You can stop reading the news, but you can’t escape politics. Certainly, Aristotle didn’t think so (in his opus, Politics), nor would, I expect, any poli-sci professor you’re likely to meet. And neither does Hayden Trenholm, the editor and publisher of this anthology, who acknowledges those who “[don’t] believe they hold strong political views” only to wryly counter that “acceptance of the status quo … is as strong a political stance as anything more overt and polemical in nature.”
It’s true. Science fiction by its very nature has a political stance, one which, hypothetically, can vary infinitely with the author, but which is, in practice, overwhelmingly rationalist, humanist, and socially progressive (though a bastion of conservative and libertarian voices also exists).
You might argue about this. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in which he held up the social satire 1984 as the exemplar of what science fiction is not, because the technology is beside the point and the social ideas are what matter. Margaret Atwood made the same argument about her own novel, Oryx and Crake, at least in early publicity, distancing herself from the genre categorization because this was a serious book about serious issues and not ray guns and martians.
What’s interesting to me is the very different time and context in which Asimov and Atwood made much the same argument. In Asimov’s heyday, you could get away with writing what amounted to a Popular Mechanics article with a thin veneer of story on top. But the advent of social science fiction (not a term I prefer, but the one used at the time) in the 1950s and most especially in the New Wave of the 1960s and beyond shifted the boundaries of what science fiction was about.
Science fiction has become very much about society, which means politics can’t be far behind. Despite the efforts of individuals like Cory Doctorow and Paolo Bacigalupi, overtly political content is still a minority in the genre (though some of the greatest works in SF history, from Haldeman to Sawyer, are very political). That’s hardly to say there is a dearth of it, but the point is taken.
So how do the eighteen stories contained in this anthology do for the reader in need of a political fix? Pretty well, in fact. There’s a nice range of topics and styles, although not a lot of representation from outside science fiction’s political centre (there is only one clumsily handled Heinleinian libertarian parable, and nothing from the extreme left anarchy of, say, Charles Stross). Trenholm can’t be blamed, as he could only work with the submissions he had, but it would have been nice to be surprised a few more times by an unexpected point of view.
That said, the stories are frequently thoughtful, the political points range from the straightforward to the subtle, and the writing uniformly capable. There were, admittedly, a few stories that left me scratching my head. But there were also a few that provided me genuinely new insights on old points.
Just one example: Students of political history know that a party of 100 years ago might be wildly different than the party bearing the same name today. Even setting aside mergers and splits, consider this: Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came with the full support of his party; a century later, the Southern strategy eventually took Nixon all the way to the White House, while dog-whistling even now continues, still in the party of Lincoln. Bipartisanism is such a rarity, if one party is ever inconsistent, the other, defined by its opposition, must be equally so (and often is).
The point is, the issues of yesterday are not the issues of today. Some of the cleverest stories imagine the implications of new technologies for the courts, human rights, and ultimately, political campaigns. Nowadays, capitalism and guns and the Christian God seem inextricably entwined, just as socialism, secularism, and feminism fit hand in glove. Change just one thing — one aspect of technology, popular culture, or the economy — and suddenly the anarchists may be in bed with the religious right, or environmentalists with capitalists. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.