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Entry updated 13 August 2021. Tagged: Theme.


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 (see 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. The later twentieth century saw the growth of a thriving subgenre of "political thrillers" – often written by sometime politicians like Spiro T Agnew 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 were 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 (see 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 (see 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 Two, 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 (see 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), remained relatively rare, although the curious anarchist philosophies displayed in Norman Spinrad's Agent of Chaos (1967) and A E van Vogt's The Anarchistic Colossus (1977) attracted some attention from would-be followers. Larry Niven's "Cloak of Anarchy" (March 1972 Analog) is a Thought Experiment in which an area temporarily freed from police surveillance quickly descends into chaos: "Anarchy isn't stable. It comes apart too easily."

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.

Voting qualifications are occasionally pondered in sf. In both Rudyard Kipling's "The Army of a Dream" (15-18 June 1904 Morning Post) and Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959), military service is a required condition. Isaac Asimov pokes pre-emptive fun at focus groups in "Franchise" (August 1955 If), in which a single selected "Voter of the Year" is interrogated by Computer to determine the outcome of the then-future US Presidential election of 2008. A similarly restricted franchise operates in the City of Ankh-Morpork on Terry Pratchett's Discworld, whose electoral principles are encapsulated in Mort (1987):

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.

Although there are some interesting sarcastic fantasies about future election campaigns – examples include 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), Gordon Eklund's The Eclipse of Dawn (1971) and Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982) – sophisticated political fantasy remains a rarity in Genre SF. Mack 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. Straight sf treatments of elections can be found in E E Smith's First Lensman (1950), where no problem is seen in rigorous policing of polling stations by the newly formed Galactic Patrol to ensure a supposedly honest vote in a North American election in which a leading Patrol member is a candidate; and in three novels by Robert A Heinlein's, being Tunnel in the Sky (1955), in whose leadership contest among young planetary colonists the hero discovers that virtue does not compel electoral success, Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956), whose dramatic world election serves largely as background, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966), whose lunar revolutionaries rig their first election to leave the original conspirators firmly in charge. Further imagined democratic upheavals include the global electronic plebiscite which concludes John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider (1975) and the constitutional convention which in Piers Anthony's Executive (1985) – book four of the Bio of a Space Tyrant sequence whose conceit is to map Earth's contemporary political divisions on to the Solar System at large – overthrows the constitution of Jupiter (equated to the USA) and establishes the protagonist as its "tyrant". Various future-feudal settings (see also Medieval Futurism) show issues being decided by polls of enfranchised citizens and/or lords, though less often ladies: examples here include Anne McCaffrey's Restoree (1967) and Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign (1999).

A certain transcendence of the expectations of commercially minded editors is a necessary prerequisite to the production of truly serious political sf, and it is arguable that the first writer with a keen interest in politics to have achieved this 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 were rarely addressed in twentieth-century 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.

Of more recent political note are Ken MacLeod's radical four-volume Fall Revolution sequence opening with The Star Fraction (1995), and Kim Stanley Robinson's Capital Code trilogy opening with Forty Signs of Rain (2004). Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn (2010) features an ingenious attempt to take over a colony world by exploiting the votes of those stored in commercial Cryonics facilities. [PN/BS/DRL]

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