Q: How should SF writers respond to the politics of their time, if at all?
The various authors responded in various ways, as one would expect. The industry is such that if you ask five writers one question you’ll get seven answers; it’s just the way we roll. However, the question led me to consider how I have dealt with politics in my work in the past, and how I intend to deal with it in the future.
Many of you might know that I have a history of political activism. I was involved with Free Radio Santa Cruz in the late nineties and did labor organizing, helped feed the homeless, and helped organize and run an infoshop, which is a combination library and event/organizing center for activists. Politics have been an ongoing issue for me…growing up poor, several years of homelessness, and generally being a weirdo have led to an acute awareness of how American culture, with its mythology of freedom and individuality, often acts to persecute and punish people for using their freedoms and acting as individuals.
However, in my fiction and poetry, I have always placed emphasis on the experiences of individuals and small groups. When politics and power dynamics are explored, it happens in extremely situated ways that do little to point out any specific, larger political or historical issues. The reasons for this tendency has varied throughout my writing life. When I was younger it was because I hated the way my fellow activists would use poetry and fiction (especially poetry) as an excuse to rant about politics and spew catchphrases. I feel that the art of poetry and prose shouldn’t be whored out to politics and movements; it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda.
As I got older, I also began to feel that the locus of political discussions, which always end up being about politicians, national policies, and ideological movements, is missing the point. People don’t live their lives on a national or international level, or over decades of historical and sociopolitical trends. They live one a day to day basis in small communities of affinity and care. I came to believe that the “big picture” is a symptom, but our true illness lives in our day-to-day lives…how we treat our families, spouses, parents, best friends, and neighbors. When I want to address peace I don’t want to talk about war, because war is too big, it’s too many people doing too many things. The “big picture” obscures the moments, the little bits of narcissism, greed, cruelty, and pain that, when added up, equal the wars and political issues. I don’t want to write about nations, I want to write about people, because people are what really exist; nations are a fantasy.
So when some poetry-slam-happy-hippie spends fifteen minutes “performing” their most recent poem about how awful capitalism is, it makes me want to retch…not because I am a big fan of capitalism (I’m not…taken to its logical conclusion it glorifies and rewards the worst behaviors humanity is capable of; the biggest winner is the biggest sociopath), but because talking about capitalism as a whole, whether in favor or against, is ignoring the real issues of empathy vs. self-involvement, greed vs. generosity, and the personal connections between people that can either damn or redeem us, here and now, with no Heaven or Hell necessary.
So, to my mind, the proper object of art is never going to be the “big picture”, but the little pictures that together make up the big picture. None of us can force our politicians to be honest, kind, or empathetic to whatever “other” or “enemy” has been picked out this week. But we can choose to be honest or lie, to be kind or cruel, and to try to see the world through the eyes of the “other” that the “big picture” is always striving to tell us we are to despise. The true object of art is people, not nations, because nations don’t exist, not really. They are an abstraction at best, a lie at worst. The worst moments of history have come about when people have forgotten they were people and given into the phantasm of the citizen. To whatever degree literature can be healing or constructive to our species, I believe that it is in pointing out the people and their real, lived connections; the abstraction of nations, races, and ideologies hides those connections or redefines them in terms of what benefits or harms the nation, race, or ideology. There will be an end to war when people refuse to be defined as citizens and refuse to see the “other” as citizens, as well. Our nations will become healthy when we, as individuals connected to other individuals, become healthy.
But at the same time, I am an embodied being, the product of my culture and the social and historical context within which I have lived. There is no way to avoid some political cast to my work, especially in light of how stringent modern ideologies have become. Simply by emphasizing empathy and relationships rather than power and wealth, I am declaring a political stance. By challenging the very notion of national identity, I am “unpatriotic” and by denying the existence of the “other”, the “enemy”, I am a traitor. So much of the identity of my country is based on who we hate, rather than who we love, that by refusing to hate I am excluded from what some would say is an important part of being an American. By refusing to turn life and death into a game, I no longer have a “team”.
This recently came out in my exchanges regarding the scandalous (or rather, they should be scandalous, but they aren’t) revelation of a picture of our soldiers urinating on the corpses of the “enemy”. To my mind, the dehumanizing of other people is unacceptable, regardless of circumstance, and desecration of the dead is one of the most dehumanizing and offensive things I can imagine. But apparently, to many people, this is a debatable issue. When our “team” does it, it’s different. Just like when we torture, or detain people without trial, or use secret evidence, or assassinate people. All of these things are horrible inhumanities when other people do it to us, but when we do it, somehow they become okay. By choosing empathy over nationalism, I have excluded myself from the “team”. And because of that choice, I also lost one of my oldest friends. She’s one of those that just can’t bring herself to judge the morality of soldiers…no matter what they do, she “supports the troops”. But armies, like nations, are abstractions; all that exists are people and what they do to each other, and these people who urinated on the corpses of their fallen fellow humans, are monsters and deserve to be called out as such.
In my stories it could be argued that everyone is a monster, or at least has the potential to be. Again and again, I return to the simple theme of empathy and the lack of it, again and again I return to the simple act of choosing to care…even when it makes no sense, even when the object of that caring doesn’t deserve it (whatever that means). In my world, the world inside my head and heart that I try to express in my work, everyone has the choice, every moment, to be a monster or a human, a demon or an angel. So in that sense, I feel that all of my work is political, while at the same time avoiding the language of political thought and philosophy. I am more interested in how one person treats another person than how a given nation treats another nation…but all those little choices, all those people, add up to The People.
Well, enough pontification. What are your thoughts, Faithful Reader, on the role of politics in science fiction, and indeed, speculative fiction as a whole? I’m eager to hear from you.
- Bringing Poetry Back Into Politics (themoderatevoice.com)
- Queering SFF: Angels in America by Tony Kushner (tor.com)
- Politics and Fiction: The Story of Occupy Wall Street (nealjansons.com)