Sunday, October 30, 2005

Nature, Nurture, or Mutagenic Virus?

I had a need for literary junk food recently, so I picked up the copy of Wild Cards (George R.R. Martin, 1986) that's been sitting unread on my bookshelf for ages. If you're not familiar with it, it was one of the earliest and most successful of the "shared-world" anthologies and has spawned 15 sequels at last count.

The concept of a shared-world anthology is simple. A bunch of writers -- in this case Martin, Lew Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, Ed Bryant, Roger Zelazny, and Howard Waldrop, among others -- get together and write a bunch of short stories which, taken collectively, comprise a novel about common characters in a common milieu. In the case of Wild Cards, the setup is comic-book simple: on September 15, 1946, an alien virus with powerful mutagenic properties is released over lower Manhattan. Most of those exposed to the virus die soon and horribly; a small percentage survive, but experience a "reshuffling" of their genetic deck. (Hence the title.) To extend the metaphor, in the reshuffling most survivors draw "jokers" and are grotesquely deformed, but a very lucky few draw "aces" and are transformed into bonafide superhumans.

The rest of the book proceeds from that beginning, and rewrites the history of the next 40 years as if comic-book superheroes are a part of contemporary reality. While I certainly hope Walter Jon Williams got royalties for the way his story, "Witness," became the backstory of "The Incredibles," that's not why the book sticks in my craw, though. Rather, what bothers me about Wild Cards is this:

It absolutely reeks of the smug and fashionable radicalism of bourgeous brats.

Looking at the book now, it almost reads like a parody of the hysterical paranoia that gripped the literary left during the Reagan years, but I know many of these writers, and they were serious. I could explicate further on this, and maybe I will in the comments, but suffice to say that the arch-villain of this book is Joseph McCarthy, his evil henchman is Richard Nixon, and a Reagan lookalike is a major character, taking the part of the super-Judas who betrayed the other members of his left-leaning "Four Aces" superhero team to HUAC.

So my question is this: WHY do fiction writers so overwhelmingly lean left? Is it part of the set of character traits and flaws that make people want to be a writer in the first place (as opposed to being, say, an engineer)? Is it something they learn in college? Or is it a sinister plot by aliens from another dimension?

What's your theory?