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.