Politics in Science Fiction

Politics in Science Fiction

By Jan S. Gephardt

Do you read science fiction as an escape? If you hoped the politics would die down after the election, and now you just want to get away from it all in a sci-fi world, I’ll try to break this gently. Politics in science fiction is pretty much baked-in.

No romance, no adventure story, no mystery, and no historical drama can completely evade society or politics, even when it’s not the focus. But most of these are based on actual events or places. If your romance is set in Tuscany, or if your historical novel takes place in Kublai Khan’s court, certain rules are already set.

But sf was kinda built for political or social comment. Science fiction can range from a simple town hall to a matrilineal nest-colony. But every sf story resides in a world that the author chose to create that way. For a reason.

Sometimes it’s just the wallpaper

Covers for Murderbot stories: “All Systems Red,” “Artificial Condition,” “Rogue Protocol,” “Exit Strategy,” “Network Effect,” and “Fugitive Telemetry.”
Jaime Jones illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells.

Would-be escapists take heart! Politics in science fiction novels isn’t always center-stage. Some sf authors choose the “background political system” more for plot-utility.

Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” stories take place in a system quite different from our own. What kind of place would allow such a cyborg to be made and exploited? We can believe this world would. It’s not obviously presented as a dystopia, but a writer with a different story purpose could actively portray it as one.

But maybe you’d rather take out your political frustrations in another way.

Dystopia

Maybe you’d like to see characters triumph over their politically- or socially-caused adversity. In that case, the politics in science fiction of certain kinds may be right up your alley. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the most inspirational science fiction unfolds in a dystopian world.

Writers use dystopian novels to critique some aspect of their current world. Suzanne Collins drew inspiration from both classical and contemporary sources for her “Hunger Games” books. Her critique focuses on social and economic inequalities, extreme versions of contemporary trends.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale also makes an extremely relevant point about patriarchy taken to extremes. Women still struggle for the right to control their own bodies. Handmaid remains as relevant now as when it was published in 1985. Buzzfeed offers a list of 24 excellent dystopian novels you’d like to explore this subgenre.

Covers for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Ecotopia,” and “Brave New World,” as well as a boxed set of the Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games Trilogy” and the flag design for Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Utopia

Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia gets pointed to a lot, as an example of a utopian novel—one set in a supposedly “perfect” society. Published in 1975, it influenced the dawn of the Green movement (so did fact-based books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962). See my 2016 post “How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness.”

Utopias are harder to find in fiction—especially influential utopias. How do you present an interesting story set in a perfect world? Conflict and problems are the soul of plot. This may be the primary reason the Solarpunk movement has been able to produce inspiring and beautiful visual art, but no “breakout” novel to date.

The background society of the Federation in the Star Trek universe has a utopian nature. But few stories in the franchise take place there. Most are set in a less-utopian corner of the Final Frontier.

When one person’s utopia becomes another’s dystopia in some way, we tend to find more stories. Aldous Huxley took that approach in Brave New World (that society’s inhabitants believed it to be a utopia).

Political and social commentary

Politics in science fiction and speculative fiction is alive and well. And has been, all the way back to the genre’s roots.

Many people consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to be the “first science fiction novel.” It’s a cautionary tale against technological hubris ( see Victor Frankenstein’s dying admonition to “avoid ambition”).

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine commented on his contemporary social class system. He employed Darwinian concepts to speculate in an oh, so Victorian way that the upper and lower classes would evolve separately over the millennia into separate sub-species of humans.

Covers for historic books “Frankenstein” and “The Time Machine,” contemporary novels “Ancillary Justice” and “A Memory Called Empire,” and XK9 books “The Other Side of Fear” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire are courtesy of Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

More recent examples

But the sf writers of the past have nothing on today’s works. Nnedi Okorafor, for one example, frequently tackles such topics as racial and gender inequality, environmental destruction, corruption, and genocide, through the lens of her fantasy and science fiction.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes a unique approach to gender (for one thing, the “default pronoun” is she, which leads us interesting places). Her long, hard look at what Genevieve Valentine calls “the disconnects of culture” opens more parallels to consider.

Arkady Martine‘s acclaimed debut novel A Memory Called Empire tackles political intrigue (she’s a Byzantine Empire historian), and the multiple facets of colonialism.

Politics in the world of the XK9s

My own science fiction isn’t overtly political. My focus in the XK9 books is trying to tell a good story. But I built Rana Station, the environment where most of the action takes place, on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? If a political and social structure made that its guiding question, how would the resulting society look?

I built the world of Rana Station on ideas I started gathering during my coursework. But I don’t believe in “perfect” worlds. In my next post I’ll go into more depth on how and why I created the system where my fictional characters live.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to all of the following: Jaime Jones illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells. Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire are courtesy of Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

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