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Big Ideas and Political Correctness in Sci-Fi/Fantasy Worlds

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m part of a pretty awesome writing group; super-smart people who are all writing complex, interesting books (and who are unafraid to point out when my complex and-maybe-interesting book gets ahead of itself, but that’s another story). Since most of us are writing science fiction or fantasy, and all of us are writing books that take place outside the contemporary real-world Western culture we live in, we talk about cultural stuff a LOT in our critique sessions. And a surprising amount of that has to do with issues of political correctness (in-world or real-world) in our books. Recent snippets of conversation:

  • “Do you think it’s OK for me to have this character mentally remark on the fact that she’s the only white person in sight?”
  • “How do I deal with the fact that my character has several bodies through the course of the story, and that their female bodies tend to be more passive than their male bodies, because of plot stuff outside their control? Is that a problem?”
  • “You’re definitely evoking the Holocaust with this labor-camp imagery here… you could push that further, if you wanted, but I don’t know how political you want to make this chapter… since it’s vaguely in the US and all…”

Although these issues could potentially come up in any genre, I think they have a special resonance for writers (and readers) of SF/F. Since we’re dealing with created worlds, all the annoying rules of the real world (history; which political ideologies have the most power; the fact that some races, genders, religions, ages, sexual orientations, physical ability sets, etc. are treated better than others) can be set aside – and because of that, I think many people have heightened expectations for SF/F that might not be there in other genres.

I ran smack into these high expectations in a writing class I took last summer, where a classmate’s comments on the first chapter of my pretty-overtly-fantastical novel focused on the seemingly traditional male/female gender roles embodied by my protagonist’s parents, and suggested that wouldn’t it be better if I mixed things up a little, “because genre fiction offers that opportunity.” I was pretty indignant when I got the feedback, not least because of what felt a little bit like an implication that I hadn’t thought about gender in fleshing out the world of my book (trust me, anyone who’s spent six and a half years in the UC Berkeley sociology grad program has a hard time NOT thinking about gender). But as I’ve had more of these kinds of conversations, both with soc-head friends and with fellow genre writers, I’ve started to realize that the issue’s more complicated than that.

There’s certainly a lot of Big Ideas embedded in science fiction and fantasy. You’ve got Ursula LeGuin’s and Octavia E. Butler’s books, which tend to take one particular social science issue (or a couple) and run with them in building a world: What if humans only manifested biological sex during fixed “fertile” periods, and all individuals manifested sometimes as males and sometimes as females (LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness)? What might be the social effects of vampires deciding to interbreed with humans to get a darker skin tone and be less crippled by the sun (Butler’s Fledgling)? There’s other authors whose political and philosophical ideologies take a broader form, like Orson Scott Card, who wrote a fantasy series (Homecoming) based on the events laid out in the Book of Mormon, or Terry Goodkind, whose books include passages like this one:

 “How could anyone fight on [the villain’s] side? [He] wants to dominate everyone, to be the master of all. How could they fight for him?”

The wizard leaned back against the rock and looked out over the hills, as if seeing more than was there. His tone was sorrowful. “Because, Richard, many people must be ruled to thrive. In their selfishness and greed, they see free people as their oppressors. They wish to have a leader who will cut the taller plants so the sun will reach them. They think no plant should be allowed to grow taller than the shortest, and in that way give light to all. They would rather be provided a guiding light, regardless of the fuel, than light a candle themselves.” (Goodkind, Wizard’s First Rule)

The person saying this is a good character; one of the heroes of the book, in fact. So, clearly, any effort toward striving for equality of outcome is the devil’s handiwork.

So, it seems like those are the two questions of the hour. #1: Should all science fiction and fantasy strive to make people question their understandings of the social world? Should it all be suitable for reading in an introductory sociology class?  #2: If we want to provide a diversity of perspectives and ideas in a fictional world (which, I think, is kind of a necessary part of any interesting setting), should we expect our readers to agree with the good guys and disagree with the baddies?

The first question – the one my classmate posed to me, of whether fantasy and science fiction universes should challenge or upset everything that’s taken for granted in the real world – is, I think, the more straightforward one to grapple with. In other words, I think I have an answer for her. No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it has to be accessible to your target reader – and, to paraphrase TV Tropes, Most Readers Are Human. A completely alien setting, besides being really tricky to develop, would be really tough to explain and draw readers into. I think that questioning some aspects of the Real World when designing a fantastical setting is a great idea – but I also think that leaving a few things for readers to latch onto might be a necessary evil. Corollarily (is that a word?): books that have a Big Idea tend to be about that Big Idea. Left Hand of Darkness has other elements in it, for sure – there’s an adventure through the snow and a fair dose of politics, for starters – but it’s about the world where humans have no set biological sex. Fledgling is about the trials and tribulations of being the world’s first dark-skinned vampire child. If I wanted my book to be about the overturning of modern Western gender norms, I’d want to get that under readers’ eyes in the first chapter – but that’s not the heart of my story.

 Which brings me to my second question. Can the “good guys” in a book (or movie, or TV show) say or do some things that might be offensive to modern sensibilities? Without being proven wrong, seeing the error of their ways and humbly apologizing to the wronged party? This kind of ties in with my post from a few weeks ago about complex characters, and brings me back to my own book again. In the chapter I’m working on right now, I’m bringing in a major supporting character who’s going to be pretty unapologetically racist and classist toward certain oppressed groups through this first book… and my protagonist (who doesn’t share those opinions) is going to come to like this person anyway. And I’m kind of hoping the readers will like him, too.

I don’t like being preached to in books; I’m much more a fan of complex characters and cultural stuff, where I can see the reasons for different characters having different views, and I’m really not a fan of “good guys’ attitude” versus “bad guys’ attitude.” I’d like to think that my readers are smart enough to understand that characters’ voicing non-politically-correct opinions doesn’t necessarily mean that the author’s endorsing those opinions, and that a protagonist can object to some aspects of their society without making a quest to change them the center of the book (for instance, thinking that a rigid class system is stupid, but not trying to overthrow the monarchy and bring down the elites). But on this one, I’m not so sure.

What do you all think, out there in reader- and writer-land? Can fictional characters talk about things they don’t like in their society without undertaking a Great Quest to change them? Can fictional characters express opinions that would get them dirty looks from their readers and still be likeable?


Leave a comment


  1. Collette Fordham

     /  January 23, 2013

    Interesting to contemplate as we are just now watching Season 1 of “Breaking Bad”, the series about the chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth to make money for his family because he has a terminal illness, leading him to become a different person living outside of the moral societal structure most of us recognize. This law abiding viewer is fascinated by this character (like “Dexter”) and I admire the skill of the writer(s) in creating a character who, as you mentioned, does not seek to change the rules but feels justified by his own personal situation to break the law. Somehow, in the midst of the violence of the drug subculture, the main character garners sympathy and even some level of admiration. The beauty of fiction, in any form, is that it allows us to indulge ourselves in support of this type of resistance to society’s rules without any real life repercussions. BTW, love reading your posts. Why am I not part of a writing group? 🙂


    • I think House is another example of this — a protagonist who does many things that are seen as fundamentally unacceptable in our society, but who we’re still supposed to sympathize with. Of course, the show also went out of its way to demonstrate how he’s STILL sympathetic and not really as jerky/insensitive/sexist/etc. as his snarky comments might lead people to think. Haven’t seen either Dexter or Breaking Bad, but it seems like they’re variations on the same theme; the character who does bad things and yet manages to endear themselves to the audience all the same.

      I think the situation in SF/F is a little bit different — maybe kind of reminiscent of some of the issues authors deal with when they’re writing historical fiction, too. If we read a book set in the Jim Crow South, I think many of us have expectations as readers that the protagonists will somehow be fighting against segregation, or at least come to see that segregation is wrong. If that didn’t happen (if the book was a run-of-the-mill romance, or a crime story, or just a plain piece of literary fiction, I wonder if a book would face criticism for it? Can you bring up “political” topics in books without having the characters take political stances on them?


  1. Escapism vs. Activism, OR: “It’s Just TV!” | Sociologist Novelist

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