In the past few months, I have been fairly faithfully following the controversies surrounding the Hugo Awards, which was created by the expansion of what is called the Sad Puppies slate, along with the creation of a mirroring, Rabid Puppies slate. Rather than getting into the details of that fairly baroque debate, I thought I would focus on one small rhetorical feature of the conversation. Throughout the debate, the puppies have focused on condemning something called ‘message fiction’, which they define as the imposition of the political on the form of science fiction. In response, the critics of the puppies tend to make two arguments, either noting the ‘messages’ or political aspects of the puppies texts, or arguing that all texts have a message, or political dimensions to them. Not surprisingly, my views are far closer to the critics of the puppies, but they make a common mistake, collapsing the broader implications of the political into the narrower framework of message, which doesn’t necessarily operate within political terms. I plan on showing the distinction between message and politics, and then use the literary criticism of Samuel Delany to examine how the political dimension of science fiction is better understood as a formal dimension of the genre.
The concept of message fiction is probably most easily understandable by referring to its earlier antecedents, notably morality tales, fables, and folk tales. These stories are explicitly constructed to pass on a lesson, which can often be expressed in sentence or two. These lessons might express an abstract concept such as the golden rule, or may express the far more concrete danger of wandering alone, away from home, in the dead of winter. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this form of literary construction, and, indeed, it is a far older form of literary creation, and deeply contributes to all forms of literature. However, the authors were far less concerned with literary form and quality, which was in service of the lesson. Not surprisingly, the structure of this traditional approach is most easily found in pedagogical literature produced for either children or adolescents. We might reference Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, or the Canadian television series, Degrassi Junior High, as examples of this sort of ‘message fiction,’ along with a great deal of religious fiction. It’s significant to note that we are far away from the narrative structures of science fiction, when we discuss is sort of literature, and that while this form of pedagogical fiction has political implications, it rarely is intended to act as a political intervention. However, another subsection of ‘message fiction’, which might be called polemical fiction, interventions into the events of the day, can be constructed with explicitly political purposes in mind, and utilize science fictional narrative structures.
However, the politics of science fiction and other dominant literary forms takes a distinctively different approach than the messages discussed above. That politics can be found in the explicit and implicit background assumptions of the writer that are embedded in the narrative form of the story. They are produced in the effort to create a sense of ‘reality’ that constitutes the background of the story, and the norms and expectations of the characters interact within social institutions. Indeed, even within the polemical fiction discussed above, the story is judged far more on its ability to engage an audience on these formal questions. Perhaps, this argument is better explained through a concrete example. A recent debate has opened up around conservative John C. Wright’s nostalgic invocation of the literary trope of the ‘princess in distress,’ which he marks as part of the origins of the genre, before the accursed introduction of political messages. A critic argued that this trope itself constituted a message, a political dimension to the text. At a larger and more substantial level, I’m largely in agreement with this critic. The ability to imagine women as only in need of rescue has a disturbing and deeply hierarchical implication to it. But, it isn’t a message. Instead, it’s a narrative convention, created to engage with a set of audience expectations to produce a sense of enjoyment. Its political implications are embedded in a set of common assumptions about the role of women in a society and about what it means to be feminine.
All fiction, whether escapist or engaged, fantastic or realistic, focused on a past or a future, engages in this unmistakably political process through their construction of a world that is both recognized and enjoyed by an audience. In his effort to define the genre of science fiction in his essay, “About 5,750 Words”, author and critic, Samuel R. Delany understands this process through the concept of ‘subjunctivity,’ which he draws from an engagement with the linguistic theorist, Ferdinand Saussure. Delany notes, “Subjunctivity is the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’:) sound-image and sound-image.” (Delany 10) To break that fairly opaque statement open, Delany is noting that narrative is constructed by a string of words being joined together to produce a narrative. The subjunctivity of a piece is defined by the relationship of that narrative to its relationship to the world of the author. Reportage is defined the “blanket indicative tension… this happened,” while naturalistic fiction is defined by “could have happened,” fantasy is defined by “could not have happened”, and science fiction is defined by “have not happened.” (Delany 10-11) Within this series of generic descriptions, Delany shifts from the narrative conventions of ‘reportage’, which must correspond with the facts of the empirical world, to a variety of fictional narrative structures, which produce worlds that critically engage with that world through a variety of rules sets, which define what can and not occur within that world.
In every case, the author has to make a series of critical interventions about what the world is, and how will their fictional world engage with those expectations. Science fiction attempts to largely imagine what might be called ‘potential worlds’, worlds that could exist, but do not, whether in the form of a future to come, an alternative present, or a past that never occurred. In each case, we break away from the ideological horizons of the present to imagine a different, and even alien society that could exist. At the same time, the author has to produce that alternative with a meaningful engagement with the available natural and social sciences, history, and critical theory. The ‘have not happened’ has to be plausible within the knowledge of its time, and it has to show that plausibility through its narrative structures. It therefore has to engage with the question of politics, amongst other questions. Delany stresses these demands on the genre in his lengthy critical investigation of Ursula Leguin’s Utopian novel, The Dispossessed,
Mundane fiction can get by with a clear and accurate portrayal of behavior that occurs merely because it occurs. Science fiction can not. In an alien culture—both Anarres and Urras are alien cultures—we are obliged to speculate on the reason behind any given behavior; and this speculation, whether implicit or explicit, must leave its signs in the text. The scenes and paragraphs are signs of limitations on the social egalitarianism of Anarres; they are not sighs for the causes of those limitations.
Nothing prevents an SF writer from writing a story about an intelligent species in which adolescent male bonding behavior is imprinted on the genes. (The species might biologically and genetically bear a resemblance to birds, who exhibit much complex behavior that may well be genetically controlled.) Similarly, nothing prevents the SF writer from writing about an intelligent species in which such behavior is completely the product of intrasocial forces. Indeed, the writer if she chooses can write about a species in which the reason switches back and forth according to the changes in the moon.
What we must remember, however, is that once mundane fiction has accomplished its portrait of behavior at some historical moment, from the here and now to the distant past, if we ask of it: “But what do you think the surrounding cause are?” mundane fiction can answer, without fear that it is shirking its job, “Frankly, I don’t know. It’s not my concern.” But because science fiction is not constrained to answer such a question “correctly,” within its generic precincts, the “I don’t know. It’s not my concern” of mundane fiction not only becomes self-righteous and pompous, it signifies a violation of the form itself. Science fiction may ultimately end with an “I don’t know” about any given point, but only after a good deal of speculation, either implicit or explicit, has left its signs in the text. (Delany 128-129)
Delany opens his engagement with the genre by contrasting its narrative horizons with that of ‘mundane’ or what he may have earlier called ‘naturalistic fiction.’ The latter can simply represent the world ‘as it is.’ It need not explain why a social phenomenon exists; it merely has to exist to be represented. However, science fiction has to live up to a much higher standard, due to its speculative nature. Delany goes on to show how open ended this process can be, allowing for the imagination of radically different worlds, with structures of gender and sexuality that have radically different biological and social explanation. However, the author produces the rules for the universe of the novel, and therefore must be able to show either the natural or social rules for such a world, in either an ‘implicit or explicit’ manner. Anarres fails, Delany argues, not because it represent inequality, but because it fails to offer an explanation for that inequality. It naturalizes the social expectations of the present, and therefore fails in its obligations as a science fiction novel. In effect, the science fiction novel demands a sort of political engagement with why its social structures work the way they do, even if that explanation imagines an alternative biological structure. To draw on the work of Darko Suvin, science fiction "does not ask about The Man or The World, but which man?: in what kind of world?: and why such a man in such a kind of world?" (Suvin, "Estrangement and Cognition", 2.1)
It should be noted that the political engagement that Samuel Delany demands has no partisan markers. It doesn’t demand that the author be a radical or a conservative, commit to the views of a particular party, or even understand the social structures of the present in the same way. It simply demands that the world that is represented has some sort of explanation of how its culture came to operate in the way it does in the book, either in an implicit or explicit fashion. It’s why radical critics are more than happy to recognize that novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Keith Roberts’s Pavane, and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series are great science fiction novels. They produce richly imagined worlds, with complex social and political structures that are formal political engagement with the present through those author’s conservative political framework. They ask substantial political questions that are worth following in the narrative form, even if you profoundly disagree with the answers. To use the language of Darko Suvin, science fiction is a literature of cognitive estrangement, which means it’s a literature of critique, in its richest and most open ended sense.