Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Oh Boy! Politics and Religion in Writing!

     I sometimes wonder if it’s possible to be a writer and be non-political. Not in the sense that one is a news hound and watches the debates with bated breath, but in the sense that one has a very clearly-defined political ideology. I wonder this, of course, because as I write I find my own political ideology slipping into my stories. I do not intend to do this; it’s just that as I write situations seem to naturally arise that ask--nay, beg--to address political issues.

     In the Sullivan’s War series, the whole idea of political corruption is, of course, an ongoing theme. I suppose some will read it and say “Aha! He’s commenting on our own current administration!” Others might read it and say “I’m with him! There’s no doubt that he’s referencing a certain administration that ran for, oh, say the first eight years of the 21st century.” And still others might say “What a scathing metaphorical indictment of the Taft administration!”

     I find this interesting but the truth of the matter is, I’m not doing any of it. The Stellar Assembly, the main governing body in Sullivan’s War, is not flawed by way of design; it is flawed because it relies on human beings to carry out that design. And believe it or not, human beings are flawed.

     Our main flaw, I think, is that of greed. Give a group of people a supply of anything and one or some of them will grab a larger handful than the rest. The greedy person will, of course, justify this behavior in a variety of ways and will no doubt not see themselves as greedy but as somehow “more deserving” or “more capable of managing the resource.” If anything will be the downfall of human civilization, I believe it will be this trait.

     I think the Prologue and Book I of the Sullivan’s War series are very open to interpretation. It’s a bit accidental that it turned out that way but I’m glad it did. Now, Book II, due out on March 30, will probably reveal my political stripes a bit more clearly. I considered the effect this may have on readers. Will they like me and my work less if their political beliefs happen to run counter to mine? Will my work be polarizing, with some proclaiming me to be a genius, others calling me an ignorant hack?

     I figure the only way to avoid this from happening is to focus not on politics, but on religion. There’s a safe subject. Questions about the afterlife do arise in Sullivan’s War: Book II, but those questions are left largely unanswered. However, my next project after Sullivan’s War, a novel called Chrysopteron, deals rather directly with the issue of religion.

     Briefly, it is about a generation ship called the Chrysopteron that is en route to a distant planet. An event occurs aboard the ship that gives rise to a new religion and this religion becomes a point of contention for the future inhabitants of the planet once they begin to realize that many of the things they believe may not be true. The novel touches on many themes but one of the issues it examines is this: is religion a net positive or a net negative for society? It also asks whether or not historical fact should be an acceptable tool to condemn a religion. Specifically, are the merits of a religion really dependent on whether or not what its adherents believe is true? Can a religion survive being exposed as a complete fabrication? Can the religion carry on with its followers now viewing their mythology not as historical fact but as moral allegory?

     Of course, like any good religious story, there must be ambiguity. What really happened aboard the ship? Sure, the legend that arose around this particular event is exposed, but the event itself… was there something more to it? Will another event that occurs in the story’s “present day” assume the same significance that the first did for the main characters’ ancestors?

     Now, I know that many will read Chrysopteron and see it as a condemnation of religion. It is not my intent for it to come across that way, but the story requires it. What I mean is, if the religion in Chrysopteron is not called into question, there is no story, at least not the story I wanted to tell. This is one of the reasons that, despite being nearly finished with Chrysopteron, I intend to spend a few more months on it. I want to make a strong point, of course, but not in a way that will alienate readers. I want to leave readers asking questions about their own beliefs, not feeling as though I’ve made an obstinate proclamation regarding religion.

     In the end, I realize that tackling such issues as politics and religion is bound to leave some people unhappy. But for whatever reason these two things are so inseparably tied to our history and our culture that any writer is missing exploring a significant part of the human condition if he does not address it at least occasionally. And I do not believe a person ever became a writer so that he might be timid. So if you are a writer I say to you: be bold but be considerate. If you have a particular point of view to express do not do so with rage and bluster. Rather, let your skill as a writer allow you to weave that point into a narrative where it will find a natural home, where it will engage the minds of your readers and, even if they close the book disagreeing with you, will at least have them closing it thanking you for engaging them with grace and humility. There are highly political authors who never learned this lesson and they are the truly polarizing figures. They are the ones that drive a wedge between opposing sides rather than bringing them together in civil debate. With my writing I hope to do the latter.


  1. I agree. Very well put. I have one religious novel coming up (magical realism with a basis in Western mythology) and one political thriller I'm outlining. I wonder if I try too hard to hold back my views so I don't offend anyone, but then again, what's the big deal with offending people? An opinion is just that.

  2. I think you're quite right that there's no avoiding either topic. It's possible to avoid preaching, but the subjects are coming up; face it. Politics are easier to deal with, because the labels move around so much. Arch-conservative in Russia right now means communist, because that's the ancien regime. Liberal can be equally flexible, depending on the present state of politics. I divide politics along two axes instead of one myself; freedom vs. slavery and innovation vs. conservation. I pretty much offend anybody who desires to be offended at some point. I don't get offended unless the only proper response is violence. In other words, I never take offense.
    Religion is much more difficult to deal with, because in the first place, if you're writing about the real world it can completely change the perspective of the reader depending on existing assumptions. In a fantasy or science fiction world there is more latitude, but again the simple fact remains that agnostics, atheists and deists see the world differently from theists. Christians, Muslims and Jews have many similar beliefs, but a few bedrock differences which alter their world views. Same goes for the various monotheistic and polytheistic religions, and we haven't even gotten to philosophy yet.
    I think it behooves a writer who intends to conquer this subject to do a bit of studying. Saying something like 'all Christians are hypocrites' or 'all Muslims are terrorists' just won't do. It's a lot of work, but it's something I've done myself; I've read all major and a lot of minor holy books, and can sketch the differences between sects as well as religions. Those belonging to a religion being criticized are a lot more tolerant if understanding and respect are shown, though of course there will always be cranks that can never be appeased.
    In my fantasy worlds I build the religions very carefully, choosing an essential ethical approach from existing religions and philosophies to a degree, and then incorporating elements from multiple sources so that even a religion superficially Roman Catholic will have enough differences that an actual Roman Catholic won't find it all that familiar. An important point though--I prefer not to use any deity of any extant religion. That way at least nobody can pretend I'm ordering their God around in fiction.