What is Progressive Short SF?
When we say that at The Future Fire (TFF) we want to publish social, political and progressive fiction, we’re talking about at least three axes: (1) social-political SF (sometimes called “soft”-SF), where the futuristic or magical differences from our own world are those in people’s lives and behaviours, not just spaceships, dragons and war-wizards; (2) stories by, for and about the underrepresented genders, classes, races, abilities and other traits, which bring so many new and exciting perspectives to the genre; and (3) stories which, overtly or by example, tell tales about the world that help us highlight injustice, paint a better world, or see paths to improving the state of things. It’s often the intersection of these three elements that complement and indeed make one another possible. Listening to underrepresented voices helps us to picture universes that differ from our own in ways the more mainstream and privileged may not even notice, and in turn imagine more equitable futures.
We wanted to start this post by addressing a couple of misconceptions this description has elicited over the years. The first was genuinely asked by a writer and critic who you probably know:
Surely you don’t mean you only want progressive fiction that is literally and overtly about social justice?
We are not looking to publish treatises on civic duty or speeches on moral laws. We are still talking about stories, and about stories that have to be interesting, engaging and well written. But stories are also powerful, and can make us see things in a different way, and we believe they can spark change, from the little things in our everyday lives to revolutions. We don’t like good-hero-defeats-mega-villain storylines any more than you do. What we love are stories that take the spotlight on things and people that too often go unnoticed, that show different kinds of heroism and courage, that use speculative themes to talk about issues and feelings that are very, very real.
All fiction is political, overtly or covertly; we’re not going to apologize for being conscious about that, or for having certain standards.
The next question was asked by an academic literary scholar, who probably thought he was being a bit edgy:
Isn’t fiction where only the virtuous are allowed to win cheap and boring?
Yes, I guess publishing nothing but that would be. Especially if there was only one kind of “virtue” to be recognised as valid. And yet, this is exactly what the larger part of the entertainment industry has been feeding us for decades: a white, male, tough but overall good-hearted hero who defeats the baddies and saves the children and women. Isn’t that boring? Isn’t it time to tell different stories?
How short of imagination do you have to be to think that stories with a progressive message can only be feelgood, saccharine pieces in which the underdogs always win?
But no, Professor, we’re still not interested in a story humanising a colonialist rapist who is suffering from his guilt. Even if we’d never heard that story before…
A variation of this last question is asked ad nauseam by schoolyard bullies on Twitter:
Are you all just bleeding-heart SJWs then?
Yes. Blocked. Next question.
Now that’s out of the way, we also wanted to talk about our current obsession, which is progressive and speculative noir stories—a theme that Valeria has brought to TFF and that we’ll be publishing an anthology of in early 2022. (The call for submissions is open until December 24th.)
Like many genres, and perhaps more than most, Noir is rather difficult to define, and people may mean different things by it. Some say it is the genre that is validated by its clichés: the disillusioned detective, the corrupt city, the night, the rain, the trenchcoats, the femmes fatales. And sure, that is partly true. But we might prefer to say that you recognise Noir from its atmosphere, from its aesthetic. Maybe even from the way it makes you feel afterwards. The thing is, those cliches that Noir readers and spectators know and love so well… they also tend to be drenched in obnoxious stereotypes, making noir possibly the most misogynistic, racist and homophobic genre of all. Not a good look. But that’s not only narrow-mindedness; it’s also lazy writing. There are excellent examples of noir stories that subvert these stereotypes and tell brilliant and engaging tales, or that avoid the clichés altogether. So, the question we implicitly ask our author is: how can a story still be Noir when it’s devoid of those same stereotypes that make it recognizable? Some of the answers we’ve received so far really blew our minds!
Noir has always been about the dropouts, and the people living at the margin of the system, excluded by power dynamics. The ex-cop, the ex-lawyer, the veteran. All people who couldn’t really fit in. It’s also been the genre that more than any other has made the corruption of any institution so prominent that it has become part of the literary trope. Police officers, politicians, blue collars: they are all as ruthless and rotten as the mobsters. It is there, perhaps, that lies one of the biggest potentials for progressive Noir, in being all about the underdogs, all about those who don’t care about (or are not obsessed by) money and power. Do you see what I see?
But can noir really be redeemed?
Noir is potentially the most anti-establishment genre ever. And yet, for decades it has remained embalmed in repetitive tropes that only celebrate various forms of machismo. Such a waste. Let’s look at the femme fatales, one of the trademarks of the genre. If you think about it, compared to other contemporary tales, they are among the female characters with the most agency ever portrayed. And although they were supposed to be “bad,” they were also hugely loved by the public (because, really, who wouldn’t?). So, why don’t we build on that legacy to portray fully fledged and more interesting female villains? Maybe being frenemies with a female detective, for a change?
So how do we want to undercut the conservative and bigoted tropes and clichés that make Noir recognisable, without becoming completely nihilistic? We’d sort of like to leave this question to you readers (and especially writers!) to answer, but we would definitely welcome stories where women are not simply narrative devices to give the male (anti)hero a sad background, where minorities are not relegated to the role of shady characters, and where being queer is not seen as a shameful secret to keep. Surprise us! Play with the stereotypes, experiment with cross-genre, maybe find a way for compassion and solidarity to emerge, even in the noirest of times.
There are so many possibilities that we don’t want to tell you what to write or aim for—in any case there isn’t time to write something just for this call—just send us the most speculative, most progressive, most Noir story you’ve got, and let us decide. At the end of the day, as much as we’ve tried to define “speculative”, “progressive” (and even “noir”) in this piece, sometimes we just have to say “we know it when we see it.” So if you think it should fit the bill, send it in. We might agree.
Valeria Vitale and Djibril Al-Ayad.
The Future Fire.
"While we were reading" is an irregular feature about reading science-fiction and fantasy. It can contain guest posts. Nothing fancy, come as you are.
It is also home to all the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards announcements.