Musings From Mamatas: Just Universe Theory

by Nick Mamatas

Rush Limbaugh has been an annoying bleating horn in the background noise of society for thirty years.  A right-wing gasbag and primitive thinker who engaged in race-baiting, climate change denial, sexist rhetoric, and the like, he was recently left behind politically. Barstool blowhard rhetoric about AIDS and NFL players as gang members don’t quite do it in this dreadful century, so Limbaugh tromped even further to the right. Last year, he appealed to the audience of arch-maniac Alex Jones by explicitly covering for fascists. On his show, Limbaugh promulgated the “theory” that the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter who killed 49 people was a leftist simply pretending to be a white nationalist to make his political opponents look bad. As if white nationalists need help to look bad.

Loathsome indeed. And indeed, we won’t have Limbaugh for much longer, as he recently announced that he has advanced lung cancer. At the State of the Union Address, President Trump quickly awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with all the solemnity and dignity of Monty Hall calling a Let’s Make a Deal audience member dressed like an overripe banana up to pick which of three doors has an incontinent goat behind it.

Many people on the left snickered over, or cheered, Limbaugh’s bad news. The evil shock jock is finally getting his comeuppance! Of course, many people who have no love for Limbaugh nevertheless expressed some sympathy for the radio host as cancer is a hard way to die, and faced criticism for their own relatively privileged positions and for policing the glee of the marginalized.

Personally, I am in neither camp. I neither cheer the cancer nor care about Limbaugh’s imminent death. The man made $84.5 million dollars in 2018—he can afford palliative treatment and hospice care; he’ll be dead, but he’ll be fine, unlike many thousands of people who’ll die howling in pain in their own homes thanks to the health insurance policies supported by Limbaugh and Trump. But more importantly, I didn’t hoot with glee at Limbaugh’s diagnosis for the simple reason that I don’t believe in a just universe. Rush Limbaugh didn’t get cancer because he’s a right-wing imbecile, except insofar as right-wing imbeciles often like to be photographed smoking cigars—it’s conspicuous consumption for arrested personalities who never grew out of the oral stage of psychosexual development. (Usually, people manage to progress once they turn a year old.) It only takes one free radical to start the cascade of cellular damage that can lead to cancer.

If I did believe in a just universe, I would have to ask myself, when a friend or loved one meets some misfortune, what they did to deserve it. Or, when one of my enemies does well, what secret goodness dwells within them that I somehow missed? 

Just universe theory also has the side effect of making readers and movie-viewers insufferable moralists.  Writers do create a moral universe when they write their protagonists and antagonists, and stories do usually reflect some notion of a divine order, even if it’s merely implicit, but there is a big difference between a moral universe and a just universe, an implicit divine order and explicit moral instruction. William A. Wellman’s film The Public Enemy (1931) shows Jimmy Cagney tearing his way through the underworld, living it up, and coming to a bad end. The film is bookended by a prologue that warns the audience against falling for the glorification of mobsters and an epilogue demanding of society an answer to the problem of organized crime. Of course, the rest of the movie is great fun because it glorifies gangsters! And the gangsters are Prohibition-era bootleggers, a problem that existed only because of elite suspicion of poor and immigrant communities—banning booze was a way of enforcing middle-class moralism without redistributing wealth to expand the middle class.

The Public Enemy was produced under the influence of the notorious Hayes Code, an industry-mandated guideline for producing moral films. The Hayes Code is long gone and these days hardly seems necessary thanks to the demands of audiences for exactly the sort of silly moral instruction—and the creation of just universes—the Hayes Code enforced. One need look no further than the most recent Disney-made Star Wars films, and the character of Kylo Ren. Buoyed by actor Adam Driver’s good looks, Kylo has some fans despite being one of the antagonists of the series. And this affection or interest in Ren has led to significant explosions in Star Wars fandom: how dare people “ship” Kylo Ren with Rey in their minds, and how dare the final film let them kiss! Kylo Ren killed so many people! (Nobody tell these fans about the actions of every President they ever voted into office.) He doesn’t deserve a kiss, or the chance to do something good!

Let’s say he doesn’t. (“He doesn’t.”) And yet, in reality, people who don’t deserve kisses sometimes get them, and people who do very bad things sometimes do the occasional good thing. And a further reality is this: films and books are to a certain extent about the spectacular and the audacious. So children are fascinated with Darth Vader, and sick kids in the hospital thrilled when volunteers dressed as Stormtroopers (stormtroopers!) come to visit them. The children aren’t keen to grow up to be cloned fascist soldiers; they just like Star Wars, and the fact that something imaginary walked right in to their ward.

We need look no further than the quasi-phenomenon of “hopepunk” to see this demand for a just universe in books. There is no hopepunk canon and only a few self-identified hopepunk writers, yet the term has become a rallying cry despite it being poorly defined. Indeed, it’s become a rallying cry because it is poorly defined and is thus extremely flexible. Hopepunk purports to be about good, if messy, people fighting a never-ending battle against evil and not winning, but taking the opportunity to express kindness and form communities of resistance. 

The divine order of hopepunk is one of a just universe despite the persistence of evil and the grubbiness of the goodies—the reader knows exactly whom to root for, and the writer contrives events to make sure that the protagonists always have, and take, the chance to be kind even in the midst of pitched battles, economic immiseration, and social division. What is a community but a machine for excluding people from the community? The battle never ends as there can be no reconciliation, and no kindness extended toward those who don’t deserve it. Just universes are hells.

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath, and has published short fiction in Best American Mystery StoriesYear’s Best Science Fiction and FantasyNew Haven Review, Tor.com, and many other venues. Nick’s reportage and essays have appeared in the Village VoicePoets & WritersIn These TimesThe Smart Set, and dozens of other places. As an anthologist, Nick co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and the hybrid cocktail recipe/short fiction title Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer.

Content by Nick Mamatas