Dan Simmons talks politics in fiction

fifth heart

Dan Simmons’ Sherlock Holmes mystery The Fifth Heart comes out on March 24.

I recently interviewed award-winning author Dan Simmons for The Arizona Republic. You can read the lengthy interview, which focuses on his upcoming novel The Fifth Heart, on Sunday.

But I also wanted to get his opinions on other hot-button issues I’ve seen in the online book world. So here is a teaser, where we discuss how an authors’ political and personal beliefs get mixed with their fictional works.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about author’s beliefs versus character’s actions and politics. Mark Lawrence has been vocal online defender of his novel Prince of Thorns against allegations of misogyny due to a mentioned rape (although a recent blog post about the brutal gang rapes in India showed Lawrence questioning himself).


Dan Simmons’ controversial 2011 novel, Flashback.

In 2011, Simmons was pilloried for his novel Flashback. The dystopian thriller pinned the collapse of the United States on the Obama presidency — he was attacked from the left as a racist and fascist and championed by the nascent Tea Party. I admit I have not read the novel, which by all accounts is a fun, if controversial thriller.

Now there are authors whose beliefs I do believe is accurately reflected in their works — Kim Stanley Robinson and Sheri S. Tepper on the left, Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein on the right. But Simmons insists that Flashback was a work of fiction and not a political treatise and did not reflect his beliefs. And while my beliefs are unapologetically left-wing, I have no problems enjoying Heinlein’s work, and find Tepper to be gratingly didactic.

Simmons-CreditKaren Simmons

Award-winning author Dan Simmons. Credit: Karen Simmons.

This reminded me of the oft-heated arguments about Mark Lawrence’s work. In today’s polarized climate, is it possible to address an issue in a novel without sparking controversy? Are we as readers even capable of reading a novel for enjoyment if we don’t agree with the politics underpinning it? And are we capable of separating the politics of a novel’s setting from the author’s personal beliefs?

Simmons gave a wonderful response:

No, it’s not possible to touch any political ideas without being accused (and pilloried) by other readers and other writers, but that’s a function of the often pinheaded and hair-triggered age we live in. My novel Flashback was about a memory-drug Americans has turned to after the country has gone belly-up by the late 2030’s. It’s about abandoning the future for the past, as many nations have actually done. My original novella, published in 1990 or ’91, had the cause of the “belly-up” being Reaganesque defense spending. But a few weeks of research in Japan convinced me that I couldn’t use my original plan of having Japan as the early 21st Century economic superpower that was necessary for my Flashback plot since I found their economy in 1991 — based largely on the fallacy that the price of land can NEVER go down —was headed for a huge tumble. (Japan has been in recession and economically stagnant since the mid-90’s.)

When I did get around to writing Flashback (the novel) in 2011, I could hardly blame my dysfunctional American future on Reagan’s arms build-up since defense-spending had declined dramatically in the intervening decades, so I used — as background — the “cause” of non-stop spiraling national debt and deficit spending. Thus the organized attack on the book and me by dutiful “progressives”. The irony, of course, is if I’d published in 1993 as planned, it would have made me a Hero of the Left.)

The real answer to this politics gabble is simple — the book I’m working on now, Omega Canyon (largely about Los Alamos 1943-45) — will be my 30th published book.

That is 30 — three-oh — books. Many of them rather . . . long. If anyone can find politics of any sort, any racial or sexual bias, or any of the other accusations that were launched at Flashback (which is basically a mystery novel which also deals with personal loss), then let them squawk. They won’t find it. It’s not there. But that fact will never stop political-based haters in the year 2015. Personal attacks have mostly taken the place of the public dialectic. We’ve lost something important in our needed national dialogues — and not just in politics — over the last several decades.

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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2 Responses to Dan Simmons talks politics in fiction

  1. Pingback: Dan Simmons talks Sherlock Holmes with the Arizona Republic | Relentless Reading (And Writing About It!)

  2. Pingback: Dan Simmons book signing at Murder by the Book | Dusk Before the Dawn

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