Science fiction is fiction that is based, before all else, on certain explicit framing hypotheses. These have most commonly (and stereotypically) involved travel into the future and, concomitantly, an array of technological capacities and devices whose effects have not previously been imagined. Foregrounding this latter aspect, certain SF works (including films as well as books) have attained a mass market. In much of the science fiction that is produced for this market (notably, films like Star Wars), the framing hypothesis turns out to have an essentially decorative function – as pretext for ever more grandiose special effects – while the actual story unfolds in accordance with all the clichés of classic battles between good and evil. In Hollywood films, this model has most often been heavily overlaid with explicit or tacit links to Washington’s global military agenda, with the particular incarnations of evil evolving to meet the needs of the moment.1 An important subsidiary message is that an all-powerful technology has the answer to everything, including what to do if the earth’s ecosphere is destroyed.Any hope of developing a popular movement that can overcome the march to destruction rests vitally on the symbiosis of these two dimensions of struggle.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, such commercially underwritten, high-tech-oriented productions have tended to dominate popular notions of what science fiction is all about.2 Our own interest, however, is directed more to those expressions – ranging from literature to film to popular legend – in which the imagined conditions and capabilities encourage new ways of thinking about human society, or provide new sources of strength for resisting oppression, while at the same time (thanks to their wide diffusion) bringing social consciousness and political awareness to constituencies unresponsive to overtly political messages.
This whole range of potentially subversive processes is grounded in the experience incisively identified by Darko Suvin, more than thirty years ago, as cognitive estrangement.3 Works conceived in this tradition are the ones in which we find promise. The character of such works, as Carl Freedman has written, “lies neither in chronology nor in technological hardware but in the cognitive presentation of alternatives to actuality and the status quo.”4 Insofar as we focus on this dimension of science fiction, we encounter a body of work with obvious relevance to the concerns of socialists. This link has been expressed historically in many ways. One striking instance of it, noted by Suvin, is the presence, at key points in Marx’s writings, of figures like vampires, monsters, sorcerers, and specters.5 The point here is perhaps that even in the most materialist of analyses, there needs to be a vocabulary to encompass the dimensions of behavior that appear, from one limited class-perspective or another, to be beyond the range of calculable human intervention. Beyond this, though, there is a long and proud tradition of consciously radical SF writing or storytelling, some of which is discussed and illustrated in articles in this collection.6
The particular relevance of science fiction to our present conjuncture reflects the convergence of a number of different factors. First and foremost, the sheer enormity of the ecological crisis conjures up scenarios of devastation that will test the imaginations of everyone.7 Second, the pace of technological innovation appears to be increasing exponentially, bringing with it a further concentration of control by already dominant forces while at the same time feeding into a kind of scientistic hubris which, rather than acknowledge the need for radically altered economic priorities, devises the most grotesque science-fictional boondoggles to allow for the continuation of business (notably, the burning of fossil fuels) as usual.8 Third, the world’s most prodigious military arsenal has been placed at the disposal of a “decider” who, in crude tragicomic style, rides out his disastrous term on the historical stage fully self-absorbed and in a self-referential bubble9 – decreeing and rationalizing massive aggressions with utter disdain for their human targets. But finally, there is the other direction: the direction of those who feel the burden of all these conditions and know that they must find a way to respond to them. What does science fiction have to offer them, meaning us?
Our goal in assembling the present collection has been to inspire thinking along these lines. We are aware that these articles, even taken together, cover only a small part of the necessary ground. Nonetheless, they begin to suggest ways in which popular understanding of the need to go “beyond capital” can grow. Science fiction that is produced within the tradition of cognitive estrangement constitutes what might be understood as an intersection – with the potential for mutual reinforcement – between two streams of thought and practice that have too often remained separate: social-scientific critique (analysis and proposals) on the one hand, and cultural expression (nurturing resistance and personal transformation) on the other. The dimension of social-scientific critique focuses on issues of universal resonance and impact; to the extent that it is well-grounded, its message can eventually cut across all lines of division among people except those of class interest.10 The cultural dimension, by contrast, draws importantly (though not exclusively) on the particularities of experience of each community – whatever its mark(s) of identity might be.11
1 Carl Boggs, “Pentagon Strategy, Hollywood, and Technowar,” New Politics, no. 41 (Summer 2006); H. Bruce Franklin, “War Is Peace: Washington’s Final Science Fiction Solution,” in Darko Suvin & Salvatore Proietti, eds., US Science Fiction and War/Militarism (spec. issue of Fictions: Studi sulla Narratività 3 , Pisa: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2005). SF films expressing a dissident approach to hight-tech are discussed in Vint & Bould’s article below.
2. A parallel to this, addressed in a recent S&D special issue, is the way in which corporate interests have selectively promoted the more violent and misogynistic expressions of Hip Hop. See, e.g., the interview with Lawrence James in Yusuf Nuruddin & Victor Wallis, eds., Hip Hop, Race, and Cultural Politics,S&D no. 36 (2004).
3. Discussed in the first chapter (originally published in 1972) of Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). The concept is further developed in Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 21-23, and in Steven Shaviro, Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
4. Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction, p. 180.
5. See Darko Suvin, “Transubstantiation of Production and Creation: Metaphoric Imagery in the Grundrisse,” Minnesota Review, no. 18 (Spring 1982).
6. Two other recent collections deserve mention here: the symposium “Marxism and Fantasy,” in Historical Materialism, vol. 10, no. 4 (2002), and Imagining the Future: Utopia and Dystopia, a special double issue of Arena Journal, no. 25/26 (2006).
7. The human dimensions of the looming disaster were brought directly to the US mainland with the Katrina nightmare of 2005. For a well informed assessment of current trends, see Jim Hansen, “The Threat to the Planet,” New York Review of Books, July 13, 2006, and, on the already catastrophic eco/social impact of global capital, Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London & New York: Verso, 2006); Davis evokes SF author Philip K. Dick to convey the unreality, in this context, of the residential enclaves of the Third World urban bourgeoisie (p. 120).
8. See the featured article of “Science Times” in the New York Times, June 27, 2006: “How to Cool a Planet (Maybe),” by William J. Broad.
9. See Maureen Dowd’s column, “Animal House Summit,” New York Times, July 19, 2006.
10. My own most recent attempt in this direction is “Socialism and Technology: A Sectoral Overview,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, volume 17, number 2 (June, 2006), available online at www.yorku.ca/cnsconf/present/wallis_cns.doc (sections on the informational and the military sectors are particularly pertinent to SF).
11. See e.g. the essays below by Yaszek, Rogan, Lensing, Scott, and Nuruddin; also, Rogan, “Alien Acts in Feminist Science Fiction: Heuristic Models for Thinking a Feminist Future of Desire,” PMLA vol. 119, no. 3 (May 2004).