ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION #8: Science Fiction Politics

Republibot 3.0
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Today we’re going to be discussing the different ways Science Fiction typically portrays politics, and as such we’ve invited one of our new friends from the Thredonia website - Kit - to take part in addition to our normal rogues gallery.

KIT:
Its a pleasure being here.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0”
Also, say hello to Kit, Burt Cottage, Chip Haynes, and Deadpan. Guys, thank you for being with us!

BURT COTTAGE:
Thank you for inviting me to take part when it seems clear I have the smallest frame of reference for the topic of anyone involved.

CHIP HAYNES:
Hey, guys.

DEADPAN:
Greetings

QUESTION # 1: Ok, getting right to it, politically speaking, Science Fiction tends to be either moderate-to-hard left, or Libertarian. Specifically, SF on TV and in the Movies tends to be leftist, and literary SF tends to be either Left or Libertarian. There’s a shortage of moderate-to-right SF, and most of what loosely falls in to that category is, once again, Libertarian. Why do you think this is? Why does Science Fiction attract so few conservative authors, and why does there seem to be such a small audience for Conservative SF?

KIT:
I don't know much about sci-fi 60 or 70 years ago and the politics involved, but I believe the current view of Sci-fi as being a realm of liberalism was started by STAR TREK (a show I love). Here you had an obviously socialist society and a possible anti-Religious viewpoint. It was not quick, but with a slow hammering it created Science-Fiction as being a sphere of liberal and progressive thought. The reason STAR WARS prequels furthered this idea.

BURT:
I think conservatism in the arts is a rare thing whether we’re talking print on paper, images on celluloid or … however it is they make CDs. And we’ve probably all read the news stories about how conservative authors out-sell liberal authors even when the conservative books are misshelved, hidden or “lost”. I don’t know that sci-fi is any worse than the other genres.
That being said, for the last 30-50 years, at least, there have been so many left-leaning sci-fi offerings that it’s just become standard. What color is the sky? Blue. What’s the political philosophy behind sci-fi? Liberal. So, trying to write (and publish) sci-fi with a conservative bent is still a novelty—like a striped sky.
It may not be that the audience for conservative sci-fi is small so much as why would a kid who’s grown up in a country without pizza, who’s never even heard of pizza, go looking for pizza? People might be interested in conservative sci-fi but right now they are not aware of its existence.

CHIP HAYNES:
Art (any art) is often simply a reflection of the times in which it is created. Post WWII American sci-fi was created in an era of optimism and the encouragement of liberal ideas, so yeah, it’s going to look mighty liberal. Go back and read H. G. Wells, and it seems very conservative, as it was written during the far more conservative British Victorian era.
Also, as you well know, boundaries have to be pushed- especially in Sci-fi. If one person writes about people with four arms 9for instance), the next person has to write about people with five arms. Anything less would be boring. “Conservative” sci-fi would have trouble looking “cutting edge”.

DEADPAN:
I agree with Kit that modern Sci-fi seems to have come of age during the 60’s and 70’s and, therefore, seems to use that as a guide. The writing seems to be split into 2 camps (at least among those writers that delve into any politics in their writing). First, you have the benevolent, utopian society where the government provides everything (but they never seem to say where the money comes from for this) and those that seem to have ultra-conservative, oppressive regimes.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Not too much to add to that, though at risk of contradicting Chip, H.G. Wells was an atheist and a socialist, and his stuff was considered annoyingly liberal back in the day. And “War of the Worlds” is a deliberate parody of the Colonial system of the day, a kind of “How would we like it if someone did it to us?” kind of illustration. But, yeah, SF has always been relatively liberal, and thinking about that now, I suspect it *is* inherent in the art form. I mean, the basic question is “What happens next?” which is not really a conservative question at root, nor is the basic premise that things keep changing, and are never static.

QUESTION #2: Science Fiction is a way of trying on new ideas to see if they fit before you pay for ‘em and take ‘em home. It can be a sort of learning tool in this regard, allowing the astute to spot problems before they arise in actual practice. We’ve discussed in the past how this is great for philosophy and even religion, but of course this is obviously well suited for politics and governments as well, and we’ve seen just about every conceivable type of government imaginable represented in SF in one form or another. So, off the top of your heads, so What’s your *favorite* portrayal of government and politics in SF and why?

KIT:
I guess it would be FOUNDATION by Asimov (I've only read the first book). It seemed to be, at least partially, realistic. Politics was portrayed somewhat realistically (especially in the chapter dealing with the "Barbarian Princes") with the Actionists, despite having been proven wrong, still going after the guy, in a different way. He also had the President running the Judiciary Council, a Supreme Court-like body.

BURT:
I love the benevolent utopian government of “Star Trek” because it’s so ridiculous, so fictional, if you will. It begins with the premise that strife between sentient beings has been eliminated, but then the only reason they mention the government in that particular episode or story is because of some new strife.
Most fiction—and, especially, speculative fiction—to be interesting, is just ever-so-slightly over the top. So governments in sci fi are too oppressive or too permissive or whatever. It’s illustrating an idea by taking the idea further than it would likely go in a real world. That being said, a fictional government created by a conservative (as opposed to the negative portrayal of a conservative government that would be created by a detractor) could be very interesting—especially if we could agree on what being a conservative means.

CHIP HAYNES:
I may have to plead conflict of interest on this one, since I work for the government. I will say this, though: government, in sci-fi, is too often portrayed as “one size fits all”; that is, there seems to be only one layer of government in so much of what is written or portrayed on screen. I’m sure that’s done just for the ease of keeping the story moving along, since any attempt to show the layers of government we often see here on this planet, in this time, would bog the story down. Just where I live, we have separate governments at the city, county, state and federal level, each with their hand on something. (And that doesn’t even get into the various overlapping agencies at each level.) To show any seriously realistic portrayal of government in print, TV or film would probably bring the whole thing to a halt. It’s much easier to simplify it to the point of absurdity.

DEADPAN:
I always liked the government as portrayed in B5. It was quite clear that there are elections and candidates of differing viewpoints. As Chip says, you can’t get into the nauseating details of how that government works but we know there is a Senate and that the people do have a say in what goes on. Of course, that government played a part in the plot itself so it was necessary to explain it in a little more depth than, oh, say, Trek.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I’d mostly go along with Deadpan. If I had to pick an entirely fictional SF government, I’d go with the Earth Alliance from Babylon 5, which was well thought out and plausible. If I had to choose an entirely fictional SF government that intrigues me most - the Earth Alliance is realistic, but not exactly fascinating - then I’d probably cite the government in Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” though some aspects of it bother me. But really my favorite government in *ANY* SF show is the one in the Stargate Franchise, since it’s our here-and-now US Government. That probably doesn’t count, though, as it’s not entirely fictional.

QUESTION #3: Following up on the previous question, what’s your least favorite SF government? Which one do you hate most? And why?

KIT:
LEAST favourite portrayal of government in sci-fi would be the STAR TREK book Articles of the Federation by Keith R.A. DeCandido. Why? His main source in researching politics was The West Wing. (according to the forward) I read it several years ago so I would have to read it again to remember the reasons I hated it.

BURT:
Same answer. The various utopian governments—but especially the Trek ones—seem to deny the most basic aspects of human nature. It’s interesting speculation, but after a while I get tired of it.

CHIP HAYNES:
I’ve got no answer for this one. Does anyone watch ANYTHING for the government it portrays?

DEADPAN:
I really don’t know. I don’t watch or read Sci-fi for the politics.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I hate, hate, hate the United Federation of Planets from Star Trek. It’s stupid, it’s illogical, it’s demonstrably immoral, it’s badly conceived, it’s unrealistic in a bad way, it’s preachy, and it is just so damn boring.

QUESTION #4: Mostly politics is ignored like Religion in SF but when the subject comes up, it tends to be either horribly didactic and utopian (“For Us, The Living” by Heinlein, or anything from Star Trek) or dystopic and cautionary (“1984” by Orwell, “Brave New World” by Huxley) or an odd admixture of the two (“Atlas Shrugged” by Rand, “We” by Zamyatin.) In all these cases, the authors seem to have an ideological axe to grind, and they’re giving us ludicrously extreme cases and straw man arguments rather than believable systems. There’s a real shortage of Realpolitik in SF. Why do you think this is?

KIT:
The reason, I believe, RealPolitik is rarely portrayed and extremes are only given is because they are easier. To write a utopian or fully totalitarian society is, in a way, quite easy. To create a story that embodies politics realistically requires a lot of thought. Also, writers have ideas for their favorite (or least favorite) society. Just like writers often create characters based on them as a fantasy model for their life, science fiction writers will create a society that they would wish to see.

BURT:
Well, as I realize I should have read all the questions before answering earlier, I think part of it is that everyone writes (or films) with a bias. So we’re going to play up what we like and exaggerate the faults of what we don’t. Again, human nature.
Maybe there’s also a thought that—especially in sci-fi, which is supposed to push boundaries (whatever that means anymore)—to present something “just as it is” in the real world would be boring.

CHIP HAYNES:
SF is SF, and there’s really no reason to make it a political thriller. There is, of course, the occasional intrusion of politics, but only to further the overall SF story. I do think SF works better when government and politics are left out entirely. But that’s just me.

DEADPAN:
I would say because most people don’t want politics in their Sci-fi. I wouldn’t want to real a political thriller and have it get bogged down in Sci-fi either.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Nah, I disagree with Deadpan and Chip: Politics is a part of life. Leaving it out is appropriate if it doesn’t fit the story - say, something about a little girl lost in the woods - but to say “We can’t talk about this because nobody likes it” is to ignore that there are LOTS of political SF books: 1984, We, Brave New World, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, On Wings of Song, The Island Worlds, Voyage, On The Beach, Alas Babylon, the Foundation series, Atlas Shrugged, After Things Fell Apart, Bring the Jubilee, Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, my own “Dog Days” story, that’s all just off the top of my head. It doesn’t fit every story, but there wouldn’t be so much of it if at least some people didn’t dig it. And many political thrillers have at least some SF in them, too, right? Deception Point by Dan Brown, for instance (groan), or how many James Bond stories involve him tracking down some new high-tech Magoffin like a rocket or a super-hyper-mega-destruct-o-bomb or whatever? Even “Raise the Titanic” was at root an SF/Adventure since they were raising it to get some inobtanium to build a force field. Nah, I gotta’ disagree there, guys, no offence.

QUESTION #5: Following 9/11 there was a rumor that Al Qaeda had been strongly influenced by Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series. Indeed, “Al Qaeda” is the Arabic title of those books. Likely it’s a coincidence - I mean, would Muslim Fundamentalist and Terrorists really name their organization after some books written by a Jewish American? - but that still raises a question: do you feel that Science Fiction has affected real-world politics in any way? If so, how?

KIT:
Sometimes literature affects the world in a very clear way, like The Jungle and the FDA (or whatever its predecessor was), sometimes in a less clear way, often by constant pressure a multitude of literary sources. I'm sure STAR TREK has pushed us closer to socialism in a subconscious way. There is, of course, the terms the "Evil Empire" (USSR) and "Star Wars" (Missile Defense) that were created partially by Sci-fi. Crichton's STATE OF FEAR might do to Global Warming what JUNGLE did to bad food quality.

BURT:
Two ways come to mind right away:
1] The prime directive. Whether we (the U.S.) should be involved in nation building is a subject ripe for debate, but the argument I most often hear against it is just that “we shouldn’t interfere with those people.” “They have a right to develop at their own evolutionary speed.” It’s an argument that comes awfully close to the racist who says, “Who cares if those [fill-in-the-blanks] are killing each other? It’s not my country.”
2] Fiction based on science (which is not necessarily to be confused with sci-fi) or fiction pretending to be based on science (like “CSI”) has really confused our pool of jurors, who have come to believe that “the lab” can produce absolutely irrefutable evidence for conviction in a couple days (when the reality is that even when results can be produced, it’s actually months). This idea that science can solve all our problems (and, thus, reducing all problems, even emotional ones, to a chemical formula) is troubling because it would mean man is a soulless being, something both my reason and my faith reject. Political issues such as abortion, euthanasia, stem-cells and others are reduced merely to their chemical make-up and considerations of faith, feelings and traditional beliefs are too often discounted or discarded when "science" becomes the rule of law (I put that in quotes because real science continually strives to challenge assumptions but the science most often put forth in politics these days comes with way too many unchallengeable assumptions).

CHIP HAYNES:
I think you’ve have to go back and find out how many successful politicians really have the time to read much SF- and what they read. I think you’d find that few people who run for (and hold) public office at any level really have the time to sit back and read a good book or two, or watch much TV. Government really is a full time job. Do books steer public opinion? Absolutely. Do they influence government policy? Less so. All government decisions have to be defensible, and “I read it in a book” is a lousy defense of policy.* I’m just saying.
*No elected official is going to stand up and say, “Hey, I say this great idea on Star Trek…”

DEADPAN:
I certainly hope not.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I've no ideaI about the "Al Quaida/Foundation" thing, though I suspect it's not true. Would fundamentalist Muslims name their organization after a book by an American Jewish Athiest? But I do agree with Burt: Trek has made a lasting and unfortunate impression on easily impressionable people’s minds. This is a negative thing, because “Not interfering with people’s natural development” basically means “We’ll let them kill each other and die,” and yet thanks to Trek’s addlepated world view, a surprising number of people who should know better seem to think this kind of savage indifference is actually a virtue. Oh, and I think Chip summed it up well: even if SF does influence politics, no politician will ever admit it.

And that’s it. I’d like to thank everyone for being with us today, and please be sure to stop by next time when our topic will be how to get free beer from the brewery - is the old ‘mouse in the bottle’ trick the best way to go, or is there some other alternative?

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