The politics of science fiction

April 29

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, has an interesting column on the political battle over this year’s Hugo Awards, the most prestigious prizes for science fiction writers:

There was a time when science fiction was a place to explore new ideas, free of the conventional wisdom of staid, “mundane” society, a place where speculation replaced group think, and where writers as different as libertarian-leaning Robert Heinlein, and left-leaning Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke would share readers, magazines, and conventions.

But then, there was a time when that sort of openness characterized much of American intellectual life. That time seems to be over, judging by the latest science fiction dust-up. Now, apparently, a writer’s politics are the most important thing, and authors with the wrong politics are no longer acceptable, at least to a loud crowd that has apparently colonized much of the world of science fiction fandom….

The Hugo Awards are presented at the World Science Fiction Society’s convention (“Worldcon”) and nominees and awardees are chosen by attendees and supporters. The Hugo is one of the oldest and most prestigious awards in science fiction, but in recent years critics have accused the award process — and much of science fiction fandom itself — of becoming politicized.

That’s certainly been the experience of Larry Correia, who was nominated for a Hugo this year. Correia, the author of numerous highly successful science fiction books like Monster Hunter Internationaland Hard Magic, is getting a lot of flak because he’s a right-leaning libertarian.

Glenn links to a post by Correia where the latter describes the hostility his nomination has engendered, some of which is indeed extremely nasty. Some of the arguments of his critics are difficult to take seriously, such as this one claiming that members of “marginalized” groups need not judge his work “fairly” because “[t]hat ship has sailed. It sailed when the first Native Americans died from plagues brought to the land by the pilgrims. It sailed when white men chained the first black slaves to their ships.” By that silly standard, there is also no obligation to judge works written by, e.g., Chinese, fairly, since the biggest mass murderer in world history was Chinese, and his atrocities were a lot more recent than those of the pilgrims and slave traders, and were inflicted against an incredibly wide range of people, both “marginalized” and otherwise.

On the other hand, Correia himself sometimes engages in rhetorical excesses against liberals, such as claiming that “[l]iberals never want to argue ABOUT a topic. They want to argue about why your opinion on that topic doesn’t count.” Neither side in this exchange has been a model of civility and reasoned discourse. The rhetoric on both sides is a good demonstration of the more general point that people with strong political views often unjustifiably dismiss opposing arguments, responding with abuse rather than reason.

On the merits of this particular controversy, I largely agree with prominent liberal science fiction writer (and former Hugo winner) John Scalzi: both left and right-wing SF writers can legitimately try to influence their fans to nominate them for the Hugo, and both should be judged on the merits rather than on their political ideologies.

Whatever the outcome of the Hugo fight, I am confident that science fiction will continue to prosper as a thought-provoking genre open to many different ideologies. Political conflict over science fiction works is nothing new. As far back as the late nineteenth century, H.G. Wells’ pioneering left-wing SF novels generated some angry responses from the right. In the 1950s, Robert Heinlein – one of the biggest names in the genre – was denounced as a “fascist” for his controversial novel Starship Troopers.

By its very nature, the science fiction and fantasy genres tend to have a large number of ideologically oriented works. Imagining a society very different from our own creates obvious opportunities for conveying political messages. And the average science fiction or fantasy reader is far more likely to have strong political views and be interested in ideology than the average reader of, say, romance or detective novels. For these reasons, science fiction has always attracted a disproportionate amount of authors and readers interested in non-mainstream political ideas. Libertarian ideas, for example, are far more common in science fiction than any other literary genre. The same is likely true of far left viewpoints.

Ideally, literary critics and people who vote on awards should be able to evaluate science fiction books based on merit alone, even if they dislike the ideological message. But, even if you make a sincere effort, it is often psychologically difficult to appreciate a novel that promotes a political agenda deeply at odds with the your own views. It is probably even tougher than objectively appraising a nonfiction work that espouses the same position. Appreciating usually requires a degree of empathetic identification with the characters, in a way that reading a nonfiction book does not. For that reason, among others, I suspect there will be ideological bias in the award voting even if the voters try hard to avoid it.

Fortunately, good science fiction works can get exposure even if they don’t win Hugo Awards or get nominated for them. This was true even before the internet age, and is even more true now. And lots of good work will continue to be produced, even if writers, critics, and award voters aren’t as civil and tolerant as they should be.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. "He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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Sasha Volokh | April 29