In fiction, as in life, it’s important to distinguish the motivations of the individual from those of the organization to which that individual belongs.
This isn’t about good and evil, nor is it trying to make apologies. It’s just about recognizing the messiness of human beings that we put in our books.
I had a conversation a few years back at ReaderCon with somebody who didn’t like Firefly. That alone doesn’t make somebody a bad person. But I grappled with the reasoning. Firefly is pretty much a Western in space. The main characters are veterans of the losing side of a rebellion, so the parallel to them being ex-Confederates headed to the frontier to get away from Union authority is an easy one to make. That parallel exists historically, as plenty of defeated Confederates fled west to make a new life after their old one was destroyed. It’s also a trope of classic Westerns, where former Rebels fit the bill for a rootless, lone drifter.
So the idea that Mal and Zoe are ex-Space Confederates isn’t a hard leap to make, considering the clear parallels. The idea of a protagonist who had fought for slavery (even as an abstract parallel) bothered this person.
OK, maybe it’s a stretch for Mal Reynolds, who never pined for the days of space plantations, and owning space slaves who picked space cotton, but John Wayne’s character in The Searchers is a real ex-Confederate, and he gets to be a protagonist, so there is a case to be made.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here, but I think it’s important we do.
First, in s/f, when you take inspiration from something, you carry some of the baggage. The Empire are pretty much Space Nazis, with the almost Third Reich uniforms and cold cruelty and oppression, and obsession with super weapons. They even call the soldiers Storm Troopers, which is what we in the history biz call a dead giveaway. So even if they aren’t actually Nazis, they feel like Nazis and it’s hard to sympathize with Imperial characters without feeling like you’re cutting the Nazis some slack.
Don’t cut Nazis slack. Just don’t.
As far as the Confederacy goes, we have to admit that it was formed because of slavery, and seceded from the Union over the question of slavery, and fought a war to preserve the institution of slavery. It’s right there in the writings of Confederate founders. In fact, the first 80 years of US politics was dominated by the question of slavery, whether or not it could be expanded into new territories and whether slaves who made it to free states could be returned. Slavery is the reason that states were admitted in pairs mostly, so that neither slave states or free states would have a majority that might pass laws that would tear the Union apart. Look at the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision, all of it.
So, yeah, the South fought for the right to keep humans in bondage. You can’t argue against that with any credibility.
But the individual soldiers who did the fighting and the dying chose to do so for a thousand reasons.
Some fought on the side of their home state. I understand the desire not to shoot at your friends and neighbors and burn their crops. A lot of loyalty is just related to where you happen to be standing. Some fought for personal honor, to show courage, to go on the great adventure. Some, I’m sure, felt they were fighting for their freedom and rights, even if those rights included depriving others of their own rights.
Likewise, the troops in blue fought for as many reasons. Some were motivated by a desire to free the slaves. Some wanted to preserve the Union. Lincoln himself said he would welcome the south back “with all its slaves in chains” if he could restore the Union. Some, recruited in poverty in Ireland, fought for a new life for their own families.
Where I’m going with this is: an organization or a government may have a motivation. But that isn’t necessarily the motivation for everyone who serves that organization.
So give your characters, even your antagonists, a motivation of their own, separate from that of their master. Just because someone is on the wrong side doesn’t mean they don’t have their reasons for being there.
Just so long as you don’t cut Nazis any slack.