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Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Politics of SF...

Thanks to the SF Signal Blog, over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to read a couple of articles about the politics of science fiction. It’s interesting to compare the thoughts of Eric S. Raymond and David Brin about the political subtext of Science Fiction in general, as both have clear thoughts about what the natural political ideology of science fiction is. From Raymond’s point of view, when you sequence pure SF DNA, you have radical libertarian individualism. Brin looks at the genre and finds a heart of progressive anti-authoritarianism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both authors find, at the heart of the genre, something close to their own ideals.

Now, I happen to agree with many of both authors' points about the various political threads winding through individual works of science fiction, however what I disagree with is the conclusion that a given strain of political thought is somehow more sfnal than another— because every argument of this type that is ever made stacks the deck in its own favor. Raymond casts his history of SF as a dialectic between Campellian Hard SF and a series of failed movements in reaction to it. Brin sets off Star Trek against Star Wars to argue that the authoritarian and elitist themes in Star Wars is not “true” SF.

Both authors present compelling arguments insofar that they are based on premises that justify their own arguments. Or, or bluntly, they pick a region of the genre and draw a boundary around it and define this as the true heart of science fiction. They then derive the political subtext of the selected area of the genre and declare that as the real political subtext of the genre as a whole.

The thing is, science fiction is not that narrow a field. It has carried themes of militarism and pacifism, optimism and pessimism, individualism and collectivism, capitalism and socialism, Marxism, libertarianism, feminism, racism, egalitarianism and elitism throughout its entire existence. Norman Spinrad wrote The Iron Dream in large part to skewer the authoritarian proto-fascist themes of a particular tradition of space opera, a tradition that saw its apotheosis in Star Wars, a tradition that’s a deep part of the genre despite how distasteful Mr. Brin might find it. And while Raymond finds the political heart of SF to be libertarian— and there’s a mighty big swath of libertarian SF out there— the fact is there’s a definite plurality, if not a majority, of science fiction that is not part of the Campellian tradition, or written in reaction to it. Authors like Phillip K. Dick, Mack Reynolds or Harlan Ellison are not outsiders, or somehow divorced form the “core tradition” of science fiction. They are part and parcel of the genre and its history, and that history can not be placed in a neat little political box.