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November, 2004 : Editorial:

Politics in Science Fiction

As I write this, the campaign season here in the United States is drawing to a close. For most of the month this issue is live, it will all be over, and thank goodness for that. No matter what the outcome, I think the nation will be relieved to be free from the onslaught of increasingly shrill noise from all candidates, presidential and otherwise.

However, it does put me in mind of the presence of political thought and political dialog in science fiction. The history of utopian literature precedes the genre, but has, to some degree, been adopted by fantasy and science fiction as one of our own. Authors inventing far flung worlds, remote futures, galactic civilizations, or magical fantasy worlds often imagine political systems that speak to our own age. Contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and science fiction of the near future also hold up a mirror to our world.

Given this, I am surprised that we have not seen more submissions exploring the political nature of the genre.

Traditional science fiction has a left and a right, whatever those labels really mean. There are libertarians, militaristic conservatives, ecologically-aware conservationists, liberals, radicals.

Politics can be as explicit as found in Jerry Pournelle or Kim Stanley Robinson or Ken MacLeod. Some of the masterpieces of the genre, such as Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed are enormously political works (although in this case, the overt political thinking is merely the setting for an even more fascinating psychological story).

And from political discourse, science fiction utilizes every tool in the literary toolbox to examine political possibility and reality. One need only think of Stanislaw Lem using the "safe" vehicle of space adventure to explore the absurdities of life in the Soviet bloc.

Politics has been a part of the cultural history of science fiction, as well as part of the literature. In an essay written for Penguicon in 2002, Eric S. Raymond composed a Political History of SF in which he demonstrates how John W. Campbell helped shape science fiction, and how his politics influenced, either directly or by inspiring antagonistic reaction, a long history of political writing.

So, as the electoral season winds down, and we find some time to think about our world, our society, and the choices we make through the institutions of government and the exercise of law, I encourage readers, and potential contributors, to think about the presence of politics in science fiction.

In particular, I must say, that the sense of politics I get from most contributors is almost exclusively "liberal." I don't think IROSF has been around long enough to establish itself as a voice for the liberal wing of the genre community, but I very much don't want to end up that way: IROSF is now and will always be open to thoughtful works of criticism and essays no matter what the politics.

And if you are in the States? Do your civic duty.

Copyright © 2004, John Frost. All Rights Reserved.

About John Frost

John has spent many years avidly reading science fiction and fantasy: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. In addition to editing The Internet Review of Science Fiction, he teaches computer science.


Oct 27, 14:04 by Allan Rosewarne
Politics in SF interesting topic. I have more than a few ideas, but I'll recount one personal experience. At LosCon 2002 (LASFS convention) I was in the audience for a panel titled, as I remember, 'Is SF right wing or left wing'. Interestingly, the consensus of audience and through silent approval the panel was that SF was conservative (right wing). This consensus was arrived through the following discusion, SF embraces technology as a solution to humankind's problems and since the audience's opinion were that left wingers (liberals) were at their worst technophobic Luddites or believers that mankind's problems are caused by technology, embracing technology as a solution made SF right wing. I know this reasoning ignores much empirical evidence to the contrary. My memory is very bad but I think J. Pournelle was one of the panelist.

OK, this will probably get someone riled up.
Oct 27, 15:48 by Thomas Reeves
Just read this. As a conservative who voted for Dole against Clinton I'll do my best, when I'm not busy, to send you something conservative. Although it depends on what you mean by that.

For example libertarian I can't do too well as I dislike that more then socialism.

Other than that I can probably do it. If you wish I can also put something out as a call to conservative SFers. Most of them are business or military types.

I'm kind of jazzed you'd even want voices from both sides, most people don't right now. Things are very polarized.
Oct 27, 15:50 by shawn scarber
Reply to first post - Wow, nothing like sweeping gross generalizations to come up with that labeling. How could you even sit through that panel? I donít think I would ever attempt to stick either science fiction or fantasy as a genre into a political corner. Itís the medium of ideas, and to limit those ideas to left and right politics, especially when there are many of us who believe that politics is not flat, but multidimensional, is a complete disconnect from the reality that is the science fiction genre.

Here I thought that Steve Jobs had done a wonderful job of proving that liberals and machines could get along. Itís my opinion that both of these views of what is Left and what is Right are pre-eighties concepts. Iím not sure if Science Fiction has really been about man solving his problems through science since the golden age, and as I stated above, it should be obvious that the Left is not attempting to live in caves.

As a libertarian Iím glad to see this type of discourse. Thanks to old Uncle Heinlein our party politics have had a fairly strong voice in the community, but I still think there is room for more people exploring various political ideas through science fiction and fantasy.
Oct 28, 09:07 by John Frost
Camden -- and anyone else who might be interested -- just bear in mind that I'm not looking for articles about politicians, elections, or politics as such. Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror are still the topics we're interested in. But writers do have political slants and viewpoints, and some fiction does have political elements.

As you say: America is very polarized right now; perhaps the whole world is. I want IROSF to be a place where all feel welcome, where dialog can be intelligent and mutually respectful. But it's still about genre fiction, not political campaigns.

Oct 28, 23:24 by Camden
I know. I wasn't thinking elections or anything. I'm not even voting Bush. I was thinking maybe more like some side stuff from my research on when British SF was still called "Scientific Romance." Basically just about SF, but I have a feeling the way I'd write about it would sound a bit conservative.
Oct 30, 17:24 by twosheds
I agree that America is polarized over the current election. Personally, when I attend cons I avoid any talk about politics and religion; people just get too upset. I go to cons to relax and have a beer and talk SFF. On a related note, in the Sept. edition of F& SF mag., Van Gelder printed a hack piece on one of the candidates disguised as a short story. To me, it doesnít matter which candidate, itís just that he did it. Yes, this is America and he has every right to do so. But he risks having his magazine redefined as a political rag than a serious publication. (Maybe Iíd have a different opinion if the story had been well-writtenÖbut it wasnít)
Oct 31, 17:14 by Camden
I must have missed that one, I'm some months behind in my magazine reading.

However Datlow and him are pretty open on being pro-Kerry or in least strongly anti-Bush. Datlow much moreso than him IMO. I think as early as 2002 several of the stories at Sci-Fiction were specifically about criticism of Bush, by name, which was a bit new for me. Although not that new as some 1980s SF directly references Reagan in a similar way. Otherwise satires or jabs at presidents seem to happen in SF stories written after the criticized person's Presidencies.

Times change though The New Yorker endorsed Kerry, not really a surprise except I guess they traditionally don't endorse candidates. We might be reaching the point where literary magazines just start endorsing candidates without qualms. I'd imagine Analog would go for Bandarik, Libertarian, and most of the rest for Kerry. Asimov's might be a tad split though as they do get some writers on the Right.

However what hurts Bush, in the SF world I think, is that he's linked to Christian conservativism. There is a strong vein of conservatism in SF, but it's largely secularistic. It prefers business, the military, and the Constitution as the higher powers in life. It emphasizes a strong defense and a small government. They're what we nowadays call "Schwarzenegger" or "Giuliani" or even "South Park" Republicans. Bush would be disappointing to this vein I think.

However this is getting too specifically political, sorry. I just imagine things are a tad deceptive in SF at present. If a socially-liberal GOP President was in I imagine the SF community would be a bit less against him/her and seem a bit less "liberal" than at President. (Example SFers are the only people I ever meet to think the FDA and Minimum Wage are big government innovations to be eliminated)
Nov 1, 14:30 by John Wright
Funny that there was a panel that concluded SF is basically conservative; my conclusion is that the genre, by its very nature, tends to favor stories set in political setups different from our own, and, in that limited sense, SF tends to slant away from conservatism.

A lot of 1950's SF gives off a distinctly "social engineering" perfume. Lensmen and Space Rangers and members of the Science Council often seem to possess legal powers far in excess of what a suspicious Constitutionally-minded conservative or libertarian would want. Of course, I think this is driven by the needs of the plot, not necessarily the politics of the author: no one wants to read about Kimball Kinnison waiting to see a magistrate to get an arrest warrant; we want to see him blast the space-pirate base with his negasphere.

For the same reason, a lot of "politics" in SF and F tends to be monarchist rather than democratic. Rescuing a Space Princess is inherently more interesting than rescuing the daughter of a well-respected Space Politician.

Just as a mental exercise, glance at your bookshelf and remind yourself what political systems are in place in that background universe. Very few of them look like Constitutional democracy. Now, my bookshelf may be more old fashioned than most:

SLAN - dictatorship, secretly a benevolent one
MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS - Bingo. The rebels erect a Constitutional democracy (despite the objections of the Professor, who wanted something more libertarian)
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND - Corrupt Bureaucratic world-state
FOUNDATION - Imperium (eventually followed by a psychological technocracy)
PRINCESS OF MARS - Aristocracy
LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS - Monarchy in Kharhide; the galactic Ekumen seems to be a loose volunteer association
WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER - Imperium, opposed by a secret cabal of scientific weaponsmiths
FIRST LENSMAN - Civilization as a whole is a confederation, but the Tellurians are a constitutional republic; Boskone is totalitarian
MOTE IN GOD's EYE - constitutional monarchy
STARSHIP TROOPERS - republic, but one where the franchise is restricted to veterans
DUNE - Imperial aristocracy (followed by a theocracy)
LORD OF THE RINGS - sacred monarchy
THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH - scientific totalitarianism
HYPERION - Corrupt republic, secretly run by malevolent A.I.'s (followed by a theocracy)
HARVEST OF STARS - Collectivist totalitarianism

And so on. You can make your own lists, but it seems to me that Constitutional Republics are in a minority. Drama seems to favor corrupt imperial or totalitarian bureaucracies opposed by plucky groups of rebels, or anarchist utopias threatened by conspiracies.

Nov 6, 17:49 by Dan Goodman
I would like sf politics to be more realistic. Why do authors with engineering experience write about political systems which 1) work exactly according to the plans and 2) work without friction? Heck -- why do authors who've worked for governments do the same thing?

Real politics is messy. Chicago has a "weak mayor" system of government -- but in practice, the mayor runs things. The Minneapolis City Council is nonpartisan -- but political parties endorse candidates.

Going outside the US, the Nicaraguan Communist Party was part of the anti-Sandinista coalition.

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