Subversive Fiction

A President’s Day Salute to Authors’ Political Activism

It’s President’s Day this week in the U.S. If you’re not familiar with the holiday, it was established in 1971 when the federal government tried to move more of our holidays to Mondays so that they would be more useful as extended weekends. It used to be two separate holidays celebrating the February birthdays of our first president, George Washington, and our sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln.

It comes at a particularly ironic time in American politics, when our current president, whom we often affectionately refer to as 45, is implicated in campaign finance felonies, obstruction-of-justice charges, violations of the emoluments clause of our Constitution, and treason, to name just a few examples. As he and his cronies in Congress slowly shove our constitutional democracy toward fascism, oligarchy, or monarchy (it’s hard to tell where they’re aiming), dozens of new politicians and political activists have stepped forward to try to clean up the mess of our previously inattentive progressives.

While our politicians may have been slacking as retrogressive forces took control of state legislatures and redrew voting districts to give themselves a huge advantage despite their smaller numbers, authors have continued, as they always have, to fight for a more just and healthy world.

In some cases, they have offered dystopian visions, like Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, or Suzanne Collins’s 2008 trilogy that began with The Hunger Games. Especially because both have been brought to filmed versions, in the past few years, more and more people have gotten a glimpse of where the erosion of women’s rights and the dissolution of our federal government might end up. Film writers, too, have contributed with movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Waterworld, which similarly warned us not to be casual about our carbon emissions.

Sometimes, authors normalize populations that many see as fringe or marginal. Becky Albertalli wrote Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in 2015, which became the film Love, Simon three years later, and as awkward as it was at times, it offered a gay coming-out story that wasn’t tragic. It helped to further normalize gays and lesbians. Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q & A was adapted to become the movie Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, and it helped bring light to class struggles and the presumption that the poor are stupid. Angie Thomas’s bestselling The Hate U Give in 2017 spawned a 2018 movie of the same name that brought one of the most powerful spotlights in recent years on police brutality toward blacks.

I find, as an author, it is difficult not to inject political themes into the stories I tell. In studying literature in college, we were constantly seeing how novels reflected their times. A few years ago, I started writing a science fiction novel, sort of a space opera, titled The Walking Trees of Bauble. I was just jazzed about another novel I’d just read (Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye) and I had done some research about invasive species, but while there were themes about environmental stewardship, one about the nature of political allegiance blossomed as well.

Some may shy away from any political inferences in their stories, worrying they will alienate readers who don’t share their beliefs. But I believe the power of story is so strong, it can lead, even if slowly, the most contrary minds toward enlightenment.

 

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