It adds a whole new meaning to ‘secret masters of fandom.’

by Henry Farrell on October 23, 2016

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.

Well, in fairness, it isn’t nearly as creepy as blaming it all on international bankers or the Rothschilds

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).

*Demographic collapse*

Brian Aldiss – Greybeard
Paul McAuley – Fairyland
P.D. James – The Children of Men
John Crowley – Engine Summer



Doug Weinfield 10.23.16 at 5:00 pm

Loathe though I am to comment on anything that begins with a reference to the usually unfortunate and misguided Michael Lind, it doesn’t take much effort to refute his thesis. Stephenson’s Snowcrash does it by itself.


David Auerbach 10.23.16 at 5:10 pm

I think, as you say, that the crux of it is science-fiction as it is understood by political elites, which is to say 50-70 years out of date. Heinlein’s tropes, Asimov’s Foundation, and a smattering of Niven/Pournelle because that really is what politicos were reading for a time. My favorite take on that sort of thing is Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Man, probably because he had real experience in State Dept work and was reacting more to politics as experienced than imagined subculture tropes.

I think this lack of breadth, incidentally, is a flaw I’d level at most present-day science fiction, and indeed most fiction of any stripe that comes out of one or another subculture of a time. For example, Ann Leckie’s praised Ancillary trilogy seems to me to work within a very narrow remit–her work does not reach outside of long-established genre bounds (and nor, by her interviews, does her reading)–and compared to the riches offered by Tiptree, Delany, Butler, Fowler, Crowley, Russ, Disch, Sladek, Shepard, Waldrop, Hoban, and others, I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that Leckie falls prey to the same sort of genre-blindness that Lind does, albeit more anachronistically. In stark, stark contrast, Butler in particular stands out as so remote from the cluster of all the others that I think her work is far more eye-opening. To read her seriously requires questioning conventions and entertaining some bizarre and disturbing ideas about socio-political matters. As much as I enjoy some of the other authors you mentioned, I am not convinced they are any more enlightened about geopolitics and migration than a typical policy wonk, just as I don’t think Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, a fine book, is any more enlightened about overpopulation than a typical policy wonk. For example, I think nearly every change Cuaron made to Children of Men was an improvement, and that the movie has more to “say” than the book. What Cuaron brought to it is a worthwhile topic for discussion….


Barry 10.23.16 at 5:18 pm

Heck, Heinlein’s juveniles alone cover a lot of this:

Colonial revolt on ‘Red Planet’, going from slave to billionaire in ‘Citizen of the Galaxy’, colonial struggles against empire in ‘Podkayne of Mars’, working one’s way into the middle class in ‘Starman Jones’, homsteading in ‘Farmer in the Sky’, many political issues in ‘Space Cadet’, an interplanetary revolt in ‘Between Planets’.

And that’s not going into the other books he wrote.


Jim Harrison 10.23.16 at 5:23 pm

I don’t think Lind is particularly concerned about literary criticism. He’s just found a new hook on which to hang his continuing concern/obsession with irreducible nationalism, especially in American politics. He’s written for many years about the tension between two views of national identity, one idealistic and inclusive and one based on blood, religion, and culture. In the process, he’s raised a very salient question: how much diversity can the country assimilate? At what point does the pluribus get too big for the unum? The Trump supporters are afraid the election will be stolen by votes of people who aren’t real Americans. It doesn’t matter if their papers are in order. Of course, as Lind points out, what counts as a real American has changed over time. It’s OK now to be Catholic or Italian or (maybe) Jewish, though serious right-wingers don’t think New York City or Hawaii are really part of America. In general terms, though, the debate about identity goes back to the origins.

I’m inclined to give Lind a certain amount of credit for raising this issue and raising it long before the current spasm of reactionary populism, though I think historians such as David Hackett Fischer do a better job on getting into the particulars and economists like Sen have thought more profoundly about the worldwide implications of cultural and political loyalty. Maybe it takes a recovering conservative to care so much about the struggle over national identity.


Henry 10.23.16 at 5:34 pm

David – that reminded me that I intended to include Engine Summer under demographic collapse and forgot to. More seriously, I think that all the work listed qualifies under Lind’s implicit standard of raising policy issues in a reasonably serious way. As to whether the work goes beyond that – I think Butler’s book isn’t the only one – e.g. the Palmer book (which you presumably haven’t read), Swanwick’s Radiant Doors (which I think is the best and most awful short story he has written), and Moles’ short book (which hasn’t nearly had the impact it deserved). If I were to do a list on colonialism, an issue which doesn’t obviously interest Lind much, I’d include Paul Park’s Celestis as well as the Shawl book – the way in which it uses science fiction metaphors to capture the colonial view of the colonized is extraordinary.


roger gathmann 10.23.16 at 6:41 pm

maybe he is just thinking of H.G. Welles. A long time ago, but still, to my mind, one of the great sci fi writers, or just plain writers. However, if Welles non-fiction books were about an open conspiracy to make the world better, perpetrated by technocrats (still an incredibly lively view among economists – just look at economists who insist that the glory of the Federal Reserve is how it is insulated from electoral politics) , the counter-truth of his imagination, which shows up in his sci-fi, is that there is always an invisible man in the mix, whose irritations and paranoia will destroy that top down dream. The invisible man motif, which was brilliantly taken up by Ralph Ellison, brings an irreducible plurality to the fore. In a sense, there is more than representation going on here – I think one can argue that pluralism was first thought out in sci fi. Going back into its pre-history in the early modern period, with, say, Thomas More and Cyrano de Bergerac as its most monumental writers.


Adam Hammond 10.23.16 at 7:28 pm

Even great stories that are explicitly examining other issues — say, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” — have plenty of evidence of inequality plainly in the setting. Is he trying to set set a (false) equivalency argument about Ayn Rand? See progressives’ fiction causes great harm to the world too!


Guy Harris 10.23.16 at 7:36 pm

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

But what about explaining the Texas-Israeli war of 1999?

As you note, “It might be easier to know how Lind defines the genre he’s looking to criticize if he named a single book besides 1984.” – what’s the science fiction he’s thinking of, and what science fiction isn’t he thinking of (perhaps because he’s unaware of it)?


Matt 10.23.16 at 7:38 pm

Is Michael Lind a white nationalist? A fan of the Dark Enlightenment? When I hear someone name “demographic collapse, mass migration” as two of three major forces shaping the world today, I typically expect to hear them talking about the globalist plot against the white race, Eurabia, the horrors of feminism, and 14 Words not long after.


RichardM 10.23.16 at 8:43 pm

> Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future.

Even with the qualifiers that follow, that can only be true in the sense ‘wizards are missing from science fiction’; adding them makes it a different sub-genre. There is a series edited by Jerry Pournelle entitled ‘There Will Be War’; it’s currently on volume 10.

For mass migration sci-fi, you have to add Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island.


Bill Gardner 10.23.16 at 9:23 pm

Henry, would you please wrap up your current projects in political theory, so that you can pursue your true calling and write about science fiction full time?


Guy Harris 10.23.16 at 9:35 pm

@ Matt

Is Michael Lind a white nationalist?

Unless he’s changed his view recently, nationalist yes, white nationalist no.


Brett Dunbar 10.23.16 at 9:38 pm

Some things are best not directly determined by politicians. I don’t think many people would be in favour of a judiciary that was under political control or a politicised civil service. Central banking seems to be one of those areas.


Kiwanda 10.23.16 at 9:48 pm

The bottomless time-sink gives us many examples of the Population Control trope, with links to the “Childless Dystopia”, “Kill the Poor”, “Banning Sex”, and “Promoting Homosexuality” tropes.

The page on Space Cold War, a subtrope of “Fantasy Conflict Counterpart”, has links to the “Lensman Arms Race” and “Balance of Power” tropes.

Not all instances of The Migration trope are Mass, but many are.


Jed Harris 10.23.16 at 10:55 pm

The Rosinante trilogy by Alexis Gilliland covers most of the themes you mention plus it contains extraordinarily realistic accounts of detailed national and corporate politics. Alas it was never widely read and is not “literary” so perhaps not of interest on Crooked Timber.


Steve 10.23.16 at 11:02 pm

I really don’t know much about Lind, but I hope that thinking that demographic change and mass migration as two major drivers of modern politics doesn’t commit me to being alt-right! I mean if some kinds of people stop having as many children and other kinds of people start moving around more, then, surely, that’s going to have major effects – maybe the alt-right thing is an assumption that those changes will be bad? Or maybe the alt-right thing is to deny that mass migration will result from climate change? I’m confused! Here is a more positive comment: while there are lots of novels about civilisation collapse post-climate change, very few seem to focus on the mass migrations we might see before the collapse… Perhaps such novels would help in some odd ‘framing’ effect (i.e. Climate change wouldn’t just lead to a revival of the values of self-sufficiency and the old West…)


Doug O'Keefe 10.23.16 at 11:59 pm

Awesome. This is the post I didn’t know I needed, but now I do. Much thanks.


Matt 10.24.16 at 12:04 am

Demographic change, sure. Climate change, sure. It’s the little tics of framing or phrasing the issues that set off my alt-right spidey sense — though I guess it’s a false alarm in this case.

On demographics: The world as a whole has had its population grow every year since the end of WW II and will continue that way for the foreseeable future. The population of the European Union is still growing and probably will continue to grow for a couple of decades to come even without large increases in immigration. Every other inhabited continent likewise is expected to have its population keep growing for the foreseeable future. So when someone lists “demographic collapse” as a major force reshaping the world right now, I expect them to use a racial/ethnic lens to focus on demographics that are shrinking. If the second of their present-tense big issues is “mass migration,” it reinforces my initial impression that I’m hearing a white nationalist dog whistle about glorious white civilization being assaulted by infertile white feminists, fecund brown immigrants, and their powerful globalist (Jewish) allies. It’s been a depressingly common pattern in the last few years.


Matt 10.24.16 at 12:25 am

It was an error on my part. I read the excerpts at the top of this post but not the full post linked to. In context, that paragraph doesn’t seem like a dog whistle to anyone.


Jason Weidner 10.24.16 at 6:44 am

I imagine it doesn’t fall neatly within the science fiction genre, but Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is one of the best satirical dystopian novels I have read in recent years (and offers a much more plausible vision of a not-too-distant future based on interpersonal ratings than a recent episode of Black Mirror).


SusanC 10.24.16 at 12:51 pm

Lind rules out interplanetary wars, but it’s not clear to me that this exclusion is very principled.

If the war is with interplanetary aliens, then sure, the novel might be guilty of a certain utopianism in imagining that human beings, at least, will be politically united.

But there’s also a subgenre of SF where the invention of interplanetary travel has just upped the geographic scale: nation states are now the size of entire planets, but there are rival nation states existing on other planets. For this subgenre, the vacuum of space is creating a natural defensive border between nation states somewhat analogous to the effect of oceans in the real world. I don’t see any principled reason for saying this subgenre doesn’t consider the issues of conflict between Great Powers: it just thinks that space is the new ocean between them.

Heck, even Star Wars, which is hardly the ideal example of well-thought out political philosophy in SF, has the Empire and the rebels.


Jake Gibson 10.24.16 at 1:25 pm

I notice Lind does not bring up Haiti in his claims of America supporting nationalism.
Or the many interferences in national sovereignty, when that interference supported American geopolitical goals.
I think the phrase “full of crap” applies.


P.D. 10.24.16 at 4:05 pm

“Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs.”

This refuses to accept the paper-thin allegory of other planets as other nations, of space aliens as from-another-country aliens.


Cervantes 10.24.16 at 6:27 pm

“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.”

This is bullshit. Obviously this person has not read much science fiction. Start with C.J. Cherryh. I mean you don’t have to get that exotic, ever hear of Isaac Asimov? I don’t understand how anybody could write anything so utterly silly.


Alex 10.24.16 at 7:05 pm

@ P.D. Right? There’s a whole subgenre that’s basically Horatio Hornblower in spaceships, exemplified by Elizabeth Moon and David Weber. And Weber’s Safehold series is a holy war between humans all on one planet.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Barrayar series is all about great power rivalries and the effects of complicated historical conflicts on the present.


hix 10.24.16 at 7:38 pm

Perry Rhodan, which must be the longest sf-series that exists starts with the heroe saveing mankind from anhilation in a nuclear war with superior alien technology. Afterwards humans are unified rather fast and most of the folowing 4000+ book are more or less about wars, hot or cold between humans and their traditional allies with old or new enemies.

In the Neo version (a reboot) human unification is still an ongoing process 130 books and many more or less peacefull alien contacts into the series.


Hogan 10.24.16 at 7:41 pm

In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation.

Star Trek.

In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny.

Star Wars.

I don’t think you need to cast the net any wider for Lind’s range of reference. That’s it.


Nick Urfe 10.24.16 at 8:28 pm

Henry, Writing just to say that I read Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning on your very early recommendation and am eagerly awaiting the sequel. I’m 30 and read some science fiction growing up, but lost the thread when I majored in English and Philosophy. I owe my reacquaintance with the genre entirely to having trusted your criticism and praise. Much thanks.


SusanC 10.24.16 at 9:02 pm

Someone might, I suppose, accuse us of cherry-picking the rare examples of SF that goes include Great Power rivalry. So I might consider instead, the “tasting menu” we were discussing a week or so ago – we picked those examples without thinking of Lind’s article. Out of the “tasting menu”, at the very least A Canticle for Leibowitz and Book of the New Sun do not have a utopian vision of a world government. (A Canticle for Leibowitz being very much not an optimist on this front; Book of the New Sun has the Commonwealth and Ascia. )
Probably others from the list too, but I haven’t read all of them.


George Mason 10.24.16 at 9:29 pm

Years sonce I read it, but how about Ursula Le Guin’s Dispossessed? As I recall, two super powers, one capitalist, one socialist, on one moon, and a separate anarcho-syndicalist system on another moon.


J-D 10.24.16 at 11:21 pm


To avoid cherry-picking, how about working from a list of winners of the Hugo for best novel?

Some of those involve interstellar wars with aliens (The Forever War; Ender’s Games), which might exclude them from the scope of the original claim, so to be rigorous, we could restrict the test to those novels on the list which are set entirely on a future version of our Earth. Of those, how many feature a global government, and how many feature conflict between rival states?

(I can’t answer my own question at once because I haven’t read the majority of the books in question.)


Ragweed 10.25.16 at 12:19 am

I think Hogan has it right. When people who are not science-fiction buffs tend to talk about science fiction, they generally have a perception based on movies and visual media, rather than books. And, indeed, the nationalists worst nightmare is probably Star Trek – a future where all of humanity has been united into a single multi-ethnic federation, modeled on the UN, without money or (shudder) markets.

Star Wars, in the original three movies that really defined the franchise, are also in much the same mode – one single rebellion against the over-arching, galaxy-controlling evil empire. There are more politics in episodes I-III, but even then the politics that take place are often connected to the scheming of one evil politician, who manipulates the various factions and conflicts so as to gain power. Likewise the string of recent dystopian movie franchises (Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner) and a number of other classic sci-fi (Terminator, War of the Worlds, Alien franchise) all presume either some sort of overarching government or some sort of overarching evil invasion force.

Of course there are plenty of counter-examples, even in movies (the OP mentioned District 9, but one can think of many others) and TV.

“This refuses to accept the paper-thin allegory of other planets as other nations, of space aliens as from-another-country aliens.”

And perhaps the ultimate mainstream version of this is Star Trek Deep-Space Nine, where the last three seasons are mostly taken up with a war against the Dominion, filled with plot-lines involving shifting military alliances, underground resistance movements, defecting leaders, and diplomatic relationships that tie back to alliances and intrigues from centuries before. It’s like the Napoleonic wars in space.

Overall the sense is that Lind doesn’t read sci-fi, he just watches some of the pre-views for mainstream movies.


derrida derider 10.25.16 at 1:54 am

“Well, in fairness, it isn’t nearly as creepy as blaming it all on international bankers or the Rothschilds …”

Strangely, it is the left, not the right, that since 2008 has engaged in this particular socialism of fools. As witness this CT thread.


eric titus 10.25.16 at 2:00 am

I wonder how many of our “elites” were really sitting down reading Asimov. Not every billionaire or political leader is Bill Gates.

That said, one wonders what Sci-Fi he’s been reading since the even the most well-known authors tend to include exactly the topics he is asking for (great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration). Herbert, Asimov, Dick, LeGuin, Card and Bradbury all incorporate some of these questions. Other deal with questions around technology that are arguably equally contemporary (Clarke, Heinlein, etc). You really have to go way back to find that caricature that Lind is describing. If anything, one can make the case that classic sci-fi was too focused on great powers and overpopulation.

The reason why people have reacted so positively to the “new” science fiction is because the historical narrative that Lind lays out is so insufficient for understanding the world. “The west won because of technology, but the rest of the world wants it so they can come for our stuff” is the sort of political analysis that you would actually find in a sci-fi paperback.


Hugh Jenkins 10.25.16 at 2:22 am

Even ignoring the many ray gun adventures he churned out (hey, writers gotta pay rent),
Poul Anderson put a lot of thought into the politics and socio-economic dynamics of his worlds.


J-D 10.25.16 at 4:00 am

Following up on my previous comment, I’ve checked the Hugo-award-winning novels against (for want of something better) their Wikipedia summaries, and I find at least five set entirely in the future of our Earth and featuring interstate conflict —
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Stand On Zanzibar
Forever Peace
Rainbows End

— as against only one definitely featuring a future version of our Earth with a single global government, Stranger In A Strange Land.


Lacero 10.27.16 at 1:04 pm

I also agree with Hogan. But in general a lot of big sci fi movies are not about government and so try and simplify it down and not take up screentime or have a quickly explained enemy. Riddick has the necromongers., Guardians of the Galaxy manages to have both stereotypes fighitng each other just to juxtapose with the hero.

The expanse deserves some special mention here, because it has a universal one world government under the UN and still manages to show the people inside that system and other systems fragmenting politically. And it’s on TV so someone uninformed might actually see it.

Comments on this entry are closed.