A shorter version of this article was first published in Legion Bulletin #107, Oct 28th 2020.
There’s a lot of it going about it the moment!
As I write this, we’re days away from elections in the USA, the impact of the Brexit referendum on the UK is about to get very real, there are riots all over Europe protesting lockdown restrictions, there’s anti-government unrest in Thailand and Nigeria and…
…and it goes on. Politics may peak and die away within the context of our personal lives, but it’s ongoing everywhere. I define politics as the unending debate about how people should live together in society. Unless you are marooned on an uninhabited planet with no hope of rescue, politics is everywhere. All the time. Like it or not.
And that means unless you are writing or reading a story about space travelers marooned alone on uninhabited planets, there’s politics in our science fiction too.
As a reader, usually I like my politics in the background, but when it’s at the fore, I want it done well.
I turned 50 earlier this year. Although I like to think I’ve still got a few years left on the clock, I find I’ve lost my patience for badly written science fiction, the kind I have to make allowances for.
For me, science fiction is mind expanding. Authors with closed minds write bad science fiction. A lot of people who write political science fiction make a hash of it because their minds are closed to people and philosophies that don’t match their own prejudices.
I was thinking about that this morning because of an article I read before work. I’ll get to the article in a minute, but it echoed with the mentality I’ve held for many years of how I like to write not only politics, but also culture, and military elements of my science fiction.
This year I’ve been researching the French Revolution (1789-99) for reasons that may become clear next year…
It’s got the classic set of universal tropes for a revolution based on progressive philosophy.
We get mobs tearing down statues associated with a suddenly discredited past.
It has speech crimes. Guilt by association. Virtue signaling. Denouncing your neighbor before they denounce you.
It has a well-educated, middle-class leadership who have bought into a progressive philosophy. They are in an uneasy alliance with the oppressed poor who are surging into the streets of major cities.
It should. Something similar keeps occurring throughout history.
Of course, the French Revolution had rich and bloody specifics too, such as the guillotine, and the importance of political societies such as the Jacobin Club. One of these specifics was the concept of the left and right wing in politics. The term comes from where representatives sat in the early years of the revolutionary National Assembly (the parliament).
The right-wing extremists wanted to preserve royal power; the left wanted a republic. It was more complex than that (isn’t it always?) and the meaning of the left/ right divide changed, but those of the left tended to want the overthrow of the existing institutions, and the right wanted to preserve at least some aspects of them.
Strangely, after thousands of years of political philosophy without the world needing the concept of a left and right wing, this expression from French Revolutionary politics is still with us today in many countries, though the precise meaning varies enormously.
I’ve always been unimpressed by the binary ‘good vs. evil’ nature of single-dimensional political philosophy such as left-wing politics versus right-wing politics.
When I say ‘single-dimensional’, I’m not being disparaging so much as mathematical. (Well, okay I’m being disparaging too)
Think about it. The left vs right idea is that there’s a spectrum of political running from extreme left through a limp center and out to the extreme right. It’s a scalar quantity. Something you can reduce to a single number.
Yes, people sometimes talk about the horseshoe model where extreme left and right are indistinguishable other than symbols and dogma.
We could bound it and say that extreme left counts as 1 point in our political scale and extreme right is 100. If you marked up a character sheet in this model, a person with a politics attribute of 37 would be soft left.
Imagine reducing the complexity of a real person’s political philosophy into a single number! I find that ludicrous.
It’s easy to see where that model might lead in a science fiction novel:
- Everyone with a political score rated greater than 65 must report immediately to their nearest police station. From there, the Morality Enforcement Division will arrange transportation for an automatic six-month minimum term in a re-education camp.
- Anyone with politics less than 32 must observe a strict curfew from dusk to dawn on pain of death.
- Individuals with politics over 70 will be sterilized. Over 80 will be euthanized.
I’m putting the finishing touches to Chimera Company Book4: Smuggler Queen. The story is set 5,000 years into the future in the Perseus Arm of the Galaxy. Do they still talk of left-wing and right-wing?
It’s a term consigned to the history of a distant planet no one’s contacted for millennia
Much of the third Chimera novel, Department 9, is set on the dystopian world of Eiylah-Bremah. Chimera Company has to deal with a tyrannical regime led by Great Leader In’Nalla. This means I needed a political backdrop.
On Eiylah-Bremah we see thought crimes and speech crimes. We have guilt by association and public denunciations. If that seems like some aspects of contemporary politics, or the French Revolution, it’s because I’m mining some universal political philosophies and patterns of history.
But it’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not left-wing and right-wing. It does not fit neatly into contemporary Western politics. Great Leader In’Nalla thinks she’s leading the world of Eiylah-Bremah to a better future. Progress, in other words. Many call her tyrant (including our heroes) but she doesn’t see herself as a villain. She’s a hero of progressive politics.
Would In’Nalla have voted for Brexit or against it? I have no idea. To her, Brexit is a specific detail of ancient history far too obscure for her to have heard of.
Would she have voted for Trump or Biden? Neither. Again, ancient and forgotten history to her. But if she had the vote, I think she wouldn’t bother. Instead, she’d try to tear down America’s institutions and rebuild them in a more progressive form. (Meaning her vision of progress, of course.)
For me, the political background of good science fiction blends a mixture of the universal with specifics of the fresh and new.
I want a blend of the universal to root it in truth, and specifics that are fresh and new to make it exciting. Maybe give a little sense of wonder.
Personally, I’m not usually interested in a fictional world that is a thinly veiled commentary on the specifics of the author’s contemporary politics. Too often it lacks ambition, and it fails because the author can’t see beyond their own prejudices to touch on universal truths.
That’s not to suggest it’s somehow wrong to use science fiction to convey your ideas on your contemporary local politics. In fact, it makes a great deal of commercial sense. Anglo-American legacy science fiction publishing (what I refer to in these posts as OldPub) is so eager to put out books with contemporary political themes that match their political ideology that it’s becoming commonplace for commentators to suggest that for science fiction to be considered good, it must hold up a mirror to contemporary politics.
And there are exceptions of this type of book that I enjoy myself, of course. With writers, there are always exceptions.
George Orwell turned me on to literature when I was at school. His 1984 and Animal Farm, make knowing references to European politics of the early 20th Century, but they work so well because Orwell could see beyond the specifics of his time to hook into universal truths. That’s why 1984 in particular still feels so relevant to the world of 2020.
So that’s how I like my science fictional politics served: in small doses and thoughtfully prepared. I like the author’s mind to open, not closed. How about you?
And to the article that provoked this.
As I’ve said, I think the one-dimensional idea of left wing vs right wing is a crude concept that often breaks down upon close examination, and that a good science fiction writer should at least consider the possibility of radically different political frameworks than what they see in the mainstream media for their country.
The article I read this morning talks about a major new piece of research that clusters people in Britain into seven groups that don’t fit neatly into old-fashioned ideas of class or left vs right. It asks them questions, such as whether political correctness is a problem. Sometimes the results are surprising. I’m sure something similarly new could be done for the US and elsewhere. You can read it here.
With my writers’ hat on, I’m not especially interested in whether the analysis is ‘correct’. I like that it’s happening at all. If only more science fiction writers were able to think along such fresh lines.