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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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. . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.