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Science Fictional Politics
or Big Brother Is Watching
Nazis on the Moon

by Bill Bowler

There is no quicker route to an argument than talking politics. In real life, the subject is often avoided for the sake of maintaining amicable relations. But an “argument” in a work of literature is not quite the same thing as an argument with your relatives at Sunday dinner. Through the veil of fiction, controversial issues whose mere mention provokes violent objections in real life, can be raised in unreal form, examined, and explored without the opposing parties coming to blows (though sometimes they do anyway).

The ancient Roman poet Horace suggested that the art of literature is “dolce et utile” (sweet and useful). To apply Horace’s idea to our purposes, we could say that a work of science fiction is entertaining and informative. If the author, in his work, has chosen to convey information with political content, then we have arrived at our question: what is the aesthetic, or artistic, function of politics in a sci-fi story?

To complicate matters, in a work of fiction, there are multiple points of view in play: the author’s, the narrator’s, the characters’, as well as the reader’s. These multiple points of view engage in a dynamic and shifting interaction. They can align or diverge in various combinations.

The author’s relation to the political viewpoints depicted in his work can exist in several variants. It could be straightforward approval; or outright condemnation; or, by means of irony, it could be condemnation disguised as apparent approval, or vice versa. An author could create, for example, a fascist character of whom he approves; or whom he condemns; or whom he pretends to condemn but, by means of irony, really approves; or of whom he feigns approval but ironically condemns. Given this complexity, misunderstandings are as possible and perhaps as common in fiction as in real life.

In relation to the reader, and depending on the relationships of the various points of view involved, the author’s political fiction can inspire those already in agreement (like a national anthem), can attempt to persuade or convert (propaganda), or at least to cause the reader to question his previously held position and to consider the alternatives.

In none of these cases would it seem advisable for the author to confront or provoke the reader, as this is the least likely avenue of inspiration or persuasion. If the author is condemning a political viewpoint, it seems he would wish the reader to share that sentiment and not to feel himself condemned.

In this light, one viewpoint the author would do well always to keep in mind is the reader’s, which is as fully functional in a work of fiction as the author’s. In choosing politics as an element of a work of fiction (political lexicon, imagery, thematics, etc.), presumably the author is intending to entertain, inform, instruct, persuade or convert the reader, and not to confront him and start an argument. The reader would hold all the cards in such a dispute: he could simply stop reading. The author’s brilliant political discourse then becomes a bit pointless.

But, an author could say, “I’m denouncing Nazis for everyone else’s sake and I don’t expect Nazis to read my story, I expect them to be lined up and shot.” Such situations no doubt exist. But, presumably, by and large, we can assume that there is not some wide class of reader whom the author is simply writing off, denouncing, and not caring less if this class of readers reads his work or not. Presumably, the author is aiming for the widest possible readership while still maintaining his artistic integrity.

In considering the reader’s reaction to political content in fiction, questions also arise about artistic freedom and censorship. What happens when the reader is the censor (e.g., a Soviet Commissar or a TV network Standards and Practices attorney)? What happens when fiction is required to meet external political standards and certain political themes are forbidden while others may be required, such as happened in the Soviet Union? Or what happens, even, when the slush pile editor reads a submission whose political content may be deemed unacceptable or inappropriate by the magazine ownership in terms of not alienating subscribers? In such cases, does the author compromise to get in print? Or make his stand for artistic integrity at the cost of leaving the manuscript in the drawer?

In considering science fictional politics, another thing to bear in mind is what literary theorists call “authorial fallacy,” that is, the attributing to an author the beliefs or actions of his fictional characters. This simple assumption is highly unreliable — as wrong as often as it is true, perhaps more often — and the more successful the fiction, the stronger the urge, perhaps, for the reader to take this false step.

Yet another aspect to consider is what literary theorists call “the willing suspension of disbelief,” that is, the reader’s voluntary exit from mundane reality and entry into the altered state of the fictional world created by the author, which is both the reader’s and the author’s goal. Any one of a number of authorial missteps can break the spell of the fictional world, hurling the reader back to the mundane travails of the reality he had sought to flee, at least temporarily. Anachronisms, factual inaccuracies or discrepancies, inconsistencies, stylistic shortcomings in the writing — any of these can jar the reader and expose the fiction. If the author intends a story to inspire, persuade, or convert the reader, or even just to entertain him, then overt political content contrary to the reader’s own convictions can quickly make the reader unwilling to suspend belief and, in the extreme case, as mentioned above, he may stop reading.

Another point to consider is the difference in a literary text between naming and describing. An author can use tags or labels, can simply call his hero or villain a Communist or a Liberal or a Terrorist. Just by using a loaded term, the author can trigger an automatic reaction in his readers, the nature of which depends upon their own persuasion. However, in this case, the loaded term causes a knee-jerk reaction and any possibility for instruction, persuasion or conversion of the reader is lost. Only inspiration or condemnation remain.

If, on the other hand, an author eschews political name calling and depicts the character in action demonstrating the politics without necessarily naming them, then the reader is free to draw his own conclusions and can even be led, gently, invisibly, inexorably and unbeknownst to himself, along the path to the author’s own position and conclusions.

When Peter Wiggin takes on the Warsaw Pact; when posters of Big Brother show a ruggedly handsome man with a thick mustache; when A.E. van Vogt’s hero, in “The Beast,” goes up against Nazis who have taken refuge on the moon — what are the implications for the reader? If an author makes his villain an imam, how does he expect Muslim readers to react? If he makes his hero a priest, does he have Catholic readers on board? If an author like Orwell or the Strugatskys depicts a fictional society which embodies or condemns a certain set of political ideals, what happens to that story after ten years or fifty years have passed and political conditions have changed and evolved, or have not changed and evolved? We are left, perhaps, with more questions than answers.

Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler

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