POLITICS REAL AND IMAGINARY

I feel as though, especially now, I could make a case that all politics is imaginary.

In the same way that lines on a map don’t tend to show up in real life, lines between political parties, functionaries, movements, and so on, are constructions not of nature but of the mind. As authors of fantasy and science fiction, politics can come in many forms in our work, from another evil empire bent on world domination to an honorable and just king deserving of protection. In the same way that all your characters are, whether you’re specifically attempting to do so or are unconscious of the similarities, based on real people you’ve encountered in some way in real life, in the fiction of others, in history books, or in what can be grouped together as “current events” should certain people not rise to the ever-in-flux definition of “newsworthy,” so are your institutions of power.

I’ve invoked both George Orwell and Frank Herbert as authors of two very different but rather overt political science fiction novels. J.R.R. Tolkien’s colonial-era politics might be a little more difficult to parse out, but they’re there. An award named for decades for the editor John W. Campbell has since been renamed as it’s become clear, like H.P. Lovecraft (whose bust is no longer given out as the World Fantasy Award), that he was not quite as good a man as he was an editor or author. This sort of artist/art dichotomy is not quite as new as it may seem. In a 1990 interview with the Paris Review, Mario Vargas Llosa said:

[Pablo] Neruda adored life. He was wild about everything—painting, art in general, books, rare editions, food, drink. Eating and drinking were almost a mystical experience for him. A wonderfully likable man, full of vitality—if you forget his poems in praise of Stalin, of course.

I tend to shy away from politics myself, though I do often tweet about organizations I support and by now people should know that no, I’m neither an Objectivist nor a Libertarian, that I support significant gun control, education, and healthcare reform in the United States that might lead some to call me a socialist, and I most certainly did not vote for the current occupant of the White House.

The question remains, though: So what? What does it matter what I think?

And my answer is… nothing. Nothing in particular, really, any more than any one of us can unilaterally set the political course for a nation of over three hundred million people, much less a world of some seven billion. I’m one citizen, with one vote.

But I can write fiction.

I have called out both Objectivism and its sworn enemy religion in Forgotten Realms novels—and almost no one seemed to notice, in the same way many Dune readers don’t really pick up on the whole “dangers of a single resource economy leading to catastrophic climate change” thread that was not just there but well ahead of its time.

And that’s fine by me. I’m not a politician. I’m not running for anything, and I never will. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party.

Are you a political author? Are you writing political novels? If so, what are you in for at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century?

In “Is the political novel dead?” Dorian Lynskey wrote:

Manifestly political novels have always aroused some degree of suspicion. Orwell famously categorised Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as a “good bad book”—crude yet effective—and Milan Kundera in turn dismissed Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) as “political thought disguised as a novel.” In a devastating review, Whittaker Chambers said that Ayn Rand’s colossal philosophical tract Atlas Shrugged (1957) “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term… Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message.”

This climate might seem worse in the era of unregulated social media that brings forth Lovecraftian horrors like “cancel culture,” and that whole absurd Sad Puppies nonsense. If you are writing a political science fiction novel like 1984, be ready for anything out there but—I say from the comfort of my own life that will not be screwed with because of your book—write it anyway.

Chinua Achebe, in conversation with James Baldwin, reminds us all that:

Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, embarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.

So I guess we’re going to write political fiction anyway, but what of authors who do have something as clear to communicate as Orwell’s anti-totalitarian masterpiece 1984, or Ayn Rand’s stridently anti-communist novella Anthem?

Going back to Dorian Lynskey’s question “Is the political novel dead?”…

The average politician wouldn’t be wrong, however, to assume that political fiction lacks traction with voters and therefore a pressing claim on their attention. No recent book comes close to the reach of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Looking Backward or John Steinbeck’s dustbowl tragedy The Grapes of Wrath (1939): all runaway bestsellers that demanded some kind of response from politicians. This reflects the novel’s broader loss of cultural primacy. A century ago, it was still the dominant form of storytelling so any writer with a political message to disseminate was inclined to give it a shot. Campaigning writers believed that a veneer of fiction, however thin, was deemed necessary to sugarcoat the message. After the second world war, however, the evolution of the “non-fiction novel” removed the need for journalists to masquerade as novelists.

I’m not sure I agree. I think some messages spread better in fictional form—as parables, fables, morality plays—than as a straight up piece of editorial proselytizing. Based on the recent best sellers lists that inspired Dorian Lanskey’s article, I’m clearly unusual in my aversion to non-fiction books written specifically by politicians (including those politicians disguised as journalists) in support of or in opposition to a particular political movement, party, or whatever.

I’m smart enough to parse out your agenda in a novel, political or otherwise, and can still appreciate an entertaining, well-written story by an author I don’t agree with on a point of policy, ethics, or morality. And I don’t believe I’m somehow special, or smarter than anyone else—at least among people who are smart enough to read and write books!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

Where Story Meets World

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.

Now scheduling projects for October 2019.

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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