Politics in fiction today is a touchy subject1, but one still worth discussing. In opening, I wish to posit three points about it, especially in speculative fiction.
First, our political truths are important and diverse, and since fiction is the lie through which society discusses uncomfortable truths,2 we had best be able to express our political realities through it. Second, as many other writers and rhetoricians have argued, the concept of apolitical fiction is a myth; even the absence of political content is, almost invariably, political. Third, there really is no such thing as message fiction, as we tend to recognize it; there is only poor writing and strong writing, as always.
If these premises are true, then (1) there is ethical reason to grapple with political themes, as they occur naturally in our writing; and (2), it isn’t possible to avoid these themes, so we may as well be deliberate about them.
Writing is an unavoidably political act. Even a grocery list, which many believe is for no one but themselves,3 is political. Where do you shop: Whole Foods, Walmart, or your local farmer’s market? Are you buying organic or conventional? Any palm oil in your groceries? How much are your shopping choices rote habit, with little reflection on the impacts they make upon the rest of society?
Writing establishes perceptions and reinforces behaviors, including political behaviors; even a shopping list does this.
Before words enter publication, writing is a personal act which may reflect personal feelings about political things. For many, writing is a solitary undertaking, but one which can translate the inner world of one person’s psyche to the minds of others—sometimes millions of others. Words produced for public consumption, while they may feel personal to the writer, are inherently political—a species of telepathy which passes from the individual to the community, one which can and does transmit political sentiment.
Conceptually, the personal and the political already share a stronger relationship than we might at first assume, and that which is personal-political cannot help but emerge through writing. To illustrate this, I intend to cover the following territory:
First, I’ll explore the tenuous barriers between what we call personal and what we label public or political; second, I’ll examine writing and storytelling as personal acts, ones which necessarily grow political at the moment of publication; and third, I’ll dissect speculative fiction specifically, especially science fiction, and its relationship to political discourse.
The Personal, Private, Public, and Political
My dictionary defines political as “relating to the government or public affairs…” For writing to be political, it needn’t discuss the current President, the votes of Congress, or a state election—although it might. A relation to public affairs is enough. Now, how might we delineate public affairs from private ones?
To begin, and for reasons which should become obvious, let’s also equate the private with the personal. My trusty dictionary defines personal as “of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions.” To a degree, we may thus use the words private and personal interchangeably, but this text will prefer the word personal when possible.
The emotional need for privacy is powerful. Individually and culturally, we continually construct personal-private boundaries, both psychological and physical. We rightly defend our privacy and, in the United States, the Fourth Amendment exists to protect it. Furthermore, the Fourth Amendment’s protections constrain the state, which can never secure absolute control so long as its citizens retain some privacy, a point underscored by George Orwell.4 The mere fight for privacy, or declaring something personal, is counterintuitively also a publicly political act. The personal is in this sense logically political.
Perhaps worryingly, this implies also that nothing can be purely private, but all which is political and all which is personal occupy a spectrum. This personal-political spectrum shifts endlessly, according to culturally arbitrary standards.
For example, what people do in the bedroom is personal, is it not? To wit, in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated criminal sodomy laws in all fifty states, but a dozen state jurisdictions still outlaw it, including Alabama. In the Yellowhammer State, boinking a partner in the ass is by legal definition an act of public concern, subject to political discourse, and police regularly cite those laws to make unconstitutional arrests. In seventeen states, broadly, homosexual sex is still illegal—SCoTUS be damned—a clear declaration that socially rightwing interests still exercise real power over such personal affairs.5
Liberal thinkers, too, generally recognize thresholds beyond which sex loses its private quality and enters public-political concern: Bring a child into the act, and all fifty states and most of the rest of the world rightly take umbrage. (Though it is still possible throughout much of the United States for children to marry young,6 sometimes after obvious statutory rape, thus absolving the rapist in the eyes of the law.)7 To damage children is to damage their families and communities, to damage their education, to damage their futures—and ultimately to damage all of society; the argument for imposing on private matters between adults and children is a compelling one. No threshold of privacy, we would hope, justifies overt violence against the young.
Public concern with the personal doesn’t stop at sex, of course. Pro-choice advocates argue the abortion decision lies between a woman and her doctor; pro-lifers disagree, and either way the topic remains as politicized as any can be. So long as members of a society contest them, the most personal of acts make the leap to political in a mere twinkling.
Similarly, what you take into your body is no one’s business but yours, unless the law establishes controls for your substance of choice. My local pharmacy scans my ID into its system every time I purchase Sudafed—someone, somewhere can hypothesize that I suffer from hay fever or, if I buy enough pseudoephedrine, that I might be cooking methamphetamines. For this reason, the state tracks these transactions, but what about logging purchases of birth control, mood stabilizers, or medications for “pre-existing” conditions? Under federal and state laws, most such information is “private,” but in today’s world of hackers, partisan politics, corporate rights, and commercial privatization (ironically named, for an ongoing threat to personal privacy), how easy is it to imagine the publication and politicization of data we consider today to be protected?
The dystopian phantasmagorias abound.
In forty-two of the U.S. states and most countries, using pot in one’s home is due cause for the state to batter down your door and incarcerate you; if the current Attorney General has his way, citizens of those eight states will once more be subject to arrest,8 and how many will already be on record as pot users? Well-intentioned regulations sometimes turn to bad ends.9
Conversely, a dearth of state regulation may also elevate the personal into the political. In 2017 the average wage gap—unequal pay for equal work—between women and men is 21¢ for every dollar.10 For many women and their allies, their personal experience of lost earnings, and disparate opportunity, becomes a political effort to promote real change. The disparities are even greater for people of color.
Is a uterus public or personal? Is your relationship with a doctor, or indeed is your health, your concern? Are the affairs of multinational corporations private? This and a legion of other questions define the personal-political landscape, a complex and ever-evolving conversation (or shouting match, or fistfight, or gun battle).
We may not feel the personal is political until it’s our life being regulated, repressed, or attacked by public policy. This is privilege—some of us have more of it than others. Yet the threat of the political becoming personal is omnipresent for everyone, no matter our station. “First they came…”11 for everyone but me.
Though as important today as ever, these ideas are nothing new. The Personal Is Political12—in 1970, Carol Hanisch wrote, “One of the first things we discover… is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions… There is only collective action for a collective solution.”
Let’s also reverse that: The Political Is Personal, a concept important in fiction writing. We tell stories through points of view, through the senses and thoughts of our characters, individuals who may fight the impositions made upon them by the politics of their world and culture. As writers, we practice a deeply personal process, but if we’re honest then the public and political nature of reading never strays far from our minds, particularly if we write for public consumption. If we’re conscientious writers, we recognize that each character we write embodies a political reality, and we take some responsibility for it.
Returning to that grocery list: Its every item reinforces or challenges the political landscape, and though there may be such a thing as an innocent writer,13 there is never innocent writing. Never neutral, words reflect either a memory or a vision, both of which impact our actions in the present and spread beyond us to nudge the culture in which we live—for the greater good, or by reinforcing systems of might-makes-right or power for power’s sake.
The Case of the Domestic
Much of postmodern and contemporary literature deals with the domestic—a specific form of the personal and private. We might consider Bob Shacochis’s model for a “literature of political experience” or a “literature of domestic experience.”14 This is a variation on the personal-political, where the domestic also reflects finer layers of freedom and control. Since the patriarchies of the Greeks and Romans, the domestic has always been a microcosm of the larger structures of society; so as the emperor was the head of society, the paterfamilias was the head of the household. That structure held absolute until the modern era, and the paroxysms which today shake global society tell us that in many ways this patriarchy continues to exert itself. The personal-political continues to unfold intimately in people’s lives, these days more varied and somewhat less hierarchical than in eras past, at least in some households—for the better, in my opinion, though we have a long way to go.
In the United States, perhaps the first great rivening of the “American domestic” by state powers occurred during the Civil War. Brothers fighting brothers, yes, but also the freeing of slaves which, to the minds of many a land-holding white, was in some portion the division their family, even the intrusion on it by the state and by political forces. For both the Union and Confederacy, the political became personal indeed.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly did not start the Civil War—even if Lincoln told her, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” But its characters, including slaves and slave owners, and their familial and delicate relationships, illustrated the personal nature of the politics of slavery.15 Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly did influence Northern thinking, and more importantly its message impacted generations of Americans afterward, strengthening anti-slavery sentiment in our culture even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
In her remarkable essay, “The Thoreau Problem”, Rebecca Solnit writes, “If [Thoreau] went to jail to demonstrate his commitment to the freedom of others [slaves specifically], he went to the berries to exercise his own recovered freedom, the liberty to do whatever he wished, and the evidence in all his writing is that he very often wished to pick berries.”16 She refers to the innate strain between the domestic Thoreau of Walden17 and the communitarian Thoreau of Civil Disobedience18 Solnit gracefully argues that to fight for the freedom of others is the only way to guarantee our own freedom, and fighting often begins with speaking up—or writing down the truth, for those of us who write. Fighting for others is not a constraint on our freedom, but a necessary condition for a free society. To retain our personal freedoms, goes the argument, we must at times engage politics and public life.
The personal and political are cyclical.
Mohsin Hamid, the celebrated British Pakistani writer, observed, “Politics is shaped by people. And people, sometimes, are shaped by the fiction they read.”19 Thus writing, too, is a cyclical act which engages politics and public life: We influence others through our writing, and are influenced by our reading. What’s more, writing can politicize independently of the author, conscripted by readers into political service, with or without the author’s permission.
This is unavoidable, and not always for the best. Irresponsible writing, even if produced for “entertainment,” can effect terrible outcomes. I refer you Umberto Eco’s excellent analysis of Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew, and how it escaped Sue to become The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.20 What began as flaccid amusement ended by justifying, in the minds of Adolph Hitler and his supporters, the extermination of as many as six million Jews. It became the most sinister kind of propaganda.21 On this example alone, let no one ever declare that simple fictions cannot spur political outcomes.
Also invoking The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Francine Prose argues pessimistically that, throughout the decades, fiction has mostly darkened politics:
Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is that of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Its disgusting portrait of the meatpacking industry rapidly led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. So what if Sinclair had hoped that his work would end the oppressive conditions under which industry workers labored rather than merely improving the quality of the protein on middle-class tables?22
Though bleak, neither The Jungle nor The Wandering Jew suggest all writing is fundamentally equivalent to propaganda. While each story may privilege one idea or another, one way of life or another, it does not follow that every example is agitprop. Lies require distinct intentionality.23 Still, politicizing forces can twist fiction to any purpose (as with The Wandering Jew), irrespective of an author’s desires (as with The Jungle), and these days disinformation is all too common.24
Privilege and the Personal-Political in Writing
What is the influence of privilege on our perceptions of literature? My ever-handy dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Positions of privilege allow some readers to imagine such a thing as non-political or apolitical writing, perhaps especially in fiction. Ignorantly or willfully, privilege offers its bearer the power to ignore social subtexts. It is possible, too, that blindness to subtexts can also lie with the oppressed—a different issue, and an understandable one, stemming from persistently imposed narratives about one’s own race, gender, or background. My focus here will be on the former, it being the primary cause of the latter.
For example, one might enjoy Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an intelligent, witty tale of tangled romance, a prototype for all romances since, whose enduring theme has always been love conquers all.
Pride and Prejudice tells of the fraught but inevitable courtship between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet—to this day, still sentimental beach reading—but its more important subtexts swim just beneath the surface, a shark out in the literary surf. Pride and Prejudice is, far more importantly, a damning commentary on the socioeconomic oppression of women, certainly during Austen’s time, and by extension today. A stricter reading tells us not only that love does not conquer all, but that love is a poor substitute for emancipation and personal empowerment.
The book’s plot rests on the legal realities of nineteenth-century England and the entailing of property, which Austen emphasized as well in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Benet’s daughters could not inherit, not even if he desired it. If unmarried at his death, Elizabeth and her four sisters would become destitute, homeless, and anathema. The story’s courtship, proposals, and romance occur not with entailing as the backdrop, but solely because of it. The romantic misadventures overlay a tapestry of insurmountable legal constraint, oppression, and sexual politics. The personal narrative of Pride and Prejudice contains an outcry for public reform which, once perceived, dominates it.
Without the constraints of entailing, imagine the plot: Darcy is irrelevant by chapter nine. Lizzy bides her time and, after inheriting a fortune, the smart, capable, witty woman could have leveraged her own means and done anything she liked—man optional—using her astute skills of social observation to work the markets of an industrializing England. I’d purchase that story.
Pride and Prejudice was a cry for women’s agency a century before suffrage. So much for “sentimental beach reading.”
The romantics and gothics wrote narratives ripe with sociopolitical subtext. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the character of Catherine Earnshaw withers (wuthers?), her true nature crushed by sociocultural pressure. Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most complex stories ever told, multilayered and the forerunner of modern science fiction—as famous for its rejection of nineteenth-century social norms as for its visionary speculations on life and death. Stoker’s Dracula brims with commentary about emerging industrialism, empowered femininity and its suppression, homosexuality, and capitalism—all impossible for Stoker to express publicly, in his era, without the mask of fiction. These were never mere entertainments, fluffy stories of tragic romance, mad scientists, and creatures of the night.
These were powerful personal-political statements.
Similarly, the great works of modernist literature, like them or hate them, emerged from personal-political themes. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Nabokov; Woolf, Mansfield, or Stein—none were ever anything but political in their themes, whether overtly or in terms of personal identity. Moreover, their politics could be complex and difficult to pigeonhole.25 We should be reminded today, in our era of polarized politics, that political thinking can and perhaps should be viewed through more nuanced lenses.
What good are writers if they can’t parse nuance?26 Few if any can pull every meaning from every word in every work, even in their own, but shouldn’t we who write at least try?
The personal-political quality of contemporary fiction is no less present or powerful than it was for the romantics or the modernists. Sometimes graceful (re: Ondaatje),27 sometimes clumsy (re: Franzen),28 today’s literature is perhaps more concerned with identity politics and domesticity than were its forebears, but perhaps not; identity politics has been the politics of the last century, first blindingly white and now increasingly rainbow. (Do identity politics actually belong to a more complete schema called civil rights?) Identity politics today are emblematic of contemporary literature, underscoring literature’s unavoidably political nature.29
Still, I can hear the affirmed escapists asking, “But what about the real beach reading? What about books that are just for fun?”
The mainstream fiction? Today’s romances? Can’t we just have a frivolous read, without all the weighty and responsible thematics?
Sorry, no. We may read any story for escapism, but we must disable our inner critic if we’re to pretend it’s apolitical.
Does any given bodice-ripper30 reinforce or challenge mores of sex, gender, and race? Does it exclude the disempowered or promote cultural diversity, repeating tropes comforting to WASPy readers in suburban America but disempowering to urban women, minorities, or even men? Does it reinforce stalking behavior and patterns of abuse in relationships31—never mind Fifty Shades of Grey?32 Embedded in the genre is the need to resolve on the upbeat—love always triumphs—which often necessitates glossing over or stopping short of any darker undertones.
Before I’m accused of unfairly needling a genre outside my own, I refer you to Jackie C. Horne’s excellent discussion of the romance genre and politics following the 2016 Presidential election.33 Truly, we are capable of ignoring personal-political themes in any writing only when they are so familiar to us as to be invisible.
What about whodunits and mysteries?
Notice the preponderance of youthful, well-to-do, attractive, white women-as-victims in twentieth- and twenty-first-century thrillers? The detectives leap to help them or to uncover their murderers, no matter the costs. But black women, old women, disfigured women, cat ladies? The detectives rarely put in overtime for them.
—Young, beautiful, white women are simply too valuable a commodity, and psycho-killers can’t be allowed to run about, willy-nilly, murdering them. Everyone else, though? Well, we’ll get to those murders if we have the time—
Even in science fiction, we have The Expanse36—Detective Miller has seen a lot of bad shit go down, out there on Ceres, but wow does he go out of his way for a young, rich, and beautiful Claire Mao. The future, it appears, will not be much different than the present. But at least Mao isn’t white—progress!37
The point here is this: Writers often reinforce society’s existing narratives, even when they enjoy more license than most to alter the narrative. “Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.”—They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.38
Here’s the truth—consciously political fiction can be excellent fiction, despite rumors to the contrary.
In mainstream fiction, politics abound. Toward the end of his life, Michael Crichton became overtly rightwing, but political themes run throughout his many novels, including the early works, the ones before he started writing “message fiction.”39 Stephen King, these days vocally leftwing, infused even his early books with underlying personal-political messages—all to excellent effect. J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Dean Koontz, Paulo Coelho, James Patterson, C.S. Lewis, Clive Cussler, Anne Rice, Ian Fleming, or Tom Clancy—each has written through a lens which reinforced or challenged existing power structures, and each text may be reinterpreted today around personal-political themes. Each author also still counts among the best-selling of all time.
Despite this, in fiction writing—literary and genre, if indeed these are separate pursuits—the word political often draws disdain, as if entertainment must necessarily be apolitical. As if it can be. If our grocery lists can’t avoid the political, what hope does our fiction have?
The Personal-Political in Speculative Fiction
More than all fiction as a whole, science fiction expresses explicit wishes for reality to be other than as it is, or to provide 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”40 is by now cliché, and also as true as ever in one iteration or another, despite shaky arguments to the contrary.41
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 Frankenstein42 as its first true novel, but many prototypes to science fiction predated it. They include One Thousand and One Nights,43 the Theologus Autodidactus,44 or even Utopia.45 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, 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, we should expect a wide variety of protests, but it should not surprise us to see the emergence of science-fiction and fantasy literatures which espouse or reinforce conservative ideologies which oppress women, minorities, or those who “deviate” from some normal while hurting no one.46
Ayn Rand was the best known, and perhaps the first, science-fiction writer to reject the rise of post-War liberalism. In addition to some decidedly hyper-conservative views on what constituted “natural” behavior,47 she confused Stalinism with Marxism, developed a “philosophy” which attempted to strip all questions of morality from the concept of greed, and wrote The Fountainhead48 and Atlas Shrugged49. 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. Prior to 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 perverted 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.50
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. With some irony, just as 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,51 its text is quite clear on the subject of greed,52 and secular arguments that greediness is moral or amoral are pretty thin too.53 Can we imagine a day when “greed is good” philosophies finally lose their sheen? When greed itself may be counted amongst the gravest of social offenses?
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”54 may have been the first true prototype for contemporary military science fiction, but it was no doubt Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers55 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.56 Yet he was more fascinating and multifaceted than this, too interesting for the cliché of the young liberal turned crusty conservative. Early in his career, he gave us Stranger in a Strange Land57 and Starship Troopers; later, Friday58 and I Will Fear No Evil.59 Each contains ideas politically liberal and conservative, as well as invariably libertine. Like Gertrude Stein, Heinlein defied categories.
Free thinkers, perhaps? Confused souls? You decide.
Military science fiction has since diverged into extremes as far right as Ender’s Game60—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 Justice,61 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 or 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.62
At the other end of the political spectrum: From Neuromancer onward, a distinct anti-capitalist undertow pervades the writings of William Gibson.63 Neal Stephenson’s works, everything since Snow Crash,64 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,65 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.66
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-altered role. Notably, he gives us characters who reflect these 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 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.67
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.
- Not to be confused with political fiction. Though political fiction would necessarily be covered by these arguments, mainstream-contemporary political fiction is not here the focus. That political fiction would be deliberately political is a duh—let’s explore here the reality that political ideas exist in all fiction.
- Camus, Albert. (1942). The Stranger. (Trans, 1989) Matthew Ward.
- Eco, Umberto. (2004). How I Write. On Literature. (Trans) Martin McLaughlin.
- Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four.
- Senzee, Thom. (2016). 17 States Where Gay Sex Is Outlawed. The Advocate, June 2. <http://www.advocate.com/love-and-sex/2016/6/01/17-states-where-gay-sex-outlawed>
- Reiss, Fraidy. (2017). Why can twelve-year-olds still get married in the United States? The Washington Post, 10 Feb. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/10/why-does-the-united-states-still-let-12-year-old-girls-get-married/>
- As of this writing, every state in the Union allows marriage, with special consent, under the age of eighteen. Fewer states allow marriage for individuals under sixteen—the age of consent in much of the world—but there are twenty-eight states which do. Of those, eighteen are states which tend toward conservative constituencies or which are deeply conservative; the remaining ten states tend toward liberalism or are deeply liberal.
- Wagner, John & Zapotosky, Matt. (2017). Jeff Session’s war on drugs has medical marijuana advocates worried. The Washington Post, 15 May. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/jeff-sessions-war-on-drugs-has-medical-marijuana-advocates-worried/2017/05/12/0c0043ee-3738-11e7-b4ee-434b6d506b37_story.html>
- Update: In early 2018, DACA is providing a look into this phenomenon. There are 3.6 million Dreamers, many of whom would still be unknown to the state were they not tempted out of hiding under the Obama administration; their privacy has become unequivocally public, and horrifyingly political.
- Sheth, Sonam & Gould, Skye. (2017). 5 charts show how much more men make than women. Business Insider, 8 March. <http://www.businessinsider.com/gender-wage-pay-gap-charts-2017-3/>
- Niemöller, Martin. (1955). From his 1946 speeches. They Thought They Were Free. (Ed) Mayer, Milton.
- Hanisch, Carol. (1970). The Personal Is Political. Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation.
- Though more often there are ignorant writers, an ignorance which any of us may suffer at any time, against which all of us should strive.
- Fassler, Joe. (2013). Should Literature Be Personal or Political? The Atlantic, 30 Oct. <https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/should-literature-be-personal-or-political/281007/>
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Solnit, Rebecca. (2007). The Thoreau Problem. Orion, May/June.
- Thoreau, Henry David. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
- Thoreau, Henry David. (1849). Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience).
- 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>
- Eco, Umberto. (2004). The Power of Falsehood. On Literature. (Trans) Martin McLaughlin.
- Defining propaganda as “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” The Wandering Jew became an accidental propaganda.
- Prose, Francine. (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>
- As opposed to falsehoods, mistakes, and bullshit, which do not.
- What is the coin of Trump or Putin but sheer disinformation, whether lie or any other kind of falsehood?
- Will, Barbara. (2012). The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein. Humanities, 33(2).
- Carroll. Berenice. (1978). “To Crush Him in Our Own Country”: The Political Thought of Virginia Woolf. Feminist Studies, 4(1). Even when the authors of yesteryear rejected the political natures of their own works, they works remained political—Woolf spurned political attributions, belying her own nature. Her view of her own work reinforces the rather powerful idea that, once stories and novels and other creative artifacts spread into the world, the author too becomes simply one more subjective reader of it.
- Ondaatje, Michael. (1992). The English Patient.
- Franzen, Jonathan. (2015). Purity.
- Volynets, Steven. (2015). The Literary Industrial Complex of Hating Jonathan Franzen. Observer, 5 Sept. <http://observer.com/2015/09/the-literary-industrial-complex-of-hating-jonathan-franzen/>
- I realize bodice-ripper has been more or less rejected by romance writers. Sorry, I’m using it anyway.
- McMillan, Graeme. (2009). Official: Twilight’s Bella & Edward Are In An Abusive Relationship. io9, 28 Nov. <http://io9.gizmodo.com/5413428/official-twilights-bella–edward-are-in-an-abusive-relationship>
- James, E.L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey.
- Horne, Jackie C. (2016). Romance Novels in the Wake of the U.S. Presidential Election. Romance Novels for Feminists, 11 Nov. <http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2016/11/romance-novels-in-wake-of-us.html>
- See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_white_woman_syndrome>.
- Martin, Michel. (2014). Does Justice For Murder Victims Depend on Race, Geography? National Public Radio, 13 Jan. <http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/262082861/does-justice-for-murder-victims-depend-on-race-geography>
- Corey, James S.A.; Abraham, Daniel & Franck, Ty. (2011). Leviathan Wakes.
- Full disclosure: I love Abraham’s and Franck’s storytelling. Excellent stories can still contain critical flaws, including mine.
- Sorry, Spider-Man fans. Those words first came from the French National Convention of 1793.
- Confession: Eaters of the Dead and The Great Train Robbery remain two of my favorite stories of all time.
- 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.
- Ideologies which this author hopes will one day reach extinction.
- For example, see Rand, A. (1971). The Age of Envy.
- Rand, Ayn. (1943). The Fountainhead.
- Rand, Ayn. (1957). Atlas Shrugged.
- This is a gross oversimplification, of course. Many factors dumped Trump upon us, but I maintain this: that Objectivism was necessary but not sufficient to lead to Trumpism, and science fiction was necessary but not sufficient to give us Objectivism.
- 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. Wells advocated for eugenics. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/19/white-supremacist-statues-must-fall-scientists.
- 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. As of this writing, Atwood has taken criticism for privileging white women in her public statements, which has for now also tainted her legacy.
- 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>