Hard to be a god

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write a chapter on politics for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. I took a draft of it with me to a Polish science fiction convention in 2002 and asked a fellow guest, the Russian writer Kirill Eskov, to look over my cautious paragraph or two on Soviet science fiction. He read them and rolled his eyes.

‘Ken,’ he said, ‘all Soviet science fiction was oppositional!’

‘What about the communist-utopian writers?’ I objected.

Kirill snorted. ‘Especially these!’

In 2008, at the Australian science fiction convention Swancon, I got into a similar late-night, spirit-lubricated conversation with the Marxist academic Darren Jorgensen. This time, the surprise was his insistence that China is still a ‘socialist country’ or ‘workers’ state’, a contention that then struck me as self-evidently false, and that now seems to me just as obviously true. Lines of thought arising from these two chance encounters run through what follows.

In his politically useful article on the Sad/Mad Puppies controversy – the latest culture war to roil science fiction (SF) fandom – Rjurik Davidson ends with a call to thought and action:

If there’s something to be taken from the entire debacle, it’s that it opens the way for a discussion of what science fiction should be. What kind of literature should we be championing? What kind of forms represent the best science fiction has to offer? The best long-term solution, then, would be to organise the progressive science fiction community, not necessarily in the form of a counter-slate, but rather in terms of an aesthetic and political position for what the best science fiction would look like, and what the science fiction community should stand for.

This paragraph raises a lot of questions. The most straightforward is the one that might seem the hardest to define: what should the science fiction community stand for? In so far as science fiction is a community – a term that could encompass much, from informal gatherings to the industrial empires of media franchises – it should stand for the levels of good practice you would expect in a well-managed and well-organised workplace or public event in an advanced capitalist country. Don’t stand for bullying, harassment, insults, assaults. Don’t make life more difficult for people already dealing with difficulties, and, as far as possible, make it easier. Elementary as this list seems, it already demands a lot.

Knottier and more fundamental are the preceding questions and assumptions. Can we identify – or self-identify as – the ‘progressive’ science fiction community? And if this is possible, can we – and should we – adopt or strive for a common ‘aesthetic and political position’? Questions such as these, as applied to art and literature in general, have baffled and bedevilled the sharpest revolutionary minds of the twentieth century – to say nothing of what has been made of them, in the states founded by these same revolutionaries, by stupid and/or evil minds with censors’ pens and blunter instruments to hand.

Recent editions of the Soviet SF classic Hard to be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, contain an afterword by the latter on the book’s writing and reception, in the context of a furore in the Soviet press over SF in the early 1960s. One academic accused the authors of ‘abstractionism and surrealism’; another writer accused them of pornography. Earlier, in a meeting of the Writers’ Union of Moscow, a suggestion of the possibility of faster-than-light travel was denounced because ‘in the 30s, fascists had tortured and persecuted Einstein’ for his postulate of the invariance of the speed of light. I’ve heard – far too many times over far too many years – quite similar stupidities at discussions on culture organised by avowedly anti-Stalinist Marxists. There is little reason to think a quarrelsome congeries of SF writers, academics and fans could do better.

I’m particularly sceptical of the possibility when that same ‘progressive’ SF community is still bleeding from the self-inflicted wounds of two recent bouts of online infighting. These have gone down in internet lore as the ‘Racefail’ and ‘Requires Hate’ controversies, and ostensibly revolved around the failures – real or alleged – of SF representations of the Other by writers in or from advanced capitalist countries. The former controversy certainly had more positive effects than the latter, but both were painful to many involved. The flash-fire (and flash-mob) character of online debate on platforms such as LiveJournal, Facebook and Twitter served to raise the heat and lower the light, and left many participants not only burnt out at a personal level, but also reluctant to engage further with issues of race and gender.

A notable feature of these fights was that the targets weren’t right-wing writers (whether traditionally conservative or libertarian), nor the far more influential makers of popular movies and TV series who unreflectingly replicate and reinforce widespread prejudices and exclusions. No, they were leftists or liberals almost to a person. Quite a few were from the Global South, whether in person or by descent, or from other historically oppressed groups. The evidence for this is laid out in detail in Laura J Mixon’s ‘A Report on Damage Done by One Individual under Several Names’. Seeing what progressives do to progressives, you would be tempted to conclude that it’s safer to be a fascist. What is particularly galling is the imposition of US culture-war categories on the rest of the world, lumping the entire developing world, including the thriving market socialisms and rising capitalisms of Asia and Africa, with the most oppressed layers of US society as ‘POC’. Just watching these flame wars through my fingers was enough for me to tear up my notional ‘progressive’ party card and establish my own social justice organisation, the International Society of Friends of the San Andreas Fault. (Impatience with waiting for California to slide into the ocean has already spawned a militant splinter group, the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation Fan Club, whose slogan-chant is: ‘Mystics? Statistics? We want ballistics!’)

Not that the plaint of the Sad Puppies – that there is some conspiracy against all that made SF ‘exciting and fun in the first place’, or that writers from the Right receive no due recognition – has much substance on its side. Writers who are socially and politically conservative, some of them avowedly traditional in their professions of religion, are lauded from all sides of the field. Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, SM Stirling, Neal Stephenson, Robert Silverberg, Neal Asher, Peter F Hamilton et al. are hardly given the cold shoulder by SF fandom. Thomas M Disch and Robert A Heinlein are still revered, and their work respectfully dissected by scholars using the full critical theory toolkit of feminist, Marxist, postmodernist (etc.) analysis. The Catholicism in Walter M Miller Jr’s post-apocalyptic classic A Canticle for Leibowitz is so traditional that the masses are in Latin. The Church’s opposition to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia is unmistakably and unshakably endorsed for the most trying of circumstances. The depiction of history as a treadmill of repeated catastrophe driven by an unchanging fallen human nature is diametrically opposed to liberal and socialist notions of progress. The novel has seldom been out of print in fifty years.

Nor is colourful, action-oriented SF written in popular literary forms despised, or its practice eschewed, by liberal or leftist SF writers. Lois McMaster Bujold writes adventure stories starring a feudal lord. For crying out loud, Mary Robinette Kowal – whose bestowed awards bring particularly salty tears to the eyes of Sad Puppies – writes historical fantasy on the template of Regency romances! John Scalzi writes (among much else) military SF. Among the self-identified socialists, Iain Banks wrote wide-screen space operas, while Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson are best known for works whose literary form owes much to the nineteenth-century Russian novel. There is no necessary connection between traditional form and conservative political content, or between radical form and progressive content.

Davidson claims the Puppies are ‘conservative both politically and aesthetically, and there’s a connection between the two’. But as the examples above indicate, the connection is far from close in SF, and making it in a wider context is notoriously difficult: literary modernism and political conservatism, or indeed reaction, have often been found in the same person, from Eliot and Pound to Mishima. Conversely, popular form and radical content have proved a powerful combination in the hands of writers from Dashiell Hammett to John le Carré and Stieg Larsson. Of course, crime and spy fiction are intrinsically political genres, and equally amenable to left- and right-wing inflections.

In SF, the relationship between aesthetic and political radicalism, and between both these elements and popular appeal, is necessarily more complex, and often contingent. It may be a historical accident that John W Campbell, the editor who did the most to shape what is often gestured to as good old-fashioned Golden Age SF, was an idiosyncratic right-winger and racist. Likewise, the writers of the new wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s were often of the Left. But the exceptions should be noted. In Britain, Keith Roberts was a valued contributor to New Worlds in all its incarnations, and his Pavane is rightly regarded as a classic. His politics were a libertarian, patriotic English conservatism, and were manifest in (and intrinsic to) his work. This was never an issue for his peers. The disaster novels of JG Ballard, as the US Marxist critic H Bruce Franklin has shown in detail, were riddled with reactionary assumptions and attitudes arising from an elegiac acceptance of ‘the decline of the West’ and a class-based incapacity to identify with the West’s potential successors, yet Ballard’s popularity and esteem were never in doubt. Nor was the worth or verve of the formal innovations he pioneered in the work most closely associated with the new wave, such as The Atrocity Exhibition and the ‘condensed novels’ published in New Worlds.

The small element of truth in the Puppies’ protest is that a small number of writers have found themselves persona non grata in much of organised SF fandom: notably John C Wright, Orson Scott Card and Vox Day. But what has brought opprobrium down on their heads is not so much the literary expression of their right-wing views as their obsessive political agitation in favour of them, and in some cases their overt personal insults directed at female, black or queer writers and fans. A painful example is that of the talented hard-SF writer James P Hogan, a warm and convivial man who did his well-earned reputation (and his hitherto hearty welcome in fandom’s social life) no good at all by his late embrace of ‘scepticism’ towards evolution, climate change, AIDS and – most personally damaging of all – the Holocaust. People have the right to say such things, and other people have the right to leave the room when they do, or to not invite them in in the first place.

The fundamental problem, as Davidson notes, lies beyond the small world of SF. A symptom is the divergent fates of the words ‘progress’ and ‘progressive’. Few who are called ‘progressive’ would repudiate the label, yet they themselves are among the most likely to hedge about the word ‘progress’ with scare quotes or sneer quotes. The counter-revolution has made things worse, but much of the Left had already separated material progress from social progress – a development that would have astonished and appalled Marx, Engels and Lenin – long before the European socialist states were demolished. Quite how long before I’m not sure, but the first socialist pamphlet I ever read (undated, but published around 1970) claimed that with ‘atomic power and automation’ we could build a world of ‘peace, leisure and abundance beyond the wildest dreams of the utopians’. At the time, that would have been its least controversial sentence. Today it would be widely regarded as shocking (including by all the descendant organisations of the group that printed it).

It’s no news that the Left, almost independently of its views on the nature of Soviet-type societies, has been hammered and disoriented by their summary and sudden eviction. My own opinions on the matter are as follows.

All attempts to establish socialist economies without at least small- and medium-sized private enterprises have proved unviable in the long run if not the short, and the costs have often been grievous. There are very good reasons for this, and recognition of them is by no means confined to the Right. The basis for socialism is socialised production, and most production (and distribution) is far from socialised now, and cannot be in the foreseeable future. The decisive economic levers are, of course, already socialised as giant corporations, banks and other financial institutions. Planning and democratic control could be applied to them more or less overnight. Not so the rest of the economy. On a global scale, the transition to even a predominantly post-capitalist society is likely to be the work of centuries. This means that for a very long time individuals and entire classes deeply invested – in every sense – in capitalist or, more broadly, market relations will be an irreplaceable part of any societies building socialism. So will their artistic expression and idealisation. Suppressing this is no more desirable, or in the long run even possible, than suppressing small and medium enterprise itself. This has several implications for any progressive project in SF.

First, it will be more necessary than ever to avoid leftist literary sectarianism. Just as the great realist writers who were personally conservative, such as Balzac and Scott, have enriched socialist thought, so we should be alert for what can be enjoyed and learned from, as well as criticised in, libertarian and conservative SF. In this respect, the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus Award – often given to avowedly leftist writers such as Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross and myself – shows an admirable openness the Left would do well to emulate.

Second, a major condition for the existence of SF at all, both as a self-conscious literary genre and marketing category, is the lived experience of rapid social and economic change, and in particular cumulative industrial development. The rise of China and the newly industrialising countries can be expected to – and indeed already is – producing new literatures and art forms of the fantastic. Sooner or later, this will have an impact in and influence on ‘the West’. We should do what we can to make it sooner rather than later. Geoff Ryman, for instance, has worked closely with African and diasporic writers to organise regular African SF reading groups in London and Manchester. Awards and scholarships by the Carl Brandon Society have recognised and promoted Asian and African writers as well as writers of colour in the US. These may be small beginnings, but they are beginnings.

Finally, the complexities and conflicts of this long and turbulent passage could surely provide a great deal of material for imagination in advance, and give ample room for adventure and exploration. The future is bigger, and infinitely more varied, than utopia or dystopia. In some of my own recent novels I’ve tried to imagine both positive and negative aspects of a world in complex and contested transition, as in Descent (2014), or of a world being more or less consciously and cynically held back from the socialist tipping point, as in Intrusion (2012). Much more, I’m sure, could be done with imagining such a ‘long revolution’: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and his more recent 2312, are the exemplars that to me (with my own limitations, which are almost certainly far narrower than I suspect) come at once to mind. There are – there must be – others already, from places and people I know nothing about. I look forward to hearing from and about these places and people.


This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod is the author of fourteen science fiction novels, from The Star Fraction (1995) to Descent (2014), and many articles and short stories. He has worked in IT, science communication and creative writing education. Active in Left politics from the 1970s to the 1990s, he is entirely to blame for everything that has happened since. He blogs at kenmacleod.blogspot.com and tweets as @amendlocke.

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