Message Fiction: Politics in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Literature

I want to talk about politics in science fiction and fantasy. But first, a story…

I spent the summer of 2000 in Croatia, a country most people now associate with sun, wine, seafood—fun stuff. But in those days the first thing that sprung to mind, for most people at least, was war. And an ugly war at that—one that pitted neighbor against neighbor; the one that gave us the term “ethnic cleansing.” But the war was over, and Croatia in 2000 was an undeniably nice place—full of all that fun stuff people think of now. And I loved it. People were incredibly hospitable, the food was fresh and delicious, and the Dalmatian coast…well, it’s something everyone should see in their lifetimes. But the war still cast a long shadow.

One time, some friends and I were on the road from Zagreb to Zadar. We stopped at a small café to eat. Behind the café was a meadow, and in the middle sat a derelict bus covered in graffiti—good graffiti too, like you used to see on New York subways. I took out my camera and made my way over to get a decent shot. When I was maybe 50 feet from the bus, though, I noticed a sign planted in the grass:

Warning: unexploded ordinance in vicinity.

Landmines.

A slow panic washed over me. I took a deep breath and decided to retrace my steps. Only, I couldn’t be sure I had it right. Every time my foot hit something other than grass or soil, my heart jumped. Eventually I made it back to the café, unnerved by the experience and ashamed of my own carelessness. I never even took the photo.

 

Of all the things I learned from that incident (and there were many), one was to acknowledge that political conflicts don’t just end—they reverberate long after, and in ways that often feel casually indifferent to you, the individual. Naively, I had gone to Croatia looking for fun and adventure. Yet there I was, the oblivious, photo-snapping tourist literally wading into a minefield.

Now, my focus here—the political messages encoded into science fiction and fantasy literature—is quite mundane in comparison to the aftereffects of war. Still, I’m struck by how well that incident serves as a metaphor—because in many parts of the world, and at most times in history, that casual indifference has been an unavoidable fact of life. And yet here we are, in 2015, arguing over whether science fiction and fantasy “should” or “shouldn’t” address political issues or explore political themes.

Underlying the debate are two distinct, albeit complementary, understandings of what a political message “is” and where it comes from. For some, it is defined by the existence of an explicit, purposive attempt to convey said message—what Mike Duran calls “message-driven fiction.” For others, though, pretty much anything is “message fiction,” because the assumptions/choices operative in worldbuilding, characterization and narrative are implicit messages in and of themselves. Really these are two forms of political messaging—distinct from one another and not at all equivalent, but nonetheless related. All books contain implicit political messages; only a select few contain the explicit ones.

And then there are, of course, questions of: (a) quality, i.e. “is this message being conveyed effectively”; and (b) alignment, i.e. “do I like or agree with the message conveyed.” Unfortunately, readers often confuse (b) for (a).

Take Ayn Rand, for example: I’ve yet to hear a committed libertarian dismiss her for writing “crappy message fiction,” even though she is undoubtedly the clumsiest message writer in modern literature. Why? Because there’s a tendency to elevate ideas over story when those ideas appear to confirm pre-existing biases. Not always, sure, but it’s par for the course inside the ideological bubble, whether that bubble sits on the left, right or is off the map. So, really, when you hear talk about “crappy message fiction,” it’s really code for “the wrong kind of message fiction,” however defined.

No one is completely insulated from such effects, but I’d argue there are clear benefits to engaging with message fiction from outside your home bubble. For example, though I’m not a libertarian myself, I’ve read and enjoyed an awful lot of books on the Prometheus Award list. And though some winning authors, like Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow or Ken MacLeod, aren’t really libertarians either (whereas someone like Vernor Vinge probably is), the voting members of the Libertarian Futurist Society clearly think that the political messages contained within Glasshouse, Homeland or The Stone Canal (and A Deepness in the Sky) render the books more compelling than if they had contained no significant political commentary. I tend to agree.

Now, the Prometheus Award is political by definition, so perhaps they care more about the content of the message than the adventure that delivers it. But I’d argue that these books, as well as others from across the spectrum, demonstrate that political messaging and “good, old fashioned fun” can and often do coexist quite happily, even when the messages drive the story, and even when they are not bias-confirming.

The open-mindedness I’m advocating for here, of course, has its limits—limits that individuals have to set for themselves. I, for one, can’t deal with books that demonize others for the circumstances of their birth, or for being born/raised in the wrong part of the world or galaxy. But stories in which asteroid miners construct a fair and just society without public institutions? I don’t need to buy into it in order to get something out of it.

So that’s what I’ll be looking for in the coming months: the messages, explicit and implicit, embedded into the fabric of science fiction and fantasy literature. And I’ll be specifically looking for the political messages in popular science fiction and fantasy, by which I mean the stuff that sells well and/or is marketed primarily to a genre audience.

 

My Approach to Message Fiction

Now, since everyone has their biases, let me tell you a bit about what I like and don’t like when it comes to “message fiction.”

Explicit Political Messaging

In short, I like it when authors problematize their own assumptions, the assumptions of their readers or the assumptions of their characters. I don’t like it when the messages are just lockstep regurgitations of whatever dogma the author favors.

I like it when books recognize that most contestants in political conflict believe or convince themselves that they are “fighting for what’s right.” I don’t like it when books present contests as objectively “good vs. evil”—conveniently ignoring that most conflicts derive, first and foremost, from competing interests.

And I like unflinching, honest explorations of real world problems through imaginative and science fictional metaphor, whereas I can’t stand either ham-fisted preaching or lazy reproductions of real world problems without meaningful engagement with or exploration of their consequences.

None of the positives are necessary for me to enjoy a book, though in most cases they add to my enjoyment. Similarly, none of the negatives are deal breakers—if, that is, everything else about the book works. But in general that’s what I look for and what I look out for.

Implicit Political Messaging

I judge implicit political messaging according to different criteria. Simply put, I want it to meld into the background of the text, so it’s almost unnoticeable. But I also want it to pique my interest in the world presented, and I want it to reflect good choices—even when those choices are not consciously political.

As general rule, I like it when the social fabric in my speculative fiction is just as speculative as the science, and just as imaginative as the magic in fantasy—provided everything is intuitive and internally consistent. It should feel “natural” and “realistic,” if not by any supposed “rules” of our world, then within the “rules” set out by the author, whatever those are.

 

The Black Company as “Message Fiction”

With that in mind, let’s explore the political messages in an important work of fantasy. Glen Cook’s The Black Company is rightly considered a forebear of the gritty turn in epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. It centers on the exploits of a mercenary band (the eponymous Black Company), which has been hired by a tyrant to defend her empire from a popular rebellion. And though the series takes several significant turns in later volumes, the original entry is tightly focused on how men of violence navigate a dirty war.

While the Company’s motley collection of warriors and sorcerers are complex, relatable and sympathetic people—from thoughtful Croaker to the brooding Raven, and from reliable sergeant Elmo to feuding wizards One-Eye and Goblin, whose comical rivalry is both scene-stealing and masks a deep affection forged under near-constant threat of death. And there’s a clear “band of brothers” dynamic at play, which celebrates both the bond of companionship and essential humanity of those who fight.

Yet The Black Company explicitly and directly rejects the simple good vs. evil dynamic that has traditionally defined heroic fiction, whether fantasy or not. The Company’s war is not one of righteous truth or glorious conquest, but a war of survival and a war of profit. It is a civil war, and one whose primary victims are unarmed civilians—the exact kind of war, one notes, that has predominated in our world since 1945. And that means this “band of brothers” isn’t quite like the one from the HBO series, which faced terrible odds in a bid to save civilization from the least ambiguous bad guys of all time. Rather, it’s the one trying to stay alive in Vietnam, fighting a war that seems increasingly pointless, but from which there is no clear exit strategy.

Cook may not have actually fought in Vietnam (he served in the Navy just prior), but Steven Erikson is right to note how close The Black Company feels to the books written by veterans of that war. The Company knows it’s fighting for the wrong side, but what’s “right” when the White Rose commits the same atrocities as the Lady? The Black Company suggests “rightness” is at most relative, and more likely a comforting illusion. Extracting “good” from “evil,” the book seems to argue, is nigh impossible when the object of contestation is power.

Sure, the series shifts focus later on, and begins to feel more like a subversion than deconstruction of the heroic paradigm. But The Black Company, considered alone, is positively exhilarating in the force of its rejection. And the gritty fantasy authors who dominate the genre today—George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, Kameron Hurley, Joe Abercrombie, and others—all show signs of Cook’s influence, whether directly or indirectly.

I imagine readers familiar with my previous (now quite dated) essay on “grimdark” fantasy may find this love of Glen Cook surprising. But it’s never been dark tone, gritty approach or underlying moral relativism that’s bothered me—it’s how those things are treated in the text. As a reader, I want to explore the roots, effects and aftereffects of violence in meaningful ways. I don’t find the base assumption that everyone is terrible and the world is indeterminately hellish to be all that interesting, but I do want to explore how and why good people do terrible things, and how once nice places descend into hellfire. And I want to explore how and why bad people try to redeem themselves, and how everyone picks up the pieces once the gunfire dies down. The Black Company does all those things, or at least points in their direction.

That said, some of The Black Company’s implicit politics grate on me, not least of which the near absence of women. Those who do enter the narrative are all highly competent individuals of considerable power, but it’s not until the final volume of the trilogy that we begin to see meaningful character development from the Lady or Darling, who is the sole female member of the Company and, in this first volume at least, is mainly there to be protected by Raven. It would have been nice to see some woman warriors in their ranks—someone like Vasquez from Aliens, only with a sword. But then again, the book is also 30 years old, and there were different standards in those days. Notably, a lot of recent work that owes a debt to Cook, from Malazan to Best Served Cold and Mirror Empire, do a better job with gender.

In the end, I consider this a notable flaw, but it doesn’t negate my admiration for what the book accomplishes. In short, it’s awesome. It’s political. And it’s full of messages, explicit and implicit. But, The Black Company also has action, intrigue and a healthy dose of twisted humor. In fact, it’s one of the funniest SF/F novels I’ve ever read.

 

So What’s Next?

Well, I’ll be reading a lot of political SF/F—new releases, classics, works from across the political spectrum. And I’m always open to suggestions; so if there’s something you think I should check out, please do let me know in the comments!


The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

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