From Robots to Star Trek: Politics in Science Fiction

Red Planets Cover

This post is part of CSI’s Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project. To learn more about the project, visit http://csi.asu.edu/category/optimism/

Have you ever thought about robots? I mean really thought about them. They are so prevalent in science fiction that it is easy to take the existence of robots for granted. But someone had to invent robots at some point, and for some reason. The answer can be found partially in the etymology of the word: the English robot comes from the Czech robota, meaning forced or compulsory labor. The term robot in its original use would be unfamiliar to modern audiences; it was first used by Karel Čapek in his work R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a science fiction play from 1920.

In the original context of the play robots were more like clones, human (or close to it) but second class citizens: fully conscious, but relegated to slave labor. Robots were designed from the beginning to replace humans, to free us from the burden of labor. This basic idea is prevalent in science fiction of all eras. It can take many forms: clones, machines, genetically-altered intelligent animals. But no matter how much the details change, the message is the same: humans are trying to free themselves through the enslavement of lesser, or at least less sentient, beings. But often these beings are actually quite intelligent, sensitive, and reflective, which leads to a desire for freedom and eventually sparks an uprising.

At first glance robots may not seem very political, but the ideas central to their implementation certainly are. In fact, robots fit quite neatly into a Marxist approach to economics and labor. In this reading, capitalist systems work because of their exploitation of cheap or free labor at the expense of the worker (robot). Underlying our framing of robots as surrogate laborers is the idea that labor is in some way degrading and that those who toil in labor are somehow subhuman. In her essay “Species and Species-Being: Alienated Subjectivity and the Commodification of Animals,” science fiction scholar Sherryl Vint argues that science fiction’s understanding of robots helps us recognize and understand the alienation associated with labor under a capitalist system. The essay appears as a chapter in Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, an anthology edited by Mark Bould, a scholar of science fiction film, literature and television at the University of the West of England, and China Mieville, a prolific author of SF and speculative fiction and creative writing professor at the University of Warwick.

Before you stop reading because of Vint’s less-than-enthralling title, give it a chance. The essay is quite well written, and Vint’s arguments derive from a host of political theories and evidence from science fiction novels. This is not to say that the works are Marxist or that science fiction is inherently Marxist (it is, in fact, an incredibly ideologically diverse genre, with works from a Marxist perspective occupying the same bookstore shelves as libertarian allegories). The point I’m trying to make is that science fiction is a genre of ideas about social and economic ways of being as much as it is a genre about technology.

The relationship between politics and science fiction requires a much longer discussion than I can realistically fit into this blog post. So what I’ll try to do here is provide some brief remarks about the roles that politics and economics play in science fiction, and the potential for science fiction to be a helpful tool, or method, to explore politics and economics.

Political and economic ideas can be found throughout science fiction. The legendary SF author Frederik Pohl once wrote, “To speak of ‘political science fiction’ is almost to commit a tautology, for I would argue that there is very little science fiction, perhaps even that there is no good science fiction at all, that is not to some degree political.” All genres of fiction have political elements: what makes science fiction special is that it offers the unique opportunity to imagine new economic and political systems, perhaps brought about by radical changes in cultural attitudes or the introduction of a transformative new technology.

The anthology Political Science Fiction (1997) exposes, explores, and interprets the wide-ranging political discourse (both subtle and overt) to be found within the speculative worlds of science fiction. The Star Trek universe provides a perfect example of this ability of science fiction to prototype inspiring political and economic futures, not just gadgets and space missions. In the essay “‘In Every Revolution, There Is One Man with a Vision’: The Governments of the Future in Comparative Perspective,” public policy scholar Paul Manuel takes a look at the entire Star Trek universe, surveying the forms of government presented throughout the franchise and discussing the historical reasons behind their development.

Manuel draws from the ideal types of government in Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy (1971) as a model for dividing up the different worlds, but there are also Star Trek planets which exist outside of Dahl’s model – for instance, planets that have evolved past the need for government. Even some planets that fall within the model require additional unpacking because the dictators are machines or hyper-intelligent beings. Although the most outlandish planets provide spectacular limit cases for government across the Star Trek galaxy, much can also be learned from the more familiar governments, since each comes about in a distinct way and could potentially be changed through intervention.

For example, Manuel argues that the familiar planet Vulcan is not in fact a democratic government but an “inclusive hegemony” (to use Dahl’s term – learn more at http://www.wikisummaries.org/Polyarchy) where people can freely participate in elections and democratic processes, but those who can run for office are selected from an exclusive group. An Earth equivalent of Vulcan is the former Soviet Union, where citizens could vote, but often only for one candidate. Understanding Vulcan politics helps us better understand Vulcan characters and their culture, and gives deeper meaning to events in the Star Trek narrative.

Many Star Trek plots have a distinctly political bent; while the shows are certainly a raucous good time and provide adventurous tales of space travel, they are generally in equal measure tales about politics. In fact, many of the conflicts that structure the Star Trek universe are caused by clashes between different political ideologies and modes of government: the break of Romulus from the Vulcans, the fighting between the Klingons and the Federation, and the troubles between Ekos and Zeon all have deep historical and political roots. And how could any Trek fan deny the overarching message that democracy is the preeminent form of government? After all, Captain Kirk openly lectures many an alien species about the virtues of democratic government. Puzzlingly, as Manuel astutely points out in his essay, even though democracy is heralded throughout the franchise, there are very few democratic planets in their universe.

Truly political science fiction is everywhere, from utopian dreams to dystopian nightmares, from space opera to hard science fiction. Though they are sometimes not as flashy and obvious as the science and technology elements, political and economic dynamics are often the force that drive great science fiction stories, and can open up opportunities for new conversations and debates in our own universe. A clear example of this is the reaction to Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers (1959). After the success of the book, which depicts Heinlein’s’ utopian idea of a military democracy, critics and intellectuals reacted with hostility. They even accused Heinlein of being a fascist in favor of military dictatorship (was he? I’ll leave that for you to decide on your own). But no matter what his beliefs were or what he was trying to convey with the book, one thing was readily apparent: that science fiction has the potential to spark passionate debates about issues that are critical to our own political and economic futures.

 

Sources:

Bould, Mark, and China Miéville. Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

Hassler, Donald M., and Clyde Wilcox. Political Science Fiction. University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

One thought on “From Robots to Star Trek: Politics in Science Fiction

  1. Very interesting analysis, I always saw science fiction as a canvas for our current concerns.
    Interesting that Heinlein wrote after starship troopers stranger in a strange land

Leave a Reply