Ramblings on Heavy Handed Preaching

It seems to me that these days, more and more science-fiction writers are using storytelling to openly advance a particular political, social or economic viewpoint, be it from whatever part of the spectrum. Granted, humans bathe in socio-political conflicts, no more so than in the last few decades, and any future society will no doubt also experience similar struggles between competing views; thus they are an integral part of the story. What strikes me however, is that in the last few years, a lot of authors have become very brazen in advancing their own particular views, to the point of becoming tedious. Science-fiction is supposed to entertain, to fire up the imagination and to create wonder.

When did science-fiction turn into a polemical discourse? When did it become a means to advance one side or the other’s prejudices or positions in our present day cultural wars? Did I miss a memo from the SFWA (for the record, I’m not a member. I’m with Groucho Marx on the subject). Granted, many of the classical masters of SF, among them Heinlein, Asimov and others, also injected their socio-political views into their stories, but it seems to me they were more subtle and weaved them more or less seamlessly into their tales. Nowadays, the crassness of the political discourse seems to taint what is supposed to be escapism by either hectoring the reader or presenting heavy handed plots that supplant artistic merit with political correctness of one stripe or another. As a consumer of science fiction, I avoid those novels, whatever the author’s political leanings. I want to be entertained. If I feel the urge for a sermon, there are plenty of websites and blogs that will gladly tell me why everything I believe in is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I don’t have to pay for that privilege.

However, presenting a future society with its own socio-political context is a vital part of the story. Using that context to advance a present day narrative on the other hand, is inane. And therein is the difficulty for a writer. We cannot escape the present or who we are, and this will inevitably bleed through in our writings. The trick therefore, is to resist the temptation for heavy-handed moralism or puritanical correctness. That’s not necessarily easy. Who doesn’t want to use the bully pulpit we’re afforded as authors to rail at crass corporatism or an out-of-control welfare society? Problem is, our readers have their own world views, and they might just get very annoyed that we’re denigrating their beliefs or promoting beliefs they find abhorrent. Fair enough, you might say. You can’t please everyone, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But back to the basic premise that science-fiction is supposed to entertain and create wonder. Getting someone’s blood pressure up through gratuitous lecturing is kind of antithetical to that ideal. If one needs to use the story to pass along a message or a comment on society, better to do it gently and let the reader make the discovery.

So what’s a writer to do? His world building has to include the socio-political dimension, and this has to be built on all the experiments we humans have conducted in terms of organising ourselves over the centuries. Subtly weaving that dimension into a story isn’t as easy as it may sound, and I’m as guilty of heavy-handedness (in my early drafts) as the next author. Every story needs a villain and a hero, and sometimes that villain or hero will reflect our own prejudices. The trick is to make those characters believable without laying it on too thick. Both an environmentalist and a corporate CEO can be the bad guy, but they’re the villains because of character flaws, not necessarily because of what they are, though they may use their affiliations to advance personal agendas. The same is true of the good guys. It gets intolerably tedious when a right-wing author portrays all environmentalists as evil and all corporate CEOs as saviours of humanity. It gets equally tedious when left-wing authors do the reverse.

It gets even more tedious when stock characters are used to advance a political or social narrative. For example, inserting a _____ character (fill in the blank with whatever you want) simply to conform to politically correct diversity quotas or to demonise people with whom one disagrees, goes beyond inane. A well-developed protagonist or antagonist who is also ______ makes whatever that is irrelevant. Human character isn’t black and white – it’s grey. Believable characters are neither all good nor all evil, and no social or political discourse holds the absolute truth.   A character is likeable or dislikeable by what he does, not what he is.

I guess what I’m saying is if it’s germane to the story, it needs to be weaved in subtly, and not with a twenty pound sledgehammer. If it’s not germane to the story, then who cares. I’ve not created a love life for Dunmoore, because it’s not germane – she’s a ship captain and has no time for romantic entanglements. I’ve not explored her political views, because they’re not germane – she’s a ship captain and has no time for politicians of whatever stripe. Equally, while I need to add a bit of texture to the wider canvas against which the story unfolds, I need to take care that I don’t create caricatures that reflect my own prejudices. If political corruption or corporate malfeasance is germane to the story, I’ll include it. I haven’t always been successful, but they say that acknowledging a problem is the first step to correcting it.

Since my characters tend to have a lot of influence on where the story goes, I’ve discovered this week that contrary to my preconceptions, some of the folks in the second Dunmoore book whom I’d made the mistake of seeing in a black and white, one dimensional light are turning out to be more subtle. If it takes me in a direction that clashes with my own prejudices, then so be it: the story must flow, whether I necessarily agree with my characters or not.

The first draft of Dunmoore Book 2 is now half written, which means the set-up for the main event is over, and I now have to contemplate how things will unfold in Acts III and IV. Because I don’t want my antagonists and their causes to be one-dimensional cut outs, I’m struggling to inject that subtlety while at the same time restraining my own biases. My characters are their own people, and I have to let them do their thing in a universe where human societies come in varying shades of grey.

I’ll leave the heavy handed moralising or the stories written to advance a particular narrative to others. I just want to create entertaining adventures. If that makes my books ‘light-weight’ in comparison, then so be it: I write what I like to read and keep my ‘heavy-weight’ reading to the non-fiction aisles.

Back to the important stuff: figuring out what Dunmoore is going to do next. She always manages to surprise me and that‘s what makes her an excellent frigate captain.

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