Rip It Up And Start Again

by limebirddennis

Continuing the science fiction theme from my last article, today I’m looking at how science fiction can address current political issues in a fictional setting, and how you can use current events to provide a jumping-off-point for a story. As an author, you have the power to remake society in whatever way that you want; you can, as Orange Juice sang, “rip it up and start again”, but, as Voltaire (or was it Spiderman?) said, “with great power comes great responsibility”; and so be careful what you create, some people may take it seriously!

Science fiction has a long history of investigating political alternatives, along with the fantastical journey sub-genre, some of the earliest examples looked at society and what it means. Thomas More’s “De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia” (which can be translated as “Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia”) gave the English language the word “Utopia” in 1516. While its origin is not agreed upon, for me, the explanation that it refers to two Greek words eutopia (good place) and outopia (no place) sums up the idea that, while a rationally organised society, where all property is held in common, has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, may be desirable, it is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. For a more recent depiction of a utopian society, one can look to Peter F. Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn Trilogy”; where Edenists live in vast sentient habitats orbiting gas giants, governed by the Consensus (the collective consciousness). Unfortunately, as in the original Eden, innocence is a fragile thing.

Where “Utopia” recounted the travels of Raphael Hythloday, it is the more famous travels of Lemuel Gulliver from “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships” by Jonathan Swift, that most readers will be familiar with. Each of the four parts is the reverse of the preceding one; in each, Gulliver is bigger than/smaller than/wiser than/more ignorant than the inhabitants of the land that he is visiting; similarly, the countries are more complex than/simpler than/more scientific than/and more natural than the England that Gulliver hails from; finally, and what is relevant here, the forms of government alternate between being worse/better/worse/better than England’s.

Swift uses the fantastic other lands to write a critique of what he saw in England and across Europe at the time. Gulliver sees the Lilliputians as being war-mongering unscrupulous people and yet, in Brobdingnag, the king is of the opinion that Europe is exactly the same. On Laputa, Gulliver sees the Grand Academy of Lagado as being impractical and unreasonable; and yet, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver himself is expelled for being a danger to society (as he is seen to be just a Yahoo with only a semblance of reason). Each of the societies that Gulliver visits has both positive and negative aspects, and it is Gulliver’s final assessment that no form of government is ideal.

The mirror image of the Utopia is the Dystopia. There are far more famous dystopian novels than can be discussed here, so I will mention just five that you may know – “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (dictatorship), “Brave New World” (ultracapitalism and eugenics), “Fahrenheit 451” (censorship), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (theocracy), and “The Iron Dream” (fascism). The dystopian novel had a major influence upon science fiction in the twentieth century and now, in the twenty-first, is a key part of the growth in Young Adult (YA) science fiction. If one wanted to summarise dystopias in a single sentence, then this quotation from “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would do it… “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

One possible cure for society’s tendency towards dystopia is, in the minds of many authors, libertarian science fiction; which had its birth in the 1930s and 1940s when the world was focused on the two most influential political constructs of the time, fascism and communism. A famous example (and one which holds a favoured place in the hearts of many on the American Right) is 1957’s “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand; in which a dystopian United States is strangled by increasing taxation and government regulation (which Rand equated to socialism) and where the libertarian/objectivist leader, John Galt, organises a strike of the world’s “creative leaders”, including inventors, artists and businessmen. At the time of the latest economic meltdown, conservative commentators, such as Neal Boortz, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have suggested that the book is a warning against a socialistic reaction to the financial crisis; as a consequence, sales in 2009 topped the half a million mark. Another writer of much libertarian science fiction (and my personal favourite) is Robert A. Heinlein, many of whose novels (particularly throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s) included libertarianism as a prominent theme. Key books in this vein would be “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, “Time Enough for Love”, and “Stranger in a Strange Land”; each of which won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, which honours classic libertarian fiction.

There are many political systems that I have not touched upon, but I will finish with one more – Militarism – one of the most famous examples is “Starship Troopers”, also by Robert A. Heinlein, which portrays a society where the vote is earned through placing society’s interests above one’s own, through government service or military service. You may be surprised to learn that it is on the official reading list of the US Marine Corps and West Point.

I have just scratched the surface of science fiction’s investigations into alternative systems for living. For every political system there is a book out there looking at the consequences; and, with every slap in the face from the ‘hand of history’, there is the spark of a story idea.

Having been quite a political person for all of my adult life, it’s not surprising that my fiction often looks at society; in the past two years I have written about privacy under the surveillance state (Closed Circuit), the conflict between free market capitalism and the welfare state (Road Runner), and the effects of imperialism (Odulik). It may be that I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I wouldn’t want to live in most of the societies that I write about!

So, when next you are looking for inspiration, why not think about that set of ‘what ifs’ that relate to the way that society is run? For example:

* What if only adults who have had children can vote?
* What if DNA patenting goes so far that a company owns a patent on you?
* What if a party gains power on the promise of sending immigrants ‘back’ – how far should it go? (Anglo Saxons to Angeln and Lower Saxony in Germany?)

Let your imagination roam free!

What science fiction has made you think about alternative ways of running society?

Have you written any? Please share!


25 Responses to “Rip It Up And Start Again”

  1. Interesting post Dennis. I do like science fiction books, they aren’t always my first choice of genre, but I do enjoy them. The ‘what ifs’that you have suggested are a bit scary, I can’t ever imagine the world getting to the point where things like that could happen but you never know. Maybe not while we’re alive.

    This point – “What if a party gains power on the promise of sending immigrants ‘back’ – how far should it go? (Anglo Saxons to Angeln and Lower Saxony in Germany?)” is definitely an interesting one. I think if they sent back ‘immigrants’ there would be no one left, especially in the UK. I wouldn’t be here for sure, I’d be in Spain… on second thoughts, I’m all for it! 😛

    • Science fiction is my first point of call when I’m looking for a book! The point, for me, about science fiction is that one can read all of the other genres through a science fiction lens. That might be romance, thriller, western, whatever…

      As for repatriation, not sure where I would end up. On my mother’s side I’m Anglo Saxon way back to before the Norman Conquest, but I also have Norman blood through her. Then, on my Dad’s side, there is Indian (indentured workers in Trinidad), African (slaves on Barbados) (I haven’t been able to find out from which African country yet) or Bangladeshi (indentured workers on Barbados). Maybe I could move around, a month here, a month there!

  2. Interesting and terrifying all at the same time! I’m also intrigued by the sending immigrants back idea. I would end up in England (unfortunately, looks like Beth would be gone from England!) But I’m not sure where my husband would go. He’s 1/2 Irish, 1/4 Chinese and 1/4 Italian… so maybe split him up and ship him all over haha!

    I do love me a good dystopian novel though and have some idea’s I’ve been brewing on for a while for one…mostly trying to figure out the logistics of it. But it’s mainly dealing with evolution and de-evolution sort of, happening side by side. I don’t know, don’t want to go into too many details so no one can steal my idea and become rich and famous off of it.. LOL.

    Have you ever watched the movie Idiocracy? I sort of think that’s probably the way we are heading…at least in America.

    • I’d be split over England, Ireland and Spain. Who knows about any further back than grandparents! haha.

      • My sister has done all of the hard work tracing things (along with my numerous cousins who are also into genealogy). On my father’s side we have back to Great Great Granddad. On Mum’s side back to 71-Greats Granddad!

    • Idiocracy is a very underrated movie!

      Strangely enough, given my normally pessimistic short stories, my first novel is generally positive (the negative stuff having happened back on Earth before the colonists left).

      Your evolution/de-evolution idea sounds interesting! I look forward to hearing more…

    • Agreed, Laura. I’d actually thought about that as a kid. I’m a mutt. Parts of my family have been in North America for several hundred years (bless the English for their OCD way of keeping records!), and according to family lore, my grandmother was the teensiest bit Cherokee. Prior to that, my family originates in England (on ancestor was a Wigglesworth – doesn’t get more English than that!), Ireland, Scotland, and Germany.

  3. Great post Dennis, and interesting set of questions at the bottom too. They sound like great story prompts!

    • Thanks Neeks. They were just three that I came up with off-the-cuff. However, I am seriously thinking about a short story based on one of them…

  4. Certainly I’ve written my own vision of the future – it’s the basic premise of “The Termite Queen.” See the page “My Future History” on my blog In my view the Earth started destroying itself beginning around the year 2100 when the petroleum reserves began to run out and then entered a Dark Age that lasted till around the year 2600. By the 28th century, humanity has resurrected itself with help from a mysterious group of writers called the Mythmakers, becoming a society based on humanist principles. It’s not a utopia, because I don’t think such a state can exist given the flawed character of human nature, but in fact humanity got a huge scare and wake-up call when it nearly went down the tubes. It proceeded to create a society of balanced moderation and union – a united Earth where people have accepted the tenet of personal responsibility and willingly given up certain rights and privileges in order to preserve human civilization, yet without losing important individual freedoms and rights.

    I don’t really like and I don’t read dystopian literature, although I do have one story in mind that would be laid during the Second Dark Age of Earth. I prefer to write about relationshps among humans and among humans and extraterrestrials and let the philosophical underpinnings emerge from the context. You can read Volume One of The Termite Queen right now, and Volume Two will appear in paperback within the next two weeks.
    Two novels that I found influential along this line were “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Mote in God’s Eye.” As for where I might end up if I were repatriated, it would have to be either Austria, the Isle of Man, or some unknown place in the British Isles! Personally, I think the Isle of Man would be the most interesting – I’d love to see fairies!

    • Thanks for your post Lorinda. You seem to have a well thought out ‘history’ underpinning your story which I feel is necessary (even if it does not appear in the novel I feel that authors need to have at least considered how the situation that they are writing about arose).

      As for dystopias: they can be a bit tough to read, but I feel there are two different classes; there are the ones that are unremittingly bad, and do not hold out hope at the end; and there are the ones that are bad but, through the story, things get better.

      You mention Fahrenheit 451, with its famous last line “When we reach the city.” which is seen as a direct reference to the biblical apocalypse and the spiritual resurrection. That can be contrasted with the last two sentences of 1984 where Winston Smith has all of his doubts (brain)washed away. “He had won the victory over himself. He loved big brother.”

      So, sometimes I come away from a dystopia feeling uplifted and hopeful, sometimes depressed for the future. However, both reactions are brought on by my having been forced to think about where we may be headed, which, for me, is a good thing.

      As for fairies, be careful what you wish for, they can be nasty!

  5. My second novel will use scifi as a vehicle for writing on domestic violence. Scifi certainly expands the landscape within which one can tell a story.

    • Thanks for your comment Nelle. I look forward to hearing more about your novel.

      I once wrote a flash fiction piece set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where the alien tells his story of drinking in the Mos Eisley Cantina (from Star Wars, although I didn’t actually name it) and abusing his mate when he gets home. I tried to make a serious point while spoofing things that the fans would know (it was even called “A New Hope” from how the alien describes his attitude now that he is sober).

  6. I love sci fi and read it almost exclusively now. While I have read a number of the novels you mention I prefer short stories. A great one for your Utopian section is Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Thanks.

    • Thanks for giving that tip Mike, I had totally forgotten it! “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” is interesting because while, on the surface, the society is clearly utopian, Le Guin was influenced by William James’s theory of pragmatism, and it is just what makes the happiness possible that is the power of the story. (I won’t give any more of a spoiler – go out and read it everyone!)

      • Driving into work today I thought of the original Dune which to me reflects the times in which it was written: communism and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

    • Personally I find “Omelas” to be one of most disturbing stories I ever read because it shows with such consummate skill the depths to which humanity will descend in order to make a society of comfort and self-indulgence for itself. The hope arises in the reality that some people walk away from this approach. I suppose that is what I make humanity do in my own view of the future – I still believe in the human species’ basic rationality, compassion, empathy, and ability to take responsibility for its actions. If I didn’t, I couldn’t call myself a humanist.

  7. An interesting point, Mike. While there may be parallels with the situation in Afghanistan and there are some things that relate to communism (or perhaps socialism in a broader sense) it was written in 1965, 14 years before the Russian invasion.

    Dune is a very complicated book, and the various societies within it draw upon many different cultures and traditions; environmentalism is a central theme, imperialism runs through the book with parallels to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (with the Great Houses and Emperor Shaddam IV). There is also the major issue of monopolies (the Spacing Guild).

    Later, in Dune Messaih, Paul Atreides (Muad’Dib) is the galactic Emperor and has unleashed a jihad that resulted in the deaths of sixty-one billion people and he is the focus of the Fremen religion.

    For me, one of the fantastic things about Dune is its complexity and the way that a range of links can be made to various aspects of our own world.

    • Interesting that I never actually read the copyright date. I have also never read the sequels as I do not want to distort my admiration for the original. I always connect it with Herberts’s vision of the rise of terrorism spawned by such an invasion.

  8. Still reading 1st paragraph. It wasn’t Spiderman – it was Uncle Ben, right? 🙂

    • Nope, Uncle Ben said “The rice that’s always ready to enjoy.” 😉

      It was originally Voltaire (but riffing on Jesus’ “To whom much has been given, much will be expected”

      Then FDR was going to say “Today we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility.” but he died the day before the Jefferson Day Dinner.

      In the Spiderman universe the quotation originally appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 and appears in a narrative caption in the comic’s last panel (not spoken by anybody). It is only later that it becomes one of Uncle Ben’s many homilies (and is then taken up by Spiderman himself). 😉

  9. Very interesting. Atlas Shrugged was the first government/society evaluating book I read where I really “got” what the author was saying. I read a few others before that, but either I was too young, or there wasn’t a really long monologue to hammer it in 😉

    Anyway, I do enjoy those types of books, but I usually prefer it to be background than foreground in a story. Interesting jump-point for a project though. Nice post!

    • Thanks for your comments Shannon. I agree that it is often better that the system itself should be in the background of the story, but it can be one of the main drivers of the story even then.


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