April 02, 2006

Life Imitates Gene Wolfe, Sort Of; with a disquisition on politics and ethics

Dana Rohrbacher has a proposal for how to deal with the labor shortage that will result if the U.S. expels all illegal immigrants. It's straight out of Gene Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back," except without the secularism, feminism, socialism, and world government that Wolfe seemed to think was necessary for us to give up our freedom.

Which perhaps raises an interesting question about aesthetics and politics. I didn't like the Wolfe story, partly because I found it a bit heavy-handed, but also because I thought its political analysis was bad. He's looking in the wrong place for threats to freedom. Is this an aesthetic flaw (or is the aesthetic flaw just that the political message is too far upfront)?

An interesting comparison case is John Le Carré's A Small Town in Germany, which is tremendously suspenseful and builds up to a chilling vision of evil. But I think the envisioned evil didn't really exist in our world, or wasn't a real possibility (I'm talking about the way the Western powers behave, though I won't say more for fear of spoilage).

Perhaps it's like this: If a mystery's solution violated the laws of physics, we would feel cheated. No one wants to find out that the murderer got into the locked room by levitating up to the third-story window. Similarly, perhaps my complaint is that these works violate regularities concerning politics, which is a cheat in a similar way. Of course neither of them is realistic. Still, they seem meant to illuminate something in our nature in a way that fails if they get our nature wrong. Or perhaps they're exaggerating or stylizing something that's not there, or not prominent enough to merit such treatment.

Posted by Matt Weiner at April 2, 2006 10:39 AM

I have not read either of your examples, but am reminded of a possible third one.

In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, he depicts a fairly-near-future military in which soldiers are required to rotate their sleeping arrangements with opposite-sex members of their unit according to a regimented schedule. (I can't remember whether or not any allowance is made for homosexual soldiers in this part of the book.)

Clearly this was meant to be a parody/inversion of sexual mores in the Vietnam-era military of Haldeman's experience. He might, or might not, also have meant it as a serious prediction of how isolated mixed-gender military units would behave.

I recommended the book to a friend but he found that this bit destroyed his suspension of disbelief (more so than the aliens and faster-than-light travel) since he could not believe such a politically conservative entity as the military would come to this in the foreseeable future.

Posted by: Richard Mason at April 3, 2006 04:51 PM

I had trouble with the Wolfe too. But Wolfe's "When I was Ming the Merciless" was believably Hobbesian.

Posted by: md 20/400 at April 8, 2006 04:22 PM