‘Fantasy and Science Fiction Art by Chesley Bonestell’. Flickr – DanCentury | cropped from original | licensed under CC 2.0 | Link at the bottom of article. ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction Art by Chesley Bonestell’. Flickr – DanCentury | cropped from original | licensed under CC 2.0 | Link at the bottom of article.

Elaine Graham-Leigh, author of science fiction novel The Caduca, analyses the utility of the genre for both reactionary and progressive politics

In a neoliberal society where profit is paramount, the arts are accustomed to justifying what they are for. The Tory approach to the coronavirus pandemic however emphasised the particularly philistine attitude of this government. Dominic Cummings may or may not have said, in a Zoom meeting with Sam Mendes about government support for the arts, “the fucking ballerinas can go to the back of the queue,” but that he would have done was immediately plausible. Similarly, Fatima the ballerina might have been about to retrain in cyber in a 2019 youth employment campaign, not as a result of Covid-19, but the image reflected actual Tory advice that people working in the arts should simply find a different career.

It has been pointed out in defence of the arts that in allowing them to go to the wall in the pandemic, the government is ignoring the £101 billion that creative industries were collectively valued at in 2019. This is true, but responding to denigration of the arts on the basis of their contribution to the economy isn’t always a sensible strategy. The better response is to refuse to engage in justification of artistic endeavour according to how much it is worth. Just like arts and humanities subjects contorting themselves to show how teaching them can respond to the needs of business, debating about economic contributions simply gives way on the main point, that the value of the arts can’t be measured in sterling.

The government’s approach isn’t quite as simple as the Tories supporting art for the elite and not for the masses, although a disdain for popular access to arts and culture is surely part of it. Classical ballet is after all often perceived as elitist, and classical musicians and opera singers are also among those facing a collapse in their ability to make a living without support from the government.

The relationship between art and power has always been a complex one. Much of the visual art from previous eras that we admire today was funded by elites, sometimes for their private enjoyment but frequently as an ideological statement. The current Tory embrace of a kind of populist puritanism, as if making everyone as miserable as possible could substitute for their own myriad failures to control the virus, is also ideological. It’s just much less attractive to look at than Italian Renaissance frescoes.

All of which simply emphasises that despite the way in which they are sometimes regarded as an escape from the realities of our society, the arts do not exist in an apolitical bubble. Creating visual arts, dancing, composing, writing fiction can all be ideological, in the sense that they can have their own message and can be part of a wider genre that has a particular ideological approach.

This will not be news to readers of speculative fiction, as the different speculative fiction genres – science fiction, fantasy and horror – are often regarded as having an inherent ideological approach. Fantasy, as practised by JRR Tolkien and his many imitators, can be seen as inherently reactionary. Tolkien was mourning the lost age of aristocratic power, before the bourgeois revolution and industrialisation; indeed, The Lord of the Rings can be read as being about the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

It would be reductive to argue that all fantasy fiction is about this particular shift in modes of production, but that the fantasy genre therefore comes with a certain amount of reactionary baggage is harder to refute. The widely-accepted convention that fantasy is properly about nobles in a broadly feudal setting is problematic from a left viewpoint, restricting ordinary people, as it tends to do, to inhabiting hovels, serving in inns and getting killed. (See Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland for a brilliant satirisation of this sort of fantasy. There are some recent examples of subversion of this, not least Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy, but it remains a dominant trope in the genre.)

In contrast, science fiction is sometimes regarded as inherently progressive. The issue here, though, is how ‘progressive’ is defined. Much of the popular science fiction written particularly in the US from the 1920s on was a transplantation of the Western genre into space. Space was simply an extension of the frontier, the place where white American men could engage in manly combat, defeat their enemies and generally fulfil their manifest destinies. This sort of writing often defined itself as being about human progress, but within a definition of progress as white, male humanity conquering the universe. Like the Westerns, these sorts of stories tended to promote rugged individualism rather than collective struggle; the individual entrepreneur rather than the proletarian worker.

Obviously Western-influenced stories were falling out of favour by the 1950s, as science-fiction magazine editors tried to improve the quality of the tales they were publishing and to encourage writers who were able to produce work with more nuance and characterisation. What was often retained, though, was the idea that military superiority and technological progress were both necessary for the advancement of civilisation and that no matter what consequent problems arose, science would find the answer.’[i] Equally possible from this starting point are the science-fiction books Ursula Le Guin described as about ‘endless wars in space, where technology is magic and the killing proceeds without moral or psychological justification of any kind.’[ii]

As was pointed out by some authors at the time, much of the genre in the mid twentieth century was churning out stories of humanity conquering space as if in complete ignorance of the actual imperialist and colonialist wars being fought by the system for which they were depicting a heroic future. In this context, it is not surprising that many of the grandees of twentieth-century science fiction were markedly right-wing.

Examples include Robert Heinlein, whose basically fascist Starship Troopers was made into an equally appalling Hollywood blockbuster by the famously right-wing director Paul Verhoeven, and John W Campbell. Campbell edited the veteran hard sci-fi journal Analog until his death in 1971 and used to propound in his editorials views such as that black children learn more slowly than white children and that ‘all the misery of South Vietnam could also be stopped, even more quickly, by a thorough, saturation, overlapping hydrogen bombing of the area. That would leave no one alive to complain.’[iii]

This was not, of course, progressive by anyone’s definition, but there remained a tendency in the genre, from HG Wells to Isaac Asimov, to treat ‘progressive’ as if it was synonymous with technological progress, with ‘a heroically sensible group of technocratic reformers taking over and using the world-machinery for the general good.’[iv] This may be somewhat better that Tolkien’s portrayal of the proletariat as orcs, but it is hardly socialist.

Part of how some sci-fi writers have been able to break away from the ideological problems in the genre has been by recognising that science fiction doesn’t have to be about science. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for what Ken Macleod calls ‘lab lit’ – fiction about scientists – but if that was all science fiction was for, it would be a pretty dull genre. It is also not really about the future.

When some of the classic sci-fi was being written, in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea that within a relatively short space of time, humans would be settling on other planets and travelling throughout the galaxy seemed a realistic proposition. That there was other intelligent life in the galaxy was also believed widely enough for consideration of how humans and aliens would interact to be an integral part of serious, scientific sci-fi.

In the present day, neither of those things are true. We are no longer expecting little green men to land and either conquer us or bring us ‘a message of universal peace and comic harmony an’ suchlike’ (as Terry Pratchett put it).[v] It is still the case, of course, that our lives are influenced in often profound ways by developments in technology, but it is not the sort of spacefaring technology on which traditional sci-fi was based. As Ursula Le Guin put it as early as 1976, attempting to predict a plausible future is more likely to result in a dystopia ‘somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.’[vi]

Many of the conventions on which much science fiction relies, like faster-than-light space travel, is either unlikely or impossible, but while this might make science fiction bad science, it doesn’t necessarily make it bad fiction. It simply means that it’s not about the future, it’s about the present. Writing science fiction is an opportunity to interrogate dominant ideologies, to expose truths, to depict how things are now and how they could be different. It is not that realist fiction can’t do some or all of these things, but that being able to make up your own facts is particularly freeing (I was going to say, ‘free of the need to get your facts right’, but that isn’t quite where writing science fiction gets you. You can make up the facts, but once you have made them up, the need to get them right the next time is just as important as it is for any realist author).

Arguably, the first science fiction writing was Thomas More’s Utopia, and utopias have continued to figure in science fiction. From William Morris’ nineteenth-century account of a future communist England in News from Nowhere to Ursula Le Guin’s two different takes on egalitarian, non-class societies in The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, science fiction has continued to be a way for progressive authors to examine how a non-exploitative society would work. This may sound like the ultimate in pointless speculation, but utopian writing is never as abstract as it might appear.

The point, after all, of imagining a non-class society, and characters and stories within it, is not simply to invent a better place to be – if only in imagination – although that can sometimes be part of it. It is also a powerful way of pointing out everything that is wrong with our current society. As Ursula Le Guin said about Always Coming Home, it was ‘a glass of milk for a soul ulcerated by acid rain’, but also ‘an Up Yours to the people who ride snow mobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps’.[vii]

Given the pace of technological change, it’s natural for fiction set in the future to involve technology, but viewing the genre as essentially about technological development is to miss much of what makes the genre worth writing and reading. It’s no longer tenable to see science fiction as inherently progressive because technological development is progressive. The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has exposed that particular fallacy. There is an argument, though, that a fictional genre devoted to critiquing modern, capitalist society by showing us, for good or ill, where we might be going, is more likely to be progressive than not. Setting fiction outside of our society can be a particularly powerful way of examining the assumptions we are encouraged to take as immutable, natural laws, from the necessity for profit-making businesses to human greed, violence and competition.

There is an argument in defence of the arts that using our creativity and imagination to entertain is by its very nature to stick two fingers up at a capitalist system that just wants us to work and buy things. Science fiction can be an opportunity to do that, while continuing a discussion about how the system really works and how we could change it. If it can do this while entertaining us at the same time, what better purpose could it be for?  

Elaine Graham-Leigh’s science fiction novel, The Caduca, published by The Conrad Press, is available to purchase now from Red Puffin or Amazon.


[i] Mike Ashley, Gateways to Forever. The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, (Liverpool University Press 2007), p.10.

[ii] Ursula Le Guin, ‘Facing It’, Dancing at the Edge of the World. Thoughts on Words, Women and Places, (London 1989), pp.101-103, p.101.

[iii] Quoted in Ashley, Gateways to Forever, p.8.

[iv] David Curl, ‘Rope Tricks: Science Fiction After Socialism’, Matrix 127 (Sept/Oct 1997), reprinted at http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/rope.htm

[v] Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, (London 1990), p.130.

[vi] Ursula Le Guin, ‘Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness’ (1976), Dreams Must Explain Themselves and Other Essays 1972-2004, (Gollanz, London 2018).

[vii] Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home (Grafton Books 1986), p.316.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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