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Political agency and changing the world


Political agency and changing the world

Home / Political agency and changing the world

Political agency and changing the world


Published on October 6, 2008


In her Guest of Honor speech at Denvention, Lois Bujold said:

In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. All three genres also may embody themes of personal psychological empowerment, of course, though often very different in the details, as contrasted by the way the heroines “win” in romances, the way detectives “win” in mysteries, and the way, say, young male characters “win” in adventure tales. But now that I’ve noticed the politics in SF, they seem to be everywhere, like packs of little yapping dogs trying to savage your ankles. Not universally, thank heavens—there are wonderful lyrical books such as The Last Unicorn or other idiosyncratic tales that escape the trend. But certainly in the majority of books, to give the characters significance in the readers’ eyes means to give them political actions, with “military” read here as a sub-set of political.

I’d never thought about this before, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. She makes some really interesting points getting to that—do read the whole speech.

It is, of course, possible to find exceptions to “fantasy of political agency,” as Bujold herself does above. The more I think about it though, the more I think she’s on to something. But “fantasies of political agency” doesn’t quite cover what I see. Also, saying you have to give the characters political actions to give them significance seems like picking it up from the wrong end. Giving characters significance to interest the reader is just not how most stories work. And I’m uncomfortable with the implication that SF is a fantasy of empowerment for the powerless reader, as romance is a fantasy of love. I can see how it can be, and I was thinking about this as I re-read Janissaries, but I don’t think that’s really what’s going on with this.

I started thinking about exceptions. (I often find it easier to find something by starting from the edge and working in than by flailing about in the centre.) The exceptions are not by any means all pastoral fantasies. Random Acts of Senseless Violence is an exception that came to mind immediately. The characters in that book are caught up and powerless in a changing world. They don’t have political agency—the opposite. Then there’s the contrast I first noticed as a teenager between McCaffrey’s Dragonflight and Dragonsong. Dragonflight is about Pern. Dragonsong is set in Pern. Dragonflight is engaged with the world, Dragonsong is a story taking place in it. SF generally produces engaged-with-world stories rather than set-in stories. Random Acts isn’t a set-in story, it’s a story that explores a changing world through focusing on people not coping with it. Those yapping dogs of politics are real, and interesting, but I don’t think they’re quite central to the issue. I don’t think it’s that the characters have to engage with politics to make the reader interested. It is about reader expectations, but I don’t think it’s about what the characters do at all. Or at least, not those characters.

SF, especially in the wide sense including fantasy, isn’t a neat easily encompassed genre. It’s a huge sprawling thing that has room in it for books as different as Tea With The Black Dragon and Mission of Gravity. People who read a ton of it know it when they see it. There are precious few things that can be said about it as a commonality. One of the things that reliably distinguishes it from other genres is that in SF the world is a character. In fiction generally, characters have to change during the story. In SF, therefore, if the world is a character, the world has to change. Many of the ways of changing the world are political. If you’re having a story where the world changes, usually your central characters are going to be involved in that in some way. Rather than your characters needing to have political agency to engage the reader, the world is a character and as such needs to change and your story will be engaged with that change—whatever is happening to the other characters. This neatly brings The Last Unicorn back into the fold without it needing to be an exception.

SF is the literature of changing the world.

About the Author

Jo Walton


Jo Walton is the author of fifteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others two essay collections, a collection of short stories, and several poetry collections. She has a new essay collection Trace Elements, with Ada Palmer, coming soon. She has a Patreon ( for her poetry, and the fact that people support it constantly restores her faith in human nature. She lives in Montreal, Canada, and Florence, Italy, reads a lot, and blogs about it here. It sometimes worries her that this is so exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up.
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