Hard lines and heated words – the challenge of discussing science fiction and fantasy

Posted: June 23, 2014 in cultural commentary, reading
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I love science fiction and fantasy, and I believe that nothing is better for those genres than the ability to critically discuss them, to offer challenges and insights to each other, to find our weaknesses, celebrate our strengths and build on both.

That’s why I often hate getting into debates about them on the internet. What should be a forum for development and growth instead becomes a source of deep division. Why?

The symptoms

Recent controversy around the Hugo awards is a good example of how this goes down. A group of writers and fans with a broadly right-wing agenda campaigned to get their favourite writers onto the ballot. They succeeded, and in response more liberal fans cried foul. Much vitriol was spewed. I mostly ignored it but it still made me sad because of the tone taken by people on both sides.

Discussions of feminism and geek culture are among the worst I’ve seen. Both sides of these debates put huge efforts into pushing forward their point of view, rather than listening to each other’s perspectives or trying to understand where those viewpoints come from. It tends to get very ugly very fast, and though I care deeply about these topics I step away from discussions that look angry, unproductive and emotionally draining.

The disease

In my opinion, the problem is that these debates become a matter of attack and defence, rather than an attempt to learn from one another and appreciate other points of view.

It’s natural that this would happen. As fans of all things nerdy we’re used to being ostracised and attacked, to the point where we see ourselves that way despite the increasingly mainstream position of our culture. That makes us incredibly wary of any perceived attack, ready to leap in and defend what we love. It’s one of the reasons why the insightful videos of Feminist Frequency receive as much scorn as admiration. People see a critique of an aspect of something they love and they feel it as an attack on their cultural identity. They feel hurt, and they respond as such.

But of course these counter-attacks put the feminists, or the right-wing science fiction writers, or whoever it is on the defensive. The fight goes back and forth, becoming increasingly bitter. A love for or hatred of Feminist Frequency becomes a badge of honour, to be defended in itself. Positions entrench preventing either side from hearing the other. They might win more supporters through these public spats, or they might alienate casual observers, but what they won’t do is change each others’ views.

The cure (well, mine anyway)

Tom Bramwell has written an excellent piece on this problem and video games, and if you take away one thing from this post it should be to read his article. What I took from it is this – we need to listen. Even if I abhor someone’s opinion, I can achieve more through listening and understanding why they hold that opinion than from repeating, rephrasing and defending my own arguments, hammering them into a defensive stance. Proving ourselves logically right over and over again doesn’t matter. Understanding why others disagree with us does.

I’m not saying that you should not stand up for what you believe in. Far from it. I firmly believe that women are under-represented in science fiction and fantasy and we should change that. But I also believe that the best way to achieve change is to express my view, then step back from the debate and listen. Not to defend my position. To understand rather than berate.

And yes, this is not just a science fiction and fantasy thing. It is a universal thing. It is as true of politics and religion as of which Star Trek captain was best (Picard). But sf+f is where I live. It’s what I’m passionate about. And so that’s where I start trying to treat this differently.

And if you’ve never seen Feminist Frequency then here’s a taste. I think it’s excellent, if occasionally flawed. Other opinions are available.



  1. jokelly65 says:

    Excellent post. as Heinlein said “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.”

  2. Sue Archer says:

    I think it’s good to remember that the strength of sci-fi and fantasy is its capability to envision and empathize with alternate worlds, cultures, and points of view – so why shouldn’t we be applying that to discussions of the genre? Fantastic post, Andrew. 🙂

    • Great point Sue – there is a particularly cruel irony to these bitter debates existing!

    • jokelly65 says:

      Ive noticed a marked tendency by some to get upset if a story explores anything that doesn’t support their Ideology.. Its sad considering some of the best fiction explores both social and political what if’s. I have to admit Ive held back from several things in my writing to keep from sounding like I am writing a thinly veiled social commentary. how ever I am not a real author LOL so the number of people I can impact and insult by exploring what if’s is limited to say the least.

      • Sue Archer says:

        Hi Jo, great quote from Heinlein. I’ve experienced this backlash as well. I am one of those strange people who likes to read about a position I don’t 100% agree with, so that I can learn and grow. I say explore away!

        • I’m with Sue on this one. Just because some people dislike a story doesn’t mean it is without value. Sometimes a backlash can be a sign that you’ve hit a nerve, that your work means something to people. Sometimes science fiction and fantasy offer social commentaries, that’s one of their values, and though personally I prefer them subtle you shouldn’t feel you have to hold back just because people notice your point.

  3. […] Hard lines and heated words – the challenge of discussing science fiction and fantasy […]

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