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Reds in space: socialist science fiction

USSR pilot-cosmonauts at a TV studio (from left to right): Pavel Popovich, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, Valeri Bykovsky, Andrian Nikolayev and German Titov.

USSR pilot-cosmonauts at a TV studio

There’s a general view that science fiction is a literature of reaction. Michael Moorcock, tracing the pulp origins of its so-called “golden age” mocks the notion that it’s a literature of ideas in his Starship Stormtroopers–titled after Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a novel which does, sadly, make a strong case for his position.

Not all science fiction has a reactionary message though. As this list of science fiction for socialists shows, there’s a great deal to read about the future without falling victim to the typical tropes of the expansion of the frontier and manifest destiny–now in space.

Science fiction has the advantage as a literature for socialism that it looks towards the future. While mainstream literature attempts to analyse the varying nature of humans in the every day world we all know, and too much change would distract from this task, SF speaks to us of the dialectic between science, technology, society, and the individual: it feeds on change. This is why it’s possible to explore socialism–as well as other radical social changes–in a way that’s unavailable to other genres.

More than the particular worlds science fiction explores, though, it’s perhaps most interesting because it shows us something which is often overlooked: another world is possible; things change. The conditions of life of today weren’t those of yesterday and won’t be those of tomorrow.

Some people have called SF the “literary apparat of the technocratic movement”, and they do have a point. There’s a strong strand of science fiction which presents society as a machine which needs to be run by those who properly understand it. That’s not a fault of the parameters of the genre, though, but just the fact that the same freedom which allows us to speculate about socialism allows others to speculate about other things.

I’ll present a few of my favourite socialist SF and a short description. Let us know what yours is on the comments.

The Culture, by Iain Banks. This is a collection of novels focused on a social formation which calls itself the Culture. They have dealt with scarcity, and their production systems are largely managed by benevolent and powerful AIs called Minds. However, to give their lives meaning, they feel they ought to do something more than just enjoy themselves, so they try to improve other societies through interventions which are statistically demonstrated to lead to higher utility.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross. A novel dealing with the Singularity, it presents the difficulties entailed by the transition to post-scarcity, and the participation in the economy of super-human intelligences, which may stand as a metaphor for corporations.

Most of the works by Harry Harrison, particularly the Stainless Steel Rat series. Harry Harrison presents dynamic worlds, changing societies, and even looks at ethics as something socially determined and constructed. His Deathworld series is another case where this tendency is particularly distinct, and refreshing.

Ken MacLeod’s entire bibliography. As an ex-trotskyist, now ensnared by the siren songs of mutualism, much of his work treats the socialist hypothesis very seriously.

Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. Just read it.

Voyage from Yesteryear, by James P. Hogan. Given the risks of nuclear war, a space ship is sent to another planet to preserve humanity, but there’s not enough energy to send adults: only embryos can be sent. The children are rissen by AIs, and they create a unique society for themselves, which is put at risk when further ships from Earth are sent, this time with the object of colonisation.

Last, and just for the sake of completeness, Robert Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon is a strange exploration of a world with eugenics, but also some kind of quasi-socialist, or at least semi-planned economy, based on principles that sounds slightly similar to those of social credit. For the incredulous, I quote a paragraph:

Monroe-Alpha shook his head. “Finance structure is a general theory and applies equally to any type of state. A complete socialism would have as much need for structural appropriateness in its cost accounting as do free entrepreneurs. The degree of public ownership as compared with the degree of free enterprise is a cultural matter. For example, food is, of course, free, but–“

What’s your favourite socialis science fiction? Are there other genres you think present socialism’s message better? What other SF not explicitly socialist do you like?

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About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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6 Responses to Reds in space: socialist science fiction

  1. Dara says:

    Re: Banks, I would emphasise The Player of Games as his most dramatic and interesting Culture book. It’s set in an ‘intervention’, where a famous Culture gamer joins in an Alien empire’s annual board game tournament, where the ultimate winner will become Emperor. Explores violence, hierarchy and the contrast between two worlds.

    I would also suggest Kim Stanley Robinson as an excellent and important socialist sci-fi writer. The Mars trilogy and the recent follow-up 2312 deal explicitly with space colonisation, the possibilities for ‘socialism on one planet’ and the exigencies of revolution (I’ll be reviewing the latter for Look Left and will cross-post here if yez are interested).

    Another recent favourite was the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler, also known as Lilith’s Brood. A wonderful piece of feminist sci-fi which is strongly focused on the subjective crisis caused to humans by alien contact. The plot is a little silly, but it stands out among sci-fi in general for its treatment of character.

  2. Dara says:

    Oh, I’d also query this comment:

    There’s a general view that science fiction is a literature of reaction.

    My impression had been the opposite. Although Starship Stormtroopers (and its companion, Epic Pooh) is well-argued, I’m not sure that it represents a mainstream in leftwing literary criticism. Offhand I can think of Darko Suvin, whose view of Cognitive Estrangement seems very close to Brecht’s idea of the role of theatre. (I’ll admit, I’ve not read Suvin, just listened to China Mieville discussing his work(critically)).

    The other obvious fella would be Fredric Jameson, who has a book on sci-fi, Archaeologies of the Future: (catch breath) The desire called utopia and other science fictions. Again not read the bloody thing because it’s so dense with references that I feel like I should read them all first (a surefire route to never finishing it), but it also has a positive approach to sci-fi (not in general, but in the particular). CF Review here.

    So, my impression was that in traditional Marxist lit crit, the division was sci-fi = good fantasy = bad (because it has some quasi-micro-pseudo-fascism or something). As I said above, I’ve not read much of these tomes, because of their heft and their reliance on Cold War era sci-fi (more familiar with cyberpunk myself).

    What do you think? Can you think of other leftists beyond Moorcock who are critical of sci-fi?

  3. modulus says:

    Hi there, thanks for your useful comments, and yes, we’d like you to crosspost for sure. (Register on the blog if you like.)

    About the “literature of reaction” I guess I didn’t justify this sufficiently. I was not thinking as much of people from the left–or not only–but also of people from the right themselves. There’s a very prevalent semi-myth, for instance, that science fiction embeds libertarian–by which I mean here anarchocapitalist–values.

    Of course SF–well, of course… rather in general–is more progressive than fantasy, at least the traditional type with holy objects and kings and the reestablishment of the “natural” order” as their plot, even if there are exceptions which can actually subvert these tropes; but there’s a sense that SF is a vehicle for technocratic and capitalist views and it’s not entirely groundless.

  4. Dara says:

    Yeah, I think Sci-Fi tends to have more freedom than fantasy, the latter does seem to buckle under the weight of its tropes sometimes. China Mieville is the only progressive fantasy novelist that I’m aware of, although I’m sure that he could point to other examples.

    I think both types of fiction tend to enhance the power of their characters beyond the everyday, sci-fi through technology, fantasy through magic, social position or handiness with a bladed instrument. Both of these are liable to conservatism – in sci-fi we often see human advancement empowering only history and its great men because of some technical determinism or capitalist onanism. In fantasy, empowerment is on an individual basis and tends not to disrupt the status quo. Even William Gibson, who I love, tends to focus on the power held by massive corporations and their agents.

    Of course, this isn’t necessary, it’s really just a reflection of the writer’s inability to imagine a world where the power granted by advanced technology is wielded democratically, for the good of everyone. This was something I liked especially about Mieville’s Bas-Lag fantasy novels; they’re focused on people caught up in a brutal, fantastic early capitalism, dealing with crises caused by the shittiness of that system. KS Robinson is similar, in that he focuses on normal people wielding technical power as part of a project of social transformation.

  5. modulus says:

    Indeed, fantasy is far more likely to end that way. That said, I can think of a few counterexamples. One which comes to mind is the series A Land Fit for Heroes, by Richard Morgan, who also wrote some subversive SF such as the Takeshi Kovacs series, or Market Forces.

    Let’s just say the traditional tropes are completely destroyed. Monarchs are thuggish despots, priests are zealots seeking temporal power, and the protagonist is a gay warrior who has been largely ostracised by society. I’d recommend it.

    Another interesting case is the The Hidden Family series by Charles Stross. Although it’s not exactly fantasy as traditionally conceived, it does have some of the tropes, yet it’s essentially about how a modern day woman with an interest in development would try to nudge what’s essentially a pre-industrial society. Little romanticism involved: life is nasty, brutish, and, aside from the richest, short.

    I suppose I should write a follow-up post at some point, dealing with socialist fantasy. Something like Red Wizards ;-)

    [Edit] Now I think about it, both examples which came to mind have in common that the authors aren’t primarily fantasy writers, but SF. So I suppose they bring their SF toolset with them when looking at social relations and the rightness of the constituted order.

  6. Dara says:

    Thanks for those, will add them to the reading list. Yep, for whatever reason, the medieval period weighs like a nightmare on the brains of fantasy writers. Perhaps steampunk is a positive step here, since it starts from the hypothesis that the past was changed radically by technology and investigates the consequences. The Difference Engine by Gibson/Sterling is great here: Babbage computers lead to a more complete bourgeois political revolution in England and somehow we have a Manhattan Commune, where Karl Marx hangs out and kicks ass.

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