Tuesday, July 6, 2021

A View from the Geek: Do SFF Authors Have a Moral Obligation? • By Eric Dontigney

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

I recently ran across this article that makes the argument, gently perhaps, that science fiction authors have an obligation to address climate change. As someone with a philosophy background, I found the thesis a little dubious. So, I considered the argument and decided to abstract away from the issue of climate change and ask a broader question.

Do science fiction or speculative fiction authors have a moral obligation to address the pressing issues of their time in their fiction?

I want to stress that “in their fiction” part because that’s a very different question than whether authors as individuals have moral obligations to address pressing issues as they carry out their personal lives. Depending on what theology or morality you ascribe to, the answer to the question of whether or not people owe moral obligations to not be awful, destructive, and abusive to their fellow human beings and the planet is almost always yes. Yes, they do have those moral obligations. There are some exceptions, but they aren’t considered mainstream moral codes, so I won’t dig into them.

The question of whether those obligations extend into authors’ professional lives in terms of their fiction is another matter entirely. The very question of what, if any, obligations an author has is pretty nebulous beyond putting words on the page. Even that “words on the page” thing is pretty loosely interpreted. After all, Harper Lee was called an author and she only published two books in her entire life. Specific kinds of authors have some additional obligations. Non-fiction authors are, in theory, obligated to stick with the facts as they are known at the time. Religious authors are generally obligated to stick within the parameters of their religions. But what about SFF authors? There are some general guidelines about good writing in genre fiction, but obligations? Not so much.

In fact, beyond writing a book that will hopefully generate revenue for themselves or their publishers, I’m hard-pressed to find any obligations (moral or otherwise) that you can ascribe to SFF authors. When you get right down it, authors aren’t even obligated to write a good story. It’s bad for sales and their careers, but they aren’t obligated. So, where does this idea that SFF authors are obligated to write about pressing issues come from? Authors aren’t doctors or lawyers who take on binding, professional ethical obligations.

I think what’s happening is actually a couple of related problems. First up, is an inversion of Kant’s famous formulation that “ought implies can.” In its original formulation, this means that to be obligated to perform an act, one must first be capable of performing an act. So, I cannot be morally obligated to dive into deep water to save a drowning child if, for example, I do not know how to swim myself. What seems to be happening here is a belief that “can implies ought.” Basically, since SFF authors can write about pressing issues, they are morally obligated to write about them. To express how stupid an idea this is, let me give you a corollary. Since you can give away all the money in your bank account, you are morally obligated to give away all the money in your bank account. Can does not imply ought.

There also seems to be a pretty fundamental category error going on here. A category error happens you ascribe properties belonging to one thing to another thing. In this case, it’s an issue of individual moral obligations and professional moral obligations. People are saying that the kinds of personal ethical obligations most people have are actually an author’s professional obligations. In other words, people conflate authors’ personal obligations to other people or the planet with a professional obligation to talk about the problems of other people or the planet.

I’ve also seen supposed moral arguments that anytime someone has the power to affect change and doesn’t, that they have failed some moral test. There are all kinds of flaws with that line of reasoning. One of the biggest problems is the idea that SFF authors have the power to affect change. It’s just not so as a general rule. First of all, there is an implicit assumption there that every SFF novel can affect change with no consideration given to the readership of said novel. There is another implicit assumption that every SFF author has the skill to talk about pressing issues in a meaningful way that isn’t condescending. There is a third implicit assumption that every SFF author has in-depth knowledge about a pressing issue. There is a fourth implicit assumption that every SFF author has the skill to weave that discussion into a fictional framework without detracting from the story. None of those implicit assumptions will hold up to scrutiny. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of SFF novels out there that try to talk about pressing issues inside the context of the story and fail spectacularly.

Beyond all of that, there is the question of whether or not SFF authors have moral obligations to themselves. What if, for example, a SFF author simply doesn’t want to write about pressing issues? What if they find joy in writing about benevolent space rogues rescuing princesses and toppling monolithic evil empires? What if trying to write about pressing issues negatively affects their mental health? While some level of self-sacrifice is standard issue in moral systems, it’s a very damn demanding system indeed that mandates you put a metaphoric bullet into the head of your professional quality of life and/or damage your mental health. It’s so demanding, in fact, that few rational people would sign on for it. It’s certainly too demanding for a group as heterogeneous and amorphous as SFF authors.

No, this claim that SFF authors somehow owe it to the world to write about pressing issues is not only absurd, it’s irrational. While there might be some public benefit when SFF authors elect to write about pressing issues, it should be left to those authors who want to write about issues and have the skill to do it well.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.


Pete Wood said...

The term preaching to the choir comes to me. Seriously, is there anyone out there who isn't aware of climate change? They might disagree with the science, but nobody is unaware of it. Science ficiton has certainly been aware of it for decades. J G. Ballard's The Drowned World delved into it over fifty years ago.
There is this condescending attitude from both sides of the political aisle that they just have to teach the other side and then we'll all be on the same page. This is the essence of facebook. Posting the same memes and interchangeable articles every day for yearss because some people aren't getting the message. We're all getting the @#$#@ message from both sides. Maybe some of us are tired of being talked at and want to have somebody listen for a change.
I don't read or write science ficiton to "educate" or be "educated." Science fiction is an escape. As soon as it becomes another tool to push a political agenda, that is the day I stop reading it.
That's not to say that there isn't good science fiction that educates or has a poltiical agenda. But that science fiction from "The Handmaid's Tale" to "Windup Girl" also tells a good story.
So, my advice to science fiction writers is to write what you want to write. Create your own genre if necessary. But don't be guilted into writing something that is not your passion.

~brb said...

FWIW, this sort of argument has been going since at least the 1930s, when Donald Wollheim (at the time a fanboy, but later a writer and editor of great influence and ultimately the founder of DAW Books, remember them?) declared that science fiction writers and fans "should actively work for the realization of the scientific world-state as the only genuine justification for their activities and existence".

Talk about your colossal arrogance...

Of course, Don wrote that in the 1930s, before anyone realized just what a hideous dystopian nightmare any "scientific world-state" would be.

Considering the history of the past century, then, it's probably for the best that SFF writers be kept as far away as possible from the actual levers of power, as SFF writers tend to be just full of ideas that seem clever in the imagination but catastrophic if actually applied.

Mark Keigley said...

Great topic. Until very recently I wrote for myself. To entertain myself. By extension, if some of what I have to say is entertaining for others, then that pleases me. When a small studio producer approached me recently and offered to mentor me through putting together a pilot script, series outline, and lookbook to show to bigger studios, I floundered for a few minutes. What he saw in my "written to entertain" short script, had potential streaming market possibilities. (If done right). It didn't take me too long to agree, that, yes, the he had a point. It COULD go wide. AND address some hot button topics we see on the news daily. Do I feel obligated to do it? definitely, nope. Do I WANT to take it on as an interesting challenge? Definitely, yes.