The Political Dimensions of Science Fiction
The election is tomorrow, but I want to talk about something else. This may seem like a trifling matter, but I wanted to jot down some thoughts about science fiction today. A perpetual knock on science fiction these past few years has been, ironically, its smallness. As the future has sped up (some would say the Singularity is nearing), the scope of our futures has contracted inwards until some days it feels like the archetypal story is about tomorrow. Vast future vistas have receded into the background to be replaced by the twin grim spectres of Moore and Einstein – frequently accompanied by their considerably older companions of Malthus, Hobbes and Marx. Not to mention Fermi’s Paradox looming out there like a gigantic taunt.
This doesn’t surprise me. After all, it has been a grim decade or so in America and America is the natural spiritual home of science fiction (the Brits would disagree, and the Russians might even mount a flawed case). But America has always been the home of today’s tomorrow, and today hasn’t been looking so hot. The Bush era bred the excellent Battlestar Galactica– while I wouldn’t call it the 00’s greatest science fiction work (perhaps in film), it expressed the concerns of the era like nothing else did. No science fiction story that I know has yet told the story of the teens as convincingly. But it’s been a time of stagnation, of political drift, and of the slow disintegration of our governing institutions matched by an explosion in digital technology and creativity. Bleak scene, right? The fiction has been fairly bleak as well.
But science fiction is always a lagging indicator. I can only hope that things will get better in America, and four years from now we look back on this as our most pessimistic of times. But it’s hard not to note the way that the cultural zeitgeist drives our conceptions of possible futures.
I think that science fiction is the most political genre of fiction. It doesn’t have to be – spaceships and starship troopers are not inherently political in nature, unless of course they’re Starship Troopers. But the act of science fiction is that of creating a model by shifting one’s assumptions. It can’t be a good work unless it meshes with what readers intuitively “know” of human nature – at its best, it is a way to demonstrate a possible way of life in a completely different context than today. It can be message-oriented or simply exploratory. Battlestar Galactica is a great example of an emphatically message-oriented approach – it aimed to show the strength, resilience, and also flaws of liberal democracy in its most dire straits.
Liberal here is an interesting word. Galactica is obsessed with liberal values – openness, civics, and justice. It is not about egalitarianism or redistribution or classically leftistsubjects, but about the values of Smith and Locke. However, it frequently rebukes the authoritarian tactics of the Bush years. It was clearly made by actual liberals, in the colloquial sense of the word. As is all science fiction! Libertarians are an outsize presence in sci-fi…but a libertarian sci-fi writer is just a liberal who believes technology will take care of all the boring stuff.
In fact, what I’ve been sitting here trying to imagine is conservative science fiction (that’s not military sci-fi). Orson Scott Card is probably the best-known conservative science fiction writer, but it’s hard to see Ender’s Game or the sequel as pushing the Republican party line, and in fact quite the opposite. Conservatives might want the future to be more like the past, but obviously they acknowledge the future!
The conservative movement vision for the future is somewhat easy to discern in political speeches, and here’s my interpretation of it in mostly sympathetic terms. An America with the “best” cultural traits of the 1950s: deference to authority, more marriage at a younger age, nuclear families for everyone, discretion, friendliness, and general congeniality. However, the future vision replaces the racism, homophobia, and insularity of the 1950s with much greater tolerance…coupled by discretion for the less “mainstream” types. A roaring economy with perfectly mobile laborers, a completely privatized social safety net, little regulation, and generous government subsidies for suburban nuclear families. Low taxes and low services, with an economy strong enough that the rising tide will lift all boats. We’ve all heard Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan evoke this world in speeches.
It’s curiously nowhere to be found in science fiction. In fact, I can’t even imagine a science-fiction story being set in the Glorious Republican Future. Everyone would read it as completely tongue-in-cheek, and let’s be honest, there’s no way that the earnest 1950sish tone couldn’t come off as incredibly insufferably sarcastic to modern readers. It’s a bit easier to imagine a science-fiction story set in the world conservatives imagine exists outside our borders, with weak-willed socialists in Europe, Japan, Canada, barbarian hordes at the Southern border, and implacable America-haters most everywhere else. But I’m certainly unaware of any good science fiction that takes seriously the conservative vision of the future as anything other than the seed for dystopia.
I don’t really know what this means. The analyst in me thinks that this is a sample-selection issue, and that the people who write science fiction are pretty unlikely to be conservative in their politics. The raging leftist in me thinks that this means that American conservatives live in a fantasy world and are fighting against onrushing reality. The literary critic in me thinks that the Glorious Republican Future sounds incredibly dull. The business analyst in me thinks that there’s no market for it.
But mostly it makes me glad to be one American who just can’t wait for the future, and loves how much of it has already gotten here.