The Pink Tentacles of Literary Angst

I have no idea who ESR is (should I?), but he writes an intriguing post about the sci-fi culture war:here. At the crux of his argument, he says, “No, I judge that what is dessicating and poisoning the Rabbit version of SF is something distinct from left-wing political slant but co-morbid with it: colonization by English majors and the rise of literary status envy as a significant shaping force in the field.”

Although I have an English degree — or because I have one — I can concur with his posit. However, I believe there is more to be said on this discussion. He makes the point that humanities departments are filled with and/or run by lefties, which is why we confuse the culture war for a political one. Well, perhaps. But what do we really mean when we bring up divisive terms such as “leftist politics”? It’s my opinion that what is really at heart is a foundation of postmodern philosophy. ESR hints at this when he says, “[English major literary fiction types] love them some angst.”

The very essence of postmodernism is angsty. Before postmodernism brought us the universal truth that there is no universal truth, that all truth is relative, modernism brought us a forward-looking world of scientific optimism, which devalued a need for God. Science fiction sprang from modernist philosophy and served as a necessary critique thereof, and in its later years was probably a reaction against postmodernism. Daniel Eness discusses this in his article A Good Weird is Hard to Find. Scroll down to the comments section, and you’ll see I’ve practically quoted him: “What is interesting is that science fiction provided some of the earliest critiques of modernism as well as a viable alternative to postmodernism.”

Fantasy, by comparison, is a return to the kind of myth brought to us by the premodern era. Much of what some people call “pink” sci-fi is also an attempt at returning to the tropes of premodern mythology. However, the grand majority of it is painted with postmodernism, which insists that truth is relative — even truth that has been wired in the human soul for eons, such as the balancing and necessary aspects of masculinity and femininity. What postmodernist fantasy has attempted to do is skewer premodern archetypes, thereby rendering them meaningless. To be honest, I can see this same kind of postmodern painting in my own urban fantasy book, Anna and the Dragon, which I self-published a little over a year ago. While that may be true, I’m operating off a fundamentally different worldview, one in which there is, indeed, universal truth. So what I was attempting may have been influenced by my stint at university and my upbringing in a postmodern world, but in the end, the book is about an angsty postmodern protagonist who must go on a soul journey in order to wake up the masculine in her life, which allows her to also wake up her feminine nature.

That is quite possibly the first and last literary critique I will do of my own work. I may have failed miserably in my attempt at writing fantasy, but at least I can gain some self-awareness from the venture. Ripping out the roots of postmodern philosophy will be essential to my growth as a writer because it will allow me to be honest about human archetypes, what they are and what they represent in humanity. Without that kind of understanding, I’ll be stuck writing the kind of poor excuse for sci-fi that SRE discusses in his essay, one that doesn’t resonate with the human soul because the human soul is wired with universal truths.



  1. Postmodernism – deconstructionism specifically – relies on bad scaffolding to do some fairly neat tricks. The fact is that the ideas behind such crummy novels as Alphabetical Africa and such complete academic nonsense as The Pleasures of the Text are appealing and inventive. Modernism certainly has its problems, but Eliot–a Modern–pointed all of those out far more clearly than any Postmodern ever has.

    Postmodernism, at its very best, is a vigorous and mean-spirited insult to Modernism, whose flaws are already self-evident. That doesn’t make it any less fun to think about…but, like murder, postmodernism is a practice best fantasized and not executed to its physical conclusion.

    I’m not suggesting Modernism is a good practice, either. I’m suggesting that where we go is a family that includes neither Mod nor Post- as parents. The next literary opportunity will be a graft.

  2. I agree about the connection to Postmodernism. I would have mentioned it myself if I had been writing in a historian mode rather than a structural-analytical mode.

    It is very obvious to me that genre SF is in part a reaction against postmodernism. As I have written elsewhere the defining premise of SF is the rational knowability of the universe; that puts it direct, essential conflict with the postmodernist program.

    Your idea that SF can be fruitfully viewed as both a derivative and a critique of modernism is more interesting to me, as I had not really considered either possibility before. Now that you’ve brought it up, I can see how celebration of modernism was near the core of Gernsbackian scientifiction, with the critique aspect emerging to cohabit with celebration almost immediately after the Campbellian reinvention of the genre in 1938-’39.

    As to who I am, probably the aspect most relevant to your concerns is that I am one of the judges of the Prometheus Awards – a long-time fan and libertarian, and not incidentally a scholar of the SF genre and its history. I’ve published only once, a short story; but it was nominated for a Campbell, so there’s that.

    Others would know me more for being one of the founders of the modern open-source software movement, and as a result about as famous as a working programmer ever gets – “ESR” is the result of a folk tradition of tagging the most eminent alpha geeks by their initials, probably related to newspaperese like FDR and LBJ.

    There are products of my mind in your smartphone.

    1. Thank you for responding! I really appreciate it. I actually wrote this post 5 yrs ago and occasionally will fix bad formatting that got carried over from one platform to another. I did that to this one today, and it must have kicked out the pingback to you again. I didn’t really consider that. It makes me want to revisit the subject, though. It’s a good conversation.

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