I hadn’t planned on writing this blog post, but recent events has caused something to grind my gears. Specifically, the term message fiction.
Message fiction is the latest in a long line of words that have been generated or co-opted by the Right and turned into a pejorative, along with such bon mots as ‘virtual signaling,’ ‘doxxing,’ ‘mansplaining,’ and any number of such phrases that have poisoned our speech and infected the zeitgeist these last couple of years. But unlike those other terms, message fiction is of particular interest to those of us who read and write science fiction, and that special significance is the reason for this post.
I’ve been seeing this term bandied about online for a while now, but what brought it to the fore was a couple weeks back when noted writer, editor and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Cat Rambo posted on Facebook warning about a particularly self-righteous and nasty little rightwing troll named Jon del Arroz, an indie writer and self-described “journalist” who recently took it upon himself to “prove” through faulty research methodology and purely anecdotal evidence that there are more women writing short fiction than men, and that this is affront to dudes and represents an apocalypse in which male voices are being drowned out. (What’s interesting to me about del Arroz and his knuckle-dragging ilk is that, even if this were true (and it’s most clearly not), they obviously didn’t give a shit about it when it was the other way around. No, an unbalance that favors them is just hunky dory, de rigueur, business as usual. But when they’re precious privilege is perceived to be taken away from them, it’s suddenly the Twilight of the Gods.)
This is complete and utter bullshit, of course. In fact, the opposite is true, and SF is still a field dominated by men. But when Ms. Rambo pointed out to Mr. del Arroz that the methodology he used was faulty, because it used too small a sample size of current magazines that take submissions to be statistically significant, he took umbrage and started trolling her on Facebook and Twitter and calling for her to be ousted from the SFWA for “being mean” to him.
There are a lot of things about this guy that buries the needle on my bullshit detector. He calls himself a journalist, then writes articles about himself with third-person headlines that proclaim him “the leading Hispanic author in SF”. He’s reportedly a proud indie, but attacks those who work in traditional publishing about why he and others like him aren’t being included. He trolls, and then gets mad when people call him out on his bullshit and cries foul when everyone doesn’t automatically kiss his ass. But the thing that really angered me enough to write this blog post is this uniquely rightwing insistence that anything that attempts to include others is somehow a deliberate attempt to exclude them.
Hence, message fiction.
I’m not going to link to this guy. He’s an obvious attention whore who thrives on even bad press, which somehow emboldens him and makes his cause–whatever the hell it is–more just, even if only to him. So I’m not going to give him the attention he so obviously craves. You can easily look him up if you’re so inclined. His blog is hilarious, presumptuous and off-putting.
But today, kids, we’re going to talk about message fiction. Maybe I should even put that in all caps:
Can you say that? I knew you could.
So, what the hell am I talking about when I say message fiction?
Since it’s a purely rightwing term, let’s go to the rightwing source, in this case, one Theodore Beale, who calls himself Vox Day (another White Nationalist attention whore with an overdeveloped sense of his own self-worth I won’t flatter by sending a backlink to his blog). But he did manage to write a short, useful article on message fiction (hey, it was bound to happen sooner or later) and I have the meat of it right here. This, then, is the definition of message fiction, according to Vox Day (Literally, the Voice of God. I love the unbridled and unearned hubris of these people. As a meme someone posted on Facebook related to del Arroz said: Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.) from his Castalia House blog:
What distinguishes message fiction from other kinds of fiction is that it is primarily agenda-driven. That is to say, message fiction is created first and foremost for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. Since authorial intention is often unclear, we tend to only notice the blatant cases — the ones with long-winded preachy sermons by one-dimensional characters who are only heroic by virtue of their cause. Nevertheless, message fiction is propaganda within a narrative wrapper, where the story, whether well crafted or not, is merely the delivery mechanism for the message. This definition applies to message fiction that is conservative or liberal, Christian or pagan. A good story, i.e. one with a compelling plot, theme, characters, and style, can still be message fiction if and only if the author wrote it to deliver a message.
Now, there are a couple of things I call bullshit on in this article, but I’ll get to those in a minute. At the end of the article, Vox says that he and his ilk oppose “the boring message fiction. An important distinction.”
Interesting that he makes that distinction. I call bullshit on this line, since boring is in the eye of the beholder, at least to a certain extent. But it’s important for what I have to say next.
Another thing I take issue with is that this term, message fiction, like all of these terms the frightwing like to bandy about, whether they stole it from the left or made it up themselves out of whole cloth, is that it is used in a derogatory way. For example, They call anyone who disagrees with them–and strives for a fair and equal system for everyone–Social Justice Warriors, or SJWs for short. Yeah? And? I’ll proudly wear that badge all day. Of course I’m a social justice warrior. Why aren’t you?
But since we’ve defined message fiction, let’s define derogatory. According to Google (seriously, how is Google not Skynet yet?):
information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
“he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda”
Now, this makes it sound like message fiction is tantamount to distributing leaflets from an airplane behind enemy lines. But that’s exactly how the Sad Puppies (the SF alt-reich’s term for themselves) use it. In every single instance. In every single case. Whether it’s good message fiction never even comes up.
So, if an SF story or novel has a female protagonist, or a starship inhabited entirely by people of color, or dares involve anything other than white guys in space, it is message fiction. A thing to be reviled and feared, making the world unsafe for rich white guys everywhere. They don’t care if it’s good. They automatically assume it’s bad. It must be, if it contains things which don’t fit their own narrow worldview of white guys flying around in giant chrome penis rocketships rescuing fair yet brainless damsels from menacing aliens that are almost always cardboard stand-ins for Communists or whomever is the hated du jour at the time the stuff is written.
Oh, but maybe I’m being too hard on them. They have come a bit farther up the chain since the halcyon golden age of science fiction. They just want science fiction to be fun again, and to have no political message whatsoever, even though their blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook walls are nothing but political (especially if they disagree with it; actually, only if they disagree with it).
And I get it. I really do. I too write fun adventure SF. I currently have two space opera novels that have nothing to do with current Earth-based geopolitical squabblings. They have aliens, big damn spaceships, and robotic invaders. They are clearly not message fiction. My other stuff is steampunk and pulp, just classic good vs. evil fare. Not a lot you can argue for being overtly political.
But here’s the problem: someday I might want to write message fiction. And dammit, I should be able to if I so choose. It’s the message fiction that lasts. It’s the message fiction that stretches one as a writer, because it’s hard to do well. It’s hard to do without coming off preachy and heavy-handed.
And here’s the other problem: It’s all message fiction. All of it. If Brown Girl in the Ring and Ancillery Justice and Parable of the Sower are message fiction, then Starship Troopers and Oath of Fealty and Lucifer’s Hammer sure as shit is message fiction. And it’s a message we read loud and clear.
But that doesn’t mean the message was meant for you.
If a female woman of color wants to write about a future in which a transgender black woman pilots a starship through hostile alien forces to freedom, she can do that without you getting bent out of shape about it. She is free to write and say whatever she wants. And it takes nothing away from you, your maleness, or your whiteness if such a book exists. Don’t like it? Then don’t fucking read it. Write what you want. Don’t whine and complain and troll the author and sit in your hovel banging out angry screeds on your blog about how all these SJWs are ruining your precious science fiction, all because you feel empowered because Trump’s president now and that makes it OK for you to use the N word again.
The genre is big enough and broad of scope enough that there is room for every kind of voice. And if you don’t want to read something, nobody’s holding a gun to your head making you. And if someone on an awards committee thinks that stuff is better than your stuff, it is fine for them to do so. It’s their opinion.
While I was learning about Jon del Arroz, I found a YouTube video in which he was interviewed by someone, and they were talking about work getting rejected in favor of novels that had foreigners and people of color in them. That work couldn’t have possibly been better than what these Sad Puppies submitted. No, it had to be because this stuff had foreigners and people of color in them. That’s the only reason these profit-motivated publishers, who have always had their collective finger on the pulse of what’s selling right this very minute, could have accepted these pieces of SJW trash, which can’t possibly hold a candle to their golden prose.
Don’t you think, just for a femtosecond, that maybe, just maybe, your book might not have been as good as theirs? Isn’t there just a scintilla of a possibility? You can do lots of things if this happens to you. You can write a better book and submit to that publisher again. You can self-publish (lots of folks, including me, are going that route, and many of them, not including me, are having great results).
But what you can’t do is decide your book was rejected because it didn’t have enough brown people in it and go in a Twitter tirade against the poor editor, then pillory said editor yet again for rightly calling you out for being a horse’s ass.
And lest you think this is a chiefly a prose fiction problem, let me say that it’s happening in comics too. These Sad Puppies are angry over a move toward more diversity in comics, as if a more diverse comics readership is ever a bad thing. That’s another place they don’t want message fiction. Only what do you call this?
Captain America punching Hitler in the face was message fiction back in 1945. The only difference is, now the neo-Nazis have got their swastika panties in a bunch because the guy they idolize is no longer Cap, but ole’ Adolf himself.
I am continually astounded at the number of right-wingers in the SF field, either as rabid and vocal fans or as well-known contributors. It’s like they’ve never actually read anything beyond Heinlein, or watched a single episode of Star Trek. Star Trek is all about diversity. It’s about a post-scarcity, socialist utopia. It’s a message about the future. But to these guys it’s all just Kirk beaming down to planets that always look like the hills above Van Nuys, fighting the lizard monster and bedding the half-naked green chick. But if that’s all Star Trek was, a comforting, staid reminder of an idealized past that only truly existed for guys who look like me and Vox Day, it wouldn’t have lasted more than 50 years. It wouldn’t have anything left to say to us now.
SF, whatever else it might be to the del Arrozs and Vox Days of the world, is a candle in the dark. A way of seeing the world that uses rationalism and kindness. We’ve come too far to slide back down into the dark now. A darkness composed of willful ignorance and dogma and obscurantism, of jingoism and authoritarianism and fear of the Other and just plain old Ayn Randian “I’ve got mine, so fuck you!” selfishness.
It’s all message fiction. If it’s message fiction to include people of color, then it’s message fiction to leave them out.