Science Fiction for Socialists

Proletarians in the cockpit? Fantasies of past and future.

This fascinating list originally appeared at Fantastic Metropolis. Add any that you were expecting to see in the thread below...

Fifty Fantasy & Science Fiction Works That Socialists Should Read

By China Miéville


January 23, 2002

This is not a list of the “best” fantasy or SF. There are huge numbers of superb works not on the list. Those below are chosen not just because of their quality—which though mostly good, is variable—but because the politics they embed (deliberately or not) are of particular interest to socialists. Of course, other works—by the same or other writers—could have been chosen: disagreement and alternative suggestions are welcomed. I change my own mind hour to hour on this anyway.

Iain M. Banks—Use of Weapons (1990)

Socialist SF discussing a post-scarcity society. The Culture are “goodies” in narrative and political terms, but here issues of cross-cultural guilt and manipulation complicate the story from being a simplistic utopia.

Edward Bellamy—Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888)

A hugely influential, rather bureaucratic egalitarian/naïve communist utopia. Deals very well with the confusion of the “modern” (19th Century) protagonist in a world he hasn’t helped create (see Bogdanov).

Alexander Bogdanov—The Red Star: A Utopia (1908; trans. 1984)

This Bolshevik SF sends a revolutionary to socialist Mars. The book’s been criticized (with some justification) for being proto-Stalinist, but overall it’s been maligned. Deals well with the problem faced by someone trying to adjust to a new society s/he hasn’t helped create (see Bellamy).

Emma Bull & Steven Brust—Freedom & Necessity (1997)

Bull is a left-liberal and Brust is a Trotskyist fantasy writer. F&N is set in the 19th Century of the Chartists and class turmoil. It’s been described as “the first Marxist steampunk” or “a fantasy for Young Hegelians.”

Mikhail Bulgakov—The Master and Margarita (1938; trans. 1967)

Astonishing fantasy set in ’30s Moscow, featuring the Devil, Pontius Pilate, The Wandering Jew, and a satire and critique of Stalinist Russia so cutting it is unbelievable that it got past the censors. Utterly brilliant.

Katherine Burdekin (aka “Murray Constantine”)—Swastika Night (1937)

An excellent example of the “Hitler Wins” sub-genre of SF. It’s unusual in that it was published by the Left Book Club and it was written while Hitler was in power, so the fear of Nazi future was immediate.

Octavia Estelle Butler, 1947-2006

Octavia Butler—Survivor (1978)

Black American writer, now discovered by the mainstream after years of acclaim in the SF field. Kindred is her most overtly political novel, the Patternmaster series the most popular. Survivor brilliantly blends genre SF with issues of colonialism and racism.

Julio Cortázar—“House Taken Over” (1963?)

A terrifying short story undermining the notion of the house as sanctity and refuge. A subtle destruction of the bourgeois oppositions between public/private and inside/outside.

Philip K. Dick—A Scanner Darkly (1977)

Could have picked almost any of his books. Like all of them, this deals with identity, power, and betrayal, here tied in more directly to social structures than in some other works (though see Counter-Clock World and The Man in the High Castle). Incredibly moving.

Thomas Disch—The Priest (1994)

Utterly savage work of anti-clericalism. A work of dark fantasy GBH against the Catholic Church (dedicated, among others, to the Pope…)

Gordon Eklund—All Times Possible (1974)

Study of alternative worlds, including an examination of hypothetical Left-wing movements in alternative USAs.

Max Ernst—Une Semaine de Bonté (1934)

The definitive Surrealist collage novel. A succession of images the reader is involved in decoding. A Whodunwhat, with characters from polite commercial catalogues engaged in a story of little deaths and high adventure.

Claude Farrère—Useless Hands (1920; trans. 1926)

Bleak Social Darwinism, and a prototype of “farewell to the working class” arguments. The “useless hands”—workers—revolt is seen as pathetic before inexorable technology. A cold, reactionary, interesting book.

Anatole France—The White Stone (1905; trans. 1910)

In part, a rebuttal to the racist “yellow peril” fever of the time—a book about “white peril” and the rise of socialism. Also interesting is The Revolt of the Angels, which examines now well-worn socialist theme of Lucifer being in the right, rebelling against the despotic God.

Jane Gaskell—Strange Evil (1957)

Written when Gaskell was 14, with the flaws that entails. Still, however, extraordinary. A savage fairytale, with fraught sexuality, meditations on Tom Paine and Marx, revolutionary upheaval depicted sympathetically, but without sentimentality; plus the most disturbing baddy in fiction.

Mary Gentle—Rats and Gargoyles (1990)

Set in a city that undermines the “feudalism lite” of most genre fantasy. An untypical female protagonist has adventures in a cityscape complete with class struggle, corruption, and racial oppression.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman—“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

Towering work by this radical thinker. Terrifying short story showing how savage gender oppression can inhere in “caring” relationships just as easily as in more obviously abusive ones. See also her feminist/socialistic utopias “Moving the Mountain” (1911) and Herland (1914).

Lisa Goldstein—The Dream Years (1985)

A time-slip oscillating between Paris in the 1920s, during the Surrealist movement, and in 1968, during the Uprising. Uses a popular fantastic mode to examine the relation between Surrealism as the fantastic mode par excellence and revolutionary movements (if nebulously conceived).

Stefan Grabiński—The Dark Domain (1918–22; trans. and collected 1993)

Brilliant horror by this Polish writer. Unusually locates the uncanny and threatening within the very symbols of a modernizing industrialism in Poland: trains, electricity, etc. This awareness of the instability of the everyday marks him out from traditional, “nostalgic” ghost story writers.

George Griffith—The Angel of Revolution (1893)

Rather dated, but unusual in that its heroes are revolutionary terrorists. Very different from the devious anarchist villains of (e.g.) Chesterton.

Imil Habibi—The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (1974; trans. 1982)

The full title is much longer. Habiby was a member of the Palestinian Community Party, a veteran of the anti-British struggle of the 40s, and a member of the Knesset for several years. This amiable, surreal book is about the life of a Palestinian in Israel (with surreal bits, and aliens).

M. John Harrison—Viriconium Nights (1984)

A stunning writer, who expresses the alienation of the modern everyday with terrible force. Fantasy that mercilessly uncovers the alienated nature of the longing for fantastic escape, and show how that fantasy will always remain out of reach. Punishes his readers and characters for their involvement with fantasy. See also The Course of the Heart.

Ursula K. Le Guin—The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

The most overtly political of this anarchist writer’s excellent works. An examination of the relations between a rich, exploitive capitalist world and a poor, nearly barren (though high-tech) communist one.

Jack London—Iron Heel (1907)

London’s masterpiece: scholars from a 27th Century socialist world find documents depicting a fascist oligarchy in the US and the revolt of the proletariat. Elsewhere, London’s undoubted socialism is undermined by the most appalling racism.

Ken MacLeod—The Star Fraction (1996)

British Trotskyist (of strongly libertarian bent), all of whose (very good) works examine Left politics without sloganeering. The Stone Canal, for example, features arguments about distortions of Marxism. However, The Star Fraction is chosen here as it features Virtual Reality heroes of the left, by name—a roll call of genuine revolutionaries recast in digital form.

Gregory Maguire—Wicked (1995)

Brilliant revisionist fantasy about how the winners write history. The loser whose side is here taken is the Wicked Witch of the West, a fighter for emancipatory politics in the despotic empire of Oz.

J. Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)—Gay Hunter (1934, reissued 1989)

By the Marxist writer of the classic work of vernacular Scots literature A Scots Quair, and Spartacus, the novel that proves that propaganda can be art. This is great science fiction. Bit dewy-eyed about hunter-gatherers perhaps, but superb nonetheless. As an added bonus, it also has a title that sounds amusing today. Check out his short fiction, which includes a lot of SF/Fantasy work.

Michael Moorcock—Hawkmoon (1967–77, reprinted in one edition 1992)

Moorcock is an erudite Left-anarchist and a giant of fantasy literature. Almost everything he’s written is of interest, but Hawkmoon is chosen here in honor of Moorcock having said about it: “In a spirit consciously at odds with the jingoism of the day, I chose a German for a hero and the British for villains.” There are also plenty of satirical references and gags about 1960s/70s politics for the reader to decode.

William Morris—News From Nowhere (1888)

A socialist (though naively pastoral) utopia, written in response to Bellamy (above), that unusually doesn’t shy away from the hard political question of how we get the desired utopia-proletarian revolution. See also The Well at the World’s End and his other fantasies.

Toni Morrison—Beloved (1987)

It’s well known that Beloved is a superb book about race and slavery and guilt, but it’s less generally accepted that it’s a fantasy. It is. It’s a ghost story that wouldn’t have half the charge without the fantastic element.

Mervyn Peake—The Gormenghast Novels (1946–59)

An austere depiction of dead ritualism and necessary transformation. Don’t believe those who say that the third book is disappointing.

Marge Piercy—Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

A Chicano woman trapped in an asylum makes contact with a messenger from a future utopia, born after a “full feminist revolution”.

Philip Pullman—Northern Lights (1995)

Pullman let us down. This book is here because it deals with moral/political complexities with unsentimental respect for its (young adult) readers and characters. Explores freedom and social agency, and the question of using ugly means for emanicipatory ends. It raises the biggest possible questions, and doesn’t patronise us that there are easy answers. The second in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, is a perfectly good bridging volume… and then in book three, The Amber Spyglass, something goes wrong. It has excellent bits, it is streets ahead of its competition… but there’s sentimentality, a hesitation, a formalism, which lets us down. Ah well. Northern Lights is still a masterpiece.

Ayn Rand—Atlas Shrugged (1957)

Know your enemy. This panoply of portentous Nietzcheanism lite has had a huge influence on American SF. Rand was an obsessive “objectivist” (libertarian pro-capitalist individualist) whose hatred of socialism and any form of “collectivism” is visible in this important an influential—though vile and ponderous—novel.

Mack Reynolds—Lagrange Five (1979)

Reynolds was, for 25 years, an activist for the U.S. Socialist Labor Party. His radical perspective on political issues is reflected throughout his work. This book—examining a quasi-utopia without sentimentalism—is only one suggestion. Also of huge interest are Tomorrow Might Be Different (1960) and The Rival Rigelians (1960), which explicitly examine the relation between capitalism and Stalinism.

Keith Roberts—Pavane (1968)

These linked stories take place in a present day where Elizabeth I was assassinated and Spain took over Britain. This examines life in a world where a militant feudal Catholicism acts as a fetter on social and productive functions. Though Roberts was no lefty at all, and you could probably power France on the energy from his spinning grave at being included in this list.

Kim Stanley Robinson—The Mars Trilogy (1992–96)

Probably the most powerful center of gravity for Leftist SF in the 1990s. A sprawling and thoughtful examination of the variety of social relations feeding into and leading up to revolutionary change. (It’s also got some Gramsci jokes in it.)

Mary Shelley—Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818)

Not a warning “not to mess with things that should be let alone” (which would be a reactionary anti-rationalist message) but an insistence on the necessity of grappling with forces one unleashes and the fact that there is no “innate” nature to people, but a socially-constructed one.

Lucius Shepard—Life During Wartime (1987)

Horrific vision of a future (thinly disguised Vietnam) war. Within the savage examinations of the truth of war and U.S. foreign policy, Shepard also investigates the relation between SF, fantasy, and “magic realism”, and uses their shared mode to look back at reality with passion.

Norman Spinrad—The Iron Dream (1972)

A SF novel by Adolf Hitler… Spinrad’s funny, disturbing and savage indictment of the fascist aesthetics in much genre SF and fantasy. What if Hitler had become a pulp SF writer in New York? Not a book about that possibility but a book from it. “By the same author: Triumph of the Will and Lord of the Swastika.” Brave and nasty.

Eugene Sue—The Wandering Jew (1845)

Huge book by radical socialist Sue, about the adventures of the family of the Wandering Jew of legend. Symbolic fantasy elements: the Jew is the dispossessed laborer and his partner is downtrodden woman. Marx hated Sue as a writer (not without reason—less, for Sue, is not in more) but hell, it’s an important book.

Michael Swanwick—The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)

Great work that completely destroys the sentimental aspects of genre fantasy. From within the genre—fairies, elves, and all—Swanwick examines the industrial revolution, the Vietnam War, racism and sexism, and the escapist dreams of genre fantasy. A truly great anti-fantasy.

Jonathan Swift—Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

Savage attack on hypocrisy and cant that never dilutes its fantasy with its satire: the two elements feed off each other perfectly.

Alexei Tolstoy—Aelita (1922; trans. 1957)

Distant relative of the other Tolstoy. The “revised” version is less good, written in the stern environment of Stalinism. A Red Army officer goes to Mars and foments a rebellion of native Martians. Good rousing stuff, but also interesting in terms of “exporting” revolution. See also the superb avant-garde film version from 1924.

Ian Watson—Slow Birds (1985)

Left-wing author whose short story collection above includes a cold demolition of Thatcher and Thatcherism. His take on oppression—cognitive and political—informs all his rather austere, cerebral writing.

H.G. Wells—The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

Like a lot of Wells’s work, this is an uneasy mixture of progressive and reactionary notions. It makes for one of the great horror stories of all time. A fraught examination of colonialism, science, eugenics, repression, and religion: a kind of fantasy echo of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

E. L. White—“Lukundoo” (1927)

One of the most utterly extraordinary (and almost certainly unconscious) expressions of colonial anxiety and guilt in the history of literature.

Oscar Wilde—The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888)

Children’s fantasies by this romantic, socialist author. Marked by a sharp lack of sentimentality, a deeply subversive cynicism, which doesn’t blunt their ability to be intensely moving.

Gene Wolfe—The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972)

Wolfe is a religious Republican, but his tragico-Catholic perspective leads to a deeply unglamorized and unsanitized awareness of social reality. This book is a very sad and extremely dense, complex meditation on colonialism, identity and oppression.

Yevgeny Zamyatin—We (1920; trans. 1924)

A Bolshevik, who earned semi-official unease in the USSR even in the early 1920s, with this unsettling dystopian view of absolute totalitarianism. These days often retrospectively, ahistorically, and misleadingly judged to be a critique of Stalinism.

With many thanks to Mark Bould, Brian Stableford, and the members of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts email list (IAFA-L) for their suggestions. I take full responsibility for the final selection…

Copyright © 2001 by China Miéville.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Nil

    A couple of my own favorites not listed:

    Terry Bisson: Fire On the Mountain

    An alternate history where John Brown successfully sparks a slave rebellion which results in an independent new afrikan-led state; switches back and forth between the 19th century rebellion and alternate-history 'present' time.

    Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars.

    You can find plenty on the internet about these, but they're really good reads with political content.

    And, of course, China Mieville was too humble to include his own works in the list he wrote, but they are good reads too.

  • Guest - John B.

    A fascinating selection. I was unaware of the big majority of these works. SF has an unfairly "right-wing" reputation thanks to the politics of authors like Larry Niven, Poul Anderson and Jerry Pournelle (although the libertarian Robert Heinlein had a big effect on the development of my own politics - go figure!)

    Although not explicitly "political," the writings of Robert Charles Wilson have a deeply humanistic and compassionate bent. So too the late '60s - early '70s works of authors like Robert Silverberg & Brian Aldiss accurately reflect their times in their questioning of all institutions.

  • Guest - John B.

    I'm surprised Joe Haldeman's <i>The Forever War</i> didn't make the list. An oversight, I'm sure! It's a brilliant anti-war novel by Vietnam veteran Haldeman, "soon to be a major motion picture" by Ridley Scott! A must-see, no doubt.

  • Guest - meme

    Norman Spinrad belongs on the list, but NOT his one-joke The Iron Dream. Better to read Bug Jack Baron, or Journal of the Plague Years, or Russian Spring or Little Heroes, not to mention Agent of Chaos. Terry Bisson definitely belongs on this list, as does David Gerrold.

  • Guest - meme

    and as for Joe Haldeman, Forever Peace is actually much more interesting, as is Forever Free. Forever War was his sort of "answer" or counterpoint to Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

  • Guest - meme

    and as for Kim Stanley Robinson, I'd rather recommend his "California" trilogy of novels, which, in a sense, pose the issues of the continuation of contradiction and struggle after the revolution with alternative scenarios.

  • Guest - Freddy

    Good selection, overall.

    However, I must disagree on the Ursula Le Guin pick. Not that "The Dispossessed" isn't good (from the point of view of this discussion) but the brilliant "The Left Hand of Darkness" is far more "in it" than "The Dispossessed". The themes explored, the depth to which she goes into and, of course the story itself are unmatched, at lest in this field of "leftist" SF.

    Overall, if anyone missed Le Guin, pick up both these books, and "The Word for World is Forest", along with the EarthSea series ( ignore the racist, white supremacist TV "adaptation" crap Fox made out of the books, Le Guin had nothing to do with it ) and enjoy a nice read.

    Also, I would recommend a new figure of SF: China Tom Miéville, author of the "Perdido Street Station" - "The Scar" - "Iron Council" trilogy. Really good, considering the last good SF author of the "new wave" was, for me at least, KSR and his Mars trilogy ( well, he kinda fucked up the 3rd one, but the first two were so brilliant we'll forgive him ).

    Also, although not exactly focused on left/communist issues, you should include Frank Herbert Dune books (well all, for Dune to the Chapter House). The themes are more overt, but Herbert's brilliance is unmatched. The Spice Melange is for the advanced great Houses of the Landsraad what oil is for the advanced western powers of today, CHOAM is some sort of hybrid between OPEC and World Bank and so on...

  • Guest - meme

    Best Terry Bisson story is Fire on the Mountain. (The Pickup Artist is also of interest). Bisson is a righteous dude who went to jail rather than rat on people in front of a grand jury, and who wrote a book length biogtaphy of Mumia. Fire on the Mountain is kind of alternate history.

  • Guest - meme

    Actually as for Ursula LeGuin, try The Lathe of Heaven, which some regard as her homage to Philip K. Dick. As for Dick, try Flow My Tears The Policeman Said rather than A Scanner Darkly.

  • Guest - Freddy

    Oh, IT IS written by China Miéville...

    Sorry, I'm reading this on a mobile phone and it's crammed and I missed the author of the article...

    Anyways, M, you could've included your own work... :D

  • Guest - meme

    Kimn Stanley Robinson's California trilogy is also known as Orange County, and consists of the following three books:
    1 The Wild Shore (1984)
    2 The Gold Coast (1988)
    3 Pacific Edge (1990)

  • Guest - meme

    Also--Summer of Love by Lisa Mason and Armageddon Rag by George R.R. ("Railroad") Martin.

  • Guest - meme

    On Octavia Butler, read her (unfortunately) last novel Fledgling, and her three novel series Lilith's Brood (formerly Xenogenesis trilogy) Also add the work of Corey Doctorow, especially Little Brother.

  • Guest - meme

    Samuel R. Delany is one of a handful of African-American science fiction writers and an even smaller number of African-American gay or lesbian science fiction writers (Octavia Butler numbered among them), and his work is very much worth reading. For other African American science fiction writers, see the anthology Dark Matter.

  • Guest - Miles Ahead

    To add to the list, although must admit, not my favorite "genre", is <i>The Invention of Morel</i> by Adolfo Bioy Casares, who was mentored by Jorgé Luis Borges (both Argentinians). But Bioy Casares' title was inspired by <i>The Island of Dr. Moreau</i>. Written in 1964, this work, billed as a "fantastic novel" is really more about alienation, role of the bourgeois State, plus is somewhat futuristic.

  • Guest - comradezero

    Lots of comments already suggesting alternative suggestions for U. K. Le Guin. I'll add to it by suggesting her lesser known <i>Four Ways to Forgiveness</i> as a thoughtful look at national liberation.

  • Guest - chegitz guevara

    As far as Ken McLeod goes, I think The Cassini Division is a much better example of socialist science fiction. The whole story takes place in a communist solar system.

    All of his books treat communism as normal.

  • Guest - BobH

    I think Frank Herbert's classic <i>Dune</i> is a must read for anyone interested in science fiction or fantasy with a political flavor. Still seems timely what with the wars in Iraq &amp; Afghanistan.

    I heartily second LeGuin's <i>Four Ways to Forgiveness</i> which deals with racial slavery in a modern capitalist society, and lots of gender issues too. <i>The Birthday of the World</i> is an anthology of short stories that goes more deeply into gender.

    Sheri S. Tepper's <i>Raising the Stones</i> has a lot of stuff on religion, patriarchy and imperialism that's pretty good.

    For those, like me, too lazy to read anymore, I recommend watching <i>Babylon 5</i>, which had some strong anti-fascist and national liberation themes. Joss Whedon's <i>Dollhouse</i>, which just finished its first (and probably last) season deals with some very interesting issues of slavery and human trafficking. His short-lived <i>Firefly</i> also had a strong anti-authoritarian theme. <i>Buffy the Vampire Slayer</i> and <i>Angel</i> are much less political but have their moments too. I read the last season of <i>Angel</i> as a metaphor for working within the system.

    Alan Moore's graphic novels have been pretty consistently good. He's an anarchist, I believe, which is most explicitly seen in <i>V for Vendetta</i> and <i>From Hell</i>.

  • Guest - poetwarrior

    Re Ian Watson: I would rather recommend THE EMBEDDING (1971), which deals with everything from the corporate rape of the Amazon Indians to Chomsky's theory of syntax. (Yes, the two are linked in the novel, but I wont give away the plot.)
    Henlein a libertarian? You must be kidding. He was an outright, unapolagetic fascist. STARSHIP TROOPERS is an ode to war, the caste system, and extermination of aliens.

  • Guest - BobH

    Michael Moorcock wrote a pretty strong essay attacking the reactionary side of science fiction/fantasy in the late 70s titled <a href="/" rel="nofollow">Starship Stormtroopers</a>. I personally enjoy some of the stuff he condemns, but then I don't believe one's entertainment has to be in lock-step with one's politics; probably why I will never really be a 'real' communist.

    As much as I like Philip K. Dick, he seem pretty paranoid about communist to me; in one of his novels, the world is a joint dictatorship of the Papacy and Communist Party!

  • Bob writes:

    <blockquote> personally enjoy some of the stuff he condemns, but then I don’t believe one’s entertainment has to be in lock-step with one’s politics; probably why I will never really be a ‘real’ communist.</blockquote>

    Uh, because "real communists" only read books and see movies that are "in lock-step" with their politics? Pfffft!

    What a cloistered politics that would be, and what an impoverished contact with the living culture of our planet!

  • Guest - BobH

    Another interesting read from a mostly non-science fiction writer is Amitav Ghosh's <i>The Calcutta Chromosome</i> which has an interesting take on British colonialism in India.

  • Guest - Zack

    <i>"but then I don’t believe one’s entertainment has to be in lock-step with one’s politics; probably why I will never really be a ‘real’ communist."</i>

    Haha. Quoted for truth. I've run into this before, as well.

    It's also fun when you reverse the rationale... if you have the audacity to <b>not</b> particularly like something, even though the politics might be really good. <i>"But listen the lyrics, they're so right"...</i>, yeah, but the song is still awful.

  • Guest - AndreiMazenov

    Thank you, Zack, for describing how I feel about 90% of political music.

    I should really read more of the above novels, especially since I myself need ideas- I have been working on building a series of novels taking place within a socialist country that replaces the U.S. sometimes in the 2050's, thus setting off an interesting 4-sided cold war: a socialist America, a military-junta-run China, the European Union, and a fascist/expansionist Russia. Still working intensely on world-building and character development, but hopefully within the next year I'll be actually be putting story to paper.

  • Guest - John B.

    Perhaps it would have been more accurate for me to characterize Heinlein as a "right-wing libertarian." I'm not sure it's fair to call him as a "fascist," notwithstanding <i>Starship Troopers</i> (you shouldn't assume that an author shares all of the opinions of his characters), as his work does have an anti-authoritarian streak. <i>The Moon is a Harsh Mistress</i> posits a libertarian revolution on the Moon (which the Fourth International and Fifth International also support!). In fact, when the Libertarian Party was founded in the early '70s they adopted the slogan from the book, "TANSTAAFL!" ("There ain't no such thing as a free Lunch!") Of course, this is far from left-wing stuff.

    Heinlein started out as a mainstream New Deal supporter in the '30s, and became increasingly cranky and right-wing as he got older. Interestingly, he was a huge fan and supporter of the spaced out hippie left-winger Philip K. Dick. He even loaned Dick money when he was on hard times.

    The less said about <i>Farnham's Freehold</i> the better!

  • Guest - John B.

    I forgot to mention Eric Flint. He's written, in collaboration with a number of other writers, the "Ring of Fire" series, which has as its premise a whole town of West Virginia coal miners projected back into the year 1632, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, where they take on the forces of feudal reaction and jump-start the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

    Flint was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the '70s.

  • Guest - John B.

    One last comment regarding Philip K. Dick's politics. He was basically a mainstream liberal, but back in the early '50s he hung around left-wing circles in Berkeley (a wife or girlfriend was a member of the SWP, which comes up tangentially in his book <i>Radio Free Albemuth</i>). This explains his unusual (for an SF writer) knowledge of political issues, fascism and so forth.

    Yes, he was cranky, and apparently wrote a series of letters to the FBI denouncing Stanislaw Lem as a "commie," but by that time his brains had been pretty well fried by drug abuse, and he was anti-abortion (read "The Pre-Persons," probably the best propaganda on behalf of the "right-to-life" position I've ever read, for which Joanna Russ denounced him as a "motherfucker"). Still, he was on the side of the angels, in my opinion.

  • Guest - JRoterstern

    Is there any good Alternate History of anything else that is recent that is good?

  • Guest - Linda D.

    <blockquote>Uh, because “real communists” only read books and see movies that are “in lock-step” with their politics? Pfffft!

    What a cloistered politics that would be, and what an impoverished contact with the living culture of our planet!</blockquote>

    I have to second what Mike said, for obvious reasons. And in lock-step with whom?

    While not speaking directly to the Sci-Fi genre, in general, it is most unfortunate, that the stereotype of the “real communist” has had sway amongst different folk. To begin with, if one takes that tack, one sure as hell sells people short in terms of using (or encouraging people to use) their imagination. Perhaps the title of this post, "Science Fiction for Socialists" is problematic, if not limiting; although the multitude of suggested reading in the comments is broad.

    There are those authors, and even “giants” in literature, who may have started off on “our side” of the political spectrum but who ended up on the opposite side—off the bat, Orwell, Ignacio Silone, Octavio Paz come to mind. But are their works as a whole not of great value, and have they not inspired many, while not hitting people over the head with some dogmo-poster and slogan style? What about Stendhal who was hardly a revolutionary but captured the essence of the bourgeoning French bourgeoise in <i>The Red &amp; The Black</i> or <i>The Charterhouse of Parma</i>? How about Thomas Hardy’s <i>Jude the Obscure</i>—as Hardy himself struggled between his own agnosticism and spiritualism, social reform (and feminism to a degree) and his religious background and the religious status quo? What about Aldous Huxley, a humanist and pacifist du herst?

    And then there’s someone like Thomas Mann, who was extremely conservative in his earlier years, but mainly due to the rise of fascism, not only ended up a German exile, but became a progressive.

    If one viewed literature and art as superficially as being in “lock step” with their purist “communist politics”, one might encourage a book burning, with <i>Magic Mountain</i>, or even Marge Piercy’s <i>Woman on the Edge of Time</i> being atop the pyre.

  • I think part of this discussion is the instrumentalism and a "fetish of the word" that often influences the opinions of some communists: I.e. viewing works of culture very narrowly in terms of (1) how they contribute (in a narrow way) to "what we are doing" (we being the communists, and "what we are doing" seen in a short-term sense). And (2) judging works narrowly by what they are "saying" (seen far too literally in terms of a textual read) -- essentially how close is their vision to the line of the communist forces at that moment.

    In fact, there is much to learn broadly from artists and writers -- from their work (and innovations) in culture, and from their work AS culture -- quite apart from their short-term "usefulness" (as agitation, i.e. as "message delivery devices").

    And it is hard to distill what there is to learn, because it has so many dimensions: Sometimes it is the insights of the artist into people or events, sometimes it is questions raised that the people (or the communists) should be considering, sometimes it is criticisms of existing (or potential) communist movements that deserve to be explored, sometimes it is issues of form. Sometimes a work just gives insights into the thinking and inclination of the many people who are enthusiastic about it -- whether or not, we embrace the work itself. (Fountainhead anyone?)

    And, of course, the point of culture is not simply that we "learn" something.

    I have tried to evaluate cultural work in terms of three things:
    1) what is the intention of the artist
    2) what is the actual content of the piece -- textually speaking.
    3) what is the objective impact of the piece on society (and on different groups of people)

    These things are rather different. (For example: the film Apocalypse Now is the work of progressive artists who clearly intended to make a major anti war statement. The actual content of the film (the lessons drawn from Kurtz etc. the borrowing from Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of darkness) goes far from progressive thought into philosophies and views that are often quite reactionary. As for the impact of this film socially, I won't even attempt to sum that up.

    When the film came out in early 1980s, there was in the Maoist press of that time (the Revolutionary Worker) an important break-through article that (for once) tried to deal with this major work with nuance and complexity -- and actually grapple with the content of the "Heart of Darkness" etc.) For example, in the film there is a passing reference to the Vietcong in the film that stressed their iron will, but suggests that they willingly and cynically did atrocities -- it illustrated the philosophy of this film (as intended), but injected a false picture of the politics of the liberation forces.

    In discussions and debate among artists, the intention of the artists matters a lot -- since part of what they are struggling for is to have progressive intentions correctly realized. And (i believe) in evaluating and making works overall, the objective impact of artistic works on society is the most important thing. And in dogmatic forms of communism, the textual read is often made the most important thing (i.e. works are evaluated by what they literally say, not how they are moving society....)

    * * * * * *

    In regard to "typical communist" politics.... there has long been a real pull toward narrowness.

    Someone summed up some of the practice in the last decades this way:
    1) If the artist was big-time, there was flattery, eagerness for endorsement and a lot of interest in gathering funds
    2) If the artist was not known, there was a tendency to treat them mainly as potential organizers.
    3) If the artist was a communist, they were often told to stop doing their art, and focus on the party's needs of the moment.
    4) Very little attention was given to the creation of high-quality creative art that served the people -- very little literary criticism, little focus on films and film-making, no journals of radical art and debates, no new communist theoretical work on art (or critiques of the approaches of the past).

    Obviously this is over-generalized (i.e. there are exceptions etc.) but it does point to some real problems.

  • Guest - Zack;hpw

    <i>"Why do they think they can violate my copyright and get away with it?"</i>

    How very <i>radical</i> of Le Guin.

    The Old beat vs. the New beat, indeed.

  • Guest - BobH

    Since I'm the one who made the crack about people's cultural preferences being in lock-step with their politics, I thought I'd elaborate a bit.

    It's been my experience in general that the more deeply involved in radical politics people are, the more narrow-minded and hyper-critical they tend to be about culture. There's seemingly a need to be more publicly critical about a cultural piece, a kind of critical one-upmanship. This is often accompanied by considerable joylessness, it seemed to me.

    For instance, twice I've watched the movie <i>Reds</i> with communist friends who've sniffed something like "well, it was OK, but I wish they'd shown more Lenin and the revolution". It's a movie about John Reed, about the intersection of the personal and political in his life, fer cripes sakes. It's not meant to be hagiography about the Bolsheviks.

    I've met RCP'ers who just didn't read fiction at all, unless the party recommended/sold it, in which case it's "what did you think about XXX"? Cultural as political talking points.

    Or when "The Lord of the Rings" movie came out, there were all kinds of people online debating whether Tolkien was a fascist or merely reactionary. No one wants to hear that Tolkien himself argued that the root of the tragedy in his story is the elves' unwillingness to accept change, and hence create the magic rings that were their undoing.

    As a kid I read and enjoyed all kinds of semi-reactionary stuff that I got something positive from; e.g. from Tolkien, a deeper appreciation for languages, history, geography, etc. I would never tell a kid, "oh, don't read that, he's against progress and spokesman for the decaying English middle-class".

    The Michael Moorcock essay I linked to above is a brilliant bit of criticism of the reactionary character of much of science fiction, although he seems to grudgingly admit that he enjoyed some stuff more than he ought to. While I enjoyed the essay and agree with much of it, I've reached the point where I enjoy culture largely for escapist reasons, where I basically want to turn off my critical side and enjoy the ride. If there's progressive content (e.g. LeGuin) great. If not, oh well. I'm more interested in the overall quality rather than the ideological content.

    So basically when I work with communist and radical people, I avoid talking about culture and stick to politics. This is a very un-Marxist position, a reject of ruthless criticism of all that is, but there it is. I know every cultural work has all kinds of explicit and implicit politics, but I'll probably enjoy it more if I let the politics slide, and focus on what I find interesting about the work. This is the opposite of putting politics in command, which is why I said I would probably never be a 'real' communist.

  • Guest - zerohour

    "This is the opposite of putting politics in command, which is why I said I would probably never be a ‘real’ communist."

    This view is just as mechanical as the one you [rightfully] reject.

    I happen to be a fan of the original <i>Star Trek</i> series. While there were glimpses of liberal sentiment, I don't think it's a stretch to say that it was fundamentally a narrative of benign colonialism. Let's not even get into the oblique racial stereotyping [warlike Klingons are pretty dark-skinned, the nearly emotionless Spock has slanted...ears]. What I enjoyed was the character interaction and the adventure.

    My point is that our desires are conflicted and this is no cause for shame. It's just part of the experience of living in class society. Purity is no solution, rather we should take responsibility and be clear about our decisions. Culture should not be reduced to where it falls on some sort of political correctness meter with "reactionary" on one end and "revolutionary" on the other. Some of the best political culture attempts to struggle with ambiguity and complexity, and is often more interesting and thought-provoking than work that is explicitly progressive or radical, but lacking in nuance.

    A political read of culture is not about looking for "the message" or "the line". There are important questions of production and representation that come into play. This doesn't mean that one can't just sit back and enjoy the visceral experience of great music or a great movie. Aesthetic expression invokes heightened emotional responses, mainly pleasure, but it would be naive to forget that it also transmits ideology.

    I would think a 'real' communist would remember that politics is about people, not dogma.

    "I’m more interested in the overall quality rather than the ideological content."

    I have to admit a sympathy for this position, but it still fails to understand that aesthetic is a sort of content too. I would rather listen to Radiohead than Rage Against the Machine any day. Even though the latter was explicitly revolutionary, the former is more musically interesting. The music of Radiohead contains intimations of possibility and recombination, whereas the music of RATM is very focused and in a way, closed off from further development. Which then, is truly more radical?

  • Guest - zerohour

    "There are important questions of production and representation that come into play."

    It should say: "There are <i>also</i> important questions of <i>context</i>, production and representation that come into play, and they are not always so easily resolved by stuffing them into pre-fabricated ideological boxes."

  • Guest - Eddy Laing

    How is it possible to separate 'overall quality' (and which 'quality'?) from 'ideological content' in any art expression? Certainly one (of several) 'overall quality' of every artistic activity is its ideological purpose; all art is symbolizing activity, it exists as ideology, <i>per se</I> even though it is expressed in physical forms; as graphics, on canvas, in sound, etc.

    I suspect that there are multiple psycho-cultural correlations between someone's way of life or approach to life (or 'reality') and having an affinity for strict literal narrative forms (whether literary or visual or musical), which one finds to be (comfortingly?) unambiguous and reinforce existing world-views (even if those world views are 'subaltern').

  • Guest - zerohour

    This is a great list. There are many books here I've never heard of which I'm now eager to read.

    I'd like to add William Gibson's "cyberpunk trilogy" [also known as "the Sprawl trilogy"]: <i>Neuromancer</i> [1984], <i>Count Zero</i> [1986], <i>Mona Lisa Overdrive</i> [1988], and his collection of short stories <i>Burning Chrome</i> [1986].

    In these writings Gibson postulates a future in which social revolution has not happened and capital has become omnipresent. These are not his terms, but it is the background in which the stories take place. Neither utopian nor dystopian, Gibson's stance seems more like that of an ambivalent liberal technophile who sees value in the intertwining dynamics of technology proliferation and capital accumulation, while deeply disturbed by their terrible social/economic/cultural costs.

    Just as capital in the form of the individual capitalist gave way to the corporation, Gibson speculates on how capital could mutate again through the mediation of technology. The state as we know it is either non-existent, or has its functions recuperated in other forms. Conflict is displaced and dispersed due to ever-fragmenting subjectivity [also mediated by technology] which prevents people from being able to muster totalizing concepts such as "mode of production" or "class struggle".

    The cyberpunk trilogy helped generate much of the symbolism and cultural sensibility of the last couple of decades. More than many other sci-fi novels, they mainly succeed not in predicting the future [though they have provided some prescient insights] but in situating our present as history.

  • Guest - Argg

    If you want to read two of these books for free, the right price, Cory Doctorow offers a free download of his novel of youth revolt against Homeland Security, Little Brother, at:
    (It just won an award in Canada for best Canadian young adult novel of 2008.).
    The publisher of Kim Stanley Robinson's RED MARS book also offers a free download of the book at:
    with the idea that you will then want to buy and read the other two books of the trilogy--Blue Mars and Green Mars. (there's a few other free downloadable books also listed on that page.).
    Free is a good price. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as downloadable food.

  • Guest - Eli Boulton

    Awesome list, although I read "Swastika Night" and while it was good ideologically and posed a very interesting analysis of the sexism inherent in fascism, I didn't think it was a good book on it's own.

  • Guest - [-]

    Iain M. Banks' Culture can indeed be conceived as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy. It must also be said that the Culture cycle is a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society:

  • Guest - balzac

    I don't know if this was posted on the site before, but I recently read another of Mieville's articles "Floating Utopias", which is sort of him using his position as sci-fi writer to take down the bizarre utopianism of tax-havens and American libertarianism. It's up here:

    Also, this article and its discussion are great. I'd be interested to see what some newer readers might add to it now.

  • Guest - Vinod Moonesinghe

    You have missed the works of the most influential radicals in Science Fiction, the Futurists. of New York.
    In particular, 'Gladiator at Law' - a satirical look at modern capitalism, urban housing and spectator sports (it anticipated Rollerball Murder). By Cyril Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl

  • Guest - Santanu

    There are several Bengali novel and stories of Manik bondhopaddhy, Samaresh Basu,Rahul sankrittyan, and so many writers are there. Those could be considered as communist novel.
    About Science fiction, "Hotto Malar Opare" by Lila Majumder and Premendra Mitra , "Communism o vabikal" by Rahul sankrittyan are must read.

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