The Political Writer
There is a trope going around establishment science fiction where they prove again and again that we’re wrong when we say that “science fiction shouldn’t be political.”
They prove it conclusively, to their satisfaction, by demonstrating that science fiction has always been political, and therefore we’re not only wrong, we’re ignorant of the history of the field. Then they take a victory lap to the acclaim of their sycophants.
There’s only one thing wrong with that: we NEVER said that.
Oh, I’m sure someone said that. There are douche canoes that say just about anything. But no one with any following. And no one who has read a lot of science fiction.
Yes, a lot of science fiction is inherently political. This is so because we build worlds with what we know (or think we know) and who we are. And because humans are political animals, stories are often political.
The second novel I read in science fiction was A Canticle For Leibowitz. (The first might not have been science fiction. (Well, the first I remember reading — Have Space Suit, Will Travel — my brother assures me wasn’t available in Portuguese until three years later. Though why that should matter when I read most SF/F in pirated editions, not knowing they were pirated, I don’t know.) It was Out of Their Minds by Clifford Simak. ) Anyone thinking that Canticle has nothing to do with nuclear politics/disarmament or even with the role of the Catholic church in preserving civilization, let alone with the Catholic church’s ideas on sex (or what the author perceived them as being) is someone who is incapable of reading subtext. And I mean, more incapable of reading subtext than an 11 year old girl.
In the same way, I have read all of Heinlein, going way back, and yeah, I saw the not so subtle shilling for a world government (because that would totes stop wars.) I read Le Guin, the good the bad and the “I’m tearing my hair out because this is so bloody stupid.” We’ll go into that later, but for now, suffice to say that even her most “political screed” like book still had a story, and still kept you reading. Afterwards you might sit there going “Oh, dear Lord” and you might hesitate to buy the next one, but you still read it.
Yesterday, in fact, in a small facebook group consisting of my online family, we were discussing The Left Hand of Darkness, which I have problems with — biology and behavior in relation to biology and the fact that on re-read a few years ago what I had though was a masterful narration read “too seventies for words” kind of like a macrame plant hanger in written form. (A lot of other authors of the time have this issue, in fact, going back to the sixties, and stretching to the early 80s. Some Heinleins suffer from this too. Well, two of them. But not to that extent. In Heinlein’s case it’s just the …. lingo? but in LHOD it’s also the “folk” narrative construction. I UNDERSTAND this is my own, personal problem, okay? I came of age in the seventies, and have been trying to get away from anything that reminds me of those years since.)
Anyway, in relation to THAT, we were talking about how many books written by women in that time period seem to be about women outsourcing/not doing house-care and child-care in an ideal society (or in the case of TLHOD and others, childcare being communal.)
And we were talking about how we did that, more or less, by outsourcing child care and just not doing housework, but we’ve learned that’s a) less than optimal (particularly for the children) and b) doesn’t work that way.
However none of this detracts in any way from competent stories told that assume these things. At most I shrug, as I do at Heinlein having space colonies in the seventies, and go “it didn’t turn out that way.”
BUT provided that the characters are people, and the plot works, I still read, re-read and enjoy those novels.
Not because they’re political, but because politics don’t matter to the worth of a book.
If the book is COMPETENTLY written and not a screed with a thin veneer of fiction, I still read, re-read and enjoy the book. Even if the author writing the book had diametrically opposite views to my own and therefore their projected future is insane, by my views. I will roll my eyes if they take time away from the story for a mini-rant, or skim over that part and go back to where the story resumes, like a normal human being, instead of getting hung up on it.
In fact, there’s stories — and no, I’m not going to name names, duh — whose politics I completely agree with, but which are so infused with politics that they fall into the realm of “just so stories” and therefore boring. I know who the winners and losers will be from page one, because the author — who is on my side politically — made that ABUNDANTLY clear. I know every turn. I roll my eyes at the rants in the middle of the story, and somewhere along the line I shrug and go watch paint dry or check on the progress of sidewalk cracks. OR SOMETHING.
And that’s what we’ve been saying:
We assume stories will have politics in them. Even utterly non-political stories like my Shifter series reflect my politics in that I think it’s better, say, to work in a diner than to be homeless or on welfare. That’s my politics, or my principles, from which my politics evolved. “Do for yourself and look after those who can’t.” And they WILL come through.
Of course science fiction and fantasy have more politics in them than the usual genre, because, well, you’re making up entire worlds, which means more scope to get political in.
BUT FICTION ISN’T POLITICS. Or it shouldn’t be. As someone said “if you want to send a message use Western Union.”
I’d soften that to be “if you want to send a message and can’t amuse someone who disagrees with you while doing so, use Western Union.” Because I’ve read message fic I disagreed with but which entertained me VASTLY. Hell, I disagree with the message in some of my own fiction (no, you don’t get to know which. D*mn it, I need to finish entering edits and re-print those) partly because behind the overt message which I put in to please the publisher there’s a lot of sneaky questions designed to make you THINK about that overt message.
In other words: stop the mentally-challenged victory lap. That straw man is dead. We never said that science fiction (or any other writing) shouldn’t be political. We said it shouldn’t be judged on the “correctness” of the politics, and that it shouldn’t be considered great simply because it is politically correct or repeats the things the establishment — while cos-playing anti-establishment — wants it to.
NO ONE requires that you hide your politics, or even that the point of your story (particularly short stories, which usually have OBVIOUS points) not be political. No one even asks that. You’re human. What you are and what you believe will come through your art, or it’s not worth spit.
What readers require is that you make it entertaining. That your characters come alive, that real things happen to them, that the action and goal make sense at some level. At least enough to keep us immersed while we’re reading. Even if in the end you make all your male magicians magical castrati. It has to pull you along while you’re reading. Afterwards you can go “Oh, h*ll, that was stupid. I’ll pretend that book never was part of the series. Only the trilogy exists.” But while you’re reading it, it works.
Make it a good and competent story, and we will read it. We might even love it. (I love at least one novel where I disagree with all of the open message, including “the” and “a”.)
Make it a message that screams through the story and tries to make us love it BECAUSE of the message and if we don’t it’s because we’re “ists” not to mention evil, and we’ll turn away in droves. Your ability to compel sales was always limited and is now over. And you can’t compel fandom.
To appropriate one of my favorite Heinlein quotes, and change it for the purpose: a purported artist who has only explicit political message in his/her work and relies only on explicit and approved politics for his/her academic job, for his/her accolades and for his/her livelihood is a whore. An incompetent one.