Social Justice Warriors Are Not Ruining Science Fiction!

So hear’s the thing… I am frequently running into fans of science fiction who are half my age and proport to be more knowledgeable about the genre than I, and what’s more, they can explain to me exactly why it’s all going straight to hell.

To cut to the chase of their rather lengthy arguments, they claim that social justice warriors (SJWs) are destroying all that’s good in science fiction. Now, I’ve never met someone who calls themselves an SJW and have only heard it used as an insulting term. But whoever these SJW may, or may not, be the complaint is that science fiction will never recover from their vandalism of the genre. Which leaves me with just one question, WHAT ARE THEY SMOKING?

From my old-fart fan point of view, science fiction has never been better. Don’t believe me? Just try to sit through the movie Zardoz or any episode of Space 1999, I dare you. Have you ever read any James Blish? Well, I sure don’t recommend him. I suffered through his novel All The Stars a Stage thirty-five years ago; and still, have scars on my eyelids from having to prop ’em up with toothpicks to get to the end. Often authors who were good at high concept were bad at storytelling and some of the better storytellers didn’t seem to have much to say (I’m talking to YOU Poul Anderson with your Flanery series).

Was there any good stuff back in the 1970s and 80s? Well of course, if you knew where to look. Star Wars naturally wasn’t hard to find, but Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon might be. Anything by Ray Bradbury could be depended on to sooth the geeky soul, and I highly recommend Phill Foglio’s Buck Godot comics. But finding that good stuff among piles of mediocrity could be a tedious task and one could grow weary. Why sometimes we’d just watch an episode of V so that we could pretend to be interested in a new SF TV show.

To Quote Billy Jole, “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”

Now, thanks to the internet we have access to all the good stuff from the past and can take our pick of some really good stuff being made today. The Marvel movies are generally very good, and DC gets it right every now and again. Some really good novels are available at the click of an icon (I recommend Redshirts by John Scalzi). And the writing, acting, and production values of today’s Dr. Who beat the tar out of much of the earlier stuff (although Tom Baker still rocked the part). So what are these fanboys complaining about when they moan about SJWs ruining science fiction?

In a word: diversity.

Star Trek Discovery featured–gasp–a black woman captain and the new Dr. Who has boobs. Star Wars is no longer comprised of a cast of a half dozen white guys and one solitary gal but instead has a black stormtrooper, women in leadership positions, a Hispanic pilot dude and an Asian female mechanic–oh the horror of it all.

Now, what I’ve got to say might sound weird, but I expect it’s fairly simple. Good science fiction depends on a good concept coupled with, a plot to carry it to completion, and good characters to lead you through the story. That’s it! If your concept allows you to explore strange new frontiers and entertain ideas imaginatively, you’ve got a good start. If your plot keeps the audience engaged and eager to see how it all ends, you’ve got a story to tell. And finally, if the characters are interesting, three-dimensional people who behave logically in accordance with their unique personalities, it doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn what gender of color they are!

I turned away from Star Trek Discovery because it had a bad concept, plot, and the character’s acted stupidly. It had nothing to do with the fact that Captian Yeoh was Asian because frankly, who cares?

True, once upon a time science fiction was a pasty white sausage festival, and why anybody considers that a good thing I have no idea. Today, we have more diverse characters and I think that’s good. But diversity alone doesn’t make it better or worse form a storytelling point of view. So why take pains to inclued the previously unincluded?

Well, for one reason it makes science fiction more appealing to a wider audience. And what’s wrong with that? Any art form that isn’t reaching out to new audiences is a dying art form and likely will go unmourned to the grave. Besides, new actors, writers, and directors of non-traditional genders and skin tones often bring new insights with them that enrich the genre as a whole. Thus new directions open up for every fan to explore, and I call that a good thing.

So no, I do not see SJWs ruining anything in science fiction. Good SF will always shine over bad, and I am happy that the good stuff is a lot easier to find these days. It’s best to judge the work on concept, plot, and characters, my friends. And don’t get wrapped around the axil about what ethnicity or gender the protagonist is. After all, do you know of any SF story where having a white male for a protagonist made up for crappy writing or bad acting?

I didn’t think so.

By Clayton J. Callahan

 

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I Just Read Space Viking by H. Beam Piper.

Space Viking
Never heard of it? Perhaps not, but it’s a trophy sought by old-school science fiction fans and a guidebook to the origins of much space opera that came after it.

Piper is best known for his Little Fuzzy books about cute little aliens who befriend a grumpy old prospector on a far-off planet. Those books have been in and out of print for years and there’s even an updated version of the novel by John Scalzi (author of Old Man’s War). Although a rather prolific author, Piper’s career was stopped short by his suicide in 1964. Coincidentally, that is the year Space Viking was released, a book which his fans often praise as the best work ever.

For decades I’ve hoped to come across a copy at a used bookstore or science fiction convention. Now, due to the magic of the internet, I was able to procure a used original 1964 paperback (and even then it took some doing). So now that I’ve read this legendary book, what do I think of it?

Well…

I found it fascinating how Marc W. Miller cut and pasted so much of Piper’s universe to write the hugely popular role-playing game Traveller. The setting of the novel is the far future, but characters still carry titles such as duke and baron as they fight over interplanetary fiefdoms. The emphasis of Space Viking lives is also very Traveller; they simply strive to amass wealth and power over their enemies. In fact, the plot of the book can be described as: her creates and equips a starship, goes into combat, amass wealth, and uses wealth to upgrade equipment and expand power base–then goes into combat, and repeat.

With this in mind, there is very little exploration of the characters as three-dimensional people. Our hero, Trask, makes rational decisions, builds his empire for…reasons, and only rarely shows any sentimentality or desire outside his political goals. Also, in the tradition of OLD SCHOOL gamers, there are no women playing active roles in this novel. One ship is said to have a female captain, but we never meet her and the ship explodes in battle. All the other female characters are love interests at best and window dressing at worst. This jives with the ascetic of 1964 I suppose (If Mad Men is to be taken as factually based), but without active women in this universe, how impressed am I supposed to be by the men?

It is said that science fiction author Jerry Pournelle and H. Beam Piper were friends, and I can see how the two men had a lot in common. Apparently, this was especially true in the field of politics. As in Pournelle’s works, Piper presents an almost Ayan Randian philosophy; the man in charge who inherits wealth should not be ashamed to use it—for by doing so intelligently, society will prosper as a side effect. Whereas, the man (and yes it’s always a man) who organizes the rabble and fights for social justice is the villain who’s misguided philosophy will destroy the galaxy…or whatever. In Space Viking, characters talk at length about these subjects and it’s clear where Piper stood in the matter.

So, yes, the book is flawed and dated. But I still recommend it as a study in Science Fiction anthropology because it’s clear many major players in science fiction have read this book. For example, Gorge Lucas lifted the name for planet Hoth right off the pages. As a kid in the 1980s, I played an awful lot of Traveller so I must admit that Piper’s last novel influenced my own writing quite a bit (read The Adventures of Crazy Liddy if you don’t believe me).

Space Viking is also a study of what works and what doesn’t work in space opera. When a reader picks up a book with a title such as Space Viking he or she expects lots of action and peril, not a lot of political talks. Besides, there is something “clay pidgin” about expressing one-sided politics in science fiction. The author, after all, sets up the targets and it’s no surprise to the reader when he hits the bulls-eye from two feet away.

By Clayton J. Callahan