Philosophy and Aesthetics
Or, to put it more simply, why do I write what I write?
Every serious writer's work comes out of his or her way of looking at the world, and what he or she believes is the appropriate way to convey that vision. My vision of the world stems from my lack of faith or belief in anything metaphysical; I see existence as having no meaning, and I accept no transcendent or abstract truth underlying the physical universe. But I also know that we create our own meanings and structures because we need to have them and because we can't help doing so. As a human being, I am myself inexorably drawn to making my own kind of "sense" of things, even though I know those structures are illusory. So I feel we have to develop a dual vision: recognizing the (unpleasant) existential truth, yet also recognizing our human need to see things beyond it. Both are powerful imperatives, and must be accepted.
Our problems stem from our insistence on clinging to structured ways of viewing the universe when reality and reason assert otherwise. Prejudice, rigid thinking, intolerance all grow out of a refusal to open oneself to new truths. Pride is our worst sin and greatest danger, because a sense of superiority blinds us to the full truth about the universe or other people. At its most extreme, pride manifests itself in movements like Naziism and fundamentalism, which assert one's own racial or religious superiority. But even on a daily level we often try to portray ourselves as better than others, sometimes tearing others down to overcome or mask our insecurities.
It may sound strange for an atheist to be speaking about things like "sins." But despite what some may think, there's nothing contradictory about disbelief in God and belief in morality. I don't believe in abstract or transcendent moral principles; all morality has a human reality, much the same way that aesthetic concepts or fictional characters exist as human constructions without having any reality beyond us. Our moral consciousness is as human as having five fingers, and unless one is morally handicapped--as in the case of sociopaths--one has an inherent duty to consider all actions in the light of that consciousness. Ignoring our moral consciousness is to me inexcusable, and makes one very dangerous indeed. It's worse when that refusal to consult one's conscience is associated with the holding of power; those in power have more temptation and opportunity to act wrongly, and have therefore more responsibility to consider the full implications of their actions.
One point about evil is dramatized frequently by Timothy Findley, among others (see especially his Famous Last Words): it's far too easy to externalize the evil. We see evil when it's being practised by Nazis and other easy-to-identify villains; it's much more difficult to see it in our own racist or sexist or just plain rigid assumptions about others. There is obviously a quantitative difference between someone who participates in a Holocaust and someone who abuses his authority as a factory supervisor--but no real qualitative difference. Moral responsibility is universal; everyone who voted for or otherwise supported Hitler is equally guilty of everything he did in office, just as everyone who voted for Mike Harris is equally guilty of making kids go to bed hungry or destroying young people's educational opportunities. It's not at all easy to argue with someone who tells us we're racially or nationally or religiously superior, or that we ought to keep more of our money (no matter who suffers as a result), but those are precisely the times when we are most obliged to exercise our consciences. Don't blame the politicians entirely--we have to look in the mirror.
Apart from active support for evil actions, the most
inexcusable attitude is moral complacency. I see much moral complacency
around me, and it distresses me.
are more interested in their careers--in making sales--than in taking a
costly moral stand. Some voters refuse to examine the issues, and elect
politicians who offer them the most personal gain. Some consumers enjoy
the fruits of
unsound economic activities and cheap (particularly child) labour,
more about saving a few dollars than doing what they know is right. And
if evil befalls somebody else, well, too bad--"at least it wasn't me."
An old cliche says that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Like
most cliches, this one contains more than a grain of truth. Read Ursula
K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" for a wonderful
modern fable on this theme.
Rigid ways of viewing the world lead to moral blindness or willed self-delusion, and I think it's vital for everybody's sake that we all do everything we can to educate ourselves, and be open to having our misconceptions and assumptions exploded. I do understand why people build comforting mental structures, but I have no patience with those (including myself) who refuse to let them go when the time comes.
My characters often live in such outdated structures, and their stories involve a sudden confrontation with a new reality. Their response is either to recognize that new vision (often without knowing how to accommodate it) or to deny it and retreat into old mindsets. Being a writer allows me to do what I think everybody ought to do: enter someone else's head so that I can see how someone very different from me lives and thinks. Expanded vision leads to clearer understanding of others, and therefore less egotistical or rigid perspectives.
Overall, my background is more literary than
science-fictional; I have
been more strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Fielding and Austen
Conrad and Laurence and Munro than Heinlein and Asimov. I am primarily
a social and psychological realist, even in my fantastic works. My
is on character and theme more than on plot and concept. I'd like to be
able to do everything well, but I know I'll never be as clever with
as William Gibson or as technologically sound as Kim Stanley Robinson.
My strengths are in characterization, dialogue, and motif. Don't look
exciting, action-filled plots (although I do try!); look for
who might live and breathe. I'm not a postmodernist, really; I'm not
attracted to some of the most common postmodernist techniques, such as
metafiction, although I've played with that a little in my humorous
fiction, and I find politically objectionable the conflation of history
and fiction you find in some writers. Yes, there is a difference
between the two, and it's important to respect that difference. Surely
people are aware of the danger of pretending fiction is history, or
that real human suffering in the past is nothing more than just another
Politically, I'm a social democrat. I believe that in a
democracy the government is the servant
power of the people, and should be proactive in ensuring freedom and
for every individual. I believe that law and order is a good thing, and
that it applies to the rich and to corporations and banks as well as
"ordinary" people. We saw a good example of what can happen when the
economy is deregulated during the recent financial crisis. It didn't
take much foresight or intelligence to predict the chaos that ensued,
since it all happened before--and more than once. I reject the
libertarian equation of anarchy with
freedom; anarchy does not mean freedom for all, but only for those with
power (whether economic, social, or military). Libertarians tend to
believe that individual rights are absolute or nearly so; I
don't. Every right--even free speech--has limits, although most writers
understandably react with suspician and alarm to anything that seems to
limit their freedom of speech. But I think even most libertarians
would agree with the following principle: you have the right to do
something up to the point where you begin to infringe upon the rights
of, or cause unjustified harm to, others. To clarify what I mean
by unjustified harm: justified harm may involve doing something harmful
to another in self-defense, for example, but if someone attacks
you with an object that cannot inflict any real bodily harm, you don't
have the right to kill him; that would be unjustified harm. Balancing
rights involves balancing levels of harm. So, you have the right to
shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre if it's really on fire and you're
trying to save lives, even though someone may suffer harm in the
ensuing stampede. Better a broken leg than a fiery death. But you don't
have the right to yell "Fire!"out of pure malice or mischief, just to
cause harm. Basically, words are like everything else: you don't have
the right to use them maliciously. You may have the freedom to do so, in the sense
that we don't live in a world like the one being sought by the
authorities in Anthony Burgess's A
Clockwork Orange, one in which people would no longer have moral
choice. But that doesn't mean you have the right to wield words maliciously,
any more than you have the right to swing a baseball bat or fire a gun
with malicious intent.
I think a society works best when every individual--rich or poor, of whatever race or sex--has an equal chance at success, and only government can make opportunity universal through such institutions as public health care and education. That doesn't mean government ought to be able to tell people what to do, or ensure everybody succeeds no matter what one's level of skill or desire to work hard. It means that government should make it possible for people to succeed on their own, and do all it can to prevent the powerful from restricting the freedoms of the powerless. Libertarians look nostalgically to the world of the nineteenth century--only because they don't fully understand that world of legal slavery, of trusts and other forms of monopoly capitalism, of racism and sexism and classism.
I have watched with dismay as right-wing politicians convinced
that we can't afford social programmes--even though our society can
find the money for multi-million-dollar athletes, overpriced
clothes and shoes, video games, pointless computer upgrades, and huge
profits. I have heard such politicians win votes by lying about the
of such programmes, or misleading people about the way the economy
Sound bites like "I'll cut your taxes and put more money in your
have replaced serious economic and political discussion. Meanwhile, the
poor get poorer--causing the whole economy to suffer--the rich get
and the important things in our society decay while the luxuries become
ever more exciting. Our priorities are twisted: we want our toys while
claiming we can't afford our necessities. Both politicians and voters
to rethink their priorities. For instance, people say that they care
about the environment, but when his opponents claimed that Stephane
Dion's carbon tax would cost people money, voters turned against him.
His biggest mistake was believing voters when they said they wanted to
fight global warming and wanted honest politicians. If politicians lie,
it's because people encourage them to do so by voting for the best
liar, the one who tells them what they want to hear. Here, then, is my
basic law of political science: if being honest won elections, no
politician would ever lie.
I expressed my political and other views in my Mirror
columns; browse them at will. Unfortunately, the column was stopped
when a more right-wing managing editor took over, and I was replaced by
someone with views more in line with the new editor's. It's too bad,
because writing those columns was the most fun I've ever had as a
writer, except perhaps for my Jewish wizard stories...