7.15.2004

Elitism--for Better or for Worse

Tee Morris' Strange Horizons article isn't quite as scandalous as Matthew Cheney and Nick Mamatas think because the article has elements of truth.

There are a number of elitists out in the world and, as Cheney points out, elitism isn't so bad if you know what you're rejecting. The only way to know if what you're rejecting is worth rejecting is to become the other, to get fired by their passions. You'll find, for instance, different college courses, that don't initially inspire you, inspiring if you seek the spark that inspires the college professor teaching it (which becomes problematic if the professor never found the spark for himself). This will become more important when I get to the fourth of the elitists I will describe, a list which is in no way meant to be comprehensive.

The Populist elitist believes that what the majority likes is probably a better indicator of quality than any other. It should be safe to place Tee Morris in this camp since he does not seem to talk about the benefits of any other perspective than a populist's. I think I know how he feels. I tend to accept movies for what they are--even if their history or science is lacking or if they don't follow the book exactly or if it lacks even an incoherent system of symbolic content--so long as they're fun for the ride.

The Stylist elitist thinks that because certain famous literary works sound pretty, that's what makes it famous, so then should SF sound pretty! I'm a big fan of style, too--pretty or gritty or whatnot--and a lack of attention to the rhythm and musicality of words can turn me off--Nina Kiriki Hoffman in "The Laily Worm" does a fine job of refuting John Gardner's rule that you cannot rhyme in prose (she has perfect timing, too, which you'll have to discover from going to the August 2004 issue of Realms of Fantasy for yourself): "Stepmother taught us foreign witcheries, knots to tie in your hair to keep a lover true, knots to tie in your lover's hair to keep him away from you"--although I don't think it should be the central issue of a work.

The Literary-fart believes we've got to do art exactly as the literary farts do. While I have tried to establish that SF has evolved new forms of art by its very separation from other art forms (which is exactly how evolution works), I have a great deal of sympathy with Cheney's camp since I've got one foot in it myself (I've got limitless numbers of feet); however, when Morris speaks of "Verne... Wells... Shakespeare... Shelley... [and] King," he's not speaking of literary value as an art but as content. He seems to be saying they all wrote horror--a point that many writers would debate, which brings us to our next set of elitists....

Tee Morris writes, "I would never deem hard SF as 'too dry for consumption' or 'a quantum physics textbook with a plot' because that would come across a bit arrogant. Just because it doesn't appeal to me doesn't make the material inadequate. Different tastes, right?"

Morris pretends that he would not say such "arrogant" things himself--although he just has--but when he chalks it up to "different tastes," which he implies is not among his, he tips his hand as one who never really got into science. A lot of folks take science courses but never pick up its passion. It is not simply a matter of different tastes. It is the heart and soul of the Intellectual elitist, who loves every subject offered in a college catalog and loves integrating them into life in a practical way through fiction. This kind of love impacts every life in the universe, so it's problematic to reject on grounds of "taste." If the infertile can bear children, if the climate can change your home into a swamp, if a drug can spare your grandmother's life, if an asteroid can make humanity extinct, then we should all have at least a little "taste" and appreciate science, among the multitude of subjects worth discussing in science fiction (see your college catalog).

In Chasing Science, Frederik Pohl writes:

"I can't think of anything that would make me abandon that loving pursuit [of science] short of total bodily paralysis.

"What's more, I can't really understand why there are any human beings alive in the world today who don't share my infatuation with the subject.

"I do know what people say to excuse the fact that they shut their eyes to science. One frequent complaint is that science is hard to understand, which is at least sometimes true when you explore its furthest reaches. I would not deny that it is not at all easy to comprehend, for instance, some of the spookier parts of relativity, biochemistry, or quantum physics. But you don't have to pass a written examination in astronomy to feel a thrill when some new picture comes in from a spacecraft near a distant planet... and, anyway, there are not very many basic principles in science that are much harder than the vast quantity of arcane sports lore that every ten-year-old readily commits to memory, from basketball statistics to the infield fly rule.

"Science isn't just made up of big machines and complicated equations. Science is much simpler and more beautiful than that. At its root, science is really nothing more than a systematic process of looking at the world around us--all of it, including its furthest reaches into time and space--and trying to figure out what the rules are that make the whole thing tick. And, really, are there that many better things for anyone to do with his life, or hers?"


This perspective will become more transparent whenever I find time to type about the Campbell conference.

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