Classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the literature of Reactionism
November 18, 2012 10:44 AM   Subscribe

In 1978, Micheal Moorcock wrote an essay Starship Stormtroopers published in Anarchist Review which said that most popular science-fiction and fantasy is deeply Reactionary (authoritarian conservative right-wing themes), he mocked the notion of sci-fi being a "literature of ideas". But there is some "socialist" science fiction, China Miéville put together a list of Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read.

Moorcock notes the paradox of so many fans of mainstream science fiction and fantasy who are otherwise radicals and leftists that still seem oblivious (or complicit) to the paternalistic, reactionary, authoritarian themes inherit in these works.
The majority of the sf writers most popular with radicals are by and large crypto-fascists to a man and woman! There is Lovecraft, the misogynic racist; there is Heinlein, the authoritarian militarist; there is Ayn Rand, the rabid opponent of trade unionism and the left, who, like many a reactionary before her, sees the problems of the world as a failure by capitalists to assume the responsibilities of 'good leadership'; there is Tolkein and that group of middle-class Christian fantasists who constantly sing the praises of bourgeois virtues and whose villains are thinly disguised working class agitators -- fear of the Mob permeates their rural romances. To all these and more the working class is a mindless beast which must be controlled or it will savage the world (i.e. bourgeois security) -- the answer is always leadership, 'decency', paternalism (Heinlein in particularly strong on this), Christian values... Star Wars carries the paternalistic messages of almost all generic adventure fiction (may the Force never arrive on your doorstep at three o'clock in the morning) and has all the right characters. It raises 'instinct' above reason (a fundamental to Nazi doctrine) and promotes a kind of sentimental romanticism attractive to the young and idealistic while protective of existing institutions.

I started writing about what I thought was the implicit authoritarianism of these authors and as often as not found myself accused of being reactionary, elitist or at very best a spoilsport who couldn't enjoy good sf for its own sake.
The essay explains Moorcock's views in more detail than a quote can suffice.
posted by stbalbach (133 comments total) 92 users marked this as a favorite

 
I couldn't find a list of humanitarian science fiction and fantasy.
posted by stbalbach at 10:44 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


But there is some "socialist" science fiction

Well, not just some, a lot. Though I suspect with anglophone SF at least there's a US/UK divide there - and probably a bit before and after the 70s divide as well, though Mr. Wells helps make an argument against that.
posted by Artw at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


See also “Star Wars” despots vs. “Star Trek” populists by David Brin.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:48 AM on November 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


I hate to be that person who comes into a list thread and says "but he left out..." - but he left out Vonnegut? Seriously? Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five all belong on this list.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:53 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know about this kind of list coming from Mieville. He portrays progressive movements, but they're always helpless and ineffectual against the reactionary or totalitarian forces actually running the show. He seems to think they are fools fighting a necessary evil.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:57 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sirens of Titan is a good example of how utopias can be weird, weird, weird.
posted by ersatz at 10:58 AM on November 18, 2012


I couldn't find a list of humanitarian science fiction and fantasy.

Welllllll...
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


To get Moorcock's complete view, you also need Epic Pooh to get his view on Tolkien style fantasy. Hint: he's against it.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I caution here that 1. Moorcock was writing in 1978 (which IIRC was before his big "feminist moment") and was certainly when feminist SF was still a scattered thing and Mieville was writing in 2002, when I'd argue that Mieville's thought on this stuff was not perhaps as formed as it is today. Not that both aren't great writers who have shown a lot of real political solidarity, and not that these aren't good pieces, but they need to be read in context.

For one thing, though M & M have both generally been sympathetic to feminism, both are/have been crap at writing about women as writers. I mean, Mieville's big "feminist" novel is not The Female Man, anything from the Women's Press, Black Wine, etc, but a really rather muddled though interesting book by a kind of misogynist male writer, The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I can only surmise that he is assuming that "of interest to socialists" means "explicitly about the kind of labor that is done in a factory", because that's really where The Iron Dragon's Daughter shines.
posted by Frowner at 11:02 AM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Heh. That's a VERY 1978 view of Lovecraft in there.
posted by Artw at 11:04 AM on November 18, 2012


Very 1978 view of everything, really.
posted by Artw at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is not a list of the “best” fantasy or SF.

Indeed. It is not even a list of fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy and science fiction are genres that come with built in conventions that must be obeyed or defied in acknowledgement by writers familiar with them to truly deserve either label. I suppose one could call Beloved and Atlas Shrugged as fantasy and science fiction, respectively, but it is a such a stretch in either case that any work of fiction could be included in Mieville's list as examples of either genre.
posted by y2karl at 11:06 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I were sitting in a tube train and all the people opposite me were reading Mein Kampf with obvious enjoyment and approval it probably wouldn't disturb me much more than if they were reading Heinlein, Tolkein or Richard Adams

Wait wait, Richard Adams? Like...for real for real?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:07 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Don't forget Orson Scott Card, a real live fascist:

Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman
posted by Blasdelb at 11:08 AM on November 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


(It would have been better grammar to write "book, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by a kind of....")

Also, I think Moorcock's work is worth a revisit because fantasy and science fiction are having a moment again - certainly there's a huge amount of really retrograde fantasy and science fiction out there. (Wizardry and Wild Romance, which is a lot more of the same plus some potted history of fantasy, was republished a few years ago and is both funny and educational.)

Vis-a-vis Moorcock, did you know that he actually rewrote the ending to Gloriana to make it not be one of those "it was rape but it felt so good!" endings, as he'd written it before he started hanging around with feminists? The book is still in some ways an extended dirty joke, but the guy actually listened to feminist critique and rewrote! I had never heard about this until I read about it on a blog. For that reason alone, I would always be a fan of his work.

I also think that Mieville created a list "of interest to socialists" using a pretty specific and Marxist-theory definition of socialist - I don't think the list is intended as "a list of progressive fantasy and sf of interest to all who are not conservatives".
posted by Frowner at 11:11 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess Watership Down could be seen as pretty reactionary - mainly what sticks in my mind are is all the horrific bunny death - but Plague Dogs?

/checks.

Hmm. 1977. Might have been on the radar, might not.
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on November 18, 2012


Also, Moorcock is not American, and when he says "libertarian", he's referring to anarchism, not the Libertarian Party.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:12 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I do think that Pavane is one novel that belongs on that list. That is a book that deserves far more more attention and acclaim than it so far has received.
posted by y2karl at 11:12 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


The thing is, when I read Mieville's list, the work by women and people of color feels like really glib choices - not that Woman On The Edge of Time and Beloved aren't terrific, but they're sort of strange and facile choices compared to everything else. This leads me to suspect that back in 2002 when Mieville was younger (as were we all!) perhaps he was less familiar with work by women writers and by men and women writers of color and thus knew fewer books to choose from. Rats and Gargoyles, for example, is a cool book - but it certainly isn't in a league with most of the other stuff on the list, or even in a league with some of Gentle's other stuff.

I do like the sheer strange scope of the list, though - I ended up reading Pavane, which is pretty good, because of seeing on this list. (Actually, I think it was just republished - possibly because of the ripple effect? I feel like I've seen a lot of books recommended by the Mieville/Moorcock dynamic duo making their way back into print and/or getting wider distribution.)

You have to be pretty bold to make such a list, though, since inevitably it will meet lots of criticism!
posted by Frowner at 11:21 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Moorcock is cheeky, to put it charitably, when he compares Tolkien with Hitler - as if History of the Runestaff isn't a two-dimensional slaughter-the-bad-guys-without-compunction work of schlocky moral essentialism. It's not that he doesn't have a point, it's just that he undermines it by overstating his case and decrying the mote in his opponent's eye without acknowledging the plank in his own.
posted by RokkitNite at 11:22 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I also think that Mieville created a list "of interest to socialists" using a pretty specific and Marxist-theory definition of socialist - I don't think the list is intended as "a list of progressive fantasy and sf of interest to all who are not conservatives".

This, yes. I remember discussing this list when it was first published in 2002 (and checking my own blogs' archives to see if I'd said anything about it, but apparantly not) and it was clear that this was a proper socialist list and if you expect the usual progressive/liberal/moderate mismatch that "the left" often means in online debate, you'll be disappointed.

Mieville is after all a proper socialist, Trotskist, who had been a candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the 2001 UK parliamentary elections, spoke on SWP (UK) organised conventions and so on. 2002-03 was of course also the high water mark of the warblogging/rightwing blogosphere and liberal, let alone socialist voices were barely heard though growing, which is the context where this comes from.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think Moorcock is cheeky

oh, absolutely. It's an article of his stock in trade. He really does loathe Tolkien, though.

I feel that I have mentioned this before, but improbably enough Moorcock wrote the book adaptation of McLaren's Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, a fact that came to my attention sometime during my greatest involvement with punk rock and which led me back to Moorcock, an authorial relationship which is now deeply confirmed as my all-time favorite.

He's a dear.
posted by mwhybark at 11:51 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


He really does loathe Tolkien, though

Don't you mean Tolkein ?
posted by Pendragon at 11:55 AM on November 18, 2012


Funny, I always thought that most sci-fi pre-1978 was rehashing WWII or WWI, or possibly say the Boer War if it's old enough.
posted by fshgrl at 11:55 AM on November 18, 2012


Greg Egan's novels set in the non-immediate future or alternate universes tend to be socialist.

And golly, can't we get a mention of Star Trek for sheer cheek?
posted by pfh at 11:57 AM on November 18, 2012


I think Moorcock is cheeky, to put it charitably, when he compares Tolkien with Hitler - as if History of the Runestaff isn't a two-dimensional slaughter-the-bad-guys-without-compunction work of schlocky moral essentialism.

But they are fighting against Granbretan, so it's all cool. Moorcock should be the last person to try to hold the moral high ground, by the way, regardless of whether his opinions on Tolkien hold water.

In The Eternal Champion the protagonist first swears to kill off every single member of the Eldren and then he switches sides, unearths ancient technology and kills every single human. He even roots survivors out of caves and finishes them off. At least Gandalf stopped shy of genocide.
posted by ersatz at 12:03 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the Runestaff is pretty terrible (in a good shlocky way). I read it again a couple of years back, took like an hour per book. The political cleverness starts and ends with the Brits being the baddies, then it's straight into the angsty Dudley Do-Right hero slicing stormtroopers' heads off with his magic sword. It's fantasy fast food.

It's very rich as nerd compost though - there's hundreds of influences you can draw from Moorcock's fantasy into wider geek culture, from 40k to steampunk to Diablo. And it's a clever man being dumb, which is always interesting to watch because they can't help but be a bit fascinating.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:21 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


His later career is all over the map but I really think James P. Hogan's Voyage to Yesteryar should be on any list like this.
posted by localroger at 12:23 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In The Eternal Champion the protagonist first swears to kill off every single member of the Eldren and then he switches sides, unearths ancient technology and kills every single human.

I did like the shear "Yaaargh! Fuck it! Burn it all!" of that. Very metal.

And killing veryone and everything is a bit of an Eternal Champion thing. Those guys may not be all that hot as rolemodels...

Elric is the worst of the bunch, of course. That's why he's the best.
posted by Artw at 12:25 PM on November 18, 2012


stbalbach: "humanitarian"

D'oh I really meant humanist. Turns out there are some interesting articles:

*Is “Science Fiction Humanism” A Contradiction In Terms?
*The Ten Greatest Humanistic Science Fiction Novels
*Ray Bradbury: Science Fiction's First Great Humanist
posted by stbalbach at 12:27 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


And golly, can't we get a mention of Star Trek for sheer cheek?

Well, they had eliminated want and deprivation in the Star Trek universe, albeit, by means unknown.

On another note, I would have thought that Jack Vance's Emphyrio deserved to be on that list.

As well as any other of his Gaean Reach novels, given that the SVU, the Standard Value Unit, the monetary unit of the Reach was originally. the SLVU, the Standard Labor Value Unit, based upon an hour of unskilled labor under standard conditions. The unit supersedes all other monetary bases in that it derives from the single invariable commodity of the human universe: toil. You can't get much more Marxist than that.
posted by y2karl at 12:34 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know about this kind of list coming from Mieville. He portrays progressive movements, but they're always helpless and ineffectual against the reactionary or totalitarian forces actually running the show. He seems to think they are fools fighting a necessary evil.

They're his fools though, I don't think anyone could accuse him of being anything other than a dyed in the wool Trot.
posted by atrazine at 12:38 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


On another note, I would have thought that Jack Vance's Emphyrio deserved to be on that list.

Not to mention Dodkin's Job....
posted by y2karl at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pendragon: "Don't you mean Tolkein ?"

Is this a faulty attempt at Geekier Than Thou one-upsmanship, or is there some joke about how John Ronald Reuel spelled his family name that I'm not getting?
posted by Lexica at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's really interesting to hear other people's takes on Runestaff. I felt a bit confused after reading it, but I realise it's not Moorcock's best work, written, by his own admission, at a rate of 15,000 words a day.

He portrays progressive movements, but they're always helpless and ineffectual against the reactionary or totalitarian forces actually running the show. He seems to think they are fools fighting a necessary evil.


I read in an interview that he felt revolution changed a society, changed language and changed thought so utterly that you couldn't write it unless you had been through it. And, in books like Iron Council, he wanted to avoid falling into the standard reactionary narrative of the revolution that eats its own children. (I can't find a reference for either of these, so please take with a pinch of salt!)

I think there's a touch of the eschatological in Mieville's treatment of socialism, which is a shame, because showing a post-revolution society and exploring the problems it faces is not the same as dogmatically denying the possibility of change/improvement.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:50 PM on November 18, 2012


I vaguely remember Moorcock's pulp maxim was that something jawdropping should happen every three pages.

Incidentally his forum is a lively and drolly British place, and he posts on it often.

It is also possibly the world centre for high level Mornington Crescent play. Some of the advanced strategies they've evolved are astonishing, it's like they're playing a different game to everyone else.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:58 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Possibly because they've rejected all Imperial Rules derived versions from the game, which is most if not all of the modern versions, (as popularised by the game panel at ISIHAC of course) in favour of a much loser, anarchistic version of the game? That takes a lot of getting used to if your previous experience it the much more rigid mainstream game.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:02 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


the standard reactionary narrative of the revolution that eats its own children

To be fair to reactionaries, that does happen A LOT.
posted by Artw at 1:05 PM on November 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


I read in an interview that he felt revolution changed a society, changed language and changed thought so utterly that you couldn't write it unless you had been through it. And, in books like Iron Council, he wanted to avoid falling into the standard reactionary narrative of the revolution that eats its own children. (I can't find a reference for either of these, so please take with a pinch of salt!)

I read that interview - I think it was the Crooked Timber Iron Council symposium, or perhaps it was just linked from there. By all accounts, Mieville is a lovely man and just generally politically good human being, but I really, really think his line of reasoning there is wrong and frustrating. I mean it sounds as though he is positing that there has been no revolution with any meaning in all of human history, because surely he is not saying that the Paris Commune or Barcelona in the 30s was so different from what went before it as to be utterly, utterly unimaginable until it happened. Surely he is not saying that George fucking Orwell was so transformed by his time in Spain that his character became 100% unpredictable from his upbringing and previous writing. And of course, it's pretty much a vast insult to all the other post-revolutionary novels out there - clearly Marge Piercy is just clouding everyone's minds with her seductive Utopian east coast, right? I mean, his line of reasoning creates this image of Revolution that is so idealized as to be silly and impossible, and as usual for that type of polemic, it strongly suggests that everyone else who writes differently is Doing It Wrong and being weak and soft and sappily self-indulgent and so on.

If there's one aspect of Mieville's polemical writing I could do without, it's his occasional "stop being so feebly escapistly emotional, you're only delaying the revolution, meanwhile I will take my LSE-educated, best-selling-novel-writing upper-class self back to London to write my next fantasy novel". Either the revolution arrives through multiple means and people have multiple ways of doing political work and Mieville's fantasy-novel writing and socially secure life is politically legitimate, or if indeed there is only One True Way, he should probably be renouncing his privileges and going to organize factory workers or something since there's no use being a parlor pink.

I also feel like his youthful and rather narrow denunciations of "escapism" and general soft sentimentality end up pushing aside a lot of writing by women - unless it's exactly the same in form and spirit as writing by socialist white dudes, it must be escapist, soft, emotional, etc.

I feel bad saying this, because there are so many many fantasy writers whose work is so inferior to Mieville's and whose politics aren't a patch on his. I mean, it would never occur to me to even care what Heinlein or Card or someone thought about social change.
posted by Frowner at 1:12 PM on November 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


If we're discussing Michael Moorock and social commentary, isn't the Jerry Cornelius cycle more appropriate to look at than Hawkmoon and Elric?
posted by kyrademon at 1:12 PM on November 18, 2012


Possibly because they've rejected all Imperial Rules derived versions from the game, which is most if not all of the modern versions, (as popularised by the game panel at ISIHAC of course) in favour of a much loser, anarchistic version of the game? That takes a lot of getting used to if your previous experience it the much more rigid mainstream game.

Indeed. I found it an almost surreal experience processing the dips and weaves of their play, and I confess my first reaction was strongly negative.

But the brilliance of some of their late-game manoeuvres (the Kieghass Diversion and its many variants is the specific one I'm thinking of, though I'm sure you could come up with others) really expresses the spirit of the game so well that it's hard to stay rooted in the Imperial - one might even say 'old fashioned' - Rules.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:13 PM on November 18, 2012


I tend to read purely for enjoyment and suck at identifying themes, hidden meanings, etc., so this is a bit over my head (plus I haven't read many of the books Moorcock mentioned).

However, I would like to bring up my current sci-fi obsession, the Culture novels by Banks. I wonder what Moorcock would think of these books? On the surface they're quite humanitarian and bohemian, but the control perpetuated by the Minds falls into (relatively benevolent) fascism.
posted by Strass at 1:17 PM on November 18, 2012


Googling Moorcock and Banks brings up this, which may be of interest if anyone can get to it.
posted by Artw at 1:26 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the Culture books are actually an unintentional, backhanded critique of socialism, tbqh - the perfectly socialistic society Banks posits is only possible with unlimited resources and godlike AI.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:26 PM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


And killing veryone and everything is a bit of an Eternal Champion thing. Those guys may not be all that hot as rolemodels...

Yeah, he likes hammering home that the Eternal Champion might be the Eternal Chump considering the way things turn out, but usually the EC is fighting against the Lords of Chaos/Law and people side with them against the EC. Erekosë commits genocide twice because he thinks it's the only solution that will work (do you know who else would have liked that plan?). I'm not sure if Moorcock was fucking with his audience because in Runestaff he plays up Granbretan's authoritarian tendencies and basically turns them into techno-Nazis so that the good guy has permission to fight them. Erekosë is worse than the antagonists in Runestaff, but he's the protagonist. Now I really want to see if I can find some interview where he talks about it.
posted by ersatz at 1:27 PM on November 18, 2012


the perfectly socialistic society Banks posits is only possible with unlimited resources and godlike AI.

And a ceaselessly evil secret service section
posted by dng at 1:28 PM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


I guess Watership Down could be seen as pretty reactionary

Yep. I could enumerate my problems with it, but I won't because I reread every few years and love the hell out of it, even with all of its implicit sexism and troubling "art equals decadence" stuff and so on. It's such a great story, and I do love the characters.
posted by jokeefe at 1:30 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is the Heroic Fantasy But With Animals genre still a thing that exists? I remember reading bloody hundreds of books about creatures on quests when I was a child - rabbits, dogs, mice, thousands and thousands of moles.
posted by dng at 1:32 PM on November 18, 2012


Is the Heroic Fantasy But With Animals genre still a thing that exists? I remember reading bloody hundreds of books about creatures on quests when I was a child - rabbits, dogs, mice, thousands and thousands of moles.

One word. Furries.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:35 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


CEREBUS ALERT! CEREBUS ALERT!)

(Though I guess Steve Gerber could be seen as a counterbalance to Sim in that field)

I dunno, I think there was a big bump of those things for a bit and then it just got absorbed into Furry proper and left the cultural mainstream.
posted by Artw at 1:37 PM on November 18, 2012


His later career is all over the map but I really think James P. Hogan's Voyage to Yesteryar should be on any list like this.
posted by localroger at 3:23 PM on 11/18


I was surprised that it wasn't. Maybe because, writing-wise, it's very clunky. But it's basically the socialist equivalent of Atlas Shrugged - give it to a teenager to convert their plastic little minds.

That, and that one Stainless Steel Rat book on the socialist planet (The Stainless Steel Rat goes to War?)
posted by jb at 1:39 PM on November 18, 2012


I think the Culture books are actually an unintentional, backhanded critique of socialism, tbqh

What makes you think it is unintentional?

As others have said, this is a very 1978 view of life, the universe, and everything and it would be a serious mistake to think that the current state of SF is at all analogous to what Moorcock was seeing in 1978. Plus that's even assuming Moorcock was correct back then in the first place. Not that he was completely wrong, of course, but it's a very slanted view of things. He's very much like Alan Moore in that respect. Come to think of it, there sure are a lot of crotchety old Englishmen aren't there?

Also, as I've said on Metafilter before, Spinrad made the same point as Moorcock about a lot of SF except more, uh, pointedly in The Iron Dream. Better in the conception than the execution, sure, but what a conception!

Rats and Gargoyles, for example, is a cool book - but it certainly isn't in a league with most of the other stuff on the list, or even in a league with some of Gentle's other stuff.

Mieville himself notes this isn't a "best of" list. Which Gentle do you think better belongs on a list of SF which socialists should read? I think Ash is clearly a much better book but it doesn't seem like it would fit this list better than R&G.
posted by Justinian at 1:53 PM on November 18, 2012


Ellison's Dangerous Visions drew a line in the sand, so to speak. Those were times when the political left and right were more about hawks and doves, and his dangerous vision, about hypocrasy and individuality, straddled the spectrum in an uncomfortable way. Most of the stories in the DV series were thematically eccentric: inter-species sex and burning dog metaphors. I think thoughtful writing benefitted by his efforts. Cite Russ, Tiptree, and that woman from Oregon whose names escapes me at the moment. They weren't exactly socialist, but they challenged the status quo, mostly by coming at it sideways instead of overcoming it with revolutionary zeal.

Still, SF is about kissing frogs in search of a prince. Gotta just keep at it.

Douglas Adams, though. I thought Watership Down and The Plague Dogs were more cautionary than reactionary. Loved them both, but Plague Dogs more.
posted by mule98J at 1:53 PM on November 18, 2012


More and more I'm seeing the Culture books as a debate, with pro and con sides put and no clear winner, on wether interventionism is ever worth it. The bulk of the Culture is largely background to that.
posted by Artw at 1:55 PM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. Just read it.

...is absolutely what you should go do right now if you have not already done so.
posted by Artw at 1:57 PM on November 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


I really should go through Iain M Bank's Top 10 SF books and read the ones I haven't read.
posted by Artw at 2:00 PM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


More and more I'm seeing the Culture books as a debate, with pro and con sides put and no clear winner, on wether interventionism is ever worth it. The bulk of the Culture is largely background to that.

Recently, in my Evolution and Society class we had a discussion about interventionism (mostly centered around GMOs). I really wanted to bring up the Culture series, but knew nobody else in the class would have the faintest clue as to what I was talking about.

The debate was pretty much a stalemate, centered around whether good intentions were a good enough reason to change the ideology and culture of a country. Personally, I side with the vaguely pro-science side, whereas the other half of the class sided with the pro-independence of culture side (not to say that they aren't mutually exclusive).
posted by Strass at 2:01 PM on November 18, 2012


I reread every few years and love the hell out of it, even with all of its implicit sexism

Oh man. Have you tried reading the sequel, "Tales from Watership Down"? Adams tries to make up for the sexism in the original by giving all the female characters mystical magical powers of psychic communication...
posted by Jimbob at 2:01 PM on November 18, 2012


Isn't The Female Man, or any of Alice Sheldon's stories on the list? Because they absolutely should be. I'd also vote for Triton, which Delany wrote partly in response to The Dispossessed.
posted by jokeefe at 2:02 PM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Adams tries to make up for the sexism in the original by giving all the female characters mystical magical powers of psychic communication...

We should all just play this.
posted by Artw at 2:03 PM on November 18, 2012


(The Stainless Steel Rat goes to War?)

I think you're talking about ...Gets Drafted.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:06 PM on November 18, 2012


What makes you think it is unintentional?

More and more I'm seeing the Culture books as a debate, with pro and con sides put and no clear winner, on whether interventionism is ever worth it. The bulk of the Culture is largely background to that.


This is well put.

I get 'unintentional' from Banks being a robustly old-school Leftist, in that I don't think he meant to say 'left-wing ideals are only achievable with a functionally infinite quantity of fairy dust'. But he's a smart dude, so unintentional is maybe too strong a way to phrase that. Emergent, maybe?

Artw's point in the second para is on the money.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:12 PM on November 18, 2012


I adore the Culture books, but suffice it to say I simply lay back and accept the general demeanor of Culture citizens the same way I accept elven magic or werewolves. Iain Banks, I believe, does pretty much the same. After all he wrote, "Even if you can accept all the above, featuring a humanoid species that seems to exhibit no real greed, paranoia, stupidity, fanaticism or bigotry, wait till you read this..."
posted by bswinburn at 2:27 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I already wanted to punch him from a previous book.
posted by valkyryn at 2:31 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pff. Screw those guys.
posted by Artw at 2:32 PM on November 18, 2012


Sorry to be "that guy" in this thread, but no Samuel R. Delany? Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand was a huge catalyst for helping me break out of my frightened, relatively conservative shell in my late teens.
posted by treepour at 2:42 PM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Banks is very open about the Culture being an actual utopia that he'd like to live in, as opposed to a secret dystopia or whatever.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:45 PM on November 18, 2012


Absolutely; I just don't think he has any illusions about scarcity and the lack thereof making the Culture possible.
posted by Justinian at 2:51 PM on November 18, 2012


Is the Heroic Fantasy But With Animals genre still a thing that exists? I remember reading bloody hundreds of books about creatures on quests when I was a child - rabbits, dogs, mice, thousands and thousands of moles.

Comic-wise, there is Mouse Guard, which I haven't read but have heard good things about and I think looks lovely, and Mice Templar, which I - confusing it for Mouse Guard - have read, and did not like.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:52 PM on November 18, 2012


Regarding Watership Down, I don't see how "art equals decadence" is automatically reactionary. Various versions of that viewpoint have shown up in various left-wing circles as well. It might not be a good viewpoint, but it's not inherently right-wing.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:53 PM on November 18, 2012


that woman from Oregon whose names escapes me at the moment

Ursula K LeGuin?
posted by Forktine at 2:58 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]



Mieville himself notes this isn't a "best of" list. Which Gentle do you think better belongs on a list of SF which socialists should read? I think Ash is clearly a much better book but it doesn't seem like it would fit this list better than R&G.


I just don't think that it's really in a league, intellectually or thematically, with most of the rest of the work by male writers on the list - and I suspect that this is because Mieville didn't really have a long list of fantasy & sf by women writers to choose from but felt that he had to include some. (Which is laudable! Don't get me wrong!) But the fact that the list is so short of women writers even though it was written in 2002 suggests to me either that Mieville thinks that the types of things that women write about are not germane to socialists (which I'm pretty sure he doesn't think) or else that he had mostly read in a particular LEMish, "books about factories and starfields" strain of SF where there in fact aren't as many women writers and those there are tend to be obscure.

Honestly, I liked Gentle's shorter books about the White Crow much better - although you know who really doesn't like Gentle? My very favoritest SF author of all time, L. Timmel DuChamp. The linked and extremely critical reading of The Architecture of Desire is really something, although it's pretty much the total opposite of how I read the book.

The best books on the list are books like Pavane or Gormenghast - books which are not sentimental, which are not feminist or "feminine" in sensibility, books which can be read by a man without any blushing or feeling emasculated. Big Important Books. Dark and gloomy books. Serious Books. For reasons too many to outline here, this sort of list tends to exclude people who are not Serious Intellectual White Men. (Even though those books on the list are great! I own many of them! I recommend many of them regularly!)

I think it's no coincidence that he picks The Dispossessed, too, one of Le Guin's books which does not typify truly awesome ideas about gender and sexuality. (Always Coming Home is much better.) The Dispossessed - which don't get me wrong, I love, I've read it a million times - "has a lot to say to socialists about the relations between a rich capitalist world and a poor communist one" if you think that a thumping literalism is the best approach. (Which isn't really in keeping with the whole "you can't write the revolution" line, right?) (Also, it's about anarchists, not communists - anarchism can be a kind of small-c communism, but I don't really trust a Trot when he makes that substitution.)

What does it mean to be "relevant to a socialist"? If you're looking for lessons in international relations, you'd do better to read history than The Dispossessed, because that is fundamentally a moral and sentimental book, a dream, a very gentle utopia.

I just...I guess I find that list confusing because I don't understand how many of the books he points to teach what he wants them to teach.

On the other hand, I like book lists, especially ones where the list creator is intelligent and has good politics.
posted by Frowner at 3:07 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


For reasons too many to outline here, this sort of list tends to exclude people who are not Serious Intellectual White Men.

I must say that the name Doris Lessing came to mind when I read this list. Given his extremely broad interpetation of the genres, that was quite a surprise.
posted by y2karl at 3:15 PM on November 18, 2012


Is this a faulty attempt at Geekier Than Thou one-upsmanship, or is there some joke about how John Ronald Reuel spelled his family name that I'm not getting?
Pendragon was apparently commenting on the misspelling of the name in the essay.
posted by yz at 3:16 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


(I want to add that I think Mieville is the tops, own most of his books and regularly quote the "every branny breakfast item in a New York Starbucks is a fucking Blood Muffin" line from his blog. Also, The Scar is one of the finest fantasy novels anywhere.)
posted by Frowner at 3:16 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


1) this is probably my ideal metafilter post.

2) Any of y'all read any Ken Macleod?

I really value his stuff as a dirty, rough and tumble complement* to Bank's work.

*complement as in two great tastes that taste great together, rather than in any way derivative of or beholden to.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:17 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I see Macleod is mentioned in China's list. All his stuff is great if any of you are looking for something very strongly in this vein.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:22 PM on November 18, 2012


That PA strip is me.

I do like his list in the OP, but I've only ever read one Mieville book, Perdido Street Station. And by about halfway I was sick of his bullshit. I finished it in a kind of vituperative fury, mutilated it with a huge pair of pinking shears and fastballed it into the bin. I don't even know why, it just seemed the right thing to do.

So? Not a fan. But I can see why people think he's a good writer. I just really hated what he wrote about and how he wrote it.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:32 PM on November 18, 2012


Macleod is mostly great, though The Star Faction is probably my least favourite of his. I can imagine it appealing to people that have long lists of socialist organisations taped to their wall for reference purposes, but for the rest of humanity's great unwashed it's a tad tedious/impenetrable. The following three books are just fabuloso, though.

On the other hand, Sebmojo is utterly wrong, almost by definition, about Perdido Street Station, which has completely replaced my need for sexual union of any kind. It changed my life, and the life of the insect-headed woman wearing a refrigerator who approached me on the bus to tell me it had changed her life.
posted by Sparx at 3:39 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Macleod is mostly great, though The Star Faction is probably my least favourite of his.

I am thankful for this post because I read The Star Fraction years ago, and subsequently forgot what it was called and who the author was. Now I know, and I can go looking for the rest of his books.
posted by Jimbob at 3:43 PM on November 18, 2012



I do like his list in the OP, but I've only ever read one Mieville book, Perdido Street Station. And by about halfway I was sick of his bullshit.


Why? I've only read PSS once - it is a bit different from his later novels, more "a bit of everything" (although I think there's some formal reasons for that) and I kind of wish the part with the bird creature had been handled differently - it felt rather sanctimonious instead of estranging to me.
posted by Frowner at 3:47 PM on November 18, 2012


Another missing writer on that list is Margaret Atwood.
posted by wilful at 4:06 PM on November 18, 2012


And speaking of Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon, of all the books he wrote, is one book by him that belongs on that list. He was not always a barely cryptofacist.
posted by y2karl at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2012


The bulk of the Culture is largely background to that.

The elephant in the room in all Culture novels is that the protagonists and participants are the weirdos of the Culture, the outcasts and people who don't belong in whatever passes for normal life in the Culture. This freaky stuff only happens to people who think hey, it would be really cool if I could be involved in freaky stuff and go through hell and dishwasher detergent to convince the machines that they should be allowed to put themselves at risk. I think reading a Banks Culture novel and thinking it's about the Culture is kind of like reading The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and thinking it is about general human sexuality.
posted by localroger at 4:56 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another missing writer on that list is Margaret Atwood.

Ironically, she might be the one most okay with her own omission from a fantasy/sci-fi list.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:04 PM on November 18, 2012


Why?

Mainly to annoy Sparx, but it was this passage made me bust out the pinking shears:

Snotgullet Fatbelly of Shitheel Lane, the Belches, New Crobuzon rolled over in bed and looked at the flesh slug he'd brought home from the Slime Club the night before. He composed a quick mental poem on her beauty, then blew his nose and wiped it on her heaving peristaltic sides.

Just then the door burst open, kicked by the fascist jackboots of the patriarchal capitalist boss class. They took away his lover and shot him in the belly, which was his fattest part. 'That will teach you for trying to improve the lot of the proletariat', they sneered.

posted by Sebmojo at 5:06 PM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


The only classic SF I've ever read in substantial volume is by Isaac Asimov -- and I couldn't really say what his politics were, except that his female characters weren't half as bad as they could have been, given the time he was writing. Not as good as the robot characters, of course, but neither are the male human characters.
posted by jb at 5:06 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just then the door burst open, kicked by the fascist jackboots of the patriarchal capitalist boss class. They took away his lover and shot him in the belly, which was his fattest part. 'That will teach you for trying to improve the lot of the proletariat', they sneered.

Heh. You've got him down.
posted by Artw at 5:09 PM on November 18, 2012


He's too modest to hock his own wares, but Miéville's own The City & The City deserves a place on this list. The book absolutely oozes dark gritty atmosphere.
posted by foobaz at 5:18 PM on November 18, 2012


Not a particularly socialist work of his though.
posted by Artw at 5:20 PM on November 18, 2012


If you love the kind of socially conscious SF that a lot if the work mentioned here is you should probably give Embassytown a go - it could totally be a lost classic from back in the day.
posted by Artw at 5:21 PM on November 18, 2012


Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants. "The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway," Niven said.”
posted by mkb at 6:02 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Nope, still not beating Card.
posted by Artw at 6:11 PM on November 18, 2012


As well as any other of [Vance's] Gaean Reach novels

One of his novels, Wyst: Alastor 1716, takes place in an explicitly socialist metropolis, where Egalism is exalted and Elitism reviled. After 100 years, the Alastor Cluster's benevolent dictator ends the socialist experiment when some Wyst citizens commit mass murder in an attempt to take over the nation's government.

I don't think Vance's politics are easily discerned.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:07 PM on November 18, 2012


I had an idea for a space opera where you spend the first third of the novel with the plucky frigate, fighting the good fight despite interference from the Admiralty (and the self interested but untouchable First Space Lord Ritt Momny) against The Collective. As the novel progresses we realize that The Collective are the good guys. Only the lack of hard work and talent stand between me and my vision.
posted by shothotbot at 7:31 PM on November 18, 2012


shothotbot, you've kind of described Banks's Consider Phlebas.
posted by zompist at 8:04 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think there's a real difference between science fiction and fantasy written that happens to have a political bent (because authors always put their spin on things) and science fiction and fantasy that is written specifically to stick it to the science fiction "man." It's one of the problems I have with a lot of China Mieville's work, and it makes me leery of trying anything he recommends. (Though Freedom and Necessity I found quite good, I do not think we took the same things from it.) He (and a few others) are writing political fiction that happens to have science fiction in it, and the science fiction /and/ the plot both suffer for it.

(For example, I just finished reading Embassytown, and it ultimately left me cold. There were a lot of interesting concepts, but it seemed like they got short shrift so that the politics could be wedged in)

If anyone has any leftist science fiction that meets the first standard rather than the second, I'd be interested in hearing it though.
posted by corb at 8:19 PM on November 18, 2012


And then there's Cory Doctrow. I read his "Pirate Cinema" and felt gross because it's one of the most masturbatory things I've ever read. It's like...

Imagine for a moment that Ayn Rand didn't have despicable opinions, but she was still Ayn Rand.

That's Cory Doctrow.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:14 PM on November 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sebmojo - I kinda felt the same way about Perdido the first time I started reading it. Had to put it down about halfway through. Several years later, finished Perdido (satisfied-ish) and started on other Meville - he gets a lot better the more he writes. I think a major turning point for him was his very excellent young adult Un Lun Dun. Since then his writing has been a lot more accessible.

Or I've gotten acclimated to Melville.

I couldn't find a list of humanitarian science fiction and fantasy.

Secular Humanist science fiction?
posted by porpoise at 9:26 PM on November 18, 2012


Total side note and hors de genre, but LeGuin, Acker, Kesey, Herbert... Is it something in the PNW water?
posted by mwhybark at 9:49 PM on November 18, 2012


I've gotten acclimated to Melville.

Him and his damnable great bleached fish.

In all seriousness, I totally hated his early stuff, PSS etc, when I first read it. It still reads as juvie to me. Iron Council filled me with glee and retconned the earlier work, though. Instead of seeing a weird goth pastiche of Moorcock and Peake, I saw a weird explicitly socialist take on Delany, mostly, filtered though a UK sensibility. I put it down to encroaching middle age, embraced it, and moved on. Since Iron Council, I lurves me some China.
posted by mwhybark at 9:54 PM on November 18, 2012


Pope Guilty: "Imagine for a moment that Ayn Rand didn't have despicable opinions, but she was still Ayn Rand"

How is this even possible?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:45 PM on November 18, 2012


It's all the same smug moral superiority and self-insert characters who are awesome and who win by being awesome, but in this case they're brave copyfighters instead of brave corporate executives.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:50 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


But the brilliance of some of their late-game manoeuvres (the Kieghass Diversion and its many variants is the specific one I'm thinking of, though I'm sure you could come up with others) really expresses the spirit of the game so well that it's hard to stay rooted in the Imperial - one might even say 'old fashioned' - Rules.

I'm a pure theory man in this context, as the scene here in Amsterdam is dominated by deliberately retrograde pre-1891 Mornington Crescent -- or Oudezijds Voorburgwal as it's called in the Dutch translation -- rules. Frex, the Amsterdam metro system is deliberately ignored, which as you might imagine, makes for a very different game. I blame it on steampunk and its fad of getting back to pseudo-Victorian pursuits.

But you're right, the Kieghass Diversion is a thing of beauty, one of the greatest advancements in MC game theory of the past few years.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:13 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


His later career is all over the map but I really think James P. Hogan's Voyage to Yesteryar should be on any list like this.

I was surprised that it wasn't.
I'm not. Hogan at best is a shit writer, at worst a Holocaust denying shit writer.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:16 AM on November 19, 2012


I just...I guess I find that list confusing because I don't understand how many of the books he points to teach what he wants them to teach.

That's because the list really isn't much more structured than a list of books Mieville likes that are somewhat socialist in nature, compiled for an audience not all that familiar with socialism.

The best books on the list are books like Pavane or Gormenghast - books which are not sentimental

Really? Gormenghast to my mind reeks of sentiment, though as seen through the eyes of an unsympathetic, cold observer.

Pavane is not as good as its reputation has it. It's one of those books that came along early enough to lay claim on a particular sub-sub-genre, then got endlessly referenced in secondary literature. A novel more read about than read. The ending is throw book at the wall awful. Rats and Gargoyles is much better; anything by Gentle is better.

(Keith Roberts in general has not aged well. Lots of unexamined sexism in his work, it's all very bleak and depressing in the best tradition of British New Wave without anything interesting to make up for it: early seventies Christopher Priest without the talent.)
posted by MartinWisse at 1:34 AM on November 19, 2012


I don't think Vance's politics are easily discerned.

Personally I find the question noncupatory. I grow weary of your importunities. Begone.

But as to Vance's politics, he discusses them in interviews as much as he does the craft of writing, which is to say, not at all. I would like to think, in the words of The SVU, Vance’s Marxist Stratum essay linked above that he is a typical Democratic voter of the 1950s. In other words, from a certain point of view, one could say that Vance is politically more on the left than the right. In any case, while I think he is a great writer, he is no intellectual.

And I can safely say this after reading him over the last fifty odd years: he has gotten more obviously conservative as he has grown older. But, as with Gene Wolfe, his politics, discernable or not, have little to do with his best work. The clunkers, on the other hand....

In The Domains of Koryphon aka The Gray Prince, making an argument that he seems to make an argument for colonialism is pretty much firing projectile weapons at aquatic creatures in a small tubs. But then many folks -- there is some discussion about it in the Extant 17 linked above -- including the inestimable Owlcroft, think that about his worst novel. I would agree.

And, for me, Wyst: Alastor is right down there with it. And certainly, the Yips in The Cadwhal Chronicles left me feeling a bit queasy at times.

But, for a matter of fact, when I posted that link, that lump in my cheek was my tongue. So there.

On another note, I found very interesting Carlo Rotella's revelations that his wife once said he was Howard Alan Treesong while his son described him as a less dastardly Cugel. But then, how many among us do not have a bit of Treesong in us ? Especially regarding high school reunions....
posted by y2karl at 1:59 AM on November 19, 2012


Pavane is not as good as its reputation has it.

My mileage varied on that one. If your issues with the ending regard that monkeywrenching hint that all of it was due to some transtemporal history changing by the hands of survivors of nuclear war, I found that meh at the worst. I still think it deserves its reputation. As for the rest of his writing on the other hand, meh is too kind a word. I find him not unlike Piers Anthony in that his first novel appeared like skyrockets and seemed to promise so much. What followed was in a ditch.
posted by y2karl at 2:11 AM on November 19, 2012


"Imagine for a moment that Ayn Rand didn't have despicable opinions, but she was still Ayn Rand"

How is this even possible?
Simple, you stop thinking of her opinions as despicable.
posted by fullerine at 3:09 AM on November 19, 2012


Personally I find the question noncupatory.

I take your meaning. There's no doubt that politics can get in the way of good storytelling. I did not enjoy my recent re-reading of Wyst as much as I did the other two Alastor books.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:48 AM on November 19, 2012


y2karl, since you seem to know your Vance, did he write plausible female characters at any point? I've read The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle and I remember being annoyed enough at the time that I didn't continue looking for Lyonesse, which was the one I had wanted to read.
posted by ersatz at 4:17 AM on November 19, 2012


ersatz, there's an interesting discussion of Vance's female characters on this other board.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:41 AM on November 19, 2012


Hogan at best is a shit writer, at worst a Holocaust denying shit writer.

Don't hold back Martin! Tell us what you really think.

Seriously, Hogan's career peaked with Code of the Lifemaker. He's no more a "shit writer" than Asimov or Clarke, or for that matter Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle, none of whom ever got the hang of 3D human characters either. But his early stuff was both technologically and socially optimistic in a way not much SF was in the 1970's, and he did big hard science ideas better than most writers ever have.

I didn't realize until I got hold of a copy of Kicking the Sacred Cow how thoroughly Hogan is driven by contrarianism, though. In those early books he was kicking the sacred SF cows of militarism and fascism, and doing a pretty good job at it. But after Lifemaker he lurched to the political right with Endgame Enigma, and then sailed off the edge of the world when he decided Velikovsky had gotten a raw deal.

Just as I kind of pretend Stephen King stopped writing after It, I kind of pretend Hogan stopped after Lifemaker.
posted by localroger at 7:46 AM on November 19, 2012


If anyone has any leftist science fiction that meets the first standard rather than the second, I'd be interested in hearing it though.

I feel like I've read a lot of socialist fiction, but for some reason very little of it comes to mind (except Hogan's Voyage to Yesteryear, which is definitely socialist, but also quite clunky -- and possibly doesn't fit your criteria in not being about 'the man'). But, taking a broader view of "left" (to include books addressing gender relations, race relations, power, etc) and which definitely could not be described as "right-wing" books, the following come to mind:

They are both on the list, but Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin would be two that I would recommend, if you haven't read them already. Both are very powerful writers who have looked at race and gender with sophisticated eyes. Butler's Kindred is one of the best books I've ever read that dealt with race and American slavery; one of the others is Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness, which is less immediately emotionally powerful than Butler's book, but perhaps more thoughtful. It's funny - most people cite The Dispossessed when talking about Le Guin, but (having read both), I found Four Ways much more memorable.

In another thread, I recently recommended Kate Elliott's Jaran series as being like Dune, only set among feminist (and somewhat socialist, but really in a pre-modern community-oriented sense) steppe people.

I don't know if Joan Vinge's two big series (starting with Psion and The Snow Queen respectively) would be classified as "leftist" fiction particularly, but both address issues of economic and political power and contain strong critiques of those abusing these powers -- I just realized, both series are in completely different universes, but both include accounts of genocide/attempted genocide for economic gain. Also, The Snow Queen series in particular is just about the best SF I've read in the last 15 years.

On the fantasy side: Robin Hobb's books often include conflicts about/criticisms of colonialism, economic exploitation of resources, slavery and gender inequality. She also used to write under the name Meghan Lindholm - and her Cloven Hooves (now out of print in the US) is one of the best books I've ever read about gender and contemporary marriage.
posted by jb at 8:30 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


there is Tolkein and that group of middle-class Christian fantasists who constantly sing the praises of bourgeois virtues and whose villains are thinly disguised working class agitators -- fear of the Mob permeates their rural romances.

The orc is the unwashed masses. The orc is the proletariat. The orc must be put down, because the orc is a threat to the hobbits and other "free peoples" of Middle Earth (i.e., the bourgeoisie).

It all makes so much sense now.

Saruman is Lenin?
posted by asnider at 8:48 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


The orc is the proletariat.

Yep. Bilbo and the hobbits represent the middle-class with all its values and fears and hopes. The middle-class, by definition, face two forces: the proletariat or working class from below as represented by the various dark creatures such as the trolls and goblins; and the ceiling above, the rich elite such as the wood elves (landed gentry) and the dragon who hordes wealth obtained illicitly (robber baron). It is the middle class dream, sandwiched between these opposing forces, to obtain safety and security and comfort (Bilbo so loves his comfort in his hobbit hole) by keeping down the grubbing lower class and taking a share from the immoral upper class. In the end this is exactly what happens when the goblins/dragon are defeated and the treasure is fairly distributed (to the middle class).

That Bilbo is portrayed as a thief is curious, but it fits the model. He didn't steal the ring from Gollum but won it by out smarting him - the bourgeois value of education rewards in the end. Bilbo's thieving is always done in the name of good, like Robin Hood, not out of greed or malice. So The Hobbit is more than a fairy tale for children, it is a bourgeois guidebook. It's the perfect story for facing the fears, uncertainties and joys on the journey of becoming (and remaining) self-sufficient members of a democratic society. In a democracy everyone is ideally seen as equal, at least in opportunity to get ahead, and thus a small inconsequential hobbit Bilbo can obtain great success, which re-enforces the bourgeois notion that with a little pluck and work anything is possible. This lesson seems odd in Tolkien's world of monarchy, where birth determines status and fortune, but perhaps that is part of the fantasy: bumbling kings and heroic nobodies.
posted by stbalbach at 1:48 PM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Although Aragorn can hardly be characterized as "bumbling".
posted by adamdschneider at 2:24 PM on November 19, 2012


Oy. Tolkien can be fairly accused of conservativism and aristophilia, but the orcs are not "the lower class". What's Sam Gamgee supposed to be? Bilbo is rich, but most of the hobbits aren't. And most of them are farmers, not exactly a middle class occupation.

It'd be more accurate to say that the orcs represent industrialization-- and in particular the uglification of factories and cities eating up the lovely English countryside, and of modern total war destroying the French countryside (as he saw in WWI). Even that overstates the level of actual political thought in Tolkien, I think; it's more sentimentalism over the loss of beautiful things than an actual proposal for a purely rural economy. (And even in the fantasy world, the old order of elves and unspoiled nature was going to disappear, Sauron or no Sauron.)

It's curious that even a left-wing writer like Orwell assumed that nice bourgeois things like restaurants could not exist in a socialist world.

As happens not infrequently, Tolkien's story undermines some of his own worldview. It's all about the greatness of inherited privilege-- except that the hobbits are nobodies, and most of the royalty except for Aragorn is portrayed as declining into decrepitude or evil.
posted by zompist at 3:38 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


stbalbach et al, The Last Ringbearer is a well-written attempt to recast LOTR from the position of the Orcs, with some socialist undertones.
posted by wilful at 3:51 PM on November 19, 2012


Regarding Watership Down, I don't see how "art equals decadence" is automatically reactionary. Various versions of that viewpoint have shown up in various left-wing circles as well. It might not be a good viewpoint, but it's not inherently right-wing.

The point wasn't "art equals decadence", anyway. Art is clearly important to the rabbits through their storytelling tradition, and Adams makes this explicit by having the rabbits who make Shapes and poetry react uncomfortably to Dandelion's offer of a story, just as Hazel's bunch react poorly to the Shapes and the poems.

The problem here isn't "art equals decadence", it's that this particular art did nothing but make desperate excuses for a system of death and tyranny, even though the rabbits were (in reality) free to walk away from it. If the rabbits in the Warren of Shining Wires had been fed by the man simply because he liked them, their art might still have been different due to the human-contact factor... but perhaps not horrifyingly so, just as riding in a hrududu with kindly Dr. Adams did not destroy Hazel's character. The warning here is not against decadence or the easy life -- the Watership rabbits enjoyed the easy life with gusto, after everything -- but the kind of decadence which is gained through embracing injustice and living subordinate to one's own enemies and exploiters.

I feel much the same way about the novel's sexism: I'd say it comes more from the way rabbits actually live (via Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit) than from anything else, and that's underscored by Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang's bravery and heroism. Not for nothing are the does portrayed as nearly the only ones opposed to the Efrafan system, willing to give their lives to make it stop... and let's not forget the bit about the male rabbits being unable to build their imagined society until they let go of their sexist belief that "only does dig", either.
posted by vorfeed at 3:59 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know everyone loves Vonnegut, but, apart from Slaughterhouse 5, his best known story seems to be Harrison Bergeron, which is a simplistic iteration of that old canard that socialism necessarily involved crippling anyone who showed any sign of talent or ability (which isn't true, not even of Stalinism).

Do writers from behind the Iron Curtain feature at all? Lem in particular wrote highly satirical takes on the world. For example, I remember The Futurological Congress as being a very pointed satire on the West.

And isn't Mieville a member of the SWP? That's a very particular view of socialism. What I've seen of it is less a political party as a mild kind of - and I can't think of a less aggressive word, sorry - cult.
posted by Grangousier at 4:22 PM on November 19, 2012


I know everyone loves Vonnegut, but, apart from Slaughterhouse 5, his best known story seems to be Harrison Bergeron, which is a simplistic iteration of that old canard that socialism necessarily involved crippling anyone who showed any sign of talent or ability (which isn't true, not even of Stalinism).

IIRC Harrison Bergeron was meant to be a mocking "ha ha, this is what you idiots think socialism is, look how foolish you are" sort of thing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:37 PM on November 19, 2012


What's Sam Gamgee supposed to be? Bilbo is rich, but most of the hobbits aren't.

Rich by hobbit standards, but they all live about the same, even the middle class has divisions of wealth (McMansions etc). Bilbo isn't a Hobbit King with armies of servants and loads of treasure lording it over everyone. The magic ring turns out to be the greatest treasure of all and therein is the central plot device of LotR, how does an average bloke Hobbit deal with so much power yet remain true to himself and others.
posted by stbalbach at 7:44 PM on November 19, 2012


Bilbo is clearly petty gentry, not middling sort: he has a nice house, doesn't have to work for a living.

Sam is his servant. Merry and Pippin also seem to be gentry (again, no work).
posted by jb at 8:06 PM on November 19, 2012


The Shire has the same social structure as rural England in the nineteenth century.
posted by jb at 8:06 PM on November 19, 2012


Haven't read the books, but I always thought the Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves were the British bourgeoisie, proletariat, and nobility, respectively.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:14 PM on November 19, 2012


No, there are all classes within the Shire.

The dwarves, elves, etc are foreign.
posted by jb at 5:10 AM on November 20, 2012


I think trying to put a really perfect, symmetrical symbolic reading onto most books is a mistake. Obviously, the orcs are in some ways the proletariat of the dark satanic mills and the trolls are coarse and uncultured lower-class ruffians. That doesn't mean that they aren't anything else, nor does it mean that you can't put a sort of 19th-century-class-nostalgia reading onto the Shire. If Tolkien had wanted to write nothing more than "how I think social classes should work based on their inherent characteristics", he could easily have done that, what with being a don at Oxford and all. Plenty of comparable elite men did so.

The whole "and Tolkien is terrible, terrible escapist garbage that people only like because they are dupes or else bad" tenor that these conversations tend to fall into always reminds me a bit of Orwell's essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool"- people trying to explain away what is obviously a powerful and complex emotional response to a story via a flat, one-note ideological reading that appeals to them.

I also notice that no other books really get the Tolkien treatment - no one says that Joanna Russ's The Female Man is unacceptable, wish-fulfillment cis-white-women garbage because it is transmisogynistic and does not deal with race. No one argues that Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is just reactionary junk, even though its treatment of gender and class makes Tolkien look positively innocent.

I'm not even a huge fan of Tolkien. ("'Every little bit helps, Butterbur,' said Aragorn." pretty much did it for me.) But Mieville's and Moorcock's take on the The Lord of the Rings is reductionist and, because of this, lacks explanatory force.
posted by Frowner at 5:22 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


ersatz, there's an interesting discussion of Vance's female characters on this other board.

Thanks!
posted by ersatz at 7:11 AM on November 20, 2012


The dwarves, elves, etc are foreign.

That does jibe with my Orcs are Germans theory.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2012


Slap*Happy, if Mieville's progressives always won, he wouldn't even be writing political tracts, because political tracts don't end with their complaints resolved.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:12 PM on November 20, 2012


It'd be more accurate to say that the orcs represent industrialization-- and in particular the uglification of factories and cities eating up the lovely English countryside, and of modern total war destroying the French countryside (as he saw in WWI).

That's the more common reading, yes, but the class struggle reading can be made to work, too.

But I think you're largely right about people reading too much into Tolkien (I was, in fact, being somewhat sarcastic in my remarks about orcs as proles, but it does fit in at least some ways). I seem to recall reading somewhere that Tolkien said that the reason he wrote the Lord of the Rings was because he just wanted to write a really long story. That doesn't mean that there aren't political messages in the story, but it does suggest that they aren't the primary purpose or focus.
posted by asnider at 12:23 PM on November 22, 2012


Also, because he wanted to write a prose epic. I'm not a big Tolkien fan, but my Anglo-Saxonist/Classicist friend is, largely because his books are very similar to the great poem epics she has studied: long on drama and adventure/action, short on realistic dialogue and character development.
posted by jb at 12:53 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


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