Science fiction is full of critical charge for socialists and radicals
By Benjamin Silverman
Red Wedge Magazine
Sept 4, 2012 - Sometimes, it's good to just dream. The system is brutal, everyday brings new news of some great outrage -- a Republicans makes an idiotically misogynistic statement, striking miners are butchered by the police -- it's easy for it to get you down. So we seek out escapes. But there is escapism and then there is escapism. There is the escapism of the Kardashians, reality TV, Twilight and the like, that dulls the mind while it dulls the pain. But then there is the escapism that allows us to go off on flights on fantasy, to dream for a moment about what could be, not just self-flagellate ourselves over the horror of what is.
In literature and film, science-fiction as a genre has that potential, which is sadly not often enough fulfilled, to be a true playground for hypotheticals. Peoples, societies, civilizations, species can be thrown up into the air in great “what if?” experiments. What would human society’s reaction be towards alien life, immortality, space travel, artificial intelligence, an end to want, the apocalypse? What would certain historical events and processes look like in totally different scenarios -- the fall of the Roman Empire becomes Asimov’s "Foundation Series," the American Revolution becomes Heinlein’s The Moon Is the Harsh Mistress, and the post-Civil War American experience for Confederate soldiers becomes the TV show Firefly.
This inherent potential of sci-fi to act as a canvas for societal "what ifs" has also a tradition within the broader socialist movement. Some might be quick to accuse such writings as “utopian,” that is, in Marxist terminology, ideas that are separated from the real living situation of now, with no idea of how to get from here to there or who are the actors that can carry that change about. And those accusations would be largely correct. But that’s not the point. These ‘utopian’ dreams have had a massive effect in popularizing and giving some flesh and bones to socialist ideas.
The most noted example is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which was the most popular novel at the time after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur. In it a man, Rip Van Winkle style, falls asleep in 1887 only to wake up in the year 2000 to a now socialist United States. The character spends the book exploring this country of nationalized production, equally distributed goods, retirement at the age of 45 and public kitchens. Anti-capitalism is embedded in the book, saying, “buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.”
The book, as said, was a hit. Hundreds of "Bellamy Clubs" formed across the country, and the book had a significant effect on the early formation of the American socialist movement. But this sci-fi novel promoted a view of socialism that was highly top-down, bureaucratic-collectivist and state-centered. William Morris, commenting on one such aspect Bellamy’s system, the “industrial army” which is pretty much just what it sounds like, said that, “if they brigaded me into a regiment of workers, I’d just lie on my back and kick.”
In direct response to Looking Backward, Morris wrote News From Nowhere. In it, same basic premise, a man falls asleep only to wake up in the future where socialism has taken over. But this is a socialism about democratic control, common ownership, no private property, no prisons, no courts, no big cities, where people work just for the love of it and for nature. Though marked by a certain rural romanticism, it still purports a more beautiful and free vision of future life then Bellamy’s regiment labor armies. Morris says, “variety of life is as much of an aim of true communism as equality of condition and … nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom.”
In 1922, the Russian communist and feminist Alexandra Kollontai wrote a short story called "Soon (In 48 Years Time)." This small piece of science-fiction is interesting, not because of any major literary importance, Kollontai was a far better political writer then a story teller, but because of what it represents of the thoughts of the time. In "Soon," Kollontai presents the Soviet Union in 1970, really the Soviet Union of her dreams. There is great abundance, work and the products of work are shared amongst all, men, women and children live communally and nature is respected. The old revolutionaries are retired, “Their dreams had been fulfilled, but life was now passing them by and their old limbs could not match the bold flights of the young people. Much of the life and many of the aspirations of the young people were incomprehensible to them … The young people of the world commune are turning their attention to the cosmos: the sky beckons them. They do not understand the grandeur of the old struggles.”
This incredibly hopeful, sugar sweet, almost kitchy vision is the future that Kollontai and the other Bolsheviks were hoping to give to their successors. They sacrificed everything so that others would not have to. But it was not to be. The timing of this piece is important. By 1922 the country had been devastated, ravaged by years of war and brutal civil war. The Russian Revolution had been completely drained of its blood and energy, and the slow rise of bureaucracy had already begun in earnest. This work is a last gasp of hope, a testament to the future of an already dead revolution, of what it was all meant to be for.
But I understand the emotions behind Kollontai’s theme in this work. I too can only look forward to the day when the struggles of my generation to bring about a better world are forgotten as our descendants move onto to bigger better things.
These Victorian and Russian Revolutionary era science-novels had a strong effect on the socialist movements in giving people some vision, no matter how far-flung, far-fetched or unlikely, of what they were fighting for. For me, in part, a similar place is given to Iain M. Banks' "Culture series."
Banks -- a contemporary Scottish lefty who has been active in the anti-war movement and has called for the cultural boycott of Israel -- creates one of the most hopeful and utopian visions possible of a human society. While Looking Backward, "Soon (In 48 Years Time)" and News From Nowhere deal with socialist societies only somewhat removed in development and technology then the authors’ own, Banks paints a picture of truly dazzling technological level.
In Banks' novels, the Culture, the name of the society, is a hyper-advance, humanoid, communistic, anarchistic, post-scarcity civilization spread across a huge swath of the galaxy on millions of planets, orbitals (giant rotating rings, hundreds of thousands of kilometers in circumference) and space ships larger then most States. The civilization is a total egalitarian symbiosis between the humanoids, human level intellect artificial intelligence robots, and hyper intelligence AIs called Minds, which are often the actual consciousness of the space ships themselves.
“Work” as we would understand it is all but nonexistent, along with ownership, jealously, war-like aggression and fixed notions of gender, the process of changing one’s sexuality from one side to the other and back being as easy as changing haircuts.
In the novel The Player of Games a Culture citizen is having the structure of another, non-egalitarian humanoid civilization describe to him, this one marked by three main sexes instead of two, and he is absolutely dumbfounded:
“’The one in the middle is the dominant sex.’
"Gurgeh had to think about this. ‘The what?’ he said.
"‘The dominant sex,’ Worthil repeated. 'Empires are synonymous with centralized -- if occasionally schematized -- hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through -- usually -- a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of… the society’s information dissemination systems… In short, its all about dominance. The intermediate -- or apex -- sex you see standing in the middle there controls the society and the empire. Generally, the males are used as soldiers and the females as possessions. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea?’
"‘Well.’ Gurgeh shook his head. ‘I don’t understand how it works, but if you say it does, all right.’”
I can only look forward to the day when our descendants are this befuddled when concepts like money, property, patriarchy and racism are trying to be explained to them in history class.
It is good to dream. And science fiction can give us socialists a means to do so. Socialism is about the future, its about freeing ourselves from the confines of the present with all of its oppressions, exploitations and “common sense” rationalizations of both. Some might call these dreams utopian, I say what’s the use of politics if its not for an ideal dream.
The FBI -- quite the authoritative body on defending the status quo -- feared this possibility. As reported in a recent Guardian article, the FBI actively hounded the great sci-fi author Ray Bradbury in fear of the subversive qualities of his writing, saying, “Communists have found fertile opportunities for development; for spreading distrust and lack of confidence in America institutions in the area of science fiction writing.” Regardless of the lack any actual truth to the FBI’s paranoia, the statement shows what is, in my eyes, the best lesson of sci-fi. Society changes, history moves on, these great American institutions are as transitory as ice cream left out on a hot day. Why should I put up with the nonsense of the present when there is a better future worth building? Some might call these dreams utopian, I say what’s the use of politics if it’s not for an ideal.
No less of a person then V.I. Lenin said in no less a pamphlet than What Is To Be Done?, quoting from the radical Russian social critic from the 19th century, Dmitry Pisarev:
“’There are rifts and rifts,’ wrote Pisarev of the rift between dreams and reality. ‘My dream may run ahead of the natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed. In the first case my dream will not cause any harm; it may even support and augment the energy of the working men…. There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyse labour-power. On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to lend shape, then I cannot at all imagine what stimulus there would be to induce man to undertake and complete extensive and strenuous work in the sphere of art, science, and practical endeavor.’”
We must dream. Socialist dreams. It’s the dreams of the future that give us the strength to fight like hell in the present. In Looking Backward it is said by Bellamy, “With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and, veiling our eyes, press forward. The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it.“
Benjamin Silverman writes at the blog The Red Plebeian, where an earlier version of this article appeared.