Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Politics in Science Fiction

Is it possible for a science fiction author to write a political novel without espousing a political point of view? Is that even a reasonable question?

Ursula LeGuin's book The Dispossessed poses a situation that seems to come out of the left/right debate of the middle twentieth century. It poses a situation where you have a planet named Urras with a moon named Anarres which is large enough to have its own atmosphere. Anarres can support life, although it is desert-like and resource-poor when compared to Urras. Approximately two hundred years before the events in the book take place, an anarchic worker's revolution took place on Urras, which has a culture and economic structures similar to modern earth, although the technology includes space travel, including travel to other planets, aided by an alien race called the Hain.

The story is about a physicist Shevek who grew up on Anarres, which had developed an anarchic/communist culture similar to that idealized by the twentieth century socialists and communists. He has developed a grand unifying theory of physics, which is radical enough that it threatens the bureaucratic systems that have grown on Annares. LeGuin makes quite clear that as Anarres matures, it's moving further and further away from the idealistic revolution that spawned the colony, and while in the early days of Anarres's history someone like Shevek would have been warmly embraced, now he is a problem.

Shevek eventually makes the short trip to Urras, an act nobody from Anarres has done for over one hundred years, in order to promote his theory. There he encounters a society much like modern America: exciting, creative, competitive, and at times decadent. Much of the difficulty Shevek encounters is in dealing with an individualistic, property-owning culture, quite different from the communal one he grew up in.

Clearly LeGuin's sympathies are with the revolutionaries on Anarres (as are mine).  She poses a flawed paradise on a barren planet where people live in as best an egalitarian paradise as one might imagine, a place where people are not values by how much property the own but by their contributions to society. Yet she also describes Anarres as clearly a culture in decline, retreating from its original revolutionary fervor to the creation of the very bureaucracies it rebelled against, albeit with a different flavor than what might be found on Urras.

The question then becomes: Does LeGuin's political bias become an obstacle to the creation of a good novel? I would argue not. She makes a good case for the anarchic society on Anarres without turning the book into a polemic. One can disagree with LeGuin's sympathies, but one cannot say she poses a black/white situation in her novel. Anarres is clearly flawed, while Urras has a level of dynamism and creativity that Annares seem to lack.

Robert Heinlein's book Starship Troopers is another novel that discusses politics overtly. While Heinlein is personally associated with a more libertarian philosophy (whether this is his actual philosophy I'm not sure about), his novel about the military of the future has been popular and controversial. While the plot of the novel revolves around an interstellar conflict with a species of intelligent insects, the controversial section is about how society has changed because of the war. Heinlein poses a different view if citizenship than the current one. Since the war is so critical world society as a whole, what Heinlein proposes as full citizenship revolves around service to the government, and specifically military service, although society is required to find a place for anyone to serve, regardless of ability. It's a more limited and exclusive concept of democracy, revolving around implicit criticism of today's democracy where, “… people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.”

What people mostly react to about the book is whether it, through its specific necessity of military service to gain full citizenship, is a realistic or even morally appropriate requirement. After all, this means the person must risk his/her life in order to gain suffrage. Heinlein makes the point that this new was made after the fall of the western democracies, when veterans were a leading force to forge this new government. Whether this requirement is a moral one is best left to the reader, or course, but it does need to be said that the way Heinlein extolls the necessity of violence and the efficient way it solves problems can be troubling.

Yet these issues make a book interesting. Part of the appeal of Starship Troopers is that it's more than just a book about war; it's also a book about ideas. Whether you agree with Heinlein's point of view or not, it's a fun read, and the book makes you think. That's not a bad thing at all.

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