Sorry, Sad Puppies: Science Fiction Has Always Been Political
Why we’re covering this: For the second year in a row, the nomination process for The Hugo Awards — a prestigious set science-fiction writing awards — has been gamed by a group of people opposed to “social justice warriors” (ie. people who support racial and gender diversity). Since the Hugo Awards help honor the best in contemporary sci-fi, we wanted to expose what’s happening and highlight how sci-fi has always been one of the most historically diverse and progressive genres.
The Hugo Awards have had a tumultuous year. This past year, the prestigious sci-fi/fantasy award’s usual activities were disrupted by a group calling itself the Sad Puppies.
In short, the Sad Puppies, a GamerGate-affiliated group of angry geeks, conspired to nominate authors from a pre-selected list of Puppy-approved names in order to stack the ballot only with writers they considered ideologically pure. That list included Theodore Beale (a.k.a. Vox Day), a libertarian blogger (and three-time Hugo Award nominee/loser) who believes that women’s suffrage was a mistake and that Caucasians are genetically superior to people of other races (I’m not exaggerating; he has actually espoused those beliefs).
The Sad Puppies weren’t successful in getting awards for their preferred writers, but their plan did keep other writers from being nominated and dominated the conversation among the awards ceremony attendees.
But why did the Puppies do this in the first place? If you ask them, they’ll tell you that their activities were intended to push back against what they see as an increasing tendency for sci-fi to become more and more political. The Hugo Awards were becoming overrun by multiculturalism and progressivism, they said. The Puppies claim they want pure, honest, good old-fashioned science fiction without any annoying political message.
There’s a very big problem with that: it’s impossible, because Science fiction is, has always been and will always be political. Trying to return to an era in which science fiction was apolitical is feeling “nostalgia for an age that never existed,” as Jello Biafra sang.
So let’s take a look at some of the political messages within the earliest sci-fi works.
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is generally considered to be the first work of pure science-fiction. Though stories have contained sci-fi elements for perhaps thousands of years, Shelley’s book was the first to rely solely on the natural sciences for its speculative elements.
Frankenstein’s monster is not just “a guy made of corpses with bolts in his neck” as Aimee Mann sang; the novel has a lot to say about scientific advancement and the human race’s arrogance. In “Science Fiction’s Mother Figure,” author Brian Aldiss writes:
[Frankenstein’s] monster in his isolation operates as a criticism of society, as later does Wells’s The Invisible Man and the central figure in Vonnegut’s Galapagos. When the monster cries ‘I am malicious because I am miserable’, this atheistic note echoes the central blasphemy of Frankenstein’s diseased creation.
Frankenstein is full of symbolic meaning and social commentary. The nature of this social commentary is hinted at by the novel’s original subtitle, which is usually dropped in film adaptations and more recent editions of the book. The complete, original title is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Prometheus is a titan who creates the human race from clay. He later defies the will of the gods by bringing human beings the gift of fire. For his crime, he is chained to rocks and must endure having vultures eat his liver every day.
In Frankenstein, a modern scientist creates human life from raw, inanimate material. By bringing forth a man via artificial means, Dr. Frankenstein violates the laws of nature. His experiment is a crime for which he is punished: he is ruined by his own hideous creation.
The book’s message is not exactly subtle. Victor Frankenstein flat-out urges the reader to “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.” In other words, scientific advancement that circumvents natural laws is bad.
The book may have a (gasp!) feminist message to it as well. Childrearing is, traditionally, the domain of women. When a man uses technology to give birth without the participation of women, the result is a hideous abomination.
H. G. Wells
If Mary Shelley was science fiction’s mother, its father was probably H. G. Wells. His many works have been imitated, copied and adapted over and over again. Were H. G. Wells alive today, the Sad Puppies would probably despise him. He was a socialist who believed in racial diversity — a very controversial view in the 19th century.
But, the Sad Puppies might argue, as long as he kept his politics out of his writing, it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem with sci-fi writers is that they insist in letting their politics shape their stories.
Bad news, guys: H. G. Wells’s works were all about politics.
The War of the Worlds was Wells’s reaction to Western imperialism. Unlike many of his countrymen, he believed that Great Britain did not have a God-given right to invade and conquer other nations in Africa and the Pacific. The War of the Worlds was his way of saying to England, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” He explicitly spells out his point in the novel:
And before we judge [the invading Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
The vocabulary Wells uses to describe other races is Not Okay by today’s standards, but the idea of comparing the British Empire to a race of ruthless, terrifying space-monsters was radically at the time.
The War of the Worlds is not Wells’s only politically-tinged novel, by far. The Island of Doctor Moreau is an anti-vivisectionist screed. The Time Machine is all about social class and the wealth gap: the Eloi are the descendants of the rich, rendered childlike by idleness, while the Morlocks are the working class, made monstrous by lives of toil. To miss the socialist message of the text requires a profoundly shallow reading.
The Golden Age
Maybe the Sad Puppies aren’t interested in 19th century sci-fi anyway. Maybe they’re more interested in Golden Age sci-fi: fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s, “hard” sci-fi, robots and ray guns and rocket ships. They want writers like Heinlein and Bradbury.
Only they don’t, if they’re honest with themselves. Heinlein’s works were full of social commentary. A huge part of his novel Stranger in a Strange Land focuses on the folly of organized religion. Starship Troopers had a lot to say about military service.
And Ray Bradbury? His masterwork The Martian Chronicles might as well have been titled White Guilt in Space. Like The War of the Worlds, Bradbury’s book uses Mars as a platform to discuss imperialism, only this time the Martians are the victims while the humans are the invaders. And if you can’t find a political message in Fahrenheit 451, then I honestly don’t know what to tell you.
The Golden Age of sci-fi was just as politically-charged as today. The only difference is that the writers’ opinions aligned more closely to yours—or, maybe you didn’t pick up on the political messages the first time you read them because you were just a kid.
The Sad Puppies must really hate Star Trek. The popular television series presented a peaceful, multi-cultural utopia in which capitalism is obsolete. In addition to having a racially diverse cast, the show shocked viewers by depicting the first interracial kiss on American television.
Star Trek’s racial agenda was so significant it even attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, who spoke to Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) to convince her not to quit the show. Uhura’s presence on Star Trek meant a lot to black viewers: it was one of very few positive media representations of black people at the time.
But that wasn’t the only sci-fi series on television in the 1960s. There was also The Twilight Zone, which treated its viewers to rants about the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the soullessness of modern society.
Sci-fi’s Present and Future
The Sad Puppies failed to win any awards. In a few categories that featured only Sad Puppy nominees, Hugo voters overwhelmingly chose None of the Above. If anything, the Puppies have galvanized the public (including George RR Martin) in favor of politically progressive, racially diverse sci-fi. In the Guardian, Damien Walter writes:
So. Thank you Sad Puppies. You have woken sci-fi fandom from its slumber and proved that diversity in sci-fi really is a problem. There will never be another WorldCon or Hugo awards where diversity is not addressed. Diversity will now be carried to every new world and parallel dimension we visit. And sci-fi writing will be all the stronger for it. The future of humankind is global and many-hued. By reflecting that reality, sci-fi makes itself a fit literature for and of the future.
The Puppies’ ultimate stated goal, that of purging science fiction of political messages, was always doomed to fail. Science fiction is an inherently political genre. In the New Yorker, Tim Krieder explains why:
Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.
Technological advancements bring about social change. Sci-fi writers who speculate about technological innovation must take this into account, or else they’ll end up with something about as thoughtful and meaningful as The Jetsons. It’s ludicrous to assert that our social values will remain unchanged into the future.
To try to strip science fiction of its politics is a form of censorship that attempts to turn an imaginative genre into something akin to watching a child smashing action figures together while making “pew pew pew” noises. Sorry, Sad Puppies: the sci-fi community has spoken, and it has said it wants stories for grown-ups.
(This article was originally published on August 28, 2015)