Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974

Change, SF, and Marxism: Open or Closed Universes?

Robert Scholes. Novels by Brunner and Levin

Two recent, strong works of SF should be mentioned in relation to your ongoing discussion of change and Marxism: Ira Levin's This Perfect Day (1970) and John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (1972).

Though it is the weaker of the two (and degenerates badly at the end), Levin's book is interesting because it contemplates a specifically Marxist "utopian" society ("Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei / led us to this perfect day.") and rejects it. In doing so, it follows a familiar path traced by Zamyatin, Orwell, and Huxley, but its Marxian "utopia" is more interesting than theirs in some ways, because it is more gently and kindly perceived. It is by no means altogether horrible, though it makes clear the price in lost individuality exacted by the perfection of its socioeconomic arrangements. Beyond this, Levin's work surprised and pleased me by presenting the capitalist island of freedom in the novel as a place at least as odious as the socialist paradise.

Levin's criticism of capitalism as it functions on the island of "liberty" is devastating, and might quite properly be called Marxist. Thus his book criticizes socialism from the perspective of individualism, and individualism from the perspective of socialism—and this is a genuine achievement. If Levin has no final answer, this is because final answers are very difficult to come by. And I should add that they are especially difficult to come by in fictional form, for reasons that are very interesting in themselves.

When a utopia is imagined concretely, as it must be in fictional form, the price it exacts for its improvements in the human situation becomes clear. Thus all utopias, however ideally intended, have something repellent about them, and even the most generously conceived socialist or individualist utopia in fictional form will reveal certain repellent features as the price for its utopian qualities. This same principle applies with much greater force to attempts to realize utopian dreams in actual societies. What is America today but the fictional intentions of Jefferson and Hamilton, realized and shaped by the interaction of social forces with individual men of power from Washington to Nixon? And what is Russia but the similar ideals of Marx and Engels as enacted by Lenin, Stalin, and others? Mr. H. Bruce Franklin has received treatment in America which is shameful. (It makes me ashamed, anyway.) Others, like Solzhenitsyn, have been treated at least as badly in Russia. Are we to blame Jefferson and Marx for this? I think not. Both Jeffersonian democracy and Marxian socialism are noble ideals which seem difficult to enact and sustain even in fiction, let alone life.

In fiction, it seems clear, both socialistic and individualistic ideas function better when used critically than when used for utopian projection. Thus Marxism is most useful to writers of SF who aim at producing a critique of capitalism, and individualism is most useful to writers criticizing socialism. This presents a special problem for writers in socialist countries. If Marxism is the reigning ideology, and if it is assumed to have largely succeeded, there is not much critical maneuvering room for the writer. The problem can be seen in a novel like Altov and Jouravleva's Ballad of the Stars (which is included in Bergier's anthology, Science-Fiction Soviétique, Paris 1972), where Marxist criticism can only be directed at the evil part of humanity, since the revolution has been completed and the present admits of no criticism. In short, I am ready to embrace Soviet and Polish SF, but I won't expect it to present a Marxian critique aimed at changing contemporary Polish or Soviet society, or a vision of the future socialist paradise which is either fictionally satisfying or markedly different from contemporary life in a socialist state.

In the West, on the other hand, the SF which is most effectively critical of contemporary social structures is not purely Marxist but has adopted ecological perspectives that have been developed since Marx produced his critique of capitalism. Clifford Simak's A Choice of Gods (1972) is a case in point, and so is John Brunner's extraordinary The Sheep Look Up. The latter is as pure a piece of extrapolation as one could imagine, and it deals with the pressing problems of the immediate future as powerfully as only fiction can. In its criticism of capitalistic exploitation of man and nature it is as thorough going as any work of literature could be. It is not Marxist in any programmatic way, but suggests an ecological assimilation of certain Marxian ideas. It is passionately concerned with change, however, and shows us how such a concern can function in a richly structured fictional context. By giving us a work of naturalism set in the near future, Brunner allows us finally to contemplate the destruction his fictional America with a disturbing combination of horror and satisfaction. And above all he inspires us to work, to change our future, to avoid this nightmare he has painted for us in such vividly harrowing detail. This is exactly the kind of future feedback we so desperately need right now, and which only SF can give us.

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