Right now, outrage is all the rage. So much so that it becomes a... cliché, even a social norm. "Gosh, aren't you shocked by what this guy wrote on Twitter? It’s shocking!!". Ecology, animals, gender, women, "non-whites", social inequalities... All amplified by internet where anyone can post anything 24/7. A myriad of demands without order of priority which force even people of good will to split hairs or even apologise every five minutes: "Well yes, I sometimes eat meat and even hamburgers at McDonald's. I know this is bad, but it's just too hard to resist, like cigarettes. I promise, I'll recite five Pater and ten Avé tonight! ".
Of course, there is no shortage of topics for indignation. But all of these problems existed 30 or more years ago, they were just not fashionable. Only religious discrimination is currently being overlooked (religion is suspect at the moment).
If ecology, the defense of animals, the "non-whites" and the disabled figure little in the SF/Fantasy and popular literature in general, a multitude of dystopias currently haunts the shelves of bookstores, competing to describe the most oppressive and unequal society ever. Scores of novels feature beaten, raped and persecuted women. M / M romance has become a genre in itself.
However, the great references on these subjects remain books like 1984, Farenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, Kindred…, all published more than thirty years ago. So why in these times of wild outrage and discrimination awareness, no one has yet managed to write a classic of the same caliber? The only dystopia which seem set to stand the test of time is The Hunger Games!
The difference imho, apart from the high level of the authors of these novels, is that these classics are “committed “novels, while the ones released right now are "outraged" novels.
An outraged novel is written “on the spur of the moment”. It is superficial and rarely deals with more than one "subject of outrage" at a time. It raises a specific problem, but rarely suggests a solution. It appeals to emotions ("This is unacceptable!") rather than reflection and is aimed at a specific audience, usually people who share the author's ideas. It can also have a frankly didactic side and the author can present it to you by saying "I wrote this novel to talk about discrimination / feminism / exclusion / ecology etc ..."
A committed novel is more of a global reflection on one of several problems (for example, the place of gays in family structure and society at different times and in different countries in their social / religious / economic contexts, etc.). it deals with its topic without relying too much on the context in which it is written. Therefore, it can appear original, revolutionary or totally outlandish. It can deal with several topics at the same time and calls for reflection without being heavy didactic. For example, Farenheit 451 is a tale full of action, twists and turns. It deals also with family and relationship between spouses or colleagues. Finally, a committed novel is not meant to address a specific audience, it is addressed to everyone, which explains why it resists much better the test of time.
So what to do if you have the ambition to write a committed novel rather than an outraged novel? Here are some things to take into account.
Before going any further, a little disclaimer: that this article is a global reflection on the prickly topics in SF/Fantasy, so no need to post a comment on the one that annoys you, personally, it will be ruthlessly moderated.
1- Avoid Manicheism.
I believe that many authors write a black/white picture unintentionally. So take a hard look at your characters. Very often, outraged novels revolve around a hero who "rebels" against the system or is a victim because of who s/he is (a woman / disabled / etc…). S/He understands how unfair his society in a few chapters and organizes resistance or is saved by a deus ex-machina.
Could you imagine another plot? How long would it take you to radically challenge your own beliefs? Besides, isn't your poor victim too nice? Can your gay character also be, for example, racist and misogynist and stay that way until the end of the novel, rather than having a flash epiphany? Can your disabled heroine be homophobic? Can a woman beaten by her spouse behave sadistically with her servants or colleagues? As for your racist villain, can he also be a convinced ecologist?
2- Write for everyone
In Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, the author spends a lot of time explaining who the Himba are (and mainly emphasizes their looks, we won't learn anything about their culture). Result: the two stories seem intended for American readers and preferably white ones, considering her speech which goes like: "I wrote my books to show that blacks and Africans can also write fantasy" etc ... In short, I’m not sure that the African readers (and especially the Himba) would enjoy these novels which were not intended for them.
On the other hand, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James has nothing didactic and the novel takes place in a "Middle Ages" Africa, Conan the Barbarian style, while still dealing with homosexuality and female oppression. It can be read as an action novel without anything didactic.
3- When there is an ambiguity in your novel, make it on purpose
Example: if you have a city inhabited only by men locked there since childhood (Malachite by Kirby Crow), in a world where women reign, is it an ode to difference, to misogyny or the opposite? Is it meant to be ironic? Do these men have a choice in their sexual orientation? Is your book for everyone or just women reading M / M romances?
4- Do some homework on the topic (again…) even if it means calling into question your deep-seated opinions and check the coherence of your world building.
Indeed, if you treat your subject in a simplistic and binary way, it will considerably weaken your argument and worse, if you include in your novel a factual error, like "Galileo discovered that the Earth was round".
- What is the proportion of gay people in the general population? Are there more gay women than gay men? Do they exhibit characteristic behavior, such as wearing showy and colorful clothes for men? Same question for other sexual orientations.
- What is the proportion of "whites" in our current world population? What will this proportion be when we will be colonizing Mars?
- Can we mitigate global warming while retaining the comforts of modern life? If the answer is "no", what should be kept?
- What exactly is "being ecologically conscious"?
And so on...
5- Be aware that most "controversial topics" can be seen from different angles and even the most fanatical activists do not agree among themselves.
It means that you should expect to be criticized on different aspects of what you write, even if you have tried to be consensual and full of goodwill.
- Are men and women equal and any difference due to education and social conventions? In this case, is transsexualism a simple problem of choice of which social role model to follow? If, on the contrary, you think that women and men are "equal but different", with a feminine nature and a masculine nature, are there any jobs that a man would always do better than a woman and vice-versa?
- Is the message of your feminist novel glorifies traditionnally "feminine" values, or encourage women to behave "like guys", or a third option to be defined?
- Is rape worse than a beating or torture (apart from the risks of pregnancy for a woman and STDs for everyone)? If the answer is "yes", where is the difference? In the pain infliction or in social conventions? And in the latter case, who is more to blame: the rapist or the society? After all, it's not uncommon for a male protagonist to be tortured in a novel and come out of it as a hero. On the contrary, a female protagonist emerges from a rape with the status of victim.
- Is your gay character there as a representative of the gay community or as an individual? If s/he is there as an individual, how are you going to teach the reader that s/he is gay? Does it matter to the plot?
- If your novel shows that life was better "in the good old days" with a simple existence, specify which "good old days" you are talking about: 50 years ago (with women in the kitchens, stigmatized homosexuals, quiet pollution ...) , 500 years ago (with the feudal regime, arranged marriages, high infant mortality, superstitions…), etc…
- If your novel promotes nature as a haven of peace and gentleness, explain where you have put all the predators and the competition for survival.
6- Avoid clichés (I know, I've said this many times before)
- Will a futuristic society have the same social standards as France or the US in 2021?
- In a futuristic society where embryos are produced in an incubator, will there be "blacks", "browns", "yellows" or "whites"? If yes, why? Will there be a need to produce sexed individuals in general?
- An ultra-technological society but we do not know where the resources to function come from (energy, raw materials, etc.)
7- Offer the beginning of a credible alternative/solution to the situation you are criticizing. If bitching is fashionable, utopias do not flourish in the bookstores!