Politics as Usual

The other day, I took a little time to catch up with Ursula Le Guin’s blog. I’m often a little surprised by her eagerness to embrace political topics. But then, to those familiar with her works, her political views seem unlikely to surprise. That got me to thinking–she is by no means strictly a writer of speculative fiction, but it is the genre for which she is best known. Is speculative fiction more political than some other genres?

Let me be clear–I don’t think think any narrative is apolitical. This goes beyond fiction. A friend’s father used to work for Voice of America. His father, he said, objected to frequent assertions that Voice of America is a political instrument of the United States government. He argued journalists for Voice of America’s passions generally lie not with U.S. interests, but with earnest, free speech. “Their only bias is that people be happy and well fed.” I believe and respect that. But it is a bias. Not all worldwide media outlets would give a snot about whether or not all people are happy and well-fed.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something about sci-fi and fantasy that sets it apart and I wonder if that something has to do with “world building.” Whether you’re talking the slightly sci-fi (let’s say, Atlas Shrugged) to the hard sci-fi (Let’s say, Star Trek) the “speculative” nature of spec fic inevitably involves some sort of deconstructing and reconstructing of setting. Even if it’s as simple as “Capitalists are smart enough to invent a perpetual motion machine and everyone else is not.” Yes, world building occurs even in supposedly naturalistic fiction, but at its heart, a work of speculative fiction tends to be a “what if..?” story. Good, bad, or ugly, the answer to “what if…?” is always, “whatever the author damn well wants.” We all carry underlying thoughts and assumptions about the way the world works. Those come to the fore in sci-fi and fantasy.

Politicization is, in my opinion inevitable in the process of creating meaning for things. But I feel like in some ways that political dimension you can find in speculative fiction is part of its allure. It gives you something to believe in. Something to point to and say, “see!”

I grew up loving Trek, in a household that loved Trek, but as I grow older I become more and more suspicious of its politics. More and more, I feel like there’s something disingenuous about the United Federation of Planets–an intergalactic coalition based out of San Francisco and led by socialist anglophones. Through its eyes, alien cultures come across as somehow less enlightened and easy to caricaturize. The Original Series was practically built around episodes devoted to Kirk and crew convincing foreign cultures how screwed up they’ve been. The Next Generation isn’t much better in some ways…

Still, it’s effective. It’s hard for me not to like Trek’s fundamental message of human actualization on some level, even if on another level I think it’s a total crock of shit. That’s powerful storytelling. As skeptical as I am, just queue up Alexander Courage’s fanfare and I’m ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

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