Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Politics in Fiction - Impossible to Avoid?

Recently I've spent some time attempting to avoid certain areas of real-world politics in some of my online discourse, partly so as to avoid alienating my potential audience. I had been criticised a little for some of my overly specific political statements, and the fact that I do come off as pretty biased, so I've been putting a lot of thought into whether it's possible to fully avoid the discussion of political issues and therefore also the controversy that comes along with them. As this blog is primarily dedicated to editorials and reviews centred around science fiction and fantasy works, along with closely related genres that I haven't gotten around to reviewing just yet, I'm going to make that a bit more specific; this will be about the discussion of politics specifically within those fields.

It occurs to me right off the bat that a lot of the greatest and most enduring works of science fiction and fantasy have at least some form of contentious political statement. For one instance, the ideas presented in JRR Tolkien's highly iconic The Lord of the Rings speak to an old fashioned pastoral and environmentalist outlook. The villains in that story are heavily industrialised empires whose actions are slowly destroying and consuming the ancient and beautiful forests and wilderness of Middle-Earth, transforming it into little more than the brutal machinery of war and destruction. Similarly Foundation by Isaac Asimov is largely about the political manoeuvring of the collapsing Galactic Empire, and the attempts by the eponymous organisation to manipulate the galaxy into forming a new and stronger empire upon the ruins of the old. And of course the most famous works of speculative fiction that most commonly get to be counted as outright classics of literature, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, are largely built upon a strongly political platform that has in fact earned its own genre label of 'dystopia'.

Big Brother is a nosy bastard

In fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four has strongly shaped real-world political discussions, with accusations of overly-invasive surveillance being likened to the actions of the totalitarian government within that story.

Even young adult and children's fiction tends to have at least some form of political edge, with a famously duelling pair of stories being the His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis that explore the influence of religion and faith from opposite angles. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, whatever else you might think of it or its various messages, carries undeniable messages that advocate abstinence and oppose the idea of terminating a pregnancy even in cases where it threatens the life of the mother. The most famous and lucrative young adult novel series of all time, that of course being JK Rowling's Harry Potter, has several very strong things to say against the ideas of governmental corruption, middle-class boarding schools and of course the racist ideas that inform the actions of the villains.

There are many more examples I could list, but I think the point has been made. Almost all of the literature which is in some way relevant to my reviews and opinion pieces happens to have at least a moderate political presence. Is it therefore at all possible to properly discuss these stories without at least acknowledging the various politics involved? And even if it is, should it be done?

I personally don't think so, in either case. In the case of most stories with a political message of some kind, massaging over that political message in favour of simply discussing whether or not the story is well told might well be something of a recurring mistake that I've been making with my own reviews. The messages contained within a given text are at least as important as the story and plot, and the fact is that most subtext is very strongly laced with the moral and political outlooks of the author. Some of course might disagree, and say that the text should exist in something of a vacuum, but I've always held that context is highly important when it comes to overall analysis and judgement thereof.

And to ignore the politics of a work is perhaps, on some level, a disservice to the work itself. To ignore the parts of a work which might be politically controversial is, perhaps, to ignore the parts which most exemplify it as unique.

Perhaps I need to undergo something of a revision when it comes to my reviewing style, and start engaging with the contentious aspects of certain novels a little more.

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