The politics of science fiction

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

That is from Tim Kreider, who praises the political visions and fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson.  Kreider also longs for a more political literature, devoted to such ideas as common stewardship of land and water, and also “small co-ops” instead of “vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations.”  Among other changes.  He then writes:

My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.

What is a good response to that?  Let’s look at the article itself, and we can see sentence which is smarter than Kreider himself seems to realize:

If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death.

I would myself note that the politics of science fiction, on average (with exceptions), encourage us to think about “breaking a few eggs,” and not for the better.  The reality is that when it comes to the future, we can “see around the corner” only to a limited degree.  The upshot is that the rights of the individual — when applicable — should remain paramount, and no I don’t mean Caplanian libertarian rights.  You can only rarely be sure you will get such a great gain from violating rights, so why not do the right thing instead?  Science fiction inhabits the realm of fiction precisely because the building of grand scenarios is denied to us, for the most part.

To again use Kreider’s own words, societies where “nothing can be taken for granted” are exactly the ones I would never wish to visit, much less live in.  I know the radical anarcho-capitalist strand, but is there a Burke-Oakeshott-Hayek science fiction, in the traditionalist and conservative sense of that combination?  Or must we resort to the “fantasy” genre to capture such a vision?  What would a science fiction account of a macro-level spontaneous order look like?  Iain Banks?  Frank Herbert?


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