h/t Geek & Sundry
Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs. George Orwell’s 1984, inspired in part by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, imagined a world divided among three totalitarian blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction.
Typically, as noted above, science fiction authors posit a united world under benign or tyrannical world government. How our present divided world came to be united in the future is seldom explained. Science fiction authors are notorious for getting out of plot holes by inventing new technologies like “handwavium.” The political equivalent of handwavium is the World Federation of Handwavia.
Global political unification is becoming less, not more, likely.
Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.
—Michael Lind, The Future of the Future
It’s fair enough, I suppose, to say that a great deal of futuristic sf assumes a one-world government of some sort. But to say, “I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” seems to beg two questions. 1.) Do you know nothing about sf? 2.) What do you mean by “well-known”?
I mean, 1984 is commonly taught in high schools here in the U.S., and I suspect it’s taught in other English-speaking countries, too. So if by “well-known,” Lind means “part of compulsory education” or “absorbed into common parlance by cultural osmosis,” he still stands on shaky ground.
Let’s consider some counter-examples.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887, probably the preeminent American utopian novel, catapulted its protagonist from the late 19th c. to the end of the 20th., into a Boston that exemplified a nation run somewhere halfway between socialist and fascist principles. Even in that future, where everything was hunky-dory in the U.S., Bellamy is careful to point out that not every nation had reached that height of development, and that America was trying to make inroads through trade and diplomacy. Not many people read Bellamy today outside of academic circles or sf fandom, but Looking Backward was huge in its day. And by “huge,” I mean that it directly impact the shape of domestic politics and served as a touchstone for two generations of political activists and reformers.
Authors who relied often upon the one-world trope still imagined futures where the world was not united. Robert Heinlein’s Moon Is a Harsh Mistress presents an Earth vs. Moon political scenario in order to distill his anarcho-libertarian politics into the pure essence of TANSTAAFL. However, the human-Martian protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land receives help from a cranky old lawyer in leveraging the various governments of the world against each other in order to preserve his own political freedom. It’s probably true that people outside sf fandom have read a ton of Heinlein, but he is unquestionably one of the most significant artists of the genre, and Stranger in a Strange Land was notable for being the first sf novel to hit the NYT Bestseller list.
Another subset of science fiction, one more overtly interested in historiography, presents the sweep of history on such a scale that one-world utopia (or dystopia) is but one part of humanity’s evolution. A particularly trenchant example is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which never once assumes that humanity got over nationalism (or other forms of tribalism). Instead, it presumes that we managed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust not once but twice in the course of millennia. The only visions of the future presented there are of varying shades of provincialism. With this novel, though, we are drifting further and further from the realm of popular literature and more into the depths of sf fandom. Despite its nearly-uncontested status as a canonical work of sf, it is admittedly primarily of interest to academics and genre fans. Yet it seems to me that if Lind is going to contend that the elites have been heavily influenced by sf, doesn’t it follow that he expects them to be somewhat familiar with its classics? No?
Contemporary film and television are probably closer to what Lind means. (Maybe?) While Star Trek is likely the most famous future to feature a utopian one-world government at the seat of a galactic federation, other shows and films are not so sanguine. Defiant depicts a near-future after Earth has been through an alien invasion, and new national governments are in the process of attempting to hegemonize the city-states that have thrived since the fall of the world governments. The time travel series Continuum’s future is (as I recall, though it’s been a while since I watched the pilot) a quasi-corporate police state.
Then again, I wouldn’t categorize Defiant or Continuum as “well-known.” Neither enjoys canonical status. Neither is common cultural currency. I would even argue that the most popular science fiction titles tend not to be futuristic. The most well-known are almost all set in a parallel present. Disney’s partnership with Marvel has yielded a juggernaut money-making machine, and films and shows like Agents of SHIELD and the Captain America films are explicitly in touch with the changes superhumans would wreak upon geopolitics. Lind writes elsewhere in his article, “Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness.” That’s simply untrue. Those themes are absolutely part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Other well-known film and TV examples abound. What about District 9? Or Stargate SG-1? Oh, that’s right. They have interplanetary wars with aliens, and those don’t count.
(Almost forgot that part, didn’t you?)
Why don’t interplanetary wars count? Why not wars with robots or zombies? Why does Lind dispense with half the bedrock tropes of science fiction before staking his major claim? What is the point of chastising science fiction as a whole when he’s really only talking about a tiny fraction of it?
Most science-fiction readers would recognize the contours of today’s geopolitics in everything from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s not even taking into account the complicated political worlds of cyberpunk, ranging from William Gibson’s Sprawl stories to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to take-your-pick of anime. All of these are totally typical representatives of sf. Some of them even have cachet beyond sf circles. An argument so contingent upon the particularities of sf ought not, in good faith, frame an argument so as to exclude the vast majority of available evidence.
Yet the only way Lind’s argument makes any sense at all is if he defines his parameters so narrowly that the only science fiction that fits them is not sufficiently “well-known.” That just seems like the essayistic equivalent of reversing the polarity of handwavium. If Lind “can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” perhaps he’s suffering from handwavium poisoning.
UPDATE (19 Oct 2016): After publishing this, I realized that I should acknowledge Lind’s larger point, which is to critique the elitist notion that history will culminate in a universal liberal-democratic government. I understand that, for him, the sf stuff is a means to that end. But it’s a really, really bad choice as a means to that particular end, and just as Lind undervalues the variety and complexity of sf, I suspect he overlooks the variety and complexity of the ways that the elite understand the trajectory of history.
A few years later, The Real Ghostbusters (RGB) cartoon came out and Egon, the brains of the ‘busters, was now the main character. Only, it wasn’t my father’s Egon, it was some blonde guy in Sally Jesse Raphael glasses. I was so disappointed that they had taken the character away from my dad and so offended that people who liked the cartoon just accepted this new Egon without question. “Don’t you feel bad that you’re not in the cartoon?” I asked one Saturday morning as RGB came on and I changed the channel. He laughed. “Umm, no. It’s fine. It’s business, Violet. The cartoon is its own thing. The same way you used to ask if the fans knew I wasn’t really Egon? Well, I’m not. It’s a character. There was a different Superman when I was a kid. Things change. Well, some things… I think we have a ways to go before we get a hunky Jewish cartoon character.” Along with the cartoon came updated action figures and toys, trading cards, video games, and a whole new set of enthusiastic fans.
I still get annoyed when I see blond cartoon Egon, but who cares?! It’s a 20-year-old cartoon! The new movie is not the original and it’s not trying to be. Give it a chance and go see it! Or don’t, that’s fine. But resist the urge to hold on so tightly to the past that you choke off new life. I reserve my right as an almost 40-year-old to mutter about how everything was better when I was young, but let’s let this generation have their own Ghostbusters. Let’s give my nine-year-old daughter a chance to put on a proton pack and feel like a badass. In the spirit of my dad and his love for movies and comedy above all, I’ll be there for Ghostbusters 2016 opening weekend with my kids, eating popcorn, wearing my Egon Spengler tribute pin, cheering on the new crew, and laughing loudly, from the heart.
When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.
At the same time, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences. There’s a reason there are ads up there saying turn off your phone, because today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them texting or having their phone on.
–Adam Aron, interviewed by Brent Lang
I will never—ever—go to a cinema if I think there’s even a remote chance of sharing a theater with the “cell phone section.” Why? Read the above quote with a minor modification:
When you tell a 22-year-old to put out their cigarette, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to put out their cigarette. That’s not how they live their life.
At the same time, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences. There’s a reason there are ads up there saying put our your cigarette, because today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them coughing or blowing smoke in their face.
How in the world to your reconcile these mutually exclusive audiences? The point is not that it’s patently ridiculous that 22-year-olds live their lives permanently attached to smartphones. (Although it is patently ridiculous. If some 22-year-old thinks giving up his phone is like being asked to cut off his arm above the elbow, I say hand the kid a hacksaw.) The point is that I, as a consumer, as a citizen, value what Matthew Crawford calls the “attentional commons,” largely for the same reason that most Americans who enjoy breathing unpolluted air value the Clean Air Act.
I can’t even imagine what novel forms of attentional pollution cinema chains and telecom advertisers will devise when they know that they have a captive audience in an environment already primed for product placement and surrounded by personalized digital devices. Nor can I imagine the novel forms of rudeness to which my fellow creatures will descend once that barn door is cracked open. If the traditional film continues to exist–one that does not incorporate interactive, smartphone-dependent elements–and it continues to be exhibited in cinema chains, those chains are going to drive away any- and everyone who still goes to the movies for the movie-going experience.
I totally understand that entertainment media evolve all the time, and at some point there will be a sea change in the moviegoing experience. Until that time, though, people like Aron should understand that people like me go to the movies to watch movies, not to dink around on our phones and be distracted by the cancerous pests who do so. Have I made my position perfectly clear?
I’ve written five separate posts on the primary election so far, and none of them has been clever or incisive enough to post. Therefore, Duck Soup. You’re welcome.
if u donuts wanna start shipping new star wars characters then be my fucking guest but mama din’t raise no fool. im waitin til i know who related to who so i don’t have to spend the next ten years in the shower praying for forgiveness. fool me once, george lucas.
–indigo | cold mackerel
“I’m a Nat Turner fanatic, because he subverts. He disrupts injustice where it stands. He had a riotist disposition. Imagine if we all had a riotist disposition toward racial injustice, sexual injustice, [and] gender injustice.
I’m totally against bullying, unless it comes to injustice. I want to be bullish when injustice rears its head in my life — I stand up and approach it like a fighter. There’s no place for it in my life.
If everyone felt that way, then we wouldn’t have to wait for political influence. We wouldn’t have to compromise anything, because we would be the change, literally. Not in the sense of a catchphrase. If you look at our Jewish brothers and sisters, they say, “Never forget.” We would never forget that [slavery] happened [in this country]. In America we’re dealing with people with slavery [who say], “Just get over it.” In the Jewish community, it’s, “Never forget.” Why is that? I think that’s what we need to deal with in this country. Honest confrontation, so we can heal.”
— Nate Parker, interviewed by Gregory Ellwood