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Is science fiction becoming more politically polarised?

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Last week, this post, Is Science Fiction Getting More Conservative?, appeared on pajamasmedia.com. The writer contacted four right-wing genre authors, and asked their opinion. The article has, at the time of writing, more than 350 comments. Almost none are dissenting opinions.

I’m not going to debate the rightness or wrongness of the article. (They’re wrong, of course.) It just strikes me as interesting how politicised commentary about the genre has become in recent years. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was discovering science fiction, an author’s politics didn’t seem especially important to me. Perhaps it was just my age. I devoured Heinlein’s novels and, while I was never convinced by his bizarre politics, it didn’t put me off his books. Not that I understood quite why they were considered so good, however. The same was true for other works – all those demonisations of the Other, all that libertarian new frontier hogwash – none of it seemed to affect my enjoyment of the sf books I read. Back in the 1960s, I believe, Donald Wollheim polled sf readers and discovered that their preferred form of government was a “benevolent dictatorship” – which tells you more about the immaturity of the genre’s readers than it does their politics.

Later, after I’d discovered fandom and started attending conventions, I remember conversations about authors’ politics – laughing at rumours that David Drake wore a belt with a swastika buckle, for example. But it didn’t seem to have any bearing on the fiction I read (not that I read Drake anyway). Even when Iain M Banks started writing his – famously left-wing – Culture novels, it scarcely seemed relevant. The Culture would be a nice place to live in, yes. So too would John Varley’s Eight Worlds – the fact that Earth is forbidden, notwithstanding – and Varley is often quoted as the successor to Heinlein.

But now, the debate over politics within sf texts, and without, seems to taking up more and more bandwidth in the genre commentary space. Perhaps it’s simply because what were once private conversations have become public – it’s an artefact of the Internet. Or maybe the US’s drift further to the right over the past twenty years has made previously extremist views more mainstream. Certainly the Internet has meant that US voices are now among the loudest in genre conversations in other countries, conversations that were once protected by the Atlantic Ocean.

What makes this worse – to me – is that the right seems to be dominating the conversation. Declare that sf is becoming too “conservative” (ie, right-wing, rather than its old meaning of “reactionary”), and right-wing fans will jump in to agree. Say it’s becoming too left-wing, and they’ll jump in to disagree. It’s almost a war – except only the right are fielding troops. They’ll tell you the left is just as guilty of spreading propaganda and lies, but… where? I can’t see it. I look at the genre landscape, and the loudest voices are often those of the right. Don’t forget it’s only the right that has its own version of Wikipedia (and anyone who claims Wikipedia itself is left-wing is an idiot).

I don’t have an issue with the personal politics of authors. They are, after all, personal. If those politics flavour their output, and I disagree politically, then I probably won’t read them. It doesn’t mean I categorically won’t, however. There are some tropes in sf which seem a natural fit for right-wing sentiments – autocratic galactic empires, libertarian space pioneers, etc. – although I suspect that “fit” is more a matter of custom than the result of any real thought or speculation.

There are few consciously left-wing sf texts, and most of those are dystopian. Even Banks’ Culture is a bit of a cheat as it’s a post-scarcity civilisation. There are also few near-future novels which show a happily socialist Earth (Ken MacLeod’s springs to mind as excellent examples). It often feels like Reaganomics has cast a shadow over the next fifty years as far as science fiction is concerned. Perhaps this disparity is why conversations about science fiction often seem to gravitate rightwards – there isn’t enough critical mass on the left to counter it.

Surely it’s time to redress the balance? We live in a science-fictional world, after all, and it’s certainly not a monocultural one-party state. I would, of course, prefer to see more sf which met my own political preferences. And I’d like to see such sf discussed intelligently. By both sides. I don’t think it’s doing the genre any good to have two antagonistic camps – one of which is armed; guess which – and one is not.

But then I also believe utopias are possible. But maybe that’s more a result of my politics than my taste in literature…

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27 thoughts on “Is science fiction becoming more politically polarised?

  1. It’s interesting because in my somewhat limited and fragmentary experience, the SF I’ve read seems to be predominately left wing in it’s sentiments.

    I guess one’s reading experiences may depend on what you choose to read and perhaps it depends on what culture most of the SF you read is from (i.e. would you say that British SF is predominately right wing)?

    As far as a writer’s political ideology coming out in their work, I don’t mind it and even quite enjoy it when it is handled inteligently. What I mean is, no matter how much you belive in something, be willing to explore it’s potential flaws and downsides as well. Try to avoid conclusive answers so that you don’t try to make up the reader’s minds for them. Your job as a writer is to help readers explore the issues and the implications of possible solutions but not to decide which solution is best.

    Finally, I think that one’s personal inclinations can affect how you view the literature you are reading. What I mean is this: we don’t tend to notice when an author makes the same political assumptions or draws the same conclusions as you would. But when their assumptions and conclusions differ from your own, it stands out far more starkly. The implication of this is that it will usually seem like there is less literature supporing your political views than there actually is.

    • Britsh sf, I’d say, makes less of a meal of its politics. Hamilton and Asher are probably the most right-wing of UK sf writers, and it’s more Daily Express type right politics than foaming at the mouth Tea Party type.

      • Well, naturally there are going to be broad cultural differences leading to a different spectrum of political dichotomy. The “Tea Party” agenda is quite specific to America (being about returning to, as they see it, the true spirit of constitution and the founding fathers). There isn’t really a libertarian aspect to the political equation here in the UK. Being right wing in the UK is more about taking a hard line on immigration, foreign affairs and crime.

        But when it comes to right wing economics, I think SF is far more left wing dominated. I mean how many visions of the future with a favourable view of capitalism do you encounter? Sure, there are a few, but I really feel they are in a distinct minority.

    • Most science fiction is liberal. Complaints about too much conservative science fiction really means that any conservative science fiction is allowed to exist at all.

      Science fiction today is about the ecology, a failed America, and evil corporations

  2. You may be right about the neocon/rightist over-representation in SF today, but I need some examples. Of the top of my head I can think of the likes of John Ringo and David Weber, but I`m sure there are plenty more. One area of SF where the influence of rightwing/pro-libertarian creeds is most prevalent is in video gaming. One notable example in the last coupla years was Crysis, an FPS set on an island off the coast of N Korea where an alien ship had landed, drawing in both the NKs and the US. Other recent examples have been the Medal of Honour game set in contemporary middle east, and a game about to be published called Homefront which, ludicrously, is set in a near future where mainland USA has been invaded by…North Korea!

    So sad.

    • Examples? The entire output of Baen. The entire sub-genre of mil-sf. Heinlein, Pournelle, Asher, Hamilton, Moon… A lot of the populist stuff.

      • I agree about this selection. I bought a few Baen books when the firm started up, was quite shocked by what I was reading, and threw them away. Shocked is the right word, since “Systemic Shock” by someone named Dean Ing, was the one that turned me off Bean for good. As for Hamilton, my Dutch friend described his stuff as “capitalists in space.” I’ve no idea how accurate that is, but I won’t touch his books.

      • Which Hamilton are you referring to?

      • Peter F Hamilton, not Edmond.

      • That’s weird. I read all 3000 pages of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy and I didn’t find it to be militaristic at all.

      • The “entire output of Baen” includes Eric Flint, Lois McMaster Bujold. and Ryk Spoor, none of whom are conservative that I know of. Baen’s overall output is more conservative than other publishers, largely because they put so much focus on MilSF. When I look at Tor, Roc, Pyr, Ace or Del Rey, I don’t see any dominance of right-wing authors — to the contrary, I see lots of authors ranging from mainstream Democrats to ultra-left-wingers, with the Goodkinds and Cards as the exceptions.

      • Perhaps I was being unfair to Baen – but given their recent covers for some Poul Anderson reprints, they probably deserve it…

        Everyone’s focusing on the authors’s perosnal politics and not commentary about sf. My original point, which seems to have got sidetracked, is that it often seems to me that discussions of sf have become more politicised, and in such cases the right have the loudest voices.

  3. Pingback: How much is political ideology dominating SFF? - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  4. Well, I’m a convinced Socialist who started reading SF with one eye on politics around 1966, during activities against the Vietnam War. Now, J. Pournelle is #1 on my list of dislikes. If memory serves, he wrote a book about one General Falkenberg around 1975, when I was living in Amsterdam. At one point Pournelle has Falkenberg shoot up a bunch on peaceful protestors in a stadium. I believe Pournelle approved of this. Now, right before that a similar, nonfiction event occured in Pinochet’s Chile. It was infamous for the subsequent torturing as well as the killings. I believe that this was Pournelle’s model and never read one more word by him. I do describe his creation as a mix of Pinochet and Belisarius (who quelled the apparently political Nike fighting in the Hippodrome of Justinian’s Constantinople.

  5. Oy.

    Ian, the “right” over here has learned a very simple formula: whining like a baby about boogey men in the closet gets their parents’ attention.

    One whiner triggers other whiners, then the whole maternity ward is up in arms and the attendants run around, unable to focus on doing their job, at which point the whining turns to “see, told you they were ineffectual and can’t get the job done!” – which triggers off another round of whining.

    The problem is not just tantrums like PJMedia, it’s the fractionalization of everything. It’s no longer possible to argue/discuss the merits of one dish soap over another – first we have to get through the – which scent, which color, anti-bacterial or no, which delivery medium, liquid/soft/solid first.

    First came the invasion of the sub-genres, now things are gonna get diced with a 40 micron filter. (Your conservative SF isn’t whatever enough).

    It used to be a big tent. Shrunk to a big umbrella. Pretty soon everyone will be holding an individual piece of cardboard over their heads.

    • Given some of bizarre ideas held by the far right in the US… Obama not US-born… National health = death panels… Sarah Palin qualified to be president… it’s no real surprise that extremist views get the most air-time – they make good copy.

      But what gets me is that the right often seems far more condeming of anything not right than the left does of anything not left. Sf is a big playground, as big as our imaginations can make it, so I see no need for bullying tactics.

      But I’d still like to see a few more consciously left-wing sf texts – not just what they used to call “humanist sf”…

  6. It seems odd that right wingers would agree that sf is too right wing – you’d imagine that they’d feel it wasn’t ring wing enough. You’d imagine they’d hate that filthy commie Mieville and Robinson, rather than feeling it wasn’t left wing enough. It seems counterintuitive.

    (Supposibly the neocons find Avatar filthy lefty, whereas I felt it reactionary neocolonialism)

    • What’s the name of that nutjob neocon who has been trying to “prove” that the Nazis were left-wing (because, of course, the party title included the word “socialist”), and that socialism is the same as fascism. Right-wing US commentators are so busy trying to divorce themselves from historical right-wing villains like Mussolini and Hitler, they’ll label anything as left-wing if it makes them look less like the nutters they are.

      • Ian, the man’s name is Jonah Goldberg.

      • Jonah Goldberg and the book’s title is Liberal Fascism. And he has a point: Mussolini started out as a socialist journalist before coming up with his ‘third way’ and a large number of Italian anarcho-syndicalists (particularly the leaders) went over to the Fascist party during the 1920s. Politics is a lot more fluid than people like to believe (plus – most people are deeply ignorant of political matters and don’t really have any position which makes it easy to switch sides). The neo-cons are a case in point – many of the leading figures of this movement began as followers of Leon Trotsky whose virulent opposition to Stalinist Russia led them further right. Others were originally cold war liberals within the Democratic Party.

        I’d like to add that the American right has almost no historical connection to either the European traditional right (monarchists, aristocratic supporters of the Catholic church predominantly) or the new fascist right of post-Great War Europe. The American right has a different tradition derived from 18th century liberalism as expressed in the U.S. Constitution and a variety of other documents. A slight alignment back to traditional European conservatism began in the 1950s with the publication of the Russell Kirk book The Conservative Mind which exposed right wing intellectuals clustered around William Buckley’s National Review magazine to a number of European monarchist and aristocratic thinkers such as Maistre, previously of little interest to Americans. But this has been a minor influence.

        As for SF becoming more rightist in recent years – I haven’t noticed but then I’ve not read around in the genre enough of late. I think the idea is a crock personally – North American SF was just as right in the 1950s and 60s if not more so given the communist menace (even supposed liberals like Kennedy were Cold War hawks against the Soviets. It was LBJ with his Great Society who turned the Vietnam intervention into a real shooting war).

        Read Moorcock’s Starship Stormtroopers (as I’m sure you’ve already done at some point); the New Wave centred on his editorship at New Worlds during the mid-60s was very left wing and found itself railing against the right (e.g. the Locus(?) advert against the Vietnam war which precipitated a counter-advert for the war sponsored by – who else? – Robert Heinlein).

        To be honest, since the 60s, the SF field has been far clubbier and less contentious. Even the 80s of Thatcher and Reagan had very little manifestation in the work of North American writers – it didn’t bring about any great division in their ranks.

      • It’s not that current sf is predominantly right-wing, but that commentary about sf appears to be dominated by the right. I know of plenty of people who refuse to visit the Asimov’s forum for that very reason.

        And yes, I also think the change is more recent – post-Bush’s first term. But it also might be the nature of the medium, which has changed a lot during that period.

      • Yet a black man (who chums around with 60s radical bombers like Bill Ayers) became President of the United States just over two years ago. Far from being the vanguard of humanity, the North American SF community seems to lag behind actual events. The Internet also now tends to function as a platform for the politically discontented. Right wingers, currently without influence, make much more noise online to compensate. Once their guy gets back into the Oval Office we’ll see a diminished contingent. The American Left which has largely fallen silent in the wake of Obama’s victory (no more anti war protests or nothin’) will no doubt revive itself at that point.

        The lefties at Asimov sound like a rather timid bunch. What happened to the street fighting men?

  7. First of all, I’d say the right-wing drift doesn’t belong to the last two decades but began in the ’70s, with neoliberal globalization, the resurgence of politically active religious fundamentalism, the “Second Cold War” and Reaganism-Thatcherism, and that it was global. (I covered this in a piece for IROSF a couple of years ago, which has since run in the SFWA blog-

    http://www.sfwa.org/2010/08/guest-post-science-fiction-and-the-post-cold-war/

    .)

    Still, the mainstream in the U.S. is further to the right than the rest of the Western world on most issues, and it seems that the War on Terror, the Great Recession and the backlash from the right against the 2008 election have pushed the mainstream as a whole, and the right in particular, even further in that direction. (Speaking of Baen, take the kind of thing Tom Kratman writes; the descriptions of his novels echo nothing so much as the kind of stuff M.P. Shiel wrote, and his stuff was appearing well before the recent election.)

    Ultimately, though, my impression’s that the political divisions correspond to the fragmentation of the field, which leaves pretty much everyone looking at one or a few kinds of science fiction rather than taking in the whole field. British SF tends to be further to the left than American stuff. (Certainly I have a hard time thinking of a British counterpart to Heinlein or Pournelle, then or now, while I have a hard time picturing an American equivalent to, for instance, Ken MacLeod.)

    In the U.S., the up-market SF tends to be mildly leftish (definitely not “street-fighting men” as you say Mr. Pullar), the pop stuff further to the right, and often expressing radical right-wing views (libertarian conservatism especially where the hard SF is concerned, a correlation Gregory Benford once noted). And of course, individual magazines have their distinctive cultures. (Analog, for instance, tends to run pieces critical of the religious right, especially its positions on climate change and evolution, but is rather more comfortable with conservatism on economic issues.)

    To sum up, it’s not a matter of one, big club, but many little clubs, each with their own political culture, and sometimes their own conventions. (Take LibertyCon for instance.) Still, some clubs are bigger and more influential than others, or influential in different ways.

  8. 3 thoughts:
    Isn’t this perceived rightward shift in SF just publishers printing what will sell? In other words, these are business decisions about maximizing profit & therefore are more about society as a whole than SF in particular
    Is SF really becoming more polarized or are readers & critics more likely to categorize fiction by political viewpoint than they were in the past?
    I rarely see realistic portrayals of either economics or politics by either left-leaning or right-leaning SF authors. To put it bluntly, writers may have strong opinions about both but rarely demonstrate any insight about either.

    • I think there’s a societal circle involved. The US is rather vocally right-wing right now, some or all publishers successfully publish right-wing stuff, readers read such tripe (often written by people who claim to know the right-wing truth), the readers are influenced rightward by this clout, the publishers perceive this, and publish more of the same. A simple answer to one of your points. Indeed, an agreement with it. I’m leaving Neandarthals like Bean out of this right now since the circle need not always begin with a publisher whose *goal* is the promotion of a right-wing agenda. The profit motive is all one needs.

  9. Two books you might (or might not) enjoy that explore leftist politics in fiction:

    Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction

    http://www.akpress.org/2009/items/mythmakersandlawbreakers

    is a book I edited which includes interviews with Michael Moorcock, Ursula K Le Guin, and Alan Moore about how their left-libertarian politics influence their writing.

    And secondly, China Mieville edited a book called Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction

  10. Pingback: Geek Media Round-Up: Febraury 7, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind

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