Today’s Sci Phi Journal takes the unusual step of publishing two radically different stories alongside each other. We presented them together because they represent divergent views about human nature. Karen Ovér’s “Lazlo and Laroux” is a fantasy involving dragons, but her underlying position is that life would be blissful were it not for a tiny minority who spoil the world for the rest of us. Patrick S. Baker’s “Red Vet” is a gritty alternate history that also contrasts the will of the majority with the minority, but his pessimistic outlook reveals how a popular regime might be considered righteous whilst it systematically crushes a decent individual.
I have not asked the authors about their politics, and labelling opinions as belonging to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ is too simplistic to provide much illumination, but I believe most of you will place the stories on different sides of a spectrum. Because of that, it might be considered a mistake to publish them together. If one story affirms your beliefs, the other will conflict with them. Whilst philosophy and science can and should encourage dialogue between intellectual sparring partners, I find it difficult to think of examples where recent science fiction has done the same.
From a business perspective, it is easy to understand why science fiction has become so divided, even as self-deluded (or self-promoting?) jackasses insist there would be no division if only the other people stopped believing the wrong things and accepted the obvious truth instead. It pays to pick a side, and to indulge it, especially in a crowded marketplace. It pays to groom a well-defined audience whilst ‘attacking’ its ‘opponents’, whether you are Ann Coulter or Teresa Nielsen Hayden.
My examples also illustrate a serious flaw with the conversation, which is too insular to question its own frame of reference. That insularity stems from the culture of the United States of America, even though the English language is spoken widely in other countries, and increasingly by educated young people in developing countries not considered part of the Anglosphere. The ‘left’ or ‘right’ of American culture cannot be simplistically mapped to other countries, though simple people will inevitably pretend that it can. Hence fans of a genre that stretches the limits of space and time can be revealed to be deeply parochial. This is a tragedy for science fiction, and one reason why modern science fiction is often bad.
Now I have committed another business sin: picking a fight with people who might otherwise be our target customers. This publication is not going to seek profit by favouring an American perspective. (Readers who noticed our fluid approach to spelling may have already come to appreciate that fact.) But the sin may be even worse than you imagine, because this is not even a science fiction magazine. The temptation may be to think of Sci Phi Journal as an SF publication that makes token references to philosophy and science, just as there are branches of SF that are more concerned with romantic or military affairs. As editor, I have an opposing goal: to promote writers concerned with philosophy and science who just happen to use science fiction as a vehicle to aid the communication of their ideas.
Treating philosophy and science as the fundamental building blocks makes it obvious why SPJ must not pick sides. Neither philosophy nor science is owned by one side of a debate, even if propagandists will wrongly argue otherwise. Some philosophers have managed to inspire both the left and right simultaneously, and partisans cannot possibly know if the objective accumulation of knowledge will corroborate or refute their theories. And so Sci Phi Journal will seek to value philosophical and scientific depth in preference to indulging any particular faction. Sometimes that might best be realized by presenting contrasting views side-by-side, as is the case with today’s two stories.
Much of the bitterness that infests science fiction is driven by the same emotional force that encourages petty behaviour amongst academics. People fight viciously for their sense of right and wrong when their self-worth is dependent on victories of such negligible significance that they hardly matter to anyone else. The problems of modern science fiction correspond to a general law that was attributed to Wallace S. Sayre, Professor of Political Science, in a collection of amusing epigrams by economist Charles Issawi.
On Stakes and Feelings in Disputes
In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue — that is why academic politics are so bitter.
Perhaps the best way to think of the rebooted version of Sci Phi Journal is as a social experiment. My personal views incline towards the pessimism of Patrick S. Baker, and not the optimism of Karen Ovér, so I doubt whether a publication that uses science fiction as a medium to explore incompatible worldviews can succeed commercially. That means it may never generate enough cash to properly reward writers, and so achieve its goals. But I might be wrong. Perhaps people will take to a platform where they can fight their philosophical corner through an honest exchange of words – where views are voiced and also listened to – rather than preferring the sound of their own echo. If that prospect appeals to you, I hope you keep reading. It would be even better if you chose to subscribe, and so contributed to the payment of the writers. And if you are the kind of writer who cares more about sharing ideas than affirming them, I encourage you to submit your work to SPJ. If we can find enough readers and writers with this outlook, the experiment may prove a success.