I enjoy politically subversive science fiction and fantasy. For me, interesting politics can be a key part of the experience of imaginative escape. But I often prefer the subversion to be in the very bones of a story rather than overtly the subject of a plot. For example, I may be more intrigued by a revolutionary vision of society than a story of an actual revolution.
In my new novel Border Crosser, making the subversive quality intrinsic to the story meant telling it from the point of view of Eris, a psychologically decentered secret agent in a strange future who causes chaos in a galactic order through her very nature. Eris has borderline personality disorder with a severe emotional amnesia component. This means that, though she remembers facts quite clearly, she has difficulty remembering how she felt previously about those facts, and thus can swing wildly from love to hate and back again.
Some of Eris’s subversive quality comes through contrast with setting. Among science fiction and fantasy subgenres, space opera has at best a mixed political history. Tales of galactic empires lean toward the reactionary in their very structure. By her very nature, a character like Eris subverts such interstellar political orders.
From the very first draft, Eris’s adventures in Border Crosser implicitly criticized many aspects of our world’s politics. But in my last rewrite of 2017-18, I made the politics more explicit. Given my stated preferences above, why did I do that?
First, after 2016, I was in no mood for subtlety or hiding. As even a brief glance at social media demonstrates, subtlety and irony are too often missed or misunderstood.
Second, though I’ve done the usual things in support of my political causes–marched, given money, managed a social media page–my particular skill is writing. If I’m going to feel I’ve done my best to help avoid the oncoming disaster, writing has to be a part of my efforts. It’s a small thing, but it’s mine.
What did I make more explicit or otherwise change in terms of politics? For starters, Earth’s far-future politicians are now tagged as fascist klept-oligarchs and neo-fundamentalist theocrats–it’s what they were in the first draft, but naming them as such makes it crystal clear.
Among those politicians, the North American Leader was already a figure of scorn in the first draft, but now he’s and orange-faced, small-handed, and mentally decaying old man who’s “a probable plaything” for a dead-eyed Eurasian leader. (The North American’s daughters are a more general mash-up of presidential children, some of whom used to party underaged near where I live.) I also note that the change of attitude on future Earth against refugees and immigration is connected to these leaders.
A couple of related issues I didn’t change at all, but they’ve have become more relevant over time. One is the use of infectious disease as a political weapon, and the other is the complicity of various leaders in crimes against humanity.
But perhaps the most directly on point item for myself and my readers is that behind the main tale, I have a frame story of an author who’s as profoundly decentered as their protagonist Eris, and who’s trying to write their way out of this world. At this point in 2020 I think we are all in some fashion decentered and PTSDed, and many of us are wondering how can we fight in such a fractured reality.
The obvious problem with any political statement is that it may alienate some of my potential audience. But let’s consider a less obvious difficulty: most science fiction has a definite shelf life, as visions of the future seldom age well. Commenting on current politics only decreases that shelf life. I was conscious of this issue when my agent asked what book would I finish if I could only publish one more. My answer was of course Border Crosser, but from that moment it became a race against time to publication. In October 2020, I hope I’m not too late in writing these political statements, and that it still makes some difference to write them, if only by the slimmest of margins.
But going back my main character, is Eris an effective vehicle for expressing anything coherently political? She is not a good person, and like a con artist, she’s much more charming to read about than to meet in real life. She herself doesn’t admit to having a politics, nor even a morality in the conventional sense. She only admits to aesthetic values (but as we all know by now, aesthetics are political too).
For me, she’s probably most fun as a political revenge fantasy against those who’ve taken our peace of mind these past four years. But I think she expresses more than that despite her lack of a political agenda or concern. In her erratic pursuit of her own liberation, she free others in her wake. Her wrestling for control of her own mental dials subverts the controls of all the powers that be: governments, secret cabals, AIs, religion.
Eris is my own invention, yet she inspires me. If she can find a path toward the liberation of self and others, we all can. And that, rather than any specific political allegory, may be the most important thing I have to say in Border Crosser.
Thank you for having me here as a guest blogger!
Border Crosser: Amazon
Tom Doyle’s latest novel, Border Crosser, tells the far-future adventures of Eris, a psychologically extreme secret agent whose shifting loyalties cause chaos wherever she goes in the galaxy.
Tom is also the author of the contemporary fantasy American Craft trilogy from Tor Books. In the first novel, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil–and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America’s past. In the third book, War and Craft, it’s Armageddon in Shangri-La, and the end of the world as we know it.
Tom has survived Harvard, Stanford, and cancer, and he writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. He is an award-winning writer of short science fiction and fantasy, and you can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website (see links above).
Check out this other Tom Doyle Content on Strange Currencies:
Guest Article: The Shelf-life of Secret History during Interesting Times
My review of The Left-Hand Way
My review of War and Craft