Sci-Fi Has Always Been Political


There’s a curious case of revisionism surrounding the history of the future making the rounds in fandom. Certain groups, most notably of the depressed juvenile canine persuasion, but hardly limited to them, are making waves about what they claim is a recent phenomenon among the ranks of science fiction authors, their editors, and their publishers to inject distracting, even oppressive amounts of social and political commentary into the novels and short stories they choose to produce.

These earnestly concerned aficionados of the genre pine for the Golden Age when science fiction was awash in rayguns and replicants, alien ass-kicking, monoliths and megastructures, before this new wave of social justice bards inserted themselves into the conversation and ruined their good fun.

There’s just one small, niggling problem with this assessment; Sci-fi has always, even primarily, been political. It was just never questioning their politics before. It was never challenging their preconceptions, or calling out their cultural biases. As they say, you never forget your first time.

Instead of embracing the call to turn their attentions inward for a little self-reflection, many among the community of sci-fi fandom instead looked backwards to an age when all the voices sounded suspiciously like their own. But in the process, they’ve conveniently forgotten the point of the seminal work of some of the genre’s most influential authors.

Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune, as an opening example, dives deep into questions of colonialism, treatment of indigenous people, the roles and relationship between religion and government, all wrapped within a powerful allegory for the rising power of the Islamic petrostates in the middle east and the clash of cultures over scarce resources. To say that Dune wasn’t political is simply absurd.

Between 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote two of the most memorable novels lampooning government control and overreach from both sides of the political spectrum. Philip K. Dick dealt with fascism and slavery in The Man in the High Castle, as did Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Orson Scott Card wrote one of the most persuasive and beautiful arguments found in literature in favor of religious tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness, and against heteronormativity in his celebrated Speaker for the Dead, not that he meant to, it just sort of happened. Robert Heinlein spent an entire career writing political allegories about war, government, and what it means to be a citizen, evolving from one end of the political spectrum to the other and back again in a decades-long conversation with himself.

Jumping media, there are no end of examples of beloved sci-fi movies and television tackling themes of racism, sexism, and unequal treatment of ‘the other,’ Star Trek and Dr. Who chief among them in all their various incarnations.

The only critical difference is today, the people telling these stories aren’t imagining them. They’re writing from their own lived experiences of inequality and discrimination, persecution and violence. As a result, their stories bring the kind of raw-nerve sharpness that comes with authenticity. New wave authors like Ann Leckie, Charlie Jane Anders, and Liu Cixin make a certain type of reader uncomfortable, because the underlying truth of what they’re writing is so much closer to the surface on an emotional level, and therefore harder to ignore.

Sci-Fi is currently bookended by two remarkable women. From its very first work in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, straight through to last year’s Hugo winner, N.K. Jemisin’s Obelisk Gate, Sci-Fi has returned to one question more often than any other; “What makes us human?” Shelley asked who qualifies. Almost two-hundred years later, Jemisin argues no one is qualified to answer. The conversation will continue for centuries more, and new voices will be invited to join, from ever more diverse backgrounds, adding their own color and patterns to the tapestry generations of storytellers have woven.

Eventually, even authors of Artificial Intelligence, the ultimate children of sci-fi, may have to fight for a seat at the table to tell their stories. I’d like to think that, if I’m still breathing, I won’t have grown so ossified that I’m shaking an auto-walker in their direction, complaining about how they’re ruining sci-fi for ‘organic’ humans.

Writing Fiction in a Time of Genuine Crisis

Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women’s March. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston


A funny thing happened to me eighteen months ago. A random tweet throwing shade at the typical rightwing response to police brutality put me in touch with an editor for The Hill. As a result, I added paid political commentator to my other job titles of sci-fi author and stand-up comic. Many, many articles followed, and I’ve added bylines in other venues such as The New York Times, US News, and an interview in Salon.

Which has given me a unique perspective on how to keep writing about spaceships and ray guns while Rome seemingly burns around us.

First of all, Don’t Panic. We are facing a crisis of a kind our nation has not seen since 1861 at the dawn of the Civil War, but no one person is doing all the work. If the Women’s March taught us anything, it’s that the resistance is massive, unprecedented, organized, and furious. There are plenty of ants and worker bees to carry the load. We can all afford to take our eyes away from Twitter and the networks for a few hours a day and create our stories, guilt free. The fight will be there when we’re finished. You have permission to create and care for yourself. You are not required to burn yourself at both ends.

Secondly, remember that our stories matter. The stories humans tell each other form the basis of our societies. They weave the tapestry of who we are, and who we aspire to be. Storytellers have the power, privilege, and responsibility of shaping and guiding the narrative. There’s a reason we were among the first to be attacked in the Hugo fiasco a couple years ago. The trolls, puppies, and alt-right jackboots recognize who sets the pace, and it’s not them. Which is why they’re stuck reacting to the work we’re doing. They are insects, drawn to the light you create.

My own work took a serious turn in the aftermath of last year’s campaign. A series that had started as a fun little murder mystery and continued with an action-adventure tale suddenly tackled much weightier issues in its third volume as a direct result of the bullshit I was witnessing on a daily basis. So I decided to talk about gentrification and ghettos, policing in diverse communities, wealth inequality, xenophobia, and gender identity. Things I as a straight white male wasn’t entirely comfortable talking about out of fear I wasn’t doing them justice.

I’m still not sure I wrote about those issues right, or that I was the right person to write about them, but I do know in this environment, the last thing I wanted to contribute was another ‘safe’ book. Not that such a thing even exists anymore. Recently, I found a review of my second book online that dismissed the entire work for the cardinal sin of using gender-neutral pronouns in relation to an alien race. The point of which was not to be political, but simply to distinguish them from the humans and to recognize their distinct, triple gendered reproductive strategy.

Your work will be politicized by extremists whether you intend or desire it or not. But here’s the thing to remember: Assassins mean you’re winning. So write that completely bonkers trans mermaid/interracial centaur Cold War spy romance mashup novel. Fuck it. Sharknado got made like seven times.

Never let anyone tell you writing your novel is a distraction, or isn’t part of the fight. Books, movies, music, art, comedy, they all steer the future and shape perceptions. It’s why authoritarians ban and burn them. They understand the magic of a story and the power it can have to inspire minds and motivate resistance. We, YOU, are what they fear the most. Diverse, creative people confidently injecting their stories into the world without fear. Because they know we’re building a future that doesn’t include them.

Build, my pretties. Create universes you want to live it, and you might just get the chance. Every word remakes our world in your image, one snowflake at a time, until the avalanche breaks.