Red Planets - Science Fiction and Socialism

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Red Planets - Science Fiction and Socialism

Postby Michael » 28 Feb 2012, 20:41

An interesting question occured to me just the other day - I have been reading a lot of British/Scottish SF and Fantasy (your island still produces the world's best, in my opinion) and realized that all the authors I had been reading had very strong Socialist/Progressive political orientations. A list:

-China Mieville
-Richard Morgan
-Iain Banks

All three, as one would expect, show their politics quite strongly in their fiction, but I think Mieville's handling of politics is superior. He expresses his politics very subtly in his narratives, in shades of gray rather than black and white. As with Morgan and Banks the antagonists still tend to be heads of corporations and political leaders, but Mieville writes them convincingly, as if they actually believe that what they are doing is right. Further, many of the acts his antagonists perform are conceived by them not as motiveless malignity but as necessary to realize some end they hold dear. It's a much more subtle treatment than Banks or Morgan manages in much of their fiction.

About the only exceptions I can think of in British SF are Peter F. Hamilton, whose politics are unknown to me but who tends to populate his stories with wise, responsible, and virtuous CEOs, generals, and presidents, and Alastair Reynolds, whose stories tend to involve interactions with extraordinarily alien species who, unlike on Star Trek or much contemporary SF, cannot be reduced to political or social caricatures.

I'd attribute this to the natural tendency of writers (presumably for reasons of peer acceptance) to drift towards the progressive/socialist end of the political spectrum, but have wondered whether something about the genres of science fiction and fantasy tends to draw people who have strong opposition to the status quo.
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Re: Red Planets - Science Fiction and Socialism

Postby Darian » 28 Feb 2012, 21:47

Hi Michael,

Yes i have noticed most SF tends to lean leftward, and it's not just the Britishers. One of the few SF writers not of the left that I can think of is Robert A. Heinlein, but even he is hard to pin. I read Starship Troopers not too long ago and it is quite openly anti-communist, stresses the importance of duty to society, and makes the point that civilization must forever be fought for or it will always vanish. Yet Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land was quite influential among counter-cultural and sexual revolution types.

I think that science fiction often attracts leftists is because the genre usually tends toward overt optimism and/or utopianism, which can hardly be considered conservative traits (though SF often veers toward overt pessimism and bleakness as well). The genre gives the writers free rein to create worlds in which they can display their ideal social setup or imagine a world in which potential future technologies make a utopian society possible (or so they believe).
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Re: Red Planets - Science Fiction and Socialism

Postby Elliott » 29 Feb 2012, 17:05

It's interesting to know that Starship Troopers has that view of civilisation and responsibility. I haven't read the book but I've seen the film and that view is never depicted in it. It's not a very good film - I thought Verhoeven's previous sci-fi smash, Robocop, was much better. Total Recall isn't bad either, but it's nowhere near as good as Robocop.

As to the question of why sci-fi is predominantly liberal, it's a difficult one. It could just be because, as Caleb pointed out, right-wingers simply aren't as numerous in the arts as left-wingers.

But I do agree that there's something particular about sci-fi in that it usually rubbishes right-wing ideas. Often this is the very raison d'etre of a sci-fi story - to show that conservatives are closed-minded, ignorant and thick whereas those who embrace change are open-minded, generous and intelligent.

Perhaps it's because sci-fi writers are, like anti-conservative intellectuals, imagining possible worlds. By its nature, sci-fi is about some form of change - social, political, economic, spiritual, genetic, scientific, etc. - it's always about something new which some people resist. Well, if the story is to have any meaning, the characters who resist change must be shown to be wrong.

Of course a sci-fi writer could voice conservative views, and show that the characters who accepted the new thing were foolhardy and the conservatives were right all along, but there are very few examples of this. In fact the only one I can think of just now is The Fly - yet even that only shows technology failing after it has first made a massive positive breakthrough (the telepods work perfectly and will revolutionise life on Earth, but an unforeseen circumstance causes them to do something bad).

There are sci-fi dystopias, but it's notable that in these worlds the dystopia is never due to technology (novelty) but evil corporations who have messed everything up for the everyman. So even sci-fi dystopias are left-wing.

I often think it works the other way round: people who cherish socialist utopias do so because it's the nearest they can get to experiencing sci-fi. They desire some kind of drastic break from this, to experience something wildly new and novel. Teleportation, time travel and intergalactic flight are all, at least for now, impossible dreams - by comparison, the dream of a communist utopia in which everyone is equal and happy and fulfilled must seem quite possible. I think political utopianism appeals to the creative types because it requires imagining a new world, just as sci-fi does.
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Re: Red Planets - Science Fiction and Socialism

Postby Darian » 29 Feb 2012, 23:05

I agree the movie is terrible, the film adaptation of Starship Troopers is completely different from the book. The film portrays a fascistic and xenophobic society, where the barely armored mobile infantry attack in massive human waves like a bunch of morons, whereas the book portrays a limited democracy in which only veterans can vote, and the mobile infantry wear heavy exo-skeletons and fight intelligently with limited numbers. The film is meant as a satire on the United States under Reagan, and also lampoons the military. The book is quite conservative though, just look at some quotes from it:

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that "violence never solves anything" I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.

There is an old song which asserts that "the best things in life are free". Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

Here's one Dalrymple would undoubtedly agree with:

The third 'right'?—the 'pursuit of happiness'? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can 'pursue happiness' as long as my brain lives—but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can ensure that I will catch it.

So it is possible for sci-fi to be conservative, but the nature of the genre, the way it views the future (change is positive), more naturally fits with progressivism.
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Re: Red Planets - Science Fiction and Socialism

Postby Caleb » 01 Mar 2012, 01:11

I suspect also that it's because a lot of sci-fi has been written in a post-1960s world, so it has been influenced culturally in the same way that the broader culture has.

That said, some of the really old stuff actually strikes me as being quite apolitical. One of the best sci-fi books I've read is Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men.

Also, interestingly, although Ursula LeGuin is as left as they come, I read The Dispossessed as transcending left wing politics. In the book, both the protagonist and one of his friends realise that "utopian" societies ultimately have to become tyrannical to enforce that utopia.

Where would Brave New World fit on the political spectrum?

The theme I notice more than left vs right politics in science fiction is that of the individual standing up for himself and others.
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