Whatever your politics, one thing that’s clear about the present moment in the US is that a lot of people view our President as a villain. We — not all Americans, but people who share my political
affinities — believe the President is bigoted, corrupt, vindictive, indifferent to suffering at best and cruel at worst. In contrast, we look back with longing at the man he’s replaced: a President we
remember as level-headed and compassionate, restrained and ethical. Americans whose politics lean rightward may, of course, hold different views.
But it doesn’t take much looking to see that, at least so far, the truly consequential sins of Obama’s and Trump’s Americas (and, for that matter, Bush’s and Clinton’s) are as similar as they are
different. The differences matter, of course: I wouldn’t dream of erasing the sorrows of those who lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the joys of those who finally married the loves of
their lives after _Obergefell v. Hodges_. But we are stalled on climate change. The ACA has taken only some of the insanity out of health care. Inequality has gotten worse; mass deportation has flowered under the Obama administration, as has mass incarceration, with the one spark of progress — ending the federal use of private prisons — now extinguished.
No matter how much we’d like to believe that one President is Sauron and another Gandalf, these problems can’t be pinned on a President — or a legislator, or a justice, or any set of people small enough that you can learn all their faces. They’re responses to a complex mix of factors, and they’re embedded in the structure of our society, as elective and yet as intractable as the invisible borders between Beszel and Ul Qoma.
These structural forces are massive. It’s not too much of a stretch to say they’re evil. They’re obviously worth writing about. But how do you write about evil when there’s nothing we understand as human agency, no villain, behind it — without turning your story into propaganda?
Here’s how some smart fantasy and science fiction writers have done it.
STEP INTO ANOTHER GENRE. China Mieville’s THE CITY & THE CITY exposes the tensions between the interleaved cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma through a murder mystery. That book wears its noir/surrealist blend on its sleeve, but Mieville takes a similar approach in PERDIDO STREET STATION, which has more or less a thriller structure — the heroes have to destroy a monster, to be sure, but they’re also on the run, beset on every side by the authoritarian political establishment and its efforts to control the crisis.
Fantasy and science fiction pair well with other genres: Mystery, thriller, romance, even historical. Those genres provide sources of motivation other than DEFEAT THE VILLAIN. You can motivate your hero to FIND OUT (mystery), PREVENT or ESCAPE (thriller), BE WITH (romance). Weave in your social issues as obstacles to the character’s ultimate goal, rather than making their abolition the goal in itself.
CONFRONT BUT COMPLICATE. There’s a (sort of) stand-up-and-cheer scene in the middle of James S. A. Corey’s LEVIATHAN WAKES: Our heroes have tracked down and subdued the director of an illicit science facility that’s responsible for the mass murder of a space station’s worth of people at the hands of an alien biological agent. The director is talking, persuasively, about how our heroes need his knowledge, how his influence can help solve the problem. And Detective Miller, a morally hollowed-out character in the process of becoming a monomaniacal sonofabitch, shoots him anyway. It doesn’t solve much of anything; it doesn’t help anybody do what most desperately needs to be done. But we thought the director was going to get away with it, and Detective Miller didn’t let him, and that is, in its bloodthirsty, antiheroic, morally repugnant kind of way, totally awesome.
China Mieville’s IRON COUNCIL takes this all the way around: The revolutionaries’ plan to assassinate the (admittedly corrupt and kind of evil) mayor of New Crobuzon ends up being a personal vendetta, and an active distraction from the true threat to the city.
Villains and duels and one-on-one triumphs aren’t necessarily non-starters in SF and fantasy that deals meaningfully with social issues. What they are is non-finishers. You can defeat a villain with swords and spells, and that can be meaningful; but the villain’s defeat won’t undo all the harm he’s done — to say nothing of the social conditions that permitted his rise to power in the first place. One day, I’m going to write a novel about the Occupation of Mordor — or maybe a monograph: “Colonialism and Nation-Building under the Gondor-Rohan World Order.” Seriously, you think a million orcs who’ve known nothing but plunder and fury are just going to meekly settle down inside their borders and be good? There’s going to be some kind of police action there, and no matter what King Aragorn and Queen Arwen would prefer, it’s not going to be pretty.
BROADEN THE APERTURE. If your goal is to illuminate patterns of oppression or discrimination that arise from social structures, one way in is just to tell _enough_ individual stories that you can have your cake and eat it too: Use the intense focus on personal struggles to hook and engage readers, and use the collective impact of the stories to paint the higher-level picture. Of course, this just about requires an ensemble drama, which is a challenge to craft on several levels — the characters have to be distinguishable, pursuing different goals and confronted by different challenges; but the plotlines have to interact in interesting and meaningful ways, adding up to a coherent whole.
Do it right, though, and you’ll have created an edifice of story on the level of THE WIRE, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, or GAME OF THRONES: a grand, sweeping story of a whole world, made real and inevitable through the lives of the people inhabiting it. GoT has done an especially good job with this, showing a social order that’s fragile and rotten, ripe for pillage, incapable of resisting or even acknowledging the threat that’s gathering in the North. And part of what makes it so effective, and so terrifying, is that each piece makes sense on its own: The reader can see the danger mounting, but it’s clear that, given what each character can do and what she knows, she’s doing the best she can.
Have we missed any great fantasy and science fiction that engages with social justice? (We’re confident the answer is yes.) Let us know in the comments!
BONUS MATERIAL: The Self-Publishing Podcast has a great episode on this very topic: Storytelling for Social Profit with Laura Leigh Clarke.