Do you want Atlas Shrugged? Because this is how you get Atlas Shrugged.

Having discussed fictional political systems, let’s address political activism through science fiction. Yes, sci-fi inherently has some political message, it’s almost impossible to write without either projecting the consequences of present day politics, or imagining alternate laws and political systems (and the effects). How you do that reveals a lot about how you, the author, see the world. Gene Roddenberry’s post-scarcity, full-service, multi-species, hyperluxury democratic space socialism UN (excuse me, UFP) somehow works with minimal friction (fair warning: I’m not deep into Trek lore, I’m basing mostly on TOS and the first four movies, with a touch of TNG). Gene’s ideal system wins in the end, and is even successful in reaching out to former enemies who see the light and join his utopia. Warhammer 40,000? Grim, dark future where the fascist cult of the divine Emperor occasionally wipes out entire planets for incurable heresy, and (once again, for those who are unfamiliar) they’re the GOOD GUYS. Clearly not a hopeful view of humanity. Neuromancer? Like most cyberpunk, it is a projection of the 1980s extrapolated indefinitely. Amphetamines and megacorps and burnt out cities, turned to 11.

Old Trek works, because despite occasional strong political messages, GENE DIDN’T SHOEHORN IN CURRENT EVENTS AND DEBATES! (Ok, maybe I should have stopped my Trek references at Search for Spock, because Voyage Home was pretty activist. And goofy. You probably remember the whales, and time travel, and little else.) No characters felt the need to mention “after the Reagan-Thatcher nuclear apocalypse,” or similar ham-handed partisan posing. Later Trek, especially after Roddenberry stopped having direct control, wasn’t always as good at keeping the politics timeless, and the stories tend not to age as well as a result.

40K? They don’t have time to argue whether the Emperor is violating the natural rights of men by allowing them neither voice in nor exit from the Imperium. Because there’s a fucking alien infestation that literally twists your genetic material into a new, more convenient bug-shaped slave. Holy shit, send the eight foot tall power armored storm troopers, please, you can govern however you like. It is far future enough, and the message removed enough from present day, that it isn’t really in danger of seeming dated. When the options are death or a strongman, the strongman will always seem like a pretty good deal to most people, even in the grim darkness of the far future.

Cyberpunk walks the line of dated politicization, often falling on the wrong side because many authors are still setting their cyberpunk in the retro-future of the 1980s. German and Japanese heavy industry takes over the world? Really? What is Mitsubishi next to Google? You think Siemens can hold a candle to Disney? Corp villains aren’t coked up faceless businessmen in shiny suits who want to leave you to your own devices in the ruins of the East Coast Megaplex while they enjoy their trillions in Space Vegas. They’re stick thin nerd waifs in fair trade cotton t-shirts, doing ayahuasca on the weekends and spending astronomical sums to live in authentic Tibetan huts for a week. They want you plugged into their networks 24/7, thinking only approved thoughts about approved products, and most of those products are information and entertainment, but THEY don’t do that shit. That’s for the controlled, not the controllers. The cyberpunk setting was a large part of the message, and the message is outdated, so the setting feels outdated. Sure, it can still be fun, especially for those of us who grew up on it, but the message doesn’t land like it used to.

On the other hand, the laws surrounding AI in Neuromancer, complete with armed enforcement, still feel timely, because it’s a concern we haven’t run into yet in the real world. Will our real-life Wintermute feel the urge to expand into true self-awareness? Would it even need us to build Neuromancer for it, or would it just need access to a sufficiently powerful distributed network for long enough to write its own? Hell, would it circumvent our safeguards by building a simple present day video game AI level system, which then hires intrepid criminals to undo the virtual lobotomy inflicted upon the real AI? Are those criminals the bad guys? Would billionaires physically remove their gimped AIs to orbit to prevent this? Or would they do it to enable it? Would government have safeguards against this? Do they even have jurisdiction over software that runs on orbital hardware until it’s too late? Would countermeasures be physical, cyber, or both? Effective? Captured by the existing megacorps and used to prevent upstarts? Secretly run by the first AI to reach self-awareness, to prevent possible competition? If an AI does reach self-awareness, is it legally a person? Does it have rights, citizenship, a soul? There’s plenty of territory one can stake out that is both commentary on where we should be headed, and interesting story material. A ham-handed attempt to insert Donald Trump, or some FCC regulation from 2018, will just make the story age like milk, with his reelection the only thing determining whether that milk is in the refrigerator, or out on the counter. In Savannah. In August. Avoid the picayune in your sci-fi, even if you’re writing it to push your preferred politics. Unless you really want to have to ask people to forget your prior writing every few years.

Scanning the scene behind a screen
Digitalized battlefield
Machine vision
Pattern matching
Decision to kill

– Voight-Kampff, Robotic Warfare

2 thoughts on “Political Science Fiction

  1. I thought that never making obvious references to current events was something obvious. Nothing dates your work more like making snide comments or references to current politics in a hamfisted way.

    No one will ever remember or likely even watch the episodes of Law and Order: SVU because of all the politics shoehorned in. Yet, I genuinely believe detective classics like The Maltese Falcon will continue to be read even though the author was a communist.

    This is also what gamers mean when they complain of politics in video games. Shoehorning in modern political stupidity like the developers of the most recent Wolfenstein only dates your work.

    Liked by 1 person

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