Semester Review: Science Fiction and Politics

This was a political science elective, taught by one of my favorite professors. (Among other things, we once had a three-hour car ride in the middle of the night and spent the whole time talking about Star Trek). The class basically consisted of watching a bunch of TV episodes and reading five books. We also had two guest speakers: Lou Anders on sci-fi movies and scriptwriting, and Gregory L. Reece on science fiction religions. Check them out if you want to recreate this class on your own. There were also intermittent discussions of real technological possibilities in the future and their potential ramifications.

For the most part, it was a general discussion class on socio-political themes in science fiction, including the environment, war, the definition of humanity and its flipside, dehumanization of others. (Also sex, because sci-fi? Or something?) Science fiction emerged as something delicate to me. Something that dances with how we feel and what we think right now, but what we’re thinking right now about the future. That sounds like a tiny subset of human thought, but it’s not. Think of everything it encompasses: Everything we hope. Everything we think about what the present signifies, everything we think about how things should be and how we think they will be. Science fiction is a strange and important genre.

Political Science Fiction TV Episodes

We watched a good number of episodes from The Twilight Zone and various incarnations of Star Trek , pretty much the ones you’d expect. We saw original-series episode “The Apple” and Next Generation episode “The Outcast” back to back, setting up interesting comparisons. In “The Apple,” the Enterprise crew finds a weird planet with people who behave strangely and don’t have sex. Clearly something is wrong — Kirk blows up their god-machine, teaches them about sex, and leaves, secure in the knowledge that he’s spread some good. Yeah, the concept of the Prime Directive — not interfering in the affairs of other, less-developed planets — was around back then, but not fully formed. “The Outcast” is a more nuanced discussion of whether or not powerful cultures should interfere with others on moral grounds. The Enterprise-D crew encounters a race of ungendered people. Commander Riker discovers that some of them actually do identify as male or female, but if they do, they’re conditioned back into the “normal” ungendered state. Should he stop that from happening? Both episodes have an unfortunate implication that people should all be having straight sex or there’s something wrong, but I still appreciate the attempt in “The Outcast” to be LGBT-positive.

Some Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes about dehumanization/the extension of humanization to non-humans are: “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “I Am the Night, Color Me Black” from TZ; “The Devil in the Dark” and “Arena” from ST; and “The Measure of a Man” from TNG (the extended episode if you can possibly get it).

We watched three episodes of the newer Battlestar Galactica show, and I was actually impressed. Until now I’d mainly disliked it on principle, having liked the old show and only been exposed to the new one through oversexed ads. We saw “Flesh and Bone,” the one that intrigued me, which deals with torture ethics. We also saw “Occupation” and “Precipice,” to do with occupation politics and insurgency. It was too deep in the plot for me to really follow, but I do plan to start watching this show after I finish some of the others I’m watching right now. Fun fact: In 2009, the United Nations actually held a large panel discussion on human rights and political ethics using extensive clips from Battlestar Galactica.

Political Science Fiction Books

 

The Forever WarThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)

I’d heard about this on best science fiction lists for years, but never read it. I guess it was similar to Starship Troopers, which I liked, but I didn’t like this. The technology was interesting — it’s about soldiers on spaceships traveling at relativistic speeds, addressing what an interplanetary war on a large scale might actually be like. With intermittent stops on Earth after hundreds of years, it tracks Earth’s development into an increasingly standardized culture, all orchestrated by the government to streamline the war effort that supports Earth’s economy. (It’s also an effective allegory for Vietnam veterans’ feelings of alienation on returning to the US). All that sounds great, but the main character had no discernible personality, the few supporting characters didn’t either, and the whole thing just came off boring.

Themes in The Forever War: Governmental oversight and pressure for war, dystopia, futuristic military structure, economic collapse on Earth, effects of technology, sexist sex.

Verdict: Read it if you like military sci-fi.

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Another one that had been on my to-read list for ages, and another one I didn’t end up liking. It’s a detailed description of a woman’s life in a highly religious culture of future North America, the Republic of Gilead. As a handmaid, her function is to provide children for a married couple unable to have them. That is her only function. She’s not allowed to read any words, or really have any thoughts, or occupy herself with anything. Not a fun book, but written with skill. Except I still think the protagonist actually confirms all the patriarchal stereotypes the book is meant to warn against. I can’t tell if Atwood didn’t realize that, or if it’s a kind of subtle warning that if women internalize inequality like that, then the Gileadean culture is possible. If it’s intentional, though, it’s too subtle to be a warning. Anyway, at the end, we jump forward and hear about a group of historians discussing the Gileadean period. As a historian, that part was effective for me. The Gilead regime seemed over the top while actually reading about it, but hearing the historians’ discussion hit home the fact that cultures like this actually exist now, and they can come about quickly and disappear just as quickly. It was like this quite recently in US history.

Themes in The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopia, gender roles, dehumanization as a tool, impact of language and words, religion as a social tool, reaction to environmental disaster, oppressive patriarchal sex.

Verdict: Read it, but not for fun.

EcotopiaEcotopia by Ernest Callenbach (1975)

One of the earliest works to address the concept of “going green.” It’s charmingly dated now — the narrator can’t imagine actually asking people to use recycle bins and thinks anyone who did use them would be laughed out of the building — but it constructs an interesting picture of what an environmentally-conscious culture might look like. Some of it sounds lovely, an extended holiday in cities full of flowers, but Callenbach layers on a lot of societal qualities that don’t follow just from environmental consciousness. For instance, everyone is bizarrely fixated on sharing their emotions with each other, and there’s also a ritualistic battle of savagery that’s supposed to get everyone’s frustrations out. Oh, actually, it’s just the men. Apparently women can get their frustrations out by dedicating themselves to their jobs. What?

Themes in Ecotopia: Utopia, green living, environmentalism, weird jungle sex because apparently if we all go green we’ll all be beautiful and since we’re sexually liberated we’re obviously attracted to the protagonist.

Verdict: Read for historical interest.

KirinyagaKirinyaga by Michael Resnick (1988)

In what proved to be the most creative premise of the semester, this novel tells the story of Kirinyaga, a planet specifically designed to recreate ideal conditions for the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya — their own personal utopia, based on what they believe to be the ideal point in the past. It’s a sequence of short stories about the community’s witch doctor, showing the progression of the “utopia” and how it slowly breaks down as its members have new ideas. It’s not pleasant. The witch doctor is a creepy cult leader who, in aiming for perfection, cuts every element of innovation out of the society. He made good points sometimes about what the Kikuyu lost in the process of Kenya’s westernization, but like many who look to an ideal from the past, he tries to recreate a world that never really existed.

Themes in Kirinyaga: Utopia, cultural relativism, traditionalism, Prime Directive-type interference ethics, not much sex for once because the narrator is an elderly single guy but lots of talk about gender roles.

Verdict: Read if you’re prepared to be super pissed.

Parable of the SowerParable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)

This novel features a future America in the early stages of a dystopian collapse. Some institutions are still in place, but people are terrified and rule of law is basically gone. The protagonist, a charismatic young girl, creates a new religion, Earthseed, the central tenet of which is “God is Change” — interesting when you consider the literally conservative nature of most religions. The plot is pretty simple to serve as a backdrop for the main character’s development and her meditations on the world. I related to this novel the most out of the five, although nobody else in the class seemed to like it!

Themes in Parable of the Sower: Dystopian development, environmental and social collapse, significance of religion, human reactions to change, community dynamics, reasonably healthy sex.

Verdict: Yes!

Opinions about the stuff we studied? Anything spark your interest? What would you add to our syllabus?

5 thoughts on “Semester Review: Science Fiction and Politics

  1. Pingback: Book Recommendations Inspired by Doctor Who | Things Matter: A History Blog

  2. interesting! Have you read the Vorkosigan books by LM Bujold?
    For interesting culture clash, politics, and characters. Shards of Honor/Barrayar are the two books I think you’d find relevant.

    Like

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