Adrian Graham

Brave New World book cover

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.