‘Merit’ vs ‘Politics’ in Fiction

This was an old post of mine from years ago but it’s as relevant as ever. I had make some edits and updates, I hardly believe that I wrote such an incoherent mess back then.

When I first discovered Gamergate a few years ago, I stood as a neutral in the controversy and it wasn’t until later that I discovered the events occurring within the science fiction fandom as well as some responses to the group calling itself the Sad Puppies. The Puppies and Gamergate shared a lot in common, they both stand for freedom of speech, expression, and alternative perspectives but there were also subtle differences between the two. The picture you see painted by the mainstream media is hardly true of either of them. After all one was a hash tag aimed at wanting better ethics in journalism. While, the Sad Puppies on the other hand, saw itself as challenging the increasingly politicised nature of science fiction. It did this by tackling current biases that may exclude a writer based purely on their politics or views.

However, the slander, and libel aimed at these individuals and the repetitive uses of derogatory terms like misogynist, seem to indicate that some on the other side of the coin do the exact opposite of advocating for equality. How they act is very much exclusive, and more than willing to drag names through the political dirt in the name of agenda pushing. Those that shout loudest are always heard. And the must always signal their virtues on Twitter. Social media has shown me how effective a hashtag can be, both in promotion and destruction. In the aftermath of Gamergate and the Puppies we live in a world of increasingly delicate egg shells.

The issue of gender remains at the centre of everything, whether it’s Captain Marvel or the recently revealed Batwoman that somehow manages to excuse stealing the legacy of the Batman. I thought equality stood for, if anything the treatment of all groups respectfully. True equality would be difficult to achieve in regards to the world that we live in today, hence the fact that how well you do in life, is purely based on your merits and your determination to succeed. There are plenty of stories where people at the bottom of the barrel have risen to the top. Both in fiction and real life. It’s a matter of thinking outside the box and sometimes taking risks. But the Sad Puppies campaign was evidence that free expression, and the position of writer is now under intense scrutiny. If you don’t fit the narrative of the other side, your work is not even worth their time. As more recently more authors find themselves subjected to sensitivity readers or review bombing simply because they dared to have an imagination. The YA community has been notorious for this lately and I imagine it will only get worse as this vile attitude of policing fiction spreads to other genres.

Over the years, I’ve read plenty of articles that deliberately aim at excluding authors based on gender and ethnicity. Seriously it’s like you’re trying to be the monster you so desperately want to oppose. When we read books it should be for the story, the author is the vessel for the idea. They aren’t the main character, they provide you with a source of entertainment no matter how good, bad or cringe-worthy it may be. I would never think to exclude an author based on politics, gender or skin colour. I will respect, and criticise their work, and I expect the same to happen to me as my writing spreads across this wonderful internet.

My view is simple, look past the author when it comes to awards like the Hugo’s. Treat it as you would any story, judge it by merit, by character and by how well the world is weaved and revealed. Remember fiction is not reality. It is a ride, a fun experience. A chance to embrace a world, that is alien or even a reflection of our own. There will always be features in writing that stand out, such as the differing totalitarian visions of 1984 (Orwell) , Man In High Castle (Dick), and Metamorphosis (Kafka). The stories of science fiction dare to show us the reality of which we live in, and it’s not all sunshine and roses. The Void Trilogy (Hamilton), and Twisted Metal (Tony Ballantyne) deal with very interesting themes – alternate universe, the ability to shape one’s future, robots as a living organism and more. It’s what makes them exciting to read. Science Fiction is the realm of infinite possibility, and it should remain as such for future generations. I can’t understand why so many would rather brand an author with a stupid label, instead of giving them a chance. After all, Science Fiction in the end is for everyone, regardless of gender, politics, or ethnicity.


The Art of Suppression: Please think of the ‘Adults’!

It starting to look more and more apparent that we’re culturally progressing off a cliff as even works of fiction become progressively more sanitised beyond recognition. I say this as the Guardian recently reported that;

‘Several schools across Barcelona are considering purging their libraries of stereotypical and sexist children’s books, after one removed around 200 titles, including Little Red Riding Hood and the story of the legend of Saint George, from its library.’

Furthermore this decision comes from an organisation, Associació Espai i Lleure. The project aims to highlight hidden sexist content present within works of fiction. I know I heard audible gasps of absolute horror as people only just realised that these stories are filled with content that might shock and offend. But in my opinion (if I’m even allowed to have one anymore) fairy tales and their darker counter parts are an important part of our world especially when looking at the history of Europe.  Also regardless of the interpretation be it the original works, or spin offs, to retroactively take them off the shelves suggests to me that you underestimate the intelligence of children.

The further illustrate this point;

 The group reviewed the characters in each book, whether or not they speak and what roles they perform, finding that 30% of the books were highly sexist, had strong stereotypes and were, in its opinion, of no pedagogical value.

First of all, who gets to decide the value of these stories. And second of all, why does it always boil down to the inescapable truth that the people that complain the most about depictions in fiction have a real hard time separating that fiction from reality. A text’s value as a resource is down how the teacher approaches the subject. There’s a lesson in everything after all. A good teacher can figure how to approach any story and context even if the depictions are apparently negative.

Also it doesn’t take long for the problem to be directed against the real original sin that is masculinity.

Anna Tutzó, a parent who is on the commission, told El País that “society is changing and is more aware of the issue of gender, but this is not being reflected in stories”.  Masculinity is associated with competitiveness and courage, and “in violent situations, even though they are just small pranks, it is the boy who acts against the girl”, which “sends a message about who can be violent and against whom”.

The determined emphasis on killing competitiveness really concerns me. The idea that even courage could be considered negative is also surprising but not unexpected. But it all boils down to the message about who can be violent and against whom. You could argue this same logic applies to video games. The notion that children are willing to act on stories or perceive them as anything but fiction is as irrational as it gets. It worries me more that the parent can’t take responsibility in these cases. When it’s their imperative to raise a child well. What’s even more concerning is that this may move beyond just fairytales. We all know how the spectrum of colours is being more politicised with every waking minute, I can’t wait for the alphabet to fall to a similar fate.

The real tragedy is that the story of Saint George has to fall on this sword and all because it falls under the damsel in the distress trope;

The legend of Saint George has also been taken off the shelves of Tàber’s infant-school library. Books about this legend are commonly read at Catalonia’s Sant Jordi book-giving festival, the Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s Day) on April 23, but most perpetuate sexist stereotypes, where a man is the courageous hero, slaughtering dragons, and a woman is the scared princess. New children’s books, however, such as Santa Jordina (Saint Georgia) and La revolta de Santa Jordina(The revolt of Saint Georgina), are putting a twist on this legend and placing a girl in the role of the hero.

As a point of aside, I often wonder if what I’m reading is cleverly worded satire but sadly it’s not. These people think they act for the good of us all. All they’re doing really is satisfying an urge to control everyone else. And there’s nothing good about that. They could quite easily have the original and inspired work exist side by side but often it seems that if a man has a lead role they have to be punished for it. It’s becoming harder to see why some see this as okay. Are boys not allowed to see Saint George as a hero? It’s not think of the children but the adults that just can’t leave fiction well enough alone.

“If boys get the starring roles in books – both as the good and bad protagonists – and girls are the sidekicks, it confirms that’s how the world is and how it should be. It’s very hard to feel equal then.”

I don’t think any reader feels this way about a story be it a child, teenager or adults. Do I really need to refute such an illogical statement but the real nail to the coffin of anything remotely academic is the final part of the El Pais article. I won’t respond to it but let you decide your feelings;

Ester Murillo, a mother of the parents association at Montseny school, adds that this awareness of sexist content “needs to be shared by both the families and the teachers, who must internalize it and transmit it in the classroom.”

When Books Haven’t Aged Well

There seems to a growing issue in this current day and age in which some feel ashamed that they would consider recommending work that was published in the 20th Century or prior and in the case of the article here written by Matt Mikalatos. This relates to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H White.

At first glance, his issue with it, now ties back to White’s references to usage of the phrase Red Indians. Which does stand out, however, as a descriptive element it does appear to work in regards to how the American Indians were often stereotyped by those back in the early to mid-1900s. It’s not inoffensive but as a piece of fiction, it’s like most things harmless.

Whilst the content of the book from my own initial observations do provide commentary on the state of the world, they are entirely related to that period of time. I do intend to fully read the novel but for the sake of this initial point, I searched the bits are referenced.

Matt’s next issue ties back to characters saying ‘nigger‘, and at the end of the day no matter how I dissect this, the term is always going to carry weight to it. But as these are stories written prior to the civil rights movement. The use either to reflect a character’s personality or how they see others isn’t entirely to be unexpected.

Most of us who love speculative fiction run into this problem at some point. There are classics of the genre that are uncomfortable for various reasons. Some of them are straight-out racist, or unrepentantly misogynistic, or homophobic, or all of the above.

It’s easy to forget how much has changed just in the last century and even before that. I’m only twenty-four and technology is already far ahead of what I used back in the early 2000s. A person growing up in the eighties will see the world in an entirely different light to me. Writers of the past often do pull on their own experiences and even prejudices. Can we judge them? Sure but what does that achieve except painting you as some kind of moral crusader.

We can have a debate in the comments about whether Tolkien’s world is racist, but in general, if someone in Middle-earth has black skin (the Uruk-hai, at least some other orcs, the Southrons) or are described as “swarthy” (the Easterlings, the Dunlendings), then you better believe they’re going to be bad guys, with very few exceptions. Sure, there are plenty of white, non-swarthy bad guys, too, but it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s the people of colour you need to keep an eye on, in these books. (Yes, I know Samwise sees a dead enemy soldier in The Two Towers and reflects on whether he might have been a good person who was lied to. This shows, I think, Tolkien’s empathy for people and desire to humanize and complicate the Haradrim and other dark-complexioned combatants, but this is one brief paragraph in a massive trilogy.

There’s a lot to unpack here and there’s obviously parts of the LoTR lore that I’m not all that well versed in. It’s a series I do plan on reading as my only real insight is the films and reading the lore online. However, its no secret that the orcs are evil and how they look has very little to do with that fact. And other depiction of evil in that series can be tied back to the rings corrupting influence over men, elves, dwarves etc. Regardless of skin. It is a force impossible to resist. Assuming anything about Tolkien just ignores the context and setup of the universe he has built.

Of course, Matt dances around Lovecraft’s work because he’s already been bludgeoned by this view that we should shun past authors. I don’t care personally for Lovecraft’s views. Because I’m more invested in the story. It takes anyone a few seconds to delve into Lovecrafts life and you can see where that horror manifests. Although why he named his cat ‘nigger-man’ I will never know.

As for whether I’d recommend a story written in the past that may reveal an authors prejudice. Yes, I would. Because the person I’m recommending to is an individual capable of making their own decisions and I imagine can separate fiction from reality.

With folks like White, Tolkien, and Lewis, we see people who are steeped in colonialism and racist assumptions. Thus the defence that gets trotted out whenever these problems are discussed: “They were a product of their time.” This is one of the challenges for all of us as we delve further into the past reading the classics—of course, there are assumptions and cultural practices and beliefs that are at odds with our own. Where is the tipping point of not being able to look past these differences, the point where we can no longer enjoy reading these works?

That’s entirely on you Matt. Nothing else needs to be said. If you can’t treat this writing as mere fiction then that says a lot about you. We as readers get it. Colonialism is viewed very negatively but in the end its the very reason you probably exist. Complaining about it achieves nothing. As for its depiction in fiction. Well, that’s entirely on the author and the characters they bring to life.

As a whole whether your like Matt and can’t stomach the writers of the past. That’s on you. Sure as he says you can write ‘corrective’ pieces but then even that can be viewed as problematic. It also risks indicating that you are more interested in correcting the past then telling a story.

Remember folks a fictional world may draw from our own but its conventions, lore, history, can quite often be at odds with our beliefs. It may make us uncomfortable. And that’s okay because these are only stories. No two authors will be the same. They may have the same idea. But the execution will always be profoundly different.