The Uses of Doubt

I have been thinking about a story I drafted a while back — maybe a year ago, maybe 18 months ago, I can’t remember — and to which I haven’t yet gotten a chance to return, though I may soon.

In any case, it’s a fantasy tale of two cultures — a low-tech patriarchal culture being overrun by a high-magic matriarchal culture. It was, in fact, inspired by what a Taiwanese student in one of my classes in 2008 wrote about the Taiwanese colonial experience — the way Taiwan in general experienced Japanese occupation, but also how the Chinese mainland had colonized the island earlier.

Anyway, the thing I was thinking about is that, personally, I’m not sure which culture creeps me out more. The patriarchal society is, well, brutally and stubbornly patriarchal, but poor and backwards and, well, it’s hard to expect them to behave in ways that make sense to postmodern, urban, Western folks in our world, right?; yet the matriarchal society, though it is more urban and more advanced technically (well, mainly magically, but it works out as a sort of analogue to technical development in some ways) isn’t really much nicer.

I would be hard-pressed to choose one society to root for, really — individuals, oh, definitely there are individuals in this tale for whom I find myself holding out sympathy, and in fact I can’t help but root for a few individuals from each culture — but it’s not like I have a personal stake in the outcome of their conflict. In my head, that’s quite apart from the ideological politics in our own world, or my own politics — even when it’s riffing on them; to me, whatever connections can be drawn to the gender politics, postcolonial issues, or whatever else we could discuss in our real world, are present in the story at the most on the level of philosophical questions raised within it.

In other words, this is not me trying to show something essential about matriarchy, or about gender, or even necessarily about power. My real-world ideological opinions don’t seem, at least to me, to map onto this world in any useful way.

This strikes me as a useful and interesting thing, a thing to be sought out in one’s own fiction writing, but I wonder why, and I wonder just what to make of it.

I could play the articulate-my-point game, constructing what I say so that I’m disavowing any objection to my subject position as an author. But we all know that will be called a cheat. After all, a few paragraphs above, I didn’t write:

My real-world ideological opinions don’t map onto this world in any useful way.

I wrote:

My real-world ideological opinions don’t seem, at least to me, to map onto this world in any useful way.

But certainly my real-world ideological opinions must enter into it on some level. While I perceive a series like Y: The Last Man (which I just finished a few weeks ago, unable to stop reading it) as balanced in its handling of a world populated only by women — they’re not saints, and it’s not like an absence of men from the Earth would make the world a utopia — I’m sure some female readers (or even other male readers, for that matter) perceive distortions in the text not apparent to me, like for example, why there’s a single group of distressed women who form a single semi-fascist group (the “Amazons”), or why the action and energy seems to be so concentrated on that last man… or why, indeed, the world should seem in nearly equal disrepair a year after the death of all men, and five years later — as if women simply couldn’t manage to put things back together beyond a certain point without men. All these things didn’t seem so apparent to me when I read the book, but I’ve run across such commentary in discussions online and offline and they made sense when I heard them. I just didn’t notice some of those things, or recognize them consciously, when I read the book myself.

As a guy, it seemed not unnatural to see such a world through a man’s eyes, though of course this fact is what makes it so different from Joanna Russ’s short story “When it Changed” or, indeed, the various alternate worlds of The Female Man (including, seemingly, the one depicted in “When It Changed” — and much more like the view of the world I saw in James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

So of course, this world I’ve made up in my own story implicitly is shaped by whatever ideology I have floating about in my head. That’s inescapable, because ideology, or opinions, or experiences — the whole complex of those, really — adds up to a certain set of sensitivities, but also a certain set of insensitivities, or what we might call blind spots.

I think it’s a cop-out to simply declare that inevitable: I think an author’s deepest predilections, assumptions, and so on inevitably manifest in his or her writing, but that he or she can also actively question them, root them out, examine them, and challenge them in the work.

That’s the harder part, though, the task that can take years and years of self-examination and experience to get at, and the task that never ends; and the easier part, for me, seems to be the necessity of not just pooping out stories based on this or that specific ideology. You need to be critical of, and wary of, your own theoretical or ideological propensities when you are writing speculative fiction, even more than in other kinds of fiction, because the potential for over-the-top idealization is too great.

It seems to me that both in the harder and the easier versions of this task, doubt is the stance and technique most worth cultivating. For example, doubt about received notions of history, gender, power, economics, and so on.

I recently critiqued a story by a student who set events during the Jeju Island Massacre and while I was careful to simply pose questions, not to declare his nation’s history for him, it seemed to me that a certain amount of the story was based on the way people today look back on Korean history from the vantage point of 2010 — the way modern, mainland Koreans seem to prefer to remember historical events (even horrific ones) in the narrative-historical context of the formation of South Korea as a nation.

Of course, the historical revisionism of mainstream historiography in South Korea is easy enough to pick out and pick apart for someone coming to the system from the outside. But we all have things we receive and take for granted. My own sense that biology — genetics and development — is a much bigger determinant of how human beings turn out than anyone seems willing to admit or face is one example; there’s evidence for this, and against the idea that human nature is formattable and reprogrammable. Still, too believe too completely in one model excludes the fine details, and might conceivably blind me to interesting complexities. It’s like the atheist who cannot, cannot write a sympathetic character who happens to have believable religious convictions: one needs to be able to suspend what one knows is reality to get inside a character and render him or her coherently.

This is an interesting and difficult skill for us writers to master, given that we tend to be people of opinions, indeed so strongly that this is one of the reasons many of us is driven to write in the first place. I know that in a number of my own stories, an anti-corporate bias shines through, for example. I don’t think I’ve mastered this completely, and perhaps — I’m not sure, but perhaps — it’s also important to know when you want to keep some of your own politics and integrate them into the story or world on some deep level. I’m not sure.

One interesting thing is that it’s hard to know when this is being done well: it shows very clearly when an author’s politics is being channeled in a text, when indeed the world itself structurally seems a kind of sockpuppet for the author’s ideological assumptions. The few times I’ve attempted to read novels by Sheri Tepper (The Gate to Women’s Country, long ago, and more recently, Sideshow), I’ve been unable to get too far because they always seemed so very contrived — just a little too over-the-top, a little too strawman and impossible to believe in. Likewise, looking back on the original core of cyberpunk fiction and film, it seems to me just a little too easily anti-corporate, exoticizing-of-Asia, and for-the-boys in its fantastical imagining of our future. (I’m all for anti-corporate sentiment, but I have to be able to buy where it’s coming from; for-the-boys, well, I do that too sometimes, but I hope not to exclude female readers so much; and as for exoticizing-of-Asia, well… I try to avoid it, while still presenting cultural difference for what it is.)

What do you think? And which books (or other speculative-fiction narratives in other media) do you think best represent this balance between doubt about, and expression of, author’s political or ideological beliefs?

2 thoughts on “The Uses of Doubt

  1. It has more to do with capitalism vs. socialism than patriarchy vs. matriarchy, but your descriptions sound a lot like Ursula LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed.”

    Tepper and Russ, IMO, often have explicit agendas that they want to publicize through some of their books, so they set up strawmen (pardon the pun). Sometimes the ideas and writing overcome some of those problems (e.g. Tepper’s Grass), other times, I don’t think it does. I really should try again to get through some of the Tepper’s books, though.

    While “Houston, Houston Do You Read” is not one of my favorite Tiptree stories, (I thought her portrayal of men and women in that story was too cartoonish and fell flat, even as a satire; though I acknowledge that it is probably her most famous story), Tiptree remains one of my favorite writers. “Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death” affected (and is affecting) my thinking considerably. (One of the main ideas in the story is the what is “love” between males and females – how much is “love” and how much is biological programming, and how do they interact?) After her suicide, I learned that when I was in the US during the mid 70s, she actually lived about ten minutes walk from where I lived in McLean VA. I may have walked by her going home from school or went to her house for trick or treat on Halloween. I wish I had the chance to talk to her (though this was before I read any of her stories…).

  2. Junsok,

    Okay, now it’s undeniable, I need to read those Le Giun novels — The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

    Tepper and Russ — yeah, in both cases I see agenda, and I agree that sometimes, but not always, Russ overcomes. (I’ve not read Grass nor anything else by Tepper which I felt overcame the inherent strawman.

    Tiptree’s another author I need to read more of. I have that anthology of her most famous short stories, but I’ve been so busy the last few years… I hope I get some reading time this summer.

    That’s crazy that you lived so nearby her at one point. I wonder what she gave [you?] for Halloween!

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