When Science Fiction and Fantasy Envisions Life Beyond Capitalism
A syllabus of SFF novels that imagine different ways of living
In 2014, the legend Ursula K. Le Guin was given a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation and delivered what I’ve heard (accurately) described as a barn burner of a speech. Perhaps the most memorable part was her call for imaginative literature that envisions other ways of living:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
(Watch the full video here.)
I know I’m not the only writer who has had these lines stuck in their head ever since. How can we create new ways of living in this world if we can’t imagine them on the page? Literature has many goals, of course, but one of them—especially in science fiction—has always been imagining new possibilities. Le Guin devoted her work to this, perhaps most notably in the 1974 novel The Dispossessed that imagines an anarcho-syndicalist society on the moon. But it is a theme throughout her oeuvre.
And a theme throughout all of science fiction. Star Trek is an obvious model, a show that pushed boundaries in progressive ways while imagining a more noble future. Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels famously take place in a post-scarcity anarchist utopia. The examples are really limitless.
And I think it is fair to combine the utopian impulse with the dystopian one. The writer of dystopias (which Le Guin was as well) is looking to display the cracks in the system. Certainly this was a goal of my novel The Body Scout, which imagines our current system running full steam ahead until the whole machine is at the point of bursting with steam shooting out of the seams and the gears beginning to break.
Utopia and dystopia are two sides of the same coin in this way. The flaws in the system and the possible ways forward. They are complimentary impulses that are often combined in the same work. See Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven for example. Of course, a novel is never going to bring down a system. Fiction is not activism really. Or at least not only that. Still, a first step to creating new society is being able to imagine it. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings,” as Le Guin said.
I’m thinking of all this now because of a rather silly Salon article that claimed essentially no SFF authors have ever envisioned other ways of living. If you’re online in the SFF world, I’m sure you saw the discourse. I’m not going to bother to link the piece here. It didn’t even have enough substance to bother tearing apart—the initial version of the article, before online pushback made Salon edit it, only mentioned one novel and then spent most of it’s time talking about Game of Thrones for some reason. However, the pushback did spawn a nice online conversation about books that do worldbuild other systems and imagine different ways of life.
The craft questions here are interesting. What is the balance a SFF writer should strike between explaining the ins-and-outs of a utopian society versus telling a narratively compelling story? (Do we need to know the exact trade policies of socialist space slug or the power source of the forcefield around the cyberpunk autonomous zone?) And what are the craft differences between science fiction, which can imagine possible futures enabled by potentially real technology, and fantasy that might imagine societies enabled by impossible magic? (Does a dragon fire-fueled anarchist utopia help us in our reality without dragons?) Should dystopian works include clear ideas about the practical next steps after the machine implodes?
These are interesting questions, I think, and probably worth exploring in depth in another newsletter.
For now though I wanted to post a little syllabus. On Twitter, I asked about favorite SFF works that imagine different systems and got some great replies. I’ll post some of them below and add some myself. I haven’t read all of these, but I love the ones I have read. If you have other suggestions, please post in the replies!
(Most of the links below are to Bookshop.org)
That’s a start. As I said above, please feel free to leave more recommendations in the comments.
If you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”