Science Fiction, Politics and an Apology to Václav Havel

Yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died aged 69, mourned by collective mass crying in his own country and largely unlamented elsewhere. We can only hope that this will improve the situation of the people of North Korea.

There’s been another death of world political importance in the past two days, one that was mourned worldwide, for for playwright, dissident and former Czech president Václav Havel died aged 75.

Like Christa Wolf, the East German writer who died a few weeks ago, hearing Václav Havel’s name always triggered a mental apology inside me. Because he was another writer whom I’d been angry at – though far briefer than at Ms. Wolf – for the completely wrong reason.

I first heard of Václav Havel when it was announced that he had won the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade back in 1989. At the time I was a budding writer and just going through a crisis, the first of many. And so when the winner was announced, I cried at the TV, “Oh please! This guy only won because he’s being persecuted, not because he’s actually a good writer. In fact, I don’t think anybody even read what he wrote except for the Czech secret police.”

In the months that followed I realized that Václav Havel was actually a pretty cool person, though not speaking Czech I still couldn’t vouch for his literary qualities. Still, if you were going to hand out prizes for politically activism in writer – and that’s very much what the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is, though I didn’t realize it back in 1989 – there would have been a lot worse choices than Václav Havel. That’s also the reason for the mental apology whenever his name was mentioned, uttered for the last time on Sunday when his death was announced. Because Havel had both deserved the prize and because he likely wasn’t a bad writer.

Besides, it wasn’t Václav Havel I was ranting at, not really at any rate. It was instead my German teacher at school – ironically an arch-communist whom Havel would probably have disapproved of – who insisted that the only worthy literature was realist and political. It wasn’t an uncommon attitude among those who had come off age during the late 1960s – and my teachers were largely drawn from that demographic. Literature and indeed any sort of art had to be politically engaged and had to actively point out injustices to educate the working class. It also had to be realistic. Otherwise, it was bad, worthless, not really art, formulaic works put together from pre-fabricated elements like building blocks*. With prevailing attitudes like these, it was hard to be a genre fan, particularly faced with teacher who would never miss an opportunity to let us know exactly how worthless those science fiction and horror novels we loved really were** and how we should all read realist and politically engaged literature that would somehow incite the working class to revolution. It was those teachers I was really railing against, poor Václav Havel just got caught in the crossfire.

At the time in the late 1980s, I had developed the theory that science fiction and fantasy were actually superior vehicles for political criticism and that explicitly realist political fiction was actually inferior, because it was much too blunt and clumsy and badly written. After all, just because we lived in a democracy and could say whatever we wanted to, didn’t mean that writers actually should. What exactly was artistic and imaginative about writing a book – riff on a popular book of the time that was actually non-fiction – about how Turkish immigrants were often treated badly? It was kind of obvious they were being treated badly. The trick was writing about it in a way that people – meaning me and my friends – would actually want to read.

So I championed science fiction as the one truly political genre of literature, trying and mostly failing to persuade my teachers of that fact. And indeed, the science fiction I consumed at the time was often political. No one could fail to notice that Robert Heinlein really did not like unions, that the original Star Trek preached 1968 politics of tolerance and non-intervention to a degree that often interferes with the story, that the original Star Wars trilogy was all about the US in the age of Vietnam and Watergate? I could see those things, see them so clearly that “rebelling against an oppressive system” was part of my personal definition of science fiction for years. So why couldn’t anybody else?

Looking at my own very early writing of the time and what survives of it, the political intent is clear. There’s a lot of anger there, anger at West Germany of the Helmut Kohl era, anger at politics that no one I knew supported and back, anger at politicians who no one I knew voted for, anger at state-controlled television stations who so obviously censored what we were allowed to watch, anger at parents and teachers who told us that this system was the best one possible, even though it was so obviously flawed in ways they refused to see, anger at being encouraged to show an interest in politics and yet being utterly powerless and not even allowed to vote. This anger expressed itself in my early science fiction epics that mostly lived in my head, complete with Helmut Kohl stand-in as galactic emperor, not evil just clueless.

This is also why I took so much to Star Wars at the time. Because I recognized the same anger there, anger at a country and a system that was supposed to be the best possible and yet wasn’t and anger at a political leader no one seemed to agree with. Come on, Palpatine obviously started out as Richard Nixon and eventually becomes George W. Bush in the prequels.

The sheer political anger of my teens eventually gave way to cynicism, though I still believe that science fiction and fantasy are excellent delivery vehicles for political criticism. There’s a reason I vastly prefer Misfits to any number of realist social dramas about the disenfranchised and stigmatised youth on British council estates.

And I was right about Václav Havel in one respect: He will always be remembered more for his politics than for his writing. And I think that’s a pity.

*Years later at university, I actually found the educational tomes of the 1970s where those teachers had taken their opinions from, sometimes verbatim. It was a most eye-opening experience. Unfortunately I never saw any of my old German teachers again to throw their plagiarized opinions back into their faces.

**This is also why I never judge my students’ taste in literature, TV and film, even if I personally find the things they like utterly awful. Because it’s far more important to find out just what it is that appeals to them about stuff that is really quite bad and derivative rather than condemn their choices.

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