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!