I recently was given a review/awards copy of a book that was just plain awful. Those who know me know that I rarely say anything is “awful,” I’m very aware that “I didn’t like it” is not a synonym for “It is bad.”
But this book really was, in my opinion, awful. It was a political tract with some not hugely interesting characters attached masquerading as a novel. I don’t even remember the actual plot, such as it was.
I’m not going to launch into a diatribe about how science fiction has gotten too political. Because all science fiction is political. All of it. Even pulp adventure has something to say.
But if you do want to place an overt message in your work make sure that isn’t all you have.
Brave New World, Satire and Thin Plots
Just to prove that this isn’t a recent phenomenon, hands up who’s read Brave New World.
Brave New World is a political satire and considered a great science fiction classic. Huxley was worried about two things — eugenics and consumerism, and he combines the two in a book often considered brilliant.
Okay, hands up who remembers the plot of Brave New World. Savage something something savage something island something.
Fact is, that taken as a piece of literature, Brave New World really isn’t anything much. Huxley got away with it because of the brilliant and satirical worldbuilding.
Most of us aren’t Huxley.
Should You Avoid Politics, Then?
As I already said, all science fiction is political. No, you absolutely should not avoid politics. Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect is an overtly political book that explores the potential consequences and downsides of rapid response direct democracy. It’s often mistakenly considered as espousing the system, but it’s not, it’s an exploration of it (per the author, yes, I asked).
There is nothing wrong with writing a book that engages with questions such as “Should we have basic income?” or “How do we avoid colonialism when we travel into space?”
But you have to have a story to go with your message, and the story has to come first. Just as it’s bad to make your readers suffer through all of your research or all of your worldbuilding, it’s bad to make them suffer through page after page of message. Look at Doctor Who…the heavy handed political episodes are always worse than the ones which couch things in the show’s base conflict: Humanity versus the inhumane. Or, in kids’ terms, Monsters!
Make sure that you have a good plot and interesting characters, and that your characters in some way embody the political conflict you’re trying to portray, and you will have a much better book.
You might even consider a few monsters.