There is nothing more likely to elicit a dumpster fire of a debate than the question “Should SFF be political?” So, let me find my matches and let us play…
There is an astonishing belief in some parts of the speculative fiction community: that fantasy should remain unsullied by the taint of dirty, dirty politics. Pure and remote, its role is to provide a respite to our tumultuous reality. When expressed in bad faith, this belief is easily dismissed, but when it’s in earnest, it has to be addressed.
Fiction is written by real people who live in the real world. Pretty obvious, isn’t it? There is a consequence to that. Authors are just like us (minus the impulse to wear pants, from what I understand): they are the sum of their experiences, and it shows. It can be subtle or it can be a huge neon sign. Either way, you cannot expect from a writer to “write what they know” and “draw from their experience” and “pour their soul out in ink”, and at the same time, conveniently sanitise their stories from aspects which make some readers uncomfortable.
But it’s fantasy! It’s only supposed to be fun! You can’t spell fantasy without “fun”! (I’m not good at spelling).
Indeed. Escapism is one of the major roles and expectations of the genre. But. What should be taken into account is that while we share a common reality, our experiences within this reality can be wildly different. Escapism, yes, of course, but we’re not all escaping from the same things. If you’re trying to take a break from feeling voiceless, powerless, invisible, would a fun story that erases people like you feel like escapism?
“Can’t we just read books about wizards and dragons and not talk about politics here too?” Can we? Because “politics” here is code for who gets to slay the dragons or who gets to cast the spells. When we live in societies that politicise the fundamental rights, the existence, the visibility of a category of people, it is somewhat understandable to interpret their presence in fiction as a political statement. But this idea must be challenged, or at least reframed: if it is indeed a political statement, their absence from the story is one as well.
“Do we have to know that this character is LGBT? It’s not a necessary piece of information”. Ah, yes. The last-minute adherents to the School of Minimalistic Characterisation. Yes, I am salty, but just a pinch. Three things here: 1) Representation matters, so to a lot of people, the answer is automatically yes. 2) I’ve managed to read seven books of Harry Potter knowing that the titular character has a fondness for treacle tarts and I’ve never seen anyone question Rowling about the relevance of this piece of trivia. Sexual orientation and gender identity are more important to the understanding of a character than a favourite dessert. 3) Relationships are at the center of character development, as well as the characters’ decisions, and can be a key plot point. To stay with the Harry Potter example, Dumbledore not challenging Grindelwald in part because he used to be in love with him shouldn’t have been an offhanded mention.
I know that this debate will never end. It is constantly fuelled by defensiveness, miscomprehension (that I sometimes suspect to be wilful) and accusations. I’ve heard readers ask if they’re not allowed to read what they want anymore; I’ve heard writers ask if they’re not allowed to write what they want anymore. The answer to both is, of course you can; but I don’t believe a work of fiction, even in fantasy, can ever be politically neutral. Who the heroes are, what they look like, who they love, who the secondary characters are, how the women in the world are treated — it’s all politics. It doesn’t reflect one’s political beliefs, of course, but it is a core aspect of any story and can’t be waved off.