Science Fiction’s political failure 3: Han Solo shoots first

My friend (and assistant editor at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show) Scott M. Roberts, posted this rather stunning piece of commentary to Facebook this morning. I’ve quoted him in blocks below, and added my own commentary. I’ve said some of these things in this space before. But I thought Scott’s wording was so spot-on and eloquent, I wanted to repeat them here — and add my own thoughts to his.

The more I hear the term “cultural sensitivity” lauded in the context of artistic expression, the more I’m reminded of the thousands of wailing mothers who annually strive to ban Huckleberry Finn from schools for using the n-word.

Speaking as a parent, I find myself constantly in a tug-o-war: how much of the world do I expose my daughter to, and how much of the world do I keep hidden? On the one hand I have a protective instinct (rooted culturally in my Utah LDS background) that is quite strong, and there have been many times when I’ve seen my daughter watch something on television or listen to something on the radio, and I’ve cringed. Do I really want my daughter to be seeing or listening to some of this stuff? She’s only 9 years old.

Just the same, what good does it do to shield her from reality? The world is not sanitized. She’s going to get an eyeful (or an earful) of life sooner or later. Hence my wife’s frequent assertion that it’s better to have our daughter exposed to some of these things while she is still in our orbit of influence, and we can provide context and, hopefully, guidance. An assertion with which I am almost always forced to agree. Not because I like it, but because it seems to be the truth.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no need for racial/cultural sensitivity. But there is a definite need within the speculative fiction community to take their sensitivity with a grain of salt. Or pepper. Or cumin, ginger, or really, any spice. (I prefer cayenne.) The current vocality sometimes seems to strive for worlds populated with impossibly fair-minded secular protagonists — inoffensive, liberated, sensitive protagonists whose obedience to modern cultural mores is strident and undeviating. Inevitably, the antagonists of worlds populated with such men, women, and children are stereotyped fat cat institutions — repressive governments, corrupt corporations, blind-minded religions.

I suspect part of the issue (as outlined above) is that many writers and editors believe that the purpose of “scientifiction” (to use Uncle Hugo’s old word) is to portray people — and the world around us — not as how we truly are, but as how we ought to be. According to a given editor’s or writer’s own assumptions, preferences, tastes, ideals, et cetera. Thus if the real world is too racist, we will create a future world that is un-racist. Or at least, where our un-racist protagonist(s) struggle against racist evil-doers. If the real world is sexist, we will again create a future world populated with un-sexist “good” people and sexist “bad” people. And so on, and so forth. All the deadly sins (ist and ism) will be clearly signposted and our heroes will know them well, and demonstrate proper fidelity to the un-sinful, un-ist, un-ism virtues of tolerance and sensitivity.

Let me hasten to add that I think modern cultural mores are absolutely wonderful. Liberty, equality, brotherhood, huzzah! I’m even wearing a red cap as I write this.

But I do not have that red cap pulled down over my eyes.

Cultural sensitivity, as praised by the modern vocality in the speculative fiction genre, is no substitute for truth. I have more respect for stories that stay true to the world they inhabit than I do for stories that stay true to the ideals of the author. In other words:

Give me Conan. Keep your John Galt.

Like Scott, I’ll be the first one to heartily support a society in which egalitarianism is championed. I am an equal opportunity guy who thinks a world where everyone can rise to the level of his or her ambitions, work ethic, and aptitudes is a worthy thing to strive for. Is this not the keystone principle of the United States? To free the human being from his or her “designated slot” in the old hierarchy? So that men and women may create and strive and work and invent as they please, building for themselves whatever kinds of lives they see fit?

But I agree with Scott: imposing blinders — for the false hope that somehow ignoring reality will make reality better match our desires — isn’t what science fiction is for. Or at least, this isn’t what science fiction is for when science fiction is firing on all cylinders. As my friend and mentor Mike Resnick has often told me, science fiction is not even necessarily about science, but about the human condition. And the human condition is a flawed thing, replete with bumps and bruises. Many of which may not be to our taste. Many of which may even make us recoil in shock or horror. To accurately portray this fallen state while also giving the reader bona fide heroes and heroines who accomplish laudable things despite themselves, is one of the great tricks of any good story. After all, Han Solo did shoot first. And he really was a scoundrel. A scoundrel who went on to help defeat the oppressive Empire because while the New Republicans had no love for smugglers, they did have common cause with Solo against a suffocating, conformist, crushing orthodoxy. Thus Solo is in many ways one of the more compelling and enjoyable heroes in the Star Wars saga precisely because he isn’t clean, pure, or righteous. He’s just a guy trying to make his way in the world. And he also happens to have a seedling of honor in his heart, which sprouts into a sapling by the time the third (sixth) movie has elapsed.

This isn’t a paen to gritty or shocking stories. This is a plea for the speculative fiction community to stop obsessing over race, sexuality, gender, and political affiliation and which author (and which characters) are on the right side of the dividing line between moral bankruptcy and sainthood. The obsession with correct political belief and expression in art is stultifying the genre as it is necessarily exclusive. We are losing our voice in artificial, forced homogeny posing as tolerance. Propaganda-disguised-as-story drives readers away as agenda takes the place of wonder, excitement, character. and conflict.

I cannot laud the above paragraph enough. It is something I’ve beaten my pots and pans about since I began publishing a few years ago. There is a reason science fiction is on the wane, with pop readers. Science fiction is supposedly the “dangerous” genre, but I’ve found this to be a largely toothless claim, based on past glory. Science fiction in the 21st century doesn’t want to be dangerous. Science fiction wants to be safe – at any speed. Heroes and heroines must not be scoundrels. As I noted above, all the sins are clearly signposted. Worse yet, let any author or editor fall foul of the signposted sins – ist and ism — and it’s a cause for significant outrage. How dare someone let a scoundrel into our beloved genre!? Someone fetch the smelling salts! Vapors! Gnashing of teeth!

I maintain that cultural sensitivity should be replaced by cultural awareness. Awareness implies research, consideration, thought, and judiciousness. Sensitivity looks at the n-word and immediately wails, regardless of context; awareness takes into account the modern reader’s reaction to the word, then balances it against the reality depicted in the story, and determines whether the usage is valid or not. Sensitivity denies equal access to language. It segregates and censors based on the background of the writer rather than the content of the story. No society can embrace cultural sensitivity and retain full capacity for freedom of speech.

Yes, in triplicate. The quest for tolerance has lead us down a very odd road where the proper enacting of tolerance is to be, well, intolerant. To not tolerate the “intolerable” according to trendy or arbitrary or otherwise assigned values of correctness: correct thought, correct speech, correct action. Not only must the stories themselves hew to this rigid correctness calculus, authors themselves must hew to this rigid correctness calculus. There is no room in 21st century science fiction for real people. Because sooner or later the ist and the ism are exposed — both real and, as often as not, imagined — and the evil-doer is punished and/or cast out.

Thus the genre slowly homogenizes and inoculates itself against reality. And the stories (and the personalities) become more polarized, polemicized, and monotonous. A robust genre which actively fostered a more robust ideological spectrum might be more able to pick up on and defend against this disease. But the denizens of the “ghetto” can’t seem to get enough of it. They want more conformity and less diversity in politics, opinions, and ideas. Because true diversity means inviting in and even protecting the scoundrels — Han Solo has no place in a properly, piously “sensitive” science fiction. Han Solo shoots first. And he is a greedy capitalist to boot.

Cultural awareness denies speech to no one. It justifies (or condemns) artwork through context.

And context is king — something I’ve found myself trying to inexpertly explain a lot these days. If we judge generations past according to our ever-evolving modern standards, those generations will forever be found wanting. Yet it cannot be denied that we in our sanctified time of sensitive propriety owe most of what we have to those rough-necked ruffians of yesteryear who somehow muddled through their ists and their isms to bring us to where we are today. And to provide us with some of our most timeless, everlasting stories. Stories that speak to the eternal truths of the universe, and show us honor and dignity and humility and adventure and sacrifice, despite the flawed nature of the world(s) and character(s) portrayed.

Sensitivity serves ideology; awareness serves the story. Sensitivity defaults; awareness decides.

Quite so. I would add that “sensitivity” as currently practiced in the genre is an entirely reactionary thing, predicated on avoiding and assuaging offense — be it real or imagined. A genre that makes its choices according to who it wishes to avoid offending can no longer claim to be a dangerous genre. Dangerous genres shoot first, and ask questions later. Science fiction too often doesn’t even want to ask the question, nor pull the trigger. Science fiction wants to punish the trigger-puller and throw the laser blaster into the molten pit — because guns are bad.

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35 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s political failure 3: Han Solo shoots first

  1. Hear hear! The very fact that Lucas (for whatever reason) changed that scene in the later, “improved” releases of Star Wars illustrates this point most admirably. That was one of the best scenes in the movie, watered down to soothe the vapors of the politically correct thought police. How sad.

  2. This is a very well-reasoned response to something that has been bothering me in the genre for quite a few years now, and I was happy to see it linked over at SFSignal’s “Tidbits” amidst a flurry of idealogical, overly-sensitive and oblivious blog links. Not only did Han Solo shoot first, but another Harrison Ford role, one with an iconic fedora, shoots a man armed with a sword rather than fight him, because that’s what that character would have done in that time and that situation, and it made sense for that reason alone. It didn’t make him a bad guy, it just made him Indiana Jones, and we love him for it. So where have all these characters gone? Bludgeoned into obscurity and cult status by a growing desire to “culturally manage” our futures and fantasies into a more agreeable and less “offensive” distortion. No commentary, no awareness, just brow-beating and proselytizing.

    Thanks for posting this.

  3. I can only assume that Lucas — either because of outside pressure or because of some sort of internal change of heart, wanted to soften Solo up. Make him seem like less of a scoundrel. It was one of the more problematic decisions of the re-release period, and one that almost all Star Wars fans reject. And for good reason. The original movie demonstrated (through this scene) that Han Solo could be ruthless. This was essential to his character development and evolution over the course of the original three films: the ruthless smuggler who gradually lets the angels of his better nature win him over to the side of the New Republicans. Again, the seedling of honor becomes a sapling. And Lucas ruined it with one small but very significant change that was unnecessary and, yes, often appears very PC.

  4. I really hate to tell you but in the reality of here and now as a cop I answer a call and a bad guy is waving a bloody big sword or even a little one he’s getting shot ,repeated as needed, till he is no longer a threat, if he doesn’t drop it when told. That scene in Indiana Jones was reality .Gun trumps knife, and you should never feel bad about it.
    Back then there would have been even less pause to shoot the swordsman as he was third worlder but make no mistake bring a knife/sword/or pair of scissors to a gun figth and you get shot.

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  7. Hear Hear! It’s a sad state of affairs when a person finds themselves rooting for the villain because they are the better written/more understandable character.

    Give me a flawed hero, and something to make me think any day.

  8. Brad, thanks for posting this. My wife was reading over my shoulder, saying,”Oh, I’m using that! Exactly!” and so on. I’m not as familiar with the machinations of the genre as I ought to be and my career is still embryonic but the pattern is pervasive throughout our society . We’ve been pretty successful at teaching our kids to swim upstream but any examples of clear thinking engagingly expressed is useful and appreciated. Keep it up!

  9. One minor point here — one which I am forever having to make to the Unenlightened:

    “Han Shot First” is as much revisionism as “Greedo Shot First”.

    The True Quill Original is “Greedo Never Fired”.

    Get it right, you heathens! 🙂

  10. It is a delicate balance: too much flaw, and the hero becomes repugnant and cannot be rooted for. Too little flaw, or an obvious attempt to “sanitize” the character in a certain political fashion, and the agenda of the writer shows through.

  11. Here is how I looked at it when my daughter was little. I was not crazy about Bart Simpson and wouldn’t have it on at my house. But I also didn’t shield my daughter from the reality of the world. If there was something on television or anything else that made me cringe I would sit down and talk about it with her. I figured better to let her see the world in all its glory with the good and bad and the hideous than to coddle her and she couldn’t function in the real world. Then again at the time I was working in the juvenile justice system and got rather jaded. As to the butchering of Star Wars on the re-release it was a sad day in deed when that happened. Then again I hated a lot of the changes in the re-release.

  12. I came to read this through Larry Correia’s blogging of the astoundingly childish attack on you. I’m sorry you had (and no doubt, will continue to have) that problem, but I’m not sorry I read your article here. Very well said, sir. I’m a mother, and a writer, and in both areas of my life, I promote character. I know my kids will mess up, but I’m not going to throw them out on their ear for having done so, I’m going to use it to teach them. My characters ought likewise to be flawed, and live and learn. This is what I like to read, and I look forward to reading your work.

    As for the political dogma through fiction: well, I don’t like to read it, so I don’t. But I love good stories, great characters, and plots that make me think long after I have put the book down. Most of the SF I read now comes from Baen, or indie authors. I’ve started actively cultivating those indie authors, in the hopes that by buying their work and promoting them online, I can help turn the tide from the writers of “grey goo” to those who write Human Wave, stories that think people (with all their flaws) are a good thing, not a burden on mother earth. But they can do that without preaching, and the establishment can’t present their side without resorting to infantilism.

    So, thank you.

  13. I think you make a lot of good points Brad but IMHO what you’re really lamenting is the loss of the “Western” story. The “Western” story is an embodiment of Americana and has been re-enforcing cultural and societal norms since we’ve had mass media. You can see the same themes repeated in John Wayne/John Ford movies, Zane Grey/Louis L’Amour/Larry McMurtry novels, Howard’s Conan, Heinlein/Pournelle science fiction, numerous tv shows, etc. The media doesn’t seem to want to showcase that kind of story anymore. Sure some still trickle through, Way of the Gun and Unforgiven were movie Westerns, Firefly was a Western tv show but they’re certainly fewer and farther between.

    I think you’re correct that there seems to be an overriding opinion coming from THEM (you know the academics, pundits and experts that tell us what to think) that American culture and society has moved on and evolved past the need of what they think is outdated politically incorrect cliches and tropes and actively dismiss and/or suppress it. I think that’s rather horrifying and pathetic. America is built on ideals, we’re not held together by a unifying race, religion or cultural ancestry we’re united by ideas. Those core ideas of liberty, individualism, hard work, natural rights etc. are integral parts of Westerns, that’s why Westerns are popular and universally understood; they reinforce societal and cultural norms.

    I do think that you are doing a disservice to comics and graphic novels. There’s a lot of very talented people telling some very good, entertaining, politically incorrect awesome stories in that medium that often gets overlooked.

  14. I read this at age 9:
    Star Surgeon (1959) by Alan E. Nourse
    http://www.amazon.com/Star-Surgeon-Alan-Nourse/dp/1598180657
    http://www.magick7.com/1/MoonlightStories/2/407/2912.htm
    http://librivox.org/star-surgeon-by-alan-edward-nourse/
    http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=1299
    Now the reviews say it is about racism but that was not mentioned in the blurb way back when.

    And Star Wars is not science fiction. The producers admitted that in 1977, the called it Space Fantasy. The fact that people now call it science fiction is part of the problem.

  15. I definitely agree with science fiction being about the human condition, and not just about science. If you write about people or people-like beings, then you are writing about the flawed and imperfect, whether it’s your characters’ deeds or their personalities. Han Solo is a good example of that. He isn’t perfect and he never tries to be–that’s what makes him believable and identifiable. I’ve read too many novels with great science and technology…and dull, lifeless characters who do little beyond go through their books’ motions, and never seem to grow or learn from whatever conflict the story puts them through. I prefer a flawed character who acts, and learns/grows in the process to one who’s squeaky clean, beginning to end. As for Han’s shooting first, you know the saying: kill or be killed.

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  17. “Back then there would have been even less pause to shoot the swordsman as he was third worlder …”

    I took Indy’s pause to be of the “Dude, seriously?” variety. I don’t think that can be dated.

  18. Oh, PC hollywood has its version of the niche-fill. I think shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad are the response in the PC movement. We can’t have a flawed hero anymore, but we can have a flawed anti-hero or outright villain to root for. Kind of sick really, that Hannibal Lechter is so popular he is getting his own show. When you can’t have a flawed hero, you have to resort to writing the villain as a ‘good guy’ and that is PC. Personally, I can’t watch that kind of thing, but it is out there.
    Great article, btw.

  19. I’ve tried watching BREAKING BAD and found I had the same reaction to it, as I did to THE SOPRANOS: when literally nobody in the shows seems morally redeemable, what’s the point? I agree with you entirely. Since Hollywood has abandoned what more or less passes as traditional or “common sense” morality and ethics, now we have a surfeit of morally debased, often cowardly, evil “heroes” who break all the rules (even their own) and are about as far from being truly heroic as it’s possible to get. I take it to mean that this is a reflection of Hollywood’s own moral state. I travel down there once a year for writing stuff. It’s a strange place. About as filled with cut-throats and liars as any town in America. Glamorous and shallow and utterly out to sea, when it comes to decency, truth, or striving for goodness.

  20. But that’s not how it was scripted: Indy was supposed to fight the guy using his whip but Harrison Ford was ill and just didn’t feel up to following the script and he suggested just shooting the sword holder. Not that this contradicts your point — the scene was probably better this way exactly because of the point you make.

  21. re: Hence my wife’s frequent assertion that it’s better to have our daughter exposed to some of these things while she is still in our orbit of influence, and we can provide context and, hopefully, guidance.

    My daughter is not almost 18, and we have tried to do this exact thing. It is hard but it is the right thing IMHO. She has been home schooled but 3 years ago she joined the local High School Color part of the marching band. So she got to hear lots of words and see some things that made us cringe but we were able to explain why it was low class, crass and not something we do not agree with. So yes we have a good relationship and she does tell us all this stuff and hopefully it will help in the long run.
    But until life is done we never know if we did they right thing but I believe you are doing the right thing and she will be better for it and able to handle what the world throws at her.

    Good Luck

  22. Same thing brought me here. Excellent, excellent article and I’m glad some good folks like Correia have your back.

  23. The fact you even felt the need to say you supported egalitarianism shows how screwed we are. We are full of disclaimers nowadays. People used to take it for granted no one was in favor of rape and slavery. Now we have people in the streets holding signs as if there are. One can’t help but feel there has been a surge of people who simply love moral posturing and so create monsters to highlight their high ground on a hill of morality. That’s not politics, but a pathology the Left has gathered under its banner.

  24. Thinking that Han, being a hero, must not shoot first, even though Greebo has made it clear that he will either kill Han or deliver him to Jabba who will kill him, well, that is as morally imbecilic as insisting that Israel must never shoot first but must always wait until the bad guys actually attack–all evidence that the bad guys are preparing to attack must be ignored because dead morally pure Jews are infinitely better than living Jews tainted by the sin of self-defense.

  25. “when literally nobody in the shows seems morally redeemable, what’s the point?”

    I too have that reaction. In order to enjoy a show–and especially to keep watching episode after episode–there must be some sympathetic characters. A lot of the stories I’ve enjoyed had plenty of flawed characters, but they were flawed, not destroyed and unredeemable.

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