The Politics of Science Fiction

CloudMinders

I think I was about eleven years old that I first began to think about politics. I was watching a Star Trek episode called The Cloud Minders. The episode centered on the search for a consignment of ‘zenite’: a mineral that was badly needed to combat a botanical plague that threatened an entire planet with starvation. The problem for the crew of the Starship Enterprise was that a group of ‘disruptors’: a militant faction of a worker caste called ‘Troglytes’ that were considered intellectually inferior to the planets ruling elite, had stolen the zenite consignment. The disruptors intended to use it as a bargaining chip in a struggle for social equality with the technologically sophisticated but intellectually bigoted dwellers of ‘Stratos’: a city that literally floated in the clouds. It was also established that the disruptors committed acts of sabotage, kidnapping and vandalism to further their social and political goals. I actually remember the moment when I made the mental connection between the disruptors of the Star Trek episode and the terrorists that seemed to be constantly in the news.

In a simplified, fictional microcosm Margaret Armen, the author of the episode’s screenplay, made the events that I was hearing about from Walter Cronkite a bit more understandable to my young mind. She also galvanized my love of well written science fiction and began my fascination with politics and history. Captain Kirk had set the Troglytes and Stratos city dwellers on the path of reconciliation in forty minutes allowing for commercials, but the story sent my mind into perpetual motion. As it entertained, it also made me think in ways that I hadn’t before.  That, I think is what good science fiction is supposed to do.

Later, as the news was filled with controversy about forced bussing of students among various school to force racial diversity on the educational system, I discovered the X-Men. Marvel Comic’s band of beleaguered, misunderstood misfits who, despite being hated and even hunted by a fear-addled society defended that society against all manners of supernatural threats. In the X-Men, I found a way to conceptualize racism and bigotry that not only made me empathize with the objects of that bigotry, but also pity the ignorant people that were its source. Fiction made reality more easily understood.

Ch atom

And that wasn’t the only politically charged content that Marvel had in store. In the Avengers series there was the Falcon. In contrast to the latest film depiction of the wigged hero where he is a former member of the Air Force’s elite Para-Rescue force, the Falcon of the seventies was pretty much an ordinary man, with not appreciable combat or espionage training, who had a suit that enabled him to fly. Despite the character’s lack of qualifications, and  even his having a criminal record, this version of the Flacon was made an Avenger. Because the Avengers received government resources, the group was subject to affirmative action laws. Again, my mind was sent spinning with questions. The entire complexly interwoven Marvel Universe was rife with social and political commentary. I ate it up with a large spoon.

And Star Trek continued to help me examine difficult political issues such as proxy wars waged by the super powers, (A Private, Little War) the place of religion in society, (Feeders of Vaal’ and ‘Bread and Circuses’) and the possible pitfalls of technology (A Taste of Armageddon and The Ultimate Computer) and cold war tensions (The Omega Glory and The Enterprise Incident). And, of course there was the first interracial kiss to be televised in the United States in ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’. The original Star Trek’s spin offs continued this tradition of socio-political commentary and became a part of the political debate for more than one generation.

Star Trek, overall, painted a bright picture of mankind’s future while the newer dystopian books and films such as the Hunger Games and Divergent shed a darker light. But, whatever the tone of the speculation, science fiction looks to what might be while encouraging people to truly see what is. It can cause a useful intellectual shift in perspective. Science fiction can take the discussion of political issues that one is always warned against pursuing at social gatherings and make those issues safe to discuss by placing them in a fictional, speculative framework.

Science fiction can be a back door into the mind for political thought. Before my minor epiphany while watching the Cloud Minders, I paid little attention to the news cast. I was aware of them only because they were a fixture in my family’s viewing schedule every night from 6 to 7 o’clock. But, Star trek had engaged my mind and started a new way of thinking. Sadly, science fiction has the stigma of being literary fluff. Even after celebrated works like George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, the literary powers-that-be still turn their noses up at science fiction.  It is my opinion that such skeptics are missing the point. They get distracted by the exaggerated technology and wondrous settings and they fail to absorb the essence of science fiction. Science fiction, like almost all fiction, is intended to illicit emotional and intellectual response. Like fiction of any genre it can allow a reader or viewer to take that proverbial walk in someone else’s shoes.  Science fiction differs from other genres only in that by forecasting what the political and social structure of the future might be, it shapes that future by providing alternatives  that might not otherwise be considered.