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.

 

57 comments

  1. What the “SF has always been political” folk forget, what the folk writing that “political SF” in the past understood (intuitively at least, often explicitly), is that if you don’t wrap your “message” in a story that’s compelling to people who don’t already agree with your message, then you don’t get the message out to anyone who isn’t already a believer.

    The message cannot be the major, or even the sole, attraction for readers/viewers to the story, not if you want to spread the message and influence folk toward “your side.”

    In short, story must come first. Indeed, first, second, third. Any message needs to be no higher than sixth or seventh or the folk who would most benefit by receiving your message will toss the “story” before they get to that.

    Tell a compelling, gripping story that gets people turning pages. If you do that, you can slip in a little message which will go in like a stiletto between the ribs before the reader even realizes it.

    1. Exactly – I do the same thing with historical fiction: tell a gripping story about believable, sympathetic characters, add real history as the background, and slip in the little messages here and there… that our actual and metaphorical ancestors were decent, hard-working people, doing the very best that they could for what seemed to them the best of reasons.

  2. Hell, I disagree with the message in some of my own fiction

    Which I suspect is how it should be if you’re doing it right. Writers, at our best, try to write truth, and that truth might not fit neatly into your preconceived political beliefs. I still consider Windhaven one of the great conservative novels, despite knowing that at least one co-author is a raving Leftie.

    Even if in the end you make all your male magicians magical castrati.

    Er…um…have you been reading through my idea file? *Runs and hides*

    (I have been toying with the idea of a fantasy world where magic requires that you have both of two mutually exclusive genes on the X-chromosome, so the vast majority of mages are women and any men who can do magic must have Klinefelter syndrome).

      1. Admittedly, that’s part of my problem with it. I know that it’s a matter of genetics, but the characters themselves don’t think of it that way, and I can’t figure out how to make it clear to the audience without breaking the world.

        1. The Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz has genetically linked magic. She ended up explaining it in an appendix because the characters didn’t have the science to know how it worked. Interestingly, her explanation meant there was no such thing as a ‘half-Deryni’ despite the importance of that concept to the characters in-story.

    1. Le Guin’s fourth book of — damn it, no brain today — SOMEONE give me the name of the trilogy. Little girl, chosen one, blood sacrifice, rescued by young magician. One of her better worlds.

      1. The point where I gave up on the series. I admire her style, most of the time, but that one lost me and I didn’t finish the fifth one.

        1. She had a couple of books after that which were nearly unreadable, because they were close to the insanity the left has descended into: I preach, you listen.
          NOT unreadable, because not THAT bad, and one must make allowance for age, but still.

      2. You know, everybody makes a big fuss about Ursula, but I’ve read most of her stuff over the years and I can’t remember any of it. Whereas I can nearly recite Schmitz. Tezly Amberdoon, my favorite badass babe.

        1. I like the Earthsea Trilogy (THERE ARE ONLY THREE BOOKS) well enough to make it part of the kids’ reading when they were teens.
          I LOVED AND HATED The Left Hand of Darkness when I first read it. Loved it, because Therem Hart (or Art? It’s been a long time) Rem Ir Estraven is one of the BEST characters in sf/f. Hated it because well, biology. I doubt a society of hermaphrodites would develop the way she posits. There are things we know about how human society developed and ALSO on hermaphrodite species. It struck me as “because the author says so.” (On the good side that bothered me so much I started writing.)
          But the rest? She was a writer of her time.

          1. Back when I read a bunch of LeGuin, I found most of it good but annoying, like it always ended on the wrong foot. Except for Rocannan’s World — that one I loved. (What I’d think now, who knows.) But she lost me entirely with the collection that included Omelas. I could deal with the odd ideas, but this time… I was *bored*. And that’s the last of hers I read.

        2. I read Left Hand of Darkness for a class. It probably falls in the top half of books that I had to read for class. I tried Earthsea but never could get into it.

  3. “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.””

    You’ve been slumming at the hive of scum and villainy again, haven’t you? What have we told you about doing that? ~:D

    I’ve heard various of the Usual Suspects and their odious hangers-on raving about how “everything is always political” and it always makes me laugh.

    Personally I’ve never said that “science fiction shouldn’t be political,” I’ve said that if it is unrelentingly Leftist I won’t read it. And I don’t. I also won’t read Conservative political screeds.

    Because they are uniformly BORING, and I do not read SF to get more politics. I read to get away from politics.

    My books certainly have politics in them. It is part of the world building. The world works a certain way, and if you drop a 33,000 ton fusion powered tank into the world, certain pretty obvious things are going to happen. Add some sexy robots and lippy giant spiders, and a problem that will test their mettle, then shake. Voila, a book comes out. (So easy, right? ~:D )

    Is the book about the politics? I certainly hope not, because if it is then I really did it wrong. The politics exist as bricks in the building of the world, just like the physics of how you make a tank that big cross a river. (Like a snowmobile, she spins her tracks and skims over at 70mph. Yes, it looks awesome. Yes, she’s very sexy too.)

    In fact the politics has less weight than the physics, because SF is written for nerds, and nerds want to hear about the giant fricking tank. They do not care much about the response of the Socialist Worker’s Alliance to the impact of sexy robots on the minimum wage, and how this will effect transgender sex-workers.

    Also I’m bored with Christian Capitalists as the bad guys. Let’s have some variety, shall we? Maybe -aliens- with weird motivations could be the bad guys for a change? Just sayin’.

      1. Well I hope you wore your hip waders, young lady. And washed your hands!

        Who knows where those villainous scum have been? And they -never- clean that hive. Seriously, its a health hazard.

        ~;D

        1. SOMEONE who comments here linked a post a Torgid dot com triumphantly proving that SF was always political, which was supposed to utterly defeat us.
          I CONFESS one of the funniest points in the whole SP mess was when I made a post pointing out I had nothing about strange genders in SF/F, see TLHOD and the answer to it from the other side accused me of being a prude, who wanted SF about manly men, and had I never even heard of TLHOD?
          It’s like they live in a parallel world.

          1. Now you’ve done it. I went to the hive of torrency and found some idiot spouting off about martial arts and Asians.

            Fear not, I have my trusty hazmat suit and Scott Airpack. I will report back later. Perhaps with a guest post!

            1. Okay never mind, it was pro-Asian racism and whining. You’d think that China, Japan and Korea had never made a movie, to hear these guys whine.

  4. Hell yes. Story first. Let the rest rumble along in the background and maybe provoke a few people to think about it a bit. But focus on the what will bring people in whether they agree with you or not not what will drive them away.

    1. Kate, agreed that is the best way to write a message story. If you want people to receive the “medicine”, you add a spoonful of sugar.

      The problem I have with the “everything is political” weenies is that we are not allowed to write something which does not forward a political cause or topic. There’s no room for “Good Guys win, Bad Guys suffer, so don’t be a Bad Guy” type stories.

      Going back to my favorites, what’s the political message of “The Witches of Karres”? Or “The Compleate Enchanter”? Or “The Riddlemaster of Hed”?

      The answer is “I don’t care”. A political analysis of those things is something that bored graduate students do for shock value and brownie points from their dissertation adviser.

  5. I’ve heard it said that science fiction is all about politics. That’s an oversimplification, but when writing about whole societies, it can hardly escape it. It affects the structure of the story and reader expectations. My difficulty is that so often the politics is some flavor of authoritarian, with empires and monarchies abounding (and often, but not always) portrayed as better than they have historically been, while republican types are almost always portrayed as rotten with hypocrisy and corruption. A society with a healthy, functioning republican-style government? Nearly inconceivable!

    1. Healthy societies, like intact families, don’t lend themselves to large scale conflict.

    2. I’ve been having great fun with my Machine Empire, a multi-system AI polity made of non-biological machine beings who are very smart, very old and very logical. They love things to be efficient and tidy.

      The fun part is exposing all the places where occasional laziness, going-through-the-motions and not-my-job-ism frig things up, and the Elders have to come down to the shop floor and kick people into shape. Hierarchical organization and central planning don’t work even for machines who want to make it work.

      Imagine their surprise and horror when the crazy monkeys show up (that’s us btw, we’re crazy) and all the flaws in their Empire start breaking things.

    3. Two reasons behind that, as far as I can tell.

      (1) Democratic politics at least is a game for the old; those like JFK, Clinton, and Obama who achieve high office in their 40s are considered absurdly young. However, SF is also a genre of adventure, and adventure is a game for the young; by the time you reach 28 or so (not even old enough to run for the Senate), you’re useless for the adventuring party except as an old mentor type character. You can try, like George Lucas did, to have teenage elected leaders, but it tends towards the absurd. It’s much easier, if you want your young hero to be a political leader, to have him inherit his power.

      (2) Democratic politics isn’t really heroic. To quote David Weber, democratic politicians “think in terms of compromises and half-victories…compromise means surrender and half-victory means people died for too little.” It’s hard for a political hero to change the world. In the real world, of course, this is a feature, not a bug, but in fiction, it can be rather limiting if your endgame is that congress takes a vote on a bill that contains about half of what the hero thinks needs to be done, along with a bunch of pork in order to bribe a few swing states to go along with it.

      1. I’m having my all-seeing, all-knowing Valkyries go and blackmail politicians and bureaucrats into knocking off the corruption and getting back to doing what they are supposed to be doing. It makes a nice change from the usual “noble government man fighting the eeevile capitalists.”

        It seems quite a few of the Leadership Class were making deals with the invading alien monster, and Book 2 is starting to deal with some of the fallout from that. Government issue scumbags running around with mind-control drugs, information attack memes and nanotech body armor. Very, very bad. But now we have sexy robots visiting Retribution upon the corrupt assholes who make life hard for the rest of us.

        But not that much, because the sexy robots want to get their romance on. They can’t be bothered messing with the bad guys except as entertainment.

      2. Also, write a story about the next prime minister of Japan for an audience which is not familiar with the Diet, or the the process by which Japanese Prime Minsters are chosen.

        Invent a republican form of government, the culture which actually makes it work, and the political factions that have developed from that population. Then tie your action/adventure plot to an uncertain political outcome. Then explain all that crud to a reader, so that they can follow, and care.

        Governments which you can summarize with a single character are a little bit easier to write.

        Consider the stock isekai situation of some dude/a classroom of students who get summoned, and then come before the king for some exposition. Now do it again, but replace the king with a Prime Minster, that is an actual parliamentary political figure, and not a king in everything but name.

        Okay, my bunnies are going ‘cool’, but you can see the economy of narrative budget argument, right?

  6. Ages ago now when rec.arts.sf.composition was a thing on Usenet and before the entire industry went crazy pants, we’d have conversations about message in fiction and there was generally NO dispute about the inadvisability of preaching to the choir, or that if you were going to deliver a message it was best to slip it in in such a way that you got past people’s defenses. Otherwise what was the point?

    And I’ll say, too, that some of the people either agreeing with that or at least not disputing it, are the biggest and loudest SJW crusaders today and sometimes I see their names and think WTF? I remember this person when they were sane.

    Because it wasn’t confusing and it wasn’t controversial. If you have a message you probably want to actually *deliver* it. And if you can’t keep people who disagree with your message engaged, they won’t hear it. You want to, as people like to say, “make them think.” Which they aren’t going to do if they close your book or launch it at the nearest wall.

    That goes for anyone, doesn’t it? No matter the politics. No matter the message. No matter the opinions of the author about anything.

    And sure, I probably have more tolerance for bad message fic that agrees with me, but that tolerance is not limitless, as Sarah pointed out. I’ll roll my eyes or skim over the preaching, just like any other choir member would do. It’s an ideologically neutral principle.

    1. “…sometimes I see their names and think WTF? I remember this person when they were sane.”

      This is certainly a thing, lately. Where we used to have conversations about cool ideas like gene editing or fusion drives, now its a screaming match at best, or more often one side gets cancelled while the other side signals virtue. I don’t even talk to people about books anymore in Real Life, they just go crazy.

      I’m pretty bored with it. I’d like to get back to the cool ideas, but there seems to be a faction of people adamantly refusing to behave like adults, determined that everything WILL be all-politics, all-the-time. Fusion drives are to be used as reasons that #OrangeManBad or not mentioned. Because what’s most important is #OrangeManBad.

      And this is in Canada, where it doesn’t really matter that much what OrangeMan does. I shudder to think of NYC or LA.

      1. They want to argue ideas, it’s just that their notion of “idea” is critical theory/philosophy based rather than technical or science based. It goes back to the critical theory epistemic “idea” that there are “other ways of knowing” science and technology, and that science has been “colonized.”

        They took out the very foundations of knowledge and ideas, and now have no other vocabulary to discuss things. And they did it to themselves.

      1. I seem to recall a Sturgeon short story where one of the characters describes late Wells as having sold his birthright for a pot of message. Of course, Ted could have had the character riffing on some previous quote. by someone else, such as RAH or Wells himself.

  7. If you’re going to be a fiction writer, especially a fantasy and science fiction writer, means that you have to understand politics. When you’re world-building, the consequences of your decisions alter the landscape and the politics of the landscape you’re drawing.

    If the “science fiction shouldn’t be political” people were being honest, or having integrity, they would actually be saying, “Don’t narrow your customer base by beating them over the head with A Message.” What they are actually saying it “science fiction shouldn’t have politics that I don’t like in them.”

      1. Don’t worry. I’m sure our usual parasites will dig up a comment someone loosely affiliated with Sad Puppies made 5 years ago to try to prove you “wrong”.

    1. Everyone speaks in short-hand a lot of the time. The honest thing to do is to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

      “Story is the most important thing.”
      “Oh, so what you’re saying is…”

      “Message fiction sucks.”
      “Oh, so what you’re saying is…”

      I don’t want (current) politics (that I notice) in my science fiction. BECAUSE story is the most important thing and message fiction sucks.

      “Oh, what do you mean by that?”

      What I mean by that is that one of science fiction’s grandmasters is who I aspire to and her passionate fans (before the current social rending) included rabid feminazis and hyper conservative military enthusiasts. Both.

      And THAT is who I want to be. An author that writes what is TRUE well enough that everyone sees their truth in the story. And reads long enough to GET THERE. And if I’m good, maybe they’ll be able to see other points of view a little better, too, by the end.

      What I find annoying beyond all else is the idea somehow that “smart” is a certain opinion and no one who doesn’t hold that opinion could be “smart” and therefore can be assumed to be a poor writer. Because really super smart people are often profoundly wrong and also incredible writers. Objectively. They also can “make you think” just because they are so profoundly wrong about everything.

      Far too much “I’m a good writer because I have the right opinions” going on. Far far too much.

      Oh, and far too much “This story world is a bad place and the author hasn’t made clear enough that it’s bad, so no one should read it and if there’s a movie we need fix stuff with casting choices.”

      Like you couldn’t TELL it was bad, dystopic world without a map and compass? Like maybe that was the point?

      “You didn’t clobber me on the head with a message mallet. My ignorance is not my fault.”

      1. It’s like historians. There are some (in)famous historians who proposed interpretations of their various fields. Other people recoiled and said, ‘What the what? Are you kidding?” and produced really valuable and well-written work that is still held up as “This is how to do good history.” All because one person dropped what others thought of as a stink-bomb of a hypothesis.

      2. Far, far too much.

        I don’t know everything. Never pretended to be. That’s why I do research. I try to back up my opinions with facts, and when I’m wrong, I admit it.

        There are too many people (mostly on the Left, but I’ve met their Right version) that if you aren’t singing in the choir with them, you’re an apostate only worthy of conversion or destruction.

        (Side thing-I probably describe too much when I write. But, some writers that I like don’t write enough on some details that I miss.)

      3. If you can’t think of a really smart person who is nuts, or profoundly wrong about something, you haven’t known and studied enough really smart people.

        Smart is useful for problem solving. Solve enough problems, you get confidence. Enough confidence will take one beyond the limits of one’s experience and skill, which makes it easy to develop ‘not even wrong’ positions.

        Part of what makes the world interesting is the people who have produced valuable stuff that has to be sorted from the absolute garbage that they have also produced.

  8. I think using the term Political is overly broad.

    It’s impossible not to have part of you, and your beliefs, in your books. Duh! But I wouldn’t class a lot of beliefs (say about hard work vs being a grifter) as political. Culture is definitely a better word than politics for this.

    Then there are political beliefs, such as type of government, justice, law system, etc.

    Then there are partisan beliefs, in other words nakedly political beliefs, especially aimed at current controversies, meant to favor one political side. I would class most of the current SJW huckersterism here, and doubt any book with a lot of that will age well. It’s very possible not to have any partisan politics in a book.

  9. How interesting. Today, I left an Amazon review on this very topic.

    I read all the Hunter books first and had a few of the same issues with them, but here I was screaming at the author throughout the entire series; it was very nearly walled. I gave it four stars for two reasons: I did read the entire series so it can’t be that bad and I’m not sure if it represents the author’s point of view (quelle horror) or if he was trying to make the readers think.

    If you think people are sheep and our betters should have an arbitrary monopoly on force, you’ll have no problems with it. If you think people are morally equal and responsible for their actions, you will be screaming throughout. Given that this series is set some 600 years in the future, I’d hope for better than the 3000 year old Plato’s Republic as a form of government.

    Mages can blast people with fireballs because mages. If some ordinary person blasts someone with a fireball gun, it is a society disrupting horror. The underlying philosophy/ideology of this series is horrific tyranny by the powerful. Might makes right and only the elites are allowed access to might. It’s an appalling society. It’s also fictional Space Opera, so other than pressing my buttons, not a bad series.

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