To relax, I keep going back to a big paperback anthology I bought a few months back titled, The New Space Opera 2. (Earlier post on this book here.) The gem I found found this time is a story by John Barnes, called "The Lost Princess Man."
One of the things I love about the science fiction genre is that, through its allegorical tales, it offers real insight into contemporary social attitudes and ideology -- often via satire. In keeping with this Swiftian agenda, "The Lost Princess Man" captures a key aspect of our contemporary structure of feeling.
It tells the tale of an interplanetary con man who navigates his way through a vast and incredibly dangerous totalitarian empire by working a specific scam. And it's a particularly heartless one.
He preys on destitute young women. He picks out a victim, and then attempts to convince her that he's been sent from on high because he has evidence that she's of a royal bloodline, and may be the "lost princess" for whom the Imperial government has been searching (to perpetuate its lineage and reign).
Once his prospect agrees to travel with him (to claim what's hers), she is drugged, turned over to plastic surgeons who make her irresistible (according to current fashion), and installed as a high-class prostitute in a ritzy bordello. "The Lost Princess Man" collects a bounty for every "recruit" he delivers.
But then, we find out something surprising. He says this of his marks:
"They're blunt, not easily fooled, and hate authority. After listening [to his con] for a while, the girl says, 'I think you are working the lost princess con, and the minute you have me off the planet, you will pump me full of drugs, and I will wake up chained to a bed with a large number of Imperial troops lined up and waiting to have a turn on me.' At which point, I say, 'Well, of course.'"
Asked by his interlocutor why he actually admits he's pulling a scam, the "Lost Princess Man" replies that, on balance, what he has to offer is a big improvement over the impoverished lives these young women lead. Further, they don't get "gang banged", but instead, are considered "luxury goods" -- and (according to "sumptuary laws") their service can only be sold to a limited number of very well off individuals.
As part of the deal, they recieve an education, their artistic and intellectual talents are developed, and they become fluent in multi-planetary cultural manners. This is why many of those he approaches agree to go along with him voluntarily.
Cynicism or Realism?
The story continues to take wild twists and turns after this (especially after we find out that the Empire really is looking for a "lost princess"), but I'll stop at this passage, because for me it rings all sorts of ideological bells.
The first thing it reminds me of is the way cultural critics such as Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Zizek characterize the ideology of our moment.
In the old days (according to their writings), when our glitzy, consumer culture promised us it held the key to our self-realization (in the form of eveything from cool clothes, to tech devices, to self-help schemes, to designer drugs, etc.), we sometimes believed that such enhancements would help us find our inner lost princess or prince.
Now, we're supposedly too hip for all that. Yet, we continue to use such props anyway -- and in this sense, "go along with the pitch", but now, with a sort of cynicism. "I know very well," we think, "that this won't help me find the well-being I want, but, what the hell, you gotta have something."
As Zizek puts it: "Cynical reason is no longer naive, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it."
On the other hand, you could argue that the "marks" in this story, rather than cynics are realists about their actual prospects. I'm thinking here about a remark the philosopher Jacques Ranciere made on contemporary exploitation. As he put it:
"The dominated do not remain in subordination because they misunderstand the existing state of affairs but because they lack confidence in their capacity to transform it." He adds, though, that getting such confidence depends upon there being a credible politics that offers a way out.
In the absence of that (or, say, some trustworthy form of inner transformation), perhaps the compliant folks in this story are merely being (wisely) strategic.
Nevertheless, such a tale raises a provocative question. In our "seen-it-all-before" time, when we make our own Faustian bargains, are we being cynics or realists? Thoughts?