Realism and Revolutions in Science Fiction

iO9 has a great article by Esther Inglis-Arkell about ten lessons that fictional dystopias and the revolutions that topple them can learn from real life revolutions.

The weak worldbuilding of many modern dystopias is a well known problem. It’s particularly endemic among YA dystopias (which are mostly metaphorical rather than realistic anyway), but dystopian fiction aimed at adults isn’t immune as e.g. the 2002 movie Equilibrium with its flat-out unrealistic finale (“Yeah right, like it would be so easy”, I thought upon first viewing) shows. By the way, I had completely forgotten that William Fichtner whose performance as the disabled cop Carl Hickman in Crossing Lines is a large part of what makes that show worthwhile, was also Equilibrium. But then a lot of unlikely people were in Equilibrium, including a bunch of German TV actors, which makes watching the film an even weirder experience than it would normally be.

Now I’ve always had a soft spot for what I call “revolution SF”, science fiction about a brave ragtag band of rebels fighting some kind of oppressive system. These stories used to be quite common, both in space opera, before it got colonised by military SF and the representatives of the system suddenly became the heroes, and in dystopian SF proper. The main difference was that in space opera the revolution usually succeeded, whereas in dystopian SF the system usually won and our brave ragtag band of rebels either managed to escape into the wilderness, if it was a happy ending dystopia, or were broken, reabsorbed into the system and/or killed, if it was a really bloody depressing dystopia. I preferred the happy endings, of course, though I gobbled up all of them as a teenager, happy and sad. I was never happier than when I was made to read both Brave New World and 1984 in 12th grade, because hey, we were reading science fiction in school and even the “good kind” (i.e. revolution SF). Okay, so both books ended unhappily, as did the short fiction they made us read such as E.M. Foster’s The Machine Stops. But then it was school, so expecting SF about revolutions that actually succeeded would’ve been too much to ask.

At around the same time I was devouring SF about brave bands of rebels fighting against unjust systems and winning at least some of the time, there were plenty of people standing up against corrupt or unjust systems in the real world. And occasionally, they were even winning. In the Philippines, dictator Ferdinand Marcos was kicked out of office in 1986. In Haiti, another dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was kicked out of office also in 1986. In 1987, the June Democracy Movement succeeded in pushing for a democratic presidential election in South Korea. Okay, so the establishment candidate won, because the two opposition leaders split the vote, but at least it was a start. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, gradually introduced domestic reforms from 1986 and more extensive reforms from 1988 on, which led to the domino-like toppling of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe over the course of the year 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. In early 1990 finally, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid in South Africa began to crumble. And with a few exceptions, all of those revolutions managed to succeed with very little bloodshed.

If you were a teenager during those years and watched all of those events unfold on TV, you might be forgiven for believing that the world was getting steadily more free and much better in general. Of course, there were setbacks, e.g. the student protests in China which culminated in the Tienanmen massacre, but those would only be temporary. After all, China had a population of one billion people even back then and no regime could possibly suppress that many people forever. Sure, the 1968 revolts (still very present in the popular consciousness, especially the the veterans of 1968 were our teachers) might have largely failed, but we were better than they had been and this time things would work out. After all, things were already working out all over the world, as people who had been oppressed for decades were finally standing up. And once we – meaning the entire world population here – had managed to get rid of the really nasty and oppressive dictatorships, we’d take on the conservative old people who were ruling much of the western world, the Ronald Reagans and Margaret Thatchers and Helmut Kohls and Francois Mitterands, and give them the boot as well and install a system that allowed for popular referendums (I was very fervently in favour of referendums as a teen) while we were at it. And then we’d all live happily ever after.

Only that it didn’t quite work out that way. West German politicians across all parties promptly decided we should unite with East Germany without even asking either of us first (probably because they feared the answer in the West might be no) and without replacing our flawed postwar constitution either. Meanwhile, the East Germans were so blinded by consumerism that they voted Helmut Kohl (who would never have been reelected if not for the unification) into office for a third term (and eventually a fourth). The liberation of Eastern Europe mostly led to mass unemployment. In what was still known as Yugoslavia back then, the Balkan Wars were heating up. And within a few years, it also turned out that East Germany was (and sadly continues to be) infested by xenphobes, racists and outright Neo-Nazis.

Growing up in the climate of general revolution and liberalisation of the late 1980s, while being taught by teachers who still couldn’t shut up about how great 1968 had been, it was obvious why I would want to read and write about revolutions in my chosen genre SF. By the mid 1990s, when the revolutions of the 1980s had stagnated or flickered out, the political system in the now united Germany seemed unable to ever change, when homes for asylum seekers in East Germany as well as the entire Balkan was burning, it was equally understandable that I decided that stories about science fictional revolutions were all fine and dandy, but that no one over the age of approx. twenty-five could ever taken them seriously, because we all knew how revolutions went in the real world.

Seen from this POV, it’s not just obvious why teenagers go for stories about the lone teen rebel in dystopia toppling an oppressive system and probably finding true love while he or more frequently she is at it (and if The Hunger Games, Divergent et al had been around, when I was 15, I’d have been all over them, too), but also why many adults find it difficult to take them seriously. Because we know that the world just doesn’t work that way. And it is notable that neither The Hunger Games nor Divergent have a truly happy ending. Tris dies and while Katniss manages find some personal happiness, the new system that replaces the old one doesn’t turn out to be necessarily better.

Regarding SFnal revolutions done right, my favourite example is a rather unlikely one, namely Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker saga, a series that looks like lighthearted “everything and the kitchen sink” space opera on the surface and yet has unexpected depths. The set-up is well known: A brave band of rebels fights and eventually overthrows an authoritarian regime headed by an evil galactic empress. In short, it’s exactly the sort of story that is narrative catnip for me. And yet Green does something you rarely see in stories like this. First of all, his rebellion is made up of multiple fractions, all with their own goals, and usually squabbling among each other. A lot (most in fact) of the characters also join the rebellion not for ideological reasons, but because they have nowhere else to go, because the rebellion promises loot and business opportunities, because it’s cool to be subversive, because it will piss off their families, because the rebellion means lots of bloodshed and violence or because the rebels have the best drugs.

The Deathstalker series is also quite unusual, since it doesn’t stop with the overthrowing of the evil empress, but shows what happens afterwards. The people who build up the new system (which is a constitutional monarchy modelled after the United Kingdom, which is rather amusing in itself, because these people fight a bloody rebellion to become the UK of all places) are not those who actually fought to bring down the old, but instead career politicians and military men who remained loyal (with some internal doubts) to the old system until the bitter end and then quickly change their tune (in post-unification Germany, we called such folks “Wendehälse”), while the actual rebel fighters find themselves unable to fit into the new world. Very few of them, mostly supporting characters, have a happy ending, while the main characters mostly die and/or wind up alone and broken. Not exactly what you’d expect from something that looked like a fun space opera romp at the beginning.

As for myself, I stopped writing revolution stories for almost twenty years, though I still loved to read them, because I knew that any “And then they all lived happily ever after” ending would be a lie, since the real world just doesn’t work that way. Never mind that I was largely paralyzed by all sorts of second hand ideas of how SF should be, even though I neither liked what was held up as good SF nor wanted to write it. Eventually, I said, “To hell with all that! I’ll write my space opera the way I want.” And the way I wanted my space opera was with a lot more emphasis on character and society and less of a tech focus than usual. Coincidentally, focussing on the individual characters also offered the answer to my problem with fictional revolutions. For while the new system is not necessarily better and not everybody lives happily ever after, individual characters can get a happy ending for themselves within such a framework.

I agree with Esther Inglis-Arkell that world history is a great source not just for fictional revolutions, but for any sort of SFF in general. And you shouldn’t just focus on the usual suspects either and write the umpteenth retelling of the fall of the Roman Empire in space or the Napoleonic Wars in space. Talking of which, did you ever notice that hardly any of those Napoleonic Wars in space retellings are ever preceded by the French Revolution in space? Even though the French Revolution was a necessary precondition for Napoleon’s rise to power.

As for fictional revolutions, I think writers should look beyond the French, Russian and American revolutions, when there are so many other revolutions and liberation movements in history, both failed and successful, that you can stripmine for ideas.

The history of the Fifth Human Empire from my Shattered Empire series borrows quite liberally from West German postwar history (History Lesson is the one to read). The reasons are that I was pretty familiar with West German postwar history already, yet it’s obscure enough to the world at large that the sources aren’t immediately obvious. Plus, there are so many incidents and events that I really couldn’t have made up any better. Finally, it also gives me the chance to rewrite history a bit and get an outcome I like a bit better than the real version.

Because there is one other truth about revolution SF. Stories about science fictional revolutions whether in space or against some earth-bound dystopia grow from dissatisfaction with or outright anger at an existing system. And so the fictional dystopia or evil galactic empire is often a highly distorted version of whatever country the author hails from. The original Star Wars trilogy is so obviously fueled by disillusionment with the US post Vietnam War and Watergate that I’m surprised these aspects are not pointed out more often. The evil Empress of Simon Green’s Deathstalker series is obviously a Margaret Thatcher stand-in, as are the evil leaders of dozens of dystopias by British authors written from the mid 1980s on. Sometimes you get evil Tony Blair as well, which is at least refreshing. The dim-witted and overweight galactic Emperor who is not actively evil, but surrounded and manipulated by villainous advisers, from the now defunct Femla series I created as a teenager in the late 1980s is obviously a stand-in for German chancellor Helmut Kohl, even though I was totally unaware of it at the time. Meanwhile, the current YA dystopias are reactions to mass surveillance, the war on terror, the war on women as well as reality TV and the celebrity cult.

It’s been said before that science fiction is about the present, even if it is supposedly set in the future. And so it’s only logical that our dystopias and evil galactic empires would reflect the concerns of our present.

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One Response to Realism and Revolutions in Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: New “In Love and War” novella: Dead World | Pegasus Pulp

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