What’s Up with Our Bad Guys? Ethical Weakspots in Secular (Sci-Fi) Tales

What’s Up with Our Bad Guys? Ethical Weakspots in Secular (Sci-Fi) Tales January 13, 2019

NASA, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story.

I start my posts with those words to call attention to the fact that everything I write is narrative. Well, obviously, some will sneer… but how often do we enact that “obvious” fact in our treatment of one another? A columnist collective like Patheos.com, where people generally negotiate authority claims in relation to their spirituality or atheism, is excellent territory for those who delight in leaping upon every perceived defect in others’ arguments. It’s by no means, though, the only place where we find this behaviour. In-group/out-group testing for “good guys” and “bad guys” abounds in our political discourse, our Twitter feeds, and a substantial portion of other infotainment. And it enters, too, into the writings we more explicitly label as “stories”. Even, or perhaps especially, into the most fantastical works of sci-fi.

The funny thing about sci-fi is that even fellow writers in the genre sometimes forget that we’re all presentists, no matter how far-flung the scenarios we’re dreaming up. But thus has it always been. In texts like the Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), where a species at the centre of the Earth is poised to surpass mankind, and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), a time-travelling jaunt to a future utopia, a central concern is… women, and the looming horror (for many late-19th-century writers) of a social order in which they have more social and physical autonomy.

Likewise, on a more adorable level, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) couldn’t help but situate the 20th century as the pinnacle of cultural advancement. It’s no surprise, then, that its 24th-century characters were loyal to many Gen-X 20th-century activities–jazz and classical music enjoyed in the home, weekly card games and the occasional egg brunch with friends, Sherlock Holmes re-enactments as play, aerobics classes and a game strikingly similar to squash for physical exercise. What was utopia if not the achievement of most every marker of (WASP-y) middle-class status?

Today, sci-fi enjoys a great deal more mainstream appeal, but retains the same power to reveal the imaginative limits of our present moment. The more far-flung and bizarre the future on offer, the easier it is to see the where its authors strain at the moral and cultural limits of the present. As such, paying attention to the secular storytelling we’re doing through sci-fi (and fantasy, which has similar tensions) can tell us a lot about the state of our humanist discourse.

How good are we, really, at dreaming up better worlds?

Personal Context: A Plug for Failure

I write and publish sci-fi. I particularly enjoy speculative fiction, and have a significant narrative preoccupation with protagonists limited by their own fears, a genuine lack of agency, or the staggering weight of past failures. I’m currently pitching literary agents about a novel set in an alternate Soviet Russia, 1920s through 1940s, where three characters struggle to “fail upwards” in their responses to a devastating new technology. (Spoiler: only one of the three manages it, and only by a thread. For all that I am optimistic on Patheos, I am… not the cheeriest of fiction-writers!)

But there’s a reason I prefer to highlight the “failures”. I strongly feel that good humanist practice requires no less.

And so I wince at a great number of contemporary stories–in fiction and non-fiction alike–that affect intolerance for failure. Failure to be a “good guy”. Failure to make the right choice the first time. Failure to adapt as quickly as everyone else to a shift in cultural standards. Obviously, #notallscifi: we have wonderful vehicles like James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse and Becky Chambers’ The Wayfarers Series that celebrate our complexly human faults. But where it exists it is often most frustrating, because it’s often sci-fi that aspires to a more progressive future that gets mired in moral rigidity.

For Example:

Last fall, I reviewed every episode of Doctor Who Season 11 because I wanted to see what was going on in the most accessible, family-friendly sci-fi currently on the airways. These are stories, after all, ostensibly targeting the citizens of tomorrow, while also trying to affirm the struggles of more progressively minded citizens today. So what do these optimistic, utopia-minded adventures tell us about our humanism in action?

Granted, sometimes the show upheld the idea of second chances, of room to be redeemed, and of restorative justice writ large. More often, though, redemption was saved for those who were the right sort of failure to begin with. An angry young man who’d planned a mass murder and killed a few in preparation had no narrative “out” but dying himself. A scary looking monster in a nether realm between universes was doomed to perish brutally. When given a chance to reform, an alien that had to kill to secure rank in his culture returned to the show having upped his genocidal game, and was locked away, seemingly for an eternity in isolation, in consequence.

I understand how these narrative dead-ends emerge. I understand the hard line that we want our stories to draw in the sand, to effect changes in our laws and cultures to match. Moreover, I understand our fatigue with stories that try to soften or humanize the perpetrators of staggering harm before giving a platform to all those who’ve been harmed. I understand, too, the inclination to portray everyone who has traditionally lacked agency as suddenly having immense agency, and repositioning more “traditional” protagonists in the same caricature positions that other demographics occupied in sci-fi periods come before.

But there are pitfalls to these good intentions, and some of these pitfalls speak to a deeper absence of genuinely humanist storytelling.

Doing Better than the Stories Come Before

In my last post, I discussed ahistoricism in our approach to secular storytelling, and emphasized how often we overlook past successes in representation to make ourselves seem more revolutionary now.

But of course, not every ancient story is ideal. One of the benefits of having a fuller sense of our literary history, though, is the ability to learn from its failings.

Atheists I think understand this well. We look at the Bible’s reductive language around evil, or the hodgepodge way in which the character of Christ sometimes calls for treating enemies like friends, but also not casting pearls before “swine” or giving anything holy to “dogs”, and we recognize the moral mess this framing of human beings creates.

Where humanists need to go further is by offering better in our secular stories. And that can be difficult, because every cultural context has used its stories–and its fictional ones especially–in part as an outlet for frustrations. A place to vent, and to exact narrative triumphs against those who would oppress us in the world at large.

Two recent stories in the sci-fi/fantasy world embody this problem well: Brooke Bolander’s Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo-nominated “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” (2016) and Alyssa Wong’s Nebula-Award-winning “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” (2015). The former is unabashedly a revenge tale, written as a pointed counter to the usual narrative for trauma against women (in which the rape, torture, and/or murder of the victim tends to take grotesquely titillating centre-stage) and the attendant narrative for perpetrators in many a news cycle (i.e. lamenting how their violence has lost them access to a myriad of opportunities). The latter is also interested in role-reversal: it features a vampiric species that feeds off people’s emotional essences, and opens with an attack on an entitled Ivy-League student, thereafter left by a dumpster, that would have resonated strongly for readers in the year of Brock Turner.

Bolander and Wong are strong writers. The moral universes of these stories, though, require the same reductive view of perpetrators of violence that other stories horrifically level against the victims of violence. Bolander’s protagonist describes the story’s original perpetrator–the murderer who then becomes a victim when she resurrects to destroy him–as someone who “should have been drowned at birth.” As for his punishment, “his matter is speaking across a large swathe of space and time, begging for an ending to his smeared roadkill existence.” Now where have we come across the concept of infinite suffering for finite human crime before?

Wong’s Turner-esque caricature, meanwhile, has been given a serial-murderer twist that profoundly hyperbolizes the everyday banality of “evil” among the entitled young male college set. “The fucker has his own parking spot!” the protagonist thinks, after stealing the serial-killing Ivy-League student’s form and emotional essence. “No taxis for us; he’s even brought the Tesla.” Oh no, he murders and drives a Tesla! It’s a story that places “pick up artists and grad students” in similarly easy equivalence–gesturing at huge swaths of people as deserving of predation in largest part, it seems, due to their class-gender profile and the historical privileges it has afforded them.

What’s Old Is New Again

A famous ethical debate in sci-fi involves Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), a story about a pilot faced with the difficult decision to blow a young female stowaway into space so that his life-saving shipment of medical supplies will arrive in time. He is devastated that he has to murder this person because she did not obey the “cold equations” of space, but… murder her he does! The circumstances of the story make this conclusion even more unsettling, though, because editor John W. Campbell sent it back three times for rewrites, until Godwin finally let the girl die (in his earlier versions, a workaround emerges). As such, the story was constructed to give the illusion of “inescapable laws of physics”: to create a hypothetical situation in which the murder of a young female person becomes justifiable. (And yes, the age and gender mattered, too, which is why many felt that this story was an exceptionally creepy bit of fantasy.)

Today, if sci-fi instead focusses on the need for more personal accountability in the wake of flawed systems (e.g. the egregiously poor safety margins in Godwin’s ship’s design), it’s vulnerable to charges of “PC” storytelling. But how else would one define Campbell’s tinkering to make a certain, hard-nosed libertarianism appear the only logical choice in Godwin’s story?

We atheists are especially susceptible to this same skewing, which is why so many in the secular sphere tend also to find themselves locked into the equally “rational” rigidity of the MRA movement, incel culture, and various libertarian-leaning and white/Western-supremacist philosophies that are presented as the only logical response to the world in which we live.

Again–“Let’s begin with a story,” I say most every post, because everything we write is narrative. Obviously, some will sneer… but is it obvious? Is it really?

How often do we fall prey to the belief that what we write is different? That what we narrate is justified in its treatment of other people, because what we narrate is based on cold, hard, capital-T truth?

Toward a Less Reductive Approach to “Bad Guys”

If Bolander and Wong wrote stories that deeply troubled me in their reductive approach to “bad” men, Doctor Who Season 11 utterly disappointed in its own squeamishness regarding a way forward for male perpetrators of violence. The season closer was a sanctimonious railing against committing murder… that offered no greater restorative justice than letting the baddie rot for eternity alone in deep-freeze.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who, at its best, has the ability to offer much different approaches to moral correction. One of its most notable is the Doctor’s refusal to let people travel with her through space and time if they wilfully perpetrate violence, either spontaneously or retributively. This last phrase is key, because it’s indiscriminate in its metaphoric implications: whether we started it or we’re “finishing” it, the violence we choose to perpetuate diminishes our access to wonder.

Full stop.

And yet, the perpetuation of violence is to some extent an inevitability for the world we live in, and our participation in its cycles does not automatically render us inhuman. Rather, for better and for worse, we remain a part of the human species, a part of the experience of being human, even when we have most unconscionably erred.

Religious stories lean on quite a few extremes to try to account for this difficulty… but so too do secular stories–in the news, in online forums like this one, and even in our most progressive-seeming fictional domains.

It’s up to the humanists among us–religious and secular alike–to envision better futures for the whole… and to enact them here and now.

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  • guerillasurgeon

    ” hard-bitten libertarianism ”
    It’s a long time since I read that story, in the University library when I should have been doing assignments actually, but I would have called it hard-bitten utilitarianism rather than libertarianism.

  • Utilitarian in its idea of putting group happiness over the life of one individual, sure! But there’s a /huge/ emphasis in the story on the girl not having followed the rules of the “natural” world, and having to pay the price, irrespective of her ignorance, for trespassing. That plays strongly into the idea of individual responsibility for life outcome, which is a key component of libertarian philosophy. Thanks for reading, guerillasurgeon!

  • Illithid

    If I recall “The Cold Equations” correctly, there wasn’t even a choice available. The ship simply didn’t have enough fuel for two, even had they dumped the medicine. I could be wrong; it’s on my shelves somewhere…

    As a portrayal of the fact that the Universe doesn’t care if we live or die, that there can be no-win situations, that ignorance can get you killed, I found it a quite effective story. Though I share the scorn at the total lack of reserve fuel, or alternatively (if that simply couldn’t be helped) the lack of safety check procedures. But it’s not like safety procedures haven’t been circumvented before. If some of the people in the article below had read the story, perhaps they’d still be alive:


  • I linked the story in the article! I’m rather puzzled as to why this part is getting push-back. Yes, there is no choice available in the story. That’s the point. It’s set up as an inescapable conclusion… and yet it was /set up/ this way, /set up/ so that the individual is at fault, rather than the world.

    As you yourself write: “Though I share the scorn at the total lack of reserve fuel, or alternatively (if that simply couldn’t be helped) the lack of safety check procedures. But it’s not like safety procedures haven’t been circumvented before.”

    Bingo! You’re critiquing here what the story does not–the system, the flaws in our civilization that create such unfavourable outcomes. And that’s why this story has been the subject of so much debate: because Campbell’s editing constructed a situation in which the victim is blamed for their own circumstances, whereas all other factors are regarded as unavoidable. And yet… they’re not. There was a counter to this story published years later in Analog, but the original could just as easily have incorporated some sense of the pilot intending to do what they could to spare future deaths based on this experience, and it would have made a world of difference.

    Your real-life example is similar: Who hides in a wheel-well if they have any other choice? Who risks their life walking thousands of miles to a new country if they have any other choice? Who puts their child into an unsafe boat for another continent if they have any other choice?

    So how do we stop people from dying in those situations? By air-dropping copies of “The Cold Equations” into devastated regions of the world and hoping that their reading will outweigh a migrant’s fear and despair? Or by striving to produce a world where less resource-deprivation drives people to such extremes in the first place, and where people who still have to move out of desperation have safer options available when they do?

    Fundamental attribution error creeps up on the best of us, but it certainly isn’t lessened by stories like this one. Which isn’t to say it isn’t well-written! I enjoy “The Cold Equations” myself! But the debate it generates every now and then in SF circles arises from a sense of moral responsibility to reflect on the choices we make as writers–and the importance of remembering that they /are/ choices, if only of perspective.

    Cheers, Illithid!

  • Side note: I am now genuinely curious what one SF&F story readers would LOVE to see air-dropped around the world in regionally specific translations. If you could only choose one, which piece should be read as widely as possible and why?

  • Illithid

    I suppose I commented on that story because I haven’t read the rest. Thanks for linking it; I’m accustomed to stories being linked to the Amazon listing or something. I’ve enjoyed some Who, and found his/her aversion to violence in turns refreshing and occasionally irritating. It makes for novel solutions, but sometimes I just want to shout “just shoot it!”

    About TCE, I think Campbell made the right editorial choice, given the interest it’s evoked over the years. It says something that needs saying. People get themselves killed regularly through ignorance; not desperate refugees taking a risk to survive, but people living comfortable lives in developed countries who just never learned that death is a real thing that can happen to them. That list of stowaways… many were refugees, but others were just taking frivolous risks. One flew from London, not a place of desperation generally. One wanted to meet a celebrity (that one lived). Hikers ignore weather alerts, drivers attempt desert drives in unreliable cars without supplies. Pleasure sailors go offshore in unsound craft. And sometimes they die, because their comfortable life did not aquaint them with the idea that the world is a dangerous place that can kill them.

    I’m not suggesting an actual mass leaflet drop, amusing as that idea is. To answer your other question… hm. I wish I could get every American to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The world, though? I’m not sure I know enough about the world at large to pick well. Childhood’s End? For the subversion of expectations about religion (haha, you’re all wrong!) and the end of the world. Maybe just a whole lot of back issues of Analog.

  • guerillasurgeon

    My God, you shouldn’t get me started.
    1. Neuromancer
    2. Dreams of Flash and Sand.
    3. Pretty much anything by Neal Asher
    and as far as fantasy goes, I think Glenn Cook deserves another look, and I rather like Joe Abercrombie.

    The first two because although they are a little dated now to me they’re the essence of cyberpunk.
    I like the way Neal Asher deals with artificial intelligence.
    Cook and Abercrombie write gritty fantasy which I quite like.
    I could go on for pages about this and have done in the past, but that’s it in a nutshell.

  • Jim Jones

    It’s a SciFi version of the Trolley Problem, no?

  • Illithid

    Not really, although that’s part of the setup. Rather than go into it further, I encourage you to follow the link above. It’s a five-minute read at most, and the story is iconic.

  • Jim Jones

    Oh I know the story well. And I’ve seen https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734745/

  • hrurahaalm

    Substantive response: It’s not that any of this is definitely wrong. It’s that you correctly call some violence inevitable, and then call on us to enact better futures today. You can see how some might get annoyed at being told to do the impossible.

    My response: You say that alien “had to kill to secure rank in his culture”. No, he bloody well didn’t. His quest was to capture one target, who would be held in “deep-freeze” rather than killed. In this quest, his culture forbid him to use certain technology. Had he followed his culture’s rules, he would have needed to find his target by, oh for example, asking bus drivers. He would have needed some understanding of the local culture and would have needed to invent techniques such as claiming his target had agreed to do group cosplay with him. Also, an intelligent version of this alien (cough) who was faced with the Doctor’s work would have tried to bargain. ‘Wait, I need this guy to become leader, but there must be something you want! In principle I could try to free all the trophies from confinement in stasis. Of course, I would need to be leader in order to do that,’ is an example of something he didn’t say. Not that he would be in a great bargaining position after having proven himself a cheater. However, even in this episode he exhibited far more than one failure, and those were not his culture’s failings but his own.

  • hrurahaalm

    I’d have to think about it, but “Player of Games” deserves consideration for presenting a hopeful vision of future society in a nuanced way. If we allow fantasy, we should also consider “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality”.

  • Yay! hrurahaalm! I think you’ve posted the first righteously geeky response I’ve received! And I was so hoping for more of them on this series of posts. Thanks for writing!

    If my tone isn’t perfectly clear, because the internet is tricky: I am overjoyed by your message. You’re quibbling about the nature of deep-freeze for Tim Shaw’s species, which is a DELIGHTFULLY pedantic nerd moment, and had me grinning. Here’s the Doctor’s speech about that from the episode:

    “The Doctor: What do you do with them, your human trophies?
    Tim Shaw: They’re held in stasis in our trophy chambers on the cusp between life and death.
    The Doctor: Left to rot? How completely obscene.

    If I don’t stop you, your people will keep doing this.”

    So, yes, absolutely, the Doctor figures this as a species-wide issue.

    But even if it weren’t, even if it were just him, The Doctor also exhorts exactly the same message you suggest “annoyed” you here, when she later tells Tim Shaw:

    “Although, you could prove me wrong.
    Because we’re all capable of the most incredible change.
    We can evolve while still staying true to who we are.
    We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.
    Now’s your chance.”

    And that’s precisely what this post is about: recognizing that, while some violence has been contextually inevitable, this past reality doesn’t make it intrinsically necessary going forward. We can build a world with fewer pressure points, fewer situations that compel the worst possible outcomes. But to do that, we do have to reconfigure how we regard the “worst” among us. If our restorative justice doesn’t include them, it doesn’t fix the core issues. And that’s something we can all of us think about as we press forward.

    Cheers, and thanks again!

  • hrurahaalm

    Ah, That is not what you said before. Pragmatically, your new statement may well be right. Pedantically, it is definitely wrong and will cause many on both left and right to dismiss you as naive. Of course there’s a need for violence today. The actual worst humans are psychopaths and don’t want to be anything better.

    I’m also not sure why you’re quoting the part of the episode that says stasis isn’t death, or the part that shows the Doctor is either a fool or hoped that “Tim Shaw” could do what I said a moderately-intelligent bad person would do. We agree there can be degrees of badness within a culture, right?

  • I feel like you keep constructing a strawman, and I’m not aware of a contradiction between my original post’s comments and the statements I made in my last response. When did I say there wasn’t a need for violence today? We simply don’t need to be /comfortable/ with it. And we shouldn’t be–because when we do get too comfortable, it then it becomes tremendously easy to excuse more of it as inevitable than generally is the case.

    For example, a culture with the death penalty on the books is more likely to have citizens who are automatically pro-death-penalty than a culture that doesn’t. It becomes naturalized, this idea of taking life to counter the taking of life, when it doesn’t have to be. /Comfort/ with violence, especially in the context of retributive justice, limits our ability to imagine futures where it’s less necessary. And psychopaths are a great example of this, because let’s for a second take as a given that the “actual worst humans are psychopaths”. The aim would /still/ be to mitigate the neurobiological factors that lead to these outcomes, both to prevent the emergence of as many future psychopaths as possible and perhaps even offer rehabilitative forms of justice to the ones alive today.

    As for why I quoted what I did, I was pointing out that we’re dealing with semantics in the difference between a cusp-of-death-stasis-where-the-body-simply-rots and full death. That difference seemed to cause extreme offense, considering the tone of your first post towards my use of the word “kill”, but I’m not married to that word. It was a simplification for a general audience… and I don’t think one that vastly misreads the original.

    Moreover, you wrote: “However, even in this episode he exhibited far more than one failure, and those were not his culture’s failings but his own.” I was pointing out that the Doctor sure as heck seems to attribute this failing to a “people” that needs her to make an example of one of its members–but if you’re willing to go so far as to say that you know more about Tim Shaw’s culture than the Doctor, sure! There’s no point to me contesting that. I get the sense that you’re a Whovian who spent /far/ more time than I did debating this episode, and that’s awesome. Everyone has their bugbears and gleeful fanaticism for a favoured media vehicle, so I’m not making this a hill to die on. I was, as I said, DELIGHTED to see a proper diehard scifi fan comment here.


  • hrurahaalm

    No, this is a point which shapes my interpretation of the episode. It could also be relevant to the approach you should actually take to people who disagree with you, as alluded to in that sequence I linked on writing.

    You say the Doctor wanted to change the alien’s culture. Great! I agree (and what really annoys me is being ignored when I thought I was pretty clear.) How’d she hope to do that?

    Past Doctors have admittedly tried to scare alien races away from Earth. Pity she gave this race no way to know she was there, since “Tim” never went home.

    You say “make an example”, but someone must have failed this test before. If you really disagree with that premise, then indeed I think I know better than (your model of) the Doctor. I don’t think that’s a charitable reading of her plan.

    She could go to their planet alone and talk them out of their long-held tradition (though I have no mental picture of that working.) She never appears to do this. It would also need to be explained what that has to do with stopping “Tim.” Your quote seems to connect this action with changing the culture.

    An obvious alternative would be to make “Tim” help with the change. This would seem to require that he become their leader. This, in turn, would seem to require sending his target to his planet with him initially. Sadly, “Tim” was an exceptional example of Stupid Evil who made no attempt to get what he had long worked for, even though it lay within his grasp and all he had to do was convince an alien to let him take it. He also made negotiation much harder than it needed to be by killing people, and by showing a lack of honor according to his culture’s explicit standards.

    (In fairness to the culture-indicting view, it makes sense that someone who sought to take power by hunting sapients would be worse than the norm for his culture. The application to US politics is left as an exercise for the student.)