The school, like everything nowadays, looked far too good to be true. It resembled a mansion in a vast estate: classical architecture, picturesque trees, plenty of green fields. Novanita paused, wincing at the noise of the crowd. Children scurried around the sports pitches, their families yelling encouragement from the sidelines. Somewhere, a brass band played a rousing anthem. After years of deafness, hearing this commotion ought to be a pleasure, but it was a little too much. The whole world was just too much.
Philip tugged at her arm. "Come on, Grandma! You'll miss the start."
She allowed herself to be led across the grounds and through the main entrance, a towering arch of grey stone festooned with ivy. The building looked ancient, like a manor house in a costume drama, but of course it had to be new. Nanotech, that was the buzzword. At least she could remember the word, even if she didn't quite know what it meant. It might as well be magic.
The story's protagonist is Novanita, a Native American born in the middle of the twentieth century. During her life she encountered much oppression, including the loss of her tribe's land when white men flooded it to make a reservoir, and she became an activist fighting against injustice. Before the Singularity she was a very old woman living in a care home.
After the Singularity, she was cured of her ailments and restored to youthful vitality. She now finds herself in a very different world, a paradise where everyone has enough and nobody is oppressed. Naturally, she's sceptical that the new milieu is really as perfect as it seems. But are her doubts justified? Or is she simply too wedded to her mindset of grievance and victimhood, unable to accept that social justice has finally arrived?
I had the idea for the story in 2014, and after several drafts I completed the final version in 2016. When I finished it, I thought it was one of the best things I'd written. It contained proper science-fictional ideas, including a vivid depiction of how the Singularity might occur. And it also had contemporary relevance, addressing the hot topics of oppression and social justice.
I began submitting it to the usual markets for SF short stories, including those that had previously published my work. The story accumulated a dozen rejections from the top markets in the field.
Of course, it's always possible that a story is rejected because it simply isn't good enough. The author's opinion is not a foolproof indicator of a story's quality. However, I had reason to suspect that quality might not necessarily be the deciding issue. I have an excellent track record in selling stories (my success rate is 90% over my entire career, higher if you exclude my beginner period), so my usual standard should be good enough. While a reduction in quality is certainly possible, what's the likelihood that a dip would just happen to coincide with a story about contemporary hot topics? And the story did eventually sell, proving it wasn't so terrible that its quality was disqualifying.
The crucial indicator is the nature of the market that eventually bought the piece. "A Singular Outrage" was published in the anthology Again, Hazardous Imaginings: More Politically Incorrect Science Fiction, edited by Andrew Fox. I submitted it to this anthology after seeing the submission guidelines, which included this statement of the editor's intent:
I am looking for stories that, due to their content, viewpoint, and/or subject matter, have little or no chance of being published in the commercial market. Yesterday's transgressions (those spotlighted in Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions) are today's cultural virtues and/or commonplaces. What are TODAY'S taboos? What kinds of science fiction stories are verboten in today's commercial publishing market? What just won't fly, whether due to shared social beliefs and aversions common to editors, assumptions that editors make about their readerships' beliefs and aversions, or the commercial pressures of the corporate publishing world? How can these modern-day taboos be illuminated and explored using the unique extrapolative tools of science fiction?
Since my story experienced an unaccustomed run of rejections from the usual SF markets, and was then accepted by an anthology specifically looking for transgressive fiction that couldn't be published in those markets, I came to the logical conclusion that I'd written a taboo-violating story.
What exactly made my piece so controversial? The story's central issue is cultural appropriation, which today is widely considered to be problematic because some cultures are disadvantaged. In a post-Singularity future where poverty and oppression no longer exist, will cultural appropriation become acceptable? If victimhood and grievance are today's foundation for complaints about cultural appropriation, what happens when those grounds no longer apply?
The story itself could possibly be considered as an example of cultural appropriation, given that I am a white British author writing a Native American protagonist. Because the story uses the premise of parallel universes, it's set in an alternate universe with fictional Native American tribes rather than any of the tribes that exist in the real world, so I have not appropriated any specific tribe or any specific cultural lore.
Nevertheless, the story was inspired by the general Native American experience of having their land colonised by white settlers. It is an open question whether it's permissible for a white author to use such material. There is a view in some quarters that authors should "stay in their lane" and not write outside their own milieu. However, if a white author only ever writes about white protagonists, they can be accused of failure to represent diversity. It's a "damned if you, and damned if you don't" situation.
I didn't write the story just to be provocative or to play with someone else's toys. The main reason I wrote the story was that I've always been fascinated with the concept of utopia. (I took a different angle on utopia in my earlier story "The Unparallel'd Death-Defying Feats of Astoundio, Escape Artist Extraordinaire".)
I find utopia fascinating because I believe in progress. Firstly, I believe in scientific and technological progress that improves human welfare by reducing poverty, disease, and back-breaking labour. Secondly, I believe in moral progress: society is better now than it was in the past. (This doesn't mean that today's society is perfect: the future may look back at the present and find plenty to criticise, even among those who today pride themselves on their virtue.) The book Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker is a useful overview of historical progress, presenting an array of evidence to prove that things really are improving.
If this progress continues — which is a reasonable 'what if?' premise for a science-fiction story — it will eventually give us a world where everybody has enough material comforts and there is no oppression. The word 'utopia' is a convenient label for the destination of this trend.
It has often been asserted that it's impossible to write utopian fiction because utopia lacks conflict and hence is inherently boring. I don't think that's true at all. I believe that when people no longer need to squabble over material resources, they will still find plenty to argue about, because humans are naturally disputatious, driven by emotions and the desire for status. Disputes will simply shift to more abstract realms, such as art, ideas, culture — and cultural appropriation.
When I wrote "A Singular Outrage" in 2014-16, cultural appropriation was a high-profile issue. (Recently it has declined in salience as the culture war has shifted to other battlefronts, although it hasn't gone away entirely.) The core of the complaint against appropriation is the notion that certain cultures are disadvantaged. Hence it's not a universally applicable argument. If I, as a British person, complained about outsiders using elements of British culture, I would get no sympathy from anyone. Sympathy is reserved for the oppressed.
In this sense, cultural appropriation is an issue that represents a much larger segment of left-wing ideology, in which oppression determines all moral arguments. In any dispute, what matters most is not the facts of the case, but who is the most oppressed. (This has been called "identitarian deference".)
Yet as time passes, there is progress, and oppression diminishes. If we extrapolate this trend into the future — which is one of the traditional functions of science fiction — then we expect further improvements, further reductions in oppression.
If oppression decreases, and ultimately vanishes, then what happens to all those left-wing arguments that rely upon oppression as the source of their validity? What happens to all the activists who view themselves as fighting injustice? No doubt many of them would be delighted to enjoy their hard-earned victory, and relax.
But perhaps not all of them. When oppression is both your motivation and the proof of your rectitude, it might be hard to acknowledge diminishment. And this tendency would be exacerbated by the phenomenon that when something becomes less prevalent, people loosen their definition of what it is (as shown in this scientific study) — implying that as oppression diminishes, more things will be seen as oppressive. Hence utopia will never quite arrive.
My story deals with these issues (in a way that is, hopefully, more vivid and entertaining than the discussion presented here). But in order to write about cultural appropriation, I needed an example of an oppressed culture, and I needed a character who represented it. Hence the story acquired a Native American protagonist, and thus it became — from a left-wing perspective — problematic.
The science-fiction genre, and particularly the short-story segment of it, has moved leftward in recent decades, as part of the wider cultural trend that I discuss below. Within the left-wing paradigm, the only correct opinion about cultural appropriation is to denounce it. A nuanced exploration of the issue is not welcome, particularly not when the story itself could be criticised as appropriation. Hence my story did not find favour with the usual SF magazines.
Of course, no author has a right to be published in any given market, or indeed at all. The fate of my story would be insignificant, if considered in isolation. However, it's not in isolation — it's part of a whole anthology of stories that couldn't be published in an environment of conformism. And this anthology is a symptom of a wider cultural polarisation, in which people inhabit their own bubbles and are reluctant to venture outside their bubble, fearful of encountering anything that might be ideologically incorrect.
One reason for the bubble syndrome is relatively benign. Within living memory, there has been an enormous explosion in cultural content. When I grew up, there were only three TV channels, and a limited supply of books. Consequently, I often had to read books that were outside my comfort zone, that puzzled me and challenged me. Today, there is effectively an infinite supply of books, and nobody ever has to read anything outside their comfort zone. Now that email can be sent across the globe at zero cost, magazines are flooded with competently-written story submissions, and editors never need to take a chance on publishing anything that their audience might find uncomfortable.
There is no obligation for editors to publish things they disagree with, or for readers to read stories with themes they find objectionable. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be uncomfortable or annoyed, and deciding to avoid that kind of material.
But the bubble syndrome becomes more sinister when the occupants decide that voluntary separation is no longer sufficient, and ideological conformity should be enforced by silencing opposition. And in this respect, the world has changed, because the people doing the silencing have changed.
In my youth, the enemies of free speech were on the right. I'm old enough to remember the days when conservatives were the censors. They were against rock music and hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons; they were against Piss Christ; they wanted to ban Harry Potter. Indeed, there were several public burnings of Harry Potter books for allegedly promoting satanism and witchcraft.
Today the Harry Potter books are again being burned, but this time it's by left-wingers outraged by J.K. Rowling's views on trans issues. The enemies of free speech are now on the left. (For an overview, see "The Left is Now the Right". For quantitative evidence, see this survey of American college students: "More than 60% of extreme liberals said it’s "always" or "sometimes" acceptable to shout down a speaker; compared to 15% for extreme conservatives.... Students identifying as extremely liberal said violence to stop a speech or event from occurring on campus was "always" or "sometimes" acceptable at a rate double than students identifying as extremely conservative: 13% to 6%." It's unfortunate that American political vocabulary uses "liberal" as a synonym for left-wing, since true liberalism is characterised by support for free speech.)
Some left-wingers enthusiastically engage in silencing and no-platforming and cancelling, a phenomenon that has been called "cancel culture". This is often done in the guise of criticism, but there is a significant difference (explained here) between legitimate criticism and attempted cancellation. There are sections of the left that don't tolerate dissent, or debate, or even questions. The implicit assumption is that the final moral truth has already been revealed to Woke Twitter, so further discussion is not necessary and hence is not permitted; the only remaining task is to silence unbelievers for being heretical.
The left-wing enthusiasm for cancel culture is based on the premise that if anyone is being "hateful", they should suffer the consequences. Allegedly, only the hatemongers have anything to fear from this. The notion that "if you've said nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear" is eerily similar to the old right-wing law-and-order version that "if you've done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear". Left-wingers used to recognise that the chilling effects of this approach extended far beyond actual wrongdoers, and were intended to be intimidatory. Yet now they have taken that approach themselves. The only difference between the new left-wing position and the old right-wing position is that the leftists are even more punitive: the right-wing version targeted actions, whereas the left-wing version targets speech. But the left argues that there is no difference between speech and action, because "words are violence", or even "silence is violence".
I have always been in favour of freedom of speech. It's just that the enemies of freedom have changed; the biggest threat used to come from the right, and now it comes from the left. It's a curious experience to feel that I have been standing in the same place while the world has flipped around me.
While there may be several reasons for this change, I believe that one reason is simply the shift in recent decades over whose values dominate the culture. Free speech is the weapon of the underdog. By definition, the dominant group sets the agenda and sets the boundaries of what is permitted. Free speech (the kind of speech that needs to be called free, and needs to be defended) is a reaction against the dominant agenda. In the past, when culture was more conservative and repressive (particularly in the artistic sphere), free speech came from the left in the form of resistance to censorship and demands for artistic freedom. The enemies of free speech were the right-wingers who opposed this and championed traditional mores. The original Dangerous Visions anthology, published in 1967, reflects this form of free speech as a defiance of conservative values (for instance, in some of the stories' sexual themes).
In the past sixty years, there has been a significant shift leftward in many cultural areas. This is a generalisation, and is difficult to comprehensively prove within the confines of a short piece, but a few facts are highly suggestive. Homosexuality used to be a criminal offence, and now there is same-sex marriage. Within academia, left-wingers were formerly persecuted and are now dominant. There is an enormous emphasis on diversity. And here in England throughout 2020, Premier League footballers have been "taking a knee" at the start of every game, literally genuflecting to the sacred cause of anti-racism; in early December the players wore rainbow laces, proclaiming that everyone can enjoy football "regardless of their sexuality or gender identity", as the BBC commentator solemnly informed the nation on Match of the Day.
Within the arts, the leftward drift represented a reduction in censorship (for example, theatre censorship was abolished in 1968) and a general relaxation of constraints. But this more permissive stance eventually calcified into new orthodoxies over what is and isn't permitted.
Now that the left dominates culture and sets the boundaries, free speech is the rallying cry of the right. The enemies of free speech are the left-wingers who oppose this by saying that "hateful" speech must be banned, cultural appropriation is wrong, and so forth. This explains why the Again, Hazardous Imaginings anthology has the right-wing taglines "politically incorrect science fiction" and "science fiction is NOT a safe space". The commonality with Dangerous Visions is not any specific position, but an oppositional stance that reacts against the prevailing paradigm.
These few paragraphs are, inevitably, a simplistic overview of a complex phenomenon. I have omitted some complications, such as the political philosophy that believes in free speech as a foundational value, regardless of which direction it comes from. But outside that beleaguered tradition, support for free speech is much more contingent on what is being said and who is saying it.
When there is no belief in free speech as a principle, but instead a desire to make the discourse "safe" and abolish "hate", the boundaries of acceptability become flexible and are largely determined by whoever shouts the loudest. The danger of this approach is that it becomes dominated by the most fanatical, with more and more territory declared forbidden.
There have been several recent demonstrations of this. A science fiction short story by a trans author was vigorously denounced by some trans readers, and was subsequently withdrawn for the author's "personal safety". YA publishing has experienced multiple controversies and cancellations; one author, having orchestrated the cancellation of someone else's book, subsequently had their own book cancelled.
As the latter example shows, you should be careful what you wish for. There's a reason that they say, "The revolution eats its own children."