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This article can be found in Issue 3 (p20) of Vhcle Magazine.
2010: Science Fiction and the Political Mind...
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I. Ad Astra per Aspera
Paul Krugman, Nobel-winning economist and one of the most prominent liberal voices on the state of our new economic crisis, claims to have been called to his profession by a desire to explain the economics of Star Trek. He even authored a paper explaining the parameters of a speculative interstellar trade scheme. On the campaign trail Barack Obama made references to Star Trek as well. In office he’s been compared to Spock for his analytical approach to world events. The Tea Partiers profess devotion to Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. Despite their protestations that it isn’t science fiction, the novel hinges on force fields, advanced and impossible engines, and superhuman feats of metallurgy.
The specter of science fiction is alive and well in the public discourse and for good reason – the makeup of the science fiction community mirrors very well the makeup of the political community. Despite our best efforts, both are still overwhelmingly white, male, and middle class. Both are rooted in speculative visions of the future; and speculative visions inform real life decisions. A friend of mine from college – conservative, traditional, now an Army officer, exactly the sort of person you expect to engage in anti-U.N. conspiracies – once told me he couldn’t wait for the days of a single world government because it would put us one step closer to Star Trek.
II. Speak/Write (The Speculative Impulse)
This essay is several things: it’s an attempt to explain the uninitiated key concepts of science fiction (SF) and how they affect the political discourse. It’s also a personal history of a hardcore libertarian turned outspoken leftist, and how SF influenced the formation of my philosophy. Those who know the genre might be taken aback at what I leave out, but should know that that’s intentional. Through my personal history I’ll attempt to elucidate what exactly is so compelling and influential about the SF worldview. A second disclaimer: my intro is heavy on references to Star Trek, but SF television plays a meager role in my own experience and as such will play a meager role in this essay. The grounding points will largely be written work, although where necessary I will refer to film and television adaptations.

For those looking for a history of politics and SF, this is not that. This is a severely limited attempt to explain the resonance between SF ideals and modern politics with a few examples from my own experience. Anyone knowledgeable about SF will feel that my examples are too limited, but that view misses the point. This is the bastard child of the personal essay and the larger explanation. My goal is to pique interest and to invite outsiders into the world of science fiction. Those who already know the major works will find little in this article. Here I’ll focus on three writers – Robert Heinlein and, through him, Ayn Rand on the conservative side, and Iain Banks on the liberal side.

I’ll also confess to an ulterior motive: this is a legitimizing exercise, designed to show the informative and influential power of genre fiction through the genre I know best. If the editors of this magazine will allow me, there will be future essays on just what I think of genre fiction and why it shouldn’t be disregarded. For now I present two unfortunately limited profiles of SF on the left and right, and hopefully tie the two together in my conclusion.
III. Randian Rails

We start with Robert Heinlein, most famous for Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of his novel Starship Troopers. The movie righteously skewered the novel as a bizarre paean to military power, but neither book nor movie adequately represents Heinlein nor explains his position in SF history.

Heinlein’s legacy lies in a key SF archetype - the rational engineer. It’s not a character he invented, but one he perfected and whose nature he defined in novels like
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Day after Tomorrow. The rational engineer has a few key characteristics – he is, of course, an engineer, a tinkerer with machines and good at his job (incidentally, these characters illustrate one of my favorite problems of mid-century SF: they deal with machines of unimaginable power, but he can’t imagine a more powerful mathematical device than the slide rule); he has an independent streak - not out of  emotion but because he observes that those who rely on others are weaker than he is; and he’s invariably a patriot and a nationalist. He’s also a problem solver, always through exotic deus ex machinae that make the world safe for those like him.
But Heinlein’s heroes present an unspoken problem: if all problems can be solved by the competent inventor then there’s never a need for the individual to assert his own individuality; he’s safe in the comfort that the rational engineer will save him from his own weakness. Passages from Heinlein’s novels scorn this view, but never manage to refute it and never pose an alternative.

If you’ve ever struggled through
Atlas Shrugged, you’ll immediately recognize this character as the basis for the novel’s hero, John Galt. Galt is an engineer, but because he’s never allowed the freedom to pursue his ideas to benefit himself and no one else, he stomps off in a fit of pique. He goes on to save the day with a set of improbable inventions, including invisibility shields and perpetual motion devices. These are never quite on the scale of Heinlein’s savior machines, but they serve the same purpose. Rand’s heroes will push the world forward and those who cannot innovate on their level will have to suffer the consequences.

Thus Rand solves Heinlein’s paradox. If the masses cannot create savior organs, then they are not truly individuals. And it is only right that the true individuals reign over them, but this is never inconsistent with Heinlein. And finally we return to Starship Troopers because Rand, for all her protestations of individualism, advocates the same division of society as Heinlein: those with the courage of their convictions should rise to the top, and the rest be damned. The mantra of Starship Troopers is “Citizenship Equals Service”. This refers to the central conceit of the novel, that only those who have served in the military are granted suffrage. The individual exists within proscribed limits; only those who advocate for certain causes are granted that status.

This logic is echoed in the rhetoric of the Tea Parties: America is defined to benefit its “citizens”, but citizenship is defined by certain individualistic positions; and individualism is defined by personal innovation, but also by the recognition that not all can be innovators and a fealty to those who are. Paradoxically, it’s individualistic to unquestionably support those who have power over you so long as they display certain characteristics.
               IV. A Culture of the Whole

With regard to progressive visions and SF, I’ve mentioned
Star Trek above but I’ve tried to steer away from it for very selfish reasons. I know just enough about Star Trek: The Next Generation to know that if I understood it better it would serve me well here. But I’m first and foremost a child of SF writing and I can only explain my point through that medium. Star Trek expresses a great many progressive ideals that could be elucidated by a better expert on the subject, but this essay focuses on my own experience of SF, and for SF in progressive thought no better example exists than Iain Banks.

Banks is a modern writer, but one whose writing is indicative of the nature of liberal SF. That I turn to a modern writer illustrates an endemic problem to SF. Conservative thought claims that there is a certain natural and improving order to things, which goes along with the scientific and incrementalist order of SF, and in particular accords with the measured observations of the rational engineer explained above. Consider William Buckley’s famous quote that a conservative “stands athwart history, yelling stop”.

The leftist author of SF, on the other hand, is tasked with showing us the progress of history to the point where our current conceptions of rank and class have no meaning. He is tasked with both overthrowing current thought and showing that his ideas are the natural conclusion of the history Buckley “stands athwart”. Banks is not always successful in his arguments, but I chose him as my example because he provides the most comprehensive effort to show that the tide of history will bend towards the progressive. He is the author of seven novels on the Culture, a “meta-civilization” of humanoid species united by a few concept - key among them that they have accepted the existence of super-intelligent artificial intelligences that have eliminated the problem of scarcity by manipulating matter on a sub-atomic level.

Within Banks’ Culture, all the grouping problems of modern life are solved. There are no have-nots because powerful AIs create everything in unlimited qualities. There is no racism because genetics are wholly malleable. There is no sexism because gender can be changed simply by willing the change from male to female and vice versa.

But total equality presents its own problems. Banks idolizes the virtues of free society. In fact sometimes he describes it to excess; in his early novel
The Player of Games, he uses sexuality to paint perhaps too stark of a difference between authoritarian and communitarian cultures: the Culture relies on the free sharing of sexual pleasure while the authoritarian Azad glorify in the pornography of violent submission. His characterization makes sense, but you can’t help but feel that he paints the issue with too broad a brush, especially considering America’s own unfortunate experience with a  liberal leader using his power to extract sexual favors. (Banks is British, but it’s inconceivable that he’s unaware of the Clinton trial.)

But despite Banks' glowing image of a free society, his most poignant observations are critiques of ideologies like neoconservatism that seek to impose Western values; much like America, the Culture feels a need to transmit its version of egalitarianism to the rest of the universe. Although the Culture is far too pacifist to engage in outright war, they often engage in clandestine manipulations of other civilizations' politics. To put it into contemporary political terms, they’re too advanced for an Iraq invasion, but they see no problem with the overall strategy of “hearts and minds”, of winning over “lesser” civilizations by influencing them towards the Culture’s point of view. His novels focus on a single organ of his proposed civilization - the agency called Contact - which deals with relations between the Culture and “lesser” civilizations, and more specifically Contact’s black ops arm Special Circumstances, which evangelizes by manipulating “undeveloped” races towards Culture standards. That this bears a resemblance to those elements of our government that wish to turn the Middle East into a series of Western-style democracies is no coincidence. In his most recent SF novel, Banks' civilization explicitly indulges in the Fukuyama-esque view that the Culture is the culmination of social development and the ultimate goal of all species, and exercises soft power to move a friendly species towards their view.

V. Ad Astra and the Dream Deferred

So I hope I’ve done something to explain the effect of SF writing on the political discourse. I chose my authors from those I knew best, but the intention was to show the reflection of SF ideals on the current political debate. On the right - how the apparently competing strains of total individualism and corporate fealty are resolved. On the left - how a certainty of egalitarian ideals is balanced by nervousness about forcing those ideals on others.

My goal here was two-fold: to explain the divide I see in the modern political landscape in terms I and many others are familiar with; but also to show how a certain kind of genre fiction has much to say about how our nation operates, and hopefully to show the explanatory power of genre fiction at large, a power too often neglected. If you are already a fan of SF, I hope you’ve found some inspiration in my words. And if you’re not yet, I hope I’ve given you the impetus to explore.      


Eric Garbe is a penny-ante malcontent from Atlanta. He is currently impersonating a law student but professes no ambitions or intentions regarding the future.

Other articles by Eric Garbe:

Eulogy for a Stranger

Elliott Smith