SF, socialism, battlestar galactica
For the Old Mole Variety Hour, April 20, 2009.
The well-read red reads science fiction.
Maeve 66, in a blog post on the Solidarity webzine, notes that "a lot of socialists have a yen for science fiction":
I mean, apart from the fact that we are often geeks anyway, science fiction almost always tries to imagine an alternate future. It extrapolates from current situations, social and technological, and tries to predict what could be. That’s REALLY useful, because honestly, since Marx, socialists haven’t been very good at actually describing what a socialist future could be like, except in terms of negatives: there won’t be sexism, there won’t be oppression based on race, or sexuality, or ethnicity or culture. There won’t be material inequality: the productive means of the world will be carefully organized so that everyone has a decent material existence that also works with what is sustainable on this earth. But that is a pretty amorphous description. How will the economy be organized? How will people live together? What new technologies will exist? Really, wouldn’t it be easier to recruit if we had something to point to as a model? Marx, when asked something of the sort, [apparently said], “we cannot make the recipes of the future until we are in the kitchen of the future” . . . . So we tend to hopefully look at science fiction as one place one might see glimpses of these future recipes.
Maeve recommends, in particular, the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars Trilogy is his best known work. She writes,
There are two revolutions in the course of Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, and both are described in minute detail. Unlike any revolutions I have . . . seen elsewhere in fiction, these consist in large part of long, long, long meetings, and votes, and countermotions, and impassioned arguments. There are some rifles, too, but really, the meetings have the most impact. They are very inclusive – instead of a vanguard model, they very clearly reflect the sort of spokescircle arrangement common in the anti-globalization movement and in parts of the 2003 antiwar movement.
A reader in the comments section of Maeve's blog also recommends Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and the novels of Octavia Butler. All of these works and many others appear on China Mieville's list of Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read, and you can also find reading lists on the website of Think Galactic, a Chicago-based group that discusses speculative fiction from a radical left perspective. (And by the way, if there's a Portland group doing the same thing, please get in touch with me!)
But science fiction—or the broader category of speculative fiction, which includes fantasy as well as hard and soft science fiction (where hardness or softness refers to their engagement with the physical or social sciences) –while it helps us imagine the future, is of course also about imagining the present. Thus Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, though published in the 1990s, bears traces not only of the anti-globalization movement but also of the cold war during which Robinson began their composition. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, also published in the 1990s, address the effects of climate change and neoliberal defunding of the public sphere. Marge Piercy, author of the eminently recommendable Woman on the Edge of Time, observes that
The reason for speculation is more to consider options in the present than it really is to predict the future with reliability. . . . When we talk about the future, when we project a set of expectations onto 1984 or 2001 or 2476 or 3000, we are really discussing what values we think underlie society and our own actions. . . . Since we cannot know the future, and any guess we make beyond out lifetime is likely to be no more than a joke, the purpose of making a concrete future, whether in an essay, in fiction, in film, or on television, is to create images of what we might want or what we might intensely dislike, so that we may decide how to get where we discover we might want to go and how we might avoid the place we see as hell on earth.
One of the most popular science fiction vehicles for exploring what we might want or might intensely dislike in the politics of post 9-11 America has been the television show Battlestar Galactica, a "reimagining" of a 70s TV show, that ran for four seasons between 2003 and this year. It's now available on DVD at the Multnomah county library, as well as the usual video rental outlets. In the Battlestar Galactica universe, cybernetic organisms known as Cylons were developed by humans, but rebelled against them, and destroyed the home planets of the 12 colonies. Surviving humans in a mixed fleet of military and civilian space ships are seeking a place to settle, perhaps the mythical planet Earth, while trying to avoid the Cylons. It became the highest rated show on the Sci Fi Channel, and won critical praise for tackling big sociopolitical issues like war, torture, refugees, suicide bombing, reproductive rights, religion and the state.
The sudden attack on the colonies with which the story begins clearly echoed the attacks of 9-11. In the second season the attempt to colonize a barely inhabitable planet is followed by a Cylon takeover, and the storyline echoes the occupation of Iraq, with the roles of insurgents taken by humans. While the Cylon occupiers are clearly the bad guys in season two, the lines between human allies and Cylon enemies have become increasingly complicated over the course of the series, with sleeper agent Cylons who believe they are human, aware Cylons who fall in love with humans and throw in their lot with them, and humans who side with Cylons, as well as hybrid offspring of the two species. The generic possibilities of science fiction allow the show to do things that other ripped-from-the headlines television shows cannot. Because there are multiple copies of the humanoid Cylons, for instance, Juliana Hu Pegues argues that the character Boomer, played by Korean Canadian actor Grace Park, can occupy, in her multiple and simultaneous iterations, the roles of both model minority and yellow peril, both transracial adoptee and birth mother. Although, Hu Pegues notes, Battlestar Galactica employs racialized and gendered tropes, it also reveals the fracturing of the global order, and allows space for the Asian American female to contest potentially totalizing narratives.
Battlestar Galactica can't be described as a leftist work in the way the Mars Trilogy might be, but it is pleasurable to watch and good to think with, and like other science fiction, it might help us design the kitchen of the future.
Marge Piercy. "Love and Sex in the Year Three Thousand." In Marlene S. Barr, ed. Envisioning the Future: Science Fiction and the Next Millennium. Middletown, Ct, Wesleyan University Press, 2003. 131-145.
Juliana Hu Pegues. "Miss Cylon: Empire and Adoption in Battlestar Galactica." MELUS 33.4 (Winter 2008): 189-209