The politics of speculative fiction
After reading Brave New World I was struck by the politics of speculative fiction. As fiction it’s able to explore difficult subjects in an oblique way, much like comedy and satire. Speculative fiction conjures up imaginary worlds that aren’t real, even if they do feel authentic. It offers a contemplative space to explore scenarios and outcomes. The range of genre options available to speculative fiction writers includes historical fiction, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Thematically and tonally, these options make speculative fiction a useful mirror to examine ideas about human nature, society, cultural change, and other contemporary concerns. Starship Troopers, for example, was written as a warning about the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but it could well be about contemporary authoritarianism.
Speculative fiction is also capable of zooming in on a character or pulling out to reveal the bigger politics surrounding them. In Dune and John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, characters battle for power in a Machiavellian game of influence and control. Fights between characters are framed by an overarching history and a larger political dimension. Politics is messy. Ideals are corrupted. Hopes become lies. The Fremen’s struggle for liberation in Dune turns out to be ironic. Their emancipation morphs into yet another repressive power structure.
One of the recurring themes that connects different strands of speculative fiction (especially in its dystopian form) is the scenario of individual repression. Brave New World, 1984, THX 1138, and The Handmaid’s Tale are classic examples of this. They depict societies where individuality and diversity of thought are a heresy. The system is eroding the population’s common humanity.
Another popular theme in speculative fiction is the impact of cultural change. This may occur in the form of shifting geo-political power, economic growth and decline, ethnic division, population displacement, environmental change, technological change, economic change, shifting attitudes and norms about sexuality, and changes in ethical behaviour. Foundation (1951) and A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) are two Cold War era novels that deal with change on vast timescales. They examine fears that mirror US notions about cultural decline and the hope of a future rebirth.
Speculative fiction often deals with worlds that represent aspects of heaven and hell. Paradise worlds are celebrations of the ideal, and of human enlightenment. Hellish worlds are warnings about corruptive powers and megalomania. In some ways, they are political manifestos representing the hopes and fears of both the writer and reader. The promise of paradise worlds are often revealed to be an illusion. Nightmare worlds provide other functions besides acting as warnings. They increase the dramatic opportunities available to the storyteller. They also help to reveal the true nature of the characters within those worlds. Harsh conditions may expose deeply negative traits, such as a lack of empathy or a desire for power. Adversity and hardship can also bring out the best in characters, demonstrating altruism and an ability to cohere.
A story can be enjoyed on different levels but, I think that it’s fair to say, it’s only possible to fully appreciate a novel when the author’s intentions are understood. Take Gulliver’s Travels, for example. It’s fine as a kooky fantasy, but it’s elevated to a different level when it’s appreciated as a satire of Eighteenth Century European politics. With this in mind, I’ve just re-read Brave New World. It’s not a novel I’ve previously liked. Now I realise why I had such an ambivalent attitude about it. I didn’t really understand what Aldous Huxley was doing. I was expecting an exciting sci-fi genre story, when it’s actually a highly intellectual novel with literary, philosophical, and political ambitions. The story serves those ambitions, rather than an action-based plot. Brave New World is part satire, part parody, and part pastiche. If I had to narrow it down, I’d probably call it a pastiche of the socialist utopia, intermeshed with a satirical take on American consumerism. In 1984, people are controlled by fear and propaganda.In Brave New World the population is genetically modified (although the novel predates the discovery of DNA), indoctrinated by ideology, distracted by pleasure and drugs. It’s fascism with MDMA. The issue with both these stories, I think, is the dramatic sacrifice they make for the sake of didacticism. That’s why they feel strangely wooden and, in my opinion, why no one has managed make a decent film out of them. After winning a nine-year war, the World State in Brave New World has purged the old world through mass-executions and cultural cleansing. Now, children are taught ‘elementary class consciousness’. They are manufactured and brainwashed like factory products. The scenario is the paradise world that comes with a heavy price. Everything appears to work smoothly in this future world, but it’s turned society into a factory farm. This post-family, post-marriage society is a place where motherhood and childbirth are considered barbaric and disgusting, and most women are made sterile (a comment on the cult of youth). Meanwhile, the lower classes are manufactured lab monsters, reduced to a zombie-like, lobotomised state to happily carry out manual work. Is it better than 1984? That’s a tricky one. Maybe.
- The various Dune sequels have mixed reviews. Having read Children of Dune (1976) (I skipped Dune Messiah) my feeling is that it’s a worthy successor, but not as gripping as the first novel. Frank Herbert’s Dune, the TV adaptation from 2000 was pretty ropey, but the sequel, Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, is surprisingly okay. The special effects are much better (it’s amazing how fast CGI improved in the 00s). Everything about this mini-series is a huge improvement over its predecessor, even the spice-blue eyes have been sorted out. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson’s Legends of Dune trilogy: Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (2002), Dune: The Machine Crusade (2003), Dune: The Battle of Corrin (2004) has also had mixed reviews. The novels are written in a different style to Frank Herbert’s original trilogy — less literary, more of a mainstream ‘blockbuster style’. Why is it interesting? The trilogy is (apparently) based on Frank Herbert’s notes. It’s a prequel that takes place about 10,000 years before the first Dune novel. It explains why there are no advanced robots in the Dune world. There were robots with advanced AI but a war took place between the humans and the machines. As a result, technology has deliberately progressed without ‘thinking machines’.
- I’ve read a couple of Andy McNab novels. Immediate Action (1995), which does the training-to-battle story, and Bravo Two Zero (1993), which is the impossible mission that, well… turns out to be impossible. The result is a heroic tragedy, a record of human endurance (for both the protagonist and the reader, because half of the book is an extended torture scene). Immediate Action is a coming-of-age novel as well as a military fiction genre story, which gives it more depth. I liked the way that the main character’s military experience is contextualised at the end of each chapter with his emotional development and the state of his marriage. Out of the two novels Immediate Action definitely feels like the better book. As for the action, it turns out that it’s the stuff around the action that makes the action more compelling.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Turned on the West is a remarkable piece of research that comes at you at full pelt with its information-dense narrative. A change of pace now and again would have been welcome. Catherine Belton was the Financial Times’ Moscow correspondent from 2007 to 2013. Putin’s People was published in 2020 and it was named 2020’s book of the year by The Economist, the Financial Times, the New Statesman, and The Telegraph. The book chronicles how the KGB realised that the Soviet Union would break apart a decade before it actually did. They planned to maintain their power in a post-USSR world by harnessing the ‘invisible economy’ (criminal elements working with state security services, outside of normal business processes). It was the same model they used during the Cold War as part of their state espionage activities. It’s easy to be morally smug and to point fingers, but the US was happy to befriend Yeltsin in-spite of his corruption. Tony Blair was all-in on opening up British financial institutions to the new Russian money, knowing exactly where the money had come from, and the British courts (which tend to favour the rich and powerful) have been used to harass and pursue the enemies of Russia’s post-Soviet power elite.
- As if one depressing book about post-USSR Russia wasn’t enough, I’ve read Luke Harding’s 2020 Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West. It focuses on Russia’s relationship with Trump. This is written in a more story-like, character-based way that’s less of a fact-fest than Putin’s People. The book gets a bit bogged down in the nitty-gritty of US politics, but it offers an interesting insight into how the Russian state security system works, and the probable nature of its relationship with Trump. After reading these books, I’m beginning to wonder how much of Russian culture, and its relationship with the West is geo-politically inevitable, destined by the country’s vast size, the low population density of Siberia, and its location between Europe and the far East. It’s easy to forget that Imperial Russia and the USSR were basically the same empire, albeit with different political systems and leaderships. It was an empire that colonised the land adjacent to it, setting up how Russian leaders still perceive their neighbours, and the world around them.