Science fiction is far more than just a genre of art and literature and more than just a niche for escapists and children. It is a wonderful tool with which artists are able to make sense of new and emerging ideas, technologies, and trends. It is a vehicle for unpopular criticism and thought experiments otherwise impalpable or loathsome when consumed as lectures or essays. Like the journalist who holds politicians and the powerful to account for yesterday’s failings and accountable tomorrow for promises made today, science fiction projects us into the future along with the consequences of our actions, and demands we reconcile ourselves with them, realize them as inevitable, or change tact altogether.
Asimov, Butler, Roddenberry, Dick, Vonnegut, Le Guin, and their ilk, are noteworthy not simply for their wonderful stories, their unforgettable characters, and for the worlds they have conjured, but because they also challenged the norms and popular ideologies of their day. Roddenberry, for instance, instead of superimposing a widely agreed-upon optimal version of society upon the future, questioned that very agreement and rocketed possible alternatives into space. Were he to have dressed up status-quo beliefs in sparkly uniforms and staged I Love Lucy on alien moons, we would surely have forgotten Star Trek by now. That is, however, not the case, and the reason is largely because Roddenberry, like his esteemed peers, put his neck out for new ideas. He was rightly rewarded for doing so with a crown rather than the basket.
It seems that baring one’s neck is compulsory for an artist keen on contributing to the genre in any meaningful way. Risk-free imaginings and playing solely to one’s base is as good if not the same as propaganda, and is therefore worthless, save for an ephemeral boost in popularity and a shoulder sore from self-congratulation. Take for instance, two particular works Philip K. Dick wrote with no small amount of social risk to his credibility or stability.
In his semi-autobiographical novel, A Scanner Darkly, Dick exposed certain unappealing trends within and facets of his social circles (i.e. “Berkeley people”), as well as the drugs that ravaged them. His criticism of drug use, which had a profound and ruinous effect on him personally, likely elicited an uncritical nod from vestigial elements of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, who had stigmatized these same groups and the mentally ill they churned out. However, he also turned his criticism on the paranoid and callous authorities that exacerbated the problem—on big pharma, on law enforcement, on bad legislation, and on the sickly post-war spirit that drove many people to illicit drugs in the first place. After all, his protagonist Bob Arctor is simultaneously a narcotics officer and an addict; a victim and an oppressor, but never singularly one or the other. Vying against the kind of tribalism or identity politics that neuters a stereoscopic critique of society, Dick threw his pinko drug-addled base under the bus while addressing what he perceived to be an authoritarian state with too many gloved hands all busy choking too many undeserving losers. Why both? Why not go the route of other myopic writers and present an easily digestible binary, whereby the Man was completely at fault? Why not write propaganda for California’s tie-dyed counter-fascists? Or conversely pen pamphlets to appease the state that had allegedly sent agents to harass him for running afoul of their preferred narrative?
Beyond feeling compelled to report the truth he knew, Dick had to risk membership in every group in order to reroute the path he believed would lead all groups into oblivion. Although it did not in fact make him a pariah—the novel was recognized and awarded BFSA Best Novel, the Campbell Memorial Best Science Fiction Novel, the Locus Best SF Novel, and won grand prize at the Metz Science Fiction Festival—Dick nevertheless had to risk standing outside of himself and his experience in an act of a kind of selflessness to accomplish balanced commentary worth a damn.
In an interview at Festival du Livre de Science Fiction in Sept 1977, Dick made the distinction between space operas and science fiction. The former, he argued, are little more than westerns on distant planets or in exotic faraway lands—uncontroversial and superficial adventure stories; arguably in the same vein as comic book movies today. The latter, he proved through his own writing, could be deeply complicated, upsetting, and poignant. In his lesser-known 1957 novel Eye in the Sky, Philip K. Dick employs multiple perspectives to hint at a greater and shared truth. That disparate and varied identity groups could find common ground without some Neo-Marxist restructuring might be a revolutionary notion today. Notwithstanding the absence of professionally-offended Twunts, it was even more risky in the 1950s.
In Eye in the Sky, an accident at a nuclear facility forces a nonconsensual shared hallucination upon a tour group comprised of eight characters. This false reality is characterized by the hang-ups of each of the individuals unwillingly participating in it. Trapped in Dick’s world-between-worlds, those on whom this shared hallucination has been forced have their respective mental barriers collapsed and their identities compromised. Their minds are consequently collectivized, earning each of them, at least potentially, a greater sense of sympathy and understanding for the seven others in the group. It also leaves them at the mercy of the evils they all have managed to repress.
On account of their bodiless suspension outside of time and space, the characters’ minds populate and structure their shared reality. That said, only one mind is dominant at a time. Among those taking turns dictating the rules of their shared solipsism: Edith Prichet, a matronly and judgmental old Christian woman, whose insufferable and limited understanding of science and the world around her hamstring attempts by the other seven to return to their bodies; Joan Reiss, a paranoid schizophrenic whose reconstructed California is untrusting, self-effacing, and wholly inconstant; Bill Laws, a black doctor of physics who is constantly confronted and demeaned with racist stereotypes by virtually all of the other dreamers despite being the only expert on the underlying reality; and Charles McFeyffe, a repressed Communist who has conditioned his own mind to simulate a patriotic and nearly utopic perception of the capitalistic American dream.
Dick’s commentary, offered with privileges unchecked, was hard-hitting and counter-cultural, especially at the time of the novel’s publication. Written on amphetamines and over the course of a two-week period at the tail end of McCarthyism, Eye in the Sky questioned the day’s dominant ideologies as well as their prevailing counterparts. There was no doubt some social risk involved, both in criticizing evangelical Christianity and in offering a sympathetic look into the minds of a Marxist, a paranoiac, and an well-educated African American. Recall, the novel debuted at the height of evangelical Christianity’s post-War boom, in the frost of the Cold War, at a time where mental illness was greatly misunderstood and those affected stigmatized, and years before desegregation. This is yet another instance of a neck bared in the interest of good science fiction, and thankfully the genre is rich in such efforts. However, there is no shortage of untested guillotines despite a spate of ink.
It would be a futile and asinine exercise to attempt to flag extant works of science fiction as anything else on the basis of a perceived lack of risk in intent, process, or publication. After all, at some point the exercise would devolve into semantics, but not before opening its conclusions to refutation pending new controversies and interpretations. It is, however, clear that there is a continued need for science fiction to cut deep and to cut both ways, and for science fiction writers to manage what Philip K. Dick and other great writers have accomplished: to step outside of themselves, to see our mess of a world with sympathetic eyes, and to consider all imaginable futures with a spirit of hope and rebellion.
Science fiction, again, is a tool. See: Authoritarianism growing on the left and on the right; thugs in the streets branded with swastikas and others branded with the hammer and sickle rioting, destroying property, and murdering; both political parties virtue-signalling to zealots on the political extremes; technology making life easier for some and death easier for others to deliver. Science fiction is a great tool to navigate these contemporary issues and others, as well as to the path we ought to take together—ideally not one we survive alone. It is a tool that ideology will blunt; one that simplicity will render useless.
This tool is in need of constant re-calibrating in order to consider alternative pathways forward—paths we never thought possible—as well as to challenge paths we’ve been made to think are inevitable. To do so, prospective contributors to the genre might consider stepping outside of themselves, rebuking the dominant or local groupthink (which remains largely leftist, despite the pendulum’s swing to the center where US governance is concerned), and reviewing multiple perspectives. It is a task that may seem trivial, but one that politicians fail. By liberating themselves from politics’ reductive dichotomies and associations, contributors to the genre can offer hybrid paths. Failing that, we’re stuck with more sad space operas.