05/01/2014 01:32 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

Politics Belong in Science Fiction

Bjorn Holland via Getty Images

Writing in last week's USA Today, Glenn Harlan Reynolds has made a case for why he feels that politics don't belong in science fiction. He begins:

There was a time when science fiction was a place to explore new ideas, free of the conventional wisdom of staid, "mundane" society, a place where speculation replaced group think, and where writers as different as libertarian-leaning Robert Heinlein, and left-leaning Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke would share readers, magazines, and conventions.

Ignoring momentarily the inference that science fiction is no longer a place to explore new ideas, I find it immediately telling that, in trying to demonstrate the former scope and variety of politics in SFF, Reynolds has chosen to make his case by naming three white Anglophone men, all of whom began their careers a good 20-odd years before Jim Crow was repealed, before women became legally entitled to equal pay, and before homosexuality was decriminalized. While race, gender and sexual orientation certainly don't predetermine one's political affiliations, it seems pointedly relevant that, during the Golden Age of SF, the prevailing laws and social conditions in the UK and the USA both made a certain type of visible dissent -- or rather, visible dissent by a certain type of person -- if not impossible, then certainly very difficult, regardless of the forum. What Reynolds sees as intellectual harmony, a sort of friendly détente between men who held very different political opinions, is, in fact, the end result of a system which privileged the works, views and personhood of men like them so far above the contributions of everyone else as to skew the results beyond usefulness. Golden Age SF wasn't apolitical, and nor were its writers; rather, both were the products of an intensely political process.

So when Reynolds notes sadly of the Hugo Awards that "in recent years critics have accused the award process -- and much of science fiction fandom itself -- of becoming politicized," his claim that it was never political before is fundamentally inaccurate. Rather,  science fiction fandom, which has always been political, is now visibly so, not only because groups previously prevented from speaking out, whether legally or through social coercion, are now increasingly free to do so, but because the fan conversation is no longer restricted by factors like physical distance or the preferences of gatekeepers. Just as the Internet allows Reynolds to post his criticism of modern SFF online, so it allows me to post this criticism of him: in that, we are perfectly equal.

Reynolds, however, seems not to think so:

That's certainly been the experience of Larry Correia, who was nominated for a Hugo this year. Correia, the author of numerous highly successful science fiction books like Monster Hunter Internationaland Hard Magic, is getting a lot of flak because he's a right-leaning libertarian.

This is, to put it mildly, a drastic misrepresentation of the objections to Correia's nomination, foremost among which is his prominent association with and support for Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale, a man who recently said of one of SFF's most prominent and popular authors, N. K. Jemisin, who is African American, that:

"...We do not view her as being fully civilised... those self-defence laws [like Stand Your Ground in Flordia] have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people like her, who are savages in attacking white people... [she is] an educated, but ignorant, savage with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature... than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine."

Vox/Beale has similarly argued that the Taliban shooting of Malala Yousafzai was "perfectly rational and scientifically justifiable," because of "the strong correlation between female education and demographic decline" -- that is, because educating women leads to social decay. He also believes that homosexuality is a birth defect, that there's a link between race and intelligence, and that it's "an established empirical fact" that "raping and killing a woman is demonstrably more attractive to women than behaving like a gentleman." It is for sentiments like these -- or rather, his decision to publicize them using the official SFWA twitter feed -- that lead to Vox/Beale's expulsion from the SFWA last year; a decision which his supporters persist in seeing as gross left-wing censorship and, to borrow Reynolds's term, groupthink, rather than the native consequence of misusing an organization's public platform as a vehicle for bigotry against its other members.

How, then, does all this tie in to Correia and the Hugo Awards? Because, in the lead up to the announcement of this year's Hugo Award shortlist, Vox/Beale and Correia collaborated on the promotion of what they called the Sad Puppy Slate: a list of nominees, including themselves -- most of whom, it must be noted, actually made it onto the short list, including Vox/Beale -- that was specifically intended to prove a political point: namely, that despite the criticism folks like Correia receive from the more left-leaning quarters of SFF fandom, they still ultimately sold more books, and could therefore get on the ballot if they wanted. While there has been considerable debate and outrage about their approach to garnering votes -- as, indeed, there is every year, accusations of logrolling, ballot-stuffing and gratuitous self-promotion being par for the course from all corners -- ultimately, what Correia and Vox/Beale did was legal. Nonetheless, the backlash against Correia isn't, as Reynolds would have it, simply because he's the inoffensive holder of a particular political stance, but because he has actively thrown his support behind an openly misogynistic white supremacist.

To therefore suggest, as Reynolds has done, that the criticism Correia has subsequently received is political, while his Sad Puppy Slate -- which was explicitly intended to make a political point -- was not, is not just inaccurate, but wilfully misleading. The idea that politics are only unwelcome when they challenge the entrenched or dominant powers of society, rather than supporting them, is itself a defensive strategy of dominant politics: a way of conditioning us to believe that politics so normative as to be rendered invisible are simply apolitical defaults, and that any attempt to change, challenge or define them is not only political, but evidence of a political conspiracy -- of groupthink, even -- so vast and all-consuming as to be the real dominant power.

Says Reynolds:

Purging the heretics, usually but not always from the left, has become a popular game in a lot of institutions. It just seems worse in science fiction because SF was traditionally open and optimistic about the future, two things that purging the heretics doesn't go with very well.

The backlash against Vox/Beale and Correia isn't about "purging the heretics": it's legitimate criticism of a man who both believes in, and is a political advocate for, the active disenfranchisement and lesser worth of the vast majority of humans on the planet, and a discussion about why SFF, as a community that includes a rather large number of such humans, is best served by supporting them instead. Correia has thrown his lot in with Vox/Beale in a campaign which, by his own admission, was less about the quality of nominated works than their ability to provoke those with different politics; to try and then argue that such works should be judged separately from the politics which helped to nominate them, let alone the politics of their content, is a hypocritical insincerity of the highest order.

Science fiction both is, and always has been, a political genre. When we tell stories about a future in outer space populated entirely by white people, who constitute a global minority; when we describe societies set a hundred, three hundred, a thousand years in the future but which still lack gender equality, and whose sexual mores mimic those of the 1950s, that is no less a political decision than choosing to write diversely. The political influence on a given community is not restricted solely to those whose politics are made visible by their difference to your own. Swimming against the current might draw more attention, but it doesn't negate what's trying to pull you under. Of necessity, the politics of science fiction are reflective of the political climate in which it's written -- why else do we speculate about the future, but that we're concerned with the present?

Politics belong in science fiction, Mr. Reynolds, because it is written both by and about people, and you cannot have one without the other. By all means, criticise a particular strain of politics -- criticise context and method and history, result and aim and consequence -- but not the fact that politics are involved at all; and especially not when one side is advocating for equal treatment and representation, while the other is saying their gender, race or sexual orientation voids their right to it.

It really is that simple.

Addendum: This post originally stated that Arthur C. Clarke was straight, an error which has now been corrected, and for which I apologise. While Clarke's friends knew he was gay, he wasn't publicly out -- hardly surprising, when you consider that homosexuality wasn't decriminalised in England until 1967. By then, Clarke was 50, and had already been living in Sri Lanka for nearly a decade, having relocated in large part because of that country's more tolerant laws. Despite both his other social privileges and his status as one of the genre's foremost figures, the politics of the day clearly impacted Clarke's ability to live and speak freely in his home country. That being so, how much more difficult would it have been for more vulnerable, less famous fans and writers to be heard? I say again: the politics of dissent were not absent from Golden Age SFF; their visibility was simply suppressed.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been nominated for a Hugo Award this year, but in a different category to both Correia and Vox/Beale: Best Fan Writer, none of whose nominees were on the Sad Puppy Slate.