Politically correct? Anti-American?

June 14th 2011

Posted by: in: From the Author, Metrozone, Non-fiction
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A recent comment on Goodreads has sent my usually chaotic thought-processes into an even more ragged whirl: I always consider this a bonus, because it means I read even more eclectically than I usually do in an attempt to justify what I’ve already done. “Of course I’m right, and if you give me half an hour, I can provide a dozen well-researched sources proving that!”

Okay. The charge is that Degrees of Freedom (and the whole Metrozone project) descends into “a politically correct thriller” that “barely deserves the sf label”. I’ll take the last one first, because “SF is what I say it is when I point to it and say ‘that’s SF’.” But also, Degrees of Freedom is (hopefully) clearly a story that wouldn’t exist without science, and has a scientific solution – which, to my mind and probably more importantly, my publishers, makes it SF.

The charge of ‘political correctness’ is more interesting, because the phrase itself is code. In and of itself, ‘political correctness’ (which I’m going to abbreviate to PC from now on, to save pixels) doesn’t actually mean anything that’s associated with either the P-part, or the C-part. Put them together, though, and what you have is a meta-contextual value-judgement favoured by those on the political Right to dismiss, without argument, something they disagree with. Labelling something as PC is not an argument. It’s not a knock-down blow. It’s code, and it’s complex. It’s meant to be an insult, but there are much more imaginative and accurate ways to be insulting. To whit: it’s lazy.

The chief exponents of PC-as-insult in these domains are parts of the British tabloid press. “PC gone mad!” is the reaction when a council bans parents from taking photographs of their kids in a Nativity play. And whilst you appreciate the child protection issues involved, it does seem more than a little stupid. It seems very stupid, in fact, and an error that is compounded by conflating such displays of wilful ignorance with either the Human Rights Act, or the Health and Safety at Work Act. But a lot of PCness boils down to basic decency. We don’t refer to blacks as niggers or coons, or people from Pakistan as pakis, Italians as wops, the Spanish as dagos, folk in wheelchairs as crips, those with physical disabilities as flids – because they don’t like it. Hell, I don’t like it. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we ought. We shouldn’t go out of our way to offend.  Making public buildings accessible to all is not PC. Insisting that women are paid the same as men for doing the same job is not PC. Suggesting that airbrushing black people out of your publicity material is wrong is not PC.

I don’t think Degrees of Freedom is guilty of that, however. Using my secret decoder ring, I’m taking a stab at the real reason for calling it PC is because religious Americans are the bad guys.

And actually, that is such an unnuanced statement, I’m going to qualify it: Reconstruction America, as portrayed in the Metrozone series, produces a mindset that inevitably leads to a set of motives and actions that are internally consistent and logical, but which appear to the protagonists as ‘the Americans are the bad guys’.

Reconstruction is, by the time the Metrozone series starts, a two decades-long experiment in social and economic engineering. It is extremely socially conservative, highly capitalist, and religiously patriotic. It takes seriously American Exceptionalism, is isolationist, and brutally Romantic, in that it holds up a Platonic ideal of America that everyone must strive for. It’s a binary ‘for us or against us’ view. It’s a reaction to the previous sixty years of expansionism and social change, and also to Armageddon. And while it’s clear to me that some people in the real USA would not only want the kind of society I describe but are actively campaigning for it, I know and thank God for the fact that it’s never going to happen. There’s the constitution and the amendments, there’s the Supreme Court, the elected representatives, the people. It’s a what-if. It’s not even an original what-if. American writers have used the right-wing quasi-fascistic government card so often, it’s almost a trope.

Religion is inextricably linked to that trope. There’s something iconic and eminently writable about the unholy marriage between American patriotism and protestant Christianity. Not all patriots are religious, not all Christians are ‘my country right or wrong’ patriots. But, yes, iconic and writable, and very visible. I actually get to hear speakers like Jim Wallis and Tom Sine – good evangelical Christians – who are of the left, so I know there are many flavours and textures to the religious landscape in the USA: all the same, the stereotype is the right-wing Christian, and you can’t be an evangelical without being on the right.

So this is the America I’m painting as ‘the bad guys’. Are they actually bad? That depends on your point of view, and the American government in the book doesn’t do anything that they don’t do either in real-life, or haven’t been portrayed as doing in other films and novels, written by Americans. Once you’ve taken Reconstruction as a given, the rest follows like night follows day. The US administration’s actions are entirely in line with the prevailing philosophical and religious outlook, and that’s as it should be. They don’t see themselves as bad. They’re not rubbing their hands like a cartoon villain. They’re doing what they need to do in order to further the interests of the United States of America. Which is again, entirely right and proper.

Am I being taken to task then, for showing the actions of a fictitious future government of a named country? Quite likely, yes. The rub, of course, is that the protagonists are an alliance of unstable hackers, traitors, and ne’erdowells who, if they profess any political allegiance would most likely tick the box marked Anarchist. If it’s unconscionable that a fictional USA is bested by this fictional gallery of rogues, can I suggest the problem might not lie within the book?

But I can’t know any of this for sure – because the charge of PC is, as I’ve already said, lazy. If you’re going to be critical, be specific, and be smarter.

8 Responses to “Politically correct? Anti-American?”

  • John says:

    It makes me wonder if the person who commented on your book actually read it. PC is the last thing I would call your books, thankfully.

    • Simon Morden says:

      No, I’m certain that this reviewer has read it. Something clearly pushed his buttons – and to be fair, we all have those, which is why I’ve never even attempted to read Atlas Shrugged despite the fact that right-wing mil-SF is one of my guilty pleasures. However, I can’t tell what he specifically objected to because ‘politically correct’ just isn’t specific enough!

  • Julian says:

    finely worded…when all that was really required was a raised middle digit ( a la Petrovitch…)

    just discovered the metrozone trilogy and im hooked….fantastic!…another SF author of the calibre of John Courtenay Grimwood/Richard Morgan/Iain Banks…can i suggest Duncan Jones as director for any film adaptations?

    keep up the good work…regards…yours etc

    • Simon Morden says:

      Ah, but I am the epitome of moderation and fairness, unlike that scoundrel Petrovitch…

      Thank you for your kind words: no news yet on any film deal (though the books are doing the rounds). Yes, Mr Jones would be a good choice – thoughtful and almost understated. My other directors-of-choice at the moment are Neill Blomkamp and Wolfgang Petersen, who I see is slated to do Old Man’s War – serious genre credit right there if he pulls it off.

  • Anninyn says:

    Hah, I love that accusation. The Metrozone trilogy is one of the best, least-pc and worringly believable series I’ve read in quite some time.

  • Harris says:

    I just finished reading the Metrozone trilogy and I was thoroughly entertained. I have to agree with Anninyn when she says it was “worryingly believable.” I think your portrayal of the Reconstructionists showed the dark side to American Fundamentalism (Protestant Fundamentalism to be more precise). I will definitely recommend this to all my (American) friends, hopefully it will spark some discussion about the direction our country might be headed. I really enjoyed reading the books and will be looking for more of your works as soon as I get some sleep.

    P.S. As odd as it may sound, thanks for making Petrovich such a believable character. I know that a real human would never survive half the things he went through but after reading the books I want to visit his new home in Ireland and shake his hand.

    • Simon Morden says:

      You’re welcome. Obviously, it’s fiction – Petrovitch has a touch of the Terminator about him (“He absolutely will not stop!”), but to balance things out we have stories like _Touching the Void_ where Joe Simpson crawls off a mountain he’s been left for dead on.

      And I’m glad that you didn’t conflate the America in the world of the book, with America is it really is – as is intended. I did have a few anxious moments when I knew Orbit US were reading it, but they’re pros, and they know the score.