Seems like we can’t get rid of politics these days. It’s an election year, combined with a manufactured crisis, a race war, and whatever else is going on in the world. No wonder stress-related health problems have skyrocketed in 2020. Not just for me, but for the whole country.
In times of trouble, when the real world is an awful place to be, I normally turn to fantasy or science fiction. Some people have other escapes, but my strongest has always been my imagination, aided where necessary by the words of “genre” fiction authors. The past decade has allowed me to make my mark, and I have consistently stated that I write what I do because I am, at heart, an escapist.
But it’s getting harder and harder to avoid the thorny political problems of the world around me by diving into a novel. That isn’t because I’m having trouble reading. Oh, no. Since being placed under effective house arrest in March, I’ve read more than a dozen different books. Most are nonfiction, history or science books that caught my eye. A couple were fiction, part of my ever-growing “books to read” pile.
I have others in that. I started reading Brent Weeks’ The Burning White this week. Blood of Empire (Brian McClellan) still waits. The Infernal Battalion? Still untouched. And so on.
Why haven’t I been reading as much speculative fiction? If you asked me a while back, I’d say it was because I didn’t have enough time. Or I didn’t feel like committing to it. Those are both lies, of course. I’ve got nothing but time. I have no problem rereading my own novels. I don’t mind checking out an archaeological history of England, a humorous account of mathematical errors, or a study of idioms originating in the King James Bible.
No, my present problem with fantasy and sci-fi boils down to politics. As part of my treatment for depression and anxiety, I’ve been tasked with a series of introspective exercises, and those have helped me come to terms with this.
In a nutshell
It isn’t politics per se that turned me off fantasy. I don’t mind a novel with political wrangling, as long as there’s a good story in there. But I feel like I’ve read all of those. Martin has basically stopped writing. So has Scott Lynch. Jim Butcher needed six years to come up with a new Dresden Files entry, and the reviews I’ve seen of Peace Talks say it’s incomplete at best.
I’m not even opposed to political allegory, if done properly. I mean, I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My Nocturne, written in November-December 2016, was unabashedly political. (Funny how its themes are still relevant now.) I don’t mind exploring an important topic through the metaphorical lens of fiction.
But there are good and bad ways to go about it. Lately, I see too many authors—prominent, professional authors who really should know better—taking the bad route. It’s one thing to write a character, even a central character, to hold a firm opinion on an issue. I’ve done it often. In my Otherworld series, Ashley starts out as a stereotypical feminist, while Damonte is openly socialist. Martevis, a protagonist of my Hidden Hills novels, might have common friends, but he retains an aristocratic view of social class. The Modern Minds short stories feature a character whose mother is a very…zealous evangelical.
Too often, the pros I once idolized have made the decision not to write characters like those. Instead, they preach. It’s not enough for the characters to believe in a cause. No, the narrator has to believe in it, too, even when that narrator has no connection to them. And the cause has to be front and center at every possible opportunity, whether or not it contributes to the progression of the story.
Most of the examples I see in fiction today are of the leftist bent. As I’ve stated in prior posts, I’m, well, not. “Classical liberal” is the closest label I’ve found to describe my leanings, and it’s far from perfect. But I’m not complaining because I disagree with the politics. I’d say the same thing if the narrative preaching were progressive, conservative, libertarian, authoritarian, anarchist, or any other form you could imagine. (Seriously. Ask me about Ayn Rand sometime.)
No, it’s not that I don’t like what you’re saying. It’s that I can’t stand how you’re saying it. Berating the reader is never a good recipe for success. Beating me over the head with political theory in what was supposed to be a fun, relaxing escape from reality takes away any joy I might have gained.
Illustration 1: The Expanse
It wouldn’t be a PPC post without some illustrative examples, so here’s what I’m ranting about this time. First, The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey. I enjoyed the opening book, Leviathan Wakes. It got me back into space-based sci-fi after a decade away. And the series continued to impress. Cibola Burn had some major plot holes, Babylon’s Ashes was forgettable, but the whole thing was just so fun and refreshing.
In the seventh book, Persepolis Rising, I became thoroughly disillusioned. It was around that point that I noticed there were no stable, monogamous, heterosexual relationships anywhere, except for the villains. Holden and Naomi are content to FWBs. Alex is coming off one failed marriage when the series starts; he adds a second in the 30-year jump between books 6 and 7. Amos is a psychopath who avoids commitment. Holden’s “parents” are a group of seven people who did some genetic trickery to have a baby sharing DNA with all of them—mostly for tax purposes, not because they wanted to perpetuate their lineages.
Yet there are plenty of…alternative arrangements that take center stage. In Abaddon’s Gate, we see a lesbian couple whose names I can’t remember. Babylon’s Ashes has Pa and her polyamorous crew. The only “traditional” family that gets more than a brief mention is that of Duarte, in Persepolis Rising. The megalomaniacal Martian who (spoiler alert!) ends up conquering the entire solar system with the help of alien technology is just about the only man with any serious screen time who has a wife and a child. Earth’s population had somehow reached fifteen billion by the starting point of this series, and I’m left wondering how.
The Expanse’s political browbeating doesn’t stop there, alas. Early books were fairly neutral. Earth has its share of good and bad. Belters very naturally develop a terrorist wing due to their constant persecution. As the series progresses, however, it takes a hard left turn. Corporations are ubiquitous in the setting, but they are rarely, if ever, shown in a positive light. The idea of “consent of the governed” is widely viewed as fringe, if not crazy.
The killing blows, in my opinion, are twofold. Persepolis Rising introduces the new bad guys, and I couldn’t help but imagine the authors (James S. A. Corey is a shared pseudonym) saying, “Why don’t you understand that we’re talking about Trump?” It’s okay to base a foe off an important historical figure, but this is much too transparent. Adding insult to injury is the way essentially every male character has been marginalized or emasculated. In the future, apparently, boys aren’t allowed to have heroes.
Illustration 2: Demon Cycle
Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series is another one I liked to start. The Warded Man was a great book, and I’ve sung its praises on this site before. Brett has a great worldbuilding mind. He can handle dialect, something few others bother to try. And he made a great antihero in Arlen Bales.
It’s everything else that’s the problem. The enemies of the setting are the Krasians, who are best described as Muslim ninjas crossed with the Bene Gesserit from Dune. Arlen’s first meeting with them is as a trader who joins their fight against the nocturnal demons who haunt the world. He leaves in disgrace, beaten and raped, and this seems to be a common theme in the series. Okay, that happened in history. Not so bad, right?
But it goes downhill from there, in my opinion. The patriarchal, indeed misogynistic (and I, unlike your average Twitter user, do not use that term lightly), Krasians are secretly controlled by their women. Their emperor’s wife uses blood magic to control his mind—when sex doesn’t work, anyway. His daughter secretly creates a women-only assassin squad. The whole thing is more full of holes than the official coronavirus narrative.
It takes away from what was otherwise a decent, innovative fantasy series. The whole message at every turn seems to be “White men can’t do anything right unless they’re helped.” Arlen was a prodigy, but he’s about the only one. Rojer comes across as somewhat bumbling, and ends being manipulated by women. Jeph, Arlen’s father, is just plain pathetic. Every other white male character is an oaf, an opportunist, or a cuckold. Meanwhile, the women of the setting rule everything, whether behind the scenes or out in the open.
If that phenomenon were limited to a single series in fantasy or sci-fi, I wouldn’t have much to say. I’d just not read those books. But this is pervasive, and it all goes in only one direction now. It’s the same problem Hollywood has. It’s the same problem video games have. Story so often takes a back seat to diversity, yet diversity of thought is never allowed. The good guys must never be just guys, for instance, because that’s sexist. Capitalism always results in dystopia. Religion is only ever tyrannical, unless it’s tribal shamanism, in which case it’s the most powerful force in the world.
But that’s not an escape. If I wanted to read about the black transgender heroine facing off against the evil colonial corporation that’s all-white, I’d just go on Tumblr, or Reddit, or Twitter, or Mastodon, or…you get the idea.
Fantasy worlds aren’t ours. They don’t have our problems; they have their own instead. I’ve written scores of articles about this very thing, but it’s only getting worse. The political cancer has spread into my last refuge. Is it any wonder I’m depressed, or that I’ve switched to reading history and science books?
I don’t care what you believe. If you want to think that communism is great, fine by me. I vehemently disagree, but that’s your right. Think that America should expel anyone who isn’t a white Christian? I’ll oppose you with all I’ve got, but I won’t stop you from expressing your opinion. Until your ideology infringes on my rights, it’s none of my business.
That said, is there any reason to force it into your writing? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. Nothing should be forced. That’s just poor writing. You may pat yourself on the back for making your characters so “woke” that you get all the internet points, but it doesn’t make them deeper. Cardboard cutouts are boring no matter where they fall on the Political Compass.
No, if you can’t be subtle about it, leave the real-world politics in the real world. I didn’t come to your book for a lecture on how awful the conservatives/progressives/whatever are. I came to get away from that.