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Science Fiction and Political Polarization

May 8, 2014 7:13 pm | 2 Comments

I hear about a science fiction novel from a friend. He says he thinks I’d like it; it’s along the same lines as another author I like, and involves a lot of very imaginative world building. So I go to the local sci-fi bookstore and pop in. They have a copy, so I grab it and head to the register. But wait… first I need to do one more thing.

I pull out my smart phone and look up the author’s name, and start typing in hot button political issues along with it. “‘Melvin Futurecraft’ + ‘gun control’”, “‘Melvin Futurecraft’ + ‘gay marriage’”, “‘Melvin Futurecraft’ + ‘Obamacare”. Oh, great. The author holds opinions significantly different than mine on these issues. I trudge back to the shelf and replace the book. Maybe next time I won’t strike out.

Does the scenario above strike you as ludicrous? It does to me. Recently I started reading a sci-fi author who is pretty good, though upon googling him I found that he has a real animus against Tolkien and is an avowed Marxist. Not exactly my kind of politics. Yet somehow I managed to stay my hand from throwing his books into the furnace.

But not everyone thinks this way. There’s a loud minority of sci-fi fandom online that seeks to punish authors with political opinions they don’t like. You could argue that some authors are asking for trouble by engaging in political activism; for example, Orson Scott Card, who has been the target of many boycotting campaigns, has devoted time to defending natural marriage. But countless other sci-fi authors also engage in political activism, largely for politically left-wing causes, and I haven’t seen many conservative sci-fi readers attempting to damage those authors’ careers. And it isn’t even activism that has caused some authors to be attacked: simply not including characters that fulfill the quotas of what is deemed the right kind of diversity today can also end in an author either being attacked or looked upon with suspicion by some of the more radically “progressive” science-fiction readers.

This all boils down to yet another example of scorched-earth culture-war tactics—or perhaps something even beyond culture war. To quote Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.:

In many ways today, our politics are not really politics in the classical sense. They are closer to wars, not just cultural wars either. There is often hatred, not gentlemanly respect, for other views which strike at the very heart of what a human being is. Both sides see the victory of the other side to be a disaster. We find little cooperation. This level of antagonism is because the issues that divide us are non-negotiable at a very basic level. Our politics is really theology, struggles over the very meaning of what it is to be human.

In the view of a reader who places an extremely high value on ideological identity, association with those who hold opposing views would be like uncritically befriending and defending a rapist or murderer. At its worst, this view seems to treat the entire world as a zero-sum game: read an author who is “bigoted” according to your politics, and it somehow detracts from “your side”. To be sure, this sort of political polarization isn’t merely to be found on the left—it’s on the right as well—but in the science-fiction world, it seems to mostly crop up on the left. And it’s poisonous; both in the way it makes us look at another person and in the way it makes us evaluate art.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children. You can also find his writing on his personal site at herreid.org.


Tags: ideology politics science fiction

2 Comments

  1. May 8, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    Well said, but what I really find annoying is when reading an otherwise good sci-fi book and suddenly stumbling accross an out of context, unneccesary and plot isolated political “gimme” to support a usually leftist fad that does nothing to further the story and only interupts the flow of the narrative.

  2. John Herreid

    May 8, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    It’s sort of inevitable that the times are reflected in what people write about, but, yes, it can definitely end up being didactic pretty easily. There’s lots of sci-fi from the 1970s that has very dated and pointed references to the politics of the time. Hopefully we’re not entering another era where that becomes the “in” thing to do.

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