As a writer of dystopian fiction of a somewhat liberal bent, I have recently begun to feel very alone. My novel’s inspired by conspiracy theory, demented government, and dystopia – which suddenly have become the avenue of the right. Alex Jones, head honcho conspiracy theorizer, is a Rand Paul supporter. Though Glenn Beck’s on his way out, his novel, The Overton Window, was a major seller. And now Atlas Shrugged has been adapted, and appears to be a success with its core audience (just no one else).
As we are living in increasingly dystopian times, and the current administration is headed by a Democrat, perhaps right-wing conspiracy theorizing is no surprise at all. At the same time, the major works of dystopian fiction have been about the State run amok:
- 1984: About a tyrannical, authoritarian government.
- Brave New World: About a tyrannical, authoritarian government.
You can look at other examples as well: the movie Brazil, which takes a lot from the two books above, is an indictment of ridiculous bureaucracies – the division of Information Retrieval is a paperwork nightmare. Even Kafka’s “The Trial” could be argued as a right-wing indictment of state bureaucracy.
Though Ayn Rand’s Anthem isn’t canonized in the same way, she paints a similar future to Orwell and Huxley. However, the difference between a writer like Rand and Orwell is that Rand is purely ideological. She seems to be saying that the despotic future of Anthem is inevitable if we give the state too much power. Orwell was looking at the extremists around him (Nazis, Stalinists) and warning against oligarchical state power. After all, Orwell was (by and large) a socialist, so to say he’s warning of an inevitable state takeover in the same way as Rand is not accurate. He’s warning against authoritarian extremism – whereas Rand’s position is actually extremism in itself: the state is evil no matter what it does.
Huxley also can’t exactly be put in a right-wing camp – the experimenter with psychedelics was arguing against state-mandated ideological purity. Brave New World was in part a reaction to the socialist HG Wells’ utopian novels. But warning against the possible dangers of utopian idealism isn’t the same thing as saying, “this is inevitable if you give the state any power.” To put it simply: fascism is bad whether it comes from the right or the left.
The right-leaning Pajama’s Media has a recent piece about this topic.
Jerry Pournelle states:
“Planetary history has shown that vast powerful central bureaucracies don’t generally produce either general welfare or freedom or wealth, and science fiction writers have sort of noticed that — even as welfare liberalism has become a consensus among a large part of the literary elites in academia.”
Orson Scott Card is also interviewed and complains about the liberal influence on science fiction in the seventies. Then again, Card is on record saying:
Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.
Ironically, this sounds very much like a state-run dystopia. The article points out that many sci-fi writers have been both for individual liberty as well as socialist economics. One doesn’t automatically cancel out the other – it only does in theory. And as we’ve learned in recent years, encroaching on people’s liberty isn’t exactly the purview of the left. “The Patriot Act” could be the title of a novel that you might only believe as fiction.
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One of the more popular science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick, whose books are adapted more than any other, can hardly be put in the Objectivist camp. Objectivism is in part defined as man being of separate consciousness, with nothing binding us together. This would be opposite of PK Dick’s dream worlds colliding with reality, ESP, pink beams of light from a God-satellite, and other esoterica – despite his paranoia about the FBI and big government.
Though Dick certainly feared Nixonian overreach of government, his targets were also consumerism and the corporate state – see the satirical advertising jingles in Ubik. For Dick, whether Big Brother is a product of Big Government or Big Money is irrelevant – both are bad. Frankly, I agree with him.
So: is sci-fi left or right? Both – which is sort of a cop-out. But it’s important to divide the line between those writers who warn of government overreach (Orwell) and those writers who think any social program is government overreach (Rand). As our world becomes more dystopian, there are going to be more of these types of stories – and there’s enough complaining to go around for every wing of the political spectrum.
Henry Baum is the author of The American Book of the Dead. “Reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, a book that boldly explores the future and defies genre.” – Largehearted Boy. Winner of Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival and the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction.