Last year, there was a storm brewing over sexism and minority voices being underrepresented in the science fiction community. There’s no question that most people can name famous white male science fiction authors (usually English-speaking, at that) while famous women and minorities still end up as a shorter list. Go to any list of the “Top Science Fiction Authors,” and most of those lists will be white dudes. The more progressive lists will also include Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, and Samuel Delaney, but that’s not guaranteed.
That debate hasn’t gone away, but in the finest SF tradition, it has mutated. Now we have arguments about whether women should even be working in the field, putting controversial people on the Hugo ballot, and a larger debate about whether an author’s politics should even matter when we look at their stories. These are not new issues: the release of Ender’s Game movie adaptation last year brought the questions about Orson Scott Card’s politics, which were common knowledge in fandom, to the wider stage of pop culture awareness. Card is hardly the first author to spark controversy with his or her political views. Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov both caught flak for their beliefs, especially when readers tried to suss out the subtext in their stories.
Some people believe that science fiction shouldn’t be about these issues. Those are the problems of today, of our current world, which don’t really apply to alien worlds, future societies, or far-flung adventures across other dimensions. If political issues — and representation and who has a voice in a social group are fundamental political issues — are to be addressed in our stories, then they should be left there. Let those issues only be part of the story, to raise questions (or offer solutions) that are meant as thought experiments. The story is what matters, after all, and if it’s a good story, how important is it that the author doesn’t support gay marriage or thinks that capitalism is morally wrong? I have read many books by author whose personal views, when stated, seem completely wrong to me. One of my favorite books is written by such an author. Conversely, there have been several authors whose political beliefs appear to be very similar to my own, whose books do nothing for me. Science fiction fans like to believe we are drawn to logic more than fans of other genres, and so logically, we should always be able to compartmentalize the quality of a story from the author’s politics.
And yet. We’ve all heard the story about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. asking Nichelle Nichols to remain on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise so that African-American children could see someone like themselves doing something great. Teen girls love the adventures of Katniss Everdeen, because she’s just like they are. More than that, when a favorite author says something in public — and social media is always public, even if we think it’s not — we pay a lot of attention to what is being said. It matters, to us personally, if the author thinks we belong in the fandom. When someone complains about “girls in the clubhouse” or “needing to put gay folks in the story for no good reason,” it is impossible for women or LGBT people to think that these authors would be happy to have them as readers. Or perhaps, they would be happy, but only in the cynical sense that they want to sell more books.
Our favorite stories don’t take place in a vacuum. Every science fiction and fantasy story has its roots in the society we live in. They are written by people who have beliefs about how the world is and how it should be. They are read by people who have been thinking about whether they belong in society and who can accept them. Our illogical, contradictory, pointless Earth politics infuse everything we read. Every story comments on our world, even when it tries to show us completely different. Every idea we read about alters the way we experience the world, if only briefly.
People who are passionate about writing, in any genre, love to say that words have power. We should realize that this power is not always used well, and one way to guarantee that things won’t get any better is to never confront these issues head-on. So I, for one, hope that the controversy in our genre continues to rage on, and that everyone gets a chance to speak up. Science fiction and fantasy will change as a result — and change is strength.