Political ideas in science fiction

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The exploration of politics in science fiction is arguably older than the identification of the genre. One of the earliest works of modern science fiction, H. G. WellsThe Time Machine, is an extrapolation of the class structure of the United Kingdom of his time, an extreme form of Social Darwinism; during tens of thousands of years, human beings have evolved into two different species based on their social class.

Speculative societies[edit]

Most story and novel-length works of science fiction include speculation (directly or indirectly) on modes of life and behaviour. They are sometimes allegorical and often serious attempts to model possible future societies, political institutions and systems. Examples include Harry Harrison's novel Make Room! Make Room!, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin; and the Hostile Takeover Trilogy by S. Andrew Swann. Imagined societies may be based on very different assumptions. Often the future is modeled on historic forms - feudalism, or in the case of The Foundation series, the Roman Empire. A common theme is the integration of humanity into some greater interstellar society. A popular modern example is the Uplift series by David Brin where a species status is defined based on the concept of biologically uplifting other species.

Utopian societies[edit]

The term Utopia was invented by Thomas More as the title of his Latin book De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia (circa 1516), known more commonly as Utopia. He created the word "utopia" to suggest two Greek neologisms simultaneously: outopia (no place) and eutopia (good place). More depicts a rationally organised society, through the narration of an explorer who discovers it — Raphael Hythlodaeus. Utopia is a republic where all property is held in common. In addition, it has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbours.

Generally speaking, utopias are generally societies whose author believes either perfect, or as perfect as can be attainable. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia is a contemporary example. This can cause some confusion, in that some works generally recognized as “utopian”, such as Plato’s Republic, can come across as much less than ideal to a modern reader. They are one of the smaller subsets of political science fiction, possibly because it is difficult to create dramatic tension in a world the author believes is perfect. Various authors get around this problem by plotting the story around threats to the utopian society, such as in much of L. Neil Smith. Other ways of presenting a utopian society in science fiction, is to send characters outside it to explore beyond its confines (ala Star Trek), or focus on an outsider character entering the society, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This last method is often used to show that the utopian society shown is actually a dystopia. Kim Stanley Robinson's approach in The Mars Trilogy involved exploring the creation of utopian and ecotopian societies on Mars.

Edenist society in Peter F. Hamilton's Nights Dawn Trilogy is a utopian society. All Edenists have a genetic adaptation which allows for a form of telepathy, known as Affinity between other Edenists and their bio-engineered creations, Habitats, Voidhawks and Servitors. Because of Affinity the Edenists are inherently peaceful and live in vast pastoral areas on the interior of huge space habitats.

Another option for a Utopian society can be found in robotocracy, or the rule of Robots or Computers, with the theory that a programmed machine can dispassionately provide for the welfare of all. Examples of this include various works of Isaac Asimov and the planet of Sigma Draconis VI in the Star Trek episode Spock's Brain. If the machine rule becomes harsh or oppressive, it may become a dystopia instead.

Dystopian societies[edit]

Dystopias are societies where the author illustrates the worst that can happen. Usually this encompasses extrapolating trends the author sees as dangerous. During the 20th century many examples were written in reaction to the rise of Nazism, Communism and Religious Fundamentalism:

  • Double Helix Fall (1990) by Neil Ferguson portrays an America where a person's social status is determined by their movements in the womb, an extension of the concept of original sin.

It is important to keep in mind that scenarios which some would describe as dystopic, others would describe as utopian. Norman Spinrad's novel The Iron Dream was generally recognised to be a dystopic novel, but lauded by neo-Nazis as a utopia.

Politics[edit]

Often the political focus of a science fiction novel is less on the social order, but how people maneuver and achieve their agendas within a given system. Many space operas rely on vast interstellar bureaucracies to drive their plots (see: Galactic empire). The Retief stories by Keith Laumer and the Chanur books by C. J. Cherryh have politics and political maneuverings as some of the main themes, and Frank Herbert's Dune books offer advanced explorations of human politics, including the dovetailing economics. Often this focus can descend into conspiracy and paranoia where the premise is that there are secret forces out to get the protagonists, the seminal example of which is the Illuminatus! Trilogy. Most commonly, science fiction deals with the political fallout of its own premises. A story will posit some new event or technology and explore its political dimensions; this includes most techno-thrillers but also encompasses a large body of traditional science fiction. An example is the Philip K. Dick story The Minority Report (upon which the film starring Tom Cruise is based), which introduces the idea of perfectly predicting a crime of violence so the perpetrator can be arrested before the crime is committed, and the political and legal ramifications of actually using such a system.

Examples by category

See also[edit]

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