Sad Puppies, The Walking Dead, and Hunting for Conservative Science Fiction

14 Apr

The Hugo Award nominations were announced recently. For those of you unfamiliar with the Hugo Awards, they are the “People’s Choice” awards of the science fiction fandom (the Nebula Awards would be the Oscars, as they’re selected by working writers, not fans at large). Paying members/attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention vote on the Hugos. You don’t have to be a writer to vote – just a fan willing to pay $40 for a membership.

walkingdeadThis year, the Hugo Award nominations are contentious because a group of self-proclaimed “conservative” fans got organized, created a slate of books and stories (most by loudly conservative writers), rallied new World Con memberships, and largely got their slate pushed through to the official nominations ballot. They did this because they perceived the Hugos to be dominated in recent years by liberal agendas.

Longtime fans are outraged to see the Hugos highjacked for political agendas. The group of activists who call themselves Sad Puppies (it’s a long story), are hooting in triumph, and the rest of the world is left saying, “Oh that’s cute! You mean people still write science fiction novels?”

If you want to read about the nuances of this situation, read this from Daily Beast. You also, you have your pick of blogs with various amounts of teeth-gnashery, chest-thumpery, and mountain-out-of-molehill-making. George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has the mic drop on this issue, from my point of view.

But leave a trail behind you if you go exploring this topic. You could get lost.

I’m less interested in this controversy and what it means for the Hugo. That’s been debated in blogs, Facebook, and live at conventions for several years now, and I’ve managed to stay away because it always devolves into an argument about why popularity is meaningful. And “debates” like that makes me want to chew my own foot off. (“Great taste! Less filling!”)

What I am interested in is what do people mean by “conservative” science fiction? Personally, I think if the works that the Sad Puppies put forward really did espouse an ideology AND were written well, I’d love to read them. I’m interested in this because (a) there’s a roots tradition in sf/fantasy built by writers like Heinlein, Haldeman, C.S. Lewis, and David Pournelle and others, and (b) I’m so comfortable in my far-left politics, books that don’t match my worldview don’t rattle me. As I’ve said, I like and need to read work that comes from outside my point-of-view, and I can do it without hating the writer, condemning the entire publishing industry, or bemoaning society at large – a skill that science fiction readers and writers need desperately.

A contemporary conservative science fiction interests me because we’ve reached a moment in history I never thought I’d see, with classic hallmarks of social conservativism arguably falling out of favor with the bulk of Americans: Namely, shunning gay marriage and homosexuals from society; criminalizing marijuana; keeping health-care privatized; having national discussions about racism, homophobia, and police brutality, that I never thought I’d see in the national spotlight .

I’d like to know what conservative thinkers in the “literature of ideas” are thinking at this moment in history. Gay marriage, legalized pot, a president of color, as it were, and the American Care Act are enormous steps taken by the nation as a whole, away from social conservative positions. If you’re a smartass, you’re probably looking at the Sad Puppy campaign and thinking, “They’re clearly threatened and feeling shoved out of the cultural discussion.”

But might there be an actual under-current of thought by conservative thinkers about this moment in history, when conservatives have been out of presidential power for two terms running in America (and maybe more to come)? Is there a bigger conversation being engaged in the Literature of Ideas about what conservativism even is? Or is this Sad Puppy slate just another dead-end conversation about yay popularity?

Saddest Puppy Brad Torgersen has said there was no political litmus test at play in selecting certain works for their proposed slate, and I tend to believe him. The works on their slate are mainly fifty shades of military science fiction. Tellingly, to me, the most exemplary conservative piece of science fiction in the last ten years didn’t make the Sad Puppies’ ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation: The Walking Dead. This isn’t a work that merely plays with the trappings and furnishings of conservative thought, as military sf does, saying “yay guns” and stopping there. The Walking Dead is conservative from individual scenes to the widest angle of its worldview and philosophy.

The big conservative idea behind The Walking Dead’s apocalyptic world is a pure, condensed Thomas Hobbesian scenario. Society and government have collapsed from a zombie apocalypse, but even if you aren’t killed by a zombie, your corpse will re-animate as one. Indeed, the situation is so bleak and horrible that there is no presumption of seeking a cause or cure for the outbreak in this story. We don’t even know if it’s really an “outbreak” at all. The Walking Dead narrative is reduced to the horrible choices facing the characters, who come to realize that other humans are even worse foes than the zombies could ever be.

And this is really the launching pad from which many conservative arguments spring in The Walking Dead. Each season takes on different “enemy attitudes” that the tribe of right-thinking characters (ha ha) must face, analyze, and ultimately overcome. These “enemy attitudes” (my term) take the form of long-term presumptions about what society is, but which are now delusional (liberal?) beliefs that stand in the way of people being what they really need to be in this hyper-Hobbesian horror. Such as:

  • believing that the walking dead (zombies) still bear some humanity and must be treated humanely;
  • forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial to surviving;
  • motherhood and children are essential to society;
  • arming and feeding ourselves are cornerstones of society

These delusional enemy attitudes are the fundation of the conflict in Walking Dead: Main character Rick Grimes and the group pay for their attempts to reconcile and join with the bad-guy Mayor’s group; the Mayor’s two children are zombies, a fact that explains a great deal about his insanity and warped character; a woman who dies in childbirth and becomes a zombie shows how problematic birth is in this world; and Rick’s attempt at farming in the prison grounds is viewed with mirth and mockery by other characters. Humans are better off running and scavenging than settling and creating a civilization in this world. There is no society “good” enough to warrant the risk to personal safety.

The contempt for gardening and feeding one’s self strikes me as one of the more interesting ways that Walking Dead takes reality to a fantastic and far bleaker place. This no-farming scenario takes the conservative Hobbesian position that human life at its most rudimentary is “nasty, short, brutish and brief” and the belief in agriculture will save humanity in the Walking Dead world is simply another misguided delusion (like the little girl who thinks her zombie friend is human and good and just wants to play!). By eliminating the “hope” of agriculture, Walking Dead’s world can only be approached from a conservative strategy — more individualistic measures than social ones. With zombies always and forever pressing in, the communal and cooperative effort needed to make farming work is nothing more than a death trap in The Walking Dead.

But the most essential “enemy attitude” of all in The Walking Dead is the idea that humans should trust each other, that society is built on cooperation, reconciliation, and forgiveness. It’s a question that is constantly hovering around the periphery: Isn’t there a group of scientists working on the outbreak? Isn’t there a larger group that we might trust and join up with? Shouldn’t the heroes cooperate with others to find a way to rebuild what they once had?

The answer is always no. The group visits the CDC in season one and it’s verified that there isn’t, in fact, a group of scientists working to solve the zombie problem. Later, a brilliant young scientist who speaks confidently of having a cure in mind turns out to be nothing more than a lying dweeb. If a government is working on a cure, we haven’t seen credible evidence of it in five years of The Walking Dead.

And this is what makes WD such a staunchly conservative thought-experiment. The few times that our heroes indulge in the belief that a cure might be found or a good society must be around the corner, the effort ends in betrayal or crushing disappointment. It’s hard to imagine  a more effective hybrid of the Hobbesian “state of nature” and the libertarian belief that the true drama of humankind is one of personal liberty, man against man (except in maybe a Rand Paul stump speech). The Walking Dead is the conservative narrative of the moment.

[Spoilers below]

As a result, humans take the place of zombies as the true antagonism in The Walking Dead. By season three, the characters are so skilled at zombie-killing, in fact, that the undead aren’t the worst threat anymore. Season four might be Walking Dead’s climax of its philosophy and thought, when the truth of a season-long mystery surrounding a place called “Terminus” is finally revealed: A utopia where there is no want for food, where people are happy and healthy, turns out to be a camp of human cannibals who are luring others to Terminus to be killed and eaten like cattle.

Every single “society” encountered in WD is ultimately a little Terminus, a violently psychotic gang of horrible human beings who undermine the self-reliant, self-sufficient heroes. Each society reveals itself to be led by power-mad and/or completely deluded tyrants of various stripe and feather, fulfilling what conservative philosophers have long argued: Any reliance on society or government in any form is foolish. Whether the society is Hershel’s farm, the two walled towns that the heroes encounter, a hospital, or wandering bands of men who want food, water, “pussy,” children, the trying to stay and coordinate with others, is always the wrong choice. George R.R. Martin, the writer of The Game of Thrones books, claimed recently he had solved the problem of The Walking Dead. “If they had any brains, they’d go to the existing castles and reinforce the walls.” But hero Rick Grimes would laugh in Martin’s face for that suggestion since it ignores what he knows deep in his skin: Humanity cannot be trusted to create a decent society of any kind, whether behind jail-cell bars, chain link fences, or castle walls. Society is a poisonous mirage, one that’s only suited to serve the needs of an elite few, and will eventually either destroy the personal liberty of everyone else within the community — or literally eat itself alive from the inside out. The moral of The Walking Dead story is simple: All you can truly trust in life is your own self, your weapon of choice, and (if you must) a couple allies to cover your flank.

The Walking Dead’s vision is fascinating because it takes the landmark non-voodoo zombie film, The Night of the Living Dead (1968), and expands on its critical appraisal of society in what I would call a very “science fictional” manner – rigorously exploring its Big Idea, testing it, coming at it from different angles, testing it further, and driving it into its most extreme incarnation. WD is very different than more shallow “communitarian/liberal” zombie narratives like World War Z, which presupposes that society is good and saving it is in everyone’s best interests to work together – a belief that remains maddeningly unexplored in WWZ. With a Big Idea in Walking Dead, and writers dedicated to exploring it, this production shows itself to be among the best science fiction stories (science, as in, conservative social science fiction) being written right now.

If Sad Puppies had offered up The Walking Dead or something equally well-explored on their proposed Hugo Award slate, a work that rigorously explores conservative philosophy, I’d like to read it. From what I can see, though, if there are Big Idea “conservative” works, they’re nominally conservative without much rigor behind them, just socially conservative postures and gestures (i said yay guns!). Those works can and should be written for the audiences that love them, but if they aren’t taking aim at Big Ideas, they probably don’t belong on science fiction’s Hugo Ballot.

7 Responses to “Sad Puppies, The Walking Dead, and Hunting for Conservative Science Fiction”

  1. Sally Strange April 14, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    If Sad Puppies had offered up The Walking Dead or something equally well-explored on their proposed Hugo Award slate, a work that rigorously explores conservative philosophy, I’d like to read it. From what I can see, though, if there are Big Idea “conservative” works, they’re nominally conservative without much rigor behind them, just socially conservative postures and gestures (i said yay guns!). Those works can and should be written for the audiences that love them, but if they aren’t taking aim at Big Ideas, they probably don’t belong on science fiction’s Hugo Ballot.

    Well, that’s just the thing, isn’t it. Conservatives could be exploring big ideas through fiction or politics or philosophy or any number of venues, but by and large they aren’t doing that these days. Conservatism does seem to be reduced mostly to posturing and slogans. Inasmuch as modern conservatism requires at least some denial of basic scientific facts, this disinterest in rigorous exploration of ideas and critical thinking should not come as a surprise, but people seem to keep expecting conservatives to do something different. While I sympathize with your interest in reading fiction that explores conservative ideas, the reality is that modern conservatism is more or less incompatible with such intellectualism. And thus the Sad Puppies and their Hugo slate are a tragically un-self-aware but representative manifestation of conservatism.

    • barthanderson April 16, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

      “modern conservatism is more or less incompatible with such intellectualism.”

      Conservative viewpoints are actually very easy to find in Hollywood “sci fi” blockbusters (as well as in this age of excellent television we have going on). The superhero genre is basically conservative/fascist — the Sad Puppies had PLENTY to choose from in the last year for their Dramatic Presentation Hugo noms. Sons of Anarchy (not sci fi, I know) is conservative/libertarian, and then there’s Christian Fiction which is not only big money but jam-packed with big speculative ideas. I didn’t want to mention Chri Fi in the above post because I think it muddies the water, but books like The God Cookie, The Left Behind books, and The Days of Noah are where I’d say the big What Ifs are being asked in conservative thinking. Me, I don’t care to read someone answering those questions. But booksales say that MANY others do.

  2. Rob April 27, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    Wow. By now I’m used to liberals attacking straw conservatives, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone claim conservatism is about being against motherhood, children, self-defense or agriculture before.

    • barthanderson April 28, 2015 at 10:12 pm #

      Walking Dead is a “hyper-Hobbesian horror.” It’s an examination of conservativism in a state of exaggeration. Obviously conservatives aren’t against agriculture but they do prize the examination of why human beings get roped into group activity — and the value of engaging in it at all.

  3. Rene April 28, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    Speaking as someone who has read more WALKING DEAD comics than watched the TV show (I am still to begin watching Season 4)…

    This is an interesting view, but wrong. You’re overthinking it. The real reason why attempts to rebuild society or cling to societal mores don’t work by this point in THE WALKING DEAD is because that would make it end too quickly and it would not be as horrific.

    Robert Kirkman’s plan seems less to promote some conservative ideal (I really doubt if the guy is conservative at all) about the weakness of civilization, anr more to tell an harrowing story full of terror. That is why attempts to stabilize the situation go wrong. Same reason they don’t kill the monster in horror movies in the first 15 minutes. Robert wants to keep the suspense and the fear.

    Also, he is doing it long-term. 100+ comic book issues into it, there begins to grow a hope of communities forming, of trading resuming, of farming and industry restablished, and Rick and his pals playing a sort of Seven Samurai role in protecting these communities while being too hardened and dehumanized themselves to join them.

    Robert wants to write and sell 300+ issues of the comic book, so the recovery of civilization will be painful and slow. Now, if Rick rebuilds agriculture and government in 15 issues, it kinda defeats that point.

    • barthanderson April 28, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

      It’s not wise to mix discussion of the TV with comic book Walking Dead — they’re two different narratives and I haven’t read the books — but what the hell, I’ll bite.

      You said, “You’re over-thinking it.”

      Well, yeah.

      “Robert [Kirkman] wants to keep the suspense and the fear.”

      Once I was convinced that WD was a battle of good human beings v. evil human beings, and not about zombies at all, it stopped generating real suspense or fear for me. It’s a crazy landscape, yeah, and there are great set-pieces and fight-blocking, but the things I find interesting about the genre aren’t really at play (solve the outbreak; rebuild; root out the zombies). And that’s ok — I think WD asks interesting political, philosophical questions and that’s not me overthinking — Jesus, it’s all they do in the last few seasons is soliloquize about WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE. If you DON’T accept that WD is a political tract on some level, conservative or no, than I don’t really understand why you watch Walking Dead at all. It stops being concerned with the zombie apocalypse and is clearly more concerned with political/philosophical/spiritual questions and it’s pretty damn blunt about it’s transition.

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