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On another planet
Red Planets: Marxism and science fiction
Edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville
Pluto Press, 2009, £19-99
Reviewed by Manny Thain
SCIENCE FICTION deserves our serious attention. That is the plea in the introduction to this collection of essays brought together by Mark Bould and China Miéville. "For most of the 80 or so years since science fiction (SF) was identified and named as a distinct genre, it has typically been dismissed as the infantile excrescence of a stultifying mass culture, a literature doubly debased by its fantastic elements and mediocre prose".
They aim to redress the balance. At its best, the book raises some interesting, thought-provoking issues. It is, however, a very mixed bag. Nonetheless, as Bould states, SF’s "radical potential for thinking differently about the world" lends itself to radical theory.
Going back in time, Matthew Beaumont analyses the 1533 painting, The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger. In this picture, two dignitaries stand among scientific instruments and other items epitomising ascendant capitalism and colonial power. In the foreground there is a skull – a momento mori (reminder of mortality) – distorted in such a way that it can be viewed clearly only if the viewer kneels before the left-hand corner of the picture. From here, the ambassadors are distorted in turn. By extension, this alternative perspective can be applied to questioning the systemic and societal values portrayed in the picture.
For Beaumont, this "potentially, is politically enabling, because it reveals that reality can be altered". This links with SF because the ‘alien other’ also alters our viewpoint and suggests the temporary nature of our society.
William J Burling focuses on an SF novel, The Dispossessed (1974), in which Ursula Le Guin tries to represent the form music might take when neither religion nor commodity exchange is a factor. The Dispossessed counter-poses a post-capitalist society on the planet Anarres and a capitalistic society on Urras. On Anarres, music is based on live performance and is not reproduced via technology. There are no virtuosos, celebrity artists, exploitative managers, record companies or product sales.
However, the harsh environment and limited natural and labour resources undermine personal freedoms. Such limitations would make it impossible to develop a genuine, democratically organised socialist society. So, ‘in reality’, what Le Guin is depicting is some kind of distorted socialist system akin to Stalinism – although how conscious Le Guin is of that is open to question.
Art as we understand it today did not exist before capitalism – it is bound in with capitalist modes of production and is part of bourgeois culture. And what is called art in a future socialist society would be unrecognisable to us today. Burling draws the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to imagine future alternatives in any detail.
Evidently, there is a ‘small but growing’ subgenre known as post-singularity SF. The singularity is the supposed moment when the human race crosses a technological threshold and definitively becomes post-human: "Human beings will either be replaced by sentient machines, or (more likely) merge their brains and bodies with such machines", says Steven Shaviro.
He rightly ridicules one of the main proponents of this subgenre, Ray Kurzweil: "After the singularity, Kurzweil assures us, health, wealth, and immortality – not to mention the coolest computer games and simulations ever – will be available, at no cost, to everyone. Scarcity will be a thing of the past". Yet there is hardly a mention of the fundamental social and political issues arising from this in Kurzweil’s 600-page The Singularity is Near. His future remains based on private property and capital accumulation – therefore exploitation and inequality – another example of the failure to get beyond present-day capitalism.
Sherryl Vint argues passionately for the extension of rights for animals based on our increasing understanding of the sentient nature of animals, and of their social interactions between themselves, other animals and human beings. She goes further than this, however: "This essay will reconceptualise orthodox Marxism’s labour theory of value by exploring the homologies between capitalism’s alienating reduction of people to labour-power and its exploitation of the environment in general (and other species in particular)".
The problem for Vint is that the labour theory of value does not provide the theoretical framework for such a ‘reconceptualisation’. In that theory, Karl Marx explained how human labour power is the source of new value in production and that the profits for the capitalists come from the unpaid labour of the workers. This is the basis of the exploitation of the working class – and of the class struggle.
Of course, animals are used under capitalism in many ways: as a source of food, in experimentation, as beasts of burden and pets, etc. In a number of senses they can be said to be exploited. It is not necessary, however, to evoke the labour theory of value in order to treat animals humanely. In fact, only democratically organised, socialist planning would enable us to safeguard the planet’s ecosystems and natural resources.
Iris Luppa’s attention is on left-wing critics of SF film during the Weimar republic in Germany (1919-33). What is striking is the scope of the left-wing media at the time, with a multitude of mass circulation newspapers and periodicals, including titles devoted to film. They pushed for screenings of Soviet films and denounced big-business domination and the bourgeois ideology of the film industry.
Rob Lathom takes up The Urban Question in New Wave SF, stating that the view of 1920s and 1930s pulp SF as being overwhelmingly naïve or reactionary is an oversimplification and that much of it was linked to progressive ideas. He mentions the ‘enlightened technocracy’ movement of the 1920s, which advocated science education, "and the popular front activities of the Young Communist League of the 1930s, which influenced the SF fan group the Futurians (which included Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth)". Lathom says that it was only after the second world war, with the consolidation of US global power, "that the imagery and values of pulp SF came to be seen as a politically dubious, if not dangerous, assemblage of ‘showy proto-fascist trappings’."
In the early 1970s, when so-called New Wave SF came onto the scene, US cities were in crisis. In 1975, New York sought a federal bailout to avoid bankruptcy and keep services running. Funding for public transport, education and other social services were under the spotlight. Neo-liberalism and widespread privatisation were being ushered in – along with increased ghettoisation, etc.
Lathom refers to the book, 334 (1972), by Thomas Disch, about the 3,000 tenants in 812 apartments on 21 floors in a housing scheme in the third decade of the 21st century. The all-pervasive MODICUM bureaucracy allocates housing and other services. According to Lathom, 334 is "unquestionably, the most compelling treatment of urban crisis in the New Wave canon… In particular, the MODICUM system illustrates the abiding tension between capital’s wealth-generating capacity and its perennially unequal distribution of resources". This points to cities and service provision as central areas of the class struggle.
In the final essay, Darren Jorgensen throws up some telling points on the nature of Marxist academia. Central to this essay is Jacques Althusser, who was an influential theoretician of the French Communist Party (PCF). Althusser did not participate in the revolutionary events in Paris in May 1968, however, infamously watching from his window. Tied to the Stalinist party line, he denounced the students as infantile activists, while the PCF failed to extend the strikes and occupations to challenge capitalist rule in France.
For Jorgensen, there was an unintended consequence of the failure of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s: "The New Left gained intellectual credibility in the west at the cost of revolutionary change. It is not surprising, then, that the methodologies of this New Left reproduce a thinking of failure". This is, in fact, an indictment of left-wing academic thought and goes some way to explain its inherent cynicism and pessimism. It is another reason why a combination of theoretical understanding and practical application is essential for Marxist revolutionaries.
Many of the issues thrown up by these and other essays in Red Planets are of genuine interest. All too often, however, the book lapses into the pretentiousness characteristic of this type of work: academics talking to academics in their own exclusive language, on their own planet. Nonetheless, there is enough to support the editors’ introductory plea. Over and above the entertainment level, SF can play a role in describing and satirising capitalist society, tackling moral dilemmas and imagining new societies. What it needs most of all are more good, radical writers.