March 03, 2014

The Authors Who Put the “P” in “SF”

by Jeremy Lassen

(Editor's note: since Alan is still busy doing construction -- if you've been in the store during the last month, you've probably heard the power tools --  I've asked some other staffers to contribute From the Office pieces for the next few months.  Don't worry; all the rest of us are just as opinionated as Alan, and he'll be back with his own special brand of analysis in a few months.  But meanwhile, enjoy a second guest piece from Jeremy Lassen, Borderlands' first (and longest continuous) employee.  (Please note that while Borderlands is probably the only bookstore in the world with its own SWAT team, and that Alan and I will personally back any of our employees in a street fight, their opinions are their own and don't necessarily represent the store. - Jude Feldman)

We had so much fun last time, I figured I would give it another go.  And since saying “Fuck Nick Hornsby” didn’t generate enough ire, I thought I would violate one of the first rules of polite society and talk politics.  Wait, wait, wait. . . . Not in the way that you think.  I’m not going to bore you with MY political views, or observations about various political theories and paradigms.  I’m going to bore you with observations about political thought as expressed in science fiction novels.

I’m not talking about the political views of the authors, although of course that may come up.  But if the author is genuinely interesting, what you think of as “their politics” may in fact not be.  Let’s start with good old Bob Heinlein as an example.  It’s really easy to base your perspective of an author’s personal politics on that first novel of theirs that you read.  If you read STARSHIP TROOPERS, clearly Heinlein was a fascist.  If you read STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, well, he was a Leftist Cult-Hippie.  If you read THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON, you would think he was a libertarian, and if you read THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, you could be pretty sure he was a bomb-throwing anarchist and revolutionary.

The truth about Heinlein’s politics is probably slightly more complicated than “He’s X.”  (Go ahead and read the recent biography, ROBERT A. HEINLEIN IN DIALOGUE WITH HIS CENTURY: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by William H. Patterson, Jr. if you want to get a detailed, nuanced view of the man.)  What the above spread of novels really demonstrates is Heinlein’s willingness to take a political idea or conceit and run with it, creating a whole narrative around its bones.  He wasn’t the only one doing this of course.  "Astounding" editor John W. Campbell famously would provide his “top producers” with a seed of an idea, telling them to “write me a story based on X.”  If you look really closely science fiction’s Golden Age fix-up novels, you can see the parallel novels that Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, and others wrote at Campbell’s behest, exploring the seed of an idea in very different ways.

The opposite of Heinlein is the author who mines one political idea or conceit repeatedly.  And I don’t mean that as an author being repetitive or simplistic.  I mean he or she dreams up a detailed political structure, and then runs it through the grinder a few dozen times, exploring it, and its relationship to other systems in exquisite detail.  The author who stands out in this regard is the recently deceased Iain M. Banks.  His series of Culture books share a single “post scarcity utopia” setting ruled by benevolent AI's.  Banks is probably the most prolific utopianist of the late 20th century, in that he was constantly picking at the edges of his detailed utopia, seeing were and how it breaks down and why, or what morality is or should be, in different contexts.

He was very much concerned with ideas of free will, and the conflict between that, and state power.  He was interested in the lies individuals and states tell themselves about the use of power and violence, both on an individual level (USE OF WEAPONS) and on a broader cultural level (PLAYER OF GAMES).  Where does “white man’s burden” begin, if you are a culture of all-knowing, all-seeing AI’s, and when does the carefully crafted “non-intervention” rule (ala "Star Trek"’s Prime Directive) get violated and thrown out the window?  It helps that despite all the teeth-gnashing and gaming of political theory and power, at his core, Banks is a really fun, and funny writer.  So when things get too grim or serious, there’s always a wise-cracking spaceship to lighten things up.

The polar opposite of Banks may be Neal Asher.  If you ever want to see how an author’s individual politics inform their fictional exercises in world building, one should compare the post scarcity utopias of Banks with the post scarcity utopias of Asher’s Polity series. They are both ruled by benevolent AI's.  But the questions they pose, and what is defined in opposition to this setting couldn’t be more different.  The misguided revolutionary often serves as the plot point or fulcrum that tips the narrative in a Polity book.  And much like Banks, Asher has a secret weapon that prevents his narratives from bogging down in  polemic.  Asher has an incredible sense of pacing, and does really incredible action set pieces. You may sometimes catch glimpses of the author’s true political views while reading his books, but shit is blowing up so spectacularly, you usually don’t have time to notice.

Speaking of Asher, and forms. . . . His recent Owner series puts the metaphorical shoe on the other foot.  It's dystopic in nature instead of utopian, and focus on revolution and overthrowing an established order. This revolutionary narrative is a classic one in science fiction -- THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS was mentioned above, and Roger Zelazny’s LORD OF LIGHT is another early work that comes to mind.  Some of the questioning of power and methods that were so prevalent in Banks' Culture series probably had some roots in Zelazny’s novel.

Sometimes, these revolutionary narratives can span multiple volumes, as is the case with Pierce Brown’s recent debut, RED RISING.  Piers Anthony repeatedly played around with revolutionary narratives, from his early Cthon novels, to Phaze series, to his Bio of A Space Tyrant series.  (Incidentally, and as a warning, I think it’s easy to say that Anthony’s work is sometimes weirdly focused on issues of forced servitude, and nudity, amongst other things.  I mean, he was no John Norman, but holy crap -- my shorthand name for the Space Tyrant series is “Bio of a Rape Tyrant” -- EVERYBODY is raped in the first book of that series.)

Some might consider Zelazny’s Amber series or Herbert’s DUNE to be revolutionary narratives, but those tend more towards changing the protagonists' place in the established political order, rather than overthrowing it altogether.  I think the thing that is most interesting about these revolutionary narratives is how they have evolved as part of the long science fiction conversation.  While early revolutionary narratives are often simple dystopian settings with revolutionary heroes, later works examine the problems associated with revolutionary movements and leaders.

Richard Morgan comes to mind with his third Takashi Kovacs novel, WOKEN FURIES.  I think the gangster/surfer/revolutionaries in that novel are some of the most iconic in science fiction, and the type of ambivalent exploration of their charisma and violence in pursuit of political goals is positively Banksian in its nuance and thoughtfulness.  Morgan had earlier covered similar territory with his novel MARKET FORCES, which followed the dystopian setting/revolutionary hero narrative, but ultimately turned it on its head.  The alternatives to the hyper-capitalism of MARKET FORCES were presented as ineffectual, and the idea of charismatic revolutionary leaders was undermined in a stunning narrative turn.

Another contemporary SF author who has exploded the charismatic revolutionary leader motif is China Miéville.  His Bas Lag novels THE SCAR and IRON COUNCIL are different but equally powerful examinations of revolutionary movements.  China's work is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, he’s using a fantasy motif.  Admittedly Banks and Zelazny ostensibly used fantasy motifs in science fictional settings, so this doesn’t place Miéville's work too far outside of the discussion.

The other thing that stands out with China is that he's oftentimes referred to as a POLITICAL author, and explicitly a leftist author. Which is ultimately kind of funny, as his fiction isn’t any more overtly political than that of either his contemporaries, or his antecedents.  There been far bigger leftists in the genre (Eric Flint, Steven Brust and Will Shetterly immediately spring to mind, although obviously there are others), and many conservative authors' political or economic views are presented in significantly more overt terms.  I think China is a victim of both timing and a really good marketing campaign by his publishers -- much was made of his nascent political aspirations as a Communist Party candidate for Parliament by his publishers, and this was during the rule of two extremely conservative governments in the US and UK, when leftists were being overtly marginalized in the political discourse.  If you didn’t like the Bush Regime, or the Blair administration, China Miéville was your science fiction guy, so to speak.

Another author who has used fantasy motifs to explore political systems and ideology in a really interesting way is Peter Higgins. His fantasy police procedural WOLFHOUND CENTURY is a stunning debut. What sets his world building apart is that instead of using a traditional feudalistic fantasy setting, he sets up a Stalanistic-style authoritarian regime.  I’ve seen some sources mistakenly characterize this as alternate history, which it explicitly is not.  It’s fantasy, with a social and political system that you’ve never seen in fantasy pages before.  I’m eagerly looking forward to the 2nd book in this series, TRUTH AND FEAR.

Oddly enough, Glen Cook has also written some really great revolutionary narratives, using fantasy and SF-inal setups.  That’s right.  The Garrett Files and Black Company guy has some serious revolution going on.  Actually, his Darkwar Trilogy is an incredibly interesting explosion of the genre.  It’s a science fiction novel with a fantasy motif, and it tells the story from the point of view of (SPOILER ALERT) the evil dictator.  About halfway through the second book, one begins to suspect that our protagonist isn’t the hero who will release her people from bondage. . . she’s actually the dark overlord that needs to be overthrown.  I think this early Cook trilogy stands as one of his most fascinating and nuanced narratives.  Plus, it's about a matriarchal society of anthropomorphic dog people who fly through space in psionically powered wooden space ships.  I mean, seriously, go back and read that sentence again.  I’m not kidding.  And it works.  Really, really well. The Darkwar Trilogy. Oh, so good.

Cook's other fantasy/revolutionary work is the two-book Dread Empire prequel, collected in A FORTRESS IN SHADOW.  This follows the rise of a theocratic revolutionary movement in a desert setting, amongst a group of feudal nomadic tribes.  It also plays around with the idea of charismatic leaders, and, specifically, religious fundamentalism.  This one is quite amazing as well.

Finally, I want to touch one of science fiction’s greatest political movements. The feminist science fiction novels of the 60’s, 70's, and 80's are one of the genre’s very important contributions to society and literature.  Like other forms of popular entertainment, and entertainment for “kids”, SF was allowed to explore issues and take up agendas that were incredibly socially divisive.  Polite society often didn’t talk about these things, or only talked about them in very circumspect terms.  And at a time when really overt and detailed examinations of the patriarchy and gender relationships were completely marginalized, the science fiction genre was putting them in front of 12-year-old girls and boys alike.  It’s easy to under-appreciate how subversive these novels were, and to fail to recognize what a big part of the science fiction genre they were.  They were mainstream, and sitting on the newsstand racks, and being printed in 100,000+ copy print runs.  They were not marginalized or off in a ghetto. They were at the center of science fiction.

I was recently in an online discussion with a woman who felt that the written science fiction genre was just a boy's club, and that Gene Rodenberry and his feminist-influenced utopian "Star Trek" series didn’t really come out of that written science fiction tradition.  I was gobsmacked by this.  Perhaps this perception is reflective of a regression that took place in science fiction, and society at large.  Feminism was turned into a dirty word and SF’s feminism was glossed over or ignored, and the genre did become a bit of a boy's club in the 80's and afterwards.  Because of this, its easy to see why SF fans of a certain age might think that SF is “just a boy's club.”

I will probably go on at length in some future forum, but let me throw out some names.  Some of the earliest pioneers include writers like Leigh Brackett, Judith Merril, and Kit Reed.  Ursula K. Le Guin is a recognized giant; others like Pamela Sargent  and James Tiptree, Jr. came out of that New Wave era of feminist SF, and writers like Sheri S. Tepper and Octavia Butler continued on with the tradition through the 80’s. Marion Zimmer Bradely’s Darkover fiction, as well as her more broadly known Mists of Avalon series also stand out as works that are explicitly part of the feminist tradition.  And currently there is a whole new generation of writers who are embracing and exploring this science fiction tradition.

Science fiction has never followed the dictum that one doesn’t talk about politics. It’s almost always been about politics, one way or the other. And our oft-divided, (does anyone remember the great WorldCon schism over the Vietnam War? That makes today’s Twitter fights look like schoolyard bickering by comparison) big-tent community of readers and writers will always be looking at political ideas -- they way they were, the way they are, the way they can be, and the way they should be. That’s one of the strengths of the genre.

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