I’ve been thinking about politics a fair amount lately, for some reason, although I usually find it better for my rage levels to ignore the existence of any such thing. Fantasy authors, after all, have the luxury of spending our time in imaginary worlds, where we can completely forget about such sordid real-life concerns as politics.
Er, as it turns out, wrong.
Speculative fiction doesn’t have anything half so glamorous as its own Oscars, but the only thing which comes even remotely close is the Hugo Awards. Recently, a group of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies (no, really) decided the Hugos have become too leftie-liberal and did some – well, it’s technically within the rules so it’s not actually cheating, let’s go with manipulation – to ensure that the nominations for this year’s awards are dominated by their favourites. I don’t have the space here to go into this issue in detail – I’ve put a couple of links at the bottom if you’re interested in reading further – but suffice to say that it’s turned into the usual internet shitstorm, with George RR Martin, no less, weighing in to declare the Hugos ‘broken’.
What really got me thinking was the idea that SF used to be – or should be – the realm of ‘swashbuckling fun’ as opposed to works espousing a political ideology. Now, whenever I hear people saying this kind of thing, that Skunk Anansie song starts playing in my head (at top volume):
Yes it’s fucking political
And you know what, teenage memories of the moshpit notwithstanding, I think the punk rockers have a point. Everything’s political. Including fantasy fiction.
Pah, surely not? How can a story about elves and goblins and dragons and magic wotsits have any relevance to real-world politics? Well, you can’t tell a story – any story – without making some judgement calls. Calls about who gets to be the hero, and who’s the villain. Calls about what you celebrate in the story, and what you punish. What do your characters put first – family? Duty? Self-interest? How do they solve their problems – peacefully? Violently? Working together, or alone? These judgment calls are all, ultimately, expressing views about how humans should behave, and how society should be ordered. Political. [bass riff] Does this mean everything’s a simplistic polemic? Of course not – not if you write well, with complex characters and interesting, nuanced conflicts. Good stories aren’t clunkingly obvious messages – they’re engaging, they make you think, and they don’t make it too easy to draw glib conclusions. But everything has, ultimately, its underlying value system.
And fantasy fiction doesn’t get away with playing the whole ‘escape from reality’ card. Oh no. In fact, I’d say in some ways it’s even more inescapably political than real-world fiction. When your story is set in real life, most of the world-building has already been done for you – the political system, the cultural norms, etc. When your story is set in a world of your own making, you have to make all those decisions yourself. Is this land a monarchy, a democracy, a theocracy? Is there a police force and a justice system, or do citizens have to protect themselves? Is there slavery? What are the gender roles and how fluid are they? Is your place in society determined by your own efforts, or purely by your birth? What’s the legal and cultural status of variant sexualities? How are mentally or physically disabled people treated? All these and more are questions that you need to answer when you construct your fantasy tale – and if you don’t answer them explicitly, readers can – and will – draw their own conclusions. Sometimes, it’s the details you haven’t thought about which can be the most telling. What are we to make, for example, of a fantasy world featuring bestial green-skinned orcs, snooty blonde elves, crafty gold-loving dwarves, and not a single human who isn’t white? Did you forget non-white people exist? Oh wait, it’s because it’s based on mediaeval Europe and apparently they didn’t have black people back then. But they did have dragons, wizards, and chainmail bikinis. Hmmm.
Ah, stop being such a leftie-liberal-media studies 101-male-tears-drinking-killjoy! Well, I’m sorry, but there just ain’t no getting away from politics, no matter how hard you shove your head in that big heap of dragon’s gold. You can use the ‘fantasy default settings’ if you like – the whole feudal-Europe-with-magic-setup – but don’t try to kid yourself that there isn’t anything political about that setup. Those default settings came from somewhere, they reflect certain values, and if you blindly accept them, then you blindly promote those same values.
I’ll leave you with a bit more Skunk Anansie:
Negative are all your views
So you can prop up your fake cool
A puppet all the same
Brad R Torgersen’s blog explaining the rationale behind the ‘Sad Puppies’: https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/why-sad-puppies-3-is-going-to-destroy-science-fiction/
This article has a pretty good summary of the situation: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121554/2015-hugo-awards-and-history-science-fiction-culture-wars