The Politics in Science Fiction

A few days ago, Foz Meadows wrote a widely circulated piece on why politics belong in science fiction. The background was this: there has been a flare=up of the culture wars in the SF community, sparked by the odious views of Vox Day, a man of virulent racist and homophobic opinions, who apparently helped coordinate a Sad Puppy slate of nominations to the Hugo awards. The fight seems to be escalating, and it will be interesting how it all plays out at the London World SF convention later this year.

Foz’s article does a good job of explaining the background to this, and why these folks are so reprehensible, but I wanted to add a few comments.

Foz’s article was an immediate response to Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ meagre article which claimed that politics don’t belong in science fiction. Reynold’s article should be understood as part of a long-held right-wing position plea against ‘political correctness’. This particular tactic is to cry at the ‘censorship’ that those poor beleaguered Rightists have to endure in the face to the cruel totalitarian Left. It’s a ploy that emerged as a response to the various movements that emerged from the Sixties, gained currency particularly during the 1980s – the era of Reaganism and Thatcherism – and today used pretty much across the world. What it always amounts to is this: ‘The horrible Left criticise me when I’m racist, sexist and homophobic. That’s censorship! I have a right to be racist, sexist and homophobic!’ Of course this relies on a terribly distorted version of the word censorship, one which equates criticism with a government policy that makes the publication of an opinion illegal. But it also cleverly shifts the terrain from the politics at hand to another more abstract one. Racism gets translated into an abstract question of ‘rights.’ Criticism of sexism becomes ‘bullying’. (The term political correctness was once used by the New Left (often ironically), but was rediscovered in its modern sense by conservatives in the late 1980s).

Second, it’s worth remembering that although Reynolds holds up the Golden Age SF as one where the field was not rent by politics – here he seems to mean the institutions of SF, not the ideology of its writers – actually, he’s just plain wrong. For example, before World War Two, back in 1937, Donald Wollheim delivered a speech (written by Johnny Michel) denouncing “the Gernsback Delusion,” that idea that technological progress would lead to a glorious technocratic utopia, without consideration to the social arrangements that would need to accompany them (how many of those techno-utopias were white! William Gibson wonderfully critiqued these in his ‘The Gernsback Continuum;). This focus on society obviously marked them off as Leftists. Wollheim unsuccessfully moved,

that this, the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention, shall place itself on record as opposing all forces leading to barbarism, the advancement of pseudo-sciences and militaristic ideologies, and shall further resolve that science-fiction should by nature stand for all forces working for a more unified world, a more Utopian existence, the application of science to human happiness, and a saner outlook on life.

This was a clear statement against the rise of Fascism, and the leading lights of this motion – the Futurians (including Asimov, Pohl and Judith Merril – who should be better remembered than she is) – were Leftists. Andrew Milner and Robert Savage have written about this here, and they explain:

In 1938, he and like-minded friends formed a Committee for the Political Advancement of Science Fiction, composed the “Science Fiction Internationale” (Moskowitz 149), and drafted a manifesto with “a lot of V.I. Lenin in it, and a lot of H.G. Wells,” according to Pohl’s memoirs. In 1939, Pohl proposed a Futurian Federation of the World, thus anticipating Wells’s own similar (and only slightly less ineffectual) wartime gestures. The same year witnessed what sf fanlore still knows as the “Great Exclusion Act,” when a half-dozen of the more querulous and left-leaning Futurians, including Pohl, Wollheim, and Michel, were banned from the World Science Fiction Convention.

In other words, even in the days that Reynold’s claims were blissfully ‘apolitical’, SF was rent with political disagreements. Maybe they quietened in the immediate postwar period, but they burst forth again in the late Sixties (when Galaxy published two lists of SF writers, one for and one against the Vietnam war).

The organisation of the Sad Puppy slate reminds those of us who consider themselves progressive that we too have to organise in the the field of SF. Like all cultural fields, SF is fractured politically. That’s not something we can avoid, nor is it something we should be afraid of. Science fiction writers are like any other group, responsible for the world we live in. Indeed, as people who are thinking about the future, we have a responsibility to. Perhaps its even time for a more formally organised network of progressives. Quite what this would look like, I’m not sure, but one thing is certain – we can’t leave the field empty for Vox Day and his hench-creatures.

Comments (One Response )

  1. Michael Grey - 6 May, 2014 - 11:31 pm #

    Nice article. It’s my personal belief that anyone who thinks politics should not be present in SF hold a tacit fear of exploring their own politic beliefs, knowing that any such inspection would show them as they really are.

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