This weekend, I'll be moderating a discussion at Fantisci, a science fiction convention in Raleigh, on the topic, "Does Science Fiction Have a Built in Political Bias?"
If you simply point to examples in the genre, there's an easy answer: No. Science fiction is broad and historically encompasses many points of view. Twenty years ago, before I broke into print and was still mastering my craft, I took part in workshops taught by two great writers of the genre, Harlan Ellison and Orson Scott Card. Harlan was a hard core liberal (at least in words, if not always in his actions toward women), while Card is well known for his conservative views. (Though, in truth, Card's political opinions are far more complex and nuanced than our current political labels allow for.)
But what makes me give the question of built in bias a second look is something I once read about the difference between liberals and conservatives that felt essentially right to me. The observation was that conservatives look at the past as a reservoir of virtues and wisdom. There's a reason Trump could campaign on the slogan Make America Great Again as a Republican. It's not that conservatives are blind to the sins of the past, but they also are quick to point to how society has already taken steps to correct those sins. For example, most conservatives would agree that slavery was abhorrent, but they'd also point out that our nation fought a very bloody and costly war that brought an end to the practice. For a conservative, the best way to ensure future happiness, security, and prosperity is to study what came before and hold onto proven values and systems that have served to bring humanity to its current peace and prosperity.
It's not that conservatives believe that today is perfect; Trump's slogan wasn't "Keep America Great." It's mainly a belief that conservatives already know from history the best practices that will carry us into the future. As a people, we should continue to rely on capitalism, the constitution, individual liberties as protected by guns and contracts, and religious values, especially regarding sexuality. The reason the world needs to be made great "again" is because we've deviated from such values, at least in the eyes of conservatives.
Curiously, liberals agree with conservatives on one fundamental premise: the world today isn't great. But, for liberals, it's not the values and practices of the past that can restore our world to greatness. They will never run on the slogan to make America great again because they can't say it was all that stellar in the past. Indeed, while liberals can find great individuals and great moments in the past, for the most part history isn't a reserve of wisdom and values to embrace, but a long list of injustices, prejudices, hypocrisies, and outright atrocities. What does it matter what Thomas Jefferson had to say on the questions of free speech or religious liberty? The man was a slave owner, and probably a rapist!
For a liberal, the best thing to do with the past is to either view it with suspicion or to outright erase it. To the extent that history is useful to liberals, it's mainly to provide a framework to explain the injustices they continue to see in the world today. Rather than viewing the past as a series of incremental improvements to the human condition, it's easy to craft a narrative as to how every seeming advance was actually a shift toward a new injustice. The Civil War might have freed blacks from slavery, but only by shifting them into poverty and powerlessness. Before, a slaveowner took your labor, but at least had to put a roof over your head. After, employers paid wages, but the system was designed to claw those wages back to leave a black citizen indebted, oppressed, and, increasingly, imprisoned. The total number of slaves a the time of the Civil War was roughly four million. The total number of prisoners plus people on probation and parole in the US today is roughly seven million, with a disproportionate number of those prisoners being black. Conservatives like to mock the liberal concept of being "woke." But, the liberal world view does seem built on an awareness of existing injustices that conservatives either deny or assume wouldn't exist if everyone simply adopted conservative values. Whatever structural disadvantages might confront a group of people, in the conservative mind any individual can overcome those disadvantages by adopting conservative ethics and values. In the liberal mind, the individual isn't to blame for poor outcomes, since the individual was born into a world designed to thwart their pursuit of happiness.
Thus, in general, a liberal would never promise to make America great again
. Instead, they promise hope and change. The past is something to reject, the present is something to escape, and the future is the true home of liberty.
Before I go further, I will acknowledge that these are very broad definitions of conservatism and liberalism, and welcome criticism of these definitions. Any attempt to boil down two of the major political viewpoints of the modern world in under 1000 words is going to lack nuance. But, I felt like I needed to define my terms before plunging into grappling with the question that provides the title for this post.
Does science fiction have a built in political bias?
I think, given that science fiction is forward facing, it does have a built in bias, but not the bias you'd expect from a body of literature built around the assumption of scientific, technological, and cultural progress. Because of the dramatic demands of storytelling, the archetypical story places a protagonist at odds with his world. So, a common pattern in science fiction is to pit an individual against a corrupt and oppressive regime. The template for this, of course, is 1984
. You also see it in Brave New World
and Fahrenheit 451
, and in more modern dystopian future such as Hunger Games
or the Handmaid's Tale
. Often, these stories project a conservative, authoritarian threat that makes the story a dark warning against the slippery slope of right wing politics. On the surface, this makes the genre seem to be continually warning against conservatism, and thus inherently promoting liberalism. As someone who's experienced US politics for the last fifty years, 1984
surges in popularity anytime Republicans rise to power. I've heard Reagan, both Bushes, and Trump referred to as Big Brother more than once.
Which always leaves me wondering, have people making the comparison actually read the book? Orwell himself was a socialist, but 1984
is a very comprehensive argument against communism, most notably the Soviet's careful control of language and entertainment and history itself. Orwell's protagonist is doomed by an all powerful state, but the book does offer glimpses that the one hope of the future is to again embrace the values and practices of the past. The future is nothing but a boot on the face of man, forever. The past is where great literature and music reside, where religion offered hope and comfort, and where a person was free to think his own thoughts and control his own destiny. Brave New World
explicitly contrasts the works of Shakespeare with the vapid, empty entertainment of the modern world, and Fahrenheit 451
goes even further in romanticizing the culture of the past, with people willing to be burned alive rather than surrendering their old books.
Even among science fiction writers hoping to promote liberal values, I can't help but notice this undercurrent that, ultimately, the past was better than the future.
Of course, not all science fiction is dystopian. But, even in more hopeful futures like you find portrayed in Star Trek,
conservative undertones sneak through. Interplanetary exploration isn't being conducted by unarmed ships in the Star Trek
universe. There's a conservative's trust that that a military command structure is superior in dangerous situations to democratic decision making. Captain's might solicit advice, but they don't take votes. And diplomacy is a lot easier to conduct if you've got a heavily armed gunship in orbit around the planet you're negotiating with.
There are two counterarguments to the notion that science fiction has a built in political bias that I'd like to address. The first is the somewhat common complaint that modern science fiction publishers care more about diversity than quality.
I do think publishers are engaged in an active push to have more stories by authors who aren't straight white men. As a straight white man myself, this can feel like reverse discrimination. But, as a devoted reader who runs a classics book club at my local library, I'm pretty happy to see a more diverse range of authors hitting book stores. One of my criteria when I set up my First Monday Classics Book Club was that we wouldn't be studying recent books. I felt like a book needed to be at least fifty years old and still well regarded before it could rightfully be called a classic. When I'm selecting classics to be read in the coming year, I have plenty to choose from that were written by straight white male authors. It's not difficult to find classic books by straight white female authors. But when I start looking for black or Asian authors, or gay authors writing about gay characters, the cannon of "classic" literature starts getting slim. This isn't because white males were innately superior authors a century ago, but they were writing in a system where they would be published by other people who looked like them, critiqued by people who looked like them, and taught in colleges by people who looked like them. I'm hoping that organizers of classics book clubs fifty years from now won't face the same challenges in finding great books from diverse storytellers. I'm in no way arguing that straight white men shouldn't still write books. I certainly intend to. But to pretend that white men haven't benefited from past structural advantages in publishing is absurd. Also, just because modern publisher are trying to be more diverse, why assume that women or racial minorities are going to write from a liberal perspective? Ayn Rand wrote the book that many economic conservatives hold nearly as dear at the Bible.
The second argument that I regard as somewhat more valid is that science fiction has a somewhat negative view of capitalism. (Or, if you're a liberal, a chillingly accurate vision of capitalism.) In Soylent Green,
consumers literally become the consumed. If you're the head of a corporation in a work of science fiction, you can trust that you are either evil or, at best, hopelessly naïve in the belief that you are doing any good at all in the world. Again and again in science fiction, a rich elite live on the backs of a poor underclass that are slaves in all but name. Corporations that run spaceships always program their robots to serve the good of the corporation rather than the safety of the crew. And there's no point in looking to politics for salvation, since the corporation owns the politicians, writes the laws, and appoints the judges. Honestly, I'm trying to think of a science fiction work where a corporation cares about its costumers and workers and operates its business to the highest possible ethical standards and am coming up completely short. Ironically, two hero CEO, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, are explicit lawbreakers who use their wealth to bypass political structures that would stand in the way of what they want to accomplish. They are written as heroes while engaging in open criminality, and we root for them because they are smarter and better more effective than, say, a cop or a teacher or a reporter who tried to improve the world.
The notion that workers are being exploited by greedy corporate masters is one of the foundational arguments for socialism, and it's just about the only economic system science fiction seems to imagine. The idea that modern corporate capitalism has lifted more people from poverty than any other social innovation in history seems not to have a home in fiction at all.
But maybe that's not so much a conservative or liberal bias as it is a product of the fact that art is made by artists. Most artists, myself included, function in a world where we feel like we craft a good product, then find that very few people choose to purchase this product. It's difficult to revere capitalism when you watch the masses spend their money on crap. It's challenging to spend years riting what you consider the next War and Peace
and watch it vanish into obscurity while 50 Shades of Grey
dominates (pun intended) best seller lists and gets turned into movies. It's not science fiction that has an anti-corporate bias, but all art, including motion pictures with hundred million dollar budgets produced and distributed by, yep, corporations.
I'd like to wrap up on a unifying note. No matter what world view authors and consumers bring to science fiction, whether they find their conservative gun-loving values reinforced by gun-toting heroes, or whether their liberal sensibilities are delighted by a growing rainbow of diverse characters fighting they system for the right to be who they wish to be, I think we can all agree that giant robots, alien pets, and rocket boots are awesome. As long as we still get a thrill from these things, science fiction will be just fine.