Thursday, April 1, 2010

What's With the Moral-Apocalpyse Porn in Conservative-Themed Science Fiction?

Investigating the demographics of our favorite genres is an exercise in introspection: we're curious what our taste says about us, and where we fall on the spectrum with fellow art consumers. This is why William Sims Bainbridges' Dimensions of Science Fiction is on my to-read list.

It's useful to ponder what motivates not just readers, but also writers, and sometimes there are clear motifs that seem to correlate with writers' political leanings, above and beyond any deliberate rhetorical purpose they may have. A theme I'd long noticed in certain types of science fiction books and films is the moral weakening and decline of America, usually illustrated by increasing crime, a faltering standing in world affairs, and the powerlessness or unwillingness of incompetent leaders to do anything about the country's conversion into an amoral hell with cackling half-insane punks and drug-pushers running the streets. These works usually come across as a conservative's "warning fiction".

But there's more to it than that. As rhetoric, the existence of films or books making political and moral viewpoints isn't a surprise. What stands out about this sub-genre is its obsession with describing the decay, in graphic and sweaty detail, often describing specific moments at which all was lost. And as with all pornography typically the plot is filler, and you can tell which part the writer or filmmaker wants to get to. That's why it's so strange that people for whom the moral downfall of America is the ultimate nightmare are so set on so graphically illustrating it; the purpose of the unnecessary detail and intensity and length of these passages or scenes really comes across more as for the arousal of the writer rather than as a well-drawn image making a rhetorical point.

But it's not just "look how hellish this world is" post-apocalpytic shock-fiction, like the movie Hardware or the Deathlands series of novels (of which I had the ill fortune to read two); there seems to be no moral linked to the porn in those cases. Conservative post-moral apocalypse warning-fiction porn owes more to Blade Runner, but adds a fairly explicit political function to the eye-candy (if it has any) that the granddaddy of dark SF films lacked.

Some examples of conservative warning fiction/post-moral apocalypse porn novels and movies:

1. NYPD 2025 - Probably the most overtly political of the pieces I describe here. "It takes a new kind of cop to risk his life on future New York's out of control streets..." et cetera. The Big Apple has become a dangerous sleaze pit where crazed criminals take advantage of soft-hearted incompetents' bankrupt morality and politics. One sequence tellingly finds the protagonist interviewing the source of all evil, a liberal female journalist open with her sexuality (she has a tattoo with an arrow on her inner thigh saying "DOWN WITH MEN". (Reading this in seventh grade, somehow I thought she didn't sound so bad.) In another scene, the ham-handed way that conservatives declare themselves non-racist is on full display - "Look, I'm judging this person by his adhering to proper values, so even though he's ethnicity X, he's okay with me!" - when the protagonist kills a gangster as he's making collection rounds, and is thanked by a Jamaican immigrant who suddenly realizes the bankruptcy of the wishy-washy tolerance that has allowed crime to fluorish. (By the way, if you think the contrived one-dimensionality of the Legion-of-Doom-type conversations between antagonists in Ayn Rand's novels were bad, you haven't seen anything). Judging by the attention it receives online, this book unsurprisingly doesn't seem to have aged well.


2. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre - I learned some amazing things about this book while researching it; first some background. I was killing time in Castroville, California (the ugly sibling of Santa Cruz; in 2002 there was still unrepaired damage from the '89 Loma Prieta Quake) and read this book when I found it in a Goodwill, mostly for kicks. The most memorable passage is one where hapless, weak politicians at the U.N. (that conservative bete noir) sign away the U.S.'s future to China and the Soviets. The signing of what effectively was the American surrender document was written in vivid and exquisitely sliced moments. (I read the whole thing in the store so I didn't buy it and can't find it online, but trust me, you're not missing any immortal prose.) It was this novel, and this scene, I had in mind when I started writing this post. So cliched, so melodramatic, so all-downhill in terms of quality after the laboredly literary title. (I should add that all my characterizations of traditional conservative themes in writing and film from the last half century, while often negative, are not always indictments; I share many of conservatism's central concerns, but they haven't often been well-rendered in fiction.)

It turns out this novel was part of a five book series; okay, so maybe, like all sequels, it was worse than the first. How much worse? The first won a Pulitzer. When I started writing this post I never expected that this book (or its series) would ever have been recognized as significant, in any way, even within the genre! I cannot stress how stunned I am by this revelation, but judge for yourself.


3. Robocop - Criminals have taken over a bankrupt Detroit (wait, I thought this was science fiction?) The amoral downfall of America features the studied indifference of business executives after the needless death of one of their own, and the aforementioned madly cackling bad guys victimizing good people apparently for sheer twisted pleasure rather than for any material gain.


4. Judge Dredd - The conservative fear of the decay of big ("mega") cities perhaps raises its head early here; by virtue of humans crowding into giant cities, of course everyone goes bad. In the original work the film is based on there are also nuke-happy Soviets spreading mind-destroying viruses to add to the fun.


5. Demolition Man - This is the outgroup here, because it envisions an attempt at a utopia that, while it's a bit too G-rated and emasculated and claustrophobic for some of its subjects, is certainly far from a full-on dystopia; imagine a world taken over by yoga instructors and 50 year old New Age ladies that sell crystals and hand-made herbal soaps, and you're 90% of the way there. The "warning" of this movie boils down to "look how easy these people are to victimize; to protect them they need a real man willing to beat up civilians to get criminals." When a super-criminal from the modern day (Wesley Snipes) escapes his cryogenic prison, there are extended scenes of his victimization of these hapless neo-hippies. Tellingly, the tone of these scenes seems to make it quite deliberately very difficult not to take the criminal's side. You want Wesley Snipes to beat up these wimpy cops, because they're weak, and they had it coming. This movie always ran together in my head with Judge Dredd; oddly, both feature Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider. In his Super Mario Brothers costume Snipes doesn't quite come across as a late 90s L.A. criminal mastermind, but at least he engages in the requisite high-pitched insane cackling while committing nastiness.


6. Freejack - Protagonist Emilio Estevez awakes in the near (bad) future to find a polluted, criminal, humiliated America dominated by Japan. I save this one for last because of the homeless man's monolog to Emilio Estevez, perfectly exemplifying the obsession with illustrating the final, exact moment of humiliation and downfall, symbolic in this case:

Emilio Estevez: (Bumming about the horrible place America has become) Man, if it's come down to this, what's the point?

Homeless guy: He riddles me. The ancient riddle: 'Whats the point?' Have you ever seen an eagle flying back to his home with dinner for the Missus and all the little eagle babies? And he's flying against the wind and he's flying in the rain and he's flying through bullets and all kinds of hell, and then right at that moment when he's about to get back to his nest, he says, "What the fuck, it's a drag being an eagle" and right then two little x's comes across his eyes just like in the old-fashioned cartoons. And he goes plunging down, and down and down and BAM. He's just a splatter of feathers and then we dont have the national bird of America no more. Did you ever see that?


Notice the absence of Heinlein or Poul Anderson or Niven work in this list. All could be characterized as writers of science fiction with conservative themes, but all are at bottom optimistic about human beings, and more importantly, recognize a moral universe outside the United States.

I have no good explanation for why this strange pornographic obsession exists, but I can't help thinking about it. Since the moment of final moral defeat seems to be the absolute worst nightmare of these conservatives, it could be a desensitization issue. That is, if you spend enough time worrying about an abstract event (moral decay), you eventually develop a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship with it, much like adult horror buffs were often the kids who couldn't watch Nightmare on Elm Street movies alone until they were 13.

4 comments:

TGP said...

You don't get it?

Mike, it's a "nothing left to lose" scenario in which the conservative "good-guy" can let loose on the other without fear of condemnation or retribution.

The fulfilling aspect of it isn't the decay of civilization, it's the revenge fantasy. You're allowed to kill all mutants and scumbags because it's self-defense and revenge all rolled up in one.

It's also an unsubtle call to arms to encourage the use of force against 'undesirables' in the present to avoid this dark future. That's where it becomes dangerous, because it's not just fantasy fulfillment conservoporn: it's an attempt to frame today's relationships in violent moral absolutist terms.

Michael Caton said...

I think that's part of it. It's the same phenomenon as people who fantasize about their enemy, boss, ex-, etc. essentially making an open declaration of war against them so they can go all out. But there's STILL more to it than that. You can have the revenge fantasy without making it so pornographic. I also don't think that it has always been all that dangerous, because I don't think that until recently social conservatives were in the habit of thinking of these kinds of actions as possibilities in the real world.

I'm shocked and disappointed that you didn't comment specifically on Deathlands.

TGP said...

It's been so long since I read any Deathlands books, Mike. They're not really the kind of thing you go back to for a deeper read.

I just finished what might be a bit of a liberal apocalypse book, _The Drought_ by my favorite author: J.G. Ballard. It's a 'slow decay of humanity' type of apocalypse, but Ballard is almost completely morally neutral. It's an interesting counterpoint to the apocalypse morality tale.

Michael Caton said...

Funny, I just put a Ballard short story collection on my short to-read list.