Is Science Fiction Liberal or Conservative? Yes.

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The answer is not flippant nor is this piece a book. It could be a book, but I just don’t have the time or inclination to write it just this year. Nor do you, dear reader, want to read it just this morning. The question is valid, however, so the exploration has been interesting, the results not expected.

When I was about 14, I was exploring a bookcase in my grandparents’ basement. A dank, dimly lit place, it held the HVAC system, old trunks, old paintings, and this tall wooden cabinet, not a pretty furniture-like bookcase, with a latch on its tall, unpainted doors. Inside were dusty paperbacks, many of which were classic science fiction novels. If there were other genres, I don’t remember because I was completely taken by this new way to think, these new places to be.

It would be great, of course, if I could remember exactly what those books were. I do remember that I once told my uncle (they were his books) about my discovery. He dismissed my enthusiasm with a “I’ve put childish things away” response. It stung but didn’t stick. I took a serious English class on science fiction in college, wrote a few stories myself, and continue to read it. My last novel from Audible, in fact, was Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, who also wrote The Martian; I read that and have it on my short list of “The movie was better.”

But until challenged, it never occurred to me that SF was either liberal or conservative. When Google is asked the question, the replies are telling. Liberals get the first hits. For example, Timothy Kreider argues that the genre is “inherently liberal” while acknowledging both fans and famous writers who are conservative. By providing his own definition of conservatism which is both negative and incorrect, Kreider does not seem to recognize the irony:

“Conservatism… is the ideological form of fear: fear of change, fear of the new, fear of difference: different languages, different religions, different genders, sexualities, skin colors. (The hostility and derision that greeted the “Green New Deal” was the reflexive snarling of old men frightened of the future.) The conservative imagination is more like that of bad historical fiction: a retreat from reality, harking back to an idealized past that never existed, except for landed gentry.”

So…he doesn’t seem to like conservatism, I’d say.

Kreider does like the greatest series ever: “…toward the goal of a Star Trek future, when incidentals like skin color and gender are irrelevant and war, religion, and money are obsolete.” For one thing, this is also completely inaccurate. War in many iterations molds the action from the beginning to the end in many of the nine Star Trek series and thirteen films. When Kreider notes that a world without hunger or fear is the ultimate goal, it is tempting to remind him that he is talking about the goals of the world’s religions. Another irony.

Adam Roberts, a British sci-fi writer on the left, comes to this conclusion: “Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future.” Some support for that would be good.

Defining his terms, Dr. Shaun Duke (PhD in English), says:

“For the purposes of this post, I am going to take liberal to mean a belief in reform, progress, equality in a broad sense, environmentalism, and moderate to significant government intervention to achieve social cohesion; conservative will, for me, represent a disinterest in change (i.e. maintaining traditional values), individual liberty over sanctioned equality, and valuing profit and capitalism over people and the environment.”

No, he doesn’t seem to like conservatives either. He might just as well have said, “They don’t care.”

Now a word or two on liberalism. Writing in 1920, Guy Emerson suggested: “It implies vigorous convictions, tolerance for the opinions of others, and a persistent desire for sound progress.” One hundred years later, this still sounds noble but, a conservative would say, wildly inaccurate. Examples provided on request.

Ambrose Bierce, the American writer and satirist, presented this view: “Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” Brilliant, that. (Kurt Vonnegut, the famous SF writer, considered Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” the best short story ever written. It’s technique—using a tiny sliver of time for the central plot—is frequently copied. Think Newhart or St. Elsewhere. Read it here.) But the definition, perhaps, is as good as any and objectionable to both sides.

Having thereby failed at a definition, I will move on to a definition of science fiction. Up front, I will say that unlike traditional fiction, no one agrees on the definition of this either. Britannica does as well as any: “a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals.” Nothing to offend anyone, but also not particularly instructive either.

This site offers “quick advice for everyone.” An example: “The three important elements of science fiction are speculation about humanity’s future, the impacts of science and technology on people, and settings in an alternate time and place.” This would cover most—but not all—science fiction.

Having given up on good definitions of liberal, conservative, and science fiction, I decided to have some fun. And I did. Rather than pursue the long history of the genre or speculate on the motives of conservatives or liberals, I thought that reviews of two favorite movies might fit the bill.

Avatar (2009) and Serenity (2005) could not seem more different. One is the top grossing movie of all time at $2.8 billion; the other has a worldwide gross of just over $40 million. One has a sequel due out December 2022, highly anticipated; the other, in spite of avid fans, will go no further, any hint appearing on FaceBook immediately shot down. One was best viewed in 3-D Imax because of its incredible scenic beauty and special effects; the other, mostly interior and dark, or outside and sandy. One is jam-packed with strange creatures (plants and animals plus tall blue humanoids); the other has nothing but humans (some no longer look human but that’s self-mutilation) except one lovebot (an actress named [nk] Nectar Rose who had to sit still for two days of filming). One is deeply earnest, with the only humor a reference to the “Clan of the Jarheads”; the other can be, literally, deadly serious, but even as Mal holds his dying friend, Shepherd Book, and says, “You did what was right,” Shepherd replies, “Coming from you that means—almost nothing.” One decries colonialism, racism, and capitalism; the other promotes rebellion against Big Government.

Besides having one word titles, the two films have much more in common. While both feature intergalactic travel, neither spends much time on the science of it. Avatar does not contain mention of Earth as having lost its green until late in the action. In the scene where the bad guys are leaving, we are reminded that they are returning to their dying world. Serenity opens with a history lesson about the mass exodus from Earth-That-Was, but all the teacher says “we were too many.” Both films have clearly defined us-vs-them scenarios.

The concept of a military-industrial complex also exists in both films. In Serenity, the Alliance controls the inner planets following a rebellion by the outer ones. The Operative, an unnamed assassin sent to find a brother and sister, controls armed troops, but otherwise the vague centrality, the Parliament, is missing. The Operative’s first execution fells the doctor who showed the sister, River Tam (Summer Glau), to members of the Parliament, from whom she likely gleaned secret information because she can read minds. Her brother Simon (Sean Maher) has spent his fortune getting her out of the lab in which she was both trained and studied. The story arc unfolds as the race to learn why the Alliance is pursuing River because she does not know that she knows something.

Throughout the action, self-mutilating cannibalistic former humans appear and decimate their targets, but no one understands their origin. Some suppose it’s their location at the edge of the galaxy. It isn’t until the third act that we learn what Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) must do. “Get the word out” becomes what he is willing to die for once he learns what the Alliance has done and what they have hidden. Still he is not the dedicated Marine that Avatar’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is but Jake’s line “All I ever wanted was a single thing worth fighting for” would fit Mal as well with his response “I am” as the Operative prepares to kill him, asking if “getting the word out” is worth dying for.

Even the lead women have much in common. River is lithe and limber. The iconic stance (ok, here on a T-shirt) used for promos combines her dance abilities and her athleticism. Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) has much the same poses, and at 10 feet tall, it would have been quite impressive. If it were real.

The spirituality of both movies is remarkable. In Avatar, Mother Earth has been destroyed, and the Pandora deity is next, warns Jake. The interconnectedness of nature is the subject of the scientists’ exploration. Spirits and metaphoric hearts include all living things which borrow energy and return it when they die. Neyvi’s mother acts as a shaman, channeling the power within the planet. This writer describes the religion as panentheism rather than pantheism, a spiritual force that both emanates from the divine and inhabits all being instead of nature as the divine. He links to this writer who explains the difference well and adds insights from Hinduism.  Vishnu and his avatar, Krishna, are depicted as blue; they restore order and are irresistible. In fact, the word “avatar” is from Sanskrit and means “descent of a Hindu deity to earth in an incarnate or tangible form.” Although neither of those writers mentions it, the transference of consciousness both mechanically and spiritually from human to Na’vi resembles the Hindu and Buddhist belief called phowa. Many other sci-fi writers and filmmakers use this trope. So far as I know, the machine version is not available.

Serenity relies on Christianity as its religion. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) has a mysterious, apparently Alliance-elite past, but he is a Bible-reading, collar-wearing pastor. For the single season of Firefly, he was a passenger with no specific role other than friend and advisor. Mal clearly loves and admires him but has lost his faith, describing it as “a long wait for a train don’t come.” Shepherd’s passing ignites Mal’s anger at the Operative’s scorched earth, “come at you sideways” methods when they begin killing all those Mal has contacted. The crew receives the ultimate challenge: come or stay, but if you aren’t helping, I’ll shoot you down. His actual speech is here. Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech it’s not, but—cue the violins—here is a young Kenneth Branagh’s version.

The Serenity crew unites after his ultimatum, goes to the planet Miranda, learns the secret the Alliance has hidden for 10 years, and finally understands why River Tam has been the object of their ruthless pursuit. All that remains is to get the message out, which culminates in all sorts of fighting and a redemption of sorts. The threat gone, the Operative leaves Mal with the caveat that he is not in the clear; the Alliance may still pursue them.

Unlike Star Wars, evil is not the problem in Serenity; social engineering gone wrong must be concealed. In a flashback, River answers a fellow student’s question “Why wouldn’t they look to be more civilized” after learning that the Alliance controls the inner planets which are “a beacon of civilization” as opposed to the “savage outer planets.” She explains: “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” The teacher disagrees and tells her “We don’t tell people how to think. We just try to show them how.” Definitely, the meddling aversion is conservative. The how-to-think won’t get touched.

(Spoiler alert: This is what we wait the entire movie to learn.) The planets in the new solar system are many but need decades to terraform. On one planet, the Parliament decides to introduce a new drug to make people more peaceful. The results are disastrous. Most of the people become so passive they just die where they sit, neglecting to feed themselves apparently. Ten percent go to the other extreme, producing the Reavers. (It’s a real word, by the way, and means “plunderer.”) The Alliance needs to keep this failure a secret, and while Mal’s revelation does weaken them, they are not defeated.

What could sound more conservative? A big government, corrupt, militaristic, squashes a noble rebellion seeing liberty and self-rule. But is there a liberal component? We are 500 years in the future. Women are warriors and mechanics, sex workers earn a certain respect, and the idea of a settled and progressive civilization prevails.

Partly on Marianne Williamson’s recommendation, let’s look at Avatar as the movie to save mankind. We’ve wrecked our planet, as usual, and discovered a world with loads of unobtainium to be mined. (James Cameron didn’t invent this term, which means an element with impossible properties.) Importantly, the potential use of this substance is not discussed in the film at all, a good decision, because we aren’t tempted to find a alternative.

Battle lines are drawn early. Colonel Miles Quaritch [quarry-rich?] (Stephen Lang) represents the worst elements of the military: arrogant, cruel, narrow-minded, intent on the mission at all costs. He is a one-dimensional character, remembered for his disregard for the indigenous Na’vi, who must be dehumanized as “savages” and “blue monkeys.” Jake Sully, a disabled Marine, sees himself as damaged goods, but before his redemption, he is also devoted to the mission. The project manager, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), clearly values outcome over the environment. Initially uncomfortable with the destruction of the Na’vi, he capitulates when Quaritch says the process will be “humane.”

In the end, however, there is love—Jake falls in love with the land, the people, a woman. Exactly as in Dances with Wolves, an outsider becomes an insider, falls in love with the people, and marries a native woman.

What could be more conservative that the conservation of a planet, a people, and a family? The liberal component—depiction of the military/industrial complex—comes off as inherently evil, and it would be hard to imagine how anyone could find them admirable.

Two good podcasts. This one is a group of hyper-fans going through Serenity, assessing merits and sharing intelligence. They realllly love it. This one is an interview of James Cameron by Marianne Williamson. She realllly loves Avatar and admits being teased during her presidential campaign for suggesting that a knowledge and appreciation of the movie would solve the country’s problems. She does share one good quotation from Albert Camus: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

No, today’s title wasn’t a trick, but it seems that it depends on how two viewpoints can look at the same thing and see two different things. The movies above aren’t hard science, admittedly, but a conservative can love each. Harder science has conservative examples as well. Gattaca (1997) presents us with another world gone too far toward “perfection.” The complicated plot involves genetic selection without ethics. Definitively conservative concerns.

At the end of this quest, perhaps the outcome is not just viewpoint but emphasis. As the culture wars rage, it’s easy to forget that both left and right value similar things but in different proportions. Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind lists six pairs of a moral foundation: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation; liberty/oppression. Conservatives observe all six while liberals value primarily care/harm with some liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating. When the critics above say conservatives don’t care, of course they’re wrong. What they miss is the other five moral guides, which may dilute the caring. It’s a long topic for another time. Here you can learn more and here you can take a test to find yourself placed, morally speaking.

Here’s to hoping the future will indeed be better, not at any cost, but with a conscience. “To infinity, and beyond!” (Famous line from conservative film. Just sayin’.)

 

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