– Paulie Spiceflow –
What is the difference between thoughtful social commentary and blatant political propaganda? Science fiction authors often try to do one but end up doing the other. Some works become literary classics while others are dismissed as preachy, shameless propaganda and fall into irrelevance. Why does some social science fiction novels thrive while others fail? Can a novel succeed if the author has an agenda? If so, how?
You can argue all writers, novelists to screenplay writers, have an agenda. The question here is whether they have a specific political objective or, stated differently, the intent to influence political discourse. It is more than just touching on ideology; it is a desire to alter the course of the debate and eventually affect public policy. The most common types in science fiction are dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories, which are meant as warnings. Less common are future utopias, or alternate histories where authors give their own take on what should happen.
Many works with a political agenda fail miserably, falling into obscurity. Recent examples include Elysium and Tomorrowland. There have been numerous non-scifi films that have taken on political stances only to see their message fail to resonate. These failures include Lions for Lambs in 2007, which was meant as a criticism of the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror. Other examples include Syriana, W., and Good Night and Good Luck. All these movies failed critically and at the box office.
When it comes to novels, there are too many to name. If you do try digging into the dystopian or other subgenres, you’ll find titles that failed to excite readers or perhaps only connected with readers that completely agreed with its message. However, many readers are not looking for affirmation of their ideology in fiction novels; they are looking for an escape from reality. Politically-driven novels are the antithesis of escape. They remind us of the real world, and more often than not, it is a part of the real world we would most like to forget.
What about 1984, Brave New World, and Moon is a Harsh Mistress? All three novels are considered classics while possessing serious political and social commentary. What makes them different from all the failures?
First, these novels did not attack the existing political order, or take sides in a political controversy. 1984 was published in 1948, at the eve of the Cold War. While there were Communist sympathizers and socialists in Great Britain, most Britons considered Communism and the Soviet Union the enemy. Brave New World did not directly criticize or validate the political positions of any particular party.
In 20th century America, the most famous social science fiction author was Robert Heinlein. His Moon is a Harsh Mistress depicted a libertarian society, which clashed with the prevailing political ideals of the time. The concept upset conservatives and liberals. Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land also managed to present thought-provoking ideas in a way that didn’t directly endorse or attack the political forces at the time. Both Republicans and Democrats had things to love and hate in each book.
What they all have in common is that they did not take a partisan posture in conveying their ideas. To join in the partisan battles of the day is the easiest way to be dismissed as propaganda. Find a way to stay above fray.
The novels mentioned above were also very descriptive of their new worlds, desperately trying to keep readers inside their realm. Science fiction typically draws people seeking to escape the real world and are willing to suspend their belief to travel to those places. The Lunar colony in Moon is a Harsh Mistress did not resemble anything in the 20th century US, nor did Stranger in a Strangeland. While 1984 was a terrifying warning about totalitarianism, most Western readers never experienced anything remotely similar to what Winston Smith experienced.
Commit to building a world that is truly foreign and fantastic. The closer speculative worlds are to reality, the less compelling they will be in terms of social commentary.
Some of the greats avoid the political sphere entirely, taking on ideas that are so speculative they transcend the issues of the day. In novels like Neuromancer, Handmaid’s Tale, or Ender’s Game, you’ll find social commentary that is largely apolitical or transcends party. One of the more successful franchises to utilize this strategy was Star Trek. Many of the issues addressed in the series often transcended current controversies and presented potential controversies of the future.
The trends mentioned above are evident in recent science fiction. There has been an up swell of novels concerning themselves with gender issues and climate change, to the point that many self-identify their works as LGBT or climate fiction. Unfortunately, climate change and gay rights are controversial issues that are very much part of political discourse today. By labeling a work as politically relevant, you’ve all but declared it propaganda.
Some works are not only apologetically partisan, they tend to use strawmen as their antagonists. Political opposition is treated as evil, and sinister. From doomsday prepper novels that target liberals, to climate fiction that blames pro-business conservatives, there is little or no attempt to be fair. For action and young adult fiction, this isn’t really a problem but if your target audience are older, more thoughtful readers, this won’t get you anywhere.
Stay above the partisan fray and transcend the debate, perhaps offering a third way. That is the best way to sum up the lessons of the countless authors that have attempted to influence politics through their prose. Of course, as a sci-fi fan, I prefer works that do not have a political agenda or at least do not seem to have one. Ideally a novel can have an agenda without readers realizing it. Of course, if that were easy, everyone would do it.