a shame that X. chose to get paid instead of be persecuted for Le Guin's sake, because, after all, it's not possible to sell things that make people think.

It gets worse. In the next section she brings up the First Amendment.
The Constitution, which is a revolutionary document, is absolutely clear on that point. It does not grant us, permit us, allow us freedom of speech. It gives the government no such authority. It recognizes freedom of speech as a right—as a fact.
If you let the market decide what you write, that is, if you write things people are interested in reading, you are giving up your right to speak freely.

She does go on to bring up how difficult it is to know if books are rejected (Le Guin constantly takes gatekeepers for granted) because they were poorly made or if they were too subversive, too shocking, too serious - Le Guin is a schoolmarm in this essay, upset at us for reading dystopias that only use the destruction of society to shock and titillate rather than, I suppose, teach us something. She even criticizes them as "escapist," a label she laughs off with a Tolkienesque metaphor of jails and captivity in the previous essay in the collection.

The essay concludes with a lengthy Zamyatin quote that is from a 2017 perspective actually quite chilling, that ends:
If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today's truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.
Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution. There is no final number.
Le Guin and Zamyatin meant this to mean the process of gaining knowledge, of overcoming past error, but we've seen where this leads. It's useless to ask for their endgame, for their win condition, for when they'll be happy. They'll never be happy, not as long as we are.

I'll end my essay on this essay with a stand-up quote we should all take to heart, and that I don't believe Le Guin could have believed for a second would be used against her:
The only way to defeat suppression, oppression and censorship—and where there is institutionalized power, there is censorship—is to refuse it. Not to reply to it in kind—if you try to silence me I'll try to silence you—but to refuse both its means and its ends. To bypass it entirely. To be larger than it is. That is precisely what Zamyatin was. He was larger in spirit than his enemies, and he consciously refused to let their smallness infect him and decrease his stature. He would not play the dirty little games. He would not admit Stalin into his soul.


  1. There is no shortage of writers producing totally unsalable novels. The hard part is teaching them how to make something other people would want.

    1. The irony is that unless they are producing things other people would want, even if they did produce the kind of novel that forces you to take notice and change your worldview nobody would read it.