When ‘Rendered Flesh’ released, I knew it was going to be divisive. It’s a book driven by the main character’s politics and their identity, a leftist, socially progressive, non-binary activist, of course it was going to draw criticisms. Luckily, to date, the most scathing response is still an Amazon review (no death-threats from Right-Wing Proud Boys yet), accusing the book of being a ‘vehicle for the author’s politics’. I don’t clap-back at bad reviews, not directly anyway, and I don’t advise you to either but…
We live in a time of weaponized ignorance so, for the record. Yeah, ‘Rendered Flesh’ is a political commentary piece, it is. Me and George Romero, father of the zombie genre we know today (in fact he wanted them to be known as ‘ghouls’ to tie in with Western folklore, not the Haitian tradition). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, if you’re actively avoiding zombie horror with a sociopolitical commentary? You’re missing out on the best of the genre there, bud.
But it’s not just me, is it? And it’s not just zombies coming under fire, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds recently drew (much mocked) criticism for being ‘too woke’. On the 14th of May 2022, Fox News tweeted the headline;
‘OPINION: Star Trek writers take Starship Enterprise where it’s never gone before – woke politics’
I’m certainly not the first to say it but, it has been “woke” ever since they included a Japanese-born actor, held in an internment camp during WW2, an actor depicting a Russian national at the height of the Cold War, and a black actress depicting the senior comm’s officer all as bridge crew of a space exploration vessel named for a Yorktown class Aircraft carrier that served in the U.S. Navy from 1936 to 1960, 7th of that name and the most decorated U.S. naval vessel to serve in WW2. Perhaps when they portrayed the first on-screen, interracial kiss between Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the episode ‘Plato’s Children’ in 1968, the same year (and months after) Martin Luther King was assassinated.
You cannot have a deep, detailed, engaging story without politics. The way people read and interpret your work is going to be influenced with how their politics interacts with the politics within your setting. I keep going back to it (because I love it) but Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’, Orwell’s ‘1984’, Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, these books are held up, not because they are political, but because they are overtly political. Here is a great blog entry by Ann Leckie that covers this point excellently (with some extended reading by R.B. Lemberg).
Pretty much any element of setting or story can be picked at as motivated by the writer’s politics, you can’t write an apolitical novel. The simplest examples (and these are sweeping statements, not remotely the whole picture);
- Female Protagonist – Feminist
- Male Protagonist – Supports the Patriarchy
- Multi-Ethnic Cast – Liberal
- Single Ethnicity – Conservative/Racist
- Socialist setting – Communist
- Militaristic setting – Fascist
These examples are extreme and over-simplified but, more and more, the world we live in is become divisive and extremist in it’s perceptions. The division that Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Orangutan’ (The Murders in the Rue Morgue – 1841) causes between academics and the subsequent Reddit memes are illustrative of the trend. More recently the Manga and Anime ‘Attack on Titan’ (Hajime Isayama) has drawn criticism for it’s emergent Fascist undertones and messages and, despite looking long and hard for a final answer among the articles online, I couldn’t tell you if the show is an allegory for fascism or propaganda, is it so ‘overt’ as to be truly ‘covert’ just like Paul Verhoeven’s movie adaptation of ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997). This article in Collider gives the ‘cleverly subversive’ angle with supporting frames from the original text and is a direct response to a Polygon article (linked) by Tom Speelman that frames the opposite argument.
So, can you avoid politics in your work? No, not at all, it’s always going to be there somewhere. The only way to avoid getting called-out for being too political is to keep the focus away (if you can) and avoid commenting on hot-topic issues, or you could revel in it, be critical, be scathing, call-out the injustices and wrongs of the system, but do it though a lens of the fantastical, in the same way Sir Terry Pratchett did so well in the Guards books. The political content of any given piece makes people uncomfortable when it contradicts or opposes their own internal position. Although, I’m pretty sure we all know someone whom we feel would benefit from having their position challenged, don’t we?