Tuesday, 5 May 2009

It's Politics, Jim

This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch.


The release of the new Star Trek movie has already prompted a deluge of hyper-nerdy commentary. But Star Trek isn't just about spaceships, ray guns and teleportation machines. It also has something to say about politics. And it's the politics of sci-fi - using Star Trek as a convenient warping-off point - that I'd like to look at today.

Star Trek is set in a putative 24th century in which Earth is one of many planets inhabited by various ‘races’ (species would be the more correct term) that together form a United Federation of Planets. The Federation is a major galactic power with impressive hardware - yet it is also, surprisingly, a communist regime. Some people think so, anyway!

To be fair, others take a different view. But what's undeniable from the various TV series and the later movies that the Federation is a society that has abolished capitalism as we know it, and has a centralised system for the allocation of resources. Admittedly, some rugged individualism survives in the Federation’s Star Fleet, but then you’d expect that in any military, especially one that’s committed to "exploring strange new worlds".

Other celluloid versions of the future have different takes on aliens, robots, clones and so forth, but their anti-capitalist ideals are often quite similar. Star Trek is almost Utopian in its depiction of human beings getting on – more or less – with one another and also rubbing along (not to mention up against) humanoid aliens. The Alien series by contrast, shows space explorers in the employ of corrupt corporations which undermine their efforts to tackle nasty monsters in space. The Terminator franchise imagines a (private) defence contractor creating a supercomputer network - which then tries to exterminate humanity. Well, it would get rid of that budget deficit…

Even the most simple, escapist films depict a Dystopian future which is capitalist or consumerist in nature. In the lightweight Seventies flick Logan’s Run, made cheaply for a teenage audience before the Star Wars detonated the sci-fi boom, the combined talents of Michael York, Jenny Agutter and Peter Ustinov deliver the message that the human race better off living outside an enormous computerised shopping mall. More recently Wall-E throws environmental concerns into the mix and gives us a mega-corporation crushing human freedom.

Things were always rather different on the printed page. The term science fiction was coined in the early Thirties by writer/editor Hugo Gernsback (an enterprising immigrant from Luxembourg). At that time short stories on popular themes, from thrillers to romance, were churned out by poorly-paid hacks for dozens of pulp magazines,so called because of their cheap paper. People read the pulps for reassurance and cheap thrills in very troubled times. Attitudes in the pulps tended to be small-c conservative.

Robert A. Heinlein, considered by some the best writer of the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction (c. 1940-60) was overtly political and scathing about liberal/left ideas. His novel Starship Troopers has been described as militaristic power-fantasy, or an anti-fascist satire. It is set in a future where the soldiers of all nations have established a global government simply because nobody else had the gumption to take charge. Full citizenship is only extended to those who have done military service.

Daily Mail readers will be even more pleased when I reveal that at one point a child molester is summarily hanged. But beware simplistic assumptions; writing in Fifties America, Heinlein offered his readers a black hero who wears an earring, uses eyeliner, and doesn’t seem to fancy girls. Science fiction rarely depicts the future accurately, but Heinlein came damn close to predicting Michael Jackson.

If Starship Troopers is his best-known book, Heinlein’s magnum opus is Stranger in a Strange Land, a heftily pretentious novel full of interesting and/or loopy ideas. (For me one of the best is the Fair Witness – an independent professional whose sole purpose is to tell the truth at all times. It’ll never catch on.) The book is set in a corrupt future America ripe for subversion. It was one of Charles Manson’s favourite reads and he tried to emulate the cultish revolutionary movement Heinlein depicts.

Heinlein’s books are infested with characters who function as the author’s mouthpieces, presumably because he thought his readers were too stupid to ‘get it’. Jack Vance (b. 1916) is rather different. Like Heinlein he rose via the pulps and takes a broadly libertarian stance. But Vance leaves it to his readers to draw their own conclusions about his often outré political systems.

Vance’s novels and stories are mannered, ironic affairs leavened with plenty of violence and subterfuge. In The Last Castle an aristocratic elite is too refined to actually do anything when its servants rise in murderous revolt. In the The Face Vance creates a society in which the sexual abduction of juveniles is the conventional method of procreation. Emphyrio satirises religion by way of a complex, oppressive faith based on hopping.

Going to extremes is often Vance’s way of tackling a political issue. Thus the trilogy beginning with The Anome is set in a world with a totally unaccountable government. The Anome, or Faceless Man, is the ultimate autocrat; each of his subjects wears a tamper-proof ‘torc’ containing a radio receiver, and a strip of high explosive. Heads can be blown off by the Anome’s shadowy minions at any time. Yet Vance manages to create credible and even likeable characters to defend this system, even as his hero is trying to wreck it.

Equally inventive but very different is Cordwainer Smith, pen name for Dr Paul Linebarger (1913-1966), a noted expert on Asiatic affairs. His father helped finance the Chinese Revolution of 1911, and President Sun Yat Sen duly became young Paul’s godfather. Linebarger served with US Military Intelligence in WW2, wrote the standard textbook on psychological warfare, and advised the US military in Korea. As Cordwainer Smith he wrote some of the most distinctive science fiction of the post-war era.

Most of Smith’s stories take place thousands of years hence, in an era dominated by the "Instrumentality of Mankind". The Lords of the Instrumentality preside over a cruelly unjust society that relies upon a slave class. The Underpeople are sentient beings created from various animal species (after the fashion of Wells’ Dr Moreau). The Underpeople’s struggle for freedom is the main thread in a strange tapestry of stories. Stylistically, Smith shuns the gung-ho methods of the early pulps. His titles alone suggest something very different from Starship Troopers – ‘The Lady Who Sailed The Soul’, ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’.

Smith’s dystopian future is one of the most original on offer. The saga reaches its climax with the Rediscovery of Man, in which the regime is forced to concede that freedom has to be allowed back into the world. Freedom makes life worth living, Smith argues, despite – or perhaps because of – its inherent evils. There is a distinctly spiritual overtone to this saga, but Smith (while a committed Christian) shuns apologetics in favour of what might be termed a more ‘oriental’ mysticism.

Even more critically acclaimed than Smith is the remarkable Philip K. Dick (1938-83). PKD, as he’s widely known, wrote quirky short stories for the Fifties pulps while failing to break into mainstream fiction with a series of rather good novels. (He didn’t do himself any favours by giving these books titles such as The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike.) Balked of a ‘respectable’ career Dick poured his intellectual obsessions into science fiction; he remains one of the few sf writers to win unqualified critical admiration outside the field.

If you only know of Dick from the credits of Blade Runner, you have surprises in store. He was strange and darkly prophetic, but also extremely funny. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ is the question that obsessed Dick. He tackles it in numerous short stories and novels such as Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Martian Time-Slip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Blade Runner is loosely based, uses the renegade androids as a way of defining inhumanity. (There’s a very disturbing scene with a spider.)

Dick is as unrelenting on moral issues as an Old Testament prophet, and his status as an American conservative thinker is, I think, clear if you read enough of his stuff. His good characters are often confronted with a vision of pure spiritual evil, invariably described with surreal intensity. Perhaps the best example comes in The Man in the High Castle, with its theme of Nazism triumphant. Towards the end of his life Dick became very strange indeed, while losing none of his talent. A spiritual epiphany led him to some very odd conclusions about reality and his place in it. Despite this, Dick’s later books, notably VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth, are as effective and disconcerting as any of his earlier work.

So, if you want to relax with a bit of non-socialist sci-fi, there is plenty of it out there on the printed page. But let’s return to the screen for my two final examples. The first, Firefly, was a TV show produced by the revered Joss Whedon. He essentially created a space Western, with a future society based on the post-Civil War USA. In the world of Firefly big government and big business combine against the little guy in a futuristic version of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. The story concerns a shipload of disreputable space merchants who inadvertently shelter two political fugitives.

The series was cancelled, but fan pressure spawned a movie sequel, Serenity. In the film Whedon is more explicit about his heroes’ political stance. The opening scene has a member of the ruling class (who is soon to fall foul of a rather nasty experiment) sum it up nicely: ‘People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think; don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads, and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.’ Quite.

The remake of Battlestar Galactica has proved much more successful than the cheesy Seventies original and won considerable kudos outside the usual genre audience. The basic plot concerns a society that, having created ‘perfect’ robot slaves, the Cylons, is threatened when they revolt and seek to extirpate humanity. The robots nearly succeed, but a remnant of humanity escapes aboard a rag-tag fleet of spacecraft, guarded by the eponymous warship,.

BSG, as it’s known to fans, has been described as a rather grim and arty drama that happens to be set in space. It tackles issues of loyalty, betrayal, personal integrity and morality in ways that would be difficult in a non-science fiction context. The series does not offer simple answers, and is all the better for it. But its stance is to some extent conservative in its exploration of issues such as the role of the military in a free society, and how much individual freedom should be sacrificed to defend the community.

I’ve left the best till last, giving belated credit to the one true begetter of science fiction (albeit nearly a hundred years before before the term was coined). Jules Verne and HG Wells both acknowledged their debt to that most conservative Southern gentlemen, Edgar Allan Poe.

Those who only know Poe from Roger Corman’s film adaptations might not appreciate the scope of his influence. Poe’s first published story, MS Found in a Bottle, deals with a strange voyage that ends with the narrator apparently heading into the hollow earth, one of the trendier ideas of the time. Poe was the first writer of the scientific age to imagine a voyage to the Moon – The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaal – that was not mere moonshine; his hero even has a gizmo for making oxygen. The Balloon Hoax deals with a transatlantic flight, while Mellonta Tauta looks back on the 19th century from an imaginary (and very violent) future. Verne took his lead from Poe in creating his voyages extraordinaire, and wrote a sequel to Poe’s polar adventure The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

Poe’s last major work, the prose-poem Eureka, contains descriptions of black holes and an early version of the Big Bang theory. This little-known tour de force has won admiration from, among others, Sir Patrick Moore. It is riddled with hyperbole and errors, but that only reinforces Poe’s claim to be the originator of sci-fi. Poe imagined the end of the world by comet (The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion) created a cyborg (The Man That Was Used Up) and considered the likelihood of thinking machines (‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’). Not surprising, then, that HG Wells considered Poe’s early death to be an unparalleled loss to American letters.

In Poe we can find the origins of almost everything that follows – even Star Trek. Consider: Poe’s cerebral detective Dupin is the prototype of Sherlock Holmes, who is in turn the progenitor of Mr Spock. And having closed the circle, it is time for M. Valdemar to return to his rest.

Valdemar adds: I have recuperated (without net access) a fair bit. Still sore eye and wonky vision but now back online. Will be able to respond to posts assuming anyone bothers!

25 comments:

Edwin Moore said...

Great stuff Valdemar. James Blish (that's the second time I've referenced him here in a weeK) wrote a few ST episodes and approved of the series as basically liberal: Brian Aldiss disagreed with him, thinking it was just more America frees the world stuff.

Both were right I suppose.

Good point about Heinlein and race - Tunnel in the Sky is a great example of his trick of springing the info that characters you may have assumed were white are in fact black.

Can I put in a recommend for Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag? Gnostic themes now underlie a lot of our conspiracy-theory culture and Heinlein's novel seems to me to be the great dark forerunner of stuff like The Matrix (Hoag's profession is indeed an unpleasant one).

Have a good recovery mate, enjoyed your piece.

valdemar squelch said...

Thanks, Edwin, I'm doing okay - inflamed a bit and still sensitive to light (the eye, that is).

I think ST was by turns liberal (ie anti-racist) and deeply conservative. Remember the episode that involved the mind-swapping machine used by one of Kirk's exes? The whole point was that she couldn't captain a starship because she was a woman. Then there was the one about the Yangs (Yankees) and Comes (Commies), complete with the former pledging aliegience to Old Glory...

Anonymous said...

Be interested in your take on Heinlein's 'Farnham's Freehold'. What's the evidence that the hero of 'Starship Troopers' doesn't fancy girls? He fancies 'little Carmen,' surely, but this being the suburban fifties in the future as far as sexual mores go, he isn't permitted by the author to do anything about it.

Ian said...

I've always thopught that John Wyndham was a massively underrated sci-fi author, and one with a definite political slant. I dunno if it is because he chooses mundane settings more akin to an agatha christie novel for his stories, rather than the sort of planet hopping of some authors.

And of course ursula le guin.

Anonymous said...

There are no Arabs in Star-Trek

valdemar squelch said...

Hi Anon 1. Years since I read any Heinlein, I admit. I was influenced re: Starship Troopers gay subtext by Thomas M. Disch, who describes the hero as 'a swaggering leather boy'. Disch's book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is one of the best books on sf by a writer of it I've read. I never did figure out Farnham's Freehold, though. It was written during the Sixties civil rights movement and suggests that, once blacks get equality, they'll take over and eat the white folks. Satire? I've no idea.

Edwin Moore said...

Valdemar, found the Maxitrol eyedrops soothing after my cataract operation - another brand made no difference but these seemed to work.

Anon:
'There are no Arabs in Star-Trek'

Maybe not, but it's been claimed that the portrayal of the Ferengi is slyly antisemitic -

http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/winn031.htm

Most Trekkies would furiously dispute that the Ferengi draw on the stock of western antisemitism; I think they are problematic meself, but perhaps the truth is we can analyse ST too much!

Incidentally, am sorry Greg Hemphil didn't get the Scotty role in new ST - he would have been marvellous.

Ian, John Wyndham is a marvellous writer - and one of the few SF writers to write about an all-female world.

valdemar squelch said...

Ian, during my recuperation I listened to the BBC's very good radio adaptation of The Kraken Wakes. It does contain some scathing comments on the way governments don't act to protect the public in a crisis.

Wyndham is underrated, I think, in part because he was so popular and his approach - rather cosy British settings etc - seem quaint. But I agree, he had an agenda - when you consider the end of Village of the Damned, he clearly took a grimly realistic view of our place in Nature, and what we might have to do to survive.

martinhayes said...

John Zerzan thinks Star Trek "impossibly weak" in every respect except as an effective weapon against autonomy. He thinks it no coincidence that Roddenberry served in the Los Angeles Police Department, and thus that his creation replicates that hierarchy of domination.

See "Why I Hate Star Trek", available online.

scherfig said...

The first Star Trek shows were surely liberal? Consider the crew - Chinese, Russian, a black woman officer whose name is Swahili for freedom. (Not to mention a Vulcan.)And all this in the sixties. Not exactly conservative.

The Heresiarch said...

Wasn't it later explained that Spock was half-human, though? It's almost as though the idea of a fully alien crew member was too radical, so he had to be given a "human" (ie American) side.

That Star Trek does, I always thought, is to extend the idea of the American melting-pop to the whole human race, and even some privileged aliens belonging to the "Federation" (a bit like NATO, perhaps?) They may belong to different races, or nationalities, but they're all American really. But there are also Klingons and Romulans, who don't stand for US values and are thus the bad guys. Of course, it gets more complicated by the time we reach the Next Generation - but that show belongs rather to the End of History period in the immediate aftermath of the cold war, does it not?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The original Star Trek pilot had a female second in command but that was considered too radical at the time so she got downgraded to a nurse.

In the Next Generation the Klingons have more or less become Native Americans and are much cooler. There is a great moment when they show the naff Klingons from the Original Series and Worf simply mutters that "We do not speak of them".

High marks for mentioning the great Cordwainer Smith but you've mysteriously overlooked Alfred Bester, John Brunner and Roger Zelazny who also produced brilliantly original work.

Of modern SF authors I highly rate Dan Simmons for originality in particular his Endymion and Olympos novels.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Harry Harrison (Stainless Steel Rat) is brilliantly subversive and satirical of all things military. He is the polar opposite of Heinlen in many ways. I gather he deeply hated and thoroughly despised Heinlen - an attitude that is not hard to understand!

Edwin Moore said...

I think we all must like Harry Harrison. I picked up a copy of Mechanismo at a Morning Star Xmas 'Fayre' once and - wondrous to tell - it was signed by him. He has a very cramped signature - all the letters bunched up.

Valdemar, I agree the conclusion of The Midwich Cuckoos is superbly grim - reminds me of Kafka saying 'yes there is hope, but not for us'.

On Vulcans and Romulans, remember when people used to call Redwood a Vulcan? I mind a Tory grandee magnificently observing - 'a Romulan, rather, surely'

martinhayes said...

Heseriarch, the idea of the melting pot, not that the US is in any wise any longer a melting pot, multiculturalism having seen to that, has long ago been extended out of the US to the wider world, and all of the attendant problems have followed in its wake.

I'm prepared to go up against you sci-fi wackos, with your knowing winkery, and I don't plan on being nice.

John Fowles, when he was a wee and sophomoric lad, pretty much pegged you tosspots good and proper, and I'm saying that as a nerd who has paid his dues.

First off, you affect the casual disdain of your secret hero, Robert Heinlein, last of the great worshippers of the testosterone flats, and I bet none of you knows how to deliver a baby, chop down a tree, plant a tree, or impregnate a woman.

But Heinlein, if he were a real hero, could have called L Ron Hubbard, who lived in the same commune as he in the 1950s, on his shit, but he didn't.

Failure. Remind you of anyone?

Moving right along, trying to get past the "personal abuse", I'm reminded again of why liberals like you lot make me sick. Fact is, you can afford to be liberal, because your culture is not yet really threatened by the people you champion. But give it time.

In practice, you follow the same rules as the people you affect to despise, the people who have the power you don't have, and it's not because of your scruples. Those rules are simple:

Silence is about power;
talk is about control.

Go fuck yourselves.

valdemar squelch said...

Wow Martin, now you've got our attention why don't you tell us all how you're a big fat success and a big damn hero? Let's see some pics of all those babies you've made. Not to mention a map of that forest you've planted...

Oh, and tell us why someone who has such a shitty prose style thinks he has the right to look down on anyone?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Martinhayes would doubtless be shocked to learn that even liberals love their children too. And its a pretty safe bet that any such rabidly foaming right-wing nut job who bangs on like a character from a John Norman Gor 'novel' is himself a 40+ virgin.

Anonymous said...

Harry Harrison? Lazy, slipshod and formulaic writing; stale liberal-left received ideas.

valdemar squelch said...

I admit I was never that keen on Harrison. An uncle of mind recommended Bill the Galactic Hero and I found it old-fashioned. Last year I attended a talk by Harry H and he made it clear that he was really more of a thriller-adventure writer who stumbled into sf. Hence the Deathworld series, Stainless Steel Rat etc.

Woolly, I think our friend Martin is 5 feet 5, 16 stone, living in his mother's basement and fantasing about being disciplined by burly dock workers. But, being a liberal, I'm far too polite to say it.

Edwin Moore said...

' I'm reminded again of why liberals like you lot make me sick.'

Goodness Martin is there any need for such strong language as the 'l' word? I am black affronted!

WeepingCross said...

I have nothing useful to contribute, but having been away I wanted to say, Hello Valdemar, how good it is to have you in circulation again, and thank you for putting all that together.

Have you come across the sci-fi oeuvre of now-Father Lionel Fanthorpe and his many guises? A man with, apparently, much to be ashamed of, in terms of literature.

Uhura: Dr Bones, I'm Uhura.
Bones: Oh, don't be so hard on yourself, young woman, we all make mistakes.

Edwin Moore said...

Ah yes the great Lionel Fanthorpe -

http://www.peltorro.com/gallery.htm

There was a very similar writer of pulp westerns in the 60s - he wrote hundreds of awful books with villains called Burgess and Maclean, a horse their called Heinz with 57 horses etc etc.

My favourite vicar writer is Toby Forward who found fame as Rahila Khan! You Anglicans are a deep lot.

valdemar squelch said...

Thanks, Father Weep, it's good to be able to sort of see and sit and type a bit.

Lionel Fanthorpe was immensely prolific, which excuses the low quality of his output to some extent. A series of anthologies called Supernatural Stories ostensibly contained a wide range of fiction by various authors, but they were all penned by Fanthorpe using his myriad pen-names. But if the market will bear it...

Matt said...

Another example of a red utopia is described in Iain M Banks Culture novels.

One of the great lines used there is "Money implies poverty", meaning that when they see a society that still uses money, that fact implies that they are living in scarcity economy, where money is still required. Those living in an abundance economy, where resources are limitless due to technology, generally do away with the concept.

In Star Trek the use of replicators can be seen as paving the way for this state of affairs. Why would you need to buy and sell, say, apples, when you can reconfigure matter in a replicator to produce as many as you like.

The digital revolution in media is a good example of that process taking place in the real world. Current legal issues aside, who need to buy and sell CDs when you can copy them endlessly on PCs over the internet?

Of course, here in the real world you also get the question of artists compensation, but in an ideal world where the artists didn't need to buy food, fuel, or TVs, they could also make their music for free.

At the moment we don't live in an abundance economy, and pockets of abundance, like digital media, causes conflict. However, if and when the human race progresses technologically to the point of getting themselves off-earth, and having matter replicators, then we would be in that "ideal" and may be able to do away with money too.

It's an ideal, but one we should ultimately strive for. I see capitalism as a necessary evil. A means to an end. And certainly better than trying to make communism work in a scarcity economy like ours, which is doomed to failure.

Matt said...

Forgot my link.

http://www.vavatch.co.uk/books/banks/cultnote.htm