Politics in SFF

Snow covered trees

I wrote this post in June of 2016 and never posted it, for whatever reason. It’s now December 2016, and it seems even more relevant than six months ago. I honestly don’t recall if I went to the convention I was preparing for at the time, or if I actually sat on the panel in question. Doesn’t matter. The rant remains the same.

One of the big fun things for me, when I’m getting ready for a convention, is the research for the panels I’m going to be speaking on.


Today, I’m so angry and heartsick that it’s hard to focus. Fortunately (she says with an epic eye-roll), the topic I’m angry about is directly relevant to one of the panels I’m scheduled for.


Most of the SFF novels I can think of offhand treat politics as either an abstraction or look at it through the lens of the elite, the rich, those assumed to have influence and privilege already. Ordinary people aren’t really the focus. There’s Frank Herbert’s Dune series, in which the ordinary folks are very much involved–but even there, the savior is a rich, elite kid who’s forced into hiding amongst those poor, downtrodden souls. Janine Cross’s novels are a better example: the protagonist is a poor girl who’s literally fighting for her life throughout the series, being pushed this way and that by the various factions. It’s a disturbing read, in part because it does stay so deeply in the lives of those normally dismissed as background fodder.

(Disclaimer: I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’ve written these kinds of stories, myself. I’m also sure there are lots and lots of examples to prove me wrong. I haven’t read every book in the world. I haven’t even read Hunger Games yet. And I’ve forgotten many of the books I HAVE read. So please, feel free to suggest books in the comments that break the pattern I’m describing–I’d love to boost signal for those!)

In other words, once I stopped to take a look at the list, what I’ve mostly read have been novels by white folks about white folks. I never gave it a thought. Never looked to notice the pattern. I honestly didn’t even know the race of most of the authors I read growing up. It never mattered.

Here’s the way politics work at a personal level: stuff that didn’t matter, your whole life, suddenly does. Problems that other people have, stuff that isn’t your problem–becomes your problem, because you realize that by ignoring it you’ve been allowing it to continue. That the crisis currently brewing is, in part, YOUR FUCKING FAULT.

I don’t feel the least bit guilty for being white, cis, hetero-passing, middle class, college educated, or any of that other shit that falls under the privilege umbrella. Nobody, in any of the discussions I’ve read or been part of, has ever indicated that I should feel guilty for any of those things. I do feel guilty for not seeing what’s been happening all around me, all these years.

I can honestly say that I won’t be real interested, these days, in reading about rich folks fighting over moving vast amounts of money or resources from planet to planet. I want to see the technology of a futuristic world being used. I want to see how livestreamed injustices and protests are handled. I want to see the fallout of everyday brutality exposed for all to see.

I want to read about what’s happening all around me now, in other words, and I want to see writers come up with solutions. Star Trek inspired so much of our current technology; where are the shows and series that tackle the massively complex mess of racism, authoritarianism, corruption, misogyny, and overall horribleness that I’m seeing on my feed every day?

Note the word complex. I’m not vilifying any one side and putting another on a pedestal. Everything’s complicated. Good movements have bad people. Bad movements have good people. Good people can be assholes and assholes can be good people. Being a good writer means you have to be able to portray that reality. That’s how you get fully developed characters and a rich world backdrop.

How do you manage to do that? How do you take something as crazy as the current political snarls in America and distill it into a completely different setting? Well, for a start, read. Read the people you agree with, read the folks you disagree with. Seek out the articles where they’re tearing each other apart. Look at it all with an open mind, listening, thinking, not prejudging anything. Do research on historical background for the current situation. And for fuck’s sake, shut up. Don’t argue. Don’t engage. Just read, and listen, and think.

At some point you’ll pick a side you agree with. Keep listening. Say very little. Stay critical of even the folks you agree with, because if you slavishly follow everything they say, you’re going to miss it when they’re wrong. And they will be wrong, on occasion, because they’re human. You will also be wrong on occasion, and you need to learn how to learn from those mistakes.

Does this sound like activism 101? Does this sound like I’ve veered away from suggesting how to write about this stuff? Well, no. You can’t write about something you don’t understand. Being a good writer very often intersects with being a good person. This may be a thoroughly modern take on creativity, but that’s an argument we can have another day.

Keep writing. Keep learning. Keep re-examining your beliefs and assumptions. And keep really seeing the world around you. That’s what we writers do. That’s what the world so very desperately needs us to do, right here, right now.