Film and Literature
Poet as Sage

Socialism and Science Fiction

In his introduction to an issue of Socialism and Democracy devoted to science fiction, editor Victor Wallis endorses those works of SF that embody "the experience incisively identified by Darko Suvin, more than thirty years ago, as cognitive estrangement":

Works conceived in this tradition are the ones in which we find promise. The character of such works, as Carl Freedman has written, “lies neither in chronology nor in technological hardware but in the cognitive presentation of alternatives to actuality and the status quo.” Insofar as we focus on this dimension of science fiction, we encounter a body of work with obvious relevance to the concerns of socialists.

I guess it is true that works of science fiction that present "alternatives to actuality and the status quo" would be of interest to socialists, but only insofar as socialism is one political ideology among others whose adherents would like to see things change. However, to the extent socialism entails a specific vision of how things should change, what society should look like after such change has taken place, I can't see why socialists should have any particular use for science fiction. More importantly, I can't see why science fiction should have any particular use for socialists. Would not socialism only create another, albeit perhaps a more humane, status quo? Shouldn't science fiction writers, if they are truly committed to the idea of SF as a way of exploring "alternatives to actuality," be just as interested in questioning the new status quo as they were the old? Would science fiction--indeed, literature as a whole, which to my mind is, at its best, just as committed to presenting "alternatives" as science fiction in particular--cease to exist because political Nirvana had been established?

A few paragraphs later, Wallis writes:

. . .Science fiction that is produced within the tradition of cognitive estrangement constitutes what might be understood as an intersection – with the potential for mutual reinforcement – between two streams of thought and practice that have too often remained separate: social-scientific critique (analysis and proposals) on the one hand, and cultural expression (nurturing resistance and personal transformation) on the other. The dimension of social-scientific critique focuses on issues of universal resonance and impact; to the extent that it is well-grounded, its message can eventually cut across all lines of division among people except those of class interest. The cultural dimension, by contrast, draws importantly (though not exclusively) on the particularities of experience of each community – whatever its mark(s) of identity might be. Any hope of developing a popular movement that can overcome the march to destruction rests vitally on the symbiosis of these two dimensions of struggle.

First of all, I just can't accept that "social-scientific critique" and "cultural expression" have "too often remained separate." Political ideologues and social-science types have been trying to appropriate "cultural expressions" (i.e., works of art) to their own agendas for as long as art (more particularly literature, and most particularly fiction) has asserted its own autonomous status apart from "analysis and proposals." Literary study in the academy has now been overtaken almost exclusively by various hybrid forms of "social-science critique" (when it's not just outright political agitation), and to continue to assert that literature still retains too much of its autonomy in such circumstances seems to me either willful blindness or plain dishonesty.

Second, equating "cultural expression" with "nurturing resistance" and "personal transformation" seems a peculiar way to get science fiction writers and readers to join up with a program of "mutual reinforcement." Since the goal has been set by the social scientists, and since they are doing the head work (analyzing and proposing), the fiction writers and their fans have clearly been assigned a secondary and less substantial role--they get to provide "the particularities of experience of each community." Is this what science fiction writers consider themselves to be doing? Representing their "community" and asserting its "identity"? Don't some of them think they're creating works of literary art that go well beyond recommending "personal transformation"? Would they be willing to accept this secondary status as handmaidens to "social-scientific critique"?

Like most political ideologues when considering "cultural expressions," Wallis ultimately wants to glom onto science fiction because it seems expedient to his political goals: A "symbiosis" of socialism and science fiction will "provide new sources of strength for resisting oppression, while at the same time (thanks to [SF's] wide diffusion) bringing social consciousness and political awareness to constituencies unresponsive to overtly political messages." Science fiction can be a tool of consciousness-raising. Maybe it can be, but I'd hate to think that SF writers would settle for that. While I agree that, as Wallis puts it at the beginning of his essay, some mass-market science fiction (including science fiction films) is often "heavily overlaid with explicit or tacit links to Washington’s global military agenda, with the particular incarnations of evil evolving to meet the needs of the moment" and that "An important subsidiary message is that an all-powerful technology has the answer to everything, including what to do if the earth’s ecosphere is destroyed," I can't see the purpose (the literary purpose, at least) in exchanging one set of tacit assumptions (technology good) with another (technology bad). Science fiction under socialism would be just as formulaic and fraught with questionable presuppostions as it is (if it is) under capitalism.


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