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Political SF
by Cardinal Cox


Write Dope on Pnuk part 84

(Originally written for film notes for a screening of District 9)

You would hope that with all the possibilities open within Science Fiction that authors might take the opportunity to explore the political dimension as well as those of time and space. At least two minor authors both wondered what direction South Africa might take, in Arthur Keppel-Jones’ 1947 novel When Smuts Goes; a History of South Africa from 1952 to 2010 was pessimistic about the affects of apartheid, while Garry Alligham in his book (set in 1987) Verwoerd – The End: A Lookback from the Future, published in 1961, tried to argue for the benefits of a well administrated apartheid.

In Britain and America political sf has tended to take the form of either warning of the dangers of totalitarianism, following in the tradition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (published 1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932); or polemics in favour of broad-Libertarianism, such as the works of Robert A. Heinlein or Larry Niven, in which there is both personal freedom and highly structured militarism. More Anarcho-Cooperative societies are only to be found in a few works such as Norman Spinrad’s Agent of Chaos (1967) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). One of the few sf satires upon America’s McCarthy-ite period (safely published because the establishment regarded science fiction as socially insignificant) was James Blish’s At Death’s End (1954). The genre of “political thriller” – as written ably by such Richard Condon, and to lesser effect by practicing politicians such as Douglas Hurd, or ex-politicians like Jeffrey Archer, and including to a certain amount TV series like 24 – by necessity are often set in the very near future but are seldom considered as science fiction proper despite the authorial exploration of how people are affected by new events and situations.

When it came to racial politics American writers contributed two of the earliest intelligent works in T. Shirby Hodge’s novel from 1915 The White Man’s Burden and George Samuel Schuyler’s book from 1931 Black No More. During the 1960’s it was the mutants of the Marvel Comics universe who had to stand in for the oppressed, be it racial or sexual. Amongst the UK writers who explored these issues some of the most notable were John Brunner in his book The Jagged Orbit (published 1969), Christopher Priest in Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) and Barry Norman with End Product (1975). On screen the 1988 film Alien Nation, written by Rockne S. O’Bannon and produced by Gale Anne Hurd, used the alien Newcomers to stand-in for the South East Asian “boat people” then entering the west.

In the old Eastern block it was understandably harder to get novels published that might criticise the then current system. Exceptions however included some of the novels by the Strugatski brothers in Russia. In Hard to Be a God (1964, translated in 1973) an observer from Earth is assigned to a world in a feudal state. Although that world is heading towards a dictatorship that will result in mass executions, the observer knows that any intervention in his part will also lead to dictatorship. The book was filmed in 1989. In their Monday Begins On Saturday (1965, translated 1977) and Tale of the Troika (1968, translated 1977) series their target was the “scientifico-administrative” bureaucracy and its failings of the time. The Polish author Stanislaw Lem often used the theme of an individual opposed by bureaucracy and only escaped censure by the state by framing his tales as Swiftian voyages to unknown worlds.

As the real world changes with coalition governments, terrorism, global intervention, wikileak revelations and hacktervist reprisals there exists a need for authors in the increasingly grey-shades between cyberpunk futurism and Tom Clancy style thrillers to maintain an exploration of all possible political slants.

 

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