Friday, November 1, 2013

My top 5 political science fiction books

I have been working for a long time on this post, and I'm still not 100% sure about it, but one thing is certain, if I keep on waiting for it to be "perfect" it will never be published, and besides this is my personal list, so if you disagree with the inclusion (or exclusion) of a given book, please let me know in the comments. These are five individual novels that have shaped political science fiction over the past century, and as such I have chosen them as five must reads for anyone interested in this subject; I am working also on a post about sagas, trilogies and series, so you will not find here some titles that would seem obvious otherwise.

1. A Brave New World - Aldous Huxley. Coming from a society as structured and divided by social class as early 20th century England, this is one sharp critique of the direction society was taking at the time, and even today it still has some troubling warnings to be heeded. If you haven't read it be sure to grab a copy of it as soon as you can.

2. 1984 - George Orwell. This has been labeled by many scholars, critics and readers as the definition of a Totalitarian Dystopia. Given that Orwell was himself a socialist, this grim vision of a world of want and control strikes a chord with most of us, and the term Orwellian has become a steeple of totalitarianism. Another classic that if you haven't read, you are missing out.

3. The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin. As the author herself has said, this book is nothing more than a speculative exercise, thinking about the relations existing between gender, sexual interaction and power; this is a book that departs from the familiar setting of planet earth, and plunges us into an alien world, but the questions it poses make it a must read, especially for those interested in gender issues.

4. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood. What would happen if society was somehow, inexplicably, thrown into the hands of extremist conservatives, where women are thrown back to the role of breeders, little more than objects and possessions for the dominant males of society. A grim and thoughtful work, that reflects upon our societal values about gender relations.

5. Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl. This is one story that could perfectly have been written this year (as long as you overlook some of the props in the scenes), because it reflects two concerns of today's society: rampant environmental destruction on behalf of industrial growth, and the power of marketing and advertising to subvert men's wills (well not as much as that but pretty close). It's interesting to see how some social concerns don't fade but just change in appearance and packaging; this novel is a must read for conspiracy theorists.

I hope you enjoy this short list and that it will help you find some of the landmark political novels in science fiction history. And if you buy one of the books from the links provided here I will be eternally grateful to you. Oh and if you have anything to add (be it praise or criticism) please be sure to leave it in the comments.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tackling the epitome of political Science Fiction: The DUNE Saga

It's been a while since I last read the DUNE saga, but if there is one thing that you can never forget after reading it is that the whole thing revolves around the intricacies of politics and power. For those of you who have never read the book, and have only seen the movie and/or TV adaptations of it then the story is mostly about the action and daring-do, but you are missing out on so many levels of detail and nuance that it's almost as if you were seeing an entirely different story. For this post I will concern myself only with the first book in the series, but might mention ahead.

The primary story revolves primarily around the political relationships of three of the galaxy's Great Houses: the Atreides, the Corrino and the Harkonen; the basis of political power in this universe is derived primarily from economic power, and the greatest source of wealth is the substance know as the "spice", Melange. In a society where technology has fallen back to mechanics and computers, or thinking machines, are forbidden, reliance on human intelligence and abilities, as well as deliberate modification, has become commonplace.

Despite it being a story filled with action sequences, duels to the death, escapes into the dessert, treachery and all out war, the core of the story is power relations; this is a book where political and social relations are described and discussed freely by the characters, where it's the action of people with power which define the action of the book, not the antics of some backwater, unknown character who is suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the role of hero. Paul, Muad'Dib Atreides, is heir to a powerful house, and new legitimate ruler of the planet Arrakis, known as Dune, after the fall of his house to treacherous attacks by the Emperor's Sardaukar guards disguised as Harkonnen troops; he has been trained to be a Duke of the galaxy, educated in court politics and behavior and several other topics needed for ruling, and this means that behind every decision he makes is a political motivation, and this grants us a glimpse into the workings of political minds. In this book we see only a brief glimpse of the other political entities that populate this galaxy, such as the Bene Gesserit, or the guild, or the Tleilaxu.

On first glance this might seem like just another focus in different characters, but there is one key difference, and that is the scope at which characters can act; whereas the other Fremen characters, even Stilgar, can only decide on small scale tactics and actions, they lack the vision to make decisions on a planet, nay galaxy-wide, scale, such as threatening to destroy all melange, and thus holding everyone else hostage to their will. This is one of the most complex and intrigue ridden works of speculative fiction, where the focus is more often on the wider picture than on the specific actions of individuals that the reader is seeing.

If you agree with this interpretation, by all means follow this blog, and if you disagree, then tell me why and we can talk about in the comments section below.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rediscovering a love for Space Opera

Recently I decided that dystopias, post-apocalyptic scenarios and deep examinations of the human spirit were tiring me, I decided to look for something a little less demanding intellectually, and decided to turn to space opera, looking for fast paced, thrilling, action packed stories that were straight forward and didn't need to be read two or three times to find the hidden meaning behind the characters words and actions, but being the kind of reader that I am, and despite my earlier decision to keep space opera out of these little forays into the deeper meanings of Speculative Fiction, I find myself writing this article.

First off, there is a ton of Space Operas out there, many of them so bad that I couldn't go beyond the first chapter, in which the scantily clad heroine is chased by the bug-eyed monster... oh wait, that was actually a 50's movie, but you get my meaning. Those are precisely the kind of things that had led me away from space opera as a worthwhile sub-genre for this exploit, but then I had to run into The Fading Suns Trilogy, and my entire paradigm shifted.

This was the first time that I read a space opera with a look at the underlying political conflicts between the parties, and that brought me to the realization that in the end most space opera is born of political and social strife (the devil as they say is in the details, and in this case those details are the actual skill of the writer); but in well written works you will find such things as Asimov's The Stars Like Dust, in which the greatest weapon in all the known galaxy is a remnant of the Constitution of the United States, or something not as well written,but quite enjoyable, such as Thomas DePrima's A Galaxy Unknown series, where you have a military/civilian kind of mix not dissimilar to the one proposed in Heinlein's Starship Troopers (and if you mention the film I will probably confine you to latrine duty for the rest of your natural life), that is bordered by two other sort of super galactic powers, again not dissimilar to somebody else's world, that of Orwell's 1984, and here is where the similarities with great books ends.

But this has been an enlightening period of my reading endeavor into the world of speculative fiction, and I will have to read some more before I can write something less anecdotal and more "scholarly", where I can probably come up with questions like "should we look at social conflict through the eyes of political realism?", or something a little less complicated and more to the point "is it possible to see the social conflict behind the super hero story in Space Operas?", but until then, if you happen to stumble upon this little article and like it, then please share it with your friends and family, and if you have a different opinion then comment on it, I will try my damnedest to answer soon.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Can Science Fiction help us redefine our political system?

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Occupy... Movement, the Indignados in Spain, and the protests against so many other governments around the world, Science Fiction is starting to rethink many of the political postulates it has espoused since it's golden age. For close to 70 years Science Fiction has placed democracy as one of the greatest social systems ever invented, and in many of the most utopian stories it is precisely under a democracy that these utopias come about. But can we go on saying that when we are seeing increasing manifestations of doubt in the truth behind the promises of democracy?

Maybe it's time to turn to the freedom granted to us through Science Fiction to analyze other options, or see behind the veil, and maybe propose a new direction. Now this is no simple task, and it is one that still needs to be delved into deeper, but a good starting point can be found in a novel called Systems, by British author Saleena Karim; in this story set some 30 years from now, the world is something that we can easily envision from our own experiences today, the technology is not that far removed from the one we have seen in development, and some of the changes in the political reality portrayed in this novel can be easily inferred from some of the political events we are seeing today.

The center dilemma of this story lies in a social experiment simulation conducted 20 years before the events of the book, where several political systems are put to the test in a comparison, and even though there is no explanation as to what exactly the ideal system that is the center of the test is exactly like, it does hint at some interesting points, which can be seen today in some of the discourses from those who are discontented about the current state of affairs in western democracies; however, the book does leave a lot of threads hanging in the end, making one hope for a sequel.

Quoting Winston Churchill, "it is said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried before", and that is the question at the heart of this book: Can we have a better for of government?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Will civilization collapse in a day? some science fiction reflections on that - Part 1

Most dystopian science fiction places the reader on a world past the catastrophe, or event that led to the current state of affairs, but a fringe genre, mix fiction and science fiction, is the survivalist novel, in which we are privy to some of the events that lead to a dystopia, and the downfall tends to be depicted as being rather fast, but at the same time gradual. Such is the case of two novels I have read recently, in which for two very different events civilization as we know it changes dramatically, leading to a harsh world in which the fears and insecurities of people lead to a violent and more often than not brutal change in the world around us. In this post I'll address the sudden loss of all electronic equipment, which is the plot-line for "Lights Out" by David Crawford, and the other will be reserved for a later post.

This is one scenario that is not really explained as to how it happened or why, but the story centers around something much more meaningful to us as readers, and it's the extent to which we have become dependent on electricity, and not only for recreational purposes such as watching tv or surfing the internet, nor for work related endeavors like using a computer for almost everything we do, but on a more basic level, such as the need to power the pumps that deliver water to our houses, or maintaining refrigerated foods so they don't spoil, or pumping gas into our cars, and how we are no longer able to move freely without a car, how we dread having to carry our groceries for a little over a mile.

But the really interesting thing in this book is the way it portrays the response of people to loosing such commodities of modern life, such comforts, tools and aides to everyday life. The first group I'll address is not the main character group of the story, but the one we see the least of but that has the greatest impact in the events of the story, and these are what the characters call MZB (Mutant Zombi Bikers); they were once your everyday gang-bangers, hoodlums, and criminals of all kinds. They are the ones most likely to resort to violence first, and already have acces to a large and fairly organized group of people, armed and ready to use those weapons against their former neighbors. These groups are a fairly common occurrence in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, and it's not hard to imagine them.

The second group of people is comprised of those who refuse to believe that the world has changed as dramatically as it has, and have faith that the government, or some other higher authority than themselves will come in and fix everything. They are the ones who refuse to leave their home until it is either too late, or it's evident that they have no other option. This is the case with the priest who refuses to leave his parish, or Ralph, the lawyer who only leaves when his house is attacked. They are the majority of the people, but in the novel they are seen only in relation with the third group of people.

This last group is the one in which people are quick to realize that things have changed, and it can be divided into two extra segments. The first one is represented by the ones who went to live in Mr. Davis's ranch; people who had been preparing for an apocalyptic scenario since before The Burst came about. Initially they are presented as the best alternative in a changing world, until Mark Turner and his family look under the veneer of security, they find that the despotic rule of Mr. Davis, with his attitude of "my way or the highway", is not what they want in times of crisis, and then the story shows us that this group has fallen prey to an overconfidence that proves to be their undoing; they feel so superior to everyone else that they do not acknowledge the situation to be above what they anticipated, which in the end leads to their downfall.

The second segment, and the most important in the novel for it being the one with the main characters in it, is also aware of the change in society, but they see it not as a static change, but realize that the situation is dynamic, and you have to adapt to it, but also that it cannot be done on your own, and it is necessary to band together with your neighbors and work in adapting to the new realities facing society every day. This is the group that shows us that civilization as we know it will not really end in a day, but rather it will transform itself into something different over the course of time, and some people will adapt better to the change than others.

Unlike other survival and preparedness stories "Lights Out" deals with regular people, not "survivalist nuts" as they are called by Mark Turner in the story; people who have been storing and hoarding food and resources in case some disaster happens; people who in this story do not fair as well, and who in the real world are only a minor percentage of the population.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Fears of a Given Time Are Put Into Science Fiction?

One recurring issue I have found over the course of many books is that the time on which a given book is written has a great influence on the kind of book it is. I'm talking not only about the narrative techniques, I'm talking about the issues that are dealt with within the story; the fears, hopes and desires the author chooses to give the characters.

In the mid 1950's the fears were nuclear war and communism (in western democracies), while in the mid 1960's new concerns entered the science fiction landscape, and others left. Look at 1984, and you will find the deep rooted fear of a British author of succumbing to a worldwide communist system based on a perpetual state of war, with the resulting absolute control over the individual that we all know now as "Big Brother".

The 1958 Space Merchants tackles new concerns, ones that in the 1960's hippie culture would play an important role, to be forgotten in the 1980's and 90's only to return in the first decade of the 21st Century: Environmentalism. This coupled with a newfound distrust of big businesses, and lack of confidence in the government of the USA, they paint a bleak future, but at the same time it's the promise of technology as the savior of mankind.

We have to remember that in the late 50's and early 60's Popular Science and Popular Mechanics were telling us that by the year 2000 cars would fly and weather would be controlled by computers and human beings would have lunar bases and colonies in Mars. These were not Science Fiction stories, they were the prototypes and promises of a brighter future brought about by scientific and technological development. Then in the 1980's something changed, and technology started to become a threat, like in stories such as Neuromancer and Terminator, where the promise of technology turned out to be a threat, a disappointment, and we needed a new paradigm.

Which do you think are the concerns we are putting into today's Science Fiction?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A one nation planet equals peace?

What if all governments were forcefully subsumed into one? all national borders abolished? a single planetary government ruled over all the people on earth? this is a very common motif in Science Fiction, especially in near and relatively near future stories, but mostly al of them skip over to the part where this kind of government has already been instated, skipping over the not so friendly transition period. Think about it, you have been a national of whichever country you live in for your entire life, some more fervently than others, but we have all at some point proudly said "I am a... (insert national appellative here)", and at some other (maybe even right after the other) have said "...(insert name of bothersome neighboring country here)... sure are (insert demeaning and/or negative adjective here)".

Then imagine that one day along comes a new world government and says: "You are no longer a ..." you are now a citizen of the world. This would probably freak you out, especially if you never voted for it to happen. Well that is the backdrop of the story of Olympus Union - The Past Repeated by Gary Bloom.

Now I don't usually do in depth reviews of books but in this case I'll make an exception, for I believe that at the least the attempt to look into the formation of a planetary (actually interplanetary) government to rule over all of mankind and its colonies over the solar system, is quite an interesting one. I have to warn you though, it's nowhere near the level of detail you get out f the Ender's shadow series that take you step by step through the establishment of Peter's Hegemony government on earth, it is a much more succinct deal, with a lot of holes in the chain of events leading from one place to the next and it gave me a rather hard time in piecing together what was going on in the overall scheme of things.

But I have to say that for a debut novel it was pretty good, and given that both the title and the ending imply this to be the first of a series then maybe the next ones will deal with some of the unanswered questions left hanging in the air. It has some stretches that read as an action/thriller story and others that are more of a political drama sort of thing, but once you get to balance those two in your head its quite an entertaining read and it poses some interesting questions that I sincerely hope will be answered in other books.

What do you think would happen in the transition between our multi-nation world and a single government planet?