MIND MELD: Celebrate Revolution and Independence in Genre Books
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
When I think of a great novel about a revolution I think immediately of Harry Harrison’s To the Stars trilogy, which I first read in an SF Book Club omnibus decades ago and which I’ve unhesitatingly recommended over the years to authors who want to write great action SF. Revolutions are a serious business, and they often don’t turn out as planned. We can see that today in looking at what’s happened in Egypt over the past year, as one example where the initial joy and excitement of overthrow gives way to the counterrevolution and the difficulties of switching from a revolutionary mindset to one where compromise might need to be made in taking actual power in society. But there is that joy. There are the people who have to plot a revolution and stay one step ahead of the established tyranny. There are the people who have to be the foot soldiers, perhaps risking all including their lives to fight for what they believe in. That’s what a certain kind of fiction is about, people striving against impossible odds to do what everyone says could never be done. And yes, when you do it, there is a moment of real joy and real elation and real happiness, however short that moment may be. Harrison’s To The Stars trilogy may be heavy on the romance of it all, it is a quick action sf read, but should we object in our fiction to getting to experience the romance of it all without having to worry about the reality, for a few passing hours at least?
By the time a revolution has graduated to parades, fireworks, and barbecues, it can look like an Unambiguously Good Thing. The once oppressed have taken control of their destinies. Justice was served. Everyone lives happily ever after.
If only. More often than not, revolution — even the Good Ones — comes with foreign entanglements, counterrevolutions, the settling of old scores, the kindling of new hatreds, and general turmoil.
The American revolutionaries of 1776 might have failed but for the intervention of monarchical France. (What if France had not interceded to spite Great Britain, its longtime rival? Sans those war debts, the French monarchy might have kept taxes lower and avoided revolution at home — and Louis XVI might have kept his head.) Colonists loyal to the Crown often fled — or were driven from — the new country. Next came the rematch: the War of 1812. And unfinished business among the former colonies evolved into what the losing side of the 1861-1865 conflict considered a second war of American independence. All in all, messy.
Or consider the recursive break-up of the Soviet Bloc. Or the chaos that is the Arab Spring …
My genre selections — from a long list of contenders — reflect the messiness of revolutions.
Let’s begin with Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. Lee’s army fights for Southern independence, and wins with assistance (scads of AK-47s, the eponymous weapons of the title) from a shadowy group of sympathizers. Post-independence, the new nation’s interests diverge from those of its time-traveling allies. The Confederacy again finds itself in a battle for independence, now against rescuers turned high-tech overlords.
Then there’s Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. To combat modern-day terrorism — which, to some mindsets, is part of a transnational revolutionary movement — Homeland Security rides roughshod over inconvenient American civil liberties. Counterrevolution? Wily youthful hackers use technology to organize a resistance and reclaim their rights. Counter-counterrevolution?
Or take Frank Herbert’s Dune. Its scope is broader than revolution, but the long-oppressed desert Fremen of the planet Arrakis (aka, Dune) are seeking independence. Once they gain their freedom, the Fremen burst into the galaxy with revolutionary and religious fervor. Like — the analogy upon which key plot elements derive — how the Arabian tribes unified under the banner of newborn Islam conquered North Africa, Spain, and up into France …
I, too, have written on revolutionary themes. In Fleet of Worlds (with Larry Niven), a lost world of humans, gratefully serving their alien benefactors, discover the ancient crime by which their colony came to be. They are, in fact, slaves of the Puppeteers. The colonists revolt: that’s human nature! But rebellion is a tricky undertaking when herd-dwelling herbivores defined your culture and the language they bestowed upon you lacks even the concept of disobedience …
In a genre rooted in independent thinking, themes of independence have a natural home.
I’m really happy to have been asked to weigh in on this specific topic; I’ve got a revolution novel coming out in November from Pyr. I’ve always wanted to explore the way that certain people become charismatic leaders, and I picked Eva Peron to pattern my main character after. I tried to create a woman as complex and driven to power as Eva. Then I let her loose to lead a fight for freedom aboard a generation ship. The book is The Creative Fire, and it will be out in November.
I’ve always believed that one of the most important jobs of science fiction is be subversive. So here are some of my favorite books about revolution….
First up, the Coyote series by Allen Steele. This is a lovely read all the way through. I started this series as Allen’s stories were being serialized in Asimov’s. While the most obvious act of revolution actually kicks the series off, the feel of the series is both a colonization novel and a long-running and intense look at leadership, politics, and revolution. Another favorite is Dune. I’m sure that will be mentioned by a number of people, but it’s the one single book I’ve read the most times, ever. Well almost – it competes with Stranger in a Strange Land. Speaking of Heinlein, I think The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deserves mention in this category. Other classics have a revolutionary feel, including Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think I’ll end with one that is actually pretty damned relevant to today’s bizarre war on women -Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. If there are modern women who have not read this book, they should do so immediately. Me too, if just to remind myself why I shouldn’t stop paying attention even now after we thought our most basic rights were secure.
I have no doubt that Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is going to appear no less than eight-kajillion times in this Mind Meld, so let’s take that as a given and move on.
My first vote for a great independence-based sci-fi story is the Coyote series by Allen Steele, which begins with the novel of the same name. In a near-future fascist version of United States, the crew of the first interstellar colony ship actually defect and steal the craft to restart a clean democracy on a new world. On it’s face, that’s enough of a gimmick to be intriguing, but Allen elevates the premise by conceding that the first colonists arrived on the slowest colony ship, and by the time their dream world is under construction, an ever accelerating stream of new, more advanced colonial invaders arrive to build their own version of the perfect civilization — paving over those that came before, if necessary. What begins as a hard sci-fi survivalist tale becomes, over the course five novels to date (not counting ancillary works like Spindrift and Galaxy Blues), a rousing mix of politics, family drama and literal worldbuilding. Allen meditates on the price of freedom in a manner that is very explicit and unforgiving, but illustrates that the price of tyranny is perhaps higher.
For television, my vote is either obvious or a total shock: Firefly, the gone-too-soon Joss Whedon sci-fi masterpiece which made the bold move of following the life and times of a freedom fighter who lost his war, but won’t give up the fight. Mal Reynolds is a protagonist looking for whatever scrap of independence he can find, and is willing to rob, lie, cheat and perhaps even kill so long as, at the end of the day, the course he chooses and the rules he lives by are his own. The same is true, on some level, for every member of Mal’s crew, be it freedom from torture (River), imprisonment (Simon), obligation (Inara), tradition (Kaylee), purposelessness (Book), boredom (Wash) or a square job (Jayne). A zen interpretation of the show’s lyrics suggests every character is looking for serenity, but in most cases none of them are capable of it. All they want is freedom, and by joining Mal’s crew, they join his fight and in the process carve out a little freedom of their own.
DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli is my vote for a prime example of independence-oriented sci-fi for grownups as told through the medium of comics. The graphic novel series follows photojournalist Matty Roth as he penetrates demilitarized Manhattan, a sort of anarchist neutral zone left lawless during a near-future second US civil war. The series uses Roth, who begins his arc painfully naive, as a classic tour guide through the DMZ, chronicling the lives of the inhabitants trying to carve out subsistence while unwillingly free of outside government, resources or aid — but far from free of outside interference or threat. As the key beachhead between the remaining United States and the upstart Free States of America, both armies are constantly scheming to covertly or even overtly retake the DMZ, and whether they arrive as liberators or invaders varies by day. Meanwhile, governments and warlords (and everything in between) have sprung in Manhattan during the DMZ period, and each are vying for freedom, territory and resources with tactics both brutal and idealistic, sometimes all at once. Wood’s writing explains just how poor a tool violent combat can be at achieving political ends, and the price of trying to build (or rebuild) a nation at the tip of a sword. Comics aren’t just for kids, as this grown-up alt-future action thriller deftly proves.
Patriot Witch by CC Finlay – First novel in a trilogy about the spellcasters that secretly fought on both sides of American Revolution.
1632 by Eric Flint – A West Virginia mining town from the year 2000 is somehow transposed into Germany in the middle of the 30 Years War, and decides that American democracy needs to spring up a century or so early.
The original Star Wars trilogy – Because, well, duh.
Hands down, my favorite novel dealing with the subject of revolution would have to be Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune. The novel, I feel, is a perceptive examination of the forces at work in revolution, with the “museum Fremen” seeking to overthrow “the Tyrant” worm-human-god Leto Atreides II and escape his millennia of enforced peace. I admire how deftly Herbert used the established Duneverse to set up his treatise on the powerful subconscious forces at work in cycles of history, and how the semi-immortal Leto II is presented to the reader as a baseline against which to measure and examine those cycles.
When I was a young teenager, this was my first exposure to the Burke/Santayana/Toynbee idea of cycles of history and the forces behind the rise, flourishing, and decline of civilizations, and it had a powerful impact on me. The idea that humanity as a species was a collective macro-organism, operating on a different scale from the individual parts, was both wondrous and horrifying. That Herbert made a single individual in his novel-the God Emperor-operate with deliberate, conscious intention on that higher, slower, cosmic scale to manipulate subconscious social impulses for the betterment of the species was powerful stuff. It was a reassuring metaphor that there might be hope for humanity yet, and made a lot more sense to me than listening to how politicians bicker about such petty short-term issues in such a way that only seems to throw more gasoline on the bonfire of society’s problems. And like any good science fiction it leaves open a compelling question for the reader to ponder: how can our human society get in touch with its own Long Now?
If you’re looking for tales of revolution, they don’t get much more epic than Lord Asriel waging war against God with an army of rebel angels, in the final installment of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS. Pullman’s controversial trilogy depicts religion as a stifling force. The novels are in part a retelling of Milton’s PARADISE LOST, but whereas Milton condemns humanity for the Fall, Pullman portrays it as our crowning achievement. But it is the lightness of touch in the writing that allows the trilogy to expand outwards and explore such huge themes, spanning parallel universes, Heaven, and the Land of the Dead, whilst always retaining the perspective of rebellious child heroine Lyra.
Next up has to be one of my all-time favourite novels, David Mitchell’s CLOUD ATLAS, a saga of interlinking stories which cross the ages. Each of the six stories articulates the struggle of one individual against the system; be it slavery, the incarceration of the elderly in ‘homes’, or an oppressive twenty-second century regime which recycles clones for labour. Part five, The Orison of Somni-451, is written as an interview with fabricant Somni, a slave worker in a hellish fast-food chain turned revolutionary. As with all of Mitchell’s work, it’s the language and structure that make the story so clever. Somni’s acquisition of knowledge echoes her reach for independence – as she tells her story, she becomes more eloquent, recognizing and using language as a weapon. The full power of her legacy is only fully revealed in the sixth section of the book, hundreds of years later, where her name has become a talisman in a dark, post-apocalyptic world.
Lastly, how can I not include THE DISPOSSESSED? Ursula Le Guin’s classic deconstruction of utopian society is all about independence and revolution. Physicist Shevek’s decision to leave his home to visit the authoritarian planet Urras is itself an act of rebellion – an ‘egotizing’ move for independence which goes against everything the Anarri believe. Once in Urras he finds himself caught up in political revolution, culminating in a fantastic chapter where Shevek participates in a protest which turns to violence. Le Guin depicts a bloody and pivotal moment for Urras’s society, but as with all of these books, it’s the intensely personal viewpoint that makes the political so accessible.
In SF&F TV shows and films, revolutions are won or lost in the great battles. Audiences crave the excitement of the on screen spectacle with a hint of the impossible—the “good guys” loosing—thrown in for escapist drama.
In the first episode of Firefly, it’s a joy to watch Captain Mal Reynolds and his ragtag group of Browncoat rebels fight for independence from the Alliance in the Battle of Serenity. It’s great fun, right up until the moment when Mal realizes that reinforcements won’t be arriving and that the war is lost. The look in his eyes is haunting.
I remember the uneasy feeling I had the first time I saw Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as the carbonite-entombed body of Han Solo was whisked away by the bounty hunter Boba Fett. The rebel alliance’s fight for freedom from the empire is left in limbo and in the end of the second film in this trilogy we are unsure if this is a war they can actually win.
And in Stargate SG-1 (my guilty pleasure) where the rebel Jaffa fight for their freedom from the tyranny of their false gods, the Goa’uld, in the battle for Dakara. The two-part episode The Reckoning (episodes 16 & 17 from season 8) guest-stars the late, great Isaac Hayes.
This is the entertainment side of the speculative field. We can relax and feel assured that the “good guys” will eventually win over their dreaded oppressors. But it is in the prose side of the speculative genres where the more thoughtful efforts in depicting revolutionary struggles lay.
To understand a revolutionary and/or independence movement, one needs to understand the visionaries behind them. These people are the forward-thinking, daring individuals who believe that they can fundamentally change the society in which they live. No one in the genre field in my opinion wrote about this better that Octavia E. Butler in Parable of the Talents. This book was not about a violent overthrow of government—although there is quite a bit of violence in the book—yet it is about a struggle for revolution. In Parable, Butler demonstrated how committed individuals could work towards change with the use of words and ideas. Olamina, the protagonist, developed relationships with people, planting her Earthseed philosophies in their minds. Wherever she went she formed a community until eventually she grew a revolutionary movement that traveled to the stars.
China Mieville’s recent novel Embassytown demonstrates the brilliant idea that language can be the means by which a people find a new kind of freedom. (The novel, though, had some technical issues that I think another draft could have cleared up such as its over usage of the word “alright.”) The Ariekei were unable to express an untruth in Language. Even a metaphor was a difficult concept for them. Surl Tesh-echer, the first to develop the understanding of how to lie, was trying to bring revolutionary change his people. It was an accepted truth that “a lie was a performance; a simile was rhetoric: their synthesis, though, the first step in their becoming quite another trope, was sedition.” The ability to speak an untruth in Language, which the Ariekei hoped to learn from the humans in Embassytown, made them into something more, something different. The essence of revolution is change.
Finally, another favorite example of a revolutionary freedom struggle is in Ray Bradbury’s short story “Way in the Middle of the Air” from The Martian Chronicles. First published in 1946, it tells the future tale of “June 2003” when all the blacks from the south pack up and leave. It is a revolutionary movement done with their feet.
“Did you hear about it?”
“The n—, n—!”
“What about ‘em?”
“Them leaving, pulling out, going away; did you hear?”
“What you mean, pulling out? How can they do that?”
“They can, they will, they are.”
What a gloriously revolutionary idea! An oppressed people simply leave and be done with their oppressors, taking their labor, their art, their music—all of their culture—with them. And Bradbury tells it like it would be (and like it was): their oppressors don’t want them to go. In reality, at the time of the first publishing of Chronicles—unknown to many, even the people involved—the movement of blacks out of the South was already well underway and is now historically known as The Great Migration.
Revolution has been on my mind a lot, lately. It’s perhaps unavoidable, not only watching the events in Syria and Egypt, but also the rise of popular protest and discontent with capitalist structures we are seeing throughout much of Europe. The discourse of wealth that I hear daily from some politicians, business-people and interest groups reminds me increasingly of the last years of the Ancien Régime in France – and the ever-increasing barriers placed in the way of the powerless in the face of this discourse do sometimes make me wonder if the only way out of this is through revolution.
I hope I live long enough to find out. I’m a historian by training, and a socialist (in the European sense) by upbringing and conviction. In my own writing, revolution is increasingly becoming a theme. It is, literally, everywhere around me as I write this: the shelf above my desk is filled with books on that subject due to my current research interests.
When we think of revolution, we most often think in terms of violent upheavals and political coups – the revolution as envisaged by Heinlein in The Moon is A Harsh Mistress. And yet, revolution at root is more than that. It speaks to change, to reinvention, to remoulding and rebuilding on many, many levels. Independence movements can take the form of violent struggle or passive, organised resistance, of mass action against an empire or slow but determined personal progress against an oppressor, or all sorts of things in between. One of the appeals for me as a child of science fiction and fantasy was the ways in which it mapped and examined change from so many different angles. Revolution is all around us everyday. If you listen, you can hear it moving at all its many speeds. And it creeps in everywhere in our genre, from overt discussions, like TMiaHM, to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which I first read when I was six and which is, if you think about it, all about the gaining of independence from tyranny. Revolution can be about a change of meaning/understanding, as in The Dispossessed, as well as about armed rebellion.
So: what are my favourites? It’s very hard to chose, amongst the wealth of good books that come to mind. A book that was revolutionary for me as a young reader, and which is driven, I think, by revolutionary intent, is The Masters of Solitude, by Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin. This post-apocalypse tale looks, at first glance, much like the other similar books of which there was a small boom in the late seventies. Yet if you dip into it, you soon find something very much deeper, more subversive and challenging. In a destroyed and deadly world, a group of young people break the conventions that inhibit travel, contact with others and thinking outside their culture, and, in so doing, not only transform their own lives, but bring real and lasting change to their homes and to those they meet. The situations they encounter and provoke are both destructive and constructive, loud and quiet, and in the end the revolution has begun on all levels, including in ways the protagonist constructs his own identity. It’s a book I return to regularly and recommend whenever I get the chance. Another book that I met at around the same time was Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, which I sometimes think is the forgotten herald of the New Weird. Kingsbury constructs a human culture that challenges our perceptions of the nature of consumption, of rights, of humanity – then takes us on a journey from acceptance through resistance into quiet sustained change. It’s not an easy read: this is one planet I do not dream of visiting, and it does not end with a comfortable solution. But as an examination of the necessities of survival and what those can do to our understanding of independence and altruism, it’s hard to beat. I had the privilege, recently, of meeting both Mr Kingsbury and Mr Godwin, and was able to thank them for these two books. I remain hopeful of one day being able to thank Mr Kaye.
Both those books are science fiction. But fantasy, where I write, is also full of revolutions. It has been a central concern of Kate Elliott from her earliest days (with The Labyrinth Gate, which is all about the impact of an industrial revolution and the forms of exploitation that it can bring). Her Highroads trilogy tracks the impact of violent upheaval on the civilian population in a richly detailed world, and the political changes it brings. The fight for freedoms and change, and the movement towards revolution is often couched in the language of popular protest and working class advancement, yet is rapidly overtaken, derailed and re-organised by the interests and influences of what Marx called the ‘intelligentsia’ – the educated classes – who identify themselves with the cause of the underclasses yet frequently fail to recognise and check their own privileges and class interests, and this is a major theme throughout Highroads. Mai, one of her heroines, is very much an agent of positive, people-centered change, and yet her assumptions about her own position, and in particular her continued engagement with slavery continually compromise and challenge her altruistic intentions. In the end, her inability to recognise her own privileges undermine everything she does. Elliott’s most recent works, Cold Magic and Cold Fire, confront revolution and the struggle for independence even more directly. In a society dominated by an elite possessed of magic, the underclasses – those not from the dominant culture or races, those engaged with technology, those seeking other forms of political action – are institutionally constrained, punished, elided and ignored. The books are about the struggle to resist and reshape this by many different means, from riot to magic, from science to sedition.
This particular edition of Mind Meld is, of course, going out on July 4th, which marks a famous revolution. As a European, though, the revolution that springs most readily to my mind is that of France, and the anniversary of Bastille Day, July 14th. So, in honour of that – and also of the American Revolution, which the French Revolutionaries supported and aided – my last choice is Berusaiyu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles, also known in English as Lady Oscar), Ikeda Riyoko’s celebrated alternate history manga about the French Revolution. Her heroine, Oscar François de Jarjayes, is the youngest daughter of the aristocratic General de Jarjayes, who longs for a son. Raised as a boy, Oscar is appointed captain of the guards of the young Marie Antoinette, and lives alongside her through the last years of royal absolutism and into the Revolution. Written for a teenage female audience, it is much more than a romance. Ikeda takes her readers deep into the meaning of aristocratic privilege and its destructive effect on the lives of the poor, as well as exploring gender and the dangers of favouritism and elitism. Oscar’s early idealism and hopes for gentle change are transformed through experience into revolutionary fervour and, ultimately, sacrifice. The series is a classic in Japan, been turned into anime, films, stage plays, and musicals. It has yet to translated into English, but is available in French and Italian (and has been very successful in both). It’s a wonderful read, and beautifully drawn.
I think my favorite science fictional revolution is Marge Piercy’s WOMAN AT THE EDGE OF TIME which is actually extremely vague about how the revolution happens. The enemy that the revolution is fighting is a bit silly, but I was really inspired as a newbie to radical political thought by the way that Piercy imagined her post-revolution future.
I also think N. K. Jemisin’s HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS does really interesting things with the concept of revolution. The first novel documents the overthrow of colonialism and the others follow the establishment of a new norm. The consequences of overthrowing colonial power obviously have direct implications for the real world and I think Jemisin is extremely savvy in exploring the dynamics in her fiction.
It also interests me that HUNGER GAMES is based around a revolution. I have leftist friends who see it as radicalizing. I wonder how the message comes across to the broader audience?
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