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Bewildering Stories

Politics? What Politics?

by Don Webb

In some quarters of 2018, our regular readers could have run weekly betting pools on the “solar system” featured on Bewildering Stories’ home page. From one week to the next, which issues would place where among the “planets”? And which among the hot spots in the real Solar System and on Earth?

Now, we’ll leave gambling to those who enjoy it. But it does appear that the above-average and “Hot Potato” issue rankings are ready to rumble again. Is that good or bad? Let’s echo Star Trek’s Mr. Spock’s most emotionally loaded expression: “Fascinating.” Now why might that be?

We like to think the Review Editors represent the range of opinion among regular readers. We talk about literature, history and art. But not current politics. One of our semi-official mottoes says, “Any story based on current events is out of date before it’s written.” And there’s little point in exchanging bumper-sticker slogans. They’re clichés, which BwS defines as a substitute for thought.

Probably for that reason, it has been suggested that BwS officially decline “politically charged material.” It does make perfect sense to decline submissions that engage in unreflective sloganeering. We heed Stendhal’s admonition: “Politics in a novel is like a gunshot in a concert.” We take a broad view and set our sights much higher.

Politics is a natural part of moralistic literature. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and the rest set an early standard. But it’s implicit in all literatures. And literature will often inspire thought. For example, the U.S. Constitution owes its existence in large part to the British and French literature in the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment.

Does Bewildering Stories “do politics”? Not in Stendhal’s “gunshot” sense of the term. The very first novel we serialized — Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World — was political and cultural dynamite in the 17th century. It earned the author an assassination attempt. Fortunately, the firearms of the time were unreliable.

Is literature really worth killing for? Today’s news stories tell us that it still is, as it always has been. The reason is simple: autocrats, like crime bosses, will try to silence critics in one way or another. In every episode, Cyrano tells a story that was bound to step on somebody’s toes. And he concludes with an outlandish joke that will irritate some people today for the same reasons it infuriated their like-minded counterparts more than three centuries ago.

Our collection of review articles, Cassandra’s Voices, is not all politics, but politics is ever-present. Does a weird religious heresy from the mid-19th century affect U.S. foreign policy today? Yes. Does the 6th-century Roman empire provide an object lesson in how not to handle immigration? Yes. Does the end of the Bronze Age resemble today’s political, economic and environmental conditions? Uh-oh...

One of the articles analyzes 1st-century political slogans — it even calls them “bumper stickers” — for their meaning to an emerging counter-culture in the Roman empire. And a lot of people were killed for those slogans. Does their meaning apply today? Yes.

Stories — and people — who merely brandish clichés, slogans and “bumper stickers” are boring. But the opposite is true of people and stories that show what is said, how it’s said, what it means to some and what it might mean to others. They can create “truly Bewildering stories.” They can be — as Mr. Spock in the sometimes politically pointed Star Trek series would say — fascinating.

Copyright © 2019 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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