The Personal-Political in Speculative Fiction
In this third and final part to Science Fiction and the Personal-Political, let’s look at speculative fiction. More than all fiction as a whole, science fiction expresses explicit wishes for reality to be other than as it is, as well as warnings about what it might become.
In society, expressed desires for significant change—for new social orders, for different day-to-day pursuits, for new family structures, for new genetics, for new culture-changing technologies—are inherently political expressions. Science fiction is fundamentally political in its outlook. By comparison, at first glance no genre could be more escapist than fantasy, but everything we might suggest about science fiction and its relationship to the personal-political goes doubly for fantasy. With sufficient vision, many excellently imagined fantasies could one day, in some place, in some fashion become reality. Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”1 is by now cliché, and as true as ever in one iteration or another, despite shaky arguments to the contrary.2
Thus all speculative fiction—both science fiction and fantasy—possesses a deeply personal-political quality. Speculation in literature has been with us for an extremely long time, and it has always served the purposes of imagining a different society.
Like other students of science fiction’s history, I place Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein3 as its first true novel, but many prototypes to science fiction predated it. They include One Thousand and One Nights,4 the Theologus Autodidactus,5 or even Utopia.6 Traditional stories and early literature from Japan, China, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and others carried the seeds not only of technological but also of social speculation. In almost every prototypical science-fiction story, an imaginative new technology intersects an extant society to alter it, or is presented as lifting society from some earlier, primitive state; rare is the tale which imagines new technologies that merely ossify an existing culture. “Conservative science fiction” is almost an oxymoron—almost.
With few exceptions, nearly every prototype of science fiction emphasized a sociopolitical attitude which today we would recognize as libertine, at one extreme, or liberal at the other. This isn’t strictly true, of course, and not all aspects of human existence receive the same treatment. For example, More’s Utopia was a carefully cushioned critique of Henry VIII, envisioning a non-hierarchical if not quite anarchical society which presaged much of Marxist thought. On at least one point, however, More reinforced the conventions of the Anglican church, imagining stringent and regressive rules for marriage, along with repressive constraints on women. Yet, by and large, every premodern storytelling tradition tended to imagine freer, more egalitarian, more expressive societies. Perhaps this is natural, given that nearly every pre-Enlightenment culture was, by most of today’s measures, an awful place to live for the masses—imagination was their only reprieve.
Since Frankenstein, the politics of speculative fiction have become more involved, more nuanced, and in a few cases more conservative. This is, again, perhaps natural. The Enlightenment has altered the entire globe, emphasizing humanism and secularism, destroying monarchies and, in most places, weakening religion’s hold on political affairs if not outright eliminating its institutional role. These changes, still less than three hundred years old and by no means assured of continuance, still threaten the core conservative and fundamentalist beliefs of many hundreds of millions of people. In some sense, the extremisms which confront us today are the pushback against a global, secular society which has still left a great many people disenfranchised, even if temporarily. As those disenfranchised express their personal-political realities, it should not surprise us to see the emergence of science-fiction and fantasy literature which espouses or reinforces conservative ideologies.
Personally, I hope those ideologies are temporary and short lived. They have certainly done enough damage already:
During the rise of post-War liberalism, Ayn Rand confused Stalinism with Marxism, developed a shaky philosophy which attempted to strip all questions of morality from the concept of greed, and wrote The Fountainhead7 and Atlas Shrugged8. Rand arrived in the United States at the impressionable age of twenty-one, shortly after Lenin’s death and about a decade before Stalin solidified his power. Before then, while she had derided the Bolsheviks, she had been an ardent supporter of the socialist Alexander Kerensky, whose philosophy was in almost every way opposite of Rand’s later Objectivism. By the time Stalinism had wiped away Marxist and Leninist thought, Kerensky was in exile.
In 1938, Rand wrote to Kerensky, when they were both in the United States. Even then she expressed that Kerensky might have provided a better foundation—better than Lenin’s—for what would become the Soviet Union. I know of no evidence that Kerensky ever replied.
This position deserves its own essay but, for purposes of this discussion, I maintain that Rand’s vitriolic opposition to collectivist ideals—going so far as to glamorize selfishness—arose out of deep personal disappointment rather than strong philosophical foundations. But, be that as it may, both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are unequivocally novels of speculative fiction, and their combined influence on the consciousness of contemporary America can scarcely be overstated. She codified Objectivism after reaching meteoric popularity with Atlas Shrugged and, without that success, it’s unlikely her so-called philosophy would have found much traction in American minds. Between 1960 and the Republican Revolution of 1994, Objectivism became the underlying philosophy of American conservatism because of two works of science fiction.
Also a topic for another time, but it naturally follows: science fiction, gone wrong, gave us Trump.
Today’s conservatism-of-selfishness simply could not have arisen without Ayn Rand’s science fiction. She strongly opposed any currents of collectivism or socialism in American life, and she inspired legions of ardent supporters who embraced the idea that their selfishness might actually be a moral virtue. Of course, much in the same way that Utopia suggested a liberal philosophy which now appears offensively conservative with regard to women’s roles and rights, Objectivism meets every contemporary conservative fantasy except with regards to religion. Rand herself was an atheist. Too bad, religious right, she won’t be meeting you in Heaven.
What Would Objectivist Jesus Do™, anyway?
For considerate students of the Bible,9 its text is quite clear on the subject of greed,10 and secular arguments that greediness is moral or amoral are pretty thin too.11 I, for one, look forward to a day when “greed is good” philosophies finally lose their sheen.
Other forms of science fiction have developed either in lockstep with conservative sociopolitical forces, or have influenced it to some extent. H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads”12 may have been the first true prototype for contemporary military science fiction, but it was no doubt Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers13 which cemented the sub-genre, establishing an odd collection of tropes which could at once be socially libertine while also evoking a sociopolitical universe which was a reflection of the growing military-industrial complex of the Cold War and a wish for meritocratic democracies more Roman or Spartan than American.
Thus Heinlein laid a strange foundation for military science fiction which was neither leftwing nor right, and as hard to pin down politically as the author was himself. During his lifetime, Heinlein espoused ideas both socialist and rigidly libertarian. Some have argued that Heinlein drifted, before his death, from the liberal to the conservative.14 Yet Heinlein was more fascinating and multifaceted than this, too interesting for the cliché of the young liberal turned crusty conservative. Early in his life, he gave us Stranger in a Strange Land15 and Starship Troopers; later, Friday16 and I Will Fear No Evil.17 Each contains ideas politically liberal and conservative, as well as invariably libertine. Like Gertrude Stein, Heinlein defied categories.
Free thinkers, perhaps?
An odd mix, anyway. Military science fiction has since diverged into extremes as far right as Ender’s Game18—whose subtexts are deeply totalitarian, militaristic, and xenophobic (perhaps stemming from Orson Scott Card’s open homophobia)—and as leftwing as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice19, which describes a military society with strangely conservative mores richly different than our own, and an egalitarian quality to gender and sexuality which marked a new standard in speculative fiction.
All these stories, including Rand’s, express the political as personal—exploring behaviors in radically imaginative worlds, involving the actions, feelings, ideas, and struggles of the individuals within them. Sometimes the politics of these worlds are taken as given, normalized by the characters despite their strangeness to the reader, leaving the protagonists to struggle against outside forces. This is the case in Starship Troopers. In other instances, the characters’ personal-political conflicts are more immediate. In Friday, Heinlein’s titular character exists in a paramilitary, hierarchical world while seeking a life more anarchical and socialist, giving us a personal-political conflict in its subtext; conversely, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale brings the personal-political front and center.20
At the other end of the political spectrum: From Neuromancer onward, a distinct anti-capitalist undertow pervades the writings of William Gibson.21 Neal Stephenson’s works, everything since Snow Crash,22 deconstruct the relationships between individuals and the sociocultural complexes in which they exist, critiquing systems similar to our own while imagining others radically different—hyper-capitalist, communitarian hive, or anarchistic.
Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson envision futures more socialist or socially democratic, each with distinctive takes on what it requires to make such societies work, and what they might mean. Le Guin has even gone so far as to call on science-fiction writers to imagine alternatives to corporate-capitalist hegemony,23 to literally show society the way toward a different (better?) future.
In her acceptance speech for the Distinguished Contribution medal at the National Book Awards, Le Guin said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
Once more, we should be reminded of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which decried not Stalinism specifically, but any sociopolitical system which tended toward totalitarianism. On this, Mohsin Hamid wrote:
The Berlin Wall fell the year I graduated from high school, and so it seemed to me that Orwell had gotten things wrong, that his dystopia, no matter how believably chilling, could never be humanity’s future. I associated “1984” [sic] with life behind the Iron Curtain. Only later, living in London in the noughties, an era of Bush-Blair doublethink and perpetual “war on terror,” did it occur to me that Orwell’s novel was set not in Russia but in Britain, and that perhaps the only reason his terrifying vision of society had been prevented from coming fully into existence was that he had already warned us—for otherwise the tendencies to slip into his nightmare were everywhere to be seen.24
As a decades-long counter to this, Robinson has been imagining variations on a future without capitalism, or one in which it plays a much-reduced role. Notably, he gives us characters who reflect the imaginative personal-political systems, who behave accordingly, and who are also three-dimensional, flawed, and relatable.
Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Robinson, and so many others spin futures which, while imperfect and laden with their own challenges, are nonetheless freer and often much more humane than our world today. These are political visions with personal consequences. This is what speculative fiction, by its very nature, does better than any other form of writing—fiction or otherwise.
Tim Kreider called Robinson “our greatest political novelist,” and wrote:
If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.25
I couldn’t agree more. In science fiction we trust. Now let’s get busy writing, as well as reading, so that we can best see our future. What’s more, like Orwell and so many others, let’s not shirk the political; indeed, as I hope you agree, we can scarcely avoid it.
- Clarke, Arthur C. See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke%27s_three_laws>.
- Inglis-Arkell, Esther. (2013). Technology isn’t Magic: Why Clarke’s Third Law always bugged me. io9, 28 April. <http://io9.gizmodo.com/technology-isnt-magic-why-clarkes-third-law-always-bug-479194151>
- Shelley, Mary. (1818). Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
- Authors unknown. (c. 750). A Thousand and One Nights. Many of these stories have undoubtedly earlier origins, coming from India and other societies farther afield and predating the Common Era, and many are clearly science fictional, evoking themes which challenged the social mores of early Arabic culture.
- Ibn al-Nafis. (c. 1270). Theologus Autodidactus.
- More, Thomas. (1516). Utopia.
- Rand, Ayn. (1943). The Fountainhead.
- Rand, Ayn. (1957). Atlas Shrugged.
- Full disclosure: While I have certainly been a student of the Bible, I am best described as an agnostic taoist.
- See <http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-about-greed/>
- Rollert, John Paul. (2014). Greed Is Good: A 300-Year History of a Dangerous Idea. The Atlantic, 7 April.
- Wells, H.G. (1903). The Land Ironclads. Strand Magazine, Dec.
- Heinlein, Robert. (1959). Starship Troopers.
- Newitz, Annalee. (2014). How Robert Heinlein Went from Socialist to Right-Wing Libertarian. io9, 9 June. <http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-robert-heinlein-went-from-socialist-to-libertarian-1588357827>
- Heinlein, Robert. (1961). Stranger in a Strange Land.
- Heinlein, Robert. (1982). Friday.
- Heinlein, Robert. (1970). I Will Fear No Evil.
- Card, Orson Scott. (1985). Ender’s Game.
- Leckie, Ann. (2013). Ancillary Justice.
- Atwood, Margaret. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale.
- Gibson, William. (1984). Neuromancer.
- Stephenson, Neal. (1992). Snow Crash.
- Hachadourian, Araz. (2015). Ursula K. Le Guin Calls on Fantasy and Sci Fi Writers to Envision Alternatives to Capitalism. Yes! Magazine, 4 June. <http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/ursula-k-le-guin-calls-on-sci-fi-and-fantasy-writers-to-envision-alternatives-to-capitalism>
- Hamid, Mohsin. (2015). Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics. The New York Times, 17 Feb. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/does-fiction-have-the-power-to-sway-politics.html>
- Kreider. Tim. (2013). Our Greatest Political Novelist? The New Yorker, 12 Dec. <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/our-greatest-political-novelist>