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MIND MELD: SF with an Opposing Viewpoint

This week’s Mind Meld was influenced by a post on Lou Anders’ blog entitled Science Fiction Belongs to the World. In it, questions are raised about stories that espouse a viewpoint that is opposed to one(s) the reader holds.

Q: As a reader, can you enjoy a story that is pushing an opposed viewpoint from one that you hold (religion/politics)? If the author is prone to holding, and writing about, views opposed to yours, can you enjoy their works or do you stop reading them?
Lou Anders
A 2007/2008 Hugo Award and 2007 Chesley Award and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), and the forthcoming Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008) and Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish,Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at, and Visit him online at and

Not only can I enjoy works written by people of opposing political/social/religious viewpoints from my own, but I think it is imperative that we as readers (and as people) continue to challenge ourselves by exposing ourselves not just to a set of presuppositions in line with our own views, but with works that threaten to topple our current understandings. I loved the late Robert Anton Wilson’s use of the term “reality tunnel” and am a big believer that we are all programmed into one or another worldview, but that continual deliberate exposure to ideas outside your bandwidth is the best counter agent against this there is. As someone who has moved from fundamentalist christian all the way to atheist and then halfway back to happily agnostic, I’m very aware of how the entire universe can reorganize itself around the color of your lenses, and very much enjoy putting on different spectacles from time to time. Isn’t that what science fiction is for?

Ken Fergason
Ken runs the SFF review and discussion blog Neth Space. He is also an admin at the Wotmania OF website, an associate reviewer for BookSpotCentral, and is active on several SFF-related forums. Come on by the blog and discuss things – I’ll even tell you all about why I named those names.

One camp out there holds true to the idea that the writing stands on its own and should be judged as such. I’ll count myself as only partially aligned with this direction of thinking. The first thing that matters as a reader is the quality of the story – lacking that, I could care less what the viewpoint is – shit as they say, is shit. Of course I do have strong personal beliefs in the areas of politics and religion and I can become really uncomfortable, even downright angry, at viewpoints apposed to my own views – this may lead to me to choose not read further, but in all honesty this would be an extreme case that doesn’t happen very often.

On the flip side, often it’s the opinion that is very closely aligned with my own that is presented poorly that bothers me the most.

However, as a reader of fiction, I feel these sorts of things should be subtly entwined in a story with the story coming first. I have no interest in didactic book, whatever its viewpoint.

This brings me to the second question, which is far trickier. I am hardly the most principled person in the world, but I do adhere to my beliefs. I also support the idea of an author or any other person who has achieved some degree of notoriety to be able to use their “fame” to further beliefs they have in the world. Of course there is always a huge risk with this and I think that an author needs to be well aware of the possible consequences of their actions. I also believe in the idea of power in the hands of the people. This is most often thought of as voting, but in a world driven by corporate power and money, where and how I choose to spend my money becomes a more powerful statement than any vote I’m likely to cast. So, when an author or similarly “famous” person publicly espouses beliefs that are in strong opposition to those of my own I will often choose to no longer support them with my money and go the step farther to share my thoughts with others. This is not necessarily limited to political/religious areas but can also be applied to extreme stupidity or just being an all around arsehole (see Michael Crichton for example).

With most authors I read, I have no idea how their personal beliefs compare with my own, and I’m not really all that interested in knowing either. Others I either know or suspect, and they may or may not line up with my beliefs, but it just doesn’t matter. However, there are a few authors who have been public in beliefs I strongly disagree with and I have chosen to no longer buy their books, recommend them to others, and I will happily tell others why. And I’ll go ahead and name names. For me these authors are Orson Scott Card, Terry Goodkind, and Michael Crichton. Dan Simmons has flirted with inclusion on that list, but so far I haven’t elevated him to a no buy level.

Matt Jarpe
Matthew Jarpe is a biochemist for a pharmaceutical company in Massachusetts. Radio Freefall is his first novel and he can be found online here.

I very often enjoy stories that push a political viewpoint that’s abhorrent to me. Pretty much all of Fantasy is preoccupied with hereditary monarchy. Who is the rightful king? How are we going to get rid of the pretender? If I read these books in a real-world frame of mind my immediate reaction is “Screw this, let’s set up a guillotine in the courtyard and then hold us some elections after we’ve sluiced down the flagstones.”

But if the writing is good I can still enjoy the stories and even allow myself to care whether the whiny brat gets to park his bony ass on the throne in the end. I never occurs to me whether J.R.R. Tolkein really wants a return of the king because the very idea is absurd. We’re past that. We’ve moved on and we’re not heading back. I never stop to wonder if George R.R. Martin would really replace our Republic with an absolute ruler of the Targaryen line because The Song of Ice and Fire takes place in another world.

Which brings me to science fiction. We like to think of science fiction as something that could happen someday. The skilled writer creates an unbroken line of imagination from the here and now to the setting of the story. We could get to the libertarian utopia of L. Neil Smith or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aerephony from where we’re standing now. But this is, of course, an illusion. The writer has absolute power to control history from this point forward, to manipulate the timeline so as to create a world where the writer’s story can flourish. A little disaster here, a technological breakthrough there, and a skilled writer can make any political scenario plausible.

But we’re not all skilled writers, and some of us don’t have the chops to pull this off. No writer is so weak that he can set up a straw man that he can’t knock down. The reason I set down a book is not so much the opposing political views as the inability of the writer to sell me on the circumstances. But to put aside a book because you don’t want the world to end up like that is like putting aside The Lord of the Rings because you don’t think Aragorn should rule Gondor.

Charles Stross
Charles Stross‘ first novel, Singularity Sky burst onto the science fiction scene in 2003 and earning Stross a Hugo nomination. Since then he has earned several awards for his novels, and his works Missile Gap and Accelerando are available online. In addition to writing, Stross has worked as a technical author, freelance journalist, programmer, and pharmacist. He holds degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science, and some of the creatures he created for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures, the Death Knight and Githyanki, were published by TSR in the Fiend Folio

That’s a complex question…

Firstly, as a reader, the author’s views are opaque to me; all I know about them is what the author chooses to put in front of me. And as an author, I’m quite capable of taking an outrageous proposition and, as a thought-experiment, writing a story based on the assumption that it was true — masking my true beliefs. This isn’t so unusual; in fact, one of the commonest mistakes readers seem to make is to assume that depicting a specific situation implies that the author approves of it. (We see this in other media, too, as any number of soap actors with an unpopular role discover when total strangers harangue them at the supermarket checkout.)

So. In the absence of personal insight based on direct dialogue, I don’t (and can’t) know what any author actually believes — for example, for all I know, *contra* his public statements, Orson Scott Card could be a poyamorous gay atheist. (I hasten to add that I don’t think this is a *likely* possibility — but I’ve never met the man. All I know is what he writes. And Jonathan Swift clearly believed in the virtues of eating babies. Right?)

Secondly: given the viewpoints presented in a work of fiction, how should I evaluate them?

Like many readers, I don’t like being preached at or propagandized — at least for ideologies or viewpoints that I disagree with.

But there’s a big difference between propaganda and legitimate exposition, and it’s not hard to tell the difference. All you have to do is look for the way the author of a work of political/religious fiction depicts the opposition to the agenda they’re pushing. If the opposition are depicted on their own terms then the author is being honest; but if they’re a hostile caricature, if they don’t make sense on their own terms, then the work is warped. Hostile caricature is not characterization, and by treating the characters dishonestly the author is damaging the artistic integrity of their work.

I don’t really care what politics or religion an author advocates, so long as their portrayal of all viewpoints is honest. Why? Because fiction is an attempt to construct a consistent vision of a universe which accommodates the human condition; and twisting the beliefs of your characters to fit some ideological preconception damages their humanity. This in turn tends to introduce gaping plot holes that rely on the protagonists being stupid or self-destructive for no obvious reason (other than that they are wearing the Bad hat that makes them do Bad Things). And it frequently goes hand-in-glove with Idiot plots, where the Idiot wins out in the end purely because his heart is pure, and the author said that it was so, and re-arranged the plot accordingly.

Evangelizing a particular religion (or political creed) in fiction by belittling or mocking contrary beliefs damages it as a work of fiction. And life’s too short to waste reading bad fiction.

Finally, I’d like to note that, just as an author can advocate an ideology they don’t really believe in, they can also write from the viewpoint of characters who are misled about the world the author has placed them in, and who in turn mislead the reader. Such unreliable narrators are fun to play with — almost as much as Devil’s Advocate stories (in which you play make-believe with alien belief systems). It’s even more fun to combine the two, so that you get an unreliable narrator running through a universe constructed by a contrarian author! If you expect to ever get an accurate picture of the author’s true beliefs out of such a narrative, I wish you every success; but they’re usually a lot more fun than the stories in which you can second-guess up-front which characters will win through, because the other guys are just plain evil.

Patrick St-Denis
Pat can be found blogging at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.

I feel that open-mindedness is key if you wish to grow as an individual. Hence, being exposed to various viewpoints, be them religious, political or otherwise, can be beneficial and make you see things in a different light. After all, there is no absolute truth out there. Traveling has taught me that there are always at least two sides to any story.

I can certainly enjoy a work which espouses a different point of view from my own. Though I may not agree with what is being pushed on me, as long as it doesn’t diminish the overall quality of the novel I don’t find that offputting. For instance, there were quite a few anti-capitalism thoughts scattered throughout Steven Erikson’s Midnight Tides. And although I found myself wholeheartedly disagreeing with such viewpoints for the most part, that didn’t prevent me from enjoying that book.

I reckon it’s different when an author goes out of his or her way to beat you on the head with their political views. The most flagrant example of such behavior would have to be Terry Goodkind. At times The Sword of Truth has become a veritable Ayn Rand manifesto. If I want to read something pertaining to Objectivism or Ayn Rand, that’s what I’ll do. Add to that a dramatic drop in quality and originality, and with the author milking this series for all it’s worth, and suddenly I found myself put off by it all.

Regardless of the fact that you are Left- or Right-leaning in the political spectrum, I feel that if an author holds and writes and imbues his or her work with personal views on the matter, then it’s bound to alienate a number of readers espousing opposite views. Even high profile authors such as Dan Simmons and Orson Scott Card were the targets of some mudslinging after writing “controversial” works.

Interestingly enough, though I can’t speak for SFF fandom as a whole, to my surprise I realized over the last few years that the bulk of the SFF online community seems to be comprised of Leftists. I wouldn’t say that they have a harder time accepting and enjoying literary works which espouse political views that clash with their own, but it’s evident that they can be quite vocal about it. I recall their disdain when they were discussing Card’s Empire. Now, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t possibly comment on its quality. Yet at the time when Empire appeared to be universally reviled on various message boards, I gave my ARC to a friend who happened to be the creator of the number 1 Right-wing blog in Quebec and the number 3 in Canada. He loved it and couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. So I guess it’s all about perceptions.

Regarding religion, one of the most fascinating works I’ve ever read — and again, one with which I didn’t necessarily always agree — was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. His extrapolation of a world without Christianity was engrossing.

In conclusion, being exposed to a different viewpoint is never inherently bad. As I mentioned, it can be an opportunity for a reader to familiarize himself with the other side of what he feels constitutes the “truth.” Done well, it can even make you change your own point of view, or at least reassess certain attributes. However, if it’s done sloppily, it might make you feel the urge to throw the book across the room. . .

Mary Robinette Kowal
Mrs. Kowal’s short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and CICADA. She is the art director of Shimmer and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary BootCamp. She is the 2008 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Of course I can enjoy them. I think all of us can. I mean, how many stories have you read where you were rooting for the good guy to carry out an assassination? Believing that assassination is good is certainly not part of my general worldview.

I think that the opposing viewpoint becomes a problem in two ways:

1) When the writer shows his or her hand.

2) When the topic is a “hotbed” issue

Allow me to explain.

1) Sometimes a writer has strong feelings about an issue and they let one of their characters monologue about it in ways that don’t serve the story. It pops out because there’s nothing else like it in the story. There’s this moment of “This is important!” which does nothing to advance the plot or build character or serve any other function except to expound on the issue. I can see the man behind the curtain then and it’s jarring.

2) Hotbed issues will often make people stop and feel like they should have an opinion on whatever the issue is. Take the Narnia example that’s referenced in the comment threads of the original post. People get very upset about the fact that Narnia is a retelling of the Christ story. Now, how many people do you know who get upset when Norse mythology is retold? Or Shintoism? These are still active, practicing religions but I can’t recall anyone getting upset and feeling like they are being preached to when those stories are retold. Christianity, on the other hand, is often front and center in religious controversies in the U.S. so I think it winds up making people have a kneejerk reaction to seeing it in fiction because they feel like it’s proselytization.

(As a side note, I find interesting that many people who are annoyed at the Narnia books for their Christianity message absolutely love Battlestar Galactica, which has parallels to the Church of Latter Day Saints.)

So, to sum up: Yes, I think it is absolutely possible to read and enjoy fiction with viewpoints different from my own, but if I feel like I am being preached to then I lose the story.

Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl has been active in the science fiction community for many years with her Emerald City magazine. She can currently be found writing at Cheryl’s Mewsings and at SF Awards Watch.

I think the first thing to say here is that science fiction has always been a conversation. And that doesn’t mean just a conversation about methods of faster-than-light travel, or First Contact protocols; it also means a conversation about politics and religion. If you are not prepared to listen to other people, you can’t have conversations with them. So yes, we ought to be reading books we disagree with.

But nothing is quite that simple.

This particular question was sparked by a reviewer complaining about “Christian propaganda” in a novel. Well, I’m not a Christian. However, I did very much enjoy Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet, even though the author is a well-known Christian blogger. I am a huge fan of Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers, even though both authors’ fiction is heavily influenced by their strong Catholic faith. And indeed I have a close friend who is a Catholic priest. I am pretty sure that I have read and enjoyed books by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus as well. Not to mention Wiccans and various other less mainstream religions.

Does that mean that I am going to waste my time reading the Left Behind series? No, it doesn’t. Because there is a difference between a book that is informed by a Christian sensibility, and a book that beats you over the head with its Christian message, and shows utter contempt for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the extreme version of Christianity that the author favors.

Science fiction stories about longevity treatments not withstanding, there is a limited number of books that anyone can read in their lives. Given that I can’t read everything, I’m going to spend my valuable book-reading time on books that are well-written. And if a book is going to make an argument of any sort then “well written” means that it has to take that argument seriously. It has to acknowledge that contrary views exist, present them fairly, and explain why they are wrong. A book that attempts to make an argument by ignoring or mis-representing opposition views is not worth wasting my time on.

On politics, for example, I love books such as Ken MacLeod’s The Stone Canal or Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which present arguments between different political positions. I love Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast series because the books contain an ongoing argument about feminism. I am less enamored of books which portray Libertarianism as the natural state of mankind whose rightness cannot be questioned, or books in which every character involved in business is portrayed as a vicious, grasping, back-stabbing idiot. A book in which all of the female characters are portrayed as brainless and spineless, or all of the gay characters are portrayed as depraved and immoral in ways unconnected with their sexuality, is quickly going to get thrown at the wall. I have given up reading Sheri Tepper novels because, although I agree with many of her positions, I find her portrayal of the bad guys to be such obvious caricatures that her argument no longer has any weight.

Of course out there in the blogosphere yelling at people who don’t agree with you has become a standard modus operandi for many people. That trend has accelerated in the run up to the US Presidential election. There are way too many people out there who appear to believe that the opposition are not just wrong, or even WRONG!!!, but are Evil Incarnate, The Spawn of the Devil, The Very Antichrist!!! (add your own hyperbolic frothing at the mouth to suit). And guess what? Those people cause me to stop reading too.

The trouble is that I don’t believe in black & white, or red & blue, or left & right, or good & evil, or any other absolute opposites that human beings care to dream up. I don’t believe that you should never read books that you disagree with, but nor do I believe that you should always read a book no matter how badly you disagree with it. Extreme positions of any sort are generally silly and unproductive. So I try to judge every book in its merits, and I also demand the right to be allowed to judge a book on its merits. If a reviewer happens to not like the same books as you do, that doesn’t make her a Bad Person, it just makes her a person with a different viewpoint than yours. If you are going to insist that reviewers read books that disagree with them, then you should also be prepared to read reviews that you disagree with. Although, of course, you are always free to continue the conversation by saying why you disagree with them.

Angela @ SciFiChick
Angela (a.k.a. SciFi Chick) is a SciFi fan, portrait artist, and avid reader of all genres. She has a fulltime desk job for a Fortune 500 company. And occasionally does drawings of buildings and portraits on commission. She reads every chance she gets.

I wouldn’t have much to read, if I stayed away from authors with a different viewpoint than mine! I can safely say that the vast majority of the scifi/fantasy that I read contains ideas/viewpoints that I don’t share. That usually doesn’t stop me from enjoying the story. Fiction is just that – fiction. Because a fantasy world may have multiple deities, doesn’t mean that I have to submit to the made-up viewpoints in order to enjoy the book. Granted, if it’s not written well, I’m not going to enjoy it no matter what the subject matter.

I have to admit, though, I stay away from author’s blogs if they’re prone to ranting about religion and politics. That’s a bigger turn-off. I won’t necessarily stop reading their fiction, but I will stop reading their online musings.

Joseph Mallozzi
Joseph Mallozzi, along with his partner Paul Mullie, is the executive produce/showrunner for Stargate: Atlantis. He also runs a Book Of The Month discussion at his website.

As a writer who got his start in the wonderful world of animation at a time when “edutainment” was the industry buzzword (Hey Kids! Rockin’ Rhino says “It’s not cool to lock your little sister in an abandoned refrigerator!”), I’ve always taken issue with stories that spoon fed their audience a specific viewpoint. Seriously. If I wanted to be taught a “powerful lesson”, I’d tune into the ABC After School Special or pay to attend one of those self-help seminars where the speaker extols the virtues of positive thinking, clean living, and the benefits of paying to attend more of his self-help seminars. However, that’s not to say I won’t read books or watch shows from authors/creators who hold opinions radically different from my own. In my opinion, successful writers do two things well: entertain and challenge, often by presenting ideas that are, at times, out of the comfort zone of their respective audiences. But subtlety is the key. It doesn’t take a genius to offer up a thinly-veiled critique of the social issue du jour, yet great skill and fair amount of finesse are required to contextualize an argument within a narrative framework that doesn’t hit the audience over the head with its self-importance. Off the top of my head, China Miéville is a wonderful example of the latter, an author whose works are, on the surface, smartly written, pleasurable reads and yet, at their core, charged with provocative, even revolutionary ideas.

In short, I will read works from authors/creators with radically different opinions from my own. All I ask is that they not talk down to their audience like zombie indoctrinees.

Diana Gill
Executive Editor Diana Gill runs Eos, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. She is the editor of New York Times bestselling authors Kim Harrison and Vicki Pettersson. Other authors with whom she has worked include Mario Acevedo, Jonathan Barnes, Trudi Canavan, Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Mary Stewart, Karen Traviss, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Honestly, I think a large part of reading is immersing yourself in other viewpoints, and this is particularly true of sf/f, given the nature of the genre. Certainly I’ve never been charged with throwing a talisman in a deadly volcano or playing a computer game to train for war, or been trapped as a surrogate mother/sex slave, nor do I smoke a pipe and solve mysteries, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed all of those books.

And that’s at the most simplified level. I wasn’t abused as a child, but that doesn’t mean A Child Named It didn’t completely freak me out, nor do I have to be a gay Chinese man to love China Mountain Zhang, and so forth and so on.

A large part of the pleasure in reading is being pulled into the story, whether it’s a situation or character you identify with, or one you don’t identify with. In fact, one of the joys of reading for me is that it can let me view worlds and viewpoints that aren’t my own, and learn about them. This is particularly true in sf/f, since such a large part of the genre is coming up with new ideas and worlds–how can you have a literature of possibility without encountering other opinions?

Plus, if the story is good enough I will often completely miss any message-hammers, unless they’re particularly obvious. (E.g., I blithely skipped past the Christian symbolism in the Narnia books when I was young, though I’d probably notice if I were to reread them now.)

That said, it is easier to love a book when you can relate to it, and there are authors and books whose message I don’t agree with–if it’s a strong enough personal issue, I probably won’t keep reading. And personal opinions of an author can both cloud or heighten your enjoyment of their work as well.

In short, the story should be the focus, not the message-hammer, and if it’s the other way round, it’s much harder to reach beyond your targeted audience. (That may or may not be an author’s goal).

From an editorial standpoint, editors are always looking for stories that we fall in love with, and if I cannot understand/empathize or care about the main characters at a fundamental level, it’s going to be much harder for me to get into the story. And thus I’m probably not the best editor for that particular book. But that doesn’t mean the characters all have to be white female editors living in NYC–after all, the last thing I want to read about is my own life. So if the story captivates me and it’s from another point-of-view/personal history/circumstance/etc. than my own and can make me think about something new, so much the better.

Ekaterina Sedia
Ekaterina Sedia’s last novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published in November 2007. The Alchemy of Stone is out now. Her short stories sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies.

I think we need to differentiate between minor and major differences, as well as differences regarding questions of core beliefs vs stuff we mildly care about. For example, I am at odds politically with liberals and libertarians, but I have more common ground with former than the latter. Minor differences and things outside of core beliefs would be easier to ignore as long as the book is otherwise good, so I’ll focus on major/core differences here. I also would like to mention that ‘different viewpoints’ are not equivalent to each other — some political views are just wrong, from a moral or factual standpoints.

There are politics that I find abhorrent; I don’t care how well-writen a story is, if it implies that genocide is a good thing or that rape is a victim’s fault, I am not going to consider it a good story. (Of course, this does not apply to work that examines such views rather than sinply betrays the writer’s political default.) Same goes for work arguing genetic superiority of any one group, and any endorsement of social Darwinism, for example. And no, I won’t enjoy it. I think it is a fair statement that generally people do not like listening to the viewpoints radically different from their own; we might endure it to be polite, but far as enjoyment-seeking activity, it is severely lacking.

There are plenty of writers whose work I do not enjoy. If I find a writer’s politics or religious beliefs expressed in their books personally repugnant, it seems a good enough reason to avoid their books. I have no problem ditching books by writers whose prose I dislike, so I don’t see why ideology should be treated differently (see the previous point about enjoyment). If I read the book and seethe, it seems like a good strategy to stop reading it, regardless of what causes the seething.

James Bloomer
James Bloomer has a PhD in particle physics (he worked at CERN) and has probably forgotten more physics than most people ever learn. He writes software for a living, Science Fiction for his sanity and has been running the SF blog Big Dumb Object for 242 internet years.

My initial reaction was “of course I can enjoy a story with a different viewpoint from my own, I’m intelligent and open minded”, but then I tried to think of a book that I’d read which fitted this description and really struggled.

Looking back at what I’ve read this year, The Postman stands out, in the way it treated women, but it felt like more a case of naivety or incorrect speculation. It irritated me and I think the book would have been better if different, but I still appreciated the story overall.

Other than that I can’t think of anything with a view that I didn’t agree with. Or noticed that I didn’t agree with. Maybe this is because the Science Fiction that I read is inherently linked to the sort of views I hold? (Also I make the distinction between a view, and some speculation that I don’t think is likely.)

I guess though, that if I read a story that was espousing views I didn’t like, and that didn’t back it up with coherent speculation, or reason – if the novel was just a manifesto for the author’s views – I would probably get annoyed and avoid them. Life’s too short and there are too many great SF books that I haven’t read to spend time reading ones that annoy me.

Larry Ketchersid
Larry Ketchersid is CEO of a security software and services company and the author of the novel Dusk Before the Dawn. He plays rugby, does martial arts, writes tech articles, reads a lot, and has degrees in Math, Physics and Computer Science. In other words, he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do and is in no hurry to do so. His career includes 15 years at Compaq, the greatest computer company that used to be.

Reading is a hobby of enjoyment and intellectual challenge, two characteristics which can be diametrically opposing at times. A novel or story which takes a viewpoint different from your own is certainly intellectually stimulating, but if it irritates or even pisses you off, how enjoyable can that be?

In addition, as the Internet’s ability to create pundits of us all does its death spiral into digital name calling and myriad displays of bit-based bad manners, readers appear demonstrably more restrained in their post-read opinions than discussing real-world politics and religion. One has only to contrasts the reasonable comments and conversations on Lou Anders’ blog about this topic vs. the rants and raves on a political article (such as one of Scalzi’s Whatever blog entries). It is no wonder that most people would rather discuss a book than politics, as it grows more and more difficult to find an open minded individual with whom to discourse.

From my personal reading and writing perspective, works of fiction are just that: fancies of someone else’s imagination, there to be thought through and enjoyed. If the story describes a world ordered by a political or religious regime to which I do not subscribe, it is still merely a story. If I’m not learning something (either about a subject or even about myself) or enjoying the story, I will certainly put it down.

For example I will use fellow Texas author Chris Roberson’s excellent book The Dragon’s Nine Sons. The alternate future history story portrays native Americans (Aztecs) in a light that I as a native American do not agree with and I further believe the concept of Aztecs as completely head-over-hearts blood thirsty heathens is a product Spanish/European propaganda and persecution (supported by the book burning of many artifacts that probably contained the historical perspectives of the Aztecs, Mayas and other natives.

But I really enjoyed Chris’ novel, and his well built future empires of China and Mexica as the leading world super powers on Earth and in space. It made me think, and it made me want to read the other perspective (the novel is told from the viewpoint of the Chinese empire, with their depiction as the Mexica’s as blood thirsty heathens).

Many times reading a story or novel that reflects my own personal interests or leanings is a somewhat boring endeavor, unless the plot is unique. The mental stretch comes from taking us out of our comfort zone.

It is the task of authors to entertain and to stimulate. Sometimes controversial topics and opinions do both, but more often than not they do at least one.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

21 Comments on MIND MELD: SF with an Opposing Viewpoint

  1. Well, I have nearly finished Northern Light by Philip Pullman. It took me so long to get around to reading it because I am aware that the author is a vocal atheist and that has views are reflected in the book. I felt a certain reluctance to perhaps appear to endorse his views by buying and reading the book. However, I have to say that it is the best book I have read an a vary long time. So yes, my experience is that it is possible to enjoy a story that espouses a viewpoint that opposes my own.

  2. Sure.  Especially given that the majority of it is written by foreigners to start with.

  3. I like to read a lot about politics and philosophy, and I tend to almost never read what I completely agree with. I think this because reading what I agree with isn’t challenging, or educational, and that’s why I read politics and philosophy. I’m doing an analysis or those subjects.

    However, with fiction, I’m usually looking for thought provoking creative material, which entertains. I found Starship Troopers difficult to take, and it was anger producing. It wasn’t the good kind of “shaking my conceptions” anger, but rather the kind I might get from reading a book writer by Hitler. It’s the “F You” type of anger. Conversely, I don’t like reading liberal propaganda either, as I feel it’s insulting.

    With all of that being said, I dislike SF without a philosophical message. It could be about anything, but I demand that it be subtle and done in a multifaceted way. What I mean there is that the author provides counter argument to his own stance in the book.

    Off the top of my head, I’d say Iain Banks does a great job with this, but there’s more. Anyway, he provides comment on politics, economics, and questions motives and actions which might be bad or good depending. He puts all of that in a pretty package too.

  4. If one tends towards right of center and wants to read science fiction, they’d better be willing to read books with a differing point of view or they’ll find their bookshelves bare.  I wouldn’t agree with many of the political views of Charles Stross but I purchase his books.

    Why?  Because even at his most political, Stross remembers that story comes first.  So long as any given writer keeps that in mind, I’ll keep reading.

    The moment I put the book down (or throw it across the room in some cases) is when Message overrides Story.  This is the feeling I get everytime I pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson work.  In fact, if you pulled the Message out of KSR’s works what you’d find a very stylistically refined narrative strapped to a standard issue formula with repeating tropes throughout. 

    That having been said, my justification for setting aside a message novel or a polemic is that I hate being preached at.  Moreoever, I hate being preached at on a topic that I’ve probably had lectures on throughout college or read books written by experts in the given field.

    Why read a third rate clone of a Marxist history when I can read E. P. Thompson?  I read primarily to be entertained and enjoy myself.  If you want to push a message, at least be a little subversive about it. 

    But if I want to work, or read political science, I’m not going to read something written by someone who, at best, has a minor in the subject.  I’m going to get a non-fiction book and read the experts. 

    My two cents. 

    That said, umm, just where is the opposing viewpoint in SF these days?  There is a lot of Liberal SF.  I know, I have it on my shelves.  But outside of military SF and maybe Neal Asher, just who under the age of 40 is writing anything that is right of center?

    Moreoever, if such a person does exist (and I don’t think one does), just how tolerant would we be of that person?

    If what I’ve seen on the internet in the SF community over the last seven years is any indication, I suspect we’re not as “tolerant” as one might think.  If anything, the trend seems to be to shut out anyone who isn’t left of center. 


    S. F. Murphy


  5. Whats the point of reading “Fiction” if you can’t suspend your beliefs in the real world for a short time to enjoy it?

    But then again, I’m a different breed of cat all together from most people anyway… so what do I know.

  6. It isn’t a matter of suspending anything.  It is a matter of, “Do I want to listen to the same sermon I have heard a thousand times over yet again executed by someone who isn’t even as proficient as previous preachers on the topic?”

    The answer is, “Not really.”

    S. F. Murphy

  7. Murphy,

    Great points.

    I’m the liberal type, economically, not socially so I love books about communist utopias in some far flung future. Lots of other people do too.

    I wonder how far a author would get with a book which mirrors the Nazi stance on WWII, that a group of seemingly harmless “religious aliens” had subtly invaded their country and taken it over requiring them to strike back, only to be vilified by the world. 

    I think like a lead balloon.

    You could not publish a book which asks “what if alien took the place of jews” in a SF universe, and see how it plays out, with the “humans” winning. However, you can have many communist writers writing openly.

  8. Hmm – this theme seems to be showing up a lot lately.

    +1 to Murphy’s point on “Message overriding Story.”

    I’d also draw a clear distinction between authors whose books espouse a POV at odds with my own and an author who loudly and publicly espouses views I strongly disagree with. The former won’t stop me from reading the book (as long as it doesn’t violate point 1 above) – as many have noted, intellectual challenge is one of the points of reading books. The latter will, however, discourage me from supporting said author monetarily (a point Ken Fergason touches on above). And to be honest, it will probably discourage me from reading their books even from the library, unless someone I trust tells me they’re great. I already have more good books then I can possibly read in a lifetime, so I don’t need much of an excuse *not* to add to it.

  9. There are two ways I can think of for a book or author’s ideological stance to diminish a reader’s enjoyment, and I think people almost always talk about only the first, which is when a person finds the author’s viewpoint or the implied stance of the book morally objectionable or offensive.  This is the kind Lou Anders is talking about in his original post, I think, and is the kind usually discussed when the issue comes up.

    There is another way in which I can see a book’s stance or viewpoint marring someone’s enjoyment of the book, however, particularly in regards to politics.  Every adult who is not oblivious to the society around him has an ideology, consciously embraced and held or otherwise.  Political ideologies do, of course, have a purely moral component, beliefs about how things should be.  However, in large part, an ideology is a set of beliefs about how the world works, a sort of physics of society. Can government central planners do a better job of creating prosperity than a market economy?  Can despotic foreign countries be turned into successful democracies through invasion?  Will increased welfare spending have undesirable cultural effects on the recipients?  Is human nature as we know it fixed, or would it change significantly under different socioeconomic conditions?  These are questions full of moral significance, but they are not themselves moral questions.

    If a character in a story is forced to watch as his beloved family is slaughtered and never feels any distress about it, most readers would think, “Hold on, people don’t work that way.”  If you’re reading a science fiction story where normal people routinely survive 500-foot drops in Earth’s gravity without being harmed, the implausibility of it will make it harder to believe in the world of the story, and thus harder to enjoy it.  My father, an attorney, can’t watch TV legal dramas for more than five minutes without yelling at the television.

    Politics can be similar.  When someone’s ideology clashes with yours, he doesn’t just disagree about moral values, he disagrees about how the world works, and how people work.  Thus, when reading a work of fiction, a violation of one’s ideological expectations can be jarring in the same way that poorly done characterization, bad science, or technical mistakes can be.  If you believe that unregulated markets inevitably result in monopolies and plutocracy, a story with a world based on libertarian assumptions about society and economics will be that much harder to buy into.  If you think that the state is by nature an exploitative institution, a setting where the government works the way good-government liberals say it does (or can) is not going to be believable.  You won’t believe in a setting based on a free-love paradise if you believe promiscuity causes unhappiness and social breakdown.  And so on.

    There are ways around this.  (Perhaps everyone in the free-love paradise has been genetically engineered so that they don’t feel jealousy or form strong pair-bond ties.)  And you can still enjoy a story even if you think it’s based on bad assumptions about society and human nature, if it’s other virtues are enough to compensate.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for enjoyment of a story to be affected by these factors, any more than it’s unreasonable for it to be affected by the realism of characterization or science.

    This goes deeper than bad physics, for me and I think for most people.  It’s relatively easy for me to imagine that the laws of physics are other than what they really are, so that FTL travel or whatever is possible.  But ideology is in large part about the natural laws of human beings, and it’s much harder to bracket what I know about human beings than it is to temporarily put aside what I know about physical science.  I can read about and contemplate special relativity, or not, as I choose; I can’t stop living in a human society and thinking and feeling with a human mind.  Almost everyone has strongly held beliefs about how people work that are fundamental to their worldview; most people don’t have such beliefs about science, even if they like the subject and are knowledgeable about it.

    Of course, people who care about the subject mostly agree about the laws of physics, except on the cutting edges, and there’s fairly broad agreement about at least the basics of how most people behave, at least on the individual level.  Ideology is far more contentious.  Most people would be intolerant of a story, if allegedly set in the real universe we know, where people enjoy being tortured or rivers flow uphill, but such intolerance never shows itself because everyone agrees on those points, and so there are no stories like that to be intolerant of.  There’s plenty of opportunity to be intolerant where ideology is concerned, on the other hand, because no comparable consensus exists.  Whatever you believe about politics and society, the world has plenty of people who believe things that will strike you as the equivalent of “rivers flow uphill,” and who would say the same thing about your beliefs.

    So my enjoyment of stories can be, and has been, affected by the ideological stance or assumptions in a book, and I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about that.  (Though I do my best to bracket that aspect when writing a review, since “Are the book’s setting and events in accord with John Markley’s social and political views?” is probably not a question SF fans are dying to know the answer to.)  Now, I don’t give this consideration a huge amount of weight; my views are much too fringe for me to reject everyone I deem doctrinally impure.  I can’t think of a book that I otherwise would have liked that I actually disliked because of its political or ideological content.  But it is a factor.

  10. As a Catholic, other viewpoints are about all I can get in the world of SF.  In fact, you have to be a bit of a masochist, some days.  Many of my favorite authors seem to enjoy slipping a swift kick to my religious face in among all the good stuff.  It’s part of the gig.  And, as Cheryl Morgan said up there, it’s all about the conversation.  So yeah, we’ve got to read things by people we don’t always agree with all the time.

    I do find it interesting that several people expressed this opinion and then went on to say that it doesn’t really count for Orson Scott Card.  So only *some* differing opinions are okay?  Mormonism is just to much for anyone to take?  Or is it the part where he dares to disagree with the world about gay rights?

    As an OSC fan, I feel obliged to stand up for the poor guy, but I don’t know how to do it if he falls outside the rules that govern the rest of the human race.  I’ll have to work on that.

  11. Like Angela, there wouldn’t be a lot of SF/fantasy for me to read if I limited myself to authors who viewed the world like I do. If a story has some kind of redemption factor (even if it deals with tough issues) and its done with quality storytelling techniques then I’ll give it a try as long as the premise interests me.

    Great question!

  12. Adlerian, did you know about Norman Spinrad’s book The Iron Dream?  It assumes an alternative history where Hitler’s takeover of Germany fails, so he moves to America to write pulp sci-fi.  He writes a book which is a version of Mein Kampf retooled to become a space opera where the aliens are stand-ins for Jews and Communists.  What’s amazing is that Spinrad’s book The Iron Dream doesn’t tell the story of Hitler–it is the novel “Hitler” “wrote”.  A very cool, very Spinradian concept, I’d say, and the juiciest part is that Hitler ends up beating out Heinlein for a Hugo award.  Controversial to say the least, Spinrad’s book has been banned in Germany at various times.


    So, strictly speaking, your point that “you could not publish” such a book is wrong, but your wider point that it would be controversial is dead on, and I think it’s very amusing you thought up the idea independently of Spinrad.


  13. John Markley, excellent point. Never thought of it that way.

    Luke Shea, come on. Of course “only *some* differing opinions are OK.” Are you going to support an author who loudly and publicly insists that, say, the Catholic Church encourages pedophilia and its members should have their foreheads tattooed so people know to avoid them? I certainly wouldn’t. Everybody has limits to their tolerance, and everybody’s limits are flexible depending on a whole bunch of factors. It’s all about context.

    And OSC is hardly that ‘poor guy’. If you’re going to get up on your soapbox and yell, you can expect people to disagree with you – sometimes strongly. If you don’t want them to, you can keep your opinions to yourself – it’s his choice, and he’s obviously gone with option A. I’m not aware of anyone calling for his books to be banned or anything, so I don’t see the problem.

  14. Okay, fair enough.  Only some opinions are okay.  Nazis held distinctively not-okay opinions.  Sure.  I’m not saying everyone has to love Orson Scott Card.  I just found it amusing that several people said “Yeah!  Go forth and read authors you don’t agree with as long as they’re not Orson Scott Card, ’cause that guy really pisses me off, you know?”

     If they can’t read OSC because of a difference of opinion (over an issue that almost never arisies in his fiction), why are they saying that they are in favor of reading authors they don’t agree with?  I found it an interesting gap in thought.  If people were saying “I like reading authors whom I don’t dissagree with too very much about things that are partictularly important to me,” that would be something else, I suppose.

    As for the soapbox bit, It’s the internet, chum.  He’s no more soapboxy than you and your blog and your  comments elsewhere.  We’ve all got our chunk of floorspace in this great global Speaker’s Corner, he just has orders of magnitude more digital denizens listening to him than the rest of us.  So yeah, I guess “poor guy” wasn’t really the right term.  He has his fans and supporters, has them in droves.  But I still feel bad for him sometimes.  The last time he was invited, I repeat *invited,* to write on this blog–

    — His opinions on YA fiction were met with a resounding chorus of “LA LA LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING TO YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE A BIG, FAT, SMELLY, HOMOPHOBIC JERK!!!”

     I just hate to see his opinions on other matters and, most of all, his lovely stories dismissed because people generally revile one facet of his political views.  I mean, isn’t that what this whole conversation was about?  Can’t we learn from people we don’t always agree with, *even* on the issue of gay rights?

  15. No, I can’t get much enjoyment from books pushing particular political or religious viewpoints in such a way that it’s obvious by the end (or before) that they’re doing that. Especially if in the process of getting their point across, the authors make their characters behave in unconvincing or inconsistent ways and belabor the plot so that everything will work out as their preferred viewpoint would predict. That said, I might be a wee bit less apt to notice if the viewpoint they were pushing was not outright opposed to (versus just different from) mine. As they say, the fish doesn’t notice the water like we would since it’s used to swimming in it. The same could be said for opinions if they coincide with one’s own, at least if the writer is relatively clever and low-key in the presentation. As a counter example, I very much hated the war in Vietnam but I didn’t like The Word For World Is Forest at all (pretty much alone among LeGuin’s books).

    There is a difference when the world portrayed in a story or the underlying assumptions of the society that the story drops me into are reprehensible to me. In many cases it’s obvious the author also finds the portrayed world undesirable, but even when that’s not the case if the logic of the plot and the actions of the characters are not contorted beyond reason in order to make the story “work” on the author’s terms, I can handle it. At least up to a certain level of pain experienced from identifying with the characters in such unpleasant circumstances. Thinking of three different works that portray nasty societies, for example, I could force myself to mentally push away some of the more unpleasant aspects in Dan Crawford’s “Mouse” books thanks to the black humor, in Cherryh’s Cyteen I had a bit tougher go because the stress levels of the two main characters were so high and so realistically depicted (to me), and in Ricardo Pinto’s beautifully written books I eventually had to stop reading because the society was so overwhelmingly cruel and depressing.

    Yes, the standard “high fantasy” society of royal blood and fixed social stations and rampant sexism gets more irksome the more I read it, but not so much because those concepts are noxious (they are) as because the story isn’t showing me anything new or interesting to justify going over that same ground again. And military science fiction that re-enacts the Napoleonic Wars or World War II in space in order to either prove some political point or just let the author “play soldiers” gets very tiring very quickly, since it’s guilty of the same sort genre fakery as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “red Indians on Mars” stuff, with the difference being that Burroughs did it before there many other writers were showing how to do it better. There’s a point (in both fantasy and science fiction) where you get “trope fatigue” and wonder why a younger generation of writers feels the need to be so derivative of (and respectful toward) fiction from two or four or six decades ago. It may be the inbred nature of this genre. But that’s a subject for a different rant.

  16. Jim Shannon // September 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm //

    This question really gives me another angle of research I hadn’t thought before when buying books from a new author.

    That’s why I like author blogs. With author blogs you can get an idea of what the author believes in just by going through his blog archives. Like some of the other posters above, I also prefer a POV different then mine. By looking at what an author believes in one can see if the author is just jumping on the band wagon to get sympathetic readers or truly believes what he’s writing about.

    What I’m going to start looking for in a new author are the issues that an author writes about but are counter to the authors own beliefs in his blog. For example, lets say an author is not in favor of global warming but writes about an environmentalist as the protagonist and said hero in the story never changes his own world view. Or say in said authors blog he talks about being a Christian but his protagonist is a and remains a Muslim throughout the story. When an author writes from that perspective that authors credibility-stock for me at least went up.

  17. I thought that was very insightful, John Markley.

  18. Reading something with a different world view and challenging yourself and your preconceptions as a reader is part of the fun of reading, in my view. As has been said, there’s a difference between that and the author whacking you over the head with his ideas with all the subtlety of a brick.

    Card does get a raw deal, but in fairness the first and foremost problem with EMPIRE wasn’t that it was extremely right-wing to the point of fantasy, it was more the utterly horrendous writing. I don’t share Card’s right-wing viewpoints at all, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying ENDER’S GAME or finding the ideas raised by SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD intriguing or giving thanks regularly that he helped stop Elron Hubbard get a Hugo, but EMPIRE was simply unreadable. I also find Simmons’ ideas pretty ridiculous, but that doesn’t take away the fact that HYPERION is one of the best SF novels of the last twenty years.

  19. Yeah, I haven’t read Empire.  Didn’t really look like my kind of thing.  My favorites of his are his short fiction, the Alvin Maker stories, the Worthing Saga, and Treason, in that order.

    I know what you mean about bad writing, though.  Even Azimov and Clarke laid down a few snoozers in their days.  Sometimes within a series.  Azimov’s Robots series got pretty preposterous the farther along it got.   Clarke was a little more consistent, at least in what I’ve read, but even he put out short fiction that stank to high heaven every now and then.  Same with Bradbury, my favorite author of all time.  For every couple of his truly great short stories, of which there are a huge amount, he wrote two or three mediocre ones and one pretty bad one.  But even his terrible stories are so poetically written, they’re worth a look or two.

    Bad writing was ultimately what drove me away from Pullman’s His Dark Materials.  I read the first one, just to be fluent and coherent when the controversy came up in conversation (I work in a bookstore, so this happened a lot).  I actually enjoyed the first one.  It was fairly heavy-handed and mildly insulting at times, but the story was exciting and had a cool Big Idea driving it.  The second book started off strong, lots of fun ideas with the subtle knife and the mysterious goings-on in the labs and stuff, but by the end of the book I was so weary of picking out story from among philosophical exposition on why me and my family are the source of all that is wrong with the world… I couldn’t even bring myself to pick up the third one.  I was willing to work with the idea of the story being told, because it was big and exciting, even if I didn’t buy into it.  But the writing deteriorated into agenda-detailing and eventually crushed the story flat.

    I guess that’s all obvious, though.  We all read for the purpose of ingesting and digesting good writing.

  20. Luke Shea:

    As for the soapbox bit, It’s the internet, chum.  He’s no more soapboxy than you and your blog and your  comments elsewhere.

    Er, yeah. My point wasn’t that OSC was *more* soapboxy (although he does have a bigger soapbox, seeing as he’s actually published some books and people have read them and all). It was just that, if you’re going to climb up on a soapbox, you can expect people to disagree with you. And the more extreme your views (“extreme” also, of course, being relative to your audience) to more vehemently people will disagree with you. I’m not saying he shouldn’t get up on his soapbox, I’m just saying don’t come crying to me if people don’t like what you say and hold it against you, even to the point of not buying your books. If someone is offended by the politics of my little blog I don’t expect them to continue reading it just because the music reviews are witty and insightful… nor do I expect them to pay any attention to my comments on SF Signal.

    I agree with you on the Pullman books – I loved the first one, thought the second one was ok, and found the third one to be a bore. ‘Message’ writing generally sucks, regardless of what you think of the message (though I should note I found the first one neither heavy-handed nor insulting – once again, context matters). I felt the same way about China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books. Loved the first two, but Iron Council read to me like 50’s Soviet propaganda wrapped in a bit of fantasy weirdness. Snoozeville.

  21. Mark Charan Newton Censors // September 18, 2008 at 5:06 pm //

    How about an author that likes deleting blog comments for no other real reason than they disagree with his leftwing facist views.

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