Our Greatest Political Novelist?

Monday, December 16th, 2013

When we call literary writers “political” today, we’re usually talking about identity politics, Tim Kreider notes:

If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

Kreider makes an excellent point about science fiction addressing big political ideas, but he misunderstands conservatism, which does not see the status quo as inevitable. Rather, it sees the status quo — civilization — as fragile. Don’t mess it up! Many of civilization’s less pleasant aspects exist to prevent even worse things from befalling us.

Kreider suggests that Kim Stanley Robinson may be our greatest political novelist:

In his Mars novels, Robinson uses the Red Planet as a historical tabula rasa, a template for creating a saner, more sustainable, and more just human society. What’s most powerful about the Mars books as political novels is that they envision a credible utopia, one that doesn’t — unlike, say, Skinner’s “Walden Two” — rely on a revision of human nature. Robinson’s characters are cynics, opportunists, idealists, narcissists, drug-dependent, manic-depressive, borderline Asperger’s, and emotionally frozen survivors of abuse, but with all their flaws and conflicting agendas they manage to remake their world in more humane and equitable form.

So far, it sounds almost Moldbuggian. But it’s not:

Essentially, Robinson attempts to apply scientific thinking to politics, approaching it less like pure physics, in which one infallible equation / ideology explains and answers everything, than like engineering — a process of what F.D.R. once called “bold, persistent experimentation,” finding out what works and combining successful elements to synthesize something new. He scavenges ideas from the American Constitution, the Swiss confederacy, “the guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon ownership, Kerala land tenure, and so on” to construct his utopias. The major platform planks these methods lead him to in his books are:

  • common stewardship — not ownership — of the land, water, and air
  • an economic system based on ecological reality
  • divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities
  • the basics of existence, like health care, removed from the cruelties of the free market
  • the application of democratic principles like self-determination and equality in the workplace — which, in practice, means small co-ops instead of vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations — and,
  • a reverence for the natural world codified into law.

Depending on your own politics, this may sound like millennia-overdue common sense or a bong-fuelled 3 A.M. wish list, but there’s no arguing that to implement it in the real world circa 2013 would be, literally, revolutionary. My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.

You could argue that, if I didn’t fundamentally agree with his politics, Robinson’s fiction might seem contrived and didactic to me, the way Ayn Rand’s does if you’re not predisposed toward her brand of enlightened assholism. It’s true he likes to write lectures and speeches, but they’re more engaging than some of Tolstoy’s, who nearly succeeded in stomping my clinging fingers off of “Anna Karenina” with his ruminations on Russian agriculture circa 1870.

Robinson’s Red Mars is one of the few books I looked forward to and then started without finishing, so I share neither Kreider’s politics nor his taste in fiction.

It might be interesting to consider some of the same issues through, say, Heinlein’s eyes. On his anarchist moon colony — in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — common stewardship of the environment means tossing anyone out the airlock who endangers the colony.  And roughly nothing is codified into law.  If people don’t agree to something, well, that’s that. How’s that for divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities?

On a neo-reactionary colony, stewardship of the land, water, and air would be the duty of the owner of that land, water, and air — the sovereign, probably a corporation — who would have every incentive to maintain its value over the long term, just as a monarch wants to leave his land in good condition for his children and grandchildren. The neo-reactionary point of view, despite its semi-confused reputation for supporting monarchy, also supports subsidiarity, or divesting central governments of most of their power and diffusing it among local communities, just as historical monarchs were rarely totalitarian, and modern mall-management companies rarely try to run shops.

Interestingly, true paleo-reactionaries have pointed to the same cruelties of the free market as Kreider and Robinson and argued that an aristocratic lord protects his peasants, and a plantation-owner protects his slaves, far more than the market protects its free laborers.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)


  1. I read the Mars trilogy back in my young(er), semi-progressive high-school days and barely managed to get though it all. I think I was more interested in the descriptions of the expedition equipment and the terraforming process than in the political aspects, though. It hasn’t left much of an impression, all in all. About the only things I remember are Saxifrage Russell’s uber-spergness and being annoyed at the Martian preservationists.

    Oh, and the little thermal windmills :D

  2. Faze says:

    The “cruelties” of the free market are far outweighed by its unintentional but real kindnesses. The cruelties of government are one of those “longest books ever written”.

  3. Steve Johnson says:

    I also started and didn’t finish the Mars trilogy.

    The point where I quit was when the evil capitalists priced weight lifting gyms out of the reach of people — resulting in people permanently adapting to lower Martian gravity and so being forced to stay on Mars forever — for better or worse.

    Apparently no one on Mars could smelt iron into discs with holes in them.

  4. Abelard Lindsey says:

    The problem with Kim Stanley Robinson is not his politics. It’s that he is boring. I stopped reading his novels for the simple reason I could not finish them due to sheer boredom.

  5. Bruce Charlton says:

    “Our Greatest Political Novelist?”

    Objectively, it would have to be George Orwell, since he is the only one that a lot of people read.

    (Although personally I don’t much like either of his two great political novels; I do love his essays, however.)

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