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Science fiction and the right. December 30, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Many years ago it so happened that the third level educational institution I was in was linked vaguely to TCD. Which meant that we were, should we make the twenty minute walk (or thereabouts) to TCD, be able to join some of their societies. This held zero interest in me bar one. That being the Science Fiction society (actually just thinking of it, were I not in the WP at the time I could have wound up in CPI (M-L), or not, given that there were already two members of that org where I was a student. Wouldn’t that have made this site a bit different. Or perhaps not.).

So of a weekday myself and a good friend who had the same interest in SF would make a journey to the rooms said society had in an old Georgian building on Westland Row. The reason for this was that the society had a small but good library of books which we’d borrow.

I remember on one occasion talking to some of the other members – who seemed to regard us as interlopers and only tolerated us I suspect because we were willing to pay the small membership fee – and the issue of politics came up. I wouldn’t say I was starry eyed about the left. It might have been the new members educationals in Gardiner Place, or perhaps paper sales around the pubs in Kilbarrack and Raheny on a Sunday morning likewise, or perhaps annual collections, or just canvassing the large housing estates of the north side. But somehow uncritical youthful idealism tended to flee the building given all that and the sense of just how much hard work it was. Which I think was a good thing in retrospect. And anyhow, I wasn’t much given to proselytising. That said in the course of a conversation where I was making a case, almost an unthinking case, that science fiction was left-wing it transpired that the society members I was talking to were pretty right wing and baffled by my views.

And you know, in retrospect I think perhaps they had a point. It wasn’t that SF wasn’t at least in part progressive, there were many many writers who were leftist or anarchist or liberals of one stripe or another. Arthur C. Clarke was definitely in the latter camp, Asimov likewise. A tranche of New Wave authors were perhaps more in the anarchist camp, but it was broadly speaking left anarchism. By the 1980s feminist SF was a strong field and again progressive currents in that tended in a left-wing direction – Le Guin, James Tiptree Jnr, etc (one of my favourites from one such writer was a story, whose name I forget where there were no gendered pronouns for characters. It was remarkably effective). The counter culture too had left its mark though as we know at this remove that could tilt left or right.

But then again there was also a weight of authors who, at its most kind, could be termed centre-right. Kenneth Roberts, Edmund Cooper, John Christopher, perhaps even Richard Cowper whose work dipped into the spiritual. And many more. I pick those names because they weren’t hacks. All could when necessary write good prose. Cooper was a man whose writings, while entertaining, had gathered the label of misogyny about them. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate but he sure couldn’t write women characters and the sexual politics were primitive. Roberts was more nuanced but similarly had issues with female characters and there was that sense of reactionary social structures. John Christopher had better female characterisation but had an almost overtly reactionary thread to some of his work (the Death of Grass in particular). And so on. Tellingly both Christopher and Roberts had started out as “school of John Wyndham” writing about often unlikely catastrophes but where Wyndham’s work earned the prefix of ‘cosy’ in front of catastrophe both Christopher and Roberts had a much darker vision, one that, ironically accorded with the New Wave and its upending of science fictional tropes and conventions.

Whether that further inflected their later work is an interesting question. Or was it that this was a functional of generational influences. They’d started writing in the 50s and never quite shrugged off the mores that informed that decade. For them what happened next must have been deeply and profoundly challenging. Still, if you write SF you have to roll with the punches.

But, and I have to admit to an affection for them all in different ways – Christopher and his Tripods novels and other juvenile oriented works. Pavane by Roberts is a fantastic novel. His Kiteworld perhaps less so but even today I remember the emotional response I had to it on first reading it. The Cloud Walker by Cooper is pulpy but fun. Transit – another novel by him – is problematic but interesting. His efforts to engage with race and gender equally problematic but in an odd way fascinating.

But there’s another point that is worth making – there’s been no end of controversy in recent years about who writes SF and what is written. And frankly there’s been incredibly ignorant comments made about what SF is and isn’t. So, for example, some rather self-serving conservative and worse reactionary analyses have sought over the last few years to argue that science fiction that focuses on the political, on race, class, gender and sexuality is not part of the genre. There’s an extension of that argument that seeks to see only very narrow forms of SF as legitimate – space opera being an example. The most absurd iteration of this is found in the recent complaints about the new Star Trek: Discovery being a problem for having lead female and non-white characters which betrays a breath-taking lack of knowledge of Star Trek.

The overall argument is so incorrect as to be risible. SF has engaged from relatively early on with all those and more. But what interests me is that the authors I mention above were doing so from a socially conservative perspective and doing so in the 1960s on. These authors weren’t writing conventional SF. They eschewed space opera and in their focus on the personal, on gender relations, on interactions, much more clearly are positioned, as noted above, in New Wave SF. One may not like their approaches or conclusions, but at the least they didn’t pretend that those weren’t areas worthy of engagement with. And if their engagement was at times clunky or inept, well, they are in and of themselves evidence of social change.

But further, they and their work stand as testament – along with feminist, socialist, racially aware and other works addressed in SF – to the broadness of the genre and, arguably, to its strength, that there’s room for everything bar outright reaction. And that attempting to define SF in narrow and reactionary ways is pointless and counterproductive. It’s a big genre, it deserves better than that.

Comments»

1. An Sionnach Fionn - December 30, 2017

I think some of the perceived conservatism in mainstream SF is a cultural hangover from the post-WWI and -WWII generation of writers who formed the genre “establishment” in the 1950s-70s. Younger fans read their works, took this as the template, and then reproduced similar stuff in their own works when they came of creative age. They in turn fed into the generation after them, who grew up in the 1990s or whatever, repeating the process, only slightly diluting or innovating each time.

That at least would explain the ridiculous Sad Puppies’ types of a few years ago and all that longing for old fashioned flash-bang SF that dominates the US market.

I remember when the Culture books of Iain M Banks – sorely missed! – started being released in the US and fans hated his works over there, identifying them as “too European” or downright “socialist”. It took a good while for him to gain a foothold outside the pages of Locus Magazine. And even then, it was more the “cool” ships and drones which muted the criticism of the drugs, gender-fluidity and anarcho-communism.

Personally, I have always seen Science-fiction as left-wing. Fantasy fiction on the other hand…

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WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2017

Yeah, very true, there’s a canon – Heinlein in particular, and of course a lot of them were famously right wing anyhow. It’s interesting, isn’t it, I like Reynolds and Baxter and yet their instincts while leftish are a bit muted compared to Banks or Ken Macleod. And then of course there’s Hamilton who is right wing (I like some of his books a lot and some are just a bit meh) and the the other UK guy (Line of Polity) who is close to reactionary.

The saddest was I think Peter Thiel or someone complaining that SF wasn’t like it was in 1970 when it would be about a boy with his robot dog on the Moon and I was thinking when was it ever like that?

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2. CL - December 30, 2017
3. 6to5against - December 30, 2017

Its interesting how you nention the small butcdecent library available to you through TCD SF society. Did you have access to the actual TCD library?
I spent much of my leisure time ehile studying in that particular institution hunting down decent reading material. Endlessly searching the shelves of second hand bookshops, lending and borrowing from friends, weighing up the cost of a book on the shelves in Hodges Figgis or elsewhere. Often, I wasnt hunting wildly but seeking out novels by particular authors.
It was only years after i left that it occurred to me that every single book i read in that time would have been available to me in the same library i was using on a near daily basis for my studies. And that the librarians would have been happy to dig them out for me.
Did anybody else waste access to such a resource on a similar scale?

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WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2017

I suppose if I’d thought to it would have been possible to access TCD library – but I didn’t until years later. Luckily the library of the place I was in had a good selection of books in various areas, literature, some thrillers, etc. Spent many happy hours there.

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4. Dermot O Connor - December 30, 2017

The alt.right flap about the new Star Trek (“OMG it’s got a woman lead and the woman lead isn’t white OMG ZOMG it’s political correctness gone mad! we R triggered”) was telling, wasn’t it?

Imagine a ST story about a character who is white on the right side, black on the left, who gets into a race war with another character who is black on right side, white on the left side?

Nah, too obvious. You’d never see classic trek doing stuff like that.

Those ‘white nationalist’ shlubs never stop banging on about Western civilisation, but they don’t know much about it (something I mentioned previously), but hell, they don’t even know anything about recent POPULAR culture either!

Trek TOS broke the race taboo (though Outer Limits did so even more strongly with several episodes), and Trek TNG came very close to showing a near perfect Marxist utopia in space – which was really apparent in the episode where they woke up a Reaganite loadsamoney spiv from suspended animation. Marx I mean Picard gave him a nice lecture on how there was no money in the 24th century.

I suspect that most of the Treks since then have been an attempt to mess up this Marxist vision, or to back-pedal from it as fast as possible. They don’t want to handle the implications of matter replication.

*

Speaking of alt.right shlubs who know nothing, one of their youtuber types posted an outrage video about some article dealing with the subtext of red riding hood, (basically the wolf represents male libido). The outrage video was “liberals are going mad seeing sex everywhere”. Thing is of course, RRH IS about male libido, and this was written about lucidly by Bruno Bettelheim in ‘Uses of Enchantment’ (1976), in which he criticises the more recent version by Perrault of being TOO OBVIOUS about the fact. Not exactly breaking news, unless you’re a right wing youtube barker unaware of the existence of go ogle I mean google.

Another example of how clueless the new generation of rightist tools are: they’ve (my gonads shrivel even typing this) ‘invented’ a technique they call ‘steel-manning’, which they mean as “stating your opponent’s argument in as strong a way as possible”. Aw bless, in other words, our stout defenders of western civ. have reinvented the 12/13th century scholastic Disputatio!

How have we survived this long without them?

They are unaware of the 80s (TNG), 70s (Bettelheim), 60 (TOS) so I guess the poor old 13th century and the nominalism of Peter Abelard, Sic et Non, etc, had no chance.

Speaking of ‘steel-manning’ (christ, these fucking kids are so annoying) – the 11th century Islamic theologian al ghazali wrote a refutation of the the islamic philosophers who followed Aristotle, such as Avicenna (ibn sina). Volume 1 of ‘al tahafut al falasifa – or “the incoherence of the philosophers” – stated Avicenna’s aristotelian argument, and volume 2 attacked it.

Volume 1 was translated into Latin and was read in Europe, volume 2 was not. V1 stated Avicenna’s position so well that readers assumed that Ghazali was himself an aristotelian. So the technique of stating your opponent’s position with 100% clarity before attacking it was a VERY old method, and was alive and kicking in the 10th century in the dar-al-islam.

There is an entire generation now, and this is not merely limited to the alt.right whitey mighty cretins, but the middle class US ‘liberal’ brats also, who seem to genuinely believe that the world didn’t exist before 1990. We all sprang into existence the moment their mothers squirted them out, holographic spear carriers in their lives as “The most enlightened generation”.

Now THAT’S science fiction – and in their hands, it’s very definitely reactionary.

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WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2017

“Imagine a ST story about a character who is white on the right side, black on the left, who gets into a race war with another character who is black on right side, white on the left side?

Nah, too obvious. You’d never see classic trek doing stuff like that.”

I laughed out loud at that. Excellent.

So true.

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5. Miguel62 - January 2, 2018

It has always seemed perfectly obvious to me that as technology advances and becomes more powerful, the need for collectivisation becomes more and more necessary. (Eg environmental degredation, tragedy of the commons, weapons of mass destruction, climate change, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering)
A technologically advanced society without collective controls and restraints doesn’t work for anybody, even the 1%. TNG was quite perceptive in adopting this as an implicit assumption and even the Borg concept of the networked hive mind was an (albeit dystopian) expression of this.

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WorldbyStorm - January 2, 2018

And ST’s emphasis on this drove some on the right mad.

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Miguel62 - January 2, 2018

Particularly in the US. It was totally incompatible with the American ideal of the independent frontiersman carving out a self reliant existence for him (and it was a him) and his family free from government help. This construct is fondly at the heart of much US nostalgia as mediated through the Trumpian MAGA that supports small government, opposes any gun control or state provided healthcare and advocates low or no taxes. It doesn’t actually matter that most of those who espouse this mirage are actually worse off because of it. It’s the vision and self image that they buy into. Much like Brexiteers really. Now that I think of it, post Brexit SF/alternate reality could be an interesting sub-genre!

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WorldbyStorm - January 2, 2018

That’s brilliant, that idea of a sub-genre. I’m envisioning something like Quatermass from 1979! 🙂

It is amazing how that vision you mention functions in the US. It’s certainly assisted in the stifling of the left.

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6. ivorthorne - January 2, 2018

I’ve always thought of SF as being well, liberal, if not left wing.

The Star Trek Discovery issue is really interesting. I read a lot of comics from the big 2 publishers (Marvel & DC). As such, the Discovery arguments were not all that shocking as they were the same arguments that were made when Captain America became black, Spiderman became mixed race, Thor became a woman and Iron Man became a black teenaged girl.

There’s nothing you can ever do that will please the consciously right wing, conservative types. They are happy to ignore the socialist, feminist, anti-racist messages that have been in SF works for years but it becomes harder to do so when they see positive presentations of people of colour or LGBT folk as central characters. There’s a reason that some of the more successful right wing slogans are things like “You will not replace us”.

What has been interesting observing the comics approach as been the difference in the reactions of Marvel and DC comics fans to increased levels of diversity in the publication lines.

Marvel took an approach – one they’ve used before – of replacing original versions of characters. DC, for the most part, of adding new characters or changing the relative importance of black characters etc. Marvel’s approach received a far greater backlash. I suspect that this was, in part, because it was easier to see that Marvel was making a conscious and carefully planned effort to have better representation of marginalised groups within their books. They were loud and proud about it. They received praise from liberal groups for the move.

Now, many of these books are being cancelled. This is common. Most on-going Marvel or DC books that are not things like Superman, Batman, the X-Men etc. get cancelled at some point. But now the right wing types are pointing to the fact that these books “failed” as evidence that they were right. While many liberal commentators attack Marvel for reducing diversity. Marvel can point out that the sales were low and that most books are cancelled when they reach those levels but most people don’t care about their profit margins.

Star Trek Discovery was bold not because it included people of colour, LGBT folk etc. but because within its first few episodes there are not sympathetic or relatable characters who are white, straight males. To the conservative Star Trek fans, this smells of liberal editorial decisions being forced upon the fans. Sisko, Janeway and Dax were all acceptable because they existed within a show where the majority were coded as white, straight Americans. From their perspective, Discovery is being written to appeal to liberals. It is being written to receive plaudits from gay organisations and liberal academics. People who talk about “the liberal agenda” as though it is some sort of conspiracy that is plotted by Hillary Clinton’s secret cabal see things like Discovery as evidence that these unseen forces are pushing their agenda into their living rooms.

So I guess if you’re somebody who is trying to promote political messages or points as part of your fiction, you can take a Marvel or a DC approach. The Marvel approach can act as a sort of rallying cry. It can make those who share your views feel that they are not alone and puts those views out there in an unapologetic way. The DC approach is more subtle. It has a smaller immediate impact. But does it have a better effect in the medium term? Time will tell. It may depend on your message. And I guess it depends on whether you’re preaching to the converted or those who are undecided.

As for Discovery, I like the show. The production values are high. They have a great cast and a pretty cool, conflicted central character. My biggest criticism is that for the last few episodes, they’re playing out a mystery that is not in any way a mystery but thankfully, the b-plot mysteries are actually more interesting. The show will sink or swim based on the quality of its writing but if it fails, you can be sure that the Trump folk will use it as evidence that the majority reject the liberal agenda that Hollywood is trying to force on them.

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WorldbyStorm - January 2, 2018

I like your outline of this. I think that it depends on circumstances – the DC or Marvel approach – I like the idea of a blend of both – in some cases one will be to the fore, in the other the other. There’s another thought which is that in a way so much of this is already baked in – people aren’t that unused to non white straight characters. Buffy is two decades old as a show. So in some ways there’s a reinvention of the wheel. It’s key to me not to have no white straight male characters and not to have no non-white, non-straight, non-male characters either.

But agreed, writing is key (funnily enough finally got to see the Orville at the weekend and had mixed feelings about it – kind of liked the first two episodes but it was difficult to see the point exactly).

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7. ivorthorne - January 2, 2018

Yeah. The Orville is fun but it lacks a point. It’s just Seth McFarlane does Star Trek. Which is fun. But little more. It’s actually interesting that some Trek fans – who dislike that “SJW” aspects of Discovery embrace the Orville.

20 years since Buffy,

Man, that makes me feel old.

One of the things that I’ve always struggled to relate to is the supposed need people feel to be represented in fictional TV shows etc. I’ve always looked at having diverse representation as a realism need. It’s unrealistic not have people of colour, gay people, trans people etc. in most fictional settings.

I’ve never watched a TV show and thought I’m not represented here because the characters are not Irish, male, straight, ginger etc. The first tv character I wanted to be was Mr T. Buffy was cool. I guess to an extent when you grow up Irish, you get used to the fact that you’re not going to be represented in fiction (at least not in American TV/Movie franchises), and if you are, it’s probably going to be something that has no relation to reality. Or maybe that’s just me.

I don’t find it disconcerting that there are no straight, white, male heroes on Discovery. On the balance of probability given the assumptions that the ST universe is based on, it’s probable that there would be Ships with no white, straight, males among the officers. But, and this is a significant in terms of understanding the backlash to Discovery, I think that Americans struggle with this because in reality, Star Trek crews have always been predominantly American. As such, having crews that are pretty heavily biased in favour of American demographics. This is the expectation. When this does not happen, they assume that somebody is playing politics and fail to see that it was because of politics that they are not used to seeing gay, trans, Asian, Black etc. characters in leading roles.

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