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War of the Worlds: Who Owns the Political Soul of Science Fiction?

War of the Worlds: Who Owns the Political Soul of Science Fiction? | The Legendarium: J.R.R. Tolkien's life and works. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and more | Scoop.it

I make no apologies for writing science fiction. I love the genre with a deep and geeky love. Becoming professor of 19th-century literature at the University of London has done nothing to diminish my capacity for that mode of enthusiasm that fans call "squee".

 

Being a literature professor means, in effect, the government pays me to read books; and, taking my job seriously, I read a lot, in and out of genre. I think the novel is most alive today as a literature of the fantastic: at their worst, SF, fantasy and magic realist novels can be very bad; while at their best, they're by far the most exciting kinds of writing being published.

But here's the thing: my genre divides politically in a manner unlike others. Writers of historical or crime fiction might be rightwing or leftwing, but few would attempt to define those genres as intrinsically left- or right-leaning. SF is different: the genre defines itself according to two diametrically opposed ideological stances.

 

Let's take the lefty stance first, since it happens to be my own. Any SF text must include something that isn't in the "real" world: starship, robot, a new way of organising society, whatever. This might be material, social or even metaphysical, but it will encode difference. Alterity is fundamental to SF: it is a poetics of otherness and diversity. Now, it so happens that the encounter with "otherness"– racially, ethnically, in terms of gender, sexual orientation, disability and trans identity – has been the main driver of social debate for the last half‑century or more. The tidal shift towards global diversity is the big event of our times, and this is what makes SF the most relevant literature today. To say that SF has more imaginative and discursive wiggle-room than "realist" art is, while true, also to say that SF has the potential to be a more heterogeneous and inclusive conceptual space. This is something that's understood by the genre's greatest writers: Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr, Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Cadigan, Justina Robson.

 

On the other hand, many fans define SF as the literature of scientific extrapolation. There are those who think of "science" as ideologically neutral, simply the most authoritative picture of the universe available to humanity. The problem is that "authoritative" has a nasty habit of eliding with "authoritarian" when transferred into human social relations. Rightwing political affiliation comes in many forms, but for many rightwingers, respect for authority is a central aspect of their worldview. The world, says the rightwinger, is hard, unforgiving and punishes weakness: in order to prosper, we need to be self-reliant, subordinate decadent appetites to self-discipline, know what the rules are and follow them. There's lots of SF like this.

 

OK, I'll admit I've imported a caricature "rightwinger" into my argument. Nonetheless, SF contains many who believe the laws of physics make their ideology true. US SF grandmaster Robert Heinlein's credo, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch", oft-repeated in his writing, folds a neutral fact of physics – entropy – into value-inflected judgments about things such as welfare and affirmative action. Orson Scott Card is a giant of the genre, but also a man who has declared that consensual gay sex should be illegal, and that any government that legalised gay marriage ought to be overthrown. Newt Gingrich, one‑time Republican presidential hopeful, has published SF novels; and books by writers such as Jerry Pournelle, John Ringo and Neal Asher sell extremely well.

 

It's a puzzle – not why these writers sell, for there are plenty of perfectly decent, book-loving rightwing people in the world (I take it as axiomatic that liking SF is an index of decency). I mean it's a puzzle for the genre. How can SF be both centrally about the articulation and exploration of marginalised and subaltern voices, and a projection of contemporary ideological concerns outward on to a cosmos in which the laws of physics themselves tell us to vote Conservative?

 

I'm not pretending objectivity. A full ideological reading of SF would interrogate the "hospitality to otherness" model with the same rigour as "the laws of physics validate my political beliefs" model. Heinlein's imagined interstellar future is an environment designed to valorise the skill sets (self-reliance, engineering competence, willpower, bravery and manliness) that Heinlein prized. Left-leaning Iain M Banks's Culture novels posit a high-tech geek utopia in which the particular skill sets, ethics and wit‑discourse of SF nerds turn out to be the gold standard of pan-galactic multi-species civilisation. I like the Culture a great deal, but I have to admit it's a "there is such a thing as a free lunch" sort of place.

 

Asking whether SF is "intrinsically" leftwing or rightwing is dumb, since literatures are not "intrinsically" anything. But I'm tempted to thump the tub nonetheless. Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future. Myriad militaristic SF books and films suggest the most interesting thing to do with the alien is style it as an invading monster and empty thousands of rounds of ammunition into it. But the best SF understands that there are more interesting things to do with the alien than that. How we treat the other is the great ethical question of our age, and SF, at its best, is the best way to explore that question.

 

Adam Roberts's Jack Glass (Gollancz) has won the British Science FictionAssociation best novel prize.


Via James Keith
Marcel Aubron-Bülles's insight:

An interesting take on the subject.

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Miro Svetlik's curator insight, April 15, 2013 5:23 AM

Very nice thought about sci-fi genre...

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Guy Gavriel Kay: ‘I learned a lot about false starts from JRR Tolkien’

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Just so you know!

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Honestly. Could they play a more stupid game? Answer is yes. It's MTV.

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Something you should definitely have a look at; Michael Drout is a amazing professor!

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Probably one of the most interesting (and longest) articles ever published on Tolkien. Even if you don't like it.

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Honda PA50 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Honda Hobbit - who drove one? Pictures, please!

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Discover the best online book shop for Tolkien books. Exclusive products, free UK delivery & print on demand books. Buy your Hobbit and Lord of The Rings books here!
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Completely revamped!

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Readings and radio plays & rumours of an unpublished Tolkien speech | thetolkienist.com

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Upcoming things with the Tolkienist.

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Marcel Aubron-Bülles's insight:

How to find the right words at such a loss?

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Eva Rider's curator insight, November 22, 11:53 PM

"The Inklings"

 

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Grimms' Fairy Tales exerted a profound influence on many generations, and ... - Mirror.co.uk

Grimms' Fairy Tales exerted a profound influence on many generations, and ... - Mirror.co.uk | The Legendarium: J.R.R. Tolkien's life and works. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and more | Scoop.it
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Grimms and Tolkien... of course!

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Who doesn't want that? :)

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Interesting analogy - the #Hobbit and the first American #car.

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A place worth visiting.

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Marcel Aubron-Bülles's insight:

Perrott's Folly is nonsense but at least they've heard about the Tolkien trail :)

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Marcel Aubron-Bülles's insight:

Not particularly sure why the have a hobbit hole at work but anyways ... ;)

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Marcel Aubron-Bülles's insight:

What are your fun/ interesting pictures? Let me know!

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One of the worst ad campaigns ever? ;)

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If you happen to be in the Boston area.

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This looks like fun :)

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Yep. Fun watching your favourite show in a row.

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Jeezus. When will someone stop fossil fuel companies?

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Why is this relevant? Because everyone already knows that Robert Plant is the randy, banshee throated frontman of the greatest hard rock group ever created, Led Zeppelin.

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Interesting, indeed.

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Always good to have a look at the "History of the Hobbit" on that question ...

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18 memorable Frodo and Bilbo Baggins quotes for Hobbit Day 2013 | LotrProject Blog

18 memorable Frodo and Bilbo Baggins quotes for Hobbit Day 2013 | LotrProject Blog | The Legendarium: J.R.R. Tolkien's life and works. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and more | Scoop.it
At Tolkien's grave for Enyalië #Oxonmoot @TolkienSociety http://t.co/w8U8BWX3WZ
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Always lovely to read.

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