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Sci-Fi, Social Justice, and the New “Futurians”

I kept my relative distance from the whole Sad Puppies / Hugo controversy. While I definitely find myself on the Puppies side and even have a few writing / publishing friends who’ve suffered backlash from the overt politicization of the awards, I personally have no dog (or puppy) in the fight. The gist of the plaintives’ gripes is that the sci-fi community has become overly politicized and driven by an agenda of multicultural inclusivity. Writing “good stories” has given way to bean counting the number of LGBTQ characters represented in a given story and an equatable mix of diverse authors.

It caused author Larry Correia (and Puppy advocate), writing in this post, to suggest how nominating him for a Hugo would be a vote for “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic” and a vote against,

“…the heavy handed message fic about the dangers of fracking and global warming and dying polar bears and robot rape as a bad feminist analogy with a villain who is a thinly veiled Dick Cheney”

parsons_comicThe debate about “message-driven” stories versus those of “unabashed pulp action” is never-ending. While some argue that all Fiction is message driven and that fiction (especially of the speculative) variety should be a tool for shaping humankind, others decry such a heavy-handed approach, seeing stories as more inspirational, enchanting, escapist entertainment. Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time the sci-fi community has been embroiled in such a debate.

Several years ago, as research for a novel, I read Strange Angel, George Pendle’s biography of rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons. Parsons died in a mysterious explosion in 1952 in his Pasadena home, but not before becoming one of the world’s most influential rocket scientists and a passionate devotee to the teachings of Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed “wickedest man in the world.” Parsons was a favorite in the local, budding Science Fiction community in nearby Los Angeles, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein.

One interesting sidenote in the book is the intersection between the Science community and the science fiction community. While some saw the genre as envisioning real scientific possibilities, like rockets, space flight, and interplanetary travel, others saw it as pulpy nonsense. Science fiction writers were anxious to embrace Parsons because he embodied the cutting edge technologies so important to their own stories, not to mention his metaphysical eccentricities. But not everyone in the science fiction community saw their craft as a means for helping humanity and forging real futures. And thus a division developed. It showed itself at the first World Science Fiction Convention of 1939.

As the world was being wracked by political ideologies, so the science fiction community had become riven by its own byzantine political struggles, as if mimicking the tumultuous events on the world stage. Two radically opposed fan organizations, the Futurians and New Fandom, had declared that they would be attending the convention. The politicized Futurians, whose ranks included a young Isaac Asimov, held that science fiction should rise to “a vision [of] a greater world, a greater future for the whole of mankind, and [should] utilize… idealistic convictions for aid in a generally cooperative and diverse movement for the betterment of the world among democratic, impersonal, and unselfish lines.” Opposed to them was New Fandom, the group that had organized the convention, who insisted that science fiction be read purely as entertainment. To them, the Futurians were “dangerously red”; indeed, many Futurians were also members of the American Communist Party. Scuffles ensued and some Futurians were barred from entering the convention. (pg. 156)

It appears that the Futurians had suffered a split of their own. According to the Wikipedia article, it all began at the New York “Boys Science Fiction League”:

As time passed, some of people within this league, started to think in non-conformist ways, in the style of H.G. Wells. This upset a number of the other members of the league and contributed to some people leaving. This split lead to two main groups being formed. Members of one new group came to be called the Futurians and the rest of the old New York group, went on to become the Lunarians. The Lunarian’s goal was to make traveling to the moon and living there, a reality. The Futurian group focused on changing the way people lived and worked.

Futurians. Lunarians. New Fandom. Apparently, this ideological wrestling match inside the science fiction community has a history.

In many ways, the creators of American pop culture are still enmeshed in this debate. For example (and there’s many examples), director J.J. Abrams admitted that Star Trek: Into Darkness contained some serious political commentary (caution: there are spoilers in this article!). In fact, one of the actors in the film, Benedict Cumberbatch said:

“It’s no spoiler I think to say that there’s a huge backbone in this film that’s a comment on recent U.S. interventionist overseas policy from the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld era.”

So does this make Abrams a Futurian (or is it, Lunarian)?

Either way, the hostilities between New Fandom and the Futurians provide a glimpse into a continuing ideological struggle in the sci-fi community and the legislators of pop culture. Should our stories be purely entertainment? Or should we approach storytelling like the Futurians, as a tool for the “betterment of the world”?

The more I grow as an author and a reader, the less I am interested in “heavy-handed message fic.” Of course, stories have messages. And writing stories for the “betterment of the world” seems like quite a noble endeavor. Nevertheless, when such an intention becomes the over-arching agenda and leads to “heavy handed message fic,” I’m checking out. I read to be entertained, inspired, disturbed, and moved. Nit-picking over an author’s race or gender, the number of ethnicities represented in their books, or the sociological or environmental issues they manage to tackle, seems like a wrong-headed approach to story-telling. Give me good, old-fashioned pulp over pretentious preaching any day.

Which, I guess, lands me squarely in the ranks of the next New Fandom.

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This post first appeared on DeCOMPOSE, please read the originial post: here

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Sci-Fi, Social Justice, and the New “Futurians”


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