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Political Science Fiction edited by Donald M. Hassler and Cylde Wilcox

1/10/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Political Science Fiction in the USA - or Buy Political Science Fiction in the UK

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pub: University Of South Carolina Press. 256 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: $24.95 (US). GBP22.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-57003-847-1.

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It wasn’t long ago that I was discussing in one of my editorials about the lack of political metaphor stories in current Science Fiction. This book, ‘Political Science Fiction’ edited by Donald M. Hassler and Cylde Wilcox, looks like it will put things into perspective. Spread across fourteen chapters, various luminaries examine discuss the use of politics in Science Fiction. None of which is that modern I hasten to add.

Frederick Pohl in the opening chapter, ‘The Politics Of Prophesy’, points out how the likes of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ undoubtedly pointed out the effects of too much supervision and how it prevented it coming to pass. I know there are many cameras looking down on our cities these days but there are also too many stoppers in place to make it more than a police aid than have a political agenda. Besides, there aren’t enough lifetimes to watch all the footage. Pohl also points out how the Strugatsky brothers in the USSR wrote immensely popular SF books that had concealed political metaphor and straddled the line when it came to avoiding becoming undesirables by the soviet government.

One thing this book will also do is point out the SF novels with politics at their core. Interestingly, several of the authors here point to Heinlein’s ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ far more than Orwell’s ‘1984’. It’s a shame that there was so much bugbearing on particular authors than an analysis of why there isn’t more politically orientated SF. Then again, would we be deemed as pro-right or pro-left by the type of SF books we buy? Hands up all of you who’ve read Heinlein, especially when young, and never dawned on you about the author’s political persuasions? I include myself in that number. I just saw Heinlein as taking something extreme as far as he could take it as with ‘Starship Troopers’ where citizenship depended on serving time in the military, which if you compare to drafting in the 1950s-60s in the USA, could easily be seen as a metaphor. A later chapter examines that novel as well. Considering that that all of mankind is under attack by the bugs, joining the military isn’t mandatory but voluntary which does goes against the idea of how pro right-wing which have everyone enlisted, Heinlein actually is and more an examiner of how extreme works. Few SF writers have gone as far as Heinlein, mainly I suspect to avoid political comparisons or persuasions simply by writing about it. In that respect, SF has gotten a lot tamer when it should be showing what happens when things are taken to extreme.

It’s problematic when the chapters of the likes of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is discussed as a synopsis than the overall political regime which is based on a reality being ran by an empire. There’s also a missed opportunity to cover ‘Star Wars’ from that point of view as well, especially as it’s a film series most people are familiar with but not examined under its political light. I get the thought that the many of the writers involved only choose novels that they have some familiarity with than a grasp of SF as a whole.

Chapter Nine’s ‘Governing The Alien Nation’ by Clyde Wilson also gives a decent selection of books where the authors have used political systems but I wish there was some basic analysis as to whether they were used effectively or not. For one of my own projects, I noted that SF writers have only used a small selection of political systems in their stories when there are more than twenty available to be mined. Considering that there are so many empires set in the future which are a bit impractical to be under the control of a single individual, especially when you compare the diverse leaders on our own planet, you would think SF writers would be looking at something that would actually work, spread across the galaxy.

There are even a couple chapters analysing the various worlds political systems in ‘Star Trek’ and even this falls short on how effective they would be. I’m still puzzling over why one chapter should be dealing with relationships in a book on SF politics, but the other chapter examining the application of American political systems in the original ‘Star Trek’ is actually very insightful even if its author or editors didn’t check on the spelling of Vaal, which is frequently mentioned as an example from the episode ‘The Apple.’ A minor quibble perhaps, but when researching and using something a lot in a chapter, you would have expected something like that to be noted. The real Trekkers are likely to be far harsher than me.

Despite my criticisms, this book isn’t bad for a starter and I hope some consideration is given for a second book and at least examine the question of why more isn’t done with this subject in Science Fiction. After all, there isn’t another genre flexible enough to show off a variety of political regimes. I suspect one of the reasons is modern writers don’t know enough about the subject or at least the more oppressive political regimes and just the term ‘empire’ as a quick by-word that all people can understand, let alone having a single megalomaniac in charge. In the meantime, let’s hope enough of you out there read this book and realise how little of this subject has actually been mined effectively.

GF Willmetts

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