Science Fictional Politics, Part II:
Steven F. Murphy’s “Sharpshooter”
by Bill Bowler
The article “Science Fictional Politics,” in issue 203, examines the consequences of inserting politics into a work of science fiction. The gist is that persuasion and advocacy are possible, but at the risk of alienating the reader, breaking the fiction, or lapsing into anachronism with the passage of time.
Despite such challenges, many science fiction writers feel compelled to include politics in their stories. They may consider the political message central to the work and construe removing or even toning down the politics as censorship. Artistic integrity is at stake! And, in fact, great science fiction has been written with a sharp political edge, despite the pitfalls.
It might be interesting to look at an example of well written politicized science fiction to see how a talented author handles the material. Consider, for example, Steven F. Murphy’s “Sharpshooter,” in issue 184.
What are the politics of “Sharpshooter”? No overt political declarations are made. Nonetheless, the author stakes out his position by introducing political themes into the setting, characterization, and plot of the story. In the course of the narrative, four basic political issues are addressed: the World Court and war crimes; anti-war activism; the identity of the enemy; and women’s rights.
The question is: do the politics add to the story or detract from it? Are they “tacked on” or are they integral? Are they thinly masked polemic or do they have important aesthetic function? Let’s take them one by one:
World Court and War Crimes
The essential irony of “Sharpshooter” is achieved by juxtaposing the heroine’s valiant combat and the false charges brought against her. The simpler story of Vannoy’s struggle for survival and the accompanying drama of her personal life can make for a powerful tale. But having her risk her life for her country and then rewarding her by hauling her into court on trumped-up charges adds an additional element: injustice. The political theme, in this case, is necessary to the story structure. Remove the World Court, and you remove the irony.
Despite biased testimony, the charges are thrown out and Vannoy is acquitted. This is a pivotal detail: the author could have had her convicted in a bid to throw his readers into a fit of righteous indignation. Instead, the author employs ambiguity. The charges don’t hold up. The system of international law, set up for condemnation by the plot, appears to be working. A third level is added: injustice, then irony, and then ambiguity.
The combination is extremely effective. Rather than a simplistic, one-dimensional, didactic plot line intended to sway the reader to a political position, the author weaves a more complex thread, ambiguous, ironic, open-ended, creating a multi-faceted work and leaving the reader free to draw his own conclusions.
Anti-war activists in “Sharpshooter” are depicted as foolish, hypocritical and unpatriotic. They act in concert with the enemy or, at best, are his unwitting instruments. Based on the reader’s detailed knowledge of Vannoy’s psychology and actions, the attacks on her and her comrades by the activists are understood to be vicious and unfounded.
First, the activists are blatant hypocrites. They wear the peace symbol, but physically assault Lt. Santoyo (a moment of rather sardonic humor).
Secondly, they are either impossibly naive or simply irrational. There is no merit to their accusation that Vannoy is a “baby killer.” The reader simply rejects their unfounded assertion that Vannoy should be ashamed of herself after she has barely survived deadly combat against a ruthless enemy sniper who has just blown the head off one of her comrades.
Thirdly, the activists in “Sharpshooter” are traitors, acting in concert with the enemy. Like the jihadi, the activists are on-line and attempting to hack into Vannoy’s networked defense system to disrupt her ability to function during combat.
The activist as traitor theme is taken to its extreme when the activists rejoice at the horrible death of a young American soldier killed in action. They call for American troops to kill their officers and falsely accuse Vannoy, known by the reader to be a courageous soldier, of “crimes against humanity.”
The individual activist is personified as a gray haired American woman wearing a peace symbol. The woman is later described as wearing a white hooded sweater, associating her visually with the jihadi bombers. She tells Vannoy, “You should be ashamed,” when the reader knows full well that Vannoy has followed the dictates of duty, honor, and conscience under extremely difficult circumstances.
In terms of story mechanics, the activists are necessary to the plot as the party who brings the false charges against Vannoy, generating the irony.
In terms of characterization, Vannoy and her comrades are rendered in psychological depth. The activists, in contrast, are rendered in one dimension. Their actions are uniformly destructive. No glimpse of their psychology or motives is provided. Unlike the military values of courage, loyalty and esprit de corps, depicted beautifully in “Sharpshooter,” the ideals of pacifism are absent from the story. Vannoy represents a heroic warrior, but there is no Gandhi or Martin Luther King among the peace activists.
How effective is this politically charged and one-dimensional image of anti-war activists in “Sharpshooter”? It depends on the author’s goal.
If the intent is to inflame the reader and sway him emotionally, the one-dimensional caricature can be quite effective, a straw man easy to knock down. This image of the activists can exert powerful persuasion, similar, for example, to the image of the “capitalist dog” in Soviet poster art.
If, on the other hand, the intent is to create a complex, multi-layered work of fiction, the use of caricature may cause problems. The one-dimensional image of the activists, in contrast to the fully developed character of the protagonist, creates a certain incongruity. In effect, a “real” hero confronts a “cardboard” antagonist.
In their one-dimensionality, the activists insert a cartoonish element into an otherwise complex, multi-leveled, and sophisticated work. The goal of political persuasion is accomplished, but at the expense of richness and depth, which might have been achieved had the author depicted a more rounded, more psychologically developed activist.
The enemy in “Sharpshooter” meets the same fate as the activists. As opposed to the in-depth and fully developed characterization of Vannoy and her comrades, the enemy is simply labeled (“jihadi,” “imam”) and attributed a few key characteristics. He is robed, bearded, Arabic, Muslim, and armed — “a sea of angry bearded men.” Enemy psychology is not explored; his motives are not discussed. Though his actions are crucial, the enemy himself is largely absent from the story and his image is little more than a thumbnail sketch.
The main plot event, the combat incident, is set in Damascus; Vannoy’s comrade Kelly has seen action in Teheran. These are the capitals of two countries in the “Axis of Evil” as defined by the U.S. President in 2001. Through the setting, the author has framed the politics of his story, set in the future, to fit the partisan ideology of a particular era.
The insertion of contemporary politics into a future setting runs a dual risk: 1) of anachronism, if the enemy changes before the time of the story arrives in real life; or 2) of making the story seem dated with the passing of time, as the Nazis on the moon date A. E. van Vogt’s The Beast and the Warsaw Pact opponent dates Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
In “Sharpshooter,” the risk of political anachronism is reduced by setting the story in the near rather than distant future. It is, of course, possible that the enemy of 2001 and 2006 will still be the enemy in 25 years. In that case, the sharpshooter’s jihadi foe would not have become an anachronism but a foretelling of future reality.
More importantly, many good and even great works of fiction with political enemies who have passed into history are still read and enjoyed. The Trojans have departed from the stage but we still read the Iliad, after all. The problem of becoming dated is solved, because the contemporary politics has, with time, assumed the function of a historical setting. That is, the political theme has shed its propagandistic function and assumed an aesthetic role within the fiction.
Another consideration: while politics is volatile and mutable, philosophy is more enduring. It is one thing to argue politics, and another to debate philosophy.
For example, science fiction stories depicting a Cold War Soviet opponent, even extremely brilliant works like those of the Strugatsky Brothers, can seem dated to some extent now that the universal enemy of the 1950’s has rather abruptly changed.
The quality that redeems such works, despite the changed historical and political conditions, is the fact that they distill from their contemporary politics the underlying philosophical essence, which does not become dated and is not subject to becoming anachronistic.
Strugatsky works like “Doomed City” or “Snail on a Slope” are critiques of Soviet society, but they explore deeper themes such as alienation and individual freedom vs. collective good. Soviet society is no longer the subject of active political discourse, but the deeper philosophical questions remain fresh and current.
The Enemy Sniper
In “Sharpshooter,” one exceptional enemy is characterized in terms dramatically opposed to the image of the collective enemy. The enemy sniper is the heroine’s principal antagonist, the individual with whom she engages in mortal combat. He is not robed nor bearded, does not utter a word of Arabic, has no Muslim characteristics. He is not even an adult.
“The rifle was as long as the figure next to it, lying in a growing pool of blood... His soft baby fat filled out the cheeks around the sniper’s sightless brown eyes... The vid of the little boy’s face flickered behind Vannoy’s closed eyes...”
This characterization of the enemy sniper, not as a bearded ranting fanatic, but as an “innocent” child, has manifold function: it is a shocking realistic detail; it confronts the reader, as well as Vannoy, with an ethical dilemma. In terms of Vannoy’s characterization, the sniper’s youth provokes and reinforces her guilt and psychological conflicts; in terms of the plot it justifies the activists’ accusations and the charges they bring against Vannoy.
Because the author, for aesthetic, story building purposes of theme, plot and characterization, “needs” the image of a child here, the political elements are absent from the sniper’s image: no imam, no “Allah Akhbar,” no “sea of angry bearded men.” The author has de-emphasized the political message for the sake of plot and character. Rather than attempting to sway the reader politically, the author has chosen, instead, to construct a character and plot that confront the reader with an ambiguous moral dilemma. The story gains in coherence, depth and complexity, as a result.
The issue of women’s rights is framed in “Sharpshooter” as the rights of female soldiers. The story addresses the issue in terms of women’s equality in the Armed Services by placing the protagonist in an elite all-female Army combat regiment.
The female soldiers in the story embody the finest military values and ideals: they are loyal, disciplined, highly skilled, full of esprit de corps, and courageous in combat.
The central elements of Vannoy’s characterization - her psychological conflict over her marital breakup; her doubts about her abilities as a soldier; her determination to “do the job;” and her anxiety over her daughter’s reaction to the necessary brutality of her profession — in all of these respects, Vannoy’s membership in the elite female unit is an essential component.
Any doubt the reader may have harbored regarding the abilities of women in combat is dispelled by Vannoy’s character and the plot events. The political theme (equality of women) contributes to the protagonist’s characterization and is supported by the events of the narrative. That is, the politics here are a fully integrated and functional story element.
The Nature of Fictional Politics
Another very interesting aspect of political thematics is their aesthetic fluidity, we could say, their potential to backfire. There are two aspects to politics in a work of fiction: one, their simple presence in the story, and two, the nature of the politics (conservative, liberal, pro-war, anti-war).
On one level, the nature of the politics can be crucial — if the author’s intent is to sway the reader to a political position, or, negatively, in the event the politics alienate the reader and break the fiction.
On another level, the actual nature of the politics can be irrelevant. The fluidity is demonstrated by the fate of Starship Troopers, where the same basic plot and characters are used as vehicles for pro-war politics in Heinlein’s novel and anti-war politics in Verhoeven’s film.
In “Sharpshooter,” the World Court theme and the women’s rights theme are well integrated, and supported by the other story elements of plot and characterization. The World Court theme, in particular, remains ambiguous and open ended, qualities that tend to weaken the political persuasion effect while enhancing the story.
The caricatures of activists and jihadi are effective political images, but their use sacrifices story depth and complexity. There is also a degree of incongruity between the fully developed and rounded characters of Vannoy and her comrades, and the thumbnail sketches of the activists and the enemy.
The incongruity is not fatal, but it illustrates the give and take between the persuasive function and the purely aesthetic, story-building function. Had the activists, for example, been more fully developed and rounded characters, the story might have gained depth and complexity, but the persuasive thrust would have been blunted in the process. In any case, at key points, such as the discovery of the enemy sniper’s body, story mechanics and aesthetic goals prevail and the author forgoes the persuasive impulse for the sake of building the story.
In the end, the qualities that make “Sharpshooter” memorable are artistic rather than political. “Sharpshooter” is a beautifully rendered story. Its plot is well structured; its protagonist is vividly characterized; its themes are thought provoking; and its narration, especially, is complex, subtle, and powerful. In fact, all politics aside, the brilliant narrative technique of “Sharpshooter” could in itself constitute a most interesting subject of inquiry; but that, of course, would be another essay.
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler