Most of the works which we can characterize with hindsight as Proto SF are political fantasies. The earnest and constructive aspect of this endeavour is generally displayed in Utopias, the mocking and corrosive aspect in Satires. The desire to make political statements has continued to be the main motive force in works of sf by Mainstream Writers, although modern works of this kind make much more frequent use of images of Dystopia than either of the traditional modes of comment. Important subgenres of sf like the Future-War story grew out of exercises in political propaganda (> Invasion), and all real-world political crusades have sparked the production of competing images of the future. All images of the Near Future embody political speculations, partly because of their close continuity with the present and partly because political events are usually a more significant agent of short-term change than scientific Discovery or Technological development. There is today a thriving subgenre of "political thrillers" – often written by sometime politicians like Spiro T Agnew (1918-1996) and Jeffrey Archer, or even practising ones like Gary Hart (1936- ) and Douglas Hurd, but much more elegantly done by writers like Richard Condon and Allen Drury – the great majority of whose plots are necessarily set in the near future.
The principal political debates of the nineteenth century are reflected in many early works of sf, the most important being that associated with the rise of socialism. Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Jack London and – in the early part of his career – George Griffith were all moved to construct images of future socialist utopias and revolutions. H G Wells, the presiding genius of UK scientific romance, was a fervent if somewhat idiosyncratic socialist, as was, in an even more curious way, M P Shiel. Before the founding of the SF Magazines, such writers as George Allan England followed Jack London's lead in importing stridently anti-capitalist (or at least "anti-trust") futuristic fables into the pulp stratum of the fiction marketplace. Inevitably, socialist visions of the future called forth opposition in the form of images of hideously bloody revolution and regimented dystopias. Notable novels which combine serious political speculations with some appreciation of the imperatives and opportunities associated with technological progress are Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890), Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), London's The Iron Heel (1907), Victor Rousseau's The Messiah of the Cylinder (June-September 1917 Everybody's Magazine; 1917; vt The Apostle of the Cylinder 1918) and Claude Farrère's Useless Hands (1920; trans 1926). With the passage of time the dystopian imagery associated with political fantasies became more and more extreme, as such fantasies began to pose more abstract questions of political philosophy and the political spectrum was confused by the rise of fascism and the spectre of totalitarianism. Owen Gregory's prophetic account of the nation which might arise from the ashes of German defeat, Meccania (1918), stands at the head of a tradition of caricaturistic and surreal political fantasies which includes Milo Hastings's City of Endless Night (1920), Yevgeny Zamiatin's My (trans as We 1924), Edmund Snell's Kontrol (1928), John Kendall's Unborn Tomorrow (1933), J Leslie Mitchell's Gay Hunter (1934), Joseph O'Neill's Land under England (1935), John Palmer's The Hesperides (1936), Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night (1937 as by Murray Constantine), Andrew Marvell's Minimum Man (1938), Ayn Rand's Anthem (1938) and P G Chadwick's The Death Guard (1939). Alongside these works appeared more modest expressions of sour disenchantment, depicting short-sighted politicians and their equally short-sighted supporters failing dismally to cope with the challenges facing them; these include Rose Macaulay's What Not (1919), J D Beresford's Revolution (1921), Fred MacIsaac's "World Brigands" (30 June-4 August 1928 1928 Argosy All-Story Weekly), Hilaire Belloc's But Soft – We Are Observed (1928), Upton Sinclair's Roman Holiday (1931), Harold Nicolson's Public Faces (1932) John Gloag's Winter's Youth (1934) and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935).
In stark contrast to non-genre writers, the suppliers of the specialist sf Pulp magazines paid relatively little attention to political matters, mostly taking it for granted not only that technological progress was the real engine of social change but that contemporary US democracy might be subverted but would never be worthily superseded. Stanton A Coblentz's leaden satires do contain a certain amount of open-minded political discussion, but such stories as Miles J Breuer's "The Gostak and the Doshes" (March 1930 Amazing) relegated ideological disputes to literal meaninglessness, and Breuer's and Jack Williamson's The Birth of a New Republic (Winter 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1981 chap) cast the interplanetary politics of the future slavishly in the mode of the political evolution of the USA's past (> History in SF). Despite the conspicuously declared uninterest of Hugo Gernsback (who published translations of a few German-supremacist utopian fantasies by Otfrid von Hanstein and others), events in Europe gradually infected with anxiety the visions of the future produced by sf writers. Paul A Carter's history of magazine sf, The Creation of Tomorrow (1977), includes an excellent chapter tracking reflections of and responses to the rise of Hitler in such stories as Wallace West's "The Phantom Dictator" (August 1935 Astounding) and Nat Schachner's series begun with "Past, Present and Future" (September 1937 Astounding). There is a sense in which sf has never stopped reacting to Hitler, in that Alternate-History stories of what might have happened had he triumphed in World War Two continue to be extremely popular (> Hitler Wins). Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972) suggests that, if Hitler had become an sf writer instead of a dictator, his sublimated dreams would have been readily accommodated within the great traditions of Space Opera and Heroic Fantasy.
World War 2, in securing the defeat of European fascism and paving the way for the Cold War, established a new real-world context for political fantasy, but its main effect on sf was to bring the entrenched trends rapidly to a climax in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which became the model for a great deal of later fiction in which the future is imagined as a metaphorical boot stamping on a human face forever. There is a sense in which dystopian fiction after 1949 is merely a series of footnotes to Orwell – so much so that it is not clear whether such works as David Karp's One (1953) and L P Hartley's Facial Justice (1960) really qualify as political fantasies at all, although Arthur Koestler's The Age of Longing (1951) and Adrian Mitchell's The Bodyguard (1970) clearly do. Orwellian fantasy was imported into Genre SF by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; exp 1953), and political fantasy of a curious kind, featuring many tales of rebellion against "perverted" political systems in which the interests of some special-interest group have become dominant, became very popular in the magazines of the 1950s. Because it was deemed socially insignificant, sf could play host to political criticism of a kind which might elsewhere have attracted the attentions of Joseph McCarthy (1909-1957) and his Un-American Activities Committee; John W Campbell Jr's determined affection for unorthodoxy led him to provide a home for such stories as James Blish's "At Death's End" (May 1954 Astounding), whose anti-McCarthy elements were further exaggerated when it was expanded to form part of They Shall Have Stars (fixup 1956; rev vt Year 2018! 1957). On the other hand, Robert Silverberg has revealed that Howard Browne terminated Rog Phillips's career as a regular contributor to the Ziff-Davis pulps because of his reckless use of the word "communism" in "Frontiers Beyond the Sun" (January 1953 Amazing as by Mallory Storm).
The tradition of Hard SF which developed in Campbell's Astounding Science-Fiction had a conspicuous tendency towards what is now termed Libertarianism. This is often credited to Campbell's own idiosyncrasies, including his human-chauvinism (which caused the more conventionally liberal Isaac Asimov to eliminate Aliens from the future history mapped out in the Foundation series) and his fascination with the merits of slavery, but Campbell's unorthodoxy was actually quite elastic – as evidenced by the permission which he gave to his chief Devil's Advocate of the 1960s, Mack Reynolds, to challenge conventional political assumptions. It is rather from Robert A Heinlein's version of Social Darwinism that the strident libertarian tradition of US hard sf stems, but there are noticeable differences of ideological complexion and rhetorical style between the other Golden-Age writers sometimes lumped together with him as "right-wingers": L Sprague de Camp, L Ron Hubbard and A E van Vogt. The writers of the 1950s who enlisted in these ranks – most notably and most thoughtfully Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson – were by no means followers of a party line, nor were such 1960s writers as Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and G C Edmondson, and nor are more recently emergent writers like James P Hogan and L Neil Smith. Extreme libertarians are inevitably drawn to images of the future which vividly display the uncompromising nature of their philosophies – as can be seen in the various writings of Ayn Rand and the work of such political philosophers as Robert Nozick – and the clustering of such writers around the more assertively optimistic threads of the sf tradition needs no conspiracy theory to explain it. At least some of what passes for libertarianism in the works of these and other writers is not dogmatically based at all, but rather represents a continuation of the tradition of sceptical fantasy which grew up between the wars, taking the view that all political institutions are likely to be manned by corrupt incompetents. The quasi-anarchic spirit which one finds in the work of Eric Frank Russell, Philip K Dick and many of the Futurians is rooted in this ironic tradition, as is the work of such non-genre writers as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Then again, much supposedly libertarian sf simultaneously glorifies militarism to such an extent that the bureaucratic organizations of the state are replaced, at least so far as the key characters are concerned, by hyperorganized command structures in which the ethic of individual freedom supposedly being upheld is chimerically bonded to ideals of slavish loyalty and self-sacrificing "honour"; Niven and Pournelle's Oath of Fealty (1981) is a particularly cleverly thought-out exercise in this kind of doublethink. The sf writers who found themselves in the "opposite" camp to the libertarians when Galaxy Science Fiction published its notorious paired ads about the USA's involvement in Vietnam (> Future War) have produced little political rhetoric to compare with the dynamism of the gung-ho glam-tech conquerors of space, although they have produced a good deal of what their macho detractors might describe as "pinko bleeding-heart fiction" lamenting the cruel injustices of a world in danger of spoliation. Active left-wing movements, as featured in Gordon Eklund's All Times Possible (1974) and John Shirley's Eclipse (1985), remain rare, although the curious anarchist philosophies displayed in Norman Spinrad's Agent of Chaos (1967) and van Vogt's The Anarchistic Colossus (1977) have attracted some attention from would-be followers.
Other political issues which gradually came to the fore in post-World War Two sf were sexual politics and race relations. Fantasies of sexual politics had a long history dating back to the days of the suffragettes and such feminist writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but serious speculative work had largely been eclipsed by anxious fantasies about female-dominated societies, written by males. Women SF Writers increased dramatically in numbers in the 1950s-1960s, and began to build bridges to the Feminist movement (see also Women in SF). Futuristic fictions bearing on the problems of race relations had a fairly similar history, serious speculations being virtually drowned out by anxious fantasies and by the kind of unthinking racism and antisemitism which were long rife in popular fiction of all kinds. For further discussion see Race in SF.
Although there are some interesting sarcastic fantasies about future election campaigns – e.g., William Tenn's "Null-P" (January 1951 Worlds Beyond) and "The Masculinist Revolt" (August 1965 F&SF), Arthur T Hadley's The Joy Wagon (1958) and Gordon Eklund's The Eclipse of Dawn (1971) – sophisticated political fantasy remains a rarity in genre sf. Reynolds's efforts along those lines, heroic after their fashion, are muddled, and bogged down by their fusion with the crude melodramatics and uneasy comedy which he found necessary to include to secure publication. A certain transcendence of the expectations of commercially minded editors is a necessary prerequisite to the production of truly serious sf, and it is arguable that the only writer with a keen interest in politics yet to have achieved it is Ursula K Le Guin, whose most sustained essay in earnest political fantasy is The Dispossessed (1974). The practical politics of coping with the problems which are urgent today and steadily getting more so are rarely addressed in sf, although there are noble exceptions, including Frederik Pohl's The Years of the City (fixup 1984). The situation has, of course, been even worse in Eastern Europe, where the content of popular fiction was – until the collapse of old-style Communism – all too frequently determined by diktat. Political discourse in almost all translated sf from pre-Yeltsin Russia trod the party line dutifully, if not always wholeheartedly; the most interesting partial exception was the work of the brothers Strugatski. Dissident fiction which contrived to reach the West is, of course, much more pointed; a notable example is 1985 (1983) by Gyorgy Dalos, which replays the post-World War Two history of Hungary as a sequel to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. It will be interesting to see what kinds of sf emerge from post-communist Eastern Europe in the years to come. [PN/BS]
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