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Monday, March 19, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “Politics, Fandom, and SFF,” by Eric Dontigney •

As an extremely minor player in the field of science fiction and fantasy, I frequently approach SFF culture from the perspective of a fan. I geek out over new seasons of Doctor Who. I wish more people were watching Stan Against Evil—seriously, it’s awesome. I watched Firefly when it was still on TV. So, in a peripheral way, I’ve always been aware of politics as a component of SFF itself and of SFF culture.

I had a nascent understanding that the Star Trek franchise was preaching at me about things, although as a kid I was often perplexed about exactly what. I was aware that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was trying to undermine tropes about women in SFF and to promote some kind of feminism: I think it failed miserably. I know a lot of people disagree with that, but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Go back and rewatch some episodes. Whedon gave her physical superpowers and made her emotionally incompetent. He could just as easily have titled it Brad the Vampire Slayer. At least then the emotional incompetence would make more sense... but I digress.

Politics has often been prominent in SFF literature. The early Dune books were a bare-knuckle warning about theocracy and totalitarianism. Point to any Heinlein book and you’ll find politics. Robert Jordan reveled in the politics of his Wheel of Time series. It makes sense. If you’re going to write stories about the near future, distant future, or about the society on a made-up magical world, avoiding politics is nigh impossible. At its best, fictional politics becomes a commentary on actual politics without violating the narrative thread.

A while back, though, something weird started happening. Instead of using SFF stories as a vehicle to critique culture and politics, people have been turning the whole of SFF into politics.

Specifically, I’ve been pondering this seeming divide between “progressives” and “conservatives” that started coming to a head a few years ago with the Sad Puppies movement. I won’t delve too deeply into that movement because I don’t know all the nuances and it’s secondary to what I want to talk about, but here are the basics. The original Sad Puppies formed a voting bloc for the Hugo Awards that aimed to nominate one of Larry Correia’s pulp novels. The underlying reason, as I understand it, was to make an objection to what they saw as ultra-liberal message novels/novellas/short stories receiving the lion’s shares of nominations even when the storytelling was supposedly subpar.

This seemed to set off a long-brewing flame war between progressives and conservatives/libertarians in the field and in the fandom in general. To give some broader context, this was all going down around the same time as Gamergate. From what I’ve seen, the two positions can be broadly summed up this way: the progressive wing views the conservative wing as a bunch of crazed, regressive, redneck gun nuts, while the conservative wing views the progressive wing as filled with naïve, weak, and disingenuous social justice warriors.

For the record, just typing the last two sentences left me feeling exhausted, because both of those positions are absurd to the point of stupidity. I’m not denying that people on both sides live into those stereotypes, because God knows, some do. The problem is that pretending everyone fits into one of those two stereotypes reduces the whole thing into a philosophical grade school slap fight.

It’s not.

The differences are very real, deeply rooted, and have substantial consequences for how people choose to live their lives. Since I’m not trying to give a civics lesson, here’s a short reading list that will give you a basic grounding in the differences between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives. (The links are to free ebook editions on Project Gutenberg, except where noted.)
If you feel like I’ve just given you a 6-month to 2-year reading assignment, I did. More importantly, that reading list just barely scratches the surface. If you haven’t gleaned my intent, here it is:
Anyone who claims you can boil down the differences to a couple of issues or can explain those differences with catchphrases is lying to your face!
The radicalization of politics and the insane behavior that goes along with it gets blamed on a lot of stuff. A few of the scapegoats include the breakdown of the traditional family unit, deteriorating belief in civility as a normative good, a decline in religious adherence, a news media committed to scaring the hell out of people, politicians catering to the fringes, and the ability to be an asshole anonymously on the Internet.

You know what? There’s probably some evidence to support blaming any of those things. I think the explanation is simpler than that, though.

A healthy political ecosystem depends on a well-informed populace. In order to be well-informed, the populace must possess critical thinking skills. In other words, kids must be taught how to process and evaluate information. They must learn to evaluate the reliability and trustworthiness of a source of information. They must be educated on identifying fallacies in reason and rhetoric. Imagine how different political speeches would need to be if the majority of voters automatically recognized and disregarded appeals to fear, appeals to authority, ad hominem attacks, circular reasoning, and straw man arguments. Hell, imagine how different the Internet would be if that were true.

Unfortunately, for far too many people on the front lines of the flame wars, the conflict comes down to exactly one thing. My feels are more valid than anything you have to say. With that as a foundation, you end up with people saying things like this:
“I don’t like what that writer said. He’s clearly stupid and anyone who agrees with him is stupid and should be set on fire.”
Don’t kid yourselves, either. The above is on the tame side. Here’s an example of something on the more extreme end:
“You stupid, c**t, whorebag! Shut your f**king mouth and get back into the kitchen where we don’t have to listen to your whiny, SJW bullshit!”
Which brings me back to the culture war in SFF. We’ve all been making an essential error. It’s not a two-sided conflict. It’s a three-sided conflict, between basically sane progressives, basically sane conservatives/libertarians, and utterly crazy people. Education and discourse can bridge the gap between basically sane people: it might not end in agreement, but it can end in some form of understanding.

You cannot reason with crazy. You cannot have discourse with crazy. The attempt always ends in failure, because crazy people are locked into a worldview they cannot alter.

The SFF community isn’t facing a political conflict. There’s always been liberal and conservative wings to the community. That isn’t going to change. What the community is actually facing is a conflict between reason and insanity that’s masquerading as a political divide. The only real solution to that problem is to ruthlessly shut down the crazy wherever it rears its head. Don’t try to engage the crazy on your forums. Delete those accounts. Don’t reason with the crazy on your Facebook pages. Ban those people from your pages. We need to starve that crazy until it dies.

Otherwise, that crazy will keep holding us all hostage.

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it!

“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at


~brb said...

Eric, I don't agree with everything you say here, but that's because I know some behind-the-scenes things that you don't, and for the sake of my sanity I'd just as soon leave 'em behind the scenes.

That said, when no less a person than Will Shetterly can be disinvited and banned from the Fourth Street Fantasy con -- a con he co-founded -- for violating political correctness, something has gone seriously batguano crazy in the SF/F fan world and it needs to be fixed now.

I don't think blogger will let me embed a link in the comments, but you can read all about it at

Mark Keigley said...

Great research list. I'd also add: (the site, not the particular link) as a starting point for folks to look at when they know something is off in someone's argument, but they don't know exactly what it is. I've heard stories of folks on all three sides of the political aisle being banned, dis-invited, emotionally hurt, what have you depending on what group they tried to mingle with.