Tuesday 26 October 2021

The Potterization of Science Fiction

One of the more annoying trends in mass-media science fiction and fantasy is the move away from
The absurdity of the notion that
some people are born special
cannot be overstated, whether
we're talking about a monarch
or the Half-Blood Prince.
(Image via Wall Street Journal)

achievement-based protagonists, and towards those whose ‘specialness’ derives from something they were born with.

It’s clear that the entertainment-consuming public is often interested in people who get defined as special, regardless of what arbitrary circumstances have bestowed that specialness on them. We feel that when engagement with a protagonist is predicated on birthright rather than achievement, readers and viewers are essentially being treated as Royal Watchers.

Being expected to care about the narrative because it depicts an unattainable and presumably better position in life is classist and demeaning.

Whether the privilege is acquired through right of birth, through being born ‘special,’ or through being the subject of a prophecy, this trope is fundamentally tied to a classist and undemocratic worldview. The prevalence of such narratives, and why they persist, needs to be examined and challenged.

Certainly, under the right circumstances, this technique can produce characters that are central to memorable and enduring cultural myths, such as Paul Muad'dib or Prince Corwin. Those circumstances, however, are contingent on the overall narrative working coherently with the premise.
Say what you will about Dune,
it doesn't pretend to be anything
less than classist and cryptofascist.
(Image via Screenrant) 

Between the superhero craze and the shoe-horning of high-born people into existing franchises, this choice seems to have become the default for too much mainstream (corporate) science fiction and fantasy — whether or not it strengthens the larger story.

One of the fundamentally troubling assumptions behind the born-great protagonist is the anti-democratic idea that the lives of some people simply matter more than the lives of other people. If we accept that Harry Potter is destined to be the only one who can do the thing that’s important, then why should we care about the life of Ritchie Coote? Likewise, if Aragorn is destined for the throne then we have to accept that all other Men of Gondor would be incapable of managing the kingdom (let alone Women of Gonder). There is a direct link between the idea that one person can be born great, with the ideas that underpin racism, classism, and sexism. See also: the equally flawed “great man” theory.

Just as troubling an assumption is the idea that greatness is unearned; those who are great have not thought about it, have not put in effort to attain greatness, have not practiced whatever inherent part of their nature makes for greatness. It wouldn’t matter if Húrin the Tall graduated at the top of his class in urban planning at the University of Dúnedain, he’d still be incapable of managing Minas Tirith, and
Yes, even your favourite kids'
cartoon Visionaries features
a prince who was born special.
(Image via YouTube)

would be doomed to repeat Denethor’s mistakes. This is an idea that breeds complacency as we are taught by the stories we consume that greatness is achievable only through parentage. That is, one’s efforts to improve their lot in life are largely irrelevant, as is the society that supports the achievement of greatness at all.

We are not suggesting that readers should avoid these books, movies, and short dramatic works. Rather, we are suggesting that readers should cast a critical eye to what they read; particularly concerning issues of race, class and gender. The fact that problematic authors such as (kinda classist) J.R.R. Tolkien and (transphobic) J.K. Rowling would produce problematic works is unsurprising. What is more surprising is that this “born great” trope continues to appear in a plethora of modern, popular, award-shortlisted novels by authors who harbor otherwise progressive and thoughtful worldviews. Our intent is not to cast aspersions on authors who use this trope, but rather to encourage readers to interrogate the ideas at the heart of it. Why is it so appealing to you?

This narrative crutch has long been a central part of epic fantasies (Everything from Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time, to Dragonlance and Masters Of The Universe), but the trend of prophesied protagonists who were born to lead has seeped into wider genre stories.

Salvor Hardin, who in the novel Foundation had been nothing more than a competent mayor who
Although some have tried
to cast the great math
prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan
as someone who was
simply born with abilities,
an examination of his
biography reveals that they
were the result of significant
study and hard work.

happened to get caught up in historical forces, is recast in the television adaptation as someone who was born special; someone with a psychic ability to understand history. In the very same adaptation, Gaal Dornick has been recast from a young professor from a mid-tier university, to a child prodigy whose great mathematical abilities are simply in her blood. To our eyes, the way the series relies on the ‘specialness’ of these characters is condescending to the audience. 

Even Star Trek — once mocked for depicting an occasionally dull and technocratic meritocracy — has come to embrace the protagonist born great. Starting with the 2009 reboot of the classic series, J.J. Abrams reimagined James T. Kirk as a maverick who was born with a destiny, instead of the Original Series depiction of a studious “stack of books with legs” who had earned a captaincy through hard work in postings on the USS Republic and the USS Faragut. The distinction is not insignificant; in one version of the story greatness is something that is earned through hard work, in the other version greatness is something bestowed upon a person seemingly arbitrarily.

This is almost a direct rebuttal to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tapestry," which tries to give viewers a perspective into why Picard is who he is. It is revealed in that episode, that Picard could easily have ended up as a junior lieutenant, but that circumstances had motivated him to do better. In essence, he earned his command through hard work and diligence.

One could also note that when a protagonist is “born great,” it tends to undermine the role in societal supports leading to greatness. Harry Potter isn’t great because he lives in a society whose social services, schools, and hospitals enable him to achieve, he’s great because he was just born that way. One might parallel this to the view held by those arch-Randians who would proclaim that Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is entirely self-generated, owing nothing to the school system that educated him or the public investment in developing internet technology.

Works that directly grapple with the implications of “born great” protagonists are worth examining. One of the best, Sarah Gailey’s Magic For Liars, engaged with the classism and elitism that is baked into the very notion of a person born with a great destiny. By taking the point-of-view of someone left behind by the destined greatness of another, the book serves as a sharp rebuttal to the elitism of
This will be the only time ever
that this blog says anything good
about Buffy Season 7.
(Image via Pintrest)

“chosen one” narratives. The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman takes a completely different tack in criticizing this trope by showing how infantilizing it might be for a character to be born into power; his protagonist Quentin Coldwater grows into a listless, emotionally stunted young man precisely because of his privileged magical destiny.

And despite a ham-handed delivery, smug self-congratulatory tone, and a toxic showrunner, we’d probably also have to give credit to the final season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for at least suggesting that the specialness of the show’s “chosen one” should be democratized.

At its core, the philosophy that some people are just inherently great (and therefore most others just aren’t) is nihilistic. This is a narrative framework in which few people have free will, or whose decisions can have an impact on the world.

If all of our enduring cultural myths are about people whose greatness and purpose are thrust upon them by right of birth, it implies that everyone else is saddled with a purposeless life. That’s a proposition that we urge readers to reject.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

American Cleon

There has long been a lapsarian strain in the American imagination, and that’s why Foundation is so
Hari Seldon never suggests making something
better than an Empire. He wants to make Trantor
Great Again. (Image via CNET) 

appealing — and so dangerous — right now. But unlike the fate of the Galactic Empire, the outcomes of the issues facing us today are not certain.

Books and articles about the decline of the United States and of what is called “Western Civilization” have populated bookstore shelves and magazine pages for more than a century, with such notables as Niall Ferguson, Chris Hedges, Emmanuel Todd, and David D. Schein contributing tomes to the pastime of prognosticating American eschatology.

But in the past decade, these types of predictions have reached a fever pitch. And it’s not difficult to see why. Factors such as political polarization, global warming, the decline of democracy, increasing resource scarcity and disparities between rich and poor, all seem to have clear and exacerbating trend lines. If there were one of Hari Seldon’s prime radiants, one could imagine these trends being plotted through the equations of psychohistory and seeing a definitive predictive answer that an unpleasant end awaits us all.

These are historical trends that seem inexorable; they seem as inescapable as “the known probability of imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” all of which afflicted the Galactic Empire during the reign of Cleon II.

It must be understood that Foundation reflects the argument made by Edward Gibbons in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; that decline was only in part caused by forces external to the empire itself, that a determinant of collapse was a gradual loss of civic virtue among its Roman citizens (Though by ‘civic virtue,’ some have suggested Gibbons meant ‘members of lower classes knowing their place’). Asimov had just finished reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he began writing Foundation, but he was also writing in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, and a period of upheaval and uncertainty about his country’s future.
Some pundits have gone further back,
and compared present-day politics to
Asimov’s source material.

The idea of the United States as a “new Rome” has existed since shortly after the American revolution. It is communicated through the myth of manifest destiny and is encapsulated in the architecture of Washington, D.C. At various points through its history, American preachers have attempted to create historical narratives that cast the rise and fall of the country as divine prophecy (Just as one high-profile example, Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith told his followers that the U.S. Constitution was a divine document, and that Jesus’ second coming would occur in Missouri).

Foundation as a narrative has to be understood in this context; Isaac Asimov’s understanding of history was informed by American exceptionalism, the influence of America’s third ‘Great Awakening’ of apocalyptic religiosity, the wake of the Great Depression, and of a period of upheaval and uncertainty about the country’s future. It might be asked why, after 80 years, the books are finally being adapted to the screen; is it perhaps because we are again in a period of upheaval and uncertainty?

While we should be aware that the original novel is a product of the ideas and concerns of the time it was written, the television show is a product of today and makes arguments about the world of 2021. We would suggest that the television series version of Foundation contains hints of Gibbons’ classism, echoes of Asimov’s concerns about America on the eve of the Second World War, but also reflects our own 21st Century concerns about decline.

Margaret Atwood has said that “Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it's always about now.” And it’s really more about how people perceive the present, as today’s perceptions determine the actions of tomorrow. Apple TV’s Foundation series resonates because people perceive these trends to be inescapable, and determinative. This is underscored by science fiction’s ideas shaping powerful political forces.

If we accept that this new iteration of Foundation is indeed about the United States, those who take its core messages seriously may help ensure that decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problems facing the world are not insurmountable. There are policies and technologies that will mitigate climate change. Pressure on politicians can force them to behave in our best interest. These things are not easy but they are necessary if we want to avoid Seldon’s predicted outcome.

Inescapable doom can sometimes be more comfortable than faint hope; if the Empire’s going to collapse one way or another, then enjoy it while you can and let Raven Seldon worry about what comes next. If we, as citizens of the world, accept the metaphor presented by Foundation, it can inculcate fatalism about the very real problems we’re facing. As Florida International University professor of English Charles Elkins argued in his Marxist reading of Foundation, “Reading these novels, the reader experiences this fatalism which, in a Marxist analysis, flows from his own alienation in society and his sense of impotence in facing problems he can no longer understand, the solutions of which he puts in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.”

Decline is a powerful idea, and one that rightly should worry us. Foundation suggests that individuals have little agency to affect real change. In doing so, it absolves us for doing nothing.

Tuesday 5 October 2021

Location Matters

In December, members of the World Science Fiction Society will have to choose between three potential host locations for the 2023 Worldcon. Given the competing considerations of this vote, it may end up being the most controversial site selection in several years.
Crossing the Jin River, the Anshun Bridge is an
iconic sight in downtown Chengdu, China.
(Image via Wikipedia)

Where the World Science Fiction Convention takes place has an impact on accessibility, safety, and consequently participation for most members of the science fiction community. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to seriously consider the ramifications of each of these possible options before casting a ballot.

None of the bids are perfect, and there are human rights concerns with each of the proposed host countries.

EDIT: On October 18, the bid to bring the 2023 Worldcon to Memphis was formally withdrawn by the bid chairs. While it will still appear on the ballot in December, it is no longer a viable option for the Worldcon. 

Chengdu, China

A bid to bring Worldcon to China’s fifth-most-populous city has been brewing for most of the past five years. In fact, this bid is so high-profile that much of the discussion seems to have broken down into pro-China and anti-China positions. This is a shame since this sort of discussion misses the complexities of the underlying questions.

Chengdu in 2023 is a well-organized bid whose supporters have done an excellent job of promoting through social media, through attendance at previous conventions, and through outreach to conrunners.

By all accounts, Chengdu is a beautiful city, and the fans working on this bid have been terrific. That being said, they may be fighting an uphill battle.

Despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China, this group’s account has the most followers of all the 2023 bids, with 294 followers as of this writing. While that follower count is dwarfed by the Glasgow 2024 bid, it still indicates that the Chengdu champions have been doing the legwork to promote their organization.
China is noted for its government's
deep and abiding respect for privacy
(Image via HRW.org)

This is the second bid for a Worldcon in China, after Beijing’s failed bid for the 2016 Worldcon. With the country’s vibrant community of science fiction talent, and an engaged and enthusiastic fan base, the prospect of bringing a Worldcon to the country has generated significant excitement.

In recent years, Worldcon has done more to embrace the “world” part of its name, and ensuring equitable access to the convention is something that WSFS members should prioritize. Let’s be honest, if the convention is held in a place that most Americans either can’t or won’t access in 2023, they’ll have had the opportunity to attend one in their home country in 2021 and 2022.

However, China doesn’t fare as well on travel safety indices as the competing bids, and there are significant questions to be raised about the conduct of China’s government in recent years that should trouble site selection voters.


  • Organization
  • Resources
  • Enthusiasm
  • Facilities
  • Global perspective
  • Interesting and vibrant city
  • High vaccination rate, estimated to be in excess of 80 per cent of the central Sichuan population vaccinated


Memphis, USA

Possibly prompted by the concerns some Americans have about the prospect of a Worldcon in China, there has been a slightly chaotic scramble to present a credible US-based alternative to the Chengdu bid.
Much like its namesake, Memphis
has an iconic pyramid. This one's
a bit newer though. 
(Image via MemphisTravel.com)

Whether the impetus behind this campaign is just parochial miserliness or is genuine concern about human rights and safety is probably a matter of perspective. That being said, after the collapses of the Spokane 2023 bid and the New Orleans 2023 bid, Memphis has emerged as the US standard bearer for this year’s Worldcon.

The bid documents paint a picture of a fairly standard US Worldcon; solid facilities, well-planned out commitment to diversity and accessibility. Memphis is a storied American city with a significant importance to the history of music. It is also a city that is known for its cultural and ethnic diversity.

That being said, there is only a bare-bones web presence for the bid, and a modest Twitter presence. (Full disclosure, one of this Blog’s contributors has volunteered a small amount with the Memphis bid.) Concerns have been raised about the lack of local Memphis involvement in the bid.


  • Convention organizers have expressed commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • Existing US-based fandom community has track record of successful conventions under difficult circumstances
  • City known for a rich musical history


Winnipeg, Canada

Having only announced their intention to host at the end of April, the Winnipeg in 2023 bid is the late entrant into the Worldcon race this year. It’s also the only city currently bidding to have previously hosted a Worldcon, having done so with 1994’s “ConAdian.”

Despite the late entry, Winnipeg’s bid is extremely active and credible. The website has a robust amount of content that is updated regularly, they have been blogging about the strengths of their bid, and have extremely active social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Since their announcement, they have made promotional appearances at almost every relevant online convention.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights is a
beautiful and interesting museum in Winnipeg,
but unfortunately gives short shrift to labour
organizing as a means to promote workers' rights.
(Image via humanrights.ca)

Given its relatively mild summer weather, August is just about the perfect time to visit Winnipeg.

The bid committee has a solid group of experienced conrunners involved, and there is a lot of reason to believe that if Winnipeg is selected, they will be able to pull together a successful convention despite the shorter-than-usual timelines.

Winnipeg itself is a much more interesting and vibrant city than you might expect, with significant cultural influences from Indigenous, French Canadian, and Anglo-Canadian traditions, as well as many new Canadians. It is the city in Canada with the largest number of Indigenous residents, a fact that can be seen in the city’s art and its cultural centres.

Among the locations that are bidding for the Worldcon in 2023, Manitoba is probably the safest place for LGBTQIA2S+ travelers. It was the first jurisdiction in Canada to ban conversion therapy, and was among the first to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.


  • Well-organized bid committee
  • Enthusiasm
  • Indigenous culture and art
  • Excellent facilities
  • Safest for LGBTQIA2S+ community


(Image via NewScientist)

While we hope that by 2023, the current pandemic will be mostly in the rearview, we would be remiss if we did not flag that each of these locations has COVID-related risks.

At the time of this writing, Memphis (and much of the American Southeast) has been pummeled by a deadly fourth wave of the pandemic. The province of Manitoba (where Winnipeg is located) repeatedly bungled its pandemic response, though not quite as badly as some other jurisdictions in Canada. Chengdu appears to have the highest vaccination rate among the three potential hosts, but there are reasons to doubt the Government of China’s reporting methods.


There is no perfect host for this Worldcon — or for any other. In this instance, there are compelling reasons to vote for any of these options, but just as compelling reasons to vote against them. It is our suggestion that the least problematic host city is Winnipeg, though ultimately this is a matter of which accessibility and/or convention-running issues voters prioritize.

Friday 1 October 2021

The Best Laid Plans Of Paratime Mice

Over the course of six volumes and almost a million words, Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series has careened rapidly from one genre to the next. The series has at times been a portal fantasy, a crime drama, a nuclear thriller, a steampunk subterfuge, and finally an alien invasion tale. The series has been many things, but predictable is not one of them.

Wrapping up the Empire Games
trilogy,  Charles Stross has delivered
his most satisfying novel in about
eight years. 
(Image via Goodreads)
The series wrapped up this month — possibly for good — with the release of Invisible Sun, a much-delayed but ultimately satisfactory conclusion. This is a book that many longtime fans will welcome, and serves as a good argument for why new readers should give the series a go.

Invisible Sun kicks off with a simmering feud between alternate versions of America, connected by paratime travel (between timelines). In one America, a steam-punk democratic revolution is struggling with a succession crisis, while in the other America (one more similar to our own), the post-9/11 War on Terror has metastasized into a relentless surveillance state. While part of the story involves a covert extradition mission from the surveillance state world, another part of the story involves back-channel diplomacy to avoid nuclear war. Simultaneously, both worlds have to confront a threat posed by a far-advanced and ancient evil race from a third timeline.

It’s a lot to juggle, and our main criticism of the book would be that at times, some of these plotlines receive short shrift. That being said, we appreciate a narrative structure that is stronger than many of the previous Merchant Princes books. Specifically, Invisible Sun doesn’t derail its readers.

Because often, these books do go off the rails with unforeseen problems cropping up for the protagonists. One could even describe the series as an exercise in subverting expectations. It seems as if two or three times per book, the point-of-view protagonist (Miriam Beckstein in books 1-3, and Rita Douglas in books 4-6) concocts seemingly well-thought-out plans … only for things to go sidewise.

As a reader, having your expectations subverted is often a lot of fun, and Stross is an expert at doing so in a way that feels natural and believable. At its best, this series offers surprises that once revealed seem like the natural consequences of the setting and of choices made by the protagonists.

And this lack of predictability has been both the strength, and the pitfall of these books. Unlike the
Laundry Files — Stross’ other long-running and Hugo-shortlisted series — The Merchant Princes never gets overly familiar or in a rut.

It's difficult to think of another
series that could start somewhere
like Nine Princes in Amber, and 
end in The Sum Of All Fears.
(Image via Goodreads)
But after five books, the trick of subverting expectations can grow wearying. There’s only so many rugs that can be pulled out from under the reader before the trick becomes stale. The directness of Invisible Sun, the more streamlined nature of the denouement, and the lack of shocking revelations and surprises is … actually quite welcome.

We would note that the final 20 pages of the final book does feel somewhat rushed. All the denouement, all the resolution, are jammed into as few words as possible. It feels almost as if after writing a million words in the series, the author just wanted to be over and done with it. And maybe so do we.

The entire book club read the first book in the series, with somewhat mixed reactions, but as of yet, only two of us have read the complete series. Those who made it past the first book were enthusiastic about the unpredictability of Stross’ imagination. Re-reading the entire series back-to-back, it becomes clear just how much Stross has evolved as a wordsmith and as a crafter of narrative structures.

The Merchant Princes is a series that accomplishes a lot in six books; offering a reassessment of classic portal fantasies, delving into development economics, examining the tension between safety and privacy, and exploring ideas about how democracies come into existence and wither over time. At its best, there was no better contemporary long-running science fiction series. And by offering it a definitive conclusion, Stross has provided an opportunity to assess it in fullness.

We hope to see it on the Hugo Award ballot for best series, and if it does will likely rank it highly.