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.

There’s No Target in Middle Earth: Economics in Fantasy

Back to Part 3 of my VirtualBalticon panel notes.

In your original fantasy setting, everything the characters own or interact with has to come from somewhere, from food and drink to durable goods. Let’s talk about how to build a believable material culture for your world.

These notes come from the titular panel from Virtual Balticon 54 with panelists: E.C. Ambrose (as moderator), Gail Martin, Roberta Rogow, James Stratton, and Beth Tanner.

First up, let’s talk about how people get this wrong. Some of the biggest pet peeves that keep cropping up in fantasy novels.

Pet peeves about fantasy logic

  1. Horses are not cars

    Horses are not like cheap used cars. They are expensive to both buy and to maintain. And, in a world with horses? You’re traveling the paths that exist, not a highway.
  2. Space and time have set values.

    Especially in alternate history, how long does it take to travel? How long does it take news to travel? It depends on who you are and where you live.

    Think of Napoleonic couriers, homing pigeons, ravens, and beacons.

    If you lived near their home base, you’d be far better informed, faster than many people betwixt and between the location where the news happened and where the news traveled.
  3. Stew is not portable.

    Think about your food preservation and its transport.
  4. Clothes are finite.

    Throughout history, many people only had only one change of clothing, and very little coin money. Most things were done by bartering.
  5. Wild country is rare in settled countries.

    Those ‘wild’ prairies or moors? Likely had something grazing on them, and a herder watching over them.

    Carpenters and loggers in the woods. People gathering medicinal herbs in all sorts of places. Open land outside of cities and towns were mostly farmed. There isn’t much up for grabs that someone doesn’t try to make a living off of… unless there’s a reason.
  6. Some fabrics are worth more than others.

    In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s robe is a patchwork robe, with a wide variety of expensive silks.

    (My Note: If he or his family were tailors and these were the offcuts? Maybe. But there needs to be a reason)

How To Set Up An Economy That Works

Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • What things are available in stores? What things must be given, inherited, or earned?
  • How good you looked often depended on family sewing skills — or the ability to pay someone with those. Plus, what cloth was from your region.
  • Coinage – do they have people, gods, or something else on them? Are they a consistent size, weight, or materials? Or mixed?
  • Show the different classes – there usually isn’t going to be a single economic class, even if they pretend it.
    • Someone’s usually in charge.
    • If someone is shocked at all the silverware, that tells us something about them.
    • If some people does something weird it can be: “oh, the coastal people usually do X”.
    • Are they nibbling on the ornamental fruit display?

The very best of science-fiction and fantasy showcase different cultures and hint at where they came from. They display the different economic systems and how that affects what people within them prioritize.

Examples of Good Fantasy Economics

  • Lois McMaster Bujold’s science-fiction VorKosigan series.
  • Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series.
  • Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe series.
  • Juliette Wade’s Mazes of Power (she also has a world-building blog)
  • Guy Gavriel Kay’s work

Inconsistencies with your world’s economy, while sounding like the most boring lecture, can make or break the story for many of your readers. Be sure to think through the implications of where material items came from and how they got to be there, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a functioning fantasy world.


Any tips or tricks I missed?

Any world-building favorites you’d like to give a shout out to?

Portrayals of Mental Health In Genre Fiction

Portrayals of people with mental illnesses have come a long way. From variety to accuracy to ending stereotypes.

In the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Alasdair Stuart, Penny Jones, Dr. Glyn Morgan, and Devin Madson, discussed who gets it right… and who gets it wrong.

Why Are There More Portrayals of Mental Illness In Genre Fiction Today?

  1. People are more comfortable discussing it
  2. Nearly everyone will suffer at some point in their lives, even if it’s just temporary stress
  3. People are being rewarded for opening the discussion
  4. The audience is welcoming

What Informed Older Portrayals of Mental Illness?

  1. Mental illness as a reaction to trauma was accepted — it had an external reason.
    • Rod Serling of the original Twilight Zone’s work was often based on his WW2 experience, characters named after friends he’d lost
  2. Murderers and manic pixies were given mental illness as reasons people could do horrific things

Who Got It Wrong?

Some illnesses are hard to make palatable, like schizophrenia. Some are misused or misrepresented like psychopaths. And some, start off strong, but then stumble and disappoint us.

  1. Sheldon from The Big Bang — seems like an autistic stereotype, but the writers claim it’s not, so claim they’re not negatively portraying autism.
  2. Drax from the Guardians of the Galaxy — set him up in the first movie as a great autistic/Aspergers portrayal, but then turned him into mere comic relief.
  3. Fat Thor — Fans debate if he was a punchline or still worthy
  4. ‘Magical lab technician’ – CSI/House/etc – using their illness as a plot device

Who Got It Right?

  1. City in the Middle of the Nights – Charlie Jane Anders – PTSD
  2. The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal – Anxiety
  3. City of Lies – Sam Hawke – OCD
  4. Station Blue – (Audio Drama) – Bipolar
  5. The Far Meridian – (Audio Drama)
  6. Bright Sessions – (Audio Drama) – Empathy
  7. Gone – (Audio Drama) – Running low on meds
  8. Sleeping Beauties – Stephen King
  9. Hereditary – Psychosis
  10. American Horror Story
  11. Vast Horizon – PTSD
  12. Brooklyn 99
  13. The Crow Garden
  14. Final Approach
  15. Shutter Island
  16. Planetfall – Emma Neuman
  17. Emma Donahue

What Do People Want To See More Of?

  1. More.
  2. Aspergers
  3. Better portrayals of early treatment — before things hit crisis level
  4. Trauma — is resolved too easily (unless it’s a character quirk)
  5. Relapse NOT seen as a failure, just as a thing that happens and has to be taken care of.
  6. Postpartum depression

Mental Illnesses As A Sign Of Their Time

Some illnesses are triggered by environmental factors. Some are diagnosed based on limited information. The panel discussed how mental illnesses used to be designated and what might the future hold for humanity?

  1. Different diagnoses — we used to think epilepsy was a mental illness. Now we can treat it. As we learn more about the root causes, hopefully, we can help more people live better lives.
  2. Isolation

What about you?

Where do you see genre fiction getting mental illness right? Where do you see them messing up big time?

What do you want to see more of?

And what do you think the future will hold?


In the Background: Class in YA Fiction

In the real world, the social class we come from can have far-reaching consequences into our lives: from the jobs we hold, to the things that worry us, to our long-lasting health. Getting class, and its consequences right, can be tricky to do.

In the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Marieke Nÿkamp, Avery Delany, Caroline Hooton, and Victoria Lee discussed the ways their class upbringing compared to their current social class, and the implications inherent in that.

How The Classes Differ

Most of us are not rich. But the differences between working class and middle class can be easily missed if you’re not paying attention.

When the working class is even seen by those outside it, it’s typically through a political lens: either the lazy bums, looking for a handout. Or the poor, unfortunate who needs charity.

Working class

  • Social mobility is rare
  • You don’t always know where your next meal is coming from
  • Your parents are more likely to need help with bills than be able to help you out in case of emergency (groceries, sudden bills, job loss, ER visits)
  • One bad week is the difference between a rented home and life on the streets
  • Accents and expected behaviors are different — and failure to adhere can cause people to discount you
  • Attendance at events that can help your career can easily be beyond your financial means
  • Health conditions, because of inadequate health care, not enough time to rest, and/or physically demanding jobs
  • Transport is either public, rides from friends, or a car that isn’t in great shape
  • Don’t always have hot water. Or electricity.
  • Accent and speech patterns are looked down on, and seen as something to hide when not home
  • Diverse

Middle Class

  • Social mobility — down or up (at least as far as upper-middle class) is normal.
  • When things are bad, you eat cheap non-nutritious meals
  • If something goes wrong, your parents can usually help. (Car repairs, rent, bail, or at least a bag of groceries)
  • Far more homogeneous

How Is Class Represented in YA?

Often, we’ll see either the aristocracy, the middle-class, or the temporarily poor. Almost always the main characters are able-bodied and cis-gendered (their gender matches what they were declared at birth).

The ending or resolution almost always involves elevating the main character out of the working class. Implying strongly that the character growth and work deserves an “improvement”. That the working class is not something to be proud of, to strive for.

And? After one or two snafus, the ‘uplifted’ character seems to fit in seamlessly. Not finishing their meals because they’re ‘stuffed’.

If there is a diverse character, they’re usually not intersectional. They’re not disabled AND working class AND a person of color. They have one token diverse trait.

Who Is Writing? And For Whom?

Books in general and YA in specific is written by those with the time and energy to do so. Books are sold by those who have the money and energy to promote their works. Leading to very few working class authors.

Publishers look at past sales and, if they don’t see any, they assume there isn’t a market and don’t buy working class author’s works. After the success of The Hate U Give, there’s been an upswing in more working class books. But, they’re seeing them as a niche, as an issues driven book. And publishers typically only acquire one book per niche per publishing cycle.

What agents and editors see as a neutral environment, in an industry run on unpaid internships and publishing companies that are a net loss, labor of love, isn’t. People without a social net don’t even have a chance.

Many of the guest speakers from working class backgrounds, only made it to WorldCon thanks to grants and school funding. Others were denied Visas, so couldn’t even be here for the discussion. Money talks, and without it, you’re left on the outside, not even able to look in.

Worldwide, there are millions of people without access to education, much less to libraries. Think of all the stories we’re missing, because those people never had the chance to share?

How Can You Help Working Class or Diverse Writers?

How can you help mitigate the class segregation inherent in the publishing industry?

  • Share their work
  • Promote their work
  • Leave room at the table for them
  • Buy their work
  • Borrow from the library
  • Review them on Amazon
  • Contribute to their Patreon
  • Donate money to con scholarships
  • Read more diverse works
  • Host a writing workshop for them
  • More paid internships — especially remote ones
    • New York and London are expensive and challenging, even for people with money and connections.

What YA stories have you read that explored class? What did they get right? And what did they get wrong?

Do you have any other suggestions on how to help encourage diverse writers?

YA Futures

YA is big and has been since the late 90s. But the future today doesn’t look like it did even 10 or 20 years ago. What does YA science fiction readers want today?

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, I had the opportunity to listen to the top professionals in the field discuss what they see coming. On the panel were Charlie Jane Anders, James Smythe, Eric Picholle, Fonda Lee, and Kristina Perez.

3 Things That Don’t Fit In the YA Science Fiction of Today

  1. A sense of inevitable progress
    The golden-age of science-fiction brought us flying cars and space cities. From the Jetsons to Star Trek, optimism for a better world was writ large in our stories.

    These days, we’re making our dreams a little more down to earth.
  2. Angst
    The 90s and 00s taught us that angst and cynicism were ‘grown up’ and ‘mature’. Spoiler: they not. And teenage angst when written by adults, far too often turns into teenage melodrama.
  3. Space
    With the advent of the space race, sf writers assumed our future was out amongst the stars. These days, we’re looking at our own planet and resources.

    Space, right now, is a hard-sell in YA.

10 Things In YA Science-Fiction Today

  1. Social issues
    You don’t have to evaluate them, but they should be in there.

    Related? Teens don’t need as much hand-holding or explanations when dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, versus adult readers.
  2. Near future
    Where we might be in 20 years, not 100 or a 1,000.
  3. Taking the brakes off
    With YA, you can turn emotions up to 11. As a writer, you can delve into your own neuroses and baggage and trauma on the page.
  4. Hope
    The reign of dystopia is changing. The future looks bleak and people are looking for hope.
  5. AI
    Even if we’re not there yet, we’re getting really close to being able to fake true artificial intelligence. I would say some robots are pretty close to dog-level intelligence at this point.

    And then? There’s always “the singularity”, when the first artificial intelligence becomes self-aware.
  6. Genetic Manipulation/Trans-humanism
    The science is there. It’s time to explore the moral and ethical quandaries inherent.
  7. Fun Adventures
    Doing stuff with friends to fix things, save someone or something, or just wild hijinks!
  8. Hackers
    Hackers are more and more becoming the heroes of the story.
  9. Online Friendships
    Friends aren’t always local these days. Plenty of friendships have started or moved online as distance becomes less of a constraint.
  10. Mixed media
    With text conversations and real world descriptions, mixed media storytelling is getting bigger.

Clearly, as we don’t actually have any time-travel machines, these are all guesses and YA trends change faster than any other genre.

Let me know what you think is coming for YA. Did the panelists get it right?


As always, thanks for reading and I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.