How Science Fiction Made Me Liberal
More than anything, the genre challenges us to imagine beyond the status quo
Some of the first science fiction books I loved were in a YA series called The Tripods Trilogy, by John Christopher, about a future ruled by a race of invading aliens called “the masters” who rove around the country in Wellsean tripods. Human civilization is kept at a medieval level, and young people are “capped,” or given surgical implants to control their thoughts, at age 14 — which happened to be my own age when I read the books, at a time when our very nice pastor was starting to drop around the house to ask when I was going to get baptized. It’s an age when adolescents are beginning to develop abstract and critical thinking skills, and some of them are starting to feel as if they’re being brainwashed into docility and conformism, into accepting their place in a stagnant, ovine society ruled by unseen monsters.
I grew up reading science fiction for the same reasons a lot of brainy adolescents do: it tended to avoid messy human relationships (especially sexual ones) and was all about the kinds of big ideas that fed and stretched developing minds. It’s the same reason science fiction was ghettoized for decades: Until the New Wave of the ’60s, at least, it wasn’t primarily concerned with the things we associate with serious literature — characterization, psychology, interior life. It was, instead, a literature of ideas, of hypotheticals and speculative leaps, the literary equivalent of Einstein’s Gedankenexperiments. I think this is another reason young people love science fiction: they recognize that its writers have remained young, “uncapped.” Science fiction writers still see the world’s arbitrariness, unfairness, and cruelty; they’re not yet invested in rationalizing the status quo. All those paperbacks with lurid covers are actually radical tracts, secretly whispering sedition in your children’s ears.
It’s true that there’s always been a xenophobic, militaristic strain of SF, from War of the Worlds on (though WotW is an anti-colonialist fable at heart), and it’s had its famously conservative authors, like Robert Heinlein (though Heinlein was also, like H.G. Wells, an advocate of free love). There was a schism in the community a few years ago when one faction of fans, in response…