Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008

Greg’s full appreciation for his friend Sid Coleman – “physicist, raconteur, world traveler” – will run in the next Trapdoor

The Cynic's Conundrum

Gregory Benford

Illo by Rotsler

I recall , through the years I knew Sid Coleman, a thread beneath his ideas and humor. He and I both sensed in our country, and much of the world, a gathering pessimism and cynical attitude toward the institutions of government that should deal with problems. It’s easy to do in the perpetual campaign mode of our politics.

So Sid and I discussed The Cynic's Conundrum — that while a cynic might prefer that others believe an idealistic theory of his cynical mood (“cynics like us have high standards,” he once said), his own beliefs should lead him to believe a cynical theory of his own cynical mood. That is, cynics should think that complainers tend to be losers, rather than altruists who gave away free, useful advice about a cruel world.

Furthermore, that meta-cynical theory we conjured up — that cynics tend to be loser whiners--seems to better explain the patterns: that cynics are often abrupt, and that people don't like to be around cynics — unless they’re witty, like Sid.

If idealism correlates with more attractive features, then people and institutions should naturally try to appear more idealistic. So politicians always say positive things, even though we know they’re lying. This explained much of what Sid saw in the world, and a lot of literature, too.

There’s a lot of cynicism in fandom, too. There’s the old insurgent tradition of Burbee and Laney, skeptical of the grand ambitions of Walt Daugherty and others. This led to Boyd Raeburn’s delightful Derogations in ABAS, one of the fine 1950s fanzines. Of course, Boyd’s satires of fallible fans were not cynical so much as humorous. Indeed, as Oscar Wilde knew well, cynical humor is impossible to reply to, the ultimate weapon in society. It’s a thread that runs through all fandom, itself a gang of creative folk who think outside the box, and indeed, distrust the very definition of the box itself.

Of course, both the idealistic and the cynical theory of cynical moods seem to accept that cynical beliefs contain a lot of truth. This fact, and the readily apparent fact that more informed people tend to be more cynical, tends to favor cynical beliefs in general, and thus the cynical theory of cynicism in particular. Thus while hypocrisy and low motives probably may well be much more widespread than most people acknowledge, people who want to be liked may well be well-advised to pretend that they believe otherwise.

Knowing this made me more cynical still, but not Sid. To him science fiction was most valuable because it was both sophisticated in its ideas and yet not cynical about them, or about the future. He retained his funny, oblique view of our world, against all odds. So he wasn’t really cynical at all. Perhaps that’s a state we should all aspire to — informed realism.


[ HOME ]     [ Current Issue ]     [ Archives ]

Challenger is (c) 2003-2008 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.