Why write science fiction?

There may be some people who disapprove of revolutionaries spending time on something as frivolous as fiction when there are meetings to be leafleted for or demos to organise, but surely such stern taskmasters are rare. My impression is that most people consider fiction to be a legitimate form of self-expression. It is not that rare for people to write it. Why, then, when I shyly confess to my handful of science fiction stories, do eyebrows shoot up? Why is the writing of science fiction apparently something that in socialist circles requires justification?

It is clear that reading science fiction is a niche pursuit, and despite left-wing current (or nearly current) writers like China Miéville, Ken Macleod and Iain M Banks, apparently not a socialist one. In fairness, a notion that the science fiction genre has more than its share of right wingers is not entirely unsupported in fact. Some of the best-known figures of the genre have politics which could legitimately suggest to those with more socialist leanings that this sci fi stuff is not for them. Examples include Robert Heinlein, whose basically fascist Starship Troopers was made into an equally-appalling Hollywood blockbuster by the renownedly right wing director Paul Verhoeven. One of the grandees of the genre, John W Campbell, who edited the veteran hard sci-fi journal Analog until his death in 1971, used to propound in his editorials views such as that black children learn more slowly than white children and that ‘all the misery of South Vietnam could also be stopped, even more quickly, by a thorough, saturation, overlapping hydrogen bombing of the area. That would leave no one alive to complain.’[1]

The political positions of some science fiction writers, however objectionable, should not be sufficient on their own to tarnish the entire genre. After all, while we have Robert Heinlein we also have Ursula Le Guin. The problem for science fiction is not so much that some writers advance right-wing agendas, but that the assumptions on which much of the genre is founded also appear to be less than progressive.

Much of the popular science fiction written particularly in the US from the 1920s on was a transplantation of the Western genre into space. For some, space was simply an extension of the frontier, the place where white American men could engage in manly combat, defeat their enemies and generally fulfil their manifest destinies. Like the Westerns, these sorts of stories tended to promote rugged individualism rather than collective struggle; the individual entrepreneur rather than the proletarian worker. (Interestingly, the real lives of actual, as opposed to fictional cowboys suggest that we should be thinking of them more as landless agricultural workers than small businessmen with guns and horses. Some of them were black, too.)

Obviously Western-influenced stories were falling out of favour by the 1950s, as science fiction magazine editors tried to improve the quality of the tales they were publishing and to encourage writers who were able to produce work with more nuance and characterisation. These were the editors who were attempting to move their authors away from the science-with-conversation school of science fiction, where characters (often brilliant male scientists) break off from the action to provide other characters with long explanations of technology with which they should surely already be familiar. ‘“Well, Jim, as you of course know, our entire society is built on control of the cosmic death ray. You’ll remember learning at school that this was invented by Dr Milton Higginbottom in 2068…[continues for pages]”’ As the editor of Startling magazine wrote in 1952, ‘We have long contended that science fiction must be more than hopeful science; it must be good fiction as well.’[2]

What remained was an understanding of science fiction as a genre attempting to portray what the effects might be of possible technological innovations. This may not on the face of it carry an inherent ideology, but it is easy to see how it could slip over into a Campbell-esque technocratic belief that ‘military superiority and technological progress were both necessary for the advancement of civilisation and that no matter what consequent problems arose, science would find the answer.’[3] Equally possible from this starting point are the science fiction books Ursula Le Guin described as about ‘endless wars in space, where technology is magic and the killing proceeds without moral or psychological justification of any kind.’[4]

This is not to say that there weren’t and aren’t any number of authors writing decent, progressive science fiction; as fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones commented, there have been periods in science fiction when ‘The Rules’ were being broken about once a week, to the extent that you might think that they didn’t exist at all.[5] One of the rules being broken in 1960s and 1970s science fiction was the one that all ideas had to be proven to be scientifically possible, as sci-fi authors increasingly blurred the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy, following Arthur C Clarke’s 1962 Third Law that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’[6] This was undoubtedly good for innovation in sci-fi but did not do so much for its politics. Fantasy, heavily influenced as it is by Tolkien’s reactionary romanticism, has problems of its own. The widely-accepted convention that fantasy is properly about nobles in a broadly feudal setting is problematic from a left viewpoint, restricting ordinary people, as it tends to do, to inhabiting hovels, serving in inns and getting killed. (See Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland for a brilliant satirisation of this sort of fantasy. There are some recent examples of subversion of this, not least Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy, but it remains a dominant trope in the genre).

Quite aside from ideological issues, reflecting on the original aims of science fiction to investigate the consequences of developments in technology, specifically space technology, makes it seem rather outdated. When some of the classic sci-fi was being written, in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea that within a relatively short space of time, humans would be settling on other planets and travelling throughout the galaxy seemed a realistic proposition. That there was other intelligent life in the galaxy was also believed widely enough for consideration of how humans and aliens would interact to be an integral part of serious, scientific sci-fi. From the point of view of 2015, however, neither of those things are true. Excitement about space and the space programme is possibly at an all-time low (Richard Branson notwithstanding), and my impression is that most people don’t expect little green men to land and either conquer us or bring us ‘a message of universal peace and comic harmony an’ suchlike’ (as Terry Pratchett put it).[7] It is still the case, of course, that our lives are influenced in often profound ways by developments in technology, but it is not the sort of spacefaring technology on which traditional sci-fi was based.

So why write science fiction? Why, in particular, write science fiction if you are a revolutionary? For me, the difference in the possibilities of science fiction and those of more respectable genres is that, for all its problems, science fiction remains speculative. As Ursula Le Guin wrote, ‘One of the essential functions of science fiction, I think, is precisely this kind of question-asking: reversals of a habitual way of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination.’[8] We don’t yet live in a revolutionary moment; fiction set in the here and now would not allow an exploration of the all-important question, ‘who’s gonna rule when the government falls?’[9] Setting stories far away from here in space and time enables me to write about what a revolution might actually look like, how we might get there and what might go wrong, while taking a swipe at imperialism, colonialism and exploitation along the way.

Science fiction as a genre is a product of the twentieth-century belief that technology will both make us and save us, but like all of us, it does not have to be limited by its origins. Within the science fiction label, you can debate EP Thompson’s conclusions about the role of law in an egalitarian society on the bridge of a space ship; you can sail with alien peasants to revolt against their imperialist, space-faring overlords; you can look at civil war and class struggle on a future, climate-changed Earth. Some might object, with some justification, that when I do it, it isn’t really science fiction at all. I say with Diana Wynne Jones that rules are there to be broken.

[1] Quoted in Mike Ashley, Gateways to Forever. The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, (Liverpool University Press 2007), p.8.

[2] Quoted in Mike Ashley, Transformations. The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, (Liverpool University Press 2005), p.13.

[3] Ashley, Gateways, p.10.

[4] Ursula Le Guin, ‘Facing It’, Dancing at the Edge of the World. Thoughts on words, women and places, (London 1989), pp.101-103, p.101.

[5] Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Talk About Rules’, Reflections on the magic of writing, (Oxford 2012), pp.83-95, p.89.

[6] Arthur C Clarke, Profiles of the Future, (London 1962), quoted in Ashley, Transformations, p.259.

[7] Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, (London 1990), p.130.

[8] Ursula Le Guin, ‘Is Gender Necessary: Redux’, Dancing at the Edge of the World, pp.3-16, p.9

[9] The Ruts, whose answer was ‘it’s a free for all, like a bar room brawl.’

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