Socialism and science fiction

Submitted by martin on 5 April, 2020 - 2:54 Author: Eduardo Tovar
science fiction

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash


The simple connection between socialism and science fiction is that sci-fi imagines alternatives to the status quo. Frequently, this involves implicitly critiquing our present society or projecting possible outcomes of existing social trends. More to the point, sci-fi tends to imagine change at the level of the entire human species, such as by envisaging how humanity will evolve socially through the application of scientific inventions and discoveries.

Since sci-fi imagines alternative worlds, it links in complex manners to both utopian and dystopian thinking: in simple terms, to imagining both “very good” and “very bad” ways in which society could exist. The exact relationship between sci-fi, utopia, and dystopia is intensely debated, but the intuitive links people draw between the three are still worth bearing in mind.

In particular, the sci-fi and utopia link poses a complication for sci-fi’s connection to socialism because of Marx and Engels’ famous rejection of utopian socialism. That is, Marx and Engels deliberately avoided speculating at length what a future communist society would look like, in contrast to the kinds of elaborate models for such societies made by earlier socialist thinkers like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. 

As Marx put it in the afterword of the second German edition of Capital, he would limit himself “to the mere critical analysis of the actual facts, instead of writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future”.

A large part of this reluctance clearly stems from the understanding that earlier socialists had failed to ground their thinking in an explanatory analysis of the existing world, hence Engels’ famous counterposing of “Socialism: Scientific and Utopian”. This failure is especially true of those utopian socialists like Owen who attempted to build and sustain their own experimental socialist communities in the hope that these communities would spread and ultimately replace capitalism.

I suspect the reluctance also stemmed from a democratic desire to respect what people might choose to do in the unprecedented social conditions they would encounter after the demise of capitalism. In other words, I think Marx and Engels wanted to avoid imposing their own vision upon future generations.

One certainly gets this impression from subsequent Marxist theorists who harshly criticised the utopian socialists for the lack of working-class agency in their visions of socialism. To take one example from our own Third Camp tradition of socialism, in his classic essay The Two Souls of Socialism (1966) Hal Draper memorably remarks:

“For these utopian socialists, what was the relationship between the socialist idea and the popular movement? The latter was the flock to be tended by the good shepherd.”

Despite all this, Marx and Engels evidently did respect many of their utopian predecessors and did not seem to be against imagining alternative societies as such: indeed, I would argue that being a socialist of any kind hinges upon some ability to imagine that society could plausibly be fundamentally different.

One can thus understand why many subsequent socialist thinkers, including those within the Marxist tradition, have revisited the topic of utopia, including in relation to sci-fi.

19th and early 20th century utopian socialist writers

Despite the Marxist criticism of utopian socialism, utopian socialist thinking was a major formative influence on sci-fi in the English-speaking world. Such authors and theorists tended to see scientific and utopian romance as allied with reformist or revolutionary projects to change the laissez-faire capitalist world they knew.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887 (1888) is about an American man called Julian West from the end of the 19th century who falls into a hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up in the year 2000, when all industry is nationalised, working hours for menial jobs are drastically reduced, everyone is given “credit” to use for payment via cards that function remarkably like real world debit cards (which were a long way off from Bellamy’s own time), goods are delivered almost instantaneously, and sermons and music are played in the home via cable “telephone”.

William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) is essentially a fusion of romantic and Marxist thought that depicts a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. As a work of “soft” science fiction, it features less emphasis on science and technology as such and more emphasis on the possible social changes. Perhaps the most notable change is to the nature of work, which has been made creative and pleasurable. Indeed, News from Nowhere was Morris’ direct response to Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which envisaged production and distribution as highly regimented via a mandatory “Industrial Army”.

Out of all the utopian and sci-fi writers in this period, HG Wells had most influence. His utopian writings, such as A Modern Utopia (1905) and The World Set Free (1914), imagined a radically reorganised and enlightened world, but true to Wells’ Fabianism, these imagined societies tended to take the form of a technocratic world-state run by expert engineers and scientists.

Other sci-fi works by Wells made thinly veiled criticisms of late 19th and early 20th century British society. For example, The Time Machine (1895) depicts a future where ruling and working-class humans have evolved into the leisured, ineffectual Eloi and the brutal, subterranean Morlocks respectively. Similarly, War of the Worlds (1898) depicts technologically advanced Martian civilisation invading and conquering the UK in a manner that deliberately parallels Britain’s own colonial subjugation of less industrially and technologically developed peoples around the world.

Bolshevik and Soviet sci-fi writers

Before 1917, utopian sci-fi was a significant genre of political fantasy among radicals. For example, Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star depicts a Martian socialist society that the human protagonist visits via a nuclear photonic rocket.

However, Stalinism would come to actively suppress sci-fi and utopian fiction in the USSR in order to avoid raising expectations and making implied criticisms of then-present social and political conditions. Under this “doctrine of near limits”, writers had to concentrate on lionising present tasks: sci-fi and utopian fiction could have no role in a “socialist” society.

Nevertheless, Bolshevik authors still sporadically contributed to sci-fi in the 1920s. On the dystopian side of sci-fi writing, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (written in 1921/22, published in 1924) is an implicit criticism of the increasingly dogmatic and bureaucratic direction of the USSR in the wake of the Russian Civil War. The novel depicts a totalitarian OneState ruled over by the all-powerful “Benefactor” through mass surveillance technology, with individual behaviour determined via formulas and equations. Unsurprisingly, this was a major inspiration for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949).

There was a brief resurgence of grand-scale socialist-utopian sci-fi following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the resulting “thaw” in the Soviet Bloc. Much of this was inspired by Ivan Yefremov’s ground-breaking novel Andromeda (1959), which depicts several civilisations united across the galaxy in the “Great Circle”, members of which relay cultural and scientific information to each other across vast distances using radio transmissions that require vast amounts of energy and time.

However, this sci-fi resurgence was quickly cut short by backlash from the Soviet authorities, with authors often having to resort to underground self-publication (“samizdat”).

In sharp contrast to Russian sci-fi, American sci-fi in the early to mid-20th century was only rarely influenced by socialist ideas. This is in large part because, rather than the socialist scientist working for humanity’s reorganisation, the model protagonist of American sci-fi was the genius engineer-entrepreneur. Although Wells was very popular among American sci-fi authors in this period, the main political content they took from him was his justification for an elite technocracy.

With the coming of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, American sci-fi took on a strongly anti-utopian and anti-radical character because it associated the Soviet Union with utopia and its attempted realisation. This drastically changed with the cultural upheaval and radical left resurgence of the 1960s, which set the stage for the “critical utopians”.

Late 20th century “critical utopian” writers

The “critical utopian” tradition was inspired by a new wave of predominantly American sci-fi in the 1960s and 70s that focussed on the ways in which sci-fi could criticise the status quo and offer hopeful alternatives to it. Although Thomas Moylan did not coin the term “critical utopia” until 1986, the kind of utopia at the heart of this vein of thought takes its cues from the writings of Ernst Bloch. It is a utopia that is simultaneously a wish-dream of an enlightened and happy social life and a tool for discerning and attacking the ideological impediments to utopia’s achievement.

Perhaps the most well-known author associated with critical-utopian sci-fi is Ursula K Le Guin. With her anarchist politics and her familiarity with social science (including via her father, the influential anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber), Le Guin frequently uses diverse social and environmental settings to explore different sociological and anthropological outcomes of human evolution.

Perhaps her best-known works in this genre are two highly influential novels in her “Hainish Cycle”: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974). 

The Left Hand of Darkness depicts a world called Gethen where humans have evolved to have no fixed sex or gender. Instead, they are androgynous and sexually latent for twenty-four days (“somer”) of each twenty-six-day lunar cycle. The Gethenians only become “male” or “female” once a month, during a period of sexual receptiveness and high fertility called “kemmer”. Much of the novel revolves around the Terran protagonist’s attempts to overcome the major barriers of cultural understanding between him and the Gethenians as he tries to convince them to join the confederation of planets known as the Ekumen.

The Dispossessed is set on the twin inhabited worlds of the Tau Ceti system, Anarres and Urras. Urras is divided into numerous states and dominated by two rivals: a capitalist and patriarchal state called A-Io and an authoritarian, nominally worker-governed state called Thu (which are obviously analogous to the US and USSR respectively). In contrast, Anarres has an anarchist society, which is clearly influenced by Peter Kropotkin’s writings on mutual aid and Murray Bookchin’s writings on post-scarcity anarchism. 

The novel revolves around a physicist from Anarres called Shevek who is trying to develop a General Temporal Theory, but finds his work blocked by a jealous superior and distrusted because of its conflicts with the society’s prevailing political philosophy. Due to the resulting delays, as well as his obligation to perform his share of socially necessary hard agricultural labour to ensure the anarchist society’s survival in the harsh environment, Shevek chooses to go to Urras to finish and publish his theory. On Urras, he quickly becomes entangled in the political web spun by the rival powers.

The key theorists in the critical utopian tradition were based around the journal Science-Fiction Studies, founded in 1973. A central figure among these theorists was Darko Suvin, who in his 1979 book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre introduced several key concepts that are still influential in sci-fi criticism.

First, there is the concept of “cognitive estrangement”: this is the idea that sci-fi works by taking a familiar situation and then either (a) rationally extrapolating it to reveal its hidden premises and norms or (b) analogically displacing it onto something unfamiliar, thereby making us see the familiar elements in a new light as alien phenomena.

To illustrate what Suvin means here, think back to the classic Wells examples. The Morlocks and Eloi in The Time Machine would be an example of rationally extrapolating from the familiar situation of the Victorian class system to reveal its hidden norms and premises. The Martian invasion of Britain in War of the Worlds would be an example of analogically displacing the familiar situation of British imperialism onto the Martian invaders.

Second, there is the concept of the novum, which Suvin adopts from Bloch. In Suvin’s sense, the novum is the historical novelty or innovation in a sci-fi text that is the source of the most important distinctions between the world of the story and the world of the reader. This typically takes the form of an invention or discovery around which the setting and characters are organised in a historically plausible manner.

Lastly, there is the idea of a “genetic link” between sci-fi and literary utopia. Suvin based this link on how sci-fi combines critical denial of present conditions with the fulfilment of a wish to make life pleasurable and manageable. That is, sci-fi is concerned with wishing into existence imaginary worlds built on ostensibly rational principles.

From the 1980s onwards, Fredric Jameson departed from the usual critical-utopian and Marxist approaches to sci-fi. To Jameson, the crucial feature of sci-fi is that it enables us to view our present moment from the standpoint of a possible future, even if this mock future is only an expedient placeholder rather than a realistic forecast. Through this “historicisation of the present”, sci-fi provides a valuable means of developing awareness of our own position within a changeable historical process (including, ironically, awareness of how the capitalist “totality” we inhabit prevents us from imagining truly utopian social transformations).

This is not to say that sci-fi is somehow impervious to conservatism at the level of form or content. After all, there is no shortage of reactionary sci-fi. Nevertheless, by attempting to envisage alternatives to the status quo, sci-fi can be a powerful tool for critical thinking and an imaginative resource for the left.

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