November 2nd, 2011


Ethics in SF

Lynda Williams has been hosting a series of guest blog posts by visiting writers on teh subject of ethics in SF - my own contribution is here

Please do leave comments there - but (it will probably not surprise anybody to hear this) I had a lot more to say on the subject, and I"ll just toss out a few more ideas here.

Yse, I know "ethics" does have a measurable empirical meaning in that anything that is used to describe an academic discipline (and "ethics" has been so used) already carries a large amount of semantic and contextual baggage already. But I am not particularly intent on keeping the concept corralled - and the thing that did leap out me in the context of this blog series is the old question of history, and of WHOSE history gets propagated accepted and sanctified.

In the real world, out here where we live, history has a habit of riding roughshod over the loser in any conflict (and it does not matter in the least that these days the battles are not so much bloodily physical and involving sword thrusts in a field of battle slippery with other dying men's innards - a skirmish in the boardroom of a financial behemoth will leave just as much of a carnage behind as one of those ancient battles might except that there is no need for a physical clean-up crew afterward...) The chronicles that remain behind after any conflict almost always leave out the point of view of the side that lost - if they are lucky, that is, and if they are not their role in the situation, and thus frequently their entire history and legacy, are diminished, miscued,and sometimes downright misrepresented. Living memory is short, and in the long term only these historical accounts will remain to shed "light" on the conflicts of long ago - and just how much can they be trusted, actually, knowing that the vanquished were never asked to contribute and that it was in the best interests of the victors to present those vanquished in as much of a negative light as possible - as cowards and traitors, as best; as monsters only worty of annihilation, at worst, and there they were, the victors, standing on the side of the ANGELS and being the hand chosen to smite the heretics/unbelievers/slave race which had no business existing or trying to assert their place in the sun to begin with.

Speculative fiction - science fiction or fantasy - often relies on battles to tell the story, to drive the plot forward. The author is placed in the seat of God, and directs the outcome from above, permitting victory or defeat. There isn't room, not even in the space of a fictional work, for the tale of both sides to be told - and all that remains might be another novel which takes as its POV a protagonist from the "other" side, thus presenting their own perspective. But we, the authors, write the histories here, and we know, who better, how such things are constructed - we learn from our reality, and conversely our stories (no matter what exotic land or which far star they take place in or near) are mirrors of that reality. We know there has to be a victor. We take sides. We hand out the medals. But there are ALWAYS ethics in play - a story which has a detachment of the "winning" side coming in with guns blazing to clean out a nest of insurgents which has been bedeviling them for a long time becomes something else entirely when viewed from the point of view of the insurgents and their women and children who are mowed down by those guns as they run screaming. From the asault force's point of view, after all, it is only good sense to exterminate the young within the nest if you want to exterminate the entire infestation, isn't it? Why would they hesitate? That tiny two-year-old boy being scooped up into his mother's arms - that is no baby, that is a young insurgent in training, let him live and in ten or twelve years it will be HIM snapping at your heels, all the more fired up by the tales on which he will have been raised, the stories of how you and yours swooped in and killed his father at his hearthfire. So why not kill him now...?

Ah, ethics. What does it mean, then, exactly? Are you being ethical when you save the enemy women and children? WHY did you save them? In real-world instances, people believed they were absolutely "ethical" when they took the children of native peoples (American Indians, Australian Aboriginies) and indoctrinated them into the mores and rules and (yes) ETHICS of the white man who had conquered their nations. ANd yet - in a rare case of a reversal of the "history written by the victors" rationale - the truths that are coming out, the stories of the Stolen Generation, the stories of children forced to reject their own language, their culture, their faith, in favour of a foreign graft forcibly strapped onto them, all these stories which are now somehow bubbling up to the surface sometimes decades after the fact, they shed a whole new light onto our own history, and on the "ethical" things that our ancestors were doing, in the name of us, their descendants.

There are huge debts owing between peoples on this world. The peoples who conquered simply because they could and imposed their own values on the people they vanquished, simply because they could. The peoples who slandered entire nations in order to get allies in line - no matter how little truth there was in the accusations. And the roots of the debts - the prices that were paid, the belief systems that were uplifted and/or trampled in the process - are in ethics - and in how much, or how little, of upright ethics any given progenitor of a conflict owns to. It is possible for unspeakable things to be done in the name of "justice", especially if the one wielding the instrument of enformcement can put together a convincing narrative about how whatever was done was "ethically" the right tning to do.

These are the things that haunt us in our waking hours, every day, all around us. We take them with us into our fantasy worlds, because we can't help it, they are part of us, part of what makes us human. It is perhaps - as seen in a certain light - a lesser sin for an author to take sides, to espouse the ethics and morals of one side over those of another, because these battles take place only between the pages of a book, and are thus rendered toothless, and irrelevant. Or are they? If you do not know what it feels like to lose a country, read Guy Gavriel Kay's immortal "TIgana". And then tell me where the ethics lie in that particular mess. Was a grieveing father justified in punishing an entire nation for the death of his son? What if that death occurred while they - father and son - were in the process of a war of conquest for a territory for the son to rule?

The truth - history aside - is that there are never clean-cut sides. Wars are ugly, and they make everything they touch ugly, and if they are fought for reasons of "Ethics" they are probably particularly ugly since it is so easy to twist the lines that you swear you will never cross. Watch out for it, the ribbons of ethics twisting in the wind, when you read accounts of fictional battles in worlds of fantasy or outer space. Watch out for it, because you will recognise it. You have met the enemy. The enemy is within you. The enemy whispers into your ear, and sometimes makes you believe things that make it easier to do stuff you could have sworn it was never within you to do. In that fictional village with its fictional children, do the ethics in the boundaries of which you are functioning say that you get a medal for killing that two-year-old before he can grow old enough to be further trouble to you and yours... or do you think that no medal would justify the slaughter of a child?

Is it okay to squash a cockroach but not a butterfly? What if you (or those who lead you) describe an entire group of people who are not-you as "cockroaches"? (It's been done...) WOuld be it be okay - would it, indeed, be ethical, be practically obligatory - to treat those people like the insects with whose name and reputation they have been saddled?

Where does your ethical inner voice lead YOU every day?