Who Saves the Day? The Problem with Agency in Secular (Sci-Fi) Storytelling

Who Saves the Day? The Problem with Agency in Secular (Sci-Fi) Storytelling January 17, 2019

NASA, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. Specifically, Hao Jingfang’s Hugo-Award-winning “Folding Beijing“. It’s a novelette well worth the read, imagining a future city in which class structures are literally manifested by the Change, a transformation of cityspace that allows each economic tier its own turn awake on the surface, while all others sleep. The story focusses on one man with an opportunity to give his adopted daughter a better life, by slipping between class strata during the Change to deliver a message. In the process, he comes to realize that the economic divide between lives above and below is even more dire than he could ever have imagined. And then, lacking the agency to do more than try to complete his task, he returns to his daily grind in the lowest, most hopeless tier, with only his daughter’s future to help him press on.

Sound familiar? We’ve had quite a few stories in the history of SF that follow this similar framework of revelation, then return to status quo. Who can forget the closing scene of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), in which the protagonist’s discovery is shouted uselessly over the indifferent, hungry, overpopulated masses? Or Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” (1959), later a best-selling book by the same name (1966), in which a happy, mentally delayed person is given a treatment that produces higher mental function… and in so doing realizes how small his life was, how mocked he was, how friendless he was… and then has to return to that life when the treatment ultimately fails?

In “The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure”, Aliette de Bodard advocates for storytelling that highlights powerlessness and our reliance on others. She isn’t against agency, but she notes some dangers in assuming that the only stories worth telling are those in which people have the means to change their lives. As she observes:

The other thing about dismissing powerlessness is that it devalues and erases the oppressed. It’s saying, essentially, that the less power one has, the less worthy of a story one is. That if someone is truly oppressed, and the story isn’t about some brash rebellion, some gaining of that overt power, then it’s not worth telling. That being oppressed is some sort of grey, featureless state where nothing worth notice happens—that there are no sorrows, no joys, no everyday struggles, no little victories to be snatched. That, in short, the only story of oppression worth telling is the brazen breaking of it.

Anyone who read or saw Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) should recognize, of course, that there’s often something empty about the act of trying to “break” an oppressive system. “It’ll be different when we get there,” says the band of resistance fighters hoping to get to the front of a train that has also literalized class strata in its car structure… but when they do, they discover that resistance is, and always has been, just one more part of the engine of the whole, divisive operation. And sure, you can blow up the train! But then… what exists beyond it? What does our society look like, without itself?

The Spiritual Escape from the Problem of Agency

Christianity has struggled to offer coherent answers to this problem for as long as there has been Christianity. The Bible is a fascinating story inasmuch as it offers blatant affirmations of the class system, sprinkled with verses that simultaneously flatter every class position within it. The character of Christ, after all, uses the framework of masters and slaves for a great many of his parables–and when he does, it is with great deference to the righteous power of the masters. Thus he answers a master’s question about how best to serve him by citing approvingly the way that slaves serve their masters (Luke 17:7-10); and he answers a steward’s question, about what to do now that stealing has cost him his job, by advocating lying to get back into his master’s good graces, because loyalty to earthly masters is necessary to attain true riches after death (Luke 16:1-13). And yet the slaves are also glorified unto themselves: the meek that shall inherit the Earth, because of how difficult it will be for a rich man to enter heaven.

A little like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), no? Where every Alpha is proud to be an Alpha and can’t imagine being otherwise, while every lowly Epsilon is proud to be an Epsilon and can’t imagine being otherwise?

Certainly, many Christians today try to employ the Bible as an anti-capitalist text, but every passage they invoke in political debate to that end, every call from the character of Christ to give aid to one another (e.g. Matthew 25:35-40), has the easiest counter in the world: Christ is calling for individual acts of charity, not statewide safety nets. Thus he exhorts people to visit the suffering in prison… but doesn’t suggest launching campaigns for judicial reform. “Bad Christian! Bad!” say many of the left, when Republicans and other rightwing Christians refuse to interpret the Bible as a call for institutionalized social welfare… but they’re 100% within scriptural bounds to assert that Christianity calls for personal charity alone.

And why? Because Christ expected the world to end within his lifetime. He (or the amalgam of street prophets his character represents) imagined a period of immense turmoil within that generation of listeners, in which the stars would fall from the skies and fear and violence would plague the land and the Son of Man would descend to gather his elect (Mark 13:1-30).

So, yeah, who cares if there’s a little state oppression before that happens? It’s all going to be over with soon!

But what about the Secular Escape?

The real question is this:

Are we in the secular realm, with our secular stories, doing much better?

Because Snowpiercer in particular indicts a substantial body of contemporary dystopic fiction (usually YA) that loves to pretend one need only take out the top of an oppressive culture to achieve emancipation from it. This rhetoric is so popular that one of the earliest books in the contemporary genre, The Giver (1993), went from being Lois Lowry’s nuanced story of how everyone in a given society becomes complicit in a social contract that sanctions murdering the difficult (fussy babies, old people) and letting one person suffer the fullness of feeling for the whole community… to a high-stakes action film that pins the whole system’s faults on, well, Meryl Streep.

We in the throes of atheist discourse make a similar error, too, whenever we act as if the eradication of religion would be a magic cure-all for humanity’s predisposition to tribalist groupthink and ignorance. If you’re letting a secular person get away with the same sloppy mentality or behaviour set you would be howling against if they were religious… how rigorous, truly, is your moral high ground? And how useful is your activism against the root ills of human suffering?

Fetishizing Agency, Losing Humanism

Our fixation on these dramatic ideas of agency are fun, though, aren’t they? They’re wish-fulfillment fantasies that allow us to dabble awhile in ideation far freer than most of our real-world opportunities.

However, they’re also training grounds for dehumanizing one another–as I noted in my last essay, with SF’s reductive treatment of certain “bad guys”–so we need to be mindful of how much we indulge in stories where the down-and-out suddenly get glorious opportunities to destroy those who’ve made them suffer.

A couple years ago, for instance, the SF&F community was struggling with some rather irate members who felt that diversity was getting in the way of “real” storytelling. They felt victimized by this shift in representation in awards circuits, so I read some of the stories from those who felt their work wasn’t being valued for “PC” reasons. One of those writers was Larry Correia, who felt that the Hugos were rigged because even though he had been nominated one year (an AMAZING honour unto itself!), he realized he didn’t stand a chance of winning, because someone else was the clear industry favourite. I read the first in his Monster Hunters International series, and found wish-fulfillment fantasy very much at play. As the piece begins:

“On an otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.”

Wait… that’s the American dream?

What follows is an establishing scene in which an asshole of an insecure boss has conveniently become a werewolf, and since he’s hoping to use this new identity to devour employees he hates, our protagonist is finally fully justified to pull out a gun he has proudly carried illegally at work the entire time… because, Texas. No, literally:

To this day I don’t know why at that moment I felt the need to make a confession to my rapidly mutating boss. Even though I was in accordance with Texas state law, I was in direct violation of my company’s workplace safety rule.

“You know that ‘no weapons at work’ policy?” I asked the twitching and growing hairy monstrosity standing less than ten feet from me. His yellow eyes bored into me with raw animal hatred. There was nothing recognizeably human in that look.

“I never did like that rule,” I said as I bent down and drew my gun from my ankle holster, put the front sight on the target and rapidly fired all five shots from my snub-nosed .357 Smith & Wesson into Mr. Huffman’s body. God bless Texas.

I could go into greater length about the weird psychology of this scene–a boss who becomes a werewolf but can’t think of anything cooler to do with that new ability than return to the drudgery of work and eat his subordinates?–but I think it’s fairly plain that Correia did not find a convert for me in his tale. (If it’s your cup of tea, grand.)

Nevertheless, as a humanist I am always drawn to the underlying lesson in the stories we build for ourselves–so I never regret reading “across the aisle”, to see what broader human values our stories over the spectrum share. And there are some wonderful brainchildren, too, from people whose views are diametrically opposed to mine!

One of the most difficult, for me, is Ender’s Game (1985)–a beautiful tale in the military SF genre, deeply humanist in its ultimate tragedy. Here we have the story of a child turned into a weapon, and even though he may think he is gaining agency as he progresses through his training… he remains a devastating pawn all along. What a brilliant analysis of how the individual’s struggle for survival, safety, and autonomy always plays out against a structural backdrop far beyond its ability to transform.

The story’s author, Orson Scott Card, is unfortunately a deeply homophobic and dog-whistling-racist Mormon, who repeatedly advocated for the state to punish homosexuality and railed against his fear of nationally militarized “urban men” under Obama. How could the writer of such a beautiful story, so insightful in its depiction of childhood bullying, miss the mark of real-world compassion by so great a degree?

The Work of Finding Better Stories Presses On

Suffice it to say, then, I advocate for secular folk being open-minded in our search for better stories. We Western atheists generally recognize the profound failings of Christian scripture, but where do we go from there? I think we can absolutely be inspired by writers all across the spiritual/non-religious spectrum, as well as the political spectrum.

The key, though, is looking at how our stories treat agency. The Bible offers a panacea for masters and slaves alike, granting everyone the agency to be saved (depending on how you interpret “the elect” and “the chosen” as Christ uses such terms) but largely side-stepping the problem of how to develop better systems in this lifetime. Likewise, though, many of our secular narratives leap ever-too-quickly to the idea that a dramatic reclamation of personal agency will magically restore society. We see it in our dystopic fictions, we see it in news reports on political changings-of-the-guard, and… well, I guess we see it when a gun is used to resolve workplace conflicts with werewolf-bosses.

Aliette de Bodard was saying nothing new, though, when she splendidly articulated what stories without as much agency have to offer the contemporary reader (and humanist!). We have always had stories about those who start without power, and who continue without power, but gain wisdom and compassion along the way.

What would our world look like, if we attended more to what such stories can teach us about the long-term path to change?


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  • Anthrotheist

    I’ve been wondering more recently how much the focus on agency may be connected to anonymity.* If you are in a small group of people that you know very well (i.e., the opposite of being anonymous), who you trust and depend upon as they trust and depend on you, how much need do you tend to feel about being in control of your life, your environment, and your fate? Power is only meaningful (and therefore desirable) when you don’t trust someone to have more power over your life than you do; if you trust the people who have more power than you, that imbalance can actually be comforting (e.g., children trusting their parents or theists trusting in God). In the modern world, our life is made up almost entirely of people that we don’t know well enough to trust, and many of whom have more influence over us than we would prefer. Agency often seems to me to be — as you put it — a panacea for the insecurity of being unable to change how much power strangers have over us; stories that end up highlighting how fallacious the notion of agency is may be somewhat enlightening, but is almost certain to be — more significantly — quite depressing to any audience currently suffering systematic powerlessness.

    I try not to be too cynical (in case it is possible to be just cynical enough), but I have been dreading the notion — which I have held for quite a while — that human beings simply do not work well in large numbers. Correction, the dread is that human beings can not work well in large numbers; our sense of personal connection, of trusting relation, simply doesn’t adjust to large scale. Against that presumption, any story set in a hugely populated society ends up illustrating how our insecurity over our countless neighbors is never assuaged (hopefully with the consolation prize of becoming a more mature or enlightened individual in the process); or it offers a cheerful fantasy fulfillment of overthrowing those who have power over us — all the while ignoring (or being ignorant of) the reality that all that has happened is a transfer of power to the protagonists which will inevitably be resented soon by the next batch of rebellious discontents (or, in the case of murdering the boss, the protagonist has only eliminated the closest manifestation of disconcerting powerlessness and should by all rights have created a much worse situation for himself legally and socially).

    *This is of course all my own conjecture, for what it is worth.
    Edit: I failed to mention it earlier, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the article. I love anything that sparks ideas, and this article did so quite nicely.

  • I don’t read as much speculative fiction as I used to, but your article got me thinking about The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson. I wrote a review for it on my blog (total responses: zero) because I was fascinated with every aspect of this strange, poetic and postmodern take on the dystopian sci-fi novel. In some future world, writes Winterson, the problem is that there’s no answer to any of our social or environmental problems. Like the Easter Island statues, our grandiose creations have exhausted us and the environment; the powers that be have found a way to consolidate control even after the upheavals that their single-minded ambition creates; and even desperate collective action like escape or revolution is doomed to re-establish the same folly that motivated it in the first place. Winterson implies that, just as our DNA replicates itself, we’re doomed to recreate unsustainable social conditions in each era and consider it progress. And yet we continue to create with optimism.

    We in the throes of atheist discourse make a similar error, too, whenever we act as if the eradication of religion would be a magic cure-all for humanity’s predisposition to tribalist groupthink and ignorance. If you’re letting a secular person get away with the same sloppy mentality or behaviour set you would be howling against if they were religious… how rigorous, truly, is your moral high ground? And how useful is your activism against the root ills of human suffering?

    That sums up exactly what I’ve been trying to say for years.

  • “*This is of course all my own conjecture, for what it is worth.”

    Anthrotheist, when someone writes an essay like mine, they /hope/ for comments as thought-provoking as yours. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Your point about anonymity and familiarity is well-taken. I think a related consequence of that behaviour is that quite a few folks seem to latch onto even the most plainly incompetent political candidates simply because those candidates espouse sufficient charisma to pass through this barrier, and live in voters’ minds as friends they’d like to have over for a barbecue. The very mental quality that engenders so much suspicion towards so many strangers also seems to make us highly susceptible to a certain everyday “chumminess”, even when employed by people in significantly removed positions of power. We’re not the best at discerning actual risk and safety in large groups, are we?

    Relatedly, your point about humans not functioning well in large numbers resonates /so well/ with the concept I want to address in the next essay, that I’m rather hesitant to engage with it here. For the moment, then, I’ll simply note that we have a tendency toward wiping out huge swathes of humanity as a starting point for many sci-fi narratives… and this ties in strongly to the thematic pressures you’ve outlined above.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  • I wish I had recorded it at the time, but I remember a BBC report during the financial crash of 2008, wherein two rather sincere hosts had a guest on to explain hedge funds and what had sparked the crisis. After giving his report on how bleak the situation appeared, the guest was then asked for reassurances–one news anchor saying something like “So what are those responsible for this problem going to do to fix it?”–to which he smiled benignly and said something to effect of “Nothing. They’re fine. They know perfectly well how to keep making money in a bear market.”

    And I just remember the dead air after, as these two news anchors sat speechless, as if it had only then struck them that not everyone whose actions could transform the world were intrinsically on the side of improving the world, and that not all catastrophes could be easily resolved.

    Jeanette Winterson, of course, would make this same point wonderfully. I haven’t read The Stone Gods but you’re absolutely bang-on in your review about her narrative style, that folkloric interweaving of recursive missteps. I had to laugh at your note about the lack of comments, though–for of course no one nibbled! How difficult it is to find folks here who want to break into the nuances of anything that isn’t the Bible!

    That sums up exactly what I’ve been trying to say for years.

    Honoured to be joining such a chorus, Shem. Thanks for reading!

  • Anthrotheist

    “Winterson implies that . . . we’re doomed to recreate unsustainable social conditions in each era and consider it progress.”
    Perhaps my strangest cynical hope is that humanity will survive our current plastic bubble and will — necessarily once fossil fuels are no longer available — shrink back to kingdom or city-state societies until we either disappear from the Earth through natural extinction or have enough time to evolve into our agricultural social reality. It is a strange hope, of course, because of the unimaginable scale of starvation, conflict, and hardship humans would have to endure to survive to that point.

  • Anthrotheist

    ” . . . of course no one nibbled!”
    It’s funny, but I sometimes actually feel a little guilty that I can’t engage with more of the blogs, particularly the ones I find most engaging (including Shem’s and increasingly this one as well); it seems all to often I find myself fatigued by the depth and complexity I find — complexity and ambiguity that I find very intriguing.

  • Anthrotheist

    I look forward to your next essay. I’m regretting that I didn’t plug into your blog earlier; absurd as it is, I don’t think that I quite knew what to make of the title so I kept my attention on my familiar haunts. Seems I have some catching up to do.

  • XORY

    Perhaps it was kindness that held back the comments on “The Stone Gods”.

    While I appreciate that it is speculative fiction, and therefore take it with a grain of salt, it perpetuates a narrative about Rapa Nui that has gone “the way of the passenger pigeon” (to use a Shemism); to wit, that it is an admonishing pre-quel to our own modern abuse of the environment and subsequent environmental disaster or some Campbell-esque meta-narrative about the “suicidal folly” of “misguided communal human endeavor”.

    Current science that doesnt seek to white wash the effects of diseases spread by European exploreres sees it very differently. Forgive me for posting a Google link but theres so much there in current scholarship: https://www.google.com/search?q=rapa+nui+plague+collapse&oq=rapa+nui+plague+collapse&aqs=chrome..69i57.6591j0j9&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

    As Shem has stated ad nauseam, it “doesnt matter if folklore is true”; that would be mistaking the “hand for what it is pointing to”. Unfortunately this stance can abrogate what the story tellers are saying about their own hands, that is to say what their hands made. The current, and proven – through experimental archeology – explanation for how the statues were moved, is also the “folklore” of the Rapa Nui themselves. The statues made their way to their current locations by being rocked on end and did essentially “walk” to their current locations from the quarry. (google it for a video demonstration). This technique does not require vast quatities of wood; deforestation on Rapa Nui was due to burning trees for fuel.

    But “science” be damned (even archeology and anthropology), the “narrative” is supreme, even if it’s colonialist gas-lighting cloaked in modern environmentalism. But please carry on, counter false narratives (the idea of “progress”) with more false narratives (the environmental suicide of the Rapa Nui).

  • Interesting contribution, XORY, thank you! I don’t know too much about the Rapa Nui mythology. I had vaguely heard about the turning of the tide in scientific circles regarding reasons for deforestation on the island, but I’m not surprised to hear that there’s been a pervasive (white-normative) entrenchment of the original narrative even after evidence from archaeology about original methods of construction. I’ll educate myself and be mindful not to advance the flawed narrative if and when it arises again. Thanks for taking the time to write, and please never apologize for posting references here!

  • Oh, I feel like a hodgepodge of identities myself, so I’m not surprised the name was a little offputting.

    I hope to merit more of your insights in future comments, Anthrotheist. Thanks again!

  • Better to be fatigued by depth and complexity, at least, than the wash of what’s offered in most infotainment circles?

    It’s a strange life: our webs of potential community at once expansive and nebulous, and our energy sets as finite as ever. I certainly haven’t mastered the knack of keeping up with threads still in progress on week-old posts… and I might have to accept that I never will. Too much else to be read, watched, and loved. But it does make me appreciate the contributions, when they happen, all the more. I think that’s all one can hope for: to enjoy what’s on offer for as long as it’s on offer. Cheers again, Anthrotheist!

  • XORY

    I always take a mildy to highly agnostic stance on evolving hypotheses. In the case of Rapa Nui and other cultures whose writing system we haven’t completely decifered, this may be coming after I’m long gone and even then will always by definition be incomplete. Im open to even the latest round of theories to be modified, looking for something that better fits the evidence and while not taking native narratives at face value, must still account for them AND the hardest of archeological evidence. If not “factually” correct, how did they come up with (fill in the blank) version of their culture?

    Folklore doesnt arise in a vacuum, and with the notable exception – that I can think of – like some late Hellenistic “epics”, and Song dynasty “histories” arent generated by single authors seeking to creat fantastical narratives out of whole cloth for a jaded literary public.

    That said, I think the question of the inevitablility of “human progress” vs. the inevitability of failed attempts of to accomplish the same is very open, and depends on who and where you are on the planet. The difficult question of the primacy, or fallacy of individual human agency, lets call it the battle between “fate and free will” that we hear in Western narratives is unsolvable due to a fatal flaw in its construction as a question. It assumes that the individual – an important concept in modern Western philosophy, and Humanism in particular – is a primary, very real cornerstone of any human action, on oneself or the world. Perhaps a realization that “individuality” is itself a “narrative” strain and neglects the more “real” and basic truth that we are more the same and and inter-related might provide the wedge into some real “progress”. “Indivual human agency” may in fact be impossible, but what if the flaw is not the agency part but the individual part?

  • guerillasurgeon

    As far as this kind of thing goes, the genre I absolutely loathe is loosely speaking “billionaire saves the world” – which assumes that well billionaires want to save the world when it seems to me all I want to do is find a place to hide for when it all goes pear-shaped – and that they somehow have the means to do so. But it’s interesting about Orson Scott Card, because I enjoyed the book – the first book. The others seem to suffer from follow on syndrome, so I didn’t read more than the first few pages of the next one. And then I discovered what he was like an flat refused to go and see the movie, because I’m not putting any more money in his pocket. Although if someone happens to download a pirated copy………. but following on from that I was looking at Kindle books the other day trying to find Tim Powers who I haven’t read for years but I used to rather like, and I found the book by someone called Tim Powers the title of which was something like Obama blah blah blah communism blah blah blah plot blah blah. Which I would quote in full if I could find the damn thing again. But if he did write it I’m not putting any money into his pockets either.

  • You’re speaking to a theme I touch on often in this column, XORY–the porous nature of the self (a highly Western affectation), and the importance of remembering how much we are moved by groupthink in our actions. All our “obvious” personal moral truths are contextual, and transform tidally rather than individually. 2/3s of us, moreover, consistently give over “private” moral agency to the dictates of a higher authority (whether it be an individual or a mob mentality) in related psychological studies. So on these accords we’re in utter agreement. Thanks for writing!

  • I think city-states would actually be an improvement over the nation-states of today.

    The more pressing danger to society is not that we’ll exhaust fossil fuels but instead that we’ll irreversibly damage the environment to the point where it can no longer support our civilization at the scale we’ve come to take for granted.