Imagining Futures: They’re Trying to Sell You A Haunted House

There are people who want to convince you that science fiction, as a genre, is apolitical. That fantasy is, too. That because these stories don’t take place right now and right here that we shouldn’t put our nasty, dirty, filthy politics into the nice stories that give readers a chance at escape.

“Don’t put politics into science fiction!” is a phrase I’ve seen deployed frequently in the six years I’ve worked in the field of genre fiction. I’ve seen it on forums, on Twitter, on Facebook, in private conversations at barcon, and on panels. I’ve seen the question asked if it should be political at all, or if the politics inherent in genre should be left at the door.

If you believe that science fiction and fantasy aren’t political, then I have a house to sell you. It’s a nice house. It’s at the top of a hill. A bit old, needs some repairs, nobody’s lived there for…a while. Not sure what happened to the last residents.

Yes, horror is political too.

Storytelling is political. A story comes from its author, and that author has opinions, a worldview, a place that they come from, and all of that context–whether or not they want to acknowledge it–influences the stories that they can and will tell. Subtext is one hell of a ghost, and it’s nearly impossible to exorcise.

Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” was all well and good when we didn’t know the authors of our favorite books intimately, when they couldn’t go on Twitter and wreck their canon with a single tweet. But now we know. And in truth, we’ve always known. We knew when Orson Scott Card used the word “bugger” what he meant. We knew. We knew when Roald Dahl gave his witches bald heads and pointy noses exactly who he was talking about.

We knew.

Our fictions are political no matter what we do. Which is why we must do better. We have to acknowledge the politics at the core of the fictions that we write and that we consume.

Maybe the author dies when their book is published, but that doesn’t change the fact that they haunt the text with their realities, because the fiction they write has a foundation built upon where they grew up, what cultures they were or weren’t exposed to, what their communities looked like. Who the author is (and yes, this includes me) vastly influences the lens through which their fiction is written.
I agree. We should stop putting politics in our fiction. We should stop propping up fascists, and normalizing ableism, and committing homophobia. We should stop scaffolding Christian hegemony and promoting the erasure of Jews in space. We should stop politicizing diversity.

Diversity is the standard, not the thing that makes all the readers run out into the street with pitchforks. The world is diverse. When I walk down the street I don’t see a bunch of white people who look the same. I see disabled people. I see Muslim women in hijab. I see Black people. I see children and adults and elderly members of the community. I see gender identities across a wide spectrum.

Yet it is the idea that fiction with a lack of diversity is apolitical that seems to sell well to a white, mainstream audience. That audience, the audience that publishing seems to prioritize, is actually not the real audience that I see out in the world. The fictions targeted at that white, abled, cishet normative audience are the ones which ultimately begin to tell us who counts as people. As N.K. Jemisin said briefly and eloquently, there is “no voting on who gets to be people.” But that’s precisely what these kinds of stories do. They reinforce the idea that the default is narrow, it creates a perception of a world that isn’t real. That default perception sells a lens which promotes bias, which enforces a worldview that I don’t subscribe to. You shouldn’t either. It’s a worldview built on several types of supremacy, and they’re all wrong.

When there are no disabled people in your sexy historicals, you’re effectively erasing a whole host of people who were actually there in 19th century England because disability was rampant. Also you’re suggesting disabled people can’t have sexy narratives, which is its own problem. When you don’t put Jews in space, you’re suggesting we’d be left behind–and the reasons for why are ominous to me, as a Jewish reader. The “default” setting to you (a white, non-disabled, cishet person) might be that there is no diversity, but if that’s the case, the author is clearly not living out in the public square.

Science fiction is political. Storytelling is political.

Don’t buy Hill House. It’s fucking haunted.


Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa Sjunneson is a Deafblind author and editor living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction and nonfiction writing has been praised as “eloquence and activism in lockstep” and has been published in dozens of venues around the world. She has been a Hugo Award finalist seven times, and has won Hugo, Aurora, and BFA awards for her editorial work. When she isn’t writing, Sjunneson works to dismantle structural ableism and rebuild community support for disabled people everywhere. Her work includes her debut memoir Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism, her Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla novel Sword of the White Horse, and her episode for Radiolab “The Helen Keller Exorcism.”

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