MIND MELD: Current Politics In SF/F
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
2012 is an election year in the United States and you can bet we’ll be inundated with all things political. Our question is –
Here’s what they said…
For me, it’s very, very simple: I love a good wish-fulfillment fantasy. One of my favorites is the idea of a female President in a futuristic setting. Battlestar Galactica’s President Laura Roslin ranks right up there at number one.
The concept of a female President defies expectations, invites readers/viewers to question their assumptions about women, and serves up an empowering character.
It’s disheartening to think that in my lifetime, the only place I can experience a female President is in fiction. But I’m grateful that authors and filmmakers have dared to dream and have pushed those characters into the spotlight.
We certainly need more female Presidents in science fiction (and women in other political positions). Fictional female Presidents explore and celebrate the idea that women can wield power and do so effectively. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
- Madame President (Project Moonbase)
- Chelsea Clinton (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century)
- Elaine Nakamura (Time Trax)
- Malia Obama (Life on Mars)
- Elizabeth Richardson (Special Report: Journey to Mars).
- Eleanor Richmond (Interface by Stephen Bury)
- Elise Rochelle (Coyote by Allen Steele)
- Elaine Sallinger (Better Than Life, a Red Dwarf novel)
- Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons; “Bart to the Future”)
- Veronica Townshend (Moonfall by Jack McDevitt)
- Mary Rose Tremane (Deadlands: Hell on Earth)
- Oprah Winfrey (Century City)
Short answer? “Honestly.”
Long answer? Well, disclaimer first: it’s really none of my business what an author chooses to put into (or leave out of) their work. I am not in the business of policing the expression of others… with the caveat that I retain that same right to expression for myself when it comes to responding to any work for whatever reason. In other words: it’s open mic night, but don’t dish it out if you can’t take it back, y’know?
That said, this question ties in to one of my main beefs with the intentional fallacy, namely that I remain very dubious of the notion that a text must not be read in the context of its author’s life, beliefs and philosophies. I’d add, however, that I can certainly see the value gained by that sort of reading, in using it as one critical lens among many… but the persistent dogma of the Dead Author strikes me as disingenuous in a way.
I think it takes considerable conscious effort to not let one’s politics bleed through into one’s writing at a deep (but quite possibly diffuse) level, and the more fiction I write myself, the more convinced of it I become (though I’m assuming there’s a fair bit of confirmation bias at play there, too). One’s politics affect the way one observes and ascribes meaning to the interaction of human beings with each other and the world(s) they exist in; at a subconscious level, that same perception of meaning must be occurring during the imagination component of the writing process. I’m sure it must be possible to write a sizeable work of fiction with a political theme that was sincerely opposed or orthogonal to one’s own beliefs, but I’m at a loss to know why one would choose to do such a thing as anything other than an experiment or a satire. (Confirmation bias rears its head again, perhaps.)
Personally, I like to see writers responding to the politics of their time, and especially in sf/f; the genres are ideally suited to the concretisation of political metaphors, and I like art that makes me think, that challenges me and the world in which it exists. (Indeed, I suspect that this is why I fell for sf/f in the first place; it’s certainly the thing I miss the most when reading more ‘mimetic’ fiction.)
Not everyone likes art that challenges them, of course, and I must confess that while I make a point of reading stuff from all across the political spectra, there are some themes or political underpinnings which are sufficiently repugnant or opposed to my own that I am unable to get any pleasure out of the reading. I suspect I’m not alone in that, either; everyone has their limits.
And everyone has their politics, too, even if they’re the politics of political apathy – to remain undecided is still a decision, y’know? Indeed, I suspect that those who claim not to like fiction with politics in it actually mean that they don’t enjoy fiction that portrays a politics other than those of the status quo within which they live.
To go further still (if one was going to be puckish about it), one could claim that the choice to keep one’s politics completely absent from one’s fiction is in itself a fairly radical political statement, in that – for the person making said statement, at least – art doesn’t have to (or maybe even flat-out shouldn’t) partake of politics. And while I don’t have any problem with anyone declaring or living out that dictum if they want to, I still believe that art holds up a mirror to society; I don’t mean that is art’s duty, I mean I think that’s what art does, by definition, without any need for political intent on the part of its creator(s). Much like the mythical apolitical reader, I think the writer of supposedly apolitical fiction can’t see politics for the same reason that a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.
And that is, I suppose, a statement of my own politics of art… or is it my aesthetics of politics?
[We're sorry, but a fault has caused this critic to crash. Error code #174a3dcc3: infinite self-referential metaphysics loop declared.]
I don’t think there’s any *should* about it, actually. I’m a big fan of the idea that multiple approaches aren’t only inevitable, but a very good thing. I think it’s great and necessary that there are authors who tackle politics directly, and ones who write with politics that inform their work more subtly, and authors who try to avoid politics altogether.
I’ve gone on record a few times as saying that I think politics are unavoidable, though. The political (and social and cultural…) assumptions of our time creep into our writing whether we want them to or not. Especially when we claim we’re writing about future worlds, in which we could imagine any wide variety of social norms, when we default—particularly unmarked or unintentionally–to the ones in our society, we’re helping to entrench our social norms, which is just as political as writing something that opposes them. When science fiction imagines all-white worlds, or futures where gender roles default to the American 1950s, that’s a political statement. It could be an intentional one, expressing anything from white supremacy to satire about the way that many white, American writers default to all-white worlds. Or it could be an unintentional one that subtly, through repetition, reinforces white as default and gender roles as seen in Leave it to Beaver.
As far as the conscious discussion of politics, I’m strongly opposed to the idea which I see tossed around periodically that this is a bad thing, that it necessarily requires didacticism or is the sign of inferior artistic work. Among other things, it’s manifestly not true—Voltaire’s Candide is both art and philosophical treatise. Beloved and Kindred not only intelligently and emotionally consider racial politics, but gain their power as literary works from that deep, empathic consideration.
Personally, as a writer, when I’m writing political work that has a naturalistic tone, I try to write the characters as sincerely as I can. (More parodic political works are different; for instance, Adam Troy-Castro isn’t going for realistic character work in his short story “Arvies.”) I fail in that sometimes, I’m sure, but I think that when it’s done successfully, political work really benefits from having characters who are ambiguous—characters who hold the same political positions as the author who are flawed; characters who hold opposite positions who have both depth and emotionally true reasons for their beliefs.
I think the best political work is sometimes found where the author pushes the boundaries of their certainty, when instead of trying to present an answer to a political question in their work, they’re trying to articulate questions. To return to Octavia Butler’s work again for a moment, I think her work often reflects this sort of deep ambivalence. In Kindred, there’s the tension between how a modern, American black woman feels about her white ancestor; he’s both a part of her—necessary for her to exist–and abhorrent to her. Or there’s her short story, “Bloodchild,” which is often described as being about slavery, but which she described as being about love. Can love exist in a context where freedom is limited? If it can’t, can it exist anywhere?
I find that when I write stories with sufficiently complex political characters (or at least what some people perceive to be sufficiently complex political characters) that one sign I’m doing it right is that the reader will bring their own political beliefs to the situation and, seeing the complexity in the story, come away with their own way of reading the situation. It’s heartening to me to know that I’ve written something that’s complex enough that it can be read in multiple ways. In this situation, it’s kind of like I’m saying a particular political thing, and they’re hearing my argument, but we essentially have different perspectives; even when the reader is inside my point of view as an author, they see the facts falling out to reinforce their world views.
I have some funny stories about that which I’ll go into another time.
Anyway, back to the original question, the phrasing makes me wonder whether the original intent was to ask about whether authors should include electoral politics, talking about specific politicians and so on. I don’t really have an opinion about that, although I find that sort of story generally doesn’t appeal to me very much compared to stories that are about political issues. Turtledove’s “Bedfellows, describing a sexual relationship between George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, made a splash when it first came out in F&SF. I didn’t find that it made me think about the world differently (which is often what I’m looking for in fiction), but the story certainly provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative, and I think it played the role Turtledove wanted it to.
Let’s start with how they do respond to the politics of their time. The easiest answer is to invoke John Clute’s concept of the “real year” of a novel — the idea that regardless of the time in which the story is explicitly set, its subtextual issues and fears (politics included) will be more reflective of those that were current when the novel was written. There’s certainly some truth to this — Neuromancer and The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, are both pretty clearly reflective of eighties-era political anxieties (which is not to say that those anxieties have necessarily stale-dated in the meantime). But it also implies a lack of authorial foresight, an inability to look beyond the automobile to predict the traffic jam. This can be a feature rather than a bug, at least in cases where the purpose of the story is to provide a metaphor for contemporary society or to lay out a cautionary if this goes on scenario. It can be a feature and a bug if the story is inhabited by sock puppets through whom the author simply funnels her own political beliefs (this is probably inevitable to some degree given that authors are all still human at the time of this writing) (except for the authors of Harlequin romances, of course) (and maybe the authors of Star Trek novelizations).
As to how we should reflect conventional politics, I have no clue. Conventional North American politics freak me right out. The only way I could even attempt to get a grasp on them would be to frame them anthropologically — looking past the superficial behaviors to the neuroeconomics, game theory, and parasite-host interactions that lie beneath. Because, really: the things that most front line politicos are saying on this continent, these days — what they evidently have to say, if they want to get elected — make no fucking sense whatsoever. As Harvard physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, politicians who are perfectly comfortable taking about God and Religion shy away from questions about Science like Rick Santorum fleeing a gay bar.
I mean, seriously. I’ve got a bit of a reputation for envisioning whacked-out dystopian futures rife with sociopaths and neuroengineered freaks, but none of those characters ever took their marching orders from an invisible homophobic sky fairy and then boasted about it as though it were some badge of honor instead of a symptom of pathology. None of them would be brazen or stupid enough to flagrantly excoriate positions they’d enthusiastically endorsed mere months before. None of them would deny the most basic principles of biology while bragging about their ignorance of science. Hell, not one of my twisted protagonists even started a war of convenience to line the pockets of their friends in the oil industry. And if any of my characters did do anything like that, they wouldn’t get away with it; they’d be widely called out and ridiculed, because I just can’t bring myself to populate my worlds with complete idiots. I guess that’s why they call it fiction.
Politics on this continent are fucking insane.
This is not to say that they’re incomprehensible. We know how people can believe six mutually contradictory things before breakfast. We’ve identified Confirmation Bias and Pareidolia, we’ve researched the neurology and natural history of religious belief. We know how people who are utterly sane when it comes to counting calories or running heavy machinery can become batshit crazy when it comes to abortion or gay marriage or spirits in the sky, and we understand how Bambi syndrome and risk-aversion algorithms inspire people to fall in behind the well-coiffed sociopathic douchebags who so often seem to call the shots. As R. Scott Bakker points out, “The brain is … far more interested in sorting claims according to social criteria rather than evaluating them on their independent merits.”
But that’s not politics. Politics is pure epiphenomenon, the scum on the surface of a stagnant swamp. As a standalone entity, divorced from its roots, it makes no sense at all. Science fiction — or at least, the kind of science fiction I can wrap my head around — has to make sense. The only way to make sense of politics is to dig down and study the biology underneath.
So maybe that’s your answer. Maybe science fiction shouldn’t take that scum on face value. Maybe we should just skim it away, and pay more attention to the nitrates and phosphates underneath.
All science fiction is political. Any serious writer should try to be aware of the politics of their fiction, in the same way they direct character, plot, and theme. In science fiction, I think the duty of the writer is elevated by the potential of the form to imagine alternatives to the status quo—be they utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between. American science fiction ended the twentieth century by obliterating the future it had previously imagined, and now needs to get to work helping reinvent all of our imminent presents.
Flash Gordon, the earnest American college athlete civilizing the universe with raygun and rocketship and a handy foreign scientist sidekick, was loaded with politics. His (and ours) was the putatively apolitical perspective from the City on a Hill, the kind of politics that considers itself the generic—forgetting that vanilla is a flavor. The science fiction of the past century was built on that paradigm, a fresh mythos of the past, present and future projection of American power through technology across time and space. At its best, twentieth century sf provided fantastic counterpoints to the hegemony of perfectly nice white guy pilots, but never really liberated itself from the semiotic vocabulary of the gadget magazines, trapped in the political context of an eternal 1947.
Just as all science fiction is political, all politics tell science fictions. The history of the world since the seventeenth century is all about people endeavoring to recreate the world in the image of their utopian imaginations, all the earthly heavens that the Reformation unleashed. All our progressivisms tell us to go To the Perdido Street Station, trying to hack human nature through the code of politics. And what passes for conservatism in contemporary discourse is just a retro-utopia, trying to construct Pleasantville from the equilibrium dream of neoclassical economics. Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama are both selling us extrapolated futures—isn’t it more fun to invent our own?
When the Berlin Wall fell, the last utopian counterpoint to the American meme died, and observations of the end of history did not seem fantastic. But now that the network culture incubated by the cyberpunks has taken over reality, it turns out the End of History was not its terminus at democratic capitalism a la 1999, but the end of “history”—the loosening of the screws that hold together the narrative structure of our societies, as all of the monolithic, top-down “reality-based” systems of human life are torn down and reconstructed in the image of our new communications networks. It doesn’t get much more political than that.
(For the seminal articulation of what network culture means for history, and what that means for writers, Bruce Sterling’s remarks on “Atemporality for the Creative Artist” are mandatory.)
The chaos of the current historical moment means huge quanta of liberated territory are there to be imagined and occupied. Granted, most of the territory is invented—the virtual space of the network. But the line between screen life and real life is no longer tenable, and by seizing the opportunity to create richer presents in the realm of the human imagination, writers can make every work a declaration of independence from the pasts and futures that would confine us. In science fiction, Guantanamo Bay is an experimental community where the residents hack biology, networks, laws, and all the other codes, striving to stumble forward into a better life. Wings Over the World are on patrol, waiting for the opportunity to repopulate the post-apocalyptic ruins and colonize the uninhabited planets.
The politics of sf will always be more Olaf Stapledon than Jon Stewart. But while alternate Romneys may not be the stuff of next year’s Hugos, don’t underestimate the power of sf as mode of commentary on immediate events—my favorite example being Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant Goat Variations Redux, genius play with the narratives of the 2008 Presidential elections. The recent novels of William Gibson, which on the surface seem devoid of science fiction as well as real politics, are to me his most radical and visionary work: a fantastic trilogy that demonstrates the way we can use the speculative imagination and the open territory of the network to liberate ourselves, at least a little bit, from the alienated conditions of contemporary life. The most valuable, and most political, science fiction is that which illuminates the way in which current political reality is a constructed fiction, chipping holes in the Logan’s Run skydome of our minds and letting us make our own maps of what’s on the other side.
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