Other worlds are possible!

Issue: 128

Beccy Reese

Mark Bould and China Mieville (eds), Red Planets, Marxism and Science Ficiton (Pluto Press, 2009), £19.99

This collection of essays provides a critical analysis of science fiction (SF) within the media of film and novels. The genre, which involves exploring the possibility of worlds structured in ways different to ours, appeals to many who are inspired by the slogan “another world is possible”. One of the challenges facing socialists is to show that a world without capitalist relations is not impossible. For this reason, SF has radical potential for thinking differently about the world.

Of course this is not to suggest that SF can only be progressive. Indeed as Bould points out in his introduction, “A group of SF writers…originally proposed the Strategic Defence initiative to Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and these writers…advise the US Department of Homeland Security on the so-called War on Terror”.

The first essay takes Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, which features a distorted skull superimposed on a stately portrait, as a starting point to elaborate a fundamental quality of SF. By distorting reality our perspective on our own time and space is altered. It is this that gives SF the ability to throw light on our current times by shifting us to a different perspective. The recent TV show Battlestar Galactica showed empathy with suicide bombers on US television, through the prism of a war between man and machine. (It is a shame that none of the contributors discuss television within this genre given the speed with which this medium is able to respond to the present.) Matthew Beaumont takes us through this idea from a great number of viewpoints although in the end really gives us little beyond this basic idea to chew on.

An examination of how art might function in future utopia societies, using Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars as examples, demonstrates how SF provides an opportunity to explore what might occur with the removal of the capitalist profit motive. It can be difficult to imagine art that is neither a a commodity that needs to make a profit nor a pleasure to be consumed.

One area that causes much debate among those concerned with literary theory is how to define SF. One definition, by Darko Suvin, is a constant point of reference in this collection. Suvin says science fiction is “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ validated by cognitive logic.”

In the latter essays Milner refers to this barely intelligible definition as “archetypically academic” and Mieville takes it apart by examining whether the reader and the author really believe the fiction to be possible and what happens to Suvin’s definition if they don’t.

Jorgensen’s essay “Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction” urges a shift in thinking about SF from imagined futures (“coded expressions of history”) to real possibilities (“actualisation of history”). He comes to the conclusion that SF is a useful tool which can create revolutionary thinking. As an example he looks to Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness in which a human species exists that has no sex drive. Reading this novel “as a concrete scientific suggestion to engineer a human society that is not warped by libidinal investments” allows us consider the difference between our current reality and a possible, believable alternative. This essay argues that SF is good for thinking with, which is fairly self-evident for any revolutionary who enjoys playing around with “what if” ideas that SF throws out.

This collection ensures that SF is not simply dismissed as being dominated by special effects, shiny spaceships and kooky aliens. But it’s a shame that it’s fascinating ideas are too often tangled up in academic jargon.