The Politics of SF

A question from the gallery (and more specifically, this guy):

As someone who not only enjoys Charles Stross’s work, but who drools over intelligent SF in general (i.e., as someone who considers cutting-edge SF the equivalent of Ghirardelli chocolate), I’m very interested to learn more about the “real-world” political perspectives of the SF writers I admire. (FREX: China Mieville: pseudo-Marxist; LeGuin: pacifist Taoist; etc..)

I’ve noticed that the worldviews of many otherwise insightful SF authors–including Charles Stross–become strangely conspiratorial and dogmatic whenever they address current political realities. Are all contemporary SF writers dedicated Leftists? Or what?

Specifically relating to Charlie Stross, of course, the best person to answer that question would be Charlie himself. I will note that personally, I don’t find him to be any more politically dogmatic than other people; Charlie’s politics and mine diverge enough to be noticeable, and yet he doesn’t shy away from my acquaintance based on my doctrinal impurities. He does have a point of view, which is perhaps best summed up in this quote: “I’m a fuzzy-headed warm-hearted liberal, and I think fuzzy-headed warm-hearted liberalism is an ideological stance that needs defending—if necessary, with a hob-nailed boot-kick to the bollocks of budding totalitarianism.” (via Electrolite) I don’t see that as dogmatic so much as aspirational. In any event, Charlie can speak for Charlie.

As for SF in general, I don’t think anyone’s taken a serious political survey of SF writers — because why would you — but anecdotally speaking it does seem to me that most SF writers I’ve met are of two political stripes: Lefties and Libbies. The lefty camp includes most SF writers who are not citizens of the US, which makes some sort of basic sense because the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are rather more politically and socially “left” than the US. It does also include the general mass of US SF writers, who can be widely classified as a subset of the American intellectual class, which is generally left-learning, although I would hesitate to say exclusively so. The libertarian camp of SF writers — the Heinleinites, as I like to call them in my brain — are as far as I can see is a small but vocal minority. You recognize them the moment they open their mouths.

This is speaking very broadly and anecdotally, mind you; I can think of several successful SF writers who I see as generally conservative, either politically or socially. Orson Scott Card is famously socially conservative, a position that is to some degree rooted in his religious tradition. John Ringo also seems fairly conservative; he’s been known to write op-eds for the New York Post. Holly Lisle also seems to be of a politically conservative stripe to me, on the occasion I’ve seen her write about her politics. And of course as individuals most SF writers and editors have the political quirks and streaks. I doubt rather seriously that you’ll meet an SF writer who is doctrinally straight ticket for whatever their general political stance is assumed to be. That’s because SF writers, as a rule, tend to think about their political positions.

Knowing the politics of an author is interesting but usually irrelevant to their work, unless the writer is writing specifically about contemporary politics (which would be unusual for this genre). My personal political views, for example, are almost entirely irrelevant for Old Man’s War; the story might give you a small sense of my thoughts on the use of military force, but then again it might not, since I’ve seen the book described both as “anti-war” and as an argument for the wisdom of having “boots on the ground.” If you were to give the average person OMW and ask them to divine my political positions based on the text, I doubt you’d get all that far. Equally, I’m not sure having read Perdido Street Station that I would have pegged China Mieville as a socialist, because his personal politics are not glaringly obvious in the book, or at least, they weren’t to me.

And what about, say, a book like Allen Steele’s Coyote? In the book, the US has been replaced by a hard-right political entity, against which a small group of colonists rebel — and yet later in the book there’s an even larger socialist state, and the colonists rebel against that too. What does any of this say about Steele’s politics? Is he a lefty, a righty, or the sort of libbie that just wants to be left alone? Any, or none, or (my choice) it doesn’t matter, since Steele is after all writing fiction.

Again, unless authors are explicitly addressing politics in their text, their personal politics and positions are trivia at best. Some will argue that personal politics do matter more than I’ve suggested, and I will argue that indeed, there are people for whom they will matter more than they do for me. And possibly in a different time and place, they might have mattered more, and might again. To switch art forms here, it does matter, for example, that Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant cinematic eye was used in the service of the Nazis. But the average writer who supported George Bush or John Kerry in the last US election does not, shall we say, sink to Riefenstalian depths. Here and now, most SF writers’ personal politics — left, right, or off the axis entirely — are not integral to how their work should be approached.

9 Comments on “The Politics of SF”

  1. I actually wonder if many SF writers specifically avoid any in-depth political contemplations in their works, because politics is the intellectual faeces of societal necessity. You’ve got to acknowledge it sometimes, perhaps even have opinions about it, but you don’t have to like any of it. So why write about it?

  2. I think most SF writers, like most writers in general, just want to tell a good story. If politics is part of a good story, why not? Otherwise, it’s skippable.

  3. Just how many opportunities do you think I get to use the phrase “politics is the entellectual faeces of societal necessity”? If it requires me to pretend to wonder about something silly, so be it.

  4. In the Beginning Was the Word

    I agree with Scalzi that SF writers deserve to be included among any nation’s “intellectual class.” Intellectuals have traditionally been defined as those whose business is ideas. And SF writers seem especially concerned with such matters.

  5. I hadn’t gotten the impression that a majority of American SF writers are left-leaning; I think the “libbies” are a much more prominent political faction than John gives them credit for. To me, at any rate, American SFers seem on the whole most prone to lecture the reader by proxy about the magical powers of the free market, or the totalitarian evil of UN-style bureaucrats, or the unmatched virtues of rugged individualism and so on. Mind you, there are openly leftist American writers who share the same habit of propagandizing their readers, and I find them just as unreadable but far less numerous…

  6. To clarify that comment above, I don’t think American SF (or SF in general) can always be read politically… but I think there are plenty of writers who do wear their politics on their sleeve. Some of those do it well, and plenty more do it badly. Moreover, I can’t agree with: “. . . possibly in a different time and place, [personal politics] might have mattered more, and might again.” Can anyone think of any time in American history that’s been more politically charged — with the possible exception of the Civil War era — than this one? Seems to me that even the infamous Sixties don’t compare. I mean, it’s not exactly at the Leni Riefenstahl threshold yet, but it’s arguably an Ersnt Junger moment at the very least.

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