Reposting comments here from another thread because it’s something that’s on my mind lately. I have a lot of empathy (and affinity) for people who want action/monsters/pulp in their SciFi, because I’m one of them. (I mean, hello, I write about zombies, tyrannosaurs, and tentacled soul-eating aliens.) I have a completely shameless love for pulp SF and sword and sorcery and B movie monsters.
But what does alternately irritate or bemuse me is when people gripe about SF getting “too political,” and half the time the examples they give for “political” SF are stories that are giving us pulp and awesomeness and pirates and B movie monsters. Remember that fan who chewed out Scott Lynch because one of the protagonists of Red Seas Under Red Skies is a black woman pirate captain who is also a single mother with toddlers, and the fan was whining about how it was so “unrealistic” and “political” and he certainly didn’t want to read about any black female pirate captains who are also mothers, … and the gist of Scott’s response was “Go eat a wheevil-infested biscuit, dude, I think my black single mother pirate captain is fucking badass.” And I was reading that thinking Hell YEAH, she’s badass. Who doesn’t want to read a high-action fantasy novel with a pirate captain single parent who swings from one ship to the other, takes no shit from anyone, cuts her way to the treasure, takes it, then swings back in time to read her kids a bedtime story? Hell. Yeah.
As a craftsman, I certainly don’t want books to get over-the-top preachy. But almost invariably, when I run into someone who complains about preachy SF and needing “less SJW pontificating, more knife-throwing and warriors doing warrior things,” or who wants “stories that are just stories” and “no subtext,” I’ve really run into someone who just wants stories where the subtext doesn’t challenge their worldview.
Which is cool.
But geez, going on about how their beloved stories have no subtext and all the stories written from other perspectives and backgrounds are hitting them over the head with subtext … that gets old.
The guy in this conversation described a story about a European explorer who has an adventure on the planet Venus and gets the girl, and he thinks maybe you can find “subtext in it if you looked for hours, if you wanted to.” But action SF that doesn’t star white dudes colonizing other worlds and getting the girl are “overwhelming” him with their subtext. Dude, come on.
For accessibility, here’s a transcript of my comment written in the screenshot:
Dude. It sounds like “good escapist story,” for you = “story where the subtext doesn’t threaten my worldview, so I can just relax into the action.” Which is cool, Brad, I like reading stories that feel comfortable too, but pretending that’s the same as no subtext and no pontificating is a bit disingenuous. You just happen to enjoy action-thick stories where the subtext is more comfortable to you, rather than less comfortable.
I mean, old-school pulp space opera and sword and sorcery, genres defined by their quantity of knife-throwing, spilled guts, damsels, and explosions, oozed subtext, too. A Princess of Mars is an action story about a rugged individual southern white male who rescues a naked space princess from a communal tribal society while speechifying about the evils of communism and the nobility of the warrior virtues and the sexiness of naked space princesses, and it has, um, subtext. And there are Conan stories about a blue-eyed barbarian rescuing a helpless white damsel from a tribe of cannibal black dudes while hacking, smashing, chopping monsters and people to bits while speechifying about the differences between civilization and barbarism, and it’s all blood and breasts everywhere and rapid action and knife-throwing, and there’s subtext oozing from every orifice Conan has. So much subtext it isn’t subtext anymore, it’s more like … overtext. It’s more like subtext delivered with an axe-blow and a battle-cry.
White dude space traveler goes to Venus and wins the day and gets the girl: subtext. It might just not be subtext that bothers you. Which is okay. Read whatever gives you enjoyment; I do. But if you’re going to draw a line in the sand between “SF with subtext that doesn’t give me any trouble” and “SF with subtext I have to think about,” and define one as “stories that are just stories” and the other as “SJW pontificating,” um, … dude.
tl;dr: Read whatever you like. Read whatever brings you enjoyment. But if you have to get on your high-horse about how your white-warrior-explores-the-universe-gets-the-girl story is completely apolitical and without subtext and everyone else’s story is pontificating, sooner or later everyone else is going to be over here enjoying them some Black Panther and some badass black pirate captain single mothers burning half the fleet and some queer gladiators competing on dinosaur-back and we’re going to be so high on adrenaline and getting so overwhelmed by all this subtext you’re scared of that our palms will be sweating through the pages. And yeah, we might be thinking a bit too, from time to time, engaging the gray matter, if something in a story unsettles or challenges us, because some of us enjoy that in SF. Some of us like our SF with a dose of “what the fuck, maybe the world’s more complex than I thought.” Seriously, dude.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!