From the vaults: Ken MacLeod on cultural dumbing down (1998)

One of the predecessors of this blog was the magazine revolution, 26 issues of which were produced from 1997 to 2006. We had quite a range of readers all over the world, one of them being Edinburgh-based award-winning sci-fi novelist Ken MacLeod. As well as being a keen reader of the mag, Ken contributed several articles on sci-fi and contemporary culture. Although the piece below dates back to 1998, it is still relevant today. His perspective on the fantasy genre has certainly been borne out. The piece here is based on a short presentation Ken gave on a panel at the 1998 Edinburgh Book Festival and first appeared in revolution #8, Dec 1998/Feb 1999.

imagesby Ken MacLeod

The producers of culture in society – artists, writers, people who work in the media and so on – are waking up to the realisation, or at least the perception that there is no God, there is no Soviet Union. Whether it was seen as a promise or a threat, while it existed ‘actually existing socialism’ provided a stimulus to development – as something outside of our society which was a competitor to be outdone or an alternative to be emulated.

Now, with that challenge – feeble as it was – defeated, Western cultural establishments have been thrown back on their own resources, and these resources turn out to be pretty meagre. They’ve been undermined in the meantime, behind our backs as it were, by long-term developments like the decline of religion, the decline of moral certainty and the scientific realisation of humanity’s present insignificance in the universe. The spiritually-impoverished proletarian wretch of the Communist Manifesto, without family, religion, skill, or nationality, barely existed in 1848 but certainly exists today.

One of the things that the Cold War did for culture was give it a weight of human significance – we all lived for decades under the threat of nuclear annihilation or Stalinist conquest or whatever, and the polarities of the confrontation created a sort of magnetic field for our moral compasses. With that tension removed or attenuated we find a turn to the personal, but the personal has become trivial. I was struck, for instance, a few years ago on reading Martin Amis’ London Fields with how shallow his pessimism looked, now that he was no longer worrying about nukes as he did in Einstein’s Monsters but instead about murderers and holes in the sky.

So we’re in a culture of what Nietzsche called “passive nihilism”, which is what you get when people realise that there are no values laid down from outside, by God or Nature or whatever, and conclude that there are no values at all – instead of taking the attitude that Nietzsche called “active nihilism” which is to have the confidence to make our own values, to lay down the law ourselves instead of getting it handed to us on tablets of stone, to say that we decide what’s good and bad, right and wrong, quality and crap.

I think it’s this failure of nerve on the part of the establishment that’s part of the explanation for “dumbing down”, a sort of nervous, hasty acceptance of whatever is popular. Taking the examples that other speakers have raised of books like Bridget Jones’ Diary or Fever Pitch, I have to say I enjoyed them immensely, they’re very entertaining. But that’s it. Hey, don’t say anything that’s likely to last, and if you look for a social significance in them, the only thing they seem to have is this crisis of masculinity we’re supposed to be having. But they get rave reviews from the quality press.

Turning to my own field of science fiction, the picture is complex. SF is not dumbing down; on the contrary., I’d say the literary quality and scientific accuracy of SF are higher than they’ve ever been. What is going on that is disturbing is that it’s become increasingly difficult for SF writers to imagine a humanly habitable near future, a desirable 21st or 22nd century. SF still believes in progress, but not in humanity, so progress is assumed to be the work of lour electronic or mechanical creations which are seen as our descendants.

A second disturbing feature of the scene is the rise of fantasy, the big blockbuster trilogies being much more commercially successful than SF. Don’t get me wrong; fantasy is a very worthwhile genre and it meets real needs that people have. But, ultimately, fantasy as a genre responds to change in real life by looking backward rather than forward as SF does, and it’s not a good thing to see such a steady rise in the popularity of a genre which turns its face firmly towards an imaginary past.