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.


Posted on November 11, 2011, in critical theory, international relations, science fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hey Nicholas,

    Thanks for reviving the post and for the comments. I’m not sure we’re that far apart here, which makes me think your criticisms are a little over-blown. I won’t try and offer a point-by-point rebuttal (although it might become that anyway), but here are some ripostes.

    First, I also don’t think that SF in IR should be ‘limited’ to a particular form. My objective was to ask why a certain kind of speculative fiction was not present in current IR discussions of SF, and to give some account of how that SF “rather drops out of the picture”. This is not an analysis of all the varied possibilities for IR/SF, but a response to what I observed as going on at the time. It was a call to bring certain things in, not to shut certain things out.

    If there are widely circulated IR/SF arguments around that go against my observation, I’d be happy to hear about them. Perhaps there are loads of discussions out there of Bester in IR terms that I haven’t read. Moreover, I just don’t see IR/SF right now tackling the hard questions you raise at the end of your post. I see it largely replicating a sadly archetypical masculinist interest in genocidal war and distinct civilisations in a period where these concerns are less legitimate in the disciplinary mainstream than ever. Hence the point about transposing older concerns into an astral register and obscuring that by being playful (this, incidentally, is not a claim about intentionality, nor is it intended as an insult to those working on these themes. It’s just the sense I’ve gotten from the two or three panel discussions on SF/IR I mention in the post).

    Second, specifically on the hard/soft distinction, I think you’re being a bit uncharitable. I do say that ‘hard’ SF is characterised by a certain forefronting of technology, but I also added that its speculations were more dependent on “the latest advances in physics and robotics”. I was quite specific about the sense in which Star Trek was ‘technologically determinist’ (scientific breakthrough ending human warfare) and also about the ways in which was more suspicious in cultural/identarian grounds. I wasn’t setting it as the exemplar of the hard/soft distinction, which I developed afterwards, but as an example of SF that is very much discussed in IR circles, with the consequences that I tried to indicate. The post both invokes the distinction and complicates it. Not to belabour the point, but I do actually say:

    “Like all initial distinctions, this separation between hard and soft speculative fiction is unsatisfactory. At its worst it only reproduces the high/low binary, now marginalising the popular stuff in favour of the ‘advanced’ and serious. The internal dialogue of modernist fiction, but with trimmings.”

    Indeed the hard/soft angle is a quick and relatively minor move in a post which does not conclude that ‘soft’ should be privileged over ‘hard’, does not attempt to divide up everyone’s favourite authors into good ‘soft’ and bad ‘hard’, and which more than once says that these lines are messy and contested, but have *some* bearing on the question at hand, which is why IR/SF focuses on particular elements of speculative literature at the expense of others, and the ways in which this seems to me to replicate some rather gendered patterns.

    As for my knowledge-base, I claim no genre-spanning expertise. My autobiographical sequence runs Herbert, Clarke, Star Trek, Babylon 5, PKD, Vonnegut, Bester, Le Guin, Delany, Russ, Piercy, (new) BSG, amongst others. Doubtless there are many holes in my knowledge. But perhaps I just disagree on what’s fundamental to Star Trek in social theoretical interpretations, rather than simply being an ignoramus. Here, again, I think you’re taking me to task on different grounds. I didn’t say, and don’t think, that Alfred Bester doesn’t count as SF for ‘enthusiasts’. I said that he, and a litany of others, don’t appear to figure in the IR/SF nexus, which seems to me much more interested in being allowed grand narratives again. I think it’s worth exploring, as you begin to do, ways in which technologically determinist grand visions cum futurist analysis can leverage interesting insights, but that doesn’t really change the question of how IR currently engages SF.

    Finally, a note on tone. ‘Fanboy identification’ is not an insult, it’s a sympathetic phrase which I would identify in myself, and have done in other posts. Yes, the italicised ‘vulgar’ was tongue-in-cheek. And no, ‘technological determinism’ is not the view that technology “influences” social change (who denies that banality), but that it “determines” social change (the clue’s in the name).

    • Hi there, thanks for taking time to reply. I’m back blogging after a two year hiatus so I’m a bit rusty, I probably came off as more abrasive than I intended – my apologies, I found your post interesting and that’s why I wanted to respond to it. I also seem to have misinterpreted and therefore misrepresented you on a couple of points such as that the comment about Bester was in relation to people writing about SF/IR. Like you, I agree it would be a wasted opportunity if people writing at this intersection stick to the sf of galactic empires and space warfare instead of exploring the strange inner spaces navigated by Bester, Le Guin and ‘new wave’ sf. I seem to have got the wrong end of the stick with the ‘vulgar’ aside and the ‘fanboy identification’ comment as well. I think why I bridled at these terms is that there is still a reflex towards unthinking dismissal of sf in large sections of the humanities. But it seems we are in agreement that it is problematic to privilege one aspect of the sf genre over others and much more interesting debates are possible if people in IR and the social sciences draw on the full palette of sf writing and media.

      On the Star Trek issue I think we had better agree to disagree over whether its backstory is technologically determinist or not, otherwise this could result in a pretty geeky and involved discussion. As I alluded to in the post, I don’t see technological determinism as problematic in the way that others in the social sciences in humanities do. Indeed, it doesn’t make sense to me that cultural and ideational determinism is considered completely acceptable and ire is reserved only for economic, environmental and technological determinism. Plenty of respectable thinkers have been technological determinists in some sense: Daniel Deudney and G A Cohen to take two examples. In any case, all explanations (or elements of a fictional setting) are deterministic in some sense, otherwise they wouldn’t be explanations. The problem might be that ‘determinism’ runs together several distinct concepts, but this is the topic for another post…

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