Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Politics in fiction

by Rob - January 13th, 2010.
Filed under: Hominids.

An email I received today concerning my Hugo Award-winning novel Hominids:

Mr. Sawyer.

I picked this book up at the library because I was intrigued by the premise of the storyline. I’m still intrigued by the concept, however, I found myself rolling my eyes at the insertion of your personal political views in and around the story.

I know it’s your book and you can write what you wish, but you might find a broader fan base if you limited your story telling to … well … story telling.

Not all Canadians find capital punishment repugnant as you infer in this story. Not all Canadians subscribe to the assertion that Mike Harris decimated the health care system in Ontario. Personally, I believe it was the health care union workers who decimated health care in Ontario, but that happened decades before anyone ever heard of Mike Harris.

You definitely have a gift for writing and story telling. I enjoyed the fictional aspects of your book.


First, let’s look at the passages in question:

“You know I’m delighted that he is well,” said Singh, “but, really, I would like to discharge him. We don’t have enough hospital beds as it is, thanks to Mike Harris.” [31 words out of 100,000]


Mary’s back stiffened. Like most Canadians, she was against capital punishment — precisely because it was possible to execute the wrong person. All Canadians lived with the shame of the wrongful imprisonment of Guy Paul Morin, who had spent ten years rotting in jail for a murder he didn’t commit; of Donald Marshall, Jr., who spent eleven years incarcerated for a murder he, too, didn’t commit; of David Milgaard, who spent twenty-three years jailed for a rape-murder he also was innocent of. Castration was the least of the punishments Mary would like to see her own rapist subjected to — but if, in her quest for vengeance, she had it done to the wrong person, how could she live with herself? And what about the Marshall case? No, it wasn’t all Canadians who lived with the shame of that; it was white Canadians. Marshall was a Mi’kmaq Indian whose protestations of innocence in a white court, it seemed, weren’t believed simply because he was an Indian. [165 words out of 100,000]

Singh, the character making the comment in the first excerpt, is a medical doctor; thousands of doctors in Ontario (where Mike Harris was premier) would say exactly what Singh said. Under Mike Harris’s administration 5,200 acute-care hospital beds were eliminated in Ontario.

Mary, the character thinking the thoughts in the second excerpt, is a liberal Canadian academic, living in Toronto. Her views are exactly the sort of thing many liberal Canadian academics living in Toronto hold (and the majority of Canadians are against capital punishment; see here and here).

In other words, I did my job precisely correctly: I accurately captured the thoughts of these characters; they said or felt things that their real-life counterparts would have said or felt.

That said, as to my correspondent’s apparent criterion for acceptable fiction — that authors should keep their politics or beliefs to themselves — one wonders if anyone would remember Starship Troopers or Farnham’s Freehold today if Heinlein had done that, or The Forever War if Joe Haldeman had purged any parallels with Vietnam, or Catch-22 if Joseph Heller had taken out the political commentary, or To Kill a Mockingbird if Harper Lee had politely left out the whole racism-is-bad thing, or The Da Vinci Code if Dan Brown had decided, hey, let’s not make any value judgments here about the way the Roman Catholic Church has treated women, or …

Also, my correspondent’s assumption is that authors write with one goal in mind: to have the largest possible number of readers. I most certainly don’t do that. I don’t want to be blandly acceptable to a large number of people; I want to be one of the favourite authors of a narrow segment of the population.

From time to time, my editor at Tor used to say, “This will cost you some readers,” to which I always replied, “Yes, I know,” and we both moved on, leaving the material intact. My editor knew, and my correspondent should learn, that authors write to say things.

My correspondent’s point is ridiculous on the face of it. He’s either saying I should only state opinions that all Canadians (or whatever group I’m talking about) hold (such as, oh, I don’t know, it’s generally colder in Canada in winter than in summer) or I should give equal weight to minority opinions (because otherwise I’m saying something that not every single person agrees with).

Me, I’d rather challenge preconceptions. If it really bothers you to read things that you don’t agree with, then read somebody else; I’m not writing for you.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

15 Responses to Politics in fiction

  1. Amen, Rob.

  2. People do tend to assume that getting as many readers as possible is at the forefront of a writer's mind, and that decisions stem from this desire. If it were really true, then everyone would just write about lolcats or Angelina Jolie's boobs.

  3. Yeow! Reminds me of people who tried to tell the Dixie Chicks to "shut up and sing" after their famous "fiasco" in London.

    And, of course, there was also King's incident where in The Stand, I believe it was, he had a character kicking a dog (as I mentioned in a previous post). And, more recently, the ruckus some readers are raising over the things said in Under the Dome.

    I've read reviews that don't care for the "message" in Cameron's movie, Avatar (which I saw earlier tonight), and I don't understand why these reviewers had a problem with it. I've seen movies where the "message" was far more heavy-handed than that in Avatar.

    On a more personal level, a couple of years back I'd shared a short excerpt out of a fantasy novel I'd written (didn't get published) in a writing forum that I used to frequent. This wasn't as controversial as political views. Rather, I caught flack for a description of the damage done to a boat and her crew by a dragon. I was chided for having been too graphic. The offending passages were "…their bodies already smelled of decay," and "Keag, the taller of the two, had no face, and Lenn’s chest had been torn open." And I was taken to task for what amounted to 22 words.

    Whatever. If my very brief description had that effect on somebody, then I think I did my job and I did it well. Isn't that what this is about, after all?

  4. 6p00d834523c1e69e2

    Sounds like a troll to begin with. At least you got a blog post out of it.

  5. I'm not sure, but I think the King book you mean is The Dead Zone (where the dog is kicked to death in the opening pages).

    There IS an issue with the "message" in Avatar — the problem is not that the film contains a message, but that the film is trying to make a series of points in a superficial way, rendering it diffuse — it can't seem to decide if it is about environmentalism, colonialism, the war on terror, and so on — phrases like "shock & awe" really throw you out of the movie by jarring you away from the story.

    I think there is a valid point on didacticism that one could make with a film like Avatar that is not valid in terms of these excerpts from Hominids, where the commentary is motivated by characterization, as Mr Sawyer points out.

  6. "the majority of Canadian are against capital punishment"

    Do you have a source for this assertion? I don't think I've ever seen a poll which supports this – certainly polls have shown a decline in support for the death penalty over the decades, but I can't recall a poll which showed a clear plurality (never mind a majority) of Canadians being opposed to capital punishment.

    Some polls (and reports on polls) here – only one shows something other than a majority of Canadians supporting the death penalty, and even the outlier shows only a 48/49 split in favour of abolition, and the most recent (the final link, from late 2009) shows 53% of Canadians think the death penalty is "morally acceptable:

  7. bt, re Maclean's, I'm not sure it's fair to cite a 2009 poll to rebut an assertion made in 2002. :) But, yeah, support for capital punishment in Canada is rising, at least according to some polls.

  8. Despite the editorial practices of certain comics publishers re: characters' aging,(he said with a chuckle) I tend to assume that a novel written in 2001 and set in 2002(or thereabouts) is usually intended to mirror those times. Including the diversity of opinions on, say, capital punishment at that point in time.

    For one example.

  9. The comment regarding capital punishment ("the majority of Canadian are against capital punishment") was written in 2010, in the present tense, as an assertion of the current state of Canadian opinion on the matter. The assertion is incorrect. No published poll, to the best of my knowledge, has ever shown a majority of Canadians opposed to capital punishment, whether that poll was published in 2009, 2002, 1992 or 1902. We might wish it to be otherwise, but to state that wish as a declaration of fact is simply incorrect.

  10. Ignoring the fact that someone who is innocent of a crime may be executed, the cost of performing one of these executions (unless I'm mistaken) costs at least as much and typically more than it would have cost to keep that person in jail for the remainder of their lives.

    Also, I'm not sure I agree with current forms of capital punishment. Watch BBC Horizon's "How to Kill a Human Being".

    I'm quite certain that at the time Hominids was written the assertion by a character on capital punishment was realistic.

    I don't mind an agenda in entertainment (movies, books) as long as it is well done and isn't too heavy handed.

  11. Jonathan, you're right about the King book. My mistake. I've the quirky habit of confusing the titles of The Dead Zone and The Stand with each other even though I know full well which is which.

    Regarding Avatar, I was referring to reviews I'd read that either bemoaned the environmentalist message as too over-the-top, or complained that the racism (which they saw as hearkening back to the treatment the Amerinds received at the hands of the U.S. Government in the 19th-century) was too much. Still others — that I read today — saw it as championing both without dilution.

    For myself, I quite enjoyed the movie, regardless of any of its faults.

  12. bt: The passage is written in third-person limited, meaning it's from the perspective of the primary character in that passage. So the question is not whether it's true that the majority of Canadians are against capital punishment, but whether that character would believe that the majority of Canadians are against capital punishment — which, given the character, I expect she would (whether it is genuinely true or not.)

  13. bt, the first link you provided (Gallup Poll press release, "Death Penalty Gets Less Support From Britons, Canadians Than Americans," February 20, 2006) showed that only 44% of Canadians support the death penalty. The second link you provided (Gallup Poll, “Support for the Death Penalty: U.S., Britain, Canada,” March 16, 2004) showed 49% of Canadians were oppose and 48% were in favour. The third link you provided (Angus Reid Strategies conducted online interviews with a representative sample of 1,003 Canadian adults on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, 2009.) did show 53% support for the death penalty, which was a 6 point increase over their last poll in 2007. But, this was the only link out of three that shows a clear majority.

    Here are two links you failed to find, which might interest you:

    As you can see, the question is not as clear as you may think, and any assertion that the majority of Canadians had always supported the return of the death penalty is simply incorrect.

  14. The links Brian posted above:


    Toronto Star

  15. From the 2007 Ipsos-Public Affairs poll cited by Angus-Reid in the link Brian provided:

    Question: Do you favour or oppose the death penalty for people convicted of murder?

    Canadians in favour: 44%
    Canadians opposed: 52%

    And in the survey commissioned by the Government of Canada (under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper) in 2007, as reported in the Toronto Star link Brian provided:

    "The Conservative government found that just one in five Canadians supported the death penalty as a criminal deterrent in a survey it commissioned this summer in support of its justice policies.

    "Support for the death penalty was highest in Alberta, where almost one-third supported the idea of capital punishment, and lowest in Newfoundland with 17 per cent support. In Ontario, 21 per cent thought some convicted prisoners should be put to death, according to the poll of 4,005 people."

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