A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
There are several things worth noting here. First and most obvious is the spectacle of a grown man complaining about how he just can’t judge a book by its cover anymore. Second, and hardly something that Torgersen has tried to hide, is the basic political aspect to this complaint. Observe the list of things that Torgersen does not want in his science fiction: racial prejudice and exploitation, sexism and the oppression of women, gay and transgender issues, the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
Obviously, as histories of science fiction literature go, this is not exactly the most accurate; it is hardly as though science fiction of the 1960s-80s (the period Torgersen highlights as the sort of authentic science fiction that doesn’t get Hugo nominations anymore) was not largely about these exact issues. A perusal of the Hugo winners over those decades will reveal wins for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land , a book about sexual freedom and prejudice; for Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness , an early and major work of feminist science fiction; Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves , which features an alien race with three genders, all of which must participate in sexual reproduction; two wins for Octavia Butler, whose work is massively focused on race and gender issues… we could continue like this for a long time. The idea that science fiction, in the sense that the Hugo Awards have ever cared about it, is an apolitical genre of thrilling adventure fiction is simply not supported by any sort of historical reality.
And, of course, there’s the second obvious point to make, which is that it’s not the 1980s, and hasn’t been for more than a quarter-century now. The suggestion that any genre ought resist evolution and development over the course of twenty-five years is a strange one; to make the claim about a genre ostensibly about the future is even stranger. Simply put, ideas get old and played out, and art requires people to come up with new ones to maintain a sense of freshness. This, in particular is a point we will return to later.