Michael Lind of New America has a Theory about why politics is so screwed up. It’s worth quoting in extenso:
Science fiction traditionally has had the task of providing us with alternative visions of the future. For the most part, it has done a terrible job. The main reason for its failure is that it assumes global uniformity. …
In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. … The assumption of uniform conditions in the world of tomorrow saves science-fiction authors and screenwriters the trouble of explaining the Sino-Indian dispute of 2345 AD, allowing them to concentrate on the plot and the main characters. But it is completely unrealistic.
…even in an industrialized world of wage workers and cities, the gaps between rich and poor regions are likely to remain enormous. Even as some backward areas catch up, innovative regions will shoot ahead. …
Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness. … Unfortunately, literary and cinematic visions of the future influence the way the public and the policymaking elite think about the future. This is particularly a problem for the left … Meanwhile, from the early 20th century to the early 21st, many centrist liberals have put their hopes in international institutions — the League of Nations, the United Nations, or, more recently, projects of trans-national regionalism like the European Union.
Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.
I don’t want to be too hard on Lind – most commentators, myself included, have a column of harrumphing nonsense in us, and can only hope that kindly editors will dissuade us from writing and publishing it. But where to begin?
Perhaps the best starting point is to say that Lind’s depiction of the genre is completely unrecognizable to me. There may certainly be movies that skimp on the complicated politics in favor of the ray guns (although see also e.g. District 9). But one of the very clear changes in written science fiction over the last thirty years has been precisely to move away from assumptions about uniformity and focus on the differences. Just to take one glaring example, if one were to take Lind’s argument that
even in an industrialized world of wage workers and cities, the gaps between rich and poor regions are likely to remain enormous. Even as some backward areas catch up, innovative regions will shoot ahead.
translate it from policy-wonkese into striking and pithy prose, and add a tincture of genius, one might end up with something like “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
While William Gibson’s work arrived as a revelation to science fiction, that revelation hit back in 1984.
It might be easier to know how Lind defines the genre he’s looking to criticize if he named a single book besides 1984. But it seems to me that his criticism fails both on its own terms and in its understanding of what moving away from the assumption of uniformity would involve.
It fails on its own terms because there is, contrary to his argument, plenty of highly regarded work that does what he claims is virtually absent from the genre. For example, while we don’t have the Sino-Indian dispute of 2345 AD, we do have the 2047 political crisis between India’s three successor states in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I list a bunch of other examples at the end of the post. More or less none of these books or stories share Lind’s politics, but they certainly address the issues that he wants addressed, with as much seriousness as you could plausibly hope for.
And that touches on the second problem – it’s the politics, not the purported political uniformity that really seems to be at the bottom of Lind’s dissatisfaction. Behind his sweeping claim that science fiction authors aren’t addressing the issues that he’s interested in (and hence are leading the global elites who are their unwitting slaves into ever greater folly) is a more straightforward but less defensible proposition – that science fiction writers aren’t addressing those issues in ways that conform with his own politics. The consequence is that his proposed alternative to uniformity is itself notably uniform. It’s science fiction as a platform for working class nationalists, who may or may not be largely white, but certainly aren’t interested in issues of race and gender.
This, I suspect, is why he’s blind to the actual politics of science fiction as it is today. Science fiction writers are starting to say a lot about the politics of empire. Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is a great recent example, which takes the non-uniformity of conditions, differences of power, complex global politics and so on as a starting point. Shawl’s recent book – like others – just isn’t especially interested in hackneyed debates over whether America is overstretched by its global commitments, since her understanding of politics has different, and more nuanced questions at its heart. Gibson’s The Peripheral, which I’ve written about already, has much more to say about the issues that Lind wants to talk about, but again from a very different political standpoint than Lind’s. Gibson is very interested in the hollowing out of American communities by globalization, but nationalism is beside the point for his characters – it’s not going to help them much in a world where the real politics is happening elsewhere.
If Lind were to write a better column defending his views, I think it would go something like this. First, it would take science fiction as it actually is – looking at the kind of work that wins or is nominated for Hugos these days (slates excluded) and what its politics are, how it varies from book to book, whether it shares certain ideas, doesn’t share others and so on. It would then make a more particular critique – claiming that certain viewpoints tend to get excluded, and again providing examples. Then, finally, it would come up with some kind of actual theory about how this matters for global elites’ understanding of the future (which seems to me to owe a lot more to Tom Friedman than to Tom Disch – but perhaps there’s some causal chain that isn’t visible to me). I wouldn’t probably agree with that column particularly, but I could maybe see its point. This, not so much.
Science fiction on social breakdown and mass migration
Alfred Bester – The Stars My Destination.
Octavia Butler – The Parable of the Sower.
Maureen McHugh – After the Apocalypse.
Paolo Bacagilupi – The Water Knife.
David Moles – Seven Cities of Gold (to be compared, as I’ve just realized, with Gene Wolfe’s Seven American Nights as well as Apocalypse Now).
Michael Swanwick – Radiant Doors (on refugees).
Science Fiction on Geopolitics as traditionally conceived
Charles Stross – A Colder War and Missile Gap.
Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution books.
Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Autumn/Europe at Midnight (state collapse and its consequences).
Ada Palmer – Seven Surrenders (and no – you can’t have my copy – but an entirely original take on how the balance of power might work under radically changed political conditions, borrowing from Metternich, De Sade and Rousseau in equal measure).
Brian Aldiss – Greybeard
Paul McAuley – Fairyland
P.D. James – The Children of Men
John Crowley – Engine Summer