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Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction
edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville
Wesleyan University Press, 304 pages

Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The City & The City
SF Site Review: Un Lun Dun
SF Site Review: Un Lun Dun
SF Site Review: Iron Council
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: The Tain
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

Mark Bould

Mark Bould teaches film and literature at the University of the West of England. He is the author of Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City (2005) and The Cinema of John Sayles (2008), and coeditor of The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (2009).

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

There is an oddly symbiotic relationship between science fiction and Marxism.

One of the necessary conditions for the emergence of science fiction was the idea that the world might be changed, that a material difference could be made to one's own circumstances, not after death or in some fantastical Cockayne, but here and now. Such a notion developed during the Renaissance, with the influx into Europe of new learning following the fall of Constantinople, with the social fluidity that had followed the Black Death a century earlier, with the physical change to the nature of the world that came with the discovery of America. These ideas found expression in the new science of Copernicus and Kepler, in the new religion of Luther and Calvin, and a number of philosophical works including Utopia by Thomas More. These utopian notions were taken up in literature and also in practical politics (the Diggers), and eventually would form the basis of varieties of political philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Karl Marx.

Marxist thought in turn informed much of the science fiction being written, writers from Wells to the Futurians were on the political left. And from the 1970s onwards, Marxist theory became almost the default academic approach to the study of science fiction, building primarily on Darko Suvin's notions of cognitive estrangement and the novum, ideas that are only now coming in for revision in, for example, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.

Marxist theory has been incredibly productive and valuable in the study of sf, but I have never been totally comfortable with it. For a start, as this volume demonstrates, it can be authoritarian. It is authoritarian in the obvious sense that these essays constantly appeal to authority. Names like Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson and Zizek litter the book not to raise debate but to settle it. The only time that the inarguable authority of these giant figures is disputed comes towards the end of the volume, when Althusser is pitted against Jameson (in 'Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction: Althusser's Critique of Historicity' by Darren Jorgensen) and Raymond Williams is pitted against Suvin ('Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited' by Andrew Milner); though this does no more than measure one giant authority figure against another.

It is authoritarian in other senses also. It uses a language that, in effect if not necessarily in intent, excludes many potential readers. Thus, in one of the less cluttered sentences in the entire book, Jorgensen argues:

  Jameson defers to history as the ground of his analysis while discursively constructing this history, relying on texts to construct that which is also a material horizon for the production of meaning. (197)  

This is plain English, the words used are common and familiar, it is not an exercise in jargon, yet the sentence itself is virtually impenetrable. I have read it several times, I think I know what Jorgensen is saying, though I have still got to determine the rhetorical point in the precise placing of some of these words. Elsewhere, the specific language of Marxist theory makes many sentences in every one of the essays collected here even less plain. In other words, you have to learn Marxist theory in order to read Marxist theory, which seems to the outsider at least a recursive exercise in elitism.

And it is authoritarian in the way that, once an idea is "theorized" (a favourite word of all the contributors), it becomes retrospectively true. This particular take on the history of ideas, for instance, allows William J. Burling ('Art as "The Basic Technique of Life": Utopian Art and Art in Utopia in The Dispossessed and Blue Mars') to castigate Ursula K. Le Guin for failing, in her 1974 novel, to accommodate theories of art first formulated in 1978, and Rob Latham ('The Urban Question in New Wave SF') to compare and contrast stories by Thomas M. Disch first written in the late 1960s with Marxist urban theories first formulated around 1975 as if they were exact contemporaries. This is not a value judgement on my part, I happen to consider the Burling one of the weakest essays in the book and the Latham one of the best, but it is a comment on the way theory is dominant. In a work that supposedly puts Marxist theory and science fiction on an equal footing, the contributors refer to many more theorists than they do sf writers. And, indeed, however radical their take on theory, their views of science fiction tend to be conventional; no-one seems to imagine any earlier work of sf than Frankenstein, no-one seeks to place science fiction within a spectrum of the fantastic (indeed all seem to regard sf as fully definable, even if they don't all conform to Suvin's definition), no-one cites an sf film more recent than The Matrix.

One of the most influential thinkers in the philosophy of science was Karl Popper, an anti-Marxist who probably wouldn't be too popular in this company. Nevertheless, his notion of falsifiability is one of the simplest and most useful ways of looking at how science actually works. Put briefly, he argued that we accept any theory that is the simplest explanation for what we actually observe only so long as we robustly test that theory and try to make it fail. So long as it doesn't fail, the theory can be said to work for us. I see no reason why some similar process of challenge should not be applied to other theories, but most of the contributors here seem to take a verificationist approach, in other words they are looking for ways to prove rather than disprove the theory. That is, when they compare a work of science fiction to the theory, if the two do not agree then it is the fiction that is said to fail rather than the theory.

What we have, therefore, is a collection of essays that too often seem to be more about theory than science fiction. Some essays, indeed, barely seem to engage with science fiction at all. The Jorgensen essay I've already quoted, for example, is mostly concerned with the contrasting views of revolutionary Marxism espoused by Althusser and Jameson, to which science fiction is little more than a vaguely interested spectator. While the essay that opens the collection, 'The Anamorphic Estrangements of Science Fiction' by Matthew Beaumont, begins as a fascinating discussion of anamophism in art (think of the distorted skull in Holbein's portrait of The Ambassadors), but ends as just another way of presenting Suvin's cognitive estrangement.

Not surprisingly, those essays which engage with specific works seem to have the most focussed and therefore the most interesting things to say: Phillip Wegner's analysis of Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution quartet (and the internecine warfare between factions of the left familiar from so many of MacLeod's stories are a good way of approaching the theory wars that seem to be glimpsed from the corner of the eye so often in this collection); Rob Latham on Disch; Steven Shaviro on Charles Stross's Accelerando. Among the essays on film (Carl Freedman very readably comparing science fiction and film noir, John Rieder on Until the End of the World by Wim Wenders) the one that stood out for me was '"Madonna in moon rocket with breeches": Weimar SF Film Criticism during the Stabilisation Period' which examines contemporary leftist film criticism of Lang's Frau im Mond, perhaps because this is a topic I know little about.

In the end, though, and perhaps perversely given what I have said so far, the essay I most engaged with was 'Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited' by Andrew Milner, one of the more heavily theoretical of the contributions. It uses the work of Raymond Williams to offer a contrast to Suvin's definition of science fiction, approaching it primarily from the position that utopian literature is separate from science fiction. I don't agree with much of what Milner has to say, I think he is too wedded to the notion that there is a hard and fast definition of science fiction that clearly differentiates it from other forms of the fantastic, a position that I believe to be increasingly difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, it is a good essay to disagree with because it is well argued and does offer an insightful way of approaching the genre.

Marxism and science fiction do have revealing things to say about each other, but I have to conclude that this volume would have explored the symbiosis more fruitfully if the contributors had been less willing to take the precepts of theory on trust and more willing to question both sides of the equation. It is only right at the end, with China Miéville's Afterword, 'Cognition as Ideology: a Dialectic of SF Theory', that we do get such questioning of both theory and of genre. Working from the position that fantasy can be as worthy of academic consideration as science fiction, he generates a fascinating critique of Suvin's notion of 'cognitive estrangement' and Carl Freedman's related notion of the "cognition effect." The result is to open up both science fiction and Marxist theory to new approaches, new arguments. One could only wish that such openness had been appended to a collection that was itself more open.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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