Science Fiction Has Always Been Political

Here’s Part 6 of my Virtual Balticon panel notes.

Throughout the history of science fiction and fantasy, creators have used the opportunity for imaginative storytelling to explore issues of their day. From the Twilight Zone to Alien Nation to Mass Effect, what are ways that genre stories have explored the concerns of the world in which they were made?

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: James Mendez Hodes (as moderator), Mary Fan, Arkady Martine, Ada Palmer, and Sarah Pinsker.

Now, while we can’t go into all the ways politics have been interwoven with science-fiction because that would be a doctoral thesis, there is a lot we can discuss.

Why Use Fiction?

Censors don’t vet “unserious media” nearly as much as they should. Science fiction and fantasy in novels, comics, or even video games can often slip past the filters.

The Panelists Discuss Their Approach To The Political

  • Mary Fan never meant to make her writing political, but that’s how it came out. Plus, as an asian minority in the states, her stuff often gets filtered through that lens — both in her writing process and in the interpretation — even when that’s not what she intended.
  • James Mendez Hodes reminds us that the ability to appear apolitical is a privilege.
    • i.e. When your life experience doesn’t match mainstream media, every way in which you are different ends up getting coated with a political brush.
  • Arkady Martine avoids politics online.
  • Ada Palmer has friends who vet comments and reviews before she sees them, because her work IS so political.

Some people have so much damage and sore spots, that they can’t read stuff that go anywhere near a subject because it’s too personal. And that’s okay. That can inform what they write, what they read, and can explain why some people lash out after reading a novel.

Things To Watch For When You’re Writing SF (or Fantasy)

There are a lot of things built into the genre, and tropes people often end up following without making it a conscious decision. They’re not bad, but they’re done a lot. You should try to contemplate why you’re using these tropes and what story you’re telling.

  • Check for imperialism
  • US supremacy
  • Do you default to a western society?
  • Is your fantasy defaulting to an anti-populist, pseudo monarchy?
  • Check your SF for consistent tech vocabulary, astronomy details, & imperialism.
  • Check your fantasy for magic consistency and feudalism
  • What are the generational relationships like? The western nuclear family has only been a thing for a brief period.
  • You can be regressive and still say powerful stuff. It depends if you’re leaning in as “those were the days” or pointing out the flaws.

Publishing itself tends to view things with a Western lens. We’re looking for individualism. The pro-active individual. And that’s cultural baggage and a political choice, even if we don’t think about it.

When you go to do your research, newer history doesn’t whitewash as much, and fills in stuff that used to be skipped.

Avoiding the ‘Afterschool Special’ Approach

All too often, when writers have a message or theme they want to imbue their story with, they worry that the audience won’t get it. So? They clobber them over the head with the message.

  1. Read older science-fiction fantasy — their outdated ideas and mores will be easier to spot and can help you evaluate how your writing might be seen by future generations.
  2. Make your story about the people. Don’t preach.
  3. Try to make sure your characters have a vested interest in the political process.
    • i.e. Maybe the society kills all second born or something
  4. Know your audience
    • Different tropes naturally fit different genres. You can skip some of the explanation if the genre is used to those tropes.
      • Such as racism in Lovecraftian Horror.
      • In manga, you can have a conversation about gender at the 202 level, but with a different audience, it’s going to need to be 101 or 401.

Recommended Books and Media:

  • Ancestral Night and Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
  • Zadig and Micromégas by Voltaire
  • Gargoyles, The Animated Series
  • Star Wars
  • Hunger Games – it did something new, showing that what was done vs what was real in a way that had only really been done in Korean dramas. Now it’s a trope, BECAUSE of its success.
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette)

Closing Thoughts

I can’t avoid politics, It’s written on my face. – Mary Fan

Every choice we make is political. – Sarah Pinsker

Everyone is embedded in a political culture. – Arkady Martine


Remember to question your assumptions, evaluate your instinctive choices, and explore new worlds and new ideas.

2 thoughts on “Science Fiction Has Always Been Political

  1. This doesn’t even vaguely begin to consider the politics that has shown itself through sf’s entire history.

    Limbo, by Bernard Wolfe, where as you go up in power in the government, one of your limbs is literally cut off, so that by the time you’re at the top, you’re utterly dependent upon others.

    Foundation, where they’re working at something better after the Interregnum.

    A lot of Poul Anderson’s work – The High Crusade is, um, well…. Or his stories about Flandry of Terra, as the Empire falls apart.

    Heinlein, many, many times.

    Fred Pohl wrote a lot with politics in it.

    What’s Dune except politics?

    Oh, and let’s not forget Fred Pohl kept out of the first Worldcon (NYC, 1939) over politics.

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    • I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that this panel didn’t “vaguely begin to consider the politics that has shown itself through sf’s entire history” considering that was the panel’s entire premise and we began the discussion in agreement of that basic fact.

      In fact, one of the few suggestions we had time for was Voltaire’s works from the 1700s.

      I’ve been to this panel when all it consisted of was the panelists saying “duh” and then round robin of naming ones they think did it well.

      I felt this was a better discussion, even if the list of examples was smaller.

      But, thank you for sharing your additional suggestions. I forgot (for once) to add the note asking for suggestions here, although it is in the video version. So, they’re very appreciated.

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