On “Leaving the Politics Out” of Speculative Fiction

Today’s blog post was inspired by a small but notable trend in reviews (and the occasional creepy-ass DM) about SPINES and The Wandering Land. The sentiment of these messages can best be summed up as, “Sure, it’s well-written and has a good story, but why do you have to bring in the politics? I just want to be entertained, I don’t want to hear comments about racism and capitalism!” Since receiving this kind of feedback, I’ve been on the lookout for this sentiment aimed at other people’s work and. . . wait for it. . . It’s everywhere. Scroll through the reviews of the most acclaimed audio dramas, and you’ll inevitably find one by a disgruntled listener who complains that the number of queer characters in The Bright Sessions feels “forced.” If women in novels do anything other than faint or fuck, the acronym SJW will probably pop up more than once. Characters of color? Those are fine, usually, but if they actually experience or comment on racism, it “takes the reader out of the story”. The underlying assumption for these remarks is that the dialogue, concepts, and identities on display are unrealistic posturing rather than natural conversations that happen in a wide variety of environments and communities.

According to these readers, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror shouldn’t have characters who express opinions about racism, sexism, homophobia, or organized religion. There shouldn’t be a critique of capitalism underlying the final plot developments of SPINES. Characters shouldn’t use or refer to they/them pronouns. There should be magic and scares and adventure, but no politics. And by “no politics,” they of course mean characters with no political views or identities who differ significantly from that of the listener.

Just entertain me. Leave the politics out of it.

This is impossible. I don’t mean it’s a bad writing choice (although it’s also that). I mean it’s quite literally impossible to write an apolitical story, because the decision to create the illusion of an apolitical world is in itself a decision to bolster the status quo. That isn’t neutral. It’s political.

Let’s look at some examples. When writing the ensemble of five characters for The Wandering Land, I had three options. Option 1: make them all straight, white, middle class, and entirely content with the current political and economic situation in the US. Despite ticking the boxes for “neutral” and “apolitical” in many people’s minds, this would have been a deeply political choice because it would have offered an unrealistically homogenous depiction of the artistic and academic community of Tucson, thus reinforcing and supporting heteronormativity and a lack of diversity. That’s a political position.

Option 2: Make the characters superficially diverse, but don’t have them experience any racism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism, and don’t depict them as having a viewpoint shaped by their identity in any way. Again, this isn’t politically neutral. This is once again making a political choice by deliberately erasing systemic inequality and differences in perspective, but this time it’s cloaked in a thin veneer of palatable faux-diversity. Readers arguing for this position want an interracial relationship, but don’t want to be reminded of the ways in which interactions with racist family members lead to a strained dynamic. They want an Arab-American lesbian, but they don’t want her to have a perspective on queerness and sexuality different from that of the hegemonic white gay community.

Option 3: Make the characters diverse, and do the best job I can to depict them as having a political existence and views shaped by their experiences. This is a political choice because it is a deliberate effort to include diverse voices and to acknowledge the realities of structural inequalities.

I went with option three, but the point here isn’t really about why you should or should not write diverse characters. That debate, and the even more important debate on how to write diverse characters well if you come from a position of privilege, has been articulated far better elsewhere (such as in this Writing the Other roundtable). My point is to show that these options are all equally political. In choosing the illusion of an apolitical world and collection of characters, you are in fact just making a different political choice than I did. It doesn’t make it any less political, it just makes it more comfortable for a specific subset of readers.*

Of course, politics can be poorly integrated into a story. There are far too many examples of characters serving as mouthpieces for an author’s preferred utopia. If a character has been allowed to lecture another character in Ayn Randian fashion for countless pages, the writing sucks and the story suffers. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is punishing content creators for every passing remark or piece of dialogue that reminds the reader/listener that those with politics and experiences different from their own exist in the world.

Guess what? Working to frame worldviews different from your own as extraneous politics while propping up your own perspective as the assumed normative neutral a political act, bitch.

For those already gearing up to argue that it’s not the politics, it’s that the references are “shoehorned in” in some way, I’d like to suggest actually checking the runtime and/or number of political references in the story. Example: I recently saw a comment about the great audio drama The Strange Case of Starship Iris, focusing on the “forced” nature of the diversity and the fantastical notion of people discussing preferred pronouns upon first meeting. As anyone who has ever spent time in queer spaces can attest, introductions with pronouns are entirely commonplace for a lot of people. It’s not a weird conversation to have in an LGBT bookstore or in any number of other queer-friendly spaces. Moreover, the conversation in question occurred early in the series, took place over a minute at most, and was immediately followed by various acts of space-intrigue. In other words, this irate listener would have branded the presumption of binary pronouns as apolitical, but a minute’s discussion of gender identity qualifies as forced.

Or let’s take one complaint about The Wandering Land, which is that it is critical of organized religion (uh, yeah, dude, have you met me?). This presumably stems from scenes taking place in an Irish Magdalene institution, in which a young woman is emotionally and physically abused. This is a setting and situation ripped entirely from real-world events. I didn’t make up any part of it, and since it didn’t involve rape or the murder of infants it could be argued that I softpedaled it compared to the reality. Subsequent commentary by the characters is essentially restricted to one character making an angry remark about the Catholic Church being responsible for so many of the world’s problems.

Reader, if such blasphemy shocks you, I have terrible news about what your lapsed relatives have been saying about religion when you aren’t around.

When a diverse group of people with progressive politics hang out, there will be snarky remarks about religion, capitalism, and racism. There will be numerous people who do not identify as straight. You might not like it, but it’s realistic characterization for a story taking place in our world.

But what about fictional worlds? This brings me to another odd variant of the “no politics” complaint: “Writing political stories is fine, but this is sci-fi! I just want escapism, keep the politics in the serious literature!” In this category I would place several negative reviews I have seen for N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, featuring some variant on “she’s trying to say something about slavery and racism, but I want sci-fi adventure! Not a history lesson.”

First of all, this idea of apolitical sci-fi displays a baffling lack of awareness of the genre’s history, which has made pointed political and social critiques from the beginning. Beyond that, however, it posits that it is possible to create an alternate fictional world that has no parallels or overlaps with our own. Even worse, it reinforces the view of sci-fi and fantasy as lesser genres incapable of challenging viewpoints or making statements in the same way as “serious” literature. It’s a strange kind of sci-fi fan who actively works to reinforce the genre’s position on the fringes of the literary world.

The reflexive response from conservatives at this point tends to be that only progressive politics get put on display, that there isn’t the same kind of pandering to conservative politics. But here’s the thing: every time a story features heteronormative relationships or an all-white cast of characters or assumes the readers’ familiarity with Christianity, that is political. And that happens all. The. Damn. Time. You just don’t notice it because your politics are constructed as the normative default. The cold hard truth is that if you are the type of person who takes issue with progressive politics, the vast majority of our written and visual media is still made for you. By definition, conservatism is the politics of the status quo, which means (again, by definition) that stories that don’t push political and social boundaries are politically conservative.

To sum up: there is no such thing as an apolitical story. It doesn’t matter if it takes place on the moon. It doesn’t matter if it takes place in fairyland. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a single human character. There is no such thing as an apolitical story. There is only a choice between the politics that align with what the reader already believes, and politics that challenge them. Content creators do not owe you a story that “keeps the politics out of it”.

And, if you feel the urge to complain about a story’s politics, at least be honest about why. Be honest about the fact that you are centering yourself the default reader/listener, and you are uncomfortable with stories that do not seem to be entirely for or about you. That discomfort is ok; all of us who write and read from a position of privilege experience that. It’s when you refuse to confront that discomfort for what it is and deal with it that it becomes a problem.

*NOTE: To be absolutely clear, I’m not claiming to be an expert on writing diversity or to be the arbiter of how best to approach it. I feel like I can say I did the work to research and write diverse characters well, and I make it a priority to read work from people of color, disabled writers, and LGBTQIA people, but I leave it to readers to judge how successful I am in that attempt and I welcome any perspectives on things I could have done better. These examples are entirely for the purpose of discussing the myth of “apolitical” vs. “political” choices.

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