The question of politics in SF/F is a bit of a gimme, frankly, because this is where genre fiction seems to feel right at home. Some of the best politically themed fiction ever has come from SF/F, and that really helps counter the whole notion that genre fiction can’t be “literature.” (That’s one of my big pet peeves, actually, but that’s another blog post.)
One could argue that Thomas More’s Utopia, which dates back to 1516, was the first fantasy dealing expressly with politics, as More placed his ideal society on a made-up island in the New World. The classics of the fantasy genre – hello, Tolkien and Lewis, and even Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – all had political overtones.
And as for science-fiction, well…let’s face it, sci-fi and politics were made for each other. Especially when radical ideas could get you ostracized, arrested or even killed, couching them in fantastical stories about high-technology, planetary warfare and future societies was a safe way to get the point across. Even going back to the forefathers of sci-fi, guys like Verne and Wells, you see a great deal of societal and political commentary there.
To me, though, genre’s political standard-bearers will always be Orwell and Huxley. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm and Brave New World were required reading for me in middle school, if I remember correctly. In the face of the Great Depression, World War II’s horrors and the atmosphere of fear that shrouded the Cold War, these two guys really knocked it out of the park. When folks are afraid, they often seek reactionary measures to go back to the “good old days.” That, as Weimar Germany shows, can lead to a very dark place. Orwell and Huxley showed the end result of that impulse in its extreme.
(As a bit of a sidebar here, one could argue that conservatives are taken to task in genre fiction far more than liberals. There may even be truth to that, especially today. But at the extreme edge of the political spectrum, the far-left and far-right tend to meet together in one ugly totalitarian mess anyway. So let’s not get into that so much.)
My one knock on politics in genre fiction is that it’s rarely nuanced. Indeed, as time has gone on, fictional politics has gotten even more extreme – all these dystopias in today’s genre fiction had to come from some kind of political breakdown, after all. We almost never see the kind of political horse-trading we get in, say, the film Lincoln, which actually made the legislative process seem interesting. (And fantastical, as said process actually worked….) Instead, most genre fiction gives us a lot of evil empires and utopian societies, with very little in between.
In our most likely future, the Earth is not about to enter into some socialist utopia, nor a deregulated capitalist free-for-all. Chances are, there’s no golden age ahead – not because we suck, but because all the alleged golden ages we site throughout history weren’t really that golden to those who lived through them. Even in the best of times, there’s always something to complain about, something to cheer and something that could stand improving. That’s politics.
I would love to see politics dealt with more subtlety, and chances are I’ve missed a few books that have done so well. Not that I want to see something like the Star Wars prequel trilogy, mind you. Rather, something where politicians are faced with competing interests which both have valid concerns, and must navigate through to a solution while still keeping an eye out for their own careers.
Oh, and with aliens.
Michael J. Martinez is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Daedalus Incident, coming from Night Shade Books on May 7. He blogs at www.michaeljmartinez.net, Tweets at @mikemartinez.72, lives and works around the New York City area, and drinks only fine craft beers. He already has his publishing-day beer picked out: the 2006 Monster Ale from Brooklyn Brewery.