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Pet peeve: The future of evil


(Warning: this entry contains gross imagery.)

We see this kind of story fairly often:

First the author postulates a future development that's so awful that in real life, American society simply wouldn't stand for it; and then the author complains (by telling the story) about how awful it is. It's like saying, "In the future, all babies will be tortured and then murdered. OMG! That's awful! Think of the children! Something should be done to save all those tortured and murdered babies!"

The first step that we're being asked to believe is too wildly implausible to believe. But even if we did believe it, we already agree that it's awful. So why bother reading--or writing--the story?

The most common version of this story is the future-of-punishment story. We get a lot of those, though not nearly as many since we added it to our stories-we've-seen-too-often list. In such a story, the author postulates that in the future, punishment is handled differently; for example (which I just made up), in the future, all people who are accused of crimes are required by law to gouge their own eyeballs out with plastic sporks, and then to eat the eyeballs. The point of the story seems to be that it's truly awful that all prisoners have such a horrible thing done to them as an official part of the criminal justice system--but since in the real world, that particular horrible thing is not in fact done to them, and I can't imagine the American criminal justice system changing in such a way that that particular horrible thing would be done to them, the story isn't very effective for me.

Of course, someone could write such a story as a way to comment on our current criminal justice system, effectively saying "the way things are in the real world is actually pretty barbaric, and something should be done about it." There's a long tradition of such stories in sf. I personally have very little interest in reading or publishing that kind of exaggeration-of-real-world-ills story, because it's usually a very heavy-handed polemic presenting the author's worldview, and I dislike heavy-handedness in fiction regardless of whether I share the author's worldview. But at least I could see the point of writing such a story.

But most of the future-of-evilness stories we see (including most of the future-of-punishment stories) don't appear to be intended as social commentary; they're just showing a made-up exaggeratedly (and implausibly) bad situation and then lamenting about how bad that situation is. Which ends up reading to me like the author is saying "Look at this awful thing I made up! It sure is impressively awful, isn't it?"

(Written in mid-June but not posted 'til now.)


My guess is that if you asked all of the authors of the implausibly bad situation stories what their point was, at least some of them would say that they were, in fact, writing social commentary stories. "The point I'm making is that it's a slippery slope from denying felons the right to vote to making them gouge out their own eyeballs with a spork!" And rather than hammer on why it's a slippery slope, they hammer on why gouging out eyeballs is bad, because its a lot easier to write. They're just really bad at writing social commentary.

I was in a writing workshop (for writing plays, actually) with a woman who was interested in writing political satire. She had written this scene in which two of the President's advisers are plotting. They were plotting bad things. The bad things weren't over-the-top bad enough to be funny. They weren't close enough to reality to be biting. They were just bad things that were too bad to be plausible, but had no real point. And there were no jokes. She wasn't a stupid person. She just didn't understand, at all, what constitutes satire.

It was like a person who thinks if they're singing a different note than you (any other note at all), they're singing harmony. (I suppose they are singing harmony, technically, just not necessarily harmony that anyone wants to hear.) And if the person is tone-deaf, there's no real way to explain to them convincingly that there's more to it.

Perhaps I've just read very few of those stories, because most of them don't get published, or because I don't read very many short stories, but I can't remember ever actually reading anything that I would put in this category. Which is nice for me.

And leads me to wonder if essays looking at zeitgeisty trends based on published stuff are missing the boat. There's clearly a trend here that I suspect such an essayist would never see. Is the timing post Abu-Ghraib? Have several such stories (but presumably well-written) been published in the Big Print Mags? I'm curious, now.

As for my own personal preferences, I kinda like the if this goes on... subsubgenre, but it sounds like these are missing the iterative step, telling why if our this really does go on, it will (or at least might) lead to the story's circs.


Your eyeball sporking imagery is insufficiently gross to merit the inclusion of the gross imagery disclaimer; in the future please make an effort provide much more graphic made-up examples of imaginary violence.

(Did you ever read this poem? I don't know why this entry made me think of it, since the poem is about an exaggeratedly barbaric past rather than an implausibly barbaric future... I suppose because, to me, this is an example of how to tell a story with a heavy-handed moral well.)

Jacob: Yeah, could be. I tend to think of it as more part of the larger trend of writers who feel that describing an imagined situation or concept or procedure is in itself a story (ie, that you don't really need traditional dramatic elements such as three-dimensional characters, a plot, or a theme); that's another thing that there's a long tradition of in sf. But yes, it may well be that people are trying but failing to write social commentary and/or satire. (It also may well be that that intent would be obvious to most readers, but that I'm too literal-minded to get it; it would not be the first time that's happened.)

...Your harmony analogy reminds me of Fred Small's line "Don't be afraid of harmony: harmony is any note that your neighbor isn't singing."

V.: Yeah--I was rather surprised when I first heard that editors were sick of seeing vampires-with-AIDS stories, because I had never seen one of those published, so it was a new idea to me.

I suspect that a fair number of future-of-punishment stories (and some further number of other future-of-evil stories) have been published over the years, but I suspect that most of the ones that have been published have been clearly/firmly in the "if this goes on" camp. Science fiction is full of published stories about how awful the world will be if those with opposing political views have their way, for example. I can't think of any offhand, but I'm pretty sure I considered the idea old hat long before the first such submissions found their way to us.

As for timing, the first story that I identified in a database comment as a "future-of-punishment" story arrived in February of 2003, over a year before the Abu Ghraib photos reached the public awareness, and the phrasing of my comment suggests that we'd previously seen several others that I hadn't referred to using that phrase. So although it wasn't a subgenre I was aware of before I started editing SH, I think it's been around for a while.

...Does an "if this goes on" story need to explain the why/how step? I sorta get the impression that, at least to the author of such a story, the why/how is generally self-evident--or rather, the bad future is generally an extreme exaggeration of something bad that the author sees already happening in the present, so the only step to take is "if this existing trend gets worse." I see this most often in OH NOES! THE [PC LIBERALS|FASCIST CONSERVATIVES] HAVE TAKEN OVER THE WORLD AND NOBODY CAN SPEAK FREELY ANY MORE! stories; I think the how is implicit. And anyway, I don't think most such stories really intend to suggest that the future will actually be bad in that way; they're saying that the present situation is bad by exaggerating it.

Jackie: Well, that and the torturing babies. But I figured that the eyeball thing might put some people off their breakfasts if they were reading while eating. It didn't bother me--I added the warning as an afterthought at the last moment, just before the post went live, and I didn't originally intend the example to be gross per se, just over-the-top.

That poem seems oddly familiar--did you link to it in some recent discussion? I think I hadn't read the whole thing before--good, and very creepy, poem. The photo at the top may be even creepier, though. Anyway, yeah, I agree that it's an example of heavy-handedness done effectively and well. But partly I think that's because it's heavy-handedness done, if you will, with a light touch--the implicit moral is heavy-handed, but the explicit statements in the poem itself aren't. Except for the line "Between you and me is the difference of an hour or a year or a hundred miles, no more," which I think might go a little further than is necessary in its directness.

The link to the poem in Jackie M.'s post doesn't seem to work for me (using Firefox). Could someone please post the URL (I'm curious)?

Not sure what happened there--somehow the link code got extra spaces inserted, which made it stop working. But I've removed the extra spaces, so it should work again now.

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