Science Fiction Studies

#73 = Volume 24, Part 3 = November 1997

W. Warren Wagar

Governing the Future

Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, eds. Political Science Fiction. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. viii+256. $34.95.

The sf community has long been divided over the issue of whether sf is fiction about science. "Hard-core" or "hard" sf routinely explores the possible alternative futures of physics, chemistry, biology, and the technologies that feed on their progress. "Soft" sf, in Isaac Asimov's phrase, is "social science fiction" (2), speculation about the futures of society. Soft sf may contain a smidgeon of hard science, but in the minds of many members of the sf community it is peripheral to the sf enterprise, second-class, and perhaps not even sf at all.

One problem with this dichotomy is that all sf is fiction and fiction depicts sentient life forms interacting in societies. Even the hardest sf explores the twists and turns of future science and technology in imagined worlds, worlds with cultures, economies, polities, and histories. The science is foregrounded, but of necessity there is always a background, however crudely or skimpily it may be sketched. The sf author, hard or soft, willy-nilly, is a world-builder.

In Political Science Fiction, a symposium that grew from the Fall 1993 issue of Extrapolation, Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox have collected 14 essays on one of the softest of sf themes. Aficionados of exclusively hard sf may find little here to engage their interest, but for the rest of us Hassler and Wilcox supply a nourishing feast. Of the 14 essays, only four (by Frederik Pohl, June Deery, Mark P. Lagon, and Hassler himself) survive from the 1993 special issue of Extrapolation. The rest are new. Most focus sharply on the role of politics and governance in the imagined future worlds of sf, which vests the volume with a coherence that many scholarly symposia on sf regrettably lack.

This is not to say that all the essays in Political Science Fiction are on the same level or wavelength. The quality is variable, the perspectives are decidedly mixed, and much ground is not covered. As an intellectual historian of the old school, I was particularly disappointed by the indifference of many of the essayists to the thought-worlds of the sf writers whose work they examine. The emphasis throughout falls on the texts, not on the men and women who brought the texts into existence or their political persuasions. There is also little about sf outside the U.S., except for a brief chapter on the Latin American scene and two pieces on texts by H.G. Wells.

But what the authors do give us is surely worth our time, if only because sf research has generally neglected the political dimensions of the genre. And most sf, whether its writers are conscious of the fact or not, bristles with political issues and concerns. It could not be otherwise. Human beings are profoundly political animals.

Hassler and Wilcox, in their Introduction, divide the contributions into two broad sections, one centered on theory, the other on the relevance of sf texts to specific events or issues in recent and contemporary political history. Curiously, this division is not recognized in the table of contents, where the chapters are simply listed one after the other. But the distinction--more or less-- holds. After a sprightly opening chapter by Pohl, the next eight essays examine texts from the points of view of literary, feminist, poststructural, and political theory; and the final five attend to the interplay of political sf and political history.

Pohl's essay, "The Politics of Prophecy," which also led off the special issue of Extrapolation, is a charmer. Pohl argues, and I would agree, that very little sf "is not to some degree political." "To speak of 'political science fiction' is almost to commit a tautology." (7) Since Swift, much of sf has been overtly political, and at times has helped to shape political attitudes, as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four played a part in stemming the global expansion of Stalinism, novels such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach contributed to the prevention of nuclear war, and the deftly coded novels of the Strugatsky brothers did something to undermine the authority of the Kremlin. Pohl adds a reminiscence about his years as editor of Galaxy and the full-page advertisements bought by rival tribes of sf writers, one tribe adamantly opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the other staunchly in support.

But then Pohl goes on to observe that he knew most of the writers concerned and doubts "there was really a nickel's worth of difference among them" when it came to their visions of a preferred world for, say, the year 2100 (13). They were divided on tactics, but not on political values and goals. They were all, in effect, democratic liberals who believed in racial tolerance, free speech, and a world without poverty. (Pohl's exact phrase is without "extreme poverty," which carries the implication that moderate poverty would be okay.)

Now, there is a certain amount of rough truth in all of this; most middle-class Americans, including most sf writers, occupy or think they occupy the political center. However, Pohl's reading of his colleagues' political world-views reveals an obliviousness to ideology that is both typically American and detectable as well in some of the other authors represented in this symposium. The "don't-we-all-want-the-same things?" school of thought is, I fear, hopelessly naive. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, most Americans--and most people--are deeply implicated in a global struggle of classes, races, sexes, and cultures, which involves far more than a dispute over "tactics." For each point in the spectrum of each category, there is an ideological position that each of us takes, consciously or unconsciously, by choice or by destiny. The failure of Pohl and several of his fellow essayists to grasp this is a shortcoming of the whole volume. Not fatal, but troubling nevertheless.

Then we come to the theoretical chapters. Perhaps the most interesting is the essay written in (commendably accessible) postmodernese by Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany." Easterbrook's piece is also the most ideologically savvy and, to use an overworked but nowadays almost indispensable phrase, the most politically correct. Its formal structure is a meticulously close reading of three texts: Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Samuel R. Delany's Triton. All three novels are about rebel societies on the moons of mother planets with authoritarian societies, but the rebels in each instance, and of course the authors who imagine them, have radically different political agendas. Heinlein's moonfolk are the ideological descendants of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, Le Guin's of the utopian socialists, Delany's of Michel Foucault. Heinlein, Easterbrook's chief villain, and even Le Guin are exposed as suppressors of difference: a difference that Delany, Easterbrook's hero, celebrates.

Utopian discourses (like those of Heinlein and Le Guin) attempt to legitimate the social bond by suppressing difference--subordinating all human beings to a single system. This imperialistic tendency is acutely delineated in the term isotopia, a "same" or "equal" place that would homogenize alterity. Rather than looking for a subordinating rule, and envisioning utopia as a kind of monastic order, Triton exemplifies some of the consequences of a socio-political system that refuses to impose a totalizing, global ideology. (68)

Easterbrook expands on this theme with appropriate references to Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Richard Rorty, and other deans of the postmodernist academy.

One other essay in the symposium explicitly connects sf to postmodernism, Patrick Novotny's "No Future! Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration." Novotny finds the postmodern culture of syncretism, heterogeneity, parody, and anarchy perfectly illustrated by films such as Blade Runner and by the 1980s novels of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the founders of cyberpunk sf. Their work bluntly rejects the classical technological utopianism of Asimov and his generation. Novotny's points are well taken, although his essay is too circular and repetitious for my taste; the same assertions appear again and again, in an unstructured piece that perhaps borrows too much from the disintegrative aesthetic of cyberpunk itself.

The concerns of the professional political scientist inform another chapter in the first section, "Governing the Alien Nation: The Comparative Politics of Extraterrestrials," by Clyde Wilcox, the co-editor of the symposium--and the guest editor of the special issue of Extrapolation in 1993. In its quite different way, Wilcox's essay displays the same comprehensive grasp of its subject matter as Easterbrook's. After a useful overview of the leading theories in comparative politics, Wilcox conducts us on a whirlwind tour of 20-odd sf texts ranging from Carl Sagan's Contact to Katherine Kerr's Polar City Blues, applying the techniques of comparative political analysis to the alien governments depicted in each. His conclusion is addressed to his colleagues in departments of political science (Wilcox teaches government at Georgetown University):

Science fiction allows political scientists to expand their thinking about the ways that different cultures develop different politics. ... Such thought experiments can stretch the imagination, and help us rethink our theories, categories, and hopes. (171)

Indeed! Of course one is left wondering just how many scholars in his field would agree, and how many actually avail themselves of the insights that the study of sf can doubtless provide. My journey through the pages of the 1996 membership directory of the Science Fiction Research Association yields only two scholars who identify themselves as political scientists.

Two of the remaining essays in the first section of Political Science Fiction explore texts by H.G. Wells, June Deery's essay on A Modern Utopia and Carol S. Franko's comparison of When the Sleeper Wakes with Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven. In both chapters, the political content of the texts receives scant attention. Deery's mission is to analyze the many-layered metafictionality of A Modern Utopia, which she does quite well, and Franko's is to unearth the radical ambivalence in two novels that portray sleepers who dream of alternative futures. Both pieces are illuminating, but, alas, not about Homo civilis. I am also constitutionally annoyed by the efforts of literary critics to represent Wells as some sort of fabulously cunning precursor of postmodernism. Deery's claim that Wells wrote A Modern Utopia for scholars and critics of utopian literature rather than for a broad audience in the service of world transformation (38) will simply not wash.

Literary concerns prevail as well in Hassler's fascinating essay on the parallels between Jonathan Swift and his fellow Scriblerians (of 1713-1714) and Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, and their fellow Futurians (of the early 1940s). The Swiftian credentials of such texts as The Space Merchants are nicely established, but, again, without much reference to political content or point of view. Two further essays round out the first section, a study by Peter Minowitz of the Machiavellianism in the Dune novels of Frank Herbert, showing that the Atreides were not as simon-pure as Herbert might have wanted us to believe; and a rather slight piece by Josephine Carubia Glorie on Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time as feminist social critique.

In the shorter second section of Political Science Fiction, the reader is transported from the realm of theory to the realm of recent political history and the ways in which sf texts and films mirror the happenings of our time. The section begins with an essay by Ingrid Kreksch, "Reality Transfigured: The Latin American Situation as Reflected in Science Fiction." Most North American and European readers know next to nothing about the sf of Latin America, which makes this a particularly valuable chapter. Her analysis of the relationship between Latin American culture and politics on the one hand, and Latin American sf on the other, takes her through representative texts, mostly short stories, from the writers of several Hispanic countries, including Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela. I can only wish she had had more space at her disposal; the terrain she seeks to cover is vast. On a much narrower scale is Everett Carl Dolman's "Military, Democracy, and the State in Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers," a careful study of Heinlein's controversial novel as a reflection of the interplay of military life and democratic politics in the United States of the 1940s and 1950s. Dolman plausibly concludes that the Terran Federation of Starship Troopers is not a militarist polity by any strict definition of militarism, such as that furnished by Alfred Vagts in A History of Militarism. Yet in time it could have evolved into one.

The last three chapters of Political Science Fiction under review should be great fun for all fans of the Star Trek sagas on television and film. The scripts of the various Star Trek series have probably introduced more people to sf than all the other scribblings of all the sf writers of the 20th century put together. In view of their invariably high political content and clear relevance to contemporary politics, the editors cannot be faulted for devoting three chapters out of 14 to Star Trek themes.

The most elaborate is Paul Christopher Manuel's "'In Every Revolution, There Is One Man with a Vision': The Governments of the Future in Comparative Perspective." Manuel works through dozens of scripts from Star Trek episodes both old and new to propose a typology of governmental forms that takes as its starting point the inventory of ideal types offered in Robert Dahl's 1971 book, Polyarchy. Thus, Earth and Omega IV ("The Omega Glory") are democracies, polities that allow "full participation and public contestation of all policies." (185). The world of the Ferengi as well as Mr. Spock's Vulcan are "inclusive hegemonies," characterized "by a high degree of participation in the society, but with low contestation of governmental policies" (186). Cardassia and the Klingon Homeworld illustrate Dahl's "competitive oligarchy," characterized "by a high degree of contestation within the regime, but with restricted citizen participation" (188). A fourth ideal type, the "closed hegemony," limits "both participation and public contestation" (189), as in Ardana ("The Cloud Minders"), Gideon ("The Mark of Gideon"), and the attempt by Federation historian John Gill to recreate Nazi Germany on the planet Ekos ("Patterns of Force").

However, Dahl's earth-bound typology cannot account for all the governmental forms encountered in Star Trek scripts, which prompts Manuel to invent three more: the "computer-dominated closed hegemony," the "organic brain-dominated closed hegemony," and the "meta-governmental society." The spooky world of the Borg, who have now made their appearance even in the Star Trek: Voyager series, is a good example of the computer-dominated closed hegemony. Triskelion (from "The Gamesters of Triskelion") illustrates the organic brain-dominated closed hegemony. Organia ("Errand of Mercy") and the Q Continuum (first encountered in The Next Generation series) are meta-governmental societies, inhabited by "highly advanced, noncorporeal entities, who seem to have no need for government as we know it" (193). Manuel has done a splendid job of sorting out the polities of the Star Trek universe, flawed only by his occasional indifference to orthography. For example, he spells "Triskelion" three different ways, none of them right. Platonius ("Plato's Stepchildren") is also spelled three different ways, but one of them happens to be correct. A responsible copyeditor would have easily caught the inconsistencies.

Unsurprisingly, there is a further essay in the symposium on gender roles and sexual orientation in Star Trek by three feminist scholars, Kathy E. Ferguson, Gilad Ashkenazi, and Wendy Schultz. "Gender Identity in Star Trek" hits the mark in every respect, although the authors' task was far from onerous. The blatant sexism of the 1960s episodes is impossible to miss, and the much greater willingness of script writers to play creatively with issues of gender identity and the construction of gender roles in The Next Generation series and its sequels, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, is also quite obvious. Nevertheless, these issues bear profound political implications, and the chapter is well worth reading.

I would take exception only with the authors' critique of "The Outcast" from The Next Generation, first aired in 1992. Here the crew of the Enterprise encounters a race of genderless aliens who persecute a small gendered minority of their own people, one of whom (Soren) declares herself a woman and falls in love with Commander Riker. Ferguson, Ashkenazi, and Schultz deplore this episode as a lost opportunity to attack homophobia, but I disagree. "The Outcast" is a clear and brave defense of dissenting life-styles; any perceptive viewer can imagine a homosexual man or woman in the role of the defiantly heterosexual Soren. Either way, the message is the same: society must accept difference.

Jeri Taylor, the author of the script for this episode, tells us in Captains' Logs that the story originated in a staff discussion about the need to do a "gay rights story," which she whole-heartedly supported. True, Jonathan Frakes, who played Riker, argues that the role of Soren should have been taken by an actor more masculine in appearance than the obviously female Melinda Culea. He questions whether the intent of the staff was to produce a "gay episode" at all (Gross and Altman, 240). But as Ferguson and her colleagues freely admit, Star Trek is a mass-market commercial product. Putting across a controversial point, especially one that arouses such visceral feelings in people of both sexes, may well require a subtler approach than she and they would prefer. Few heterosexual members of the viewing audience for "The Outcast" would have been offended or troubled by the way the story was told, but only the stupidest could have failed to see that it was a plea for the rights of gays and straights alike. And there are not many stupid Trekkers.

The final essay in Political Science Fiction is Mark P. Lagon's "`We Owe It to Them to Interfere': Star Trek and U.S. Statecraft in the 1960s and the 1990s." Examining just two episodes of the original series, "The Apple" and "A Piece of the Action," Lagon shows how the scripts both reflected U.S. foreign policy quandaries in the 1960s and foreshadowed the post-Cold War world of the 1990s. What he calls "the crusading style of American foreign policy" (237) is well exemplified by Captain Kirk's rash disregard of the Prime Directive in both episodes; Mr. Spock--as always, opposed by Dr. McCoy--generally plays the role of the cautious critic, reminding Kirk and McCoy that the Prime Directive forbids interference in the cultures of alien worlds. Lagon argues that in the unipolar world of the 1990s, the question of intervention or non-intervention by the U.S. in the affairs of other nations takes on added relevance, and we have just as much to learn today from the dilemmas examined in Star Trek thirty years ago as we did then. Quite so.

Political Science Fiction, all in all, makes a distinguished contribution to sf scholarship. Social scientists of every flavor can learn much from these essays, and anyone with a serious interest in the genre needs to ponder the issues it addresses. Because sf is a body of fiction about the whole gamut of human doings in alternative pasts and futures, it is necessarily also a body of political fiction. Hassler, Wilcox, and all their authors deserve our thanks for driving this point home in so many useful ways.


Asimov, Isaac. "Social Science Fiction." Science Fiction: The Future. Ed. Dick Allen. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1971. 263-290.

Dahl, Robert. Polyarchy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.

Gross, Edward, and Mark A. Altman. Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.

Sisson, Amy, and Robert J. Ewald, eds. Science Fiction Research Association Annual Directory 1996. SFRA, 1996.

Vagts, Alfred. A History of Militarism: Romance and Realities of a Profession. NY: Norton, 1937.

Wilcox, Clyde, guest ed. Extrapolation 34:195-277, Fall 1993.

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