Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Don't get political"

"Don't get political."

That is a retort often heard when someone ventures an opinion or states a concern over how people are being treated. Apparently, that very response has now bled into one of my most valued aspects of life: science fiction.

I have been a fan of the genre since I was six, sitting in a theater watching Star Wars for the first time. That was certainly the hook and from there I read as many books from the genre of science fiction as I could. I even write it myself (no, I don't have anything in publication yet because I haven't written any science fiction that I'm really ready to "send out into the world." Such is the curse of being a perfectionist.) So you can imagine how sad and disappointment I became after reading an article in Wired about how my beloved genre is now something of a microcosm of the divisive "culture wars" in America.

Like, most literary genres, science fiction has plenty of awards for writers and books. Probably the most coveted of these awards is the Hugo Award. Recently, a collective of authors have decried the Hugos, saying they have been overrun by what conservatives term Social Justice Warriors. In the case of the Hugos, these are readers and writers who are accused of valuing politics over plot. One of the founders of this backlash is Larry Correia.

Correia is an accountant, a former gun store owner, and an NRA lobbyist who decided to try his hand at writing. His novel Warbound, about a private detective that battles interdimensional monsters, was nominated for a Hugo in 2014. It lost to Anne Leckie's Ancillary Justice, about a future galactic empire that does not see gender. One might think that the Correia's push against the Hugos was sour grapes over this loss, but he actually began the campaign three years ago with something called Sad Puppies.

The name was based off of the ASPCA ads by Sarah McLachlan showing images of abused dogs. “We did a joke based on that: that the leading cause of puppy-related sadness was boring message-fic winning awards.” The name stuck. Also sticking to the Sad Puppies was a reputation for being anti-woman, anti-gay, and overall just anti-diversity. Correia and his cohorts, such as sci-fi author Brad Torgersen, insist that such things are not true. “When people go on about how we’re anti-diversity, I’m like: No. All we’re saying is storytelling ought to come first,” says Torgersen. To the Sad Puppies, politics has caused a sort of identity crisis in science fiction where only the recondite is value and authors are rewarded for highbrow work that is in line with political correctness while punished for tales of exploring the unknown and rock 'em, sock 'em, splodey action.

While it may be guilt by association, it is somewhat difficult to accept this assertion. One of the Puppies is Theodore Beale who writes under the pen name Vox Day. He has been accused of being anti-feminist. In the Wired article, he clarifies that position. He is only opposed to women voting in representative democracies because “Women are very, very highly inclined to value security over liberty” and thus are “very, very easy to manipulate.” Additionally, the entire fracas over the Hugos “demon­strates the extent to which science fiction has been politicized and degraded by their ["Social Justice Warriors"] far left politics.”

Oh what to think?

First off, I am by no means opposed to entertainment. Escapism most certainly has its place and I have rotted my brain with it plenty throughout the course of a lifetime. It would be hypocritical for me to adopt a position that said "only highbrow science fiction is worthy." But while escapism is fun and really quite healthy, science fiction, when at its best, is a commentary on our present, not our future. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, considered by several scholars to be one of the first examples of the genre, is not just a gripping story of gothic horror. It is a warning about where science may take us and even a commentary on the place of women in 19th Century society.

What I'm trying to say is that it is tough for most socially aware writers to not write about these various subjects. If writers are churning out stories dealing with diversity, one need only take a look around at what's happening now to see why:

-Nearly one third of conservatives polled in Iowa want to criminalize Islam. 

-Multiple lies and distortions have been told by conservatives about Planned Parenthood.

-It takes an act of the Supreme Court for homosexuals to have the right to marry and even then there are conservative governmental officials who won't comply.

It's truly a hair-pulling time for those concerned about these issues. Why wouldn't someone write fiction about them? What's more, how is the act of doing so "degrading" science fiction?

Maybe it is the attitude of "there's no place for political argument in science fiction." I asked a colleague in the English Department about this and she had a personal experience to convey:

 "I got to see the psychology of this close-up when I taught a Science Fiction class.
A retired science professor from [redacted] audited the class and would not accept
Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness as good science fiction. He kept suggesting to me
that I teach other female authors instead, female authors who (essentially) do what Heinlein does.
I couldn't help but think that what was essentially going on with him was that he had a very
narrow definition of what SF is and should be and he wasn't prepared to let Le Guin in.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a profoundly moving, cerebral, masterfully-written consideration
 of what it means to live in the world and to try to know other people that also without
question fits any definition of SF."

These objections from the Puppies are reminiscent of that opening retort: "Don't get political." Well, that's impossible. As Aristotle observed, "Man is a political animal." There is an argument inherent in everything, even the most lowbrow of art. In fact, the very phrase "don't get political" is itself a political statement. Even still, the Sad Puppies may continue to believe that they are being unfairly blocked from Hugo Awards due to their pulpier, more commercially-minded writing. George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, wonders why the Puppies even care.

“The reward for popularity is popularity! It’s truckloads of money! Do you need the trophy, too?”
 he asks. “Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?”

My problem is the divisive nature of it all. It is not contributing constructively to the problems we have in society and in its own way is making them worse. It is true that message should not be valued over plot, character, or other aspects of good literature first outline in Aristotle's Poetics. But there is something mean-spirited at work in what the Puppies are doing. In a way, they are advocating for what they claim to be fighting against: totalitarianism and exclusion. Their argument would be better served by stating "our work has a place, too" as opposed to hurling derisive epithets like "Social Justice Warrior" and intimations of "that other stuff really isn't science fiction because it doesn't have enough laser battles."

So that means you can only portray one political future in the genre? No thanks. It is rather telling of a mind that can't accept works of literature that encourage us to examine what is happening in our society and in our lives.

Maybe that's indicative of the greater problem for us all.

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