How Science Fiction Made Me Liberal

More than anything, the genre challenges us to imagine beyond the status quo

Photo: Steve Baker/Getty Images

SSome 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 to what they saw as a leftist agenda and creeping diversity, launched a ballot-stuffing campaign to hand the Hugo awards to old-school, manly, reactionary sci-fi (the first novel they championed was titled Monster Hunter Legion) — a nerdy precursor to the broader Trump-era movement to make it be the 1950s again.

American science fiction is essentially consciousness-raising and activist, whether it’s advocative or cautionary.

But, conservative practitioners and fans notwithstanding, I would argue that science fiction is an inherently liberal genre. Because even the most reactionary SF still posits that this world is contingent, provisional, not inevitable. And this is an inherently subversive proposition, because it means that the status quo is not necessarily natural or right, and could be very different, depending on chance—in Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle, an antiques dealer contemplates the lighter that was in FDR’s pocket when he was assassinated — or, more importantly, on our choices.

Science fiction is also, in its American strain, at least, fundamentally optimistic. Just as tragedy is predicated on the inherent nobility of man (whereas comedy sees him as irredeemably ridiculous), even dystopias are essentially idealistic, predicated on the hope of improvement, of averting the grim future that awaits us If This Goes On (the title of a Heinlein novel). By contrast, the best Soviet-bloc science fiction — I’m thinking of Lem’s Solaris or the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic — sees humankind as absurdly incommensurate to the universe, incapable of fathoming alien intelligence or advanced technology. American science fiction is essentially consciousness-raising and activist, whether it’s advocative or cautionary. “People ask me to predict the future,” said Ray Bradbury, author of the most famous American dystopia (one that uncannily resembles our current reality), “when all I want to do is prevent it.”

Let me snobbily propose that the most fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives is not in their beliefs in individual freedom vs. collective good, or traditional values vs. social progress, in their intelligence or temperaments, but in their capacity for imagination. To conservatives, our society and its institutions seem the natural order of things, the logical outcome of history, and anyone who wants to change it is a malcontent or a dreamer. During the brief, illusory idyll between the collapse of the Soviet bloc and 9/11, Francis Fukuyama argued, in a book with the straight-line title The End of History and the Last Man, that capitalist democracy (what’s now called “neoliberalism” and despised across the political spectrum) was the omega point of human progress, a sort of inverse of Marx’s worker’s utopia — the boss’s utopia. The End of History came out the same year Kim Stanley Robinson published the first novel in his monumental Mars trilogy, which depicted capitalism as fundamentally antagonistic to freedom, a transitional phase between feudalism and true democracy. Not 40 years later, as the world’s governments are regressing into racism, nationalism, and autocracy, and its people seem ever more restive and mistrustful, which seems dated, and which prescient?

Science fiction enables us to see ourselves from the outside — our beliefs as delusions, our customs as arbitrary, our self-importance absurd.

Empathy, and by extension compassion, is also a function of imagination, of the reflexive insight: that could be me. Science fiction inculcates open-mindedness and humility in the face of difference, of the alien. Slaughterhouse-Five’s Tralfamadoreans see all moments as simultaneous, so to them human grief seems myopic, a problem of limited perception. To Stranger in the Strange Land’s Valentine Michael Smith, sole human survivor of a spaceship wreck who was raised by Martians, the deepest gesture of respect for the dead is cannibalism. Conservatism, by contrast, is the ideological form of fear: fear of change, fear of the new, fear of difference: different languages, different religions, different genders, sexualities, skin colors. (The hostility and derision that greeted the “Green New Deal” was the reflexive snarling of old men frightened of the future.) The conservative imagination is more like that of bad historical fiction: a retreat from reality, harking back to an idealized past that never existed, except for landed gentry.

Science fiction epitomizes the Russian formalist device of ostranenie, “defamiliarization,” allowing us to see the invisibly familiar by making it vividly strange again. It enables us to see ourselves from the outside — our beliefs as delusions, our customs as arbitrary, our self-importance absurd. The Earthlings in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are loud, brawling, and trashy, throwing up on the ancient mosaics, chucking wine bottles in the canals, building hot dog stands in the dead sea beds. Walter M. Miller Jr., in A Canticle for Leibowitz, sums up humanity: “any intelligent entity from Arcturus would instantly have perceived them to be, basically, a race of impassioned after-dinner speechmakers.” When a scientist from an anarchist moon in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed visits a society more like our own, it looks to him like a prison planet, a world made of walls. Dystopia has become the default genre in YA science fiction because young people today understand that they’re growing up in one, an alternate history in which things have gone disastrously awry, like the one in Bradbury’s story “A Sound of Thunder,” where a time-traveling hunter on safari to the Cretaceous accidentally steps on a butterfly and returns to a world where the more bellicose, anti-intellectual candidate won the election.

Science fiction allowed American authors to address taboo issues of race and sexuality in the same way it allowed their Soviet colleagues to criticize Communism — obliquely, metaphorically. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, in which a female writer from L.A. in the 70s is transported back to antebellum Maryland, explores the sadistic, complicit psychology of slavery in a way that a history, or historical fiction, could not. In his short story “The Crooked Man,” Charles Beaumont imagined a world where homosexuality was the norm and heterosexual couples had to meet surreptitiously in underground bars that might be raided by police at any time. He wrote this in 1955, the same year Rosa Parks declined to give up her bus seat, when the DSM still classified homosexuality as a paraphilia.

So now, because I’ve read China Miéville’s The City & the City, in which two antagonistic ethnicities/religious sects coexist in two separate cities that occupy the same physical space, each of which the other is forbidden to see — not to mention all those Philip K. Dick novels in which the world his characters live in proves to be an illusion — I can imagine that the cushy country I see around me is superimposed over an altogether different, equally real one that’s invisible to me: a brutal, dystopian police state that others can see by virtue of their skin color. Because I read The Left Hand of Darkness, in which a heterosexual Earth man learns to love an “ambisexual” being — one who is neuter and can assume either gender in estrus — I can understand that even if some aspects of genderfluidity confuse me or even freak me out, this confusion and outfreaking are functions of my own ignorance and biases: that it is a phenomenon to be understood, not mocked or quashed. And because I read Childhood’s End, in which the human race undergoes an almost instantaneous transformation beginning with its children, I can imagine that what seems to a lot of older adults like a fad, epidemic, or mass hysteria could be a new phase of our evolution: an entire generation rejecting not only centuries of dumb cultural definitions of gender but our entire billion-year-old heritage of sexual dimorphism. I can imagine that generation becoming the authors of their own identities in a way that’s never before been conceivable.

And, thanks to science fiction, I can imagine that conditions that seem, from our gnat’s lifespans, to be eternal and changeless might be more ephemeral and fragile than we think. I’m not even thinking of stories overtly about climate change, like John Christopher’s The Long Winter, or any of the countless post-apocalyptic scenarios. In Isaac Asimov’s most famous short story, “Nightfall,” a planet with eight suns only sees the stars once in a thousand years — and each time the populace, forced to undergo a radical Copernican revolution literally overnight, goes mad from the cosmological trauma and civilization collapses. Anyone who knows the origin of Superman — meaning pretty much the whole Western world — is familiar with the story of a scientist who tries to warn the world about imminent cataclysm, only to be scoffed at and ostracized by the complacent fools who run the government, condemning themselves and their people to extinction. How is it that so many Americans who grew up with stories like this reflexively join in with the doomed mob of scoffers?

Science fiction is ultimately about possibility: the revolutionary possibility that things don’t have to be this way.

In truth, science fiction made me less a liberal than a utopian. All my political opinions are ultimately aligned, like plants growing with imperceptible slowness toward a 93-million-miles distant star, toward the goal of a Star Trek future, when incidentals like skin color and gender are irrelevant and war, religion, and money are obsolete. I know how naive this sounds. Progressives are always accused of naiveté by those useless people who assure us that things have always been this way, nothing’s ever gonna change, quit dreamin’. (“Houses have always been fireproof, take my word for it,” explains the book-burning “fireman” in Fahrenheit 451.) Try to imagine how hilarious it would’ve seemed 100 years ago to imagine a future when women would work in offices and frequent saloons, when black men could vote and are addressed as “Mister.” Imagine what a crackpot you would’ve seemed 50 years ago if you’d predicted that gay people would be allowed to marry, or 10 years ago if you’d suggested that your son might wear a skirt to school and no one but other parents would care.

As its young fans have grown up to become influential authors, editors, and critics, science fiction has found some literary respectability: H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin are all in the Library of America. But the genre remains outsider, irresponsible, young. Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre that science fiction and fantasy authors still have the eyes of children. In her speech at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. LeGuin, then an octogenarian, sounded more like a teenage anarchist: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” It’s the kind of radical skepticism toward the verities of the present — seeing the imposing edifice of the established order as a brittle façade — that marks true revolutionaries. At the end of his Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson writes: “Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids.” If this vision sounds naive or implausible, it’s only a crushing indictment of our own failures of imagination.

I am not so naive as to think sufficient intelligence, or possession of sufficient information, will inevitably lead everyone to the same conclusion. But I’m not talking here about information, or even intelligence, so much as a capacity for imagination, for grokking multiple points of view. Science fiction is inherently biased in favor of liberalism in the same way that higher education is (which conservatives ascribe to a conspiracy of indoctrination by closet-Marxist professors): it expands the mind, exposing it to more breadth and diversity, exploring alien cultures and civilizations, time-traveling to distant epochs, introducing perspectives as disorienting as higher dimensions. Science fiction is ultimately about possibility: the revolutionary possibility that things don’t have to be this way.

Tim Kreider is the author of two essay collections, and a frequent contributor to Medium and The New York Times. He lives in NYC and the Chesapeake Bay area.

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