Monday 21 April 2014

Politics in science fiction: an inevitability?

Last night I read an article by Keith Brooke (who writes as Nick Gifford) at SF Signal.

He writes:
"...[F]iction doesn’t come much more political than science fiction. Every time an SF writer sits down to write about a near future, or even a far future, she or he is making political choices: in that future, there either is or isn’t climate change or resource depletion; humankind has survived by making certain choices, or survival hasn’t been an issue because these problems were not genuine. We can’t get away from confronting these questions, though, whatever our beliefs; even if we sidestep these issues, we’re making a political statement by doing so."
This is, I suppose, somewhat related to the old "the personal is political" truism of 1970's feminism, in that even avoiding reference to political reality is making a statement about it, but Brooke is right in emphasising that anything set in the future is automatically making a statement about what the world will be like in five, fifty, five hundred years into the future. I am reminded of Ian McEwan's magnificent The Child in Time from 1987. Quite incidentally to the drama, McEwan's world is one in which climate change is a reality. (He deals with the subject more overtly, although arguably less successfully in his 2010 novel, Solar.)

It's a subject dear to my current preoccupations because my work-in-progress is overtly political, so it is nice to see this recognition of the inevitability of political meaning in SF. Brooke cautions, rightly, against polemic. It is a different beast entirely, and one I am at pains to try to avoid.

The answer to that comes, inevitably, from character. Always character.


  1. In terms of the mix between politics and sci fi, for me, Ursula K Le Guin comes to mind most strongly. That reminds me: I really should read more of her work. Looking forward to reading yours too, Margaret!

  2. I haven't read any Le Guin for *mumblemumble* years. Er... decades. And yes, you're right. She is well worth reading/rereading in that regard.

    Iain M. Banks' Culture series is also fascinating in relation to politics. In his cosmos, resources in the dominant culture are so plentiful that it is essentially a socialist utopia. How is that for optimistic?!

  3. Indeed - how can you imagine a society without conceiving how it is organised? I'm reading Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Red Mars' at the moment, for research for some science fiction I'm writing. Excellent politics.

    1. Absolutely. He is adventurous in his exploration of politics. I just love his world building. The science and the environments in the Mars Trilogy, and in his later 2312 are just boggling.

      I just wish he did more work on characterisation. I find his characters too often implausible and their motivations under-developed. But I forgive him that. His vision of living on Mercury is sublime!

  4. Great to see this blog! I now agree that most SF makes some sort of political statement even without trying, although when I first started reading it as a child this aspect completely passed me by. I re-read the Asimov Generation books and had to re-construct my interpretations many years after first reading- lots of fun, actually. How about Sheri Tepper? Some totally off the planet worlds there- some way-out versions of feminism, too. Wonderful if you can build some characters we really want to "know", unlike Kim S-R [whom I must forgive for his amazing world-building also]. So eager to see your finished novel- almost as eager as you!

    1. I haven't read any Sheri Tepper, Kay. Off to Google her!

      Gads but I hope I can get the characterisation right. So crucial. And it's so much easier to see when writers get it wrong than it is to get it right.

      Thanks for your comments!