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The relationship between science fiction and the Left can be said, depending on your chosen definition, to go back to the roots of the genre itself. Many of SF's most popular and respected authors have been polemicists or commentators who used their works of fiction as a means of critiquing the existing socio-economic system and suggesting potential alternatives to it. Serious critical engagement with SF has also tended to come from the left of the political spectrum: SF studies, as an academic sub-discipline, emerged from within the New Left cultural criticism of the 1960s, and the most influential of SF critics, Darko Suvin, worked within an explicitly Marxist framework. Therefore Red Planets, a new collection of academic essays written from the perspective of Marxist literary theory, is contributing to a rich and well-established tradition.

Unfortunately, despite its promise, the volume does not get off to a good start. The introduction, written by editor Mark Bould, is over-laden with the kind of tenuous theorising and exclusionary jargon that makes so much "critical" theory easy for outsiders to ridicule. Several of its choicer sentences, like this one, discussing 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, would put to shame contributors to Private Eye's "Pseud's Corner":

This fantasy of informationalisation, which seeks to disavow the process of commodification it euphemises, is paralleled by a fantasy of linguistic dematerialization, which seeks to disavow human intersubjectivity. (p. 9)

This is followed by an equally tortured critical analysis of the Matrix trilogy, surely an academic sub-genre which passed beyond parody several years ago. The tendencies apparent in the introduction reach an extreme in the second article in the collection, William J. Burling's discussion of utopian music as envisioned in The Dispossessed and Blue Mars. Burling praises Le Guin as progressive for attempting to envisage decommodified art forms, but argues that "her definition of art itself is idealised and not historically valid" (p. 55). She, unlike Burling, fails to appreciate that in a utopia, no-one will prefer art to music, or vice versa: in fact, the protagonist's preference for music to other arts implies "the unacknowledged existence of class distinctions and, presumably, even residual class struggle" (p. 58). Burling's final verdict on the utopian art of The Dispossessed is thus that it "does not pass the test of credibility" (p. 62). This kind of pseudo-intellectual nonsense is a classic example of what results when theoretical grand-standing isn't leavened with a little common sense.

Fortunately, the quality of the contributions improves markedly after this unimpressive start. Carl Freedman's essay contrasts the "inflationary" tendencies of most SF (in which the world is shown to hold more promise than first assumed) and the "deflationary" nature of noir (in which human motivations and potential are more base and limited than first appears). He then applies these insights to three films in which the two genres co-exist uneasily: Alphaville, Blade Runner and Dark City. While remaining relatively theoretically dense, Freedman's contribution is cogent and focused, and (unlike Burling's) its conclusions can be appreciated without necessarily sharing the author's political neuroses. The opening section of the volume is then rounded off with John Rieder's examination of the colonialist subtexts in Wim Wenders's Until The End Of The World and Kubrick's 2001. I must admit I was previously unaware of the former film, but was intrigued enough by Rieder's discussion to make a mental note to track it down, a rare response to a piece of academic criticism.

Thought-provoking contributions continue to crop up throughout Red Planets. Steven Shaviro provides an insightful critique of the idea of the imminent Singularity, whether espoused by SF writers or scientific "visionaries" such as Ray Kurzweil. He condemns the uncritical embrace of such ideas as "a fantasy of finance capital" (p. 115), in which abundance can be created for all in the absence of socio-political transformation, and effectively illustrates his argument with reference to Charlie Stross's Accelerando, in which the Singularity leaves humanity prey to all-powerful corporate AIs, driven by an insatiable desire for "computational surplus value" (p. 112). Phillip Wegner's contribution, situates Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution Quartet in a specifically post-Cold War environment and focuses on the author's recurrent interest in the political and moral dilemmas faced by vanguardist revolutionaries in times of crisis. He concludes that MacLeod does not present one single utopian future, but portrays "the future as permanent revolution, a temporal locale wherein we are once again endowed with the power, and responsibility, to act as political subjects" (p.149). Rob Latham's article "The Urban Question in New Wave SF" focuses on Thomas Disch's 334, "the most compelling treatment of urban crisis in the New Wave canon" (p. 189). Here he considers whether Disch, like Marxist geographers of the 1970s, sees city-dwellers as victims of capitalism's built environment or, like conservative critics, focuses on the dependency culture and brutalist aesthetics of the modern city.

As often happens in collections like this, a few essays creep in which, while interesting in their own right, are only tangentially relevant to the advertised subject matter. Matthew Beaumont's article contrasting "anamorphism" in the visual arts and Suvin's "cognitive estrangement" provides little new insight into SF, but does include an intriguing discussion of Holbein's The Ambassadors. Sherryl Vint's contribution, a critique of Marxism for its exclusive focus on human labour, and its inherent 'speciesist' orientation, only actually touches on its chosen SF case-study, the underpeople of Cordwainer Smith's "Instrumentality of Mankind" series, in five paragraphs. Darren Jorgensen's article calls for SF not to reflect upon capitalism's discontents but to provide blueprints for alternative futures; he argues it is possible "to think about SF not in the bourgeois terms of the novel, but as an experimental science" (p. 208). However, rather than exploring the implications of this approach in depth, his piece instead becomes a convoluted defence of the continuing relevance of Louis Althusser, surely a hard sell even in contemporary Marxist circles. These three articles, while throwing up some interesting observations, do suggest tighter editorial control would have been increased the consistency of the collection as a whole.

A further criticism which might be directed at Red Planets, perhaps surprisingly given its intellectual context, is its Anglo-centrism. Despite repeated references to Verne, Čapek and others, the only extended analysis of non-English-language SF comes in Iris Luppa's chapter on Marxist critical responses to the Weimar-era films of Fritz Lang. The lack of insight into other traditions is perhaps most glaring in the case of eastern Europe; surely, in a collection of this nature, there is a place for discussion of what happens when SF comes into contact with some form of Marxism as official state ideology?

Red Planets concludes with two attempts to grapple with the legacy of Darko Suvin. Andrew Milner adopts the theoretical framework of Raymond Williams in order to re-examine Suvin's definition of SF as "a literature of cognitive estrangement" and considers why, in particular, he sought to include utopia within the scope of the genre, while excluding fantasy. Milner then passes the baton on to China Miéville who, in his afterword, forcefully confronts Suvin's dismissal of fantasy as (at best) nostalgic romanticism or (at worst) thinly-disguised proto-fascism. Miéville argues that "the embedded condescension and even despite towards fantasy that this paradigm has bequeathed stands as perhaps the major obstruction to theoretical progress in the field" (p. 232) .Quite rightly, he notes that the ideal of SF as a literature of "cognitive estrangement" is hard to defend, given that much of the "science" in science fiction is nothing of the sort. Rather, he suggests, SF readers and writers often uncritically invest science with a form of Weberian charismatic authority; he memorably concludes that SF is not really about science at all, but about "capitalist science's bullshit about itself" (p. 240). Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, he undoubtedly puts forward a robust case for reconsidering some of SF's own mythology.

The best essays in Red Planets benefit from their explicit theoretical and political engagement, offering up compelling and challenging, if not necessarily fully convincing, arguments. However, in other cases theoretical navel-gazing is allowed to substitute for considered explorations of the texts under discussion, and no doubt many readers will find the collection offers rather more Marxism, and rather less SF, than they might hope. Even sympathetic fellow-travellers may quickly find themselves alienated if they lack at least a passing acquaintance with the likes of Lukács, Althusser and Žižek. It therefore seems likely that this volume will remain more at home in the seminar rooms of cultural studies departments than on the bookshelves of interested lay-persons.

Michael Froggatt lives in Hampshire.



Michael Froggatt lives in Oxford, UK.
10 comments on “Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville”
biggienavs

I always thought it was peculiar how a lot of science fiction rather happily takes for granted its very Western conceptions of science, technology, and progress. Much like the scientists, engineers, and consumers of technology in developed countries, science fiction authors are often content with adopting the perspective of the developed world.
I don't know. When's the last time you've read the science fiction of an obscure group of hunter-gathers in central Africa? Science fiction is all very fascinating, but belongs to a certain group of people. If there were an author who combined Rushdie, Bukowski, Palahniuk, and Dick, I believe that would be the end of my search.

Shawn

I'm just amazed that anyone takes Marxism seriously anymore. The scary fact that people do is solid evidence that the right to keep and bear arms remains essential.

That's some timing you've got there, Shawn. Guns make people safer, yes?

Roz Kaveney

So what you are saying, Shawn, is that if I am interested in some aspects of Marx's theories about class struggle, if only because belief in them hashad a historical effect, you are entitled to shoot me.
How can one not take seriously a set of theories which impinged so radically on human history and which were put together by an intellect considerably greater than yours or mine, even if you think, as I do not, that he was utterly and absolutely wrong?

Weirdly enough, S. M. Stirling just said pretty much the exact same thing about another review on this very sight.
...without the creepy Taxi Driver undertones though.

Steve

The scary fact that people still demand guns is evidence that Marxism is necessary.
If you're sufficiently paranoid to reach for your gun as a response to the application of some pretty abstruse class theory to works of fiction, then you might want to think twice about arming the proletariat. All Marxism really says is that they have the numeric advantage, and less to lose, than those who support the current set-up. Probably best not to mess with them.

Shawn

A general response to the replies to my post, which was supposed to be somewhat tongue in cheek. People really need to take a collective deep breath.
"That's some timing you've got there, Shawn. Guns make people safer, yes?"
When used in self-defense and against tyrants, then yes. Misuse of guns for evil means does not preclude using them for valid means.
"So what you are saying, Shawn, is that if I am interested in some aspects of Marx's theories about class struggle, if only because belief in them hashad a historical effect, you are entitled to shoot me."
No. I am very impressed that you managed to read that into my post. I was in fact referring to adherents of Marxism, as in the contributors to the book under review. And no, that does not mean that I want to shoot them either, merely that I want to be able to defend myself and my family if they ever get anywhere near real poltical power (again) and start doing what Marxists do best, practicing tyranny and mass murder. And please, none of that intellectualy and morally bankrupt pap that "real Marxism" has never been tried.
"The scary fact that people still demand guns is evidence that Marxism is necessary."
Don't Marxists demand guns for revolutionary purposes?
"you might want to think twice about arming the proletariat.All Marxism really says is that they have the numeric advantage, and less to lose, than those who support the current set-up. Probably best not to mess with them."
Except Marxixts are almost never members of the proletariat and the proletariat are almost always what Marxists would call "rednecks". Marxists are invariably middle and upper middle-class elitists (Chardonnay Socialists) who make assumptions about what the proleteriat think and want, assumptions which are almost always wrong.

Your turn for a deep breath, Shawn.
"Guns make people safer when used in self-defense and against tyrants, yes. Misuse of guns for evil means does not preclude using them for valid means."
Yes it does, though. Guns do one of the following three things (and only one of these things): they kill; they wound; they intimidate. All three are evil, and that evil precludes any notional 'valid' use.
Or put it another way: what's your empirical evidence for the statements you make in your comments? On guns, for instance: are you comparing the incidence of gun-relating death and mutiliation in the USA as against the UK, for instance? Foolish to suggest that guns have 'self defence' utility when the data says a citizen in a gun culture is much more, not less, likely to come to violent harm; and an armed citizen more likely still. And the timing thing is especially crass: those 13 who died at Forth Hood died in a place with one of the highest concentrations of firearms on the planet. Didn't make them safer; rather the reverse.
Revolutions can be staged without guns, and oppressors overthrown. Ask Gandhi.

Steve

"Don't Marxists demand guns for revolutionary purposes?"
As far as I've seen, no. For example there is no demand from the hard left in the UK for a right to bear arms. Mieville is a member of the SWP, which takes the ballot-box route (for all the good that does). I don't know Bould's politics.
Obviously any violent revolution, of any political leaning, would involve guns. The big difference is that the the threat of violence is far more frequent, vocal, and imminent from the US "live free or die" crew than it is from Marxist academics in Europe, of the likes Mieville. I realise you weren't seriously proposing to take him down by force. Still, given the choice between him and some dude with a shotgun and copies of "Atlas Shrugged" and Coulter's defence of McCarthy, I really don't see that Marxists are the clear and present danger.
Of course, Marxists must acknowledge the role that violence has played and will continue to play in the establishment and maintenance of the state. But on the whole they don't seem to feel the need to have a gun actually in arm's reach at any given moment. So no, they do not in general "demand guns".
Obviously it's a different story if it's Nepalese Maoist guerillas you mean, when you say "upper middle class, elitist Chardonnay socialists". But you really can't have it both ways - Marxists cannot universally be privileged intellectuals swanning around in wine bars, and yet also universally be armed insurrectionists engaged in revolution. I do wonder whether you use the word "invariably" in the same sense which I understand it.
Anyway, I assess the probability of China Mieville becoming a tyrannical mass murderer, as negligible. This is regardless of whether he has a gun and/or I do. As it happens, since we're both British, we both don't. Call me naive if you like, but he's pretty low on my list of threats likely to require lethal force to deal with. Certainly compared with people who actually have guns and the apparent intention of using them.

Just a brief return to the original review of this book. Michael Froggatt is clearly right to make some fun of Mark Bould's languge, which I quote again for ease:
"This fantasy of informationalisation, which seeks to disavow the process of commodification it euphemises, is paralleled by a fantasy of linguistic dematerialization, which seeks to disavow human intersubjectivity." (p. 9)
It's not that there are too many long words here, but that there are too many abstract nouns that sound too risibly alike, and perhaps two too many cultural-guilt-imposing iterations of "seeks": but if Mark is saying that "value neutral" utterances euphemize the true grammars and engines of the world, well then he's spot on, I'd reckon. And I suspect that the long abstract nouns namecheck a lot of estimable theory about Faust the Strip Miner that I for one know nought of at first hand.

 

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