Science Fiction’s political failure 2: the rise of Political Correctness

ETA: it would appear Dave Truesdale beat me to the punch by at least 5 years. Click here to read his take on PC in the fanastic and the speculative. Ouch, Dave unloads with both barrels. I see also that there was a hissy fit in response. Not surprised by that, especially knowing some of the responders.

ETA: it also appears that writer Gustavo Bondini has a few reservations about Political Correctness as well. I was surprised to see this blog post at Apex which appears to have generated a (predictable) microtornado of stupid — with some very familiar faces weighing in to chastise and berate Mr. Gustavo for his ist and ism. Which perhaps proves the point (below) that those who are the most desperate to control the steering wheel of the genre, are those who can least tolerate anyone questioning whether or not the Political Correctness emperor has any clothes.


Political Correctness. I remember when I first encountered that concept in the early 1990s. It was a phrase, but it was also a nascent movement: the societal thrust by many and various disenfranchised and traditionally-ostracized or criticized groups to make it socially (and even legally) unacceptable to ostracize or criticize them. On its face, a nominally positive effort. What decent person doesn’t want to see racists and sexists shoved to the fringes of society for being racist and sexist? The egomaniacal chauvanists, the grossly-entitled Old Guard bigots, they were finally having their comeuppance, and as a young man who was wandering around in so-called progressive circles, I am not sure I saw much wrong with it.

As I got older though, I began to see that Political Correctness was a hungry thing. An entity with a bottomless belly. Because as more and more actions and words became “outlandish” under the new sensibility, greater and greater effort was expended to split hairs, such that more and more actions and words became unacceptable.

I did a bit of web browsing, to see if what I could find on the topic, and I stumbled across this remarkably cogent analysis:

Political correctness is the narrowing of the range of acceptable opinions to those held by a small group that enforces it. It is [an] attempt, often successful, to coerce the majority to accept the opinions of the enforcing group by suppressing any contrary opinion and making independent thought unacceptable. The enforcing group may be afraid of the consequences of open discussion, or of making the facts known. It generally has a practical motivation: it wants something of value (money, jobs, special privileges) to which it has a weak claim. So it attempts to enforce its claim by ruling any disagreement from it outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. This is unnecessary when the claim is self-evidently strong, but may be the only means of getting the claim accepted when it is weak. — Dr. Jonathan I. Katz

This seems especially true in Science Fiction, where the last five years have seen numerous internicine eruptions over matters of Political Correctness — authors, editors, fans, all accusing one another of sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc, etc. It’s gotten to the point now where you can set your clock by these fracases, because it’s guaranteed that every couple of months some unfortunate person — usually a writer, but not always — will say or do something which someone else finds offensive, at which point the Forces of Genre Correction will mobilize, and the individual in question will be mobbed on the internet, disinvited from conventions, his or her sales will be threatened through boycott, etc.

Political correctness also comes with an admixture of moral indignation. It removes the issue from the ordinary give-and-take of rational argument or the political process by injecting intense emotion. Political correctness uses language with strong connotations, such as “discrimination” and “racism”, or evokes ancient wrongs in order to associate any disagreement with support of past abuses. This emotional blackmail is effective in a self-consciously privileged environment. — Dr. Jonathan I. Katz

Which to me begs the question: what happened to the “dangerous” spirit of Science Fiction? The movers and shakers in this business used to pride themselves on being the people who said That Which Shalt Not Be Said, and showed That Which Shalt Not Be Shown. It was a badge of honor among SF people that they were the unconventional rule-breakers, be they social rules, or political rules, or even literary ‘rules’ imposed by the establishment at the time. And nobody seemingly gave a damn who they offended, because they felt like they were offending, “All the right people,” to use a phrase.

Now? Science Fiction isn’t dangerous anymore. It’s been Pasteurized and homogenized. Conformity is king. The formerly disenfranchised have swept in to “purify” the genre, and cast out everyone who does not flatter a given set of progressively-couched orthodoxies.

Thus it was that Elizabeth Moon, by any sane definition a fairly liberal and progressive woman in her own right, came to be cast down and trod upon by the Forces of Genre Correction — for doctrinal infractions so minor and insignificant it’s almost absurd to talk about them.

Elizabeth Bear too. And William Sanders. And Jagi Lamplighter. And John C. Wright. And Warren Lapine. And Jay Lake. And Kathryn Kramer. And Patricia Wrede. And… And… And…

The list of unpersons expands ever-outward. Along with the list of unreaders.

Speaking of which, I’ve complained before on this blog that one of the reasons I think SF readership has slowly tanked — to its currently anemic and atrophied state of 3% marketshare — is because readers have felt the Politically Correct singular contraction within the genre — and they’ve walked away. Taking their eyes and their buying dollars with them. It’s no accident that we have far more old-time SF readers who say, “I don’t read Science Fiction anymore,” than we do young, enthusiastic readers who say, “I love Science Fiction and I read it every chance I get!”

This is a genre that seems to speak to fewer and fewer people about a shrinking number of topics. Barring popular explosions like the Twilight books or Harry Potter, which are so far removed from Science Fiction as to almost not be part of the discussion, Science Fiction seems destined to drop off the radar of popular fiction altogether.

I suspect very, very strongly that the rise of PC — the ascendancy of an orthodoxy of thought and ideas — has coincided with the decline in popular consumption.

What concerns me is that I am not sure there is any force which can arrest the collapse. The denizens of SF seem perpetually confused by that 3% figure while at the same time they rail against the ignorant unwashed outside the “ghetto” that is the genre. If SF used to be the domain of geeks, SF now seems to be the domain of snobs, with people actively pushing for the genre to get even more literary, even more pretentious, even more Politically Correct.

That way lies financial oblivion.


  1. I’ve noticed this tendency and it upsets me. I subscribe to a fandom blog and they regularly review geeky books, but all they review is fantasy. Where are the epic sci-fi tales? The space battles? The operas? Buried and forgotten, unfortunately.

  2. Well, you have hit on why I read almost exclusively books from Baen Publishing. Only they have the guts to publish Tom Kratman and some some of John Ringo’s works. They publish SF and fantasy stories from across the political spectrum. You have libertarians, communists and social conservatives all published under their banner.
    Though, I think their is another reason that genuine SF (versus fantasy like Twilight and Harry Potter) not being as popular as it once was. Genuine SF requires people to think. Now, most of it is escapist fantasy where the authors spoon feed you. Also, SF used to be about hope. Yes, there was still conflict, but generally speaking humanity advanced. Now, to much of the SF out there is to dystopian.

  3. I guess I’m out of the loop, I had no idea authors were getting hoisted up the PC yardarm. Maybe it’s because I read too much John Ringo, Larry Corriea, Travis Taylor, and the like.

  4. Interesting take on PC and SF readership.

    Go into any book shop’s SF section and you will find row upon row of fantasy and fantasy related titles, most in multi-volume series. Very little hard science fiction requiring the author to have real knowledge of science is published. Even what passes for hard SF is often set in the VERY distant future where the author can make things up at will that have little basis in reality.

    I suspect that as a society we have thrown in the towel on wanting to explore and be amazed at the universe. Better to fight dragons and go on “quests.”

  5. It’s interesting. For me, personally, I grew up reading primarily SF, and read everything I could get my hands on. Oh, I read a smattering of Fantasy, but given the choice between, say, Larry Niven or Piers Anthony, I picked the Niven every time. But shortly after I graduated from high school in the late 80s that all changed.

    It’s all William Gibson’s fault. Oh, his stuff, that begun the Cyberpunk era, was pretty decent, overall. But book editors are kind of like movie and television publishers in that they’d rather develop a copy of something else that sold well rather than something new, so we had every author, practically, attempting to do post-modern dystopic cyber-drama. And most of them couldn’t pull it off, and there was a ton of absolute dreck published.

    And on top of this, the guys I’d grown up reading, the Asimovs, Heinleins, Pohl’s, etc., either started dying off, or stopped publishing more than one book every few years. So my SF reading list got very slim. As a result, I ended up branching off into fantasy. My basic operational mode was to go into the book store and find an author whose books had been in print for ten years or more, and whose first book was still in print and available for purchase. I’d buy it and read it, and if it was acceptable enough I’d end up buying and reading the entire catalog for that author.

    And that basically filled up the nineties and a good portion of the oughts for me, and it’s only in the latter half of the oughts that I really branched back into SF. And it was Baen’s free library that did it for me.

    So for me I wonder if the lost decade where basically everything published was depressing and dark, isn’t the cause. People stopped and just never came back.

  6. I loved hard science fiction as a kid but read less and less of it over the years. Still kept up with non-fiction science as a near addiction. Couldn’t tell you why I slowed down so much on something I used to love but just now starting to get back to it. Never thought of the PC angle and admit to being skeptical about it. Some young people I know act as if prejudice is only something from their parents’ generation. My take on why they don’t like PC is that they are oblivious to their own prejudices (which we all have) and over-sensitive about other people “misinterpreting” them.

  7. Thanks for all the great comments everyone. Today is my daughter’s B-Day and we’re knee-deep in cake and goodies right now. Will try to respond when she’s comatose with a cake mustache. Being a Dad doesn’t get much better than this! Back to you on your great comments later.

  8. DAW used to do a fair bit of what Baen does now, but I’ve not noticed in the last ten years if DAW has continued this editorial practice. But yes, Baen does seem to be the last hold-out in terms of keeping the operatic, adventurous flag raised. Ringo probably wouldn’t be published by any other house because none of the other houses would want him — in spite of the fact that he sells boatloads of books.

  9. Timothy, I agree that Baen has guts to publish Colonel Kratman. A book like “Caliphate” would generate howls of indignation from many people in SF — if it were released by a different publisher, like TOR. Baen however staked its claim as the last bastion of the “right wing” author in Science Fiction, so I think the parties that would howl tend to ignore Baen as a legit publishing venture. So they may not even be aware that Kratman exists.

    As to the rise of Fantasy and the fall of Science Fiction, you might be correct. Too many readers might need the “easy” path. But I also think too many SF writers try too hard to make their SF technically abstract or ‘bleeding edge’ at the expense of accessibility. That a movie like Avatar can rake in the audiences still tells me that consumers will happily plunk down cash for SF, it just has to be more grand and ‘pulpy’ than a lot of what gets published now. And no, I was not a huge fan of Avatar’s script. SFX were astounding and gorgeous. Script? (sigh)

  10. Yup, that’s the irony. The people being keelhauled are not the Correias and the Ringos of the SF community. It’s the Elizabeth Moons and the Jay Lakes: people who have perhaps 95% ideological commonality with the keelhaulers. Alas, that remaining 5% difference is enough to get Moon and others strung up by their (virtual) toes. I probably fret about it more than I should. I just get tired of seeing good authors — genuinely decent people — maligned and harassed. It’s a truly unfortunate situation, and it only seems to be getting worse.

  11. Al, I am very sympathetic to your view. It does seem like consumers don’t want to have to work too hard. Then again, I consider myself a pretty astute SF reader who has never shied from the hard stuff. I own practically all of Niven’s work, and consider Niven a template for my own work. Somehow Niven never made his work a tough read in the way some modern “hard” authors make their work a tough read. I fear it’s because we’ve gotten to the point in the SF ‘discussion’ that authors are deliberately reaching for tech and ideas so ‘bleeding edge’ as to be too abstract for good storytelling.

    But maybe you’re correct? Maybe people need dragons and quests more than they need spaceships and mission? If true, then I am sad because of it.

  12. Like you, I am a Niven fan. I bought N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind when I was 18, and they literally changed my entire fiction paradigm. I spent the next ten years greedily devouring any and all Niven, and branched out into similar reads by similar authors. I definitely got the Hard SF bug and have been kinda ‘buggy’ like that ever since.

    It’s been awhile since a fantasy series hooked me. I read tons of fantasy before I got into Hard SF, but since then it’s been tough for me to do fantasy, though I have been reading some recommended modern fantasy — of the swords and sorcery stripe — that some of my associates like Dave Wolverton write. We’ll see how it goes.

    I never did read any of the cyberpunk stuff that took over in the 80s. I liked movies like Tron and Bladerunner but I never got into the fiction. I tend to agree, though, with your sense that the “dark” stuff got out of hand, and lots of readers went away as a result. I think we’re still experiencing a genre hangover of “dark” due to the genre’s overall slide towards progressive leftism and literary pretension — where life and reality must always be portrayed as bleak in order for ‘authenticity’ to be maintained.

  13. Oversensitivity seems pandemic in our time. But I also think kids today genuinely aren’t as typically prejudiced — in all kinds of ways — as our parents’ generation might have been. Of course, this has lead the militant anti-prejudice establishment to begin splitting the hairs more finely — reading the tea leaves — in search of “ism” on the part of modern Americans. I think you’re probably correct in that every person has a certain degree of prejudice in them, but I’ve observed that certain sorts of prejudice are acceptable in PC circles, as opposed to others.

  14. And, as I’ve gotten older, script counts way more for me than special effects. You also might want to check out some of Travis Taylor’s solo work. He’s a genuine rocket scientist who does make it accessible. He’s even been used on the History Channel’s space related shows as a consultant/speaker.

  15. Yes, it’s such a horrific irony that the sensibility and reason that gave way to battling things like racism, sexism, and the like have metamorphosized into a veritable witch hunt.

    I’m glad, Brad, that you’re so willing to speak out against the ills of paranoid, unabashed political correctness and snobbery. I agree that there’s a big difference between the bleeding-edge hard sf of today and what was considering groundbreaking science decades ago. Guys like Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke, etc., could have quite easily done laps around the minds of readers until there was little more than mush left, but they focused on using the science to tell a story, not the other way around.

    I suppose that PC was once a very great thing, but the paranoia and finger-pointing it has fostered in the 21st century is most definitely not.

  16. The road to hell is always paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, in any intellectually healthy environment, nobody can always say things which always flatter or make everyone else happy. Sooner or later, people will say things that other people don’t like. If we attempt to kill the discussion because we don’t want people to be offended, then we’re basically letting the thin-skinned, the prudish, the unfunny, the churls, and the scolds rule the public spaces. Love it or hate it, the U.S. First Ammendment never said we had the freedom to never be offended by something somebody else writes. I somehow suspect this is lost on certain people who appear determined to establish SF as a verbal demilitarized zone.

    To which I have but one word to say, “SNUGGLEBUNNIES!”

  17. Brad, I think your statement above (the entire statement, not “SNUGGLEBUNNIES” ) says it all. It’s like a lot of people in the SF community want to act as the thought police, which is incredibly ironic when you think about it.

    “Freedom is tyranny!”

    Someone needs to tell certain members of the SF community that others can have an opinion different than theirs without being wrong, stupid or crazy, let alone racist, sexist or a bigot.

    Having said that, I’m sure as hell NOT that person and am going to let them try to work out their own path to Grownupville themselves.

  18. Hey Steve, thanks for the support. Alex too. I sometimes feel like I am shouting into a wind tunnel with this blog. (grin) Hey Steve, how is the workshop going? Aren’t you up in Lincoln City?

  19. I don’t leave for Lincoln City until Saturday. I wanted to do all three workshops (Novel, Tech and Marketing) but because of stupidity at my old job, didn’t really have the money. That was definitely one of the things that motivated me to change jobs, along with the stupidity of the company. So when I got the new job, I worked my arse off and saved and Saturday I fly out. Man, I’m excited and will definitely keep you posted.

  20. It’s certainly a possibility that Baen Books is not on the radar of the sort of fans who get involved in the various fails, therefore authors like John Ringo escape the scorn of the failfans, while far less potentially offensive people like Jay Lake suffer the full brunt. And I’ve met several SFF fans who refused to read anything published by Baen, regardless of author and orientation.

    However, the failfans (to borrow your term) had no problem going after Lois McMaster Bujold (for defending Patricia C. Wrede and for a remark about seeing hardly any fans of colour at conventions) and Elizabeth Moon and both Bujold and Moon are Baen authors. Of course, it’s always possible that Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon are the only Baen authors many people have ever read. I don’t own a whole lot of Baen books aside from Bujold and some classic reprints myself, though that’s partly because Baen books aren’t available except via Amazon outside the US.

    Personally, I suspect that the professional failfans just go after whatever target presents itself, the higher the profile the better.

  21. @Cora:

    If you want Baen books outside the US and have no problem with ebooks, go to Webscriptions. You can get their entire back catalogue for the last 10 years there. All books are available in a variety of non-DRM formats (excluding pdf, because Jim Baen hated pdf) where you pay for the book you want and can download in any available format. The books vary in price from $3 per book as part of a bundle, $5-$6 for an individual book, to $15 for an eARC of a forthcoming book.

    It’s loaded with free samples. Each book has its first quarter available free. There is also a free library with over 100 complete books in it.

  22. Baen also has a reputation for not editing and for publishing pretty much anything by anyone they’ve published.

  23. Maybe it’s because Niven is atrocious at writing characters and his prose is very beige. Someone said Ringworld is the kind of thing that would be better written by Zelazny instead of Niven.

  24. @Will le Fey:

    Depends on what you mean by not editing. Having purchased the eARCs and then picked up the finished product as part of a bundle later, there are definitely differences (IIRC one of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels had 2 or 3 chapters added between ARC and release).

  25. @Timothy & Brad:

    IIRC Travis Taylor is a quantum physicist specializing in the quantum effects of lasers, as opposed to an actual rocket scientist :-P.

    His first 2 books (Warp Speed/Quantum Connection) reminded me quite a bit of Heinlein, including Heinlein’s character weaknesses. His next series (One Day on Mars etc) felt a lot better to me, although there was nothing that really stood out of the crowd of Baen space opera (well, except the fate of the first Joe Buckley πŸ˜› ). I have yet to read Back to the Moon.

  26. I have to disagree. I think Niven does rather well with characterization. That’s why he and Pournelle work so well together. Ask them, and they’ll tell you: Niven is the character man, Pournelle is the plot man. Together, it’s a formidable mix. Now, you might not particularly like how Niven does character, as a matter of taste, but I think calling his characterization “atrocious” isn’t accurate. Clearly, due to sales volume alone, someone is grokking Niven’s characters.

  27. And Dan Brown’s a bestselling author. Your point being?

    In any case, I think they’re more interested in his ideas. Aside from genetic luck, anyway. What absurdity that is.

  28. Will, I think you and I are experiencing a fundamental disagreement on the definition of “good fiction.” I understand that literary crowds have a remarkably different bar, compared to commercial mainstream. Me? I tend to respect any writer who somehow manages to speak to an audience on the scale of Brown, Meyer, King, Roberts, etc. Call it crap if you want, it’s still snaring readers. And that to me is the common denominator of fiction that works — snaring readers, by the truckload.

  29. Hi Brad:

    Oh, yes, the left is aware – possibly even acutely aware – that I exist.

    One could take that “guts” comment in a couple of different ways. I’m going to take as it charitable. πŸ˜‰

  30. Through sheer random luck I found your commentary here, Brad. I think those here who might in some measure agree with you and I re Political Correctness in SF/F might also wish to take a look at my just posted (two weeks ago) News essay at Tangent Online ( It deals with a New Direction we are taking in our short fiction review policy, in part because of the PC fiction we’re at long last tired of reading. The relevant sections of the editorial/essay are to be found in the last half and directly relate to the editorial you cite in your opening sentence.

    For further evidence of how anyone in the SF/F community is treated when the PC crowd brings out their torches and pitchforks when anyone dares to show a double standard re reverse sexism, I point you to my Online column in April of 2007 at the F&SF website here:

    I ask that readers read it carefully, noting that I was parodying/satirizing, by way of reversing the comments made by the columnist Adrienne Martini (now a columnist for Locus Online). I was vilified for showing that the Emperor had no clothes, leading to over 2,000 (!) posts in the (then) forum F&SF used. I was called a racist, sexist, misogynist, and other not so polite names (the F-word was also used several times) –and all because I dared to illustrate the hypocricy–by way of reverse parody–of the liberal (in this particular case) bias in SF/F.

    Such smears never go away. They are perpetuated second-hand on various blogs from those who never bother to go to the original source in order to make up their own minds, and therefore grow out of all proportion–especially among those who are predisposed to believe anything reinforcing their cocoon-like ideology.

    Anyway, I was more than surprised and heartened to find your post and to see that at least someone shares my _general_ belief (I won’t hold you to every word I said in the editorial you linked to), that the PC element in current SF is much more in evidence that most are willing to admit — at least in public.

    All the best to you,

  31. Dave, I did read your New Directions piece, because Nora Jemison linked to it in an article she wrote at her blog, defending Political Correctness and propping both you and I up as showroom dummies for everything wrong with anti-PC. I had not, however, seen your parody. Interesting, to compare the two articles — parody and not parody — side by side. I think the general bad reaction to your parody demonstrates fairly well why PC is a joke, and why defenses of it — such as Jemison’s — ring hollow. Because all PC is, is a lop-sided arbitrary rule system wherein members of designated “victim groups” are allowed to carry on with all sorts of (often questionable) behavior that is lambasted if it’s displayed by anyone else. I have tried in various ways to explain this systemic hypocrisy, but one thing about the pro-PC crowd that usually proves true: they subscribe to a ‘conspiracy theory’ nature of the modern SF intellectual landscape. Ergo, those who fail to acknowledge the “ist” and the “ism” are themselves card-carrying “ists.” Thus if you’re not actively working to be apalled by everything and everyone not PC, you’re automatically ‘part of the problem’ and deserving of scorn, or worse.

    It’s a bizarrely monochrome zeitgeist, especially for a crowd that generally walks around patting itself on the back all day long for being diverse. I learned a long time ago, however, while working in community radio, that this so-called diversity is usually superficial. Attached purely to external factors. As soon as you get into the brass tacks of ideology, the “diversity” crowd demands rigid conformity, to the point that it will often eat its own, hence most of the people being savaged lately in SF are members of the ‘diversity’ club who have run afoul of one or more of the arbitrary and slippery-slope rules of Political Correctness. And then, as you say, the pitchforks and torches come out.

    I’ve essentially decided — probably decided a long time ago, in fact — that it’s not worth it to play the PC game. Not only does it feel intellectually dishonest and dirty, I don’t necessarily see the career benefit in it. I’ve been warned a few times that a writer in my position is committing a terrible faux pas by being outspoken on the political disrepair in Science Fiction — that I will be offending all sorts of people I shouldn’t offend. That the doors in New York will slam shut for me.

    I just have to scratch my head and say, well, if I am going to be damned, I might as well be damned for what I really am. And who I really am is an intellectual individual opposed (quite strongly) to the double-think and duplicity that is PC as it’s displayed in the speculative and fantastic fiction community.

  32. Couldn’t agree with you more, Brad. I’ve been trying to show the PC hypocricy for what it is, but look what happens. The Imus/Martini column at the F&SF website ended up with over 2,000 (!) posts, slamming me for everything under the sun–much of which had nothing to do with what I wrote. It then gets spread around the blogosphere, quite erroneously, that I’m this big, bad sexist, racist, homophobe, and misogynist–and 99% of the people reading it, believe it without going to the source. It boggles the mind how the PC element wraps itself in an intellectual cocoon and refuses to live in some strange reality of their own making–and anyone who disagrees with their artificially constructed party line ideology in any manner or shape gets eaten alive and smeared all over the web. Very sad.

    But I’m still gonna holler and point fingers every time I spot any of their stupidities, regardless of what it may cost me (and it has cost me).

    Re the Martini/Imus piece? A small victory perhaps, but Martini–after I called her to task–did apologize publicly to the Japanese Worldcon Committee. πŸ™‚


  33. Correction: the line should read: “wraps itself in an intellectual cocoon, refusing to live in the real world, and lives in some strange reality of their own making–“

  34. THANK. YOU. I know I’m jumping in extremely late, but I’ve been getting a ton of this same hostility and demand to conform on my own blog lately, from people who will preach about the need for diversity but demand conformity of thought.

    I wanted to thank you for sharing these words.

  35. The fashionable phrase now is, “We don’t tolerate intolerance,” which when I run it through my secret batcave decoder ring translates as, “We get to be as closed-minded as we want to be, while patting ourselves on the back for being ‘liberal’.”

  36. Hi Brad, Gustavo here, I’m looking for a neutral to write a post on this topic here:

    Drop me a line if you have anything I can use ( – it can be genre-specific or general, as you see fit. Can’t pay (so won’t be offended if you have nothing for us), but anything you have will be appreciated.

  37. Thank you for standing up to say this. It’s a good deal of why when I read recent SF/F, I am often left with a desire to wash my brain out with the older stuff. Mayhaps it’ll be that my book dollars wind up mostly going to those unperson authors.

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