Is Science Fiction Intrinsically Liberal?

Mike Brotherton brought Adam Robert’s Guardian piece to my attention. I can paraphrase the article very succinctly (which is rare for me): “Since science fiction is about the future, and the future is not now, science fiction is about otherness. And is therefore liberal and good. Except that some people (conservatives) hate otherness, so they write stories about killing aliens. And love authority. PS – I hate conservatives.”

2013-04-22 Da Vinci Code
Folks thought Brown was anti-religious cause he said Jesus was married. They missed the fact that every religious person in the book was despicable and at the end the brave, new Pope was an atheist.

You can probably tell I don’t think too much of this piece, but I do think it’s an interesting topic. I love sci-fi, and I’m also fascinated by how political ideologies battle it out in pop culture. That’s actually pretty boring in most media because there isn’t much of a battle. Hollywood is about as politically homogeneous as they come, and soF when it comes to politics there’s not a lot going on. You either get orchestrated propaganda, egregious digs at conservatives, or–very rarely–you get relatively nuanced perspectives precisely because there’s so little threat  conservatism that it can occasionally be trotted out like a strange zoo creature. No, the  most interesting political battles by far are fought in the thriller / action section of the New York Times best sellers. You’ve got all kinds of conservatives, from Tom Clancy on down, but also plenty of blatant liberals like Dan Brown. Both sides interject their politics freely and in not-so-subtle ways, and it’s fascinating to read. So, if I were gong to talk about politics in books, that’s where I’d start.

But Adam Roberts writes sci-fi so he wants to talk about sci-fi. Well, alright then. Let’s drag this argument under a spotlight and take a look.

First of all, the idea that “future” is a proxy for “other” is a stretch. By that logic, all fiction (since it’s about something other than reality) would be intrinsically liberal and all non-fiction (since it’s about reality) would be intrinsically conservative. This might be true for a very, very philosophical definition of “liberal” and “conservative”, but clearly not for anything that actually looks like modern politics in the US or in the UK.

Secondly, there really isn’t that much of a dichotomy between conservatives and liberals in sci-fi. The vast majority of sci-fi writers are liberals, pure and simple. I’d say the next largest segment would be the libertarians. Roberts cites Heinlein as a great conservative, but the only way you could think that is if the only Heinlein story you ever read was Starship Troopers. That book has a decidedly militaristic / authoritarian vibe. But the man who practiced open relationships (in real life) and wrote satirical descriptions of a free-love Jesus (Stranger in a Strange Land) cannot be seriously categorized as “conservative”.

Shadow Puppets is a good example of Card's political writing: he attacks abortion and IVF practices in this one.
Shadow Puppets is a good example of Card’s political writing: he attacks abortion and IVF practices in this one.

Roberts only real conservative is Orson Scott Card. Card is, interestingly enough, a Democrat, but since he’s Mormon that doesn’t mean what it might mean to most Americans. In any case, he is most famous for coming out staunchly in opposition to gay marriage–both in his books and in his public writing–and also for lacing his reasoning with apocalyptic prophecies of the literal downfall of American civilization. But Card, despite his stature, is an exception that proves the rule. Here’s a fun trick: pick another famous science fiction author who is conservative. I can name a couple more, but they are all dead. Phillip K. Dick was so outraged by the Roe v. Wade decision that he wrote an infamous short story about a society that arbitrarily decided that you weren’t considered a person until you could do calculus, and Walter M. Miller Jr’s beautiful “Canticle for Leibowitz” is an elegant paen to his Catholic faith. Both, like I mentioned, are no longer with us.

But when you try to think of sci-fi writers who are overtly liberal, it’s hard to know when to stop listing names. John Scalzi’s politics are not readily apparent in his fiction, but he runs one of the biggest blogs on the Internet and is not shy about his leftwing politics there. Cory Doctorow’s books are basically political sermons with a sci-fi candy coating. Kim Stanely Robinson wrote an entire trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) to put both is staggering economic ignorance and left-wing political ideology on display, and then recently wrote another novel in the same vein. These are all guys writing today (and there are more), but of course some of the greats were also very liberal. Ursula K. Leguin comes immediately to mind. It’s practically impossible to read a work of modern science fiction without being bashed over the head by certain, core liberal beliefs that sci-fi writers have really glommed onto. The most notable is the idea that sex can and should be excised completely from any consideration (cultural, emotional, etc.) and treated as a purely recreational activity with no implications beyond the immediate gratification of physical desire. If sci-fi, especially male-written sci-fi, had a single, core article of faith that would be it.

So much for Robert’s argument. As for Brotherton, I’m glad to see that (despite being the kind of religiously intolerant liberal who refers to Orson Scott Card as belonging to a “fundamentalist cult”) he rejects the notion that science fiction is intrinsically liberal. But he also rejects the notion that there’s an ideological battle of any kind going on, and there I think he goes to far. As I mentioned in a comment to his piece: it’s really hard to separate the metaphors of “battle of ideas” and “marketplace of ideals”. The key concept in each is competition.

Richard Dawkins’ conception of the ideas-as-genetics makes sense here: There is no demilitarized zone in the struggle for survival, either of genes or of memes.

Amazing Conspiracy Theory Post

I was doing some research for my sci-fi writing when I came across what is, without doubt, my favorite conspiracy-theory post so far. It begins “NASA the rat bastards” and goes downhill from there. The point of the first paragraph is that NASA radar dishes “are transmitters not receivers”, but the post really opens up new vistas of crazy in the second paragraph, which I’ll quote in full:

All planets have life 1 million years ahead of us but some still transmit on our level, these transmissions would be received by regular radio & television sets if not blocked. Nichelle Nichols is proof of the life on other planets: – no Star Trek ever included Saturn as a subject, she is profiling herself in front of Saturn because she is from Saturn, and 1 million years beyond us in knowledge.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

Now I’m a bit of a Trekkie, but I wasn’t sure if “LIBERATOR” (the apparent author) was seriously arguing that Uhura, from the original Star Trek, was “proof of life on other planets”, so I had to check and see if Nichelle Nichols is the name of the woman who played Uhura. Sure enough, that’s her. And not only does actually exist, but it even features an image of Saturn on the front page!

2013-04-23 Uhura

This all makes me think that the post isn’t just an intentional joke. Someone out there really believes this. And by this, we’re also talking about the conspiracy theory that:

NASA & their bullshit schemes, I love the Jupiter one the best – yeah, a giant ball of gas is going to retain perfect spherical shape, for crying out loud. It’s giant hostile lifeforms on Jupiter so they want us to believe it’s unhabitable

It’s unclear to me whether Nichelle Nichols is or is not connect to the “giant hostile lifeforms on Jupiter”, but this post was just so good I had to share. Although I have to admit, here at the end, that I feel a little bit bad. I sort of hope this guy is functional in the rest of his life and/or is getting professional help. That someone really believes this… first it’s hilarious. Then it’s kind of sad.

Down With (Romantic) Love!

2013-04-22 Flowers

My wife sent me this article (Romantic love–overrated and hyped-up) around or perhaps on Valentine’s Day. What can I saw? We have a robust relationship. :-)

In any case, I had it saved as tab for the last 2 months until I finally read it this past week. And it was actually very, very good. It also–unexpectedly–had something interesting to say about the gay marriage debate. Here’s an excerpt:

Amid all the violent homoerotic imagery in the same-sex marriage debate what I found strange about the whole argument was the idea that marriage was necessarily just about love, and that – even more bizarrely – people wished their love to be recognised by the state. But marriage isn’t the official recognition of love, rather a social contract.

In fact the link between romantic love and marriage is a fairly recent one, and is, in the wider human picture, an unusual though increasingly common one. Now even a premature reactionary such as I would not suggest the society-wide return to arranged marriages, but in terms of actual outcomes the modern model has been a failure. There has not only been a 50 per cent rise in people living alone in a decade and a half, but the percentage of university-educated women (those who would have once been considered a good match) staying childless is approaching 40 per cent, and the failure rate for marriages based on romantic love is high.

I still hope to write up my thoughts on gay marriage, although at this rate the Supreme Court will rule before I have my say (can you believe it?), but a short preview is that this article’s contention that romantic love is often selfish and a poor basis for marriage resonates with me.

I’m a huge fan of romantic love, and I love my wife dearly, but love is for marriage. Marriage is not for love. What I mean by this is simply that the feeling of romantic love that come from sacrifice, dedication, and fidelity are deeper and more meaningful than the chemical high of infatuation. You can build romantic love with hard work, empathy, and compassion. You can fill your marriage with love. But you can’t control infatuation, and if you build your marriage on that both the infatuation and your marriage will fail.

CNN Infographics: 3 New Planets That Could Foster Life

CNN has a cool article with great pictures showcasing the size and position (relative to their own stars) of some possibly life-sustaining planets.

2013-04-23 Super Earths

There’s no direct evidence that the planets support life. They just happen to be somewhat close to the size of Earth (these particular ones are all larger) and also exist within the “habitable zone”, which is the distance from their own stars where temperatures would possibly support life similar to what we know (e.g. the possibility of liquid water). One of the cool things about the exoplanet research so far is that rocky planets are being found frequently–and often larger than the Earth–while gas giants are being found in much closer orbits than scientists had expected.

These are exciting times!

From Terrorism to White Privilege

I start a lot of posts about discrimination that I don’t finish. I care deeply about the issue, but I also get frustrated because I feel like my take on the issue is sufficiently off the beaten path that it won’t have any impact.

But of course when I write it out like that I feel silly. Do I really think anything I write is going to have a material impact on a national debate? Nope. (That’s actually the topic for another post: why I bother writing at all given the futility of the whole thing). So, having sufficiently lowered the bar for myself, I may as well start with Tim Wise’s comments on the the Boston Marathon bombers and white privilege.

It was clear from very on that both the American Left and American Right were semi-privately hoping that the attacker would come with the “right” pedigree. The American Right was deeply afraid that this would be another Timothy McVeigh, further solidifying the impression of the Right as the violent wing of American politics. Meanwhile, the American Left just as clearly hoped that white guys were to blame:

Yeah, I was hoping for a white guy, because I know the way that American is reactionary, and has proven so in the past. The way that they go after [minorities]. You know, after 9/11 they were killing Sikh Indians in gas stations in Texas, or a Sikh Indian. And it was very difficult, the profiling that happened after that. So, yeah, I think it keeps the flames down.

The quote above (from Current TV host Michael Shure) actually makes sense: if you’re worried about collateral damage from the response to the bombing, then that damage will much likely be greater if the attacker is a minority rather than a white American. Of course, the first hurdle is that we’re worrying about collateral damage from a potential future response before we’ve even laid the first victims to rest. 

Read more

Schneier on the Boston Lockdown

2013-04-21 SchneierBob Schneier is a security expert who is also concerned with civil liberties, so he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t cut the TSA a lot of slack. What does he think about the virtually city-wide lockdown of Boston during the manhunt for the fugitive bombers? In this blog entry, he explains why he didn’t object and also links to posts by others who did object.

Me? I’m with Bob on this one. I think the counterexample of the way London wasn’t locked down when some of the subway bombers fled doesn’t work because they just fled. As opposed to the Marathon bombers who hijacked cars, killed cops, got into gunfights, and threw bombs. Frankly, I think calling the lockdown “house arrest” is a stretch. I would have been staying indoors, too.

Belated Milestone… 10,000th view

I was going to make a post of some kind when I hit 10,000 cumulative page views, but time sort of got the better of me and I missed it. By a lot.

2013-04-20 Stats

As you can see, I’m at 11,833 views (as of a few minutes ago). You can also see that the last three weeks–since starting my new job–have been pretty rough in terms of traffic. (That’s what happens when I don’t post.) This past few days, with about 100 visitors and 200 page views, are closer to where I was before that point.

I launched this blog in November 2012 (I think), but then really started blogging more seriously in January 2013. I’ve also been writing for a few other sites. I post (almost) every Monday for Times & Seasons, I’ve had a few pieces reposted at the Secular Pro-Life blog (one got picked up by LifeSiteNews), and I’ve also started blogging for A Thoughtful Faith. The longer I post the more cool  people I meet, but if it wasn’t for people coming to read my stuff it would all be pointless.

So I just want to say thanks to everyone who comes and reads what I write, and especially to the folks who comment. (I’m looking forward to hitting 1,000 comments!). I’m glad I’m not just talking to myself, and I hope I’ll continue to have things to say and share that you find worth your time.

I Don’t Get Beer

As an observant Mormon, I am obviously not the most qualified person to talk about beer or any other alcoholic beverage. I think I tasted alcohol once when I bought home made “ginger ale” out of the back of a pickup truck in the mountainous woods of western Virginia (that would explain the snickers as I purchased my bottle), but I didn’t drink enough of the strange-tasting liquid to get a buzz or anything. And that is about the extent of my experience with alcohol.

Not that I have anything against them. My interpretation of the Mormon prohibition on alcohol is that it is:

1. Partially a mistake. (The original scripture appears to have referred only to liquor, with a specific exemption for beer)

2. An attempt to build solidarity within the community. 

Read more

A Thoughtful Faith: Reconstruction As a Way of Life

A Thoughtful Faith has started a blog, and I’m one of their initial crop of bloggers. Last night they posted my first piece: Reconstruction as a Way of Life.

2013-04-19 Keep Calm

I asked them to post this image to go with the blog because I’m trying to convey a spirit of patience and calm endurance when it comes to dealing with faith issues. Read the post if that makes you curious. :-)

Friday Music: Rome

The last three posts have not been fun to write. I don’t regret for a second the time I spent writing them, but I also need to preserve my sanity by looking away from the abyss from time to time. So I’m happy that we’re going to go far, far away from the topic of politics and talk about an absolutely amazing record that you have to hear to belief. Because trust me, the description sounds too bizarre to be real. What we have is a loving homage to spaghetti western soundtracks that brought together producer Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi along with Jack White and Norah Jones. It’s the kind of record you could only possibly hear about from NPR.

What’s that, you say? Pics or it didn’t happen?


Bam! The Internet don’t lie, son!

When I first heard the description on NPR, I knew that I had to listen to the music. A few months later, when I got Spotify Premium, I was incredibly happy to find that the album blew away all my highest expectations. Every single song on it is great. And unique. And yet the album is cohesive. Look, I’m not a music reviewer. I’ll just tell you this: I love to travel as much as the next guy, sure, but I’m basically a hobbit. I love to have my home, and to go on adventures but then come back. But when it comes to music? My desire for new sounds that take me to new worlds is, as far as I can tell, insatiable. And this blend of instrumental and vocal tracks is just perfect for me.

So let’s get to the music.

That’s “Two Against One” (Jack White, obviously), and it’s got excellent lyrics like “I keep my enemies closer than my mirror ever gets to me” and “There’s only three, you and me against me… I’m already fighting me, so what’s another one?”. Recasting bravado into a context of inner turmoil is exactly the kind of unexpected new combination that I can never get enough of. It’s like the audio equivalent of Firefly or Cowboy Beebop. Yes, please . (There’s an animated version of the video, but it was too distracting for me to use in the post.)

But let’s not leave Norah Jones out, oh no! That simply would not do. Not at all.

Apparently the fourth season finale of Breaking Bad used that track, but I don’t watch the show so I wouldn’t know. I just know it’s awesome. And now you do.

And, after this week, that’s something I know I could use.