Sub-genres and fascism

This was provoked by a minor discourse on Twitter which I won’t quote because the original take wasn’t some terrible thing, it was a reasonable idea — I just think it is incorrect. Essentially, somebody was speculating whether the relative popularity of fantasy over science-fiction reflected the current fascist trend in wider society.

I think the answer is a qualified “no” and I think I’ve done the necessary homework.

Let me hit the caveats and qualifications first. Fascists and the far right do love various kinds of fantasy both as genres to be read as fiction for enjoyment but also as pseudo-history to be incorporated into their worldview. The strand of esoteric and occult writing weaves between fantasy fiction and far-right mythologising has multiple roots but as I’ve pointed out before Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race is a common point both in the history of fandom AND in the history of the development of far-right beliefs in fantastical master-races. Racism and essentialism run through a lot of seminal fantasy works and Atlantean myths of lost civilisations (and hence superior “races”) is a common trope within Western high fantasy (e.g. Numenor in Tolkein). The right will habitually scrape off any nuance from that and take these ideas as aspirational (e.g. that the Numenorian were corruptable and doomed to have their influence fade in Tolkein’s mythos is ignored).

In recent years we have also seen an expressly right-wing attempt to claim medieval/dark-age “history” as somehow their “territory”. Likewise, the far right have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to appropriate Norse/Viking iconography and mythology as their own, in much the same way that the Nazis appropriated fictionalised (and Europeanised and heavily mythologised) Indo-European “Aryan” iconography and history. Fascism likes the past and it likes it in a mythologised form which requires a degree of fictionalisation. Heck, the very name comes from the desire to appropriate Roman history. We can throw mythologised Spartans into the mix as well, along with a right-wing resurgence of interest in pre-war pulp sword & sorcery.

Fascism tells lies about the past and hence prefers fictionalised versions of the past and that is easiest to do within the genre of fantasy.

So, there is undoubtedly a long-running interest in the genre of fantasy within the far-right and fascism. It’s a genre where manly men can slay evil semi-humans. Fascists are going to like that when (and if) it happens but is not something we see in all seminal works of fantasy.

However, that’s not the question at hand. The question at hand is the relative dominance of fantasy over science fiction. It would be easy to portray fantasy as backwards looking and science fiction as forward-looking and hence one as inherently regressive and one as inherently progressive. We could even pick out moments in science fiction history such as the Futurians or the New Wave, where progressive writers have used science fiction to either envisage a better future or to warn of political dangers via dystopian fiction.

So, case closed! Fantasy is right-wing and sci-fi left. I’ve disproved myself and with all the receipts to boot. No.

One person’s dystopia is another’s set of aspirational goals. There are many examples but there is no better personification of this capacity of science fiction to blur dystopias than one man: Judge Dredd.

Dredd has been striding through British comics since the 1970s and part of his longevity is you never know what kind of story you are going to get. Dredd is a satire of brutal policing, a celebration of the ‘Dirty Harry’ cop-who-gets-things done archetype, and he is the kind of implacable action hero you need when faced with an existential threat. Dredd is both “copaganda” and a warning at the same time. However, unlike Marvel’s vigilante The Punisher, Dredd has managed to maintain his dual existence without being wholly and unironically adopted by the right.

The ironic, satirical aspect of some dystopian science fictional settings can just as easily be subsumed by the right as aspirational, as the right can appropriate fantasy settings. The use of War Hammer 40K images to present Donald Trump as a heretic-killing god-emperor from 2015 to 2020, was prevalent in MAGA circles. Not unlike the use of Punisher imagery by US police officers, the images involve repurposed irony. Both The Punisher comics and the War Hammer 40K game setting can be enjoyed by people on the centre and the left because of a degree of ironic separation from the values of characters in the fictional setting and reality. The far-right employed a different mode of irony — an exploitation of the ambiguity of sincerity in the absurd and over-the-top imagery.

I could continue digging into right-wing and left-wing elements in speculative fiction but firstly people better grounded in literary criticism can do a better job of this and secondly, it still wouldn’t resolve the matter. Sure, we can have fascist elements in science fiction (Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for example), we can have satires of fascist elements in science fiction (Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers for example) and we can have progressive elements in fantasy (waves at Ursula Le Guin just for starters). Fantasy and science fiction are twin genres with a huge overlap because they allow writers to re-imagine political, cultural and social settings even to the extent of new languages whether they be Sindarin or Klingon.

There is a different way of looking at this question. Within the arena of speculative fiction, how has the American far-right chosen to express itself? This is a different question than what I examined above. The appropriation of Pulp, the use of the Punisher Logo, the “Molon Labe” in gun forums, the Sonnerand emblazoned weapons street thugs & mass murderers, the niche sub-culture of loons who think Middle Earth was real etc, is primarily about how the far-right has consumed and appropriated aspects of history and culture. However, what kind of fiction has the right sort out to express the ideas of a resurgent fascist/movement?

The two most influential works of fiction for the modern right are both near-future/alt-history works that imagine progressive/liberal aspects of the modern world as dystopian and which require a violent overthrow or civil war. William Luther Pierce‘s 1978 novel The Turner Diaries was a direct inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombing, the second largest terrorist act in the US. Jean Raspail‘s 1973 French novel The Camp of the Saints has been almost as equally inspirational for right-wing violence as The Turner Diaries. Both novels use speculative fictional elements of dystopia, alternate history and future history to role-play methods of right-wing violence and road-map a route to a fascist society. They are just two of the most notable examples of this sub-genre, which has varieties with different degrees of overt racism but which play out the race-war/helter-skelter/boogaloo fascist eschatology for Western democracy. William S Lind approached the same idea in non-fiction and also in fiction with a more paleoconservative veneer in the novel Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War. Lind’s fiction and non-fiction were reprinted by Castalia House, the publishing house established by paleoconservative/alt-right/nationalist/etc Vox Day.

Vox Day does at least give us a counter-example of an expressly far-right high fantasy series (sort of) with his own Throne of Bones. However, such examples are thin and far between. More typical of the far-right expression in SF&F is the Baen/Castalia published Tom Kratman. Ideologically, Kratman describes himself not as a fascist or as a libertarian but as an advocate of timocracy: a form of government where voting and political participation is limited to a subset of society. Kratman has written works that cover near-future civil conflict and also works of military science fiction in which martial values and timocratic principles come into play along with crude critiques of progressive politics.

Military science fiction sits adjacent to the far-right love of near-future conflict. It retains science fiction’s capacity to be, essentially, about anything, so there are plenty of non-fascist and anti-militaristic examples of the sub-genre. However, it is also the ideal playground for fascistic (or “timocratic”) expression. The type-defining example of Mil-SF in the timocratic style is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in which citizenship is limited to those who have engaged in some kinds of national service (not necessarily in the military but it is that aspect that has made it beloved in some sections of the right).

Mil-SF is also an arena in which the libertarian-paleoconservative-AltRight-white nationalist has played out in fiction. At one end we have more expressly hyper-individualist works by authors like Michael Z Williamson, we have more paleoconservative (and seminal and mainstream) works by Jerry Pournelle, works by timocratic Tom Kratman and then more expressly white nationalist works published by Castalia. Of those authors, only Williamson hasn’t been published by Castalia (I think).

Fantasy is a genre which the far right uses to engage with a distorted view of the past. However, science fiction, specifically in the form of near-future/alt-history and MilSF is the preferred genre for the far-right to express its aspiration and role-play violence. This latter point is quite literal, as we have discussed here before, near-future thrillers have been used by far-right spree killers to quite literally identify victims and plan out murders that the writer then commits.

My broader point is that there isn’t an aesthetic or genre shield against fascist appropriation nor are genres inherently ‘contaminated’. You aren’t going to catch fascism from watching Game of Thrones but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the elements in mainstream fiction that fascists may draw comfort from.

36 responses to “Sub-genres and fascism”

    • I’d disagree with you about this being one of his best essays, but mostly because it’s merely, at its core, a summation of arguments as to why the original assertion is silly and wrong. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the original argument is reheated leftovers, stale and less impressive than the first time I tasted it, and thus the counter-arguments will feel old as well.

      But it is nevertheless important to push back at these simplistic claims of genres or sub-genres being the “turf” of some political leaning or other, if for no other reason than that it would diminish them, and eventually give them away.
      As an example recently Games Workshop, the Warhammer 40K guys, said, paraphrased, “If you allow Nazi regalia at your tournament we disallow your official standing.” If they’d been silent on the issue you would have seen an uptick in swastikas on the gaming tables, but now the neo-nazis in the hobby keep keeping their heads down. Of course there was some whining from the usual far right purported gamers, but it’s not like anybody cares about what a gaggle of discount TheQuartering have to say, any more than they care about what the actual TheQuartering says.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I get that you often tie things into Beale and the Puppies contingent, Camestros, but for this particular subject, I don’t see why you are doing it. Beale and the authors he publishes, not counting Pournelle, are a nothing in the SFF field. They simply have no relevance to the history and heavy hitters of the written field and certainly to this particular issue. If you want to look at fascism tendencies in SFF, why aren’t you looking at Campbell and Lovecraft for starters? Or at least modern folks like Ringo, etc.?

    The issue that you are looking at is related to the issue that will not die, namely that SF is dying (or less popular or hard SF is dying or less popular,) often claimed to be due to fantasy fiction, but the main reason always being some current idea or issue of the time in which the repetitive claim is being made, going back to the 1930’s. So for instance we had the spate of claims at the end of the 1990’s — some of them by SF authors — that SF was less popular then because science and technology had gone beyond the predictive speculations of SF and discovered all the things already and so SF was now boring to readers and dying off. It didn’t make any sense, but they were very sure about it.

    And there’s been the regular claim since the late 1990’s that fantasy is “beating” SF (even though they aren’t in competition and help each other sell,) because women like fantasy more. In actuality women were barred and discouraged from “liking” science fiction and fantasy (and comics) by defensive men, and most importantly severely limited in being able to write and publish it by defensive men. Women and girls were claimed to not be interested in SFF when they were actually an essential part of the audience, one that often had to pass books to each other like a a spy doing a drop. Women authors started to find more opportunities to break through in fantasy fiction, which was less heavily guarded than SF, at least in some sub-categories. The explosion of women authors in contemporary fantasy, for instance, in the early oughts was because publishers were actually buying from women in that area, so more women tried to write that type of fantasy to get into the field, since epic fantasy was often declared the realm of men, etc.

    Fantasy’s relative dominance of SF is indeed relative. It depends on what area of storytelling you’re taking and what decade. In children’s and YA, fantasy has always been the backbone due to the cultural shift of fairy tales being for kids. But in film, SF was always bigger than fantasy, except for fantasy horror. Movie studios found audiences for SF much more reliable than for fantasy, SF films were seen as more “serious” and ground-breaking, and doing most types of SF were a lot cheaper than doing fantasy when it came to special effects. When tech effects progressed in the 21st century, fantasy started getting more love which led to increased interest in sprawling epic fantasy over contemporary fantasy (cheaper) projects, but those inroads have been more in television, where the costs could be offset by advertising and other revenue streams.

    Written fantasy did come to be a somewhat larger sub-field than SF at the turn of the recent century, but that was mainly a matter of prosaic business luck. The early 1990’s global recession and the shrinkage of the wholesale industry for print products upon which comics, magazines and mass market paperbacks depended caused a shrinkage and scramble in many areas of written fiction, not only in the U.S., but in the U.K., France and many other countries. Science fiction got hit by that hard and took a long time to recover from the lost mmpk sales. Horror (which has a lot of fantasy in it) also went into steep decline for a few years since it was almost entirely dependent on mmpk.

    Fantasy, however, was able to surf it out because they were experimenting with major hardcover launches of some works, mainly epic fantasy ones, and enough of those hit to create a small field expansion. That kept them going until the late 1990’s when a perfect storm occurred in multiple sub-fields: renewed interest in (not always fantasy) horror films boosting horror fiction, YA having a massive expansion in the wake of the Harry Potter books and movies, the Lord of the Rings movies boosting epic fantasy, category romance getting an expansion in paranormal romance as part of their sprawling efforts to try to deal with their wholesale losses, and contemporary fantasy having several hits at once which leads to an expansion.

    There was a lot of wailing then and a lot of theories about why various written fantasy sub-fields were collectively popular. And most of those theories did try to fix on some social theme that also included doom and gloom predictions for why science fiction wasn’t having the same rise. Of course, SF was having the same rise, just slower, with a lot of new fantasy fans drifting over to SF titles too. SF began to have expansions in various sub-areas in the mid-oughts, starting with zombies and post-apocalyptic visions — and many SF franchises remain the biggest ones around culturally. SF still dominates in video games as well — where there’s a lot more of what you could call fashy fashion.

    One of the over-arching claims always made about fantasy fiction is that it is supposedly simplistic, straight good and evil battles, domination and species wars, etc., and if you buy that line, I get why people might view fantasy fiction as being more fashy, even though most SF has always been arguably more fashy (and rah-rah U.S. dominance). And that being a pressing issue of the day, especially in the U.S. with all our modern dystopia plagues and climate apocalypse also going on, I can see why people would then claim that fantasy fiction is more facist as the spur of its popularity. It’s not accurate but it fits a nice binary and people like having either/or boxes.

    But the history is ours and all was white supremacy sexism arguments have been going on way before fantasy fiction had market expansions — it goes back to the 1930’s at least. It’s a regular thing. The claim that Martin’s SOIF, for instance, is historical-like and fascism friendly has been going on since the late 1990’s when some fans used to argue that the fantasy series with dragons and ice zombies should be seen as not fantasy fiction but historical fiction of Europe. They still try to argue that Star Trek and Star Wars are anti-liberal/fascist friendly and should be white dominated but it gets hard to do there in SF. So yes, retreating into claims of fake history and extending them to pre-industrial fantasy fiction has been something toxic fans do to justify their critiques of the modern day.

    But epic fantasy is only one slice of fantasy fiction and even epic fantasy isn’t a full haven for fascistic narratives. And the fantasy is popular because it’s popular with fascist fans only works if you think they are the main fans of the field. They aren’t; they haven’t been for decades, which is why they’re really angry about things. Trying to argue that fantasy is popular because women fans flooded into it — the more popular theory — but at the same time the women are fascist and that made them flood into fantasy? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s another centering of the field on what white cishet guys are supposedly interested in — and they aren’t the center of the field. They haven’t been the center of the field since the 1970’s, despite the domination still of white men authors in publishing. Haven’t you heard? All the weird hippies and women started bringing in horses and dragons and sparkly vampires and ruined everything.

    Indeed, military SF was long considered a bastion of both maleness and right wing and libertarian ideologies against the hordes of wussy fantasy fans and women readers. Linda Nagata was told by publishers that military SF by women didn’t sell, for instance, and had to search hard for a publisher for her highly successful trilogy. And military SF is perennially popular. But space opera, it’s cousin, is vastly bigger and contains large amounts of anti-fascism, queer content, etc., as well as some things that probably are fascist-lite. Basically, both SF and fantasy are fields too big and broad to say one is mainly X and the other is mainly Y and thus super popular. But nuance isn’t beloved of fascism either. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • //I get that you often tie things into Beale and the Puppies contingent, Camestros, but for this particular subject, I don’t see why you are doing it. //

      Because the question at hand was the recent trend towards fascism in wider (I infer US) society – hence what the alt-right were doing in SF&F being relevant.


      • Yes, except that they aren’t really the alt right in the SFF field. They’re the mostly wannabee fringe players, except for maybe Larry. The main alt right/libertarian/white man’s burden folk are people like Ringo, Weber, and a whole bunch of big and mid-list people who actually publish right wing SFF in the main marketplace and/or at least pontificate right wing views in fandom spaces like convention panels and can actually get large numbers of people to listen to them. (Plus some olds like Silverberg, Niven, Card, etc.)

        What they did with the Puppies campaign was damaging for a period of time and a historical mess and your Debarkle work was really relevant to the history of fandom. And yes, the Puppies reiterated the views of right wing media and operators and you showed how they were trying to shove it into SFF dialogue, the links of their thinking developing along with right wing politics. You totally deserve the Hugo nom. But when it comes to actual published fiction that has any impact, (or movies, comics, games, t.v. shows, including those adapted from novels) the Pups have no real impact, which is what was shown when they tried to do their campaign against bestselling authors they claimed were obscure. They got their fake Hugo noms and then they failed and wandered away and they mostly stand on the edges screaming.

        So all I’m saying is that if you’re looking at the claim of fascism in (English language) SF and Fantasy relative to popularity, you’re looking at Tor, Orbit, Del Rey, and yeah, even a few Baen books. But nearly nobody knows or cares what Castalia is publishing. They’re not in the real market. It’s another vanity project of Beale’s. It was relevant to the Puppies themselves, but it’s not much relevant to the culture of the marketplace or why an entire genre is popular in society. Warhammer or Judge Dredd relevant to the topic? Yes. Castalia, no.

        But maybe I’m misunderstanding because I don’t know who was making the fantasy is popular because it’s fascist claim in the first place. Maybe it was a Puppy, maybe it was Beale, and so then that makes some sense. But when I simply read the essay, I came to that part and was wondering why it was featuring what are, essentially, nothing-burger works of fiction. So that was my confusion.

        Anyway, the claims seems to be another entry in the “SF is virtuous because X and fantasy is not because Y” pool, such as:

        1) SF is virtuous because it deals with real world science and serious issues and fantasy does not and is just wish fulfillment fairy tales.

        2) SF is virtuous because it predicts the future and fantasy is not because it’s all about the past and is repetitive.

        3) SF is virtuous because it is rational and intelligent, not squishy and with girl cooties, and fantasy fiction is not because it was taken over by women and made too twee, etc.

        And so on and so forth.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My new monthly stats for political structures could very well of use here–Total read 173, Not Applicable 29 (17%), Unclear 12 (7%), Anarchy 5 (3%), Pure democracy 1 (1%), Representative democracy 47 (27%), Oligarchy 60 (35%), Autocracy 19 (11%)–except I don’t distinguish between SF and F.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The idea fantasy is popular because of fascism sounds like just another in the long string of SF-fan complaints about why fantasy is just a bastardized, inferior form of the cool stuff they like (not all SF fans, obviously). As it’s magic instead of science, it doesn’t have the rigorous logical structure of science fiction. It’s inherently a macho fantasy for teenage boys who want to be Conan (or Brak or any of the other Conan knockoffs). It’s inherently a girly genre because it doesn’t force girls to think about all that icky science and technology they don’t understand or like. It’s just plain crap. Etc. Etc.
    Not that I disagree with either Cam’s or Kat’s posts but I think this is a factor too

    Liked by 3 people

      • I’ve heard the argument a lot that SF is really fantasy. By that logic, though, *all* fiction is fantasy. You can make that argument, but it’s not a useful categorization.

        For the most part, categorization of speculative fiction is useful if it helps readers find the kinds of stories they like. It might also be useful for students of the genre to organize their thinking. There might be some other use, but I’m not thinking of one at the moment.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Here’s how I see it: If you look at “all made-up stories” as the main set, “realistic fiction” is one of its subsets and “fantasy fiction” is another.


          • The main way that people collectively group stories is in a triangle formation. You have mimetic fiction — no unreal elements from our current world and its history. And then you have unreal fiction that has unreal elements not proven/don’t seemingly exist in our world and its history.

            And the unreal fiction is split into two loose groups based on the rationale for the existence of the unreal elements. In science fiction, all the unreal elements are given by the author to the readers a natural world rationale for existing that is understandable through science, however bad and wonky a rationale it may be. In fantasy fiction, some or all of the unreal elements are given a supernatural rationale by the author to the readers for existing, a rationale beyond the natural world and thus not understandable by science. (Some of the unreal elements in fantasy fiction may be given a natural, science fiction rationale for existing in addition to the fantasy supernatural ones that do not have a natural rationale for existing.)

            So it’s realistic, unrealistic natural and unrealistic supernatural, pretty much throughout lit history. In a realistic story, a vampire would turn out to be a regular person pretending to be a vampire. In an unrealistic natural (science fiction) story, the vampire turns out to be a parasitic alien or the result of a strange virus. In an unrealistic supernatural (fantasy) story, the vampire is a magical being of some kind with supernatural powers. Whatever the author presents, the majority of readers puts in one of the three baskets based on the apparent rationale.

            So science fiction and fantasy are more like fraternal twins who may look enough like each other to occasionally get confused for one another by some people, rather than one being the subset of the other. Or the old two sides of the same unreal coin metaphor.


        • I think the real problem is that fans want prescriptive definitions of “SF” and “Fantasy” that they can use to sort and categorise what they consume, but in fact these are terms for genres and genre, like gender, is a dynamic thing that’s not capable of fixed definition

          Liked by 3 people

    • “As it’s magic instead of science, it doesn’t have the rigorous logical structure of science fiction.”

      You may greatly enjoy next Sunday’s review of a Reginald Bretnor symposium.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. The claims that certain genres or subgenres are fascist are a load of nonsense.

    A lot of 1930s sword and sorcery and pulp SFF in general is actually leftwing, though the pulp rev offshoot of the puppies doesn’t want to see that. Robert E. Howard hated fascists and is on record about how much he disliked Mussolini and Hitler. Bran Mak Morn is a revolutionary fighting colonisers (the Roman Empire), the Conan story “The Hour of the Dragon” is a parable for the rise of fascism in Europe and Conan explicitly speaks out in favour of taxing the rich and wealth redistribution.

    Tolkien may have been a conservative Catholic, but he had no love for fascism and again is on record.

    You also fine a lot of explicitly anticolonialist and leftwing attitudes in pulp SF magazines like Planet Stories. Even Astounding wasn’t all right-leaning hard SF. Campbell published Chan Davis, who went to jail for his Socialist convictions.

    So in short, the Puppies are wrong, as usual.

    Liked by 3 people

    • As Poul Anderson said, Conan was probably an excellent king. Partly because he understands the concept of “enough” — he has all his needs met, he doesn’t have to take from anyone else — and because he had the sense to hire competent, honest administrators to handle the boring stuff.

      Liked by 2 people

    • While Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future stories are often colonialist (nonhuman primitives should understand Earth administers their worlds for their own good) he also wrote “Battle for Three Worlds” which is explicitly anti-.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Puppies continue to be wrong, no film at 11. Also, as we all know, JWC was a fucking fascist.

    I think mil-SF tends to be largely pretty fascist — I mean, just look at it and too many of the people associated with it. Long gone are the days of “The Forever War.” Also a lot of video games, particularly the gun fondler ones are fashy.

    Although I don’t think a lot of the people who believe in timocracy walk the walk — offhand in the Puppy/Baen area, all I can think of is widdle Bwad and Tank Marmot who actually served. Larry’s a gun humper who failed as an accountant, f’rex, and Teddy doesn’t even live in the US. Heinlein did serve, as did Pournelle, but very few have since the military went all-volunteer after Vietnam.

    The only reason I can think of for US RWNJ not appropriating Judge Dredd is that he’s only known here for 2 movies, decades apart — both of which bombed and the first of which is really stupid. Say it with me: I YAM DUH LAA!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Since mil-SF was mentioned, I would like to call out Jack Campbell (a pseudonym of a known author) and his Last Fleet series as a rare example of mil-SF that I really believe is non-fascist in intent (YMMV I suppose). A civilian leader is one of the main cast and she plays a key role at multiple places in the narrative. So I think it is possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True, he’s very Mil, but not overtly fashy. And he was a Navy officer, as was his father.

      RM (Rebecca) Meluch wrote a mil-SF series featuring the US Space Navy vs. a reconstructed Roman Empire in Spaaace. Then they team up to fight an insectoid hive mind species. Daft, not a lot of characterization beyond archetypes, but very popcorn. Jarringly sexist in spots, particularly when coming from a woman.

      But icky aliens than sometimes you can’t kill except with a sword, BSG-like fighters, ST:TOS-like ship, manly heroic derring-do and buckling of swashes, plus gratuitous Latin.

      The Space Romans are (naturally) fascist, duh.

      Liked by 1 person

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