IR and the New Space Opera
Since I’m commenting on posts over at The Disorder of Things, I may as well offer some thoughts on a post on science-fiction and international relations that Pablo K wrote ages ago. Although the post is pretty old, it didn’t attract much comment at the time. I would have written a comment, but I didn’t have this soapbox back then and now I do.
I think Pablo K and I are coming from quite radically different directions, unfortunately. I don’t, for example, think that using science-fiction as an inspiration for developing counterfactuals and for systematic thinking about large-scale social change is an unworthy pursuit. I agree that it’s an error to mistake ‘things that give us pleasure [for] things which matter to the study of world politics’, but the use of the term ‘fanboy identification’ does speak of a certain literarian snobbery. My suspicions are likewise raised by a statement like ‘Star Trek similarly embodies much of the technological determinism that literary types find so vulgar’. Is the shiver of disgust here ironic or is the writer really trying to denigrate as baseborn and common the belief that technological change influences social change?
I’m not sure. But the real problem with the article is not that it doesn’t share my own perspective, but that I’m not really sure how familiar Pablo K is with science-fiction. Who on Earth claims that Alfred Bester ‘hardly counts as SF at all’ in the view of many sf enthusiasts?
To unpick one misunderstanding in detail, the post describes Star Trek as hard science-fiction, presumably because it features space-ships and teleporters and so on. This is incorrect, hard science-fiction is usually defined by the conformity of events in the narrative to the laws of physics as they are understood. The plot is driven by problems which are largely scientific and technical in nature. This doesn’t describe Star Trek to any great degree. Science and technology in the franchise are largely rationalised in terms of technobabble and serve as devices to advance plots which focus on human relationships, moral quandries and philosophical puzzles. In fact I’d go as far as to say that Star Trek the Next Generation is a great example of soft science-fiction, with its prioritisation of anthropological, social and ethical issues over hard science. Mind-melds, a robot who want to have emotions, an empathic counsellor, a Traveller who can navigate space with his mind, aliens who only communicate through metaphor… and barely a Lorenz transformation in sight! Nor is Star Trek technologically determinist (as if there was anything wrong with that!) – indeed how can it be if other technologically similar civilisations are so different in the series? So the dichotomy being established here doesn’t work, the popular science-fiction series given as an example is on the wrong side!
The misunderstandings continue as the article goes on, with the author conflating the hard/soft distinction with the low-brow/high-brow distinction. This is in error: both hard and soft science fiction are generally both relatively highbrow elements of the sfverse. The lower-brow or more mainstream science-fiction gets the more it sheds both the hallmarks of hard sf, scientific verisimilitude, and soft sf, attention to the interior life of protagonists and complex socio-cultural milieu. In the end we reach the stage occupied by weaker entries in the Star Wars franchise, which are essential space fantasy (although sadly lacking the mythic resonances of the original films) with sfnal tropes like space ships and blasters. This is where we get ‘gun battles and car chases… now merely transposed to an astral register’. Fun if executed well, but not deserving of sustained attention. In this the author and I are probably close to agreement.
But Star Wars isn’t the be all and end all of space opera, which the author is probably thinking of when he talks about his phantom category of mainstream/hard science-fiction. Indeed, it’s pretty surprising that the post doesn’t mention anything from the new wave of space opera which has emerged over the past twenty years, which has integrated many of the concerns of hard sf, soft sf and cyberpunk. Grittier than its predecessors and free of the transposed jingoism of much older space opera, the new space opera has combined a concern with the implications of technology with an exploration of philosophical and political questions, and the inner-worlds of realistic, three-dimensional protagonists. Gender, identity, the legitimacy of intervention and terrorism, the nature of mind, socialisation and human nature, inequality, religion and ideology – all are addressed by luminaries of the new space opera such as Banks, MacLeod, Stross, Simmons and Williams.
For this reason, I don’t think an engagement with sf has to be limited to the approach suggested near the end of Pablo K’s article. Yes, science-fiction can be analysed by cultural archaeologists to provide insights into the hopes, fears and beliefs extant within wider society. But following such reflective and autobiographical route actually blocks off some of the radicalism of good science-fiction, the radicalism of science itself and the realisation that we are biological beings who live on a planet orbiting a star in a vast universe, fated to make out own collective future. It is this radical insight which many in the humanities flinch from, seeking to return to comforts of anthropocentrism, but which the best science-fiction, exemplified in hard, soft, cyberpunk and the new space opera, addresses with verve, intelligence and imagination. Here international relations has a great deal to learn.