When I say “science fiction”, some people may think of socially awkward boys with pale skin, Hollywood blockbusters where characterisation is sacrificed for special effects, or pure escapism that ignores the grim realities of the world we live in.
Personally, I go for the intersection of philosophy, politics and popular culture. Like the dystopian critique of Thatcher’s England in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta; or the fusion of Plato, Baudrillard and more besides in The Matrix; I also think of two of the most important science fiction writers: Mary Shelley and Ursula Le Guin.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, is regarded as one of the first true works of science fiction, which Robert A. Heinlein once defined as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”
In order to create she hoped would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature”, Shelley applied the scientific method and 17th century rationalism to the fantastic. The Prometheus from the sub-title refers to the Titan from Greek Mythology who created humans under instruction from Zeus. Read as Dr Victor Frankenstein’s tragedy, the novel is a cautionary tale about ‘playing god’.
Rejected because of his gruesome appearance, Frankenstein’s monster flees, discovering and educating himself before returning to face his creator, looking for acceptance which Dr Frankenstein (the story’s real monster) is unable to give. Feminist readings include the inherent danger in attempting to either possess or dismiss the “female”; from a post-colonial point of view, Dr Frankenstein is the racist coloniser, unable to get past physical difference to accept others as equally human.
First published anonymously in 1818 with a print run of just 500 copies, Frankenstein has been been retold in films, comics, plays, TV and more. As an educational text around the world it has exposed tens of thousands of people to its ideas on identity, difference and what it means to be human.
Ursula Le Guin, though still writing today, is predominantly known for her body of work in the 60s and 70s writing science fiction and fantasy, including The Earthsea Quartet (1968-1990). She has been a strong influence on writers like Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman, and uses genre to explore individual psychological identity and also social and political structures.
Le Guin’s best regarded science-fiction, The Dispossessed and The Left-Hand of Darkness, are part of “The Hainish cycle”, set in a future where a benevolent humanoid race achieve interstellar travel and begin attempting to connect other planets into a League of All Worlds.
This premise is used to contrast ideas and concepts that we often take for granted. In The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), for example, a male envoy from the Hainish travels to a world where everyone is ambisexual, spending most of the time asexual and then, on a roughly monthly basis, adopting either male or female sexual attributes depending on individual context at the time.
The Dispossessed (1974) follows an academic from an anarchist society who travels to a property-based world full of harsh divisions in wealth, race and gender. A representative of our future Earth makes an appearance towards the end, lamenting how we turned our planet into a barren desert.
At the age of 85 Ursula Le Guin continues to challenge social and political norms. In 2014 she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation, using her acceptance speech to label online bookselling giant Amazon as a “profiteer”. “We live in capitalism,” she said in her speech. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
Science fiction has its issues. There is an overabundance of male creators and protagonists, a predisposition towards entertainment for its own sake, and an overuse of exclusionary jargon. But these criticisms can be levelled at any category of fiction, non-fiction, and most levels of society, including politics.
“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark word,” wrote Shelley. There are allies for a better world in every corner of the multiverse. But we won’t find them if we dismiss things out of hand for how they appear.
Originally published in GreenMail, the members publication of the Greens NSW. February 2015