One of my favorite panels at MidAmeriCon II (WorldCon) was “SF as Protest Literature.” It had a great set of panelists: Jo Walton, who wrote Among Others and the SMALL CHANGE series in alternate-history Britain, where Hitler triumphs and England is a den of fascism; Bradford Lyau, a bookstore owner and scholar whose non-fiction book The Anticipation Novels looks at the influence of French science fiction; Alex Jablokow, author of the novel Brain Thief and a number of short stories that have appeared in Asimov’s; Ann Leckie, author of the IMPERIAL RADCH series, and Mark Oshiro, who blogs as Mark Reads and Mark Watches, and who said in his introduction that he reviews with a social justice slant.
The topic appealed to the nostalgia-lover in me because it made me think of the 1960s and 70s, when protest literature and music were a big part of my life, but it ended up being much more than that. Whenever I hear Jo Walton speak, I come away with at least three more books on my TBR list and this panel was no different.
What is protest literature? Is it a stance, a style? Something else?
Oshiro commented that he has just finished a novel that will be out sometime in 2017. He said he realized his “whole opening scene was a protest.” Reading SF, he had trouble finding himself – brown, gay – in the work.
Bradford’s view is longer, and he noted that early HG Wells works, like When the Sleeper Wakes, which critiqued capitalism, were works of protest. I liked Bradford’s long perspective; it gave a good context to this topic.
Leckie pointed out that almost by definition, since SFF creates other worlds, it is giving a critique of this one. “Even if you don’t mean to give a social critique, you almost can’t help it,” she said. She also pointed out that there are some people who choose to read her Imperial Radch series as a “naked political polemic,” when she did not intend it that way; you can’t control how readers will interpret your work.
Walton mentioned that inherently, SFF says, “The present doesn’t have to be like this.” She believes that the social critique has to be in service to the story, and that it works best when the polemic happens in the reader’s mind, rather than on the page.
Are there currently right-wing writers engaging in SF protest literature?
Jablokow mentioned The Turner Diaries, published in 1978 by white separatist William Luther Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald. Walton felt that G.K. Chesterton was basically a protest writer in many ways; she pointed out that John C. Wright is a current example of someone writing protest literature from the right.
How do you write it? Are you worried about it becoming dated or silly?
Jablokow talked about the “technique” of protest literature. Create, he said, a “steel man” adversary instead of a “straw man.” In other words, make your protagonist face the strongest argument for the thing you are protesting, not the weakest and silliest; then play that out. Leckie followed up, saying “Very often we don’t see the mismatch between the narrative we’ve been told, and what is really in the world.”
Walton named two books she felt really did change the world: 1984 by George Orwell, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.
Walton also said that people comment that she puts many gay characters in her work. She says that this is partly because she knows a lot of gay people. Even in creating a different world, she is drawing on what she knows and experiences. She isn’t “making a point,” she is drawing on her own social circle.
Someone from the audience asked about a protest work becoming dated and Walton nodded vigorously. The world does change, she said. “You do the best you can and if the world gets better you’ll be embarrassed.” That was a good outcome, as other panelists pointed out.
Lyau mentioned another book he thought gave critique of society: The Man Who Awoke by Laurence Manning. It was serialized in 1933. Manning uses the trope of cryogenic suspension to have his main character travel forward in time in 5,000 year leaps; each period is the “age of” something. From sexual freedom to “green” politics and recycling, to supercomputers that guide humanity, the book is also predictive. Lyau pointed out that Laurence was using a “if this goes on… “ approach.
Oshiro said the challenge is to balance your protest points with the need to make a good story people want to read, echoing Walton. “Fiction has a great power to teach without the reader knowing they’re being taught.” I wish protest writer John C. Wright had been in the audience to hear that advice.