Since the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818, Science Fiction has supplanted Political Theory as the primary area where people explore issues of justice, fairness, citizenship, racism, nationalism, and more. This work makes two arguments. First, both Science Fiction and Political Theory are predisposed to explore the issues mentioned above; second, for most people, Science Fiction is the best and most used venue to delve into these concepts. In addition, this work will explore the unique facets of Science Fiction which makes it such a valuable tool in this area, particularly in the way that it provides people with the vocabulary and symbols needed to participate in political debate.



Key Concepts

Literary Theory, Political Theory, Science Fiction, Visual Science Fiction (VSF), World Building




Science Fiction has supplanted the field of ‘Political Theory/Political Philosophy’ as the primary method through which most people are exposed to questions dealing with issues of morality, economic justice, racism, sexism and the like.  Where in the past people turned to philosophers such as Plato and Locke to guide them, today they engage with Robert Heinlein and Octavia Butler.  As a result of this shift in the public’s intellectual life, this work argues that the consumption of popular Science Fiction, mainly through visual media such as film and streaming, which I will refer to as VSF (Visual Science Fiction), supports the health of democracy by priming its audience to engage in questions of public morality, justice, and economic fairness in ways that Political Theory does not.  Science Fiction has several unique traits which Political Theory generally lacks.  First, its method of world-building within stories promotes the examination of fundamental questions of authority and morality not found in other popular forms of entertainment or in Political Theory.  Second, since it is meant to be entertainment, it is more likely to be broadly consumed than is the more academic field of Political Theory which has high barriers to entry which will be discussed below.  This combination of a relatively deep and wide examination of moral issues (compared to other forms of entertainment) develops an educated population prepared to participate in the democratic process.  This work will examine Science Fiction’s contribution to enhancing the public’s ability to think about political issues, which in the past have been largely ignored.

Political Theory focuses on the academic community, providing the analytic tools and professional rigor needed for academicians to investigate issues centered on authority, control, racism, justice, and more.  While these investigations have a profound long-term effect on conceptions of public morality and how society should be organized (e.g., the debate between John Rawls and Robert Nozick about the proper scope of government has been playing out over the last 40+ years), they are opaque to the public.  In addition, high barriers to entry (e.g., the commitment of time, energy, and money needed to partake in formal education) prevents the timely migration of ideas from the academic to the non-academic world.

Political Theory and Science Fiction have much in common, just as a Science Fiction story is often an implicit criticism of some aspect of today’s society, so Political Theory is often a critical appraisal of what its authors believe is wrong with their society.  In fact, many times in the past Political Theory has been written in story-like prose, we see this from Plato’s The Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia.  What is the point of The Republic if it is not a story meant to suggest the best way to organize a future society?  Utopia is not a Travel Log about a far-off island community; it is a story meant to (at least in part) convince people that society could be structured for the benefit of all.  While the habit of using stories as a tool may have gone out of favor, modern Political Theory still looks to the future.  John Rawls’ conception of a society consciously structured to benefit all its members through “the original position” is reminiscent of the planning in Moore’s Utopia.  David Easton has suggested that the mark of good Political Theory is that it suggests future goals and provides a path to achieve those goals.[1]  So we find that Science Fiction and Political Theory have more in common than it might seem at first; both are vitally interested in understanding and critiquing our world, both (at least implicitly) provide a suggested path to the future.  It is through this melding that we see how Political Theory is concealed within Science Fiction.


Science Fiction and Political Theory Support Each Other


We look to literature, especially the literature of Political Theory, to help us work through how we should relate to our fellow citizens, our institutions, and our country. In this regard, tradition points us towards “the old standards,” thinkers such as Plato, Hobbes, Locke, and their ilk; but this presents us with a problem, the old canon often seems distant and alien to the modern ear. The lives of the old masters are not so similar to our experiences; the issues they write about, while still important, are presented in ways that are hard for contemporary people to relate to. W.E.B. Du Bois, Gene Roddenberry, and Octavia Butler, on the other hand, belong to our world; they speak about our problems. Science Fiction is where literature and Political Theory come together. The two communities can ask each other questions and help each other find answers to our time’s most pressing problems. From their start, Political Theory and Science Fiction have been the forums in which we attempt to solve our most significant political and moral issues. Those problems are many; racism, sexism, dwindling faith in democracy, and questions even about the government’s ability to help us solve these problems. The list goes on. Today every country, every society, is an experiment in change.

Political Theory and Science Fiction work in different but potentially complementary ways. Political Theory works best within academia’s strictures, which prefer observation, debate, and consensus-building. New ideas take time to spread within the field, being primarily communicated via published papers and books. Change does not always come easy; new concepts may sometimes need to wait a generation before the community accepts them. On the other hand, Science Fiction prefers the trendy idea; new seeds of thought can spread like wildfire from one part of the community to another. In Science Fiction, acceptance of a new concept is an individual act, without the need for the rigor found in Political Theory. Society may use whichever mode it needs, the speed of Science Fiction or the solidity of Political Theory. We will examine both of these institutions, Political Theory and Science Fiction, to see how they guide the future.

We have already touched on how Science Fiction gives authors a method of critiquing society (a topic we will look at in-depth throughout this work,) but in what way does Science Fiction help the reader accomplish the same goal?  Also, how does this contribute to the bond between Science Fiction and Political Theory? To “get something out of” a piece of literature, the work (whether it be a book or a video) must enable the reader to strike a balance between “transportation,”[2] the feeling of being caught up in a work, and aesthetic distance, the ability to “contemplate” an object, to understand it both in emotional and in intellectual terms.[3]  The author’s goal is to allow the reader or viewer to internalize the work so that they are willing to devote the intellectual resources needed to understand it beyond pure transitory entertainment.  As Melanie Green says, “individuals may enjoy a media experience because they feel it has given them new knowledge or enriched their lives in some way, such as providing greater insight into an historical event or a philosophical problem.”[4]  The point is not to use entertainment as a pulpit but to allow, and perhaps even encourage, the reader or viewer to contemplate an issue and so come to their own conclusions.  Through this mechanism, Science Fiction gives its audience permission to think about topics and events in ways that they otherwise might not think of at all.  While it might seem paradoxical, in this way, a reader may come to a deeper understanding of a “philosophical problem” than they would if they experienced it through other means, such as a newscast.  We may also note that through this mechanism of aesthetic distance, the author loses a degree of control he or she has over the reader.  The reader may well come to some conclusion that the author did not anticipate.


To Whom Does Political Theory Speak?


Political Theory (and Political Science more generally) speaks to a particular segment of our society which many have called the intelligentsia. This amorphous group is composed of academics (including those who work in “think tanks”), high-level government bureaucrats, “cultural critics,” and politicians of all stripes.  One of the prime avenues for contemporary Political Theory, papers that are published in academic journals, are often protected behind paywalls that limit dissemination to those who have academic credentials. Books are published, but they are often limited to college bookstores, rarely finding their way to the bestseller lists.  Conferences are plentiful but are intended for those who are in the profession.  For the average person, the barriers to entry are incredibly high.  Unfortunately, when it is needed the most, Political Theory exists primarily within a privileged segment of society and for those who have the time, energy, and background needed to make use of it.

Though sometimes Political Theory can surprise us! Some works transcend the audience and the time they are written for; they go on to provide the foundations of our modern world. Plato’s works, for example, despite being written almost 2,500 years ago and for a society very different from our own, provides the bases for how today we view the roles of morality and ethics in society. Neither Machiavelli’s The Prince, written in approximately 1513, nor John Locke’s Two Treatises, written in 1689, were geared toward the general public, yet they provide us the framework we use to conceptualize authority and rights today. The American founding fathers’ readings of Hobbes and Locke lead to the embodiment of those authors ideals in America’s Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, ensuring that these concepts will resonate on into the future. Similarly, the works of Rousseau and Montesquieu have been transmitted by The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen via the French Revolution into today’s European gestalt. Although these works had been written for an elite audience of their time, they have had an outsized influence on our world.

Political Theory is both critical and aspirational. To solve a problem, one must first understand it. Without an understanding of our problems, we will see no solutions; we might even say that it is the existence of our problems and the motive to understand them which gives impetus to Political Theory. If every citizen thought society was perfect we would not need Political Theory, a laudable, though probably unattainable goal. The Political Theory canon is, in part or in whole, a catalog of the problems the various authors perceived in their society; sometimes these criticisms were implied, sometimes they were explicit. They were always an attempt to bring to light those places where we as citizens failed ourselves, where we denied ourselves freedom and justice, where we gave up our rights to live our lives as we see fit to those forces that would control us. (This assumes a normative component to Political Theory that supports traditional Western values.  Those strains of Political Theory which are less traditional may well have a different conception of the Political Theory canon.)  We live this not only in a narrow political sense, but also in how we decide to live our lives, how we make a living, marry whom we want, and participate both politically and socially in society as equals to everyone else. To solve a problem, one must also have a plan; in this way, Political Theory is also aspirational. From Plato to Rawls, Political Theory has been about plans for the future. Sometimes these plans were about living a more just life in an unjust society; often, they were about remaking society itself to be more just, but always they were suggestions for how we can change the future.

However, of what use are these plans if they are not actualized? Inherent to democracy and republicanism is the principle that the people should have a say in how they are governed; therefore, we hope that the people pay attention not only to the partisan issues of the day but also to the deeper issues of freedom, justice, and fairness. To do this people need a framework to understand the concepts that originate in Political Theory. When the average person thinks of Political Theory, they are likely to do so in the context of Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes; however, these figures can seem distant and out of touch to the everyday person. Even those who have directly contributed to our modern political system, such as Jefferson and Paine, have been mythologized to the point where they hardly seem like real people. Even “prominent” theorists such as Rawls and Nozick are invisible to the modern person. So, we must ask, where will the average person find inspiration?

Science Fiction (in academic terms more properly called Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction is the popular term and so will be used here) is, in a genuine sense, the average persons’ expression of Political Theory. As part of a story, Science Fiction asks and often answers the most essential Political Theory questions, such as, what is the nature of justice? What is freedom? How can one lead a good life? What does one owe to others, and how should they treat their fellow citizens? We may agree or disagree with the authors’ answers, but they are there for us to examine. While the average person is unlikely to have read Isiah Berlin or Robert Nozick, they will be familiar with Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games.

Science Fiction and World Building

Although Science Fiction is not the only genre that can examine Political Theory’s issues, it is the only genre that must explore these issues; this is because every Science Fiction work is at some level an exercise in “world-building.” As we will examine below, this is the heart of the matter! Every Science Fiction story projects the audience into a new place; whether it be an alternate reality or a different planet, it will be a reality different from anything the audience has ever experienced; therefore, the author must explain it. Suppose the story’s setting is on another planet. Even if humans inhabit the planet, it is only natural that the society will need to be first invented by the author and then explained to the audience. When one reads a detective novel set in 1930’s New York, the audience does not need to have the type of government presented to them, but if they read a detective novel set in 2230’s Mars, they will. Furthermore, the explanation will be essential! Does the accused have any rights? What powers do the police have? When the defendant goes to court, is she presumed innocent or guilty? These are some of the fundamental questions in Political Theory! The audience cannot make the most basic assumptions of how people live in another world unless they know the ground rules. The author needs to explain the society for the sake of the story; the happy byproduct is that the reader is given insight into an alternate world. While a detective novel can be a convenient place to examine questions of what is fair, it does not have to do this; it could just be an entertaining tale about solving a crime. However, a detective story wrapped up in a Science Fiction novel will have no choice but to look at the deeper issues. How does the justice system work? Is it fair? What effect does it have on society? Even if the story is written just to entertain, Political Theory will be lurking in the background.

The Modes of Science Fiction

The Science Fiction we are interested in is both critical and aspirational (in this way, it is very similar to the description of Political Theory above.) This role used to be filled by “traditional literature,” as when Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird laid bare the difference between whom we wanted to be and who we really are; and in doing so, those works changed our world irrevocably. On the other hand, Science Fiction can be just plain fun; think of Star Gate and Space Battleship Yamato! How many of us have sat in the theater, thrilled to watch the special effects of Star Wars, or the alien invasions of Independence Day? So often though, Science Fiction cannot help itself; beyond being just pure entertainment, it is propelled to examine the problems and tribulations around us. It seems compelled to point out how our world is seemingly doomed in so many ways only to miraculously, and like all good entertainment, at the last moment, provide a solution to our torment.  For example, H. G. Wells proposed scientific socialism as a remedy for the excess of 1800’s industrial capitalism in Things to Come, and Arthur C. Clark proposed world government as a remedy to the mid-20th Century Cold War in Childhoods End.  Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward even spawned “Bellamy clubs” dedicated to bringing about his work’s socialist ideas[5]. This is the gift of Science Fiction, it is a forum where those who have something critical to say about society can reach out with solutions!

While Political Theory and Science Fiction have many things in common, they can also be very different, particularly in the way people interact with the fields. We have already touched on the idea that Political Theory is formal; it exists primarily in the academic sphere, it is rigorous, and it has high barriers to entry. Political Theory is a professional endeavor; its practitioners spend the majority of their energies in research, writing, or teaching and, in doing so, interact with others who are doing much the same. On the other hand, Science Fiction is much less structured, with many avenues available for participation, both by professionals and amateurs. Some aspects are beholden to commercial interests and must follow (or attempt to fight) corporate dictates. However, many other elements exist with few or no entry barriers. Their reach is limited only by how many people will participate and the fans’ level of involvement. This involvement has been a part of the culture of Science Fiction almost from the very beginning. As Isaac Asimov relates while speaking of the 1930’s pulp science fiction magazines and one it’s most prominent editors Hugo Gernsback, “He had some arcane financial reason for starting a letter column, but it got away from him almost at once. It turned out that science fiction fans were garrulous, articulate, and incredibly hungry both for exposure and for communication with each other.” Further, “people wanted to read the letters. The constant letter writers became friends with each other and out of that burgeoned the fan movement-fan clubs, fan magazines, and fan conventions.” [6] Now almost a hundred years later technology has broadened the scope through which non-professionals can participate in Science Fiction; it is now both more common and more interactive than in the past. Some examples are self-published web pages (for example, Ex Astris ScientiaStar Wars News Net, and the Science Fiction Historical Dictionary), professionally maintained web pages that cater to the less technically inclined (for example, Reddit and Memory Alpha), studio maintained site-specific web pages which actively recruit fans to write articles (such as startrek.com) as well as social media such as Facebook, Mastodon and YouTube. YouTube, in particular, has been used to examine the world-building aspects of Science Fiction. We will discuss world-building in detail later. The devotion many Science Fiction fans have for the field is difficult to overestimate. More than any other genre, Science Fiction is a conversation between the creatives (book and story authors, movie directors, television producers, etc.) and the fans; this enables an intellectual environment that encourages the interrogation of the questions inherent to the field of Science Fiction by its fans.  The world of “fandom” is filled with Science Fiction conventions, cosplay, role-playing games, authors’ interactive websites, fan-produced websites that speculate endlessly on the contents of various Science Fiction universes, YouTube channels, and more, even to the point where the “creatives” and the “fans” blend into each other.

The Power and Popularity of Science Fiction

Science Fiction’s power lies in its ability to expose people to new ideas and encourage them to view old concepts in a new light. However, of what use is this if no one is participating? We must ask, how popular is Science Fiction? Further, which aspects of it, literature, film, television, etc., are most popular and engaging and are therefore most likely to make a difference in people’s lives? Tracking popularity, however, is a challenging endeavor; more than one person can read a book, and television ratings (particularly for shows in syndication) are difficult to pin down with any accuracy.

Literature is, of course, the oldest of these categories, with modern Science Fiction reaching back to the early 19th Century. Given the popularity of the field, people might find the low number of copies produced in the early years surprising. For example, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein first production run was just 500 copies in 1818; it was then republished in a two-volume set in 1823, with the first popular edition aimed at what we now call the mass market not arriving until 1831. Despite these low numbers, the public was exposed to Frankenstein as a stage play as early as 1823 in both England and France, attesting to the proclivity of Science Fiction to exist in more than one medium from the start. Having the advantage of being in the public domain, the novel has now been republished over 300 times and has also been downloaded over 70,000 times from Project Gutenberg.[7] Generally regarded as the first author to make his living by publishing Science Fiction[8] was Jules Verne with his “voyages extraordinaires” series of novels beginning with his 1864 work Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Despite his involvement in French politics (he was an elected official in his province for over 15 years), his novels are better known for their scientific and technical aspects than for any allusions to politics. In 1895 H.G. Wells, the “Father of Science Fiction,” published The Time Machine as a series of articles in a newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette. The work was then republished as a novel going on to what was a great success for the time, selling 6,000 copies in a few months.[9] H. G. Wells, a committed socialist, did not shy away from making political comments a vital part of his writing; this no doubt contributed to the use of Political Theory as part of Science Fiction in the years afterward. The top-selling Science Fiction novel of all time is George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (more commonly referred to as just 1984) which has sold more than 30 million copies between its 1949 publication and 2017.[10] The market for Science Fiction literature has increased in recent years, which is reflected in Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, selling 29 million copies in just ten years.[11] It is a testament to Political Theory and Science Fiction’s bond that several of the all-time best-selling novels in literature are Science Fiction stories with overt Political Theory themes. Besides 1984 with its warnings of authoritarianism and depictions of government intrusion into the private sphere and the Hunger Games warnings of economic inequality, are Dune and Fahrenheit 451. Dune has long been cited as one of the most political of all novels in Science Fiction with its deep investigations into how an individual is controlled by society and how that individual can fight back, amongst many other themes. Fahrenheit 451 is a clarion call to understand the place of ideas in society and the tendency towards censorship. If we expand our gaze to include novel trilogies and series, we find that the Star Wars series of books have sold over 300 million copies and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series over 20 million.[12]

Despite these numbers, Science Fiction is underrepresented on the annual novel bestseller lists when sorted by genre; in 2018, Science Fiction was not even one of the top ten best-selling genres[13]. This turns around almost completely when we examine VSF, particularly in cinema where it has come to dominate the box office. There are many difficulties in gauging the popularity of films as their environment has changed considerably over the past 100+ years. For example, inflation biases box office receipts towards recent films overstating their relative popularity, while modern, more diverse means of entertainment (such as television) has potentially the opposite effect by making it challenging to gauge recent films’ popularity. By any measure, however, VSF has been a dominant force. When looking at all time domestic box office receipts unadjusted for inflation, VSF takes 8 out of the top ten places[14], while inflation-adjusted receipts show 25 Science Fiction oriented films out of the top 100 in all-time top box office receipts. Also, many VSF “cult” movies continue to be played long after their theatrical release on television and are also available to stream, such as Blade Runner and RoboCop.

The power of VSF to illuminate the political challenges of those who are historically disadvantaged is highlighted by examining who goes to the cinema. Why is it important to know who watches movies? Because tools that illuminate power structures in society are more important to those who suffer from having less power. Understanding, or at least asking questions about power structures is in itself powerful. Science Fiction helps us to understand power structures, as well as all of the political and economic benefits that go along with power. Although it is difficult to find demographic information on viewership by genre, the Motion Picture Association does survey cinema attendance and streaming purchases of first-run films broken down by ethnicity, which can be used as a rough approximation for those who might benefit from being exposed to issues surrounding power relationships in society and the questions those relationships bring up. From 2010 to 2019 ticket sales have ranged between 1.24 and 1.36 billion per year in North America. Although in North America the “Caucasian/White” category makes up 61% of the overall population, they are under-represented in the cinema at 57% of ticket sales.[15] In comparison, the Hispanic/Latino category is over represented in their share of movie tickets purchased (25%) relative to their share of the population (18%). There was not a statistical difference in attendance versus tickets sold for the “African-American/Black” or “Asian” categories, who did however go to the cinema in greater numbers proportionately than the “Caucasian/White” category. Similar percentages exist for first-run film sales to the home market via physical disks and streaming services.

While creating VSF, Hollywood has never shied away from politics; in fact, VSF has carried more than its weight in Hollywood’s commentaries about modern America. From The Incredible Shrinking Man’s critique of gender stereotypes to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ examination of America’s fear of Communism, VSF has been front and center in examining the deficiencies of modern politics. Although these movies served as criticism of American culture, they have concentrated on the mainstream, virtually ignoring the people who suffered the extra burdens of disenfranchisement and prejudice.

Perhaps this is why when Hollywood finally did turn its eye towards, for example, the African American community, Jamil Smith said of Disney’s “Black Panther” that it is “a vision of black grandeur and, indeed, power in a trying time, when more than 41% of ­African Americans were at or below the poverty line and comprised nearly a third of the nation’s poor. Much like the iconic Lieutenant Uhura character, played by Nichelle Nichols, that debuted in Star Trek in September 1966, Black Panther was an expression of Afrofuturism—an ethos that fuses African mythologies, technology and science fiction and serves to rebuke conventional depictions of (or, worse, efforts to bring about) a future bereft of black people.”[16]  “Black Panther” is by no means the first movie to examine the issues of racism in America, though it is one of the most important and popular. From the classroom to the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe, the African American community has leveraged the “Black Panther Movement” to examine the role racism plays in their lives regarding economics, politics, and culture.

VSF on television has been prominent since the medium began with the series Captain Video and His Video Rangers starting in 1949, followed by many more series in the 1950s, including such notable examples as The Twilight Zone and Flash Gordon. The trend only increased through the latter half of the 20th Century, with VSF becoming an important, highly visible part of each television network’s creative plan. To highlight the importance of the genre, Star Trek was the first television show with a budget of $100,000 per episode in the 1960s; later, its sequel, Star Trek The Next Generation, was the first show with a budget of one million dollars per episode[17] in the 1990s. From its humble beginnings, VSF on television has constituted a considerable percentage of broadcast hours, particularly when focused on syndication and local channels[18]. The fragmentation of television over traditional networks, syndication networks (such as the SyFy network), and streaming services has only accelerated the trend, with VSF series such as CBS’s Star Trek Discovery, Disney’s Mandalorian, and Netflix’s Altered Carbon appearing regularly, resulting in what has been called “The Great Sci-Fi TV Boom”[19]

Interestingly the popularity of many VSF shows continues, or even increases, long after they cease production. The first iteration of Star Trek had mediocre ratings during its production run but became famously popular in syndication.  Star Trek: The Next Generation was famous from the beginning and then went on to become one of the most popular television series ever in syndication. In fact, for October 2020, TNG was among the top 3% in audience demand for all television shows in North America,[20] 26 years after it ended production!  Babylon 5, which was only distributed in syndication, was in the top 15% during the same time frame.[21]  The enduring popularity of these franchises is significant beyond just the number of views the shows receive; their longevity indicates a gravitas that is not usually accorded to traditional Science Fiction, which has in the past been dismissed as trivial entertainment. The cultural impact of the Star Trek franchise, along with The X-FilesBattlestar GalacticaMax Headroom, and many others, cannot be denied. As Roger Luckhurst has said, Science Fiction has become a part of our “grain of lived experience.”[22]. For most people, this experience is primarily visual (films and television) and participative (fandom, conventions, internet forums, etc.). The locus of Science Fiction has moved so far towards the visual and interactive realm that Luckhurst has suggested (partially quoting Mark Bould) that we need “a critical history of sf which significantly downplays and, at least polemically, marginalizes sf literature” so that this would “better emphasize the rush of science-fictional forms at least since the 1920’s in comics, amateur magazines, radio, advertising, cinema, interior design, Internet sites, Web 2.0 writing, transport interchanges, religions, fun-fairs, fandom, video games, and the immersive spaces of World Expos-all of those multiplying extra-literary sites that sf now inhibits but that textual histories have so routinely overlooked.”[23]  When VSF shows such as the Star Trek franchise show such longevity and impact we should view them as at least equal to classic pieces of literature such as 1984 and Brave New World.

Scholars typically regard Science Fiction as having originated in the 19th Century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, but connotatively the average person today is much more likely to understand modern Science Fiction as a product of the 20th Century, possibly referencing pulp magazines of the 1930s and then continuing to the classic Science Fiction movies of the 1950s. Although all Science Fiction is potentially valuable for its insights into modern society, VSF speaks most intensively to the average person today. For this reason, with some exceptions, it is VSF that will be paying attention to.

What Lies Ahead?

In “What is the Value of Political Theory” we will begin with an examination of the value of Political Theory to the public.  Two issues will be important, the place of Political Theory and the purpose of Political Theory.  Political Theory as a formal discipline exists primarily within academic institutions beyond the High School level; even at the undergraduate level, the typical student’s exposure may be limited at best.  This begs the question; what use is Political Theory if it has such a limited place in society?  Later sections will show the value of the questions inherent in Political Theory when they are reflected in the plots of VSF and the resulting exposure that this generates.

Secondly, we will examine the purpose of institutionalized Political Theory via the questions of methodology and aims which consumed the field during the latter half of the 20th Century through today. By contrasting the thoughts of Isiah Berlin and David Easton, we will ask if Political Theory should be a behaviorist, dispassionate science concerned only with acquiring information, existing primarily within Universities, or is it a tool that people can use to understand the fundamental issues of citizenship and democracy?  Or are these two extremes as divergent as we might at first think?

After this, we will turn the question around, what is the value of Science Fiction to Political Theory?  In particular, how does the practice of Science Fiction affect how the public thinks about ideas inherent to Political Theory?  A few points will be important, first will be an examination of the ways that Science Fiction plays with boundaries. Is a Science Fiction show limited to being just a Science Fiction show, or can it exist as political commentary in addition to being a piece of entertainment?  If something is “unbelievable,” does that mean it can have no meaning for us?  What effect does Science Fiction have on community?  Is a community based on race or sexuality, or can it encompass something broader?  Are people inherently equal regardless of whatever community they are a part of?These issues lead to another point, when Science Fiction speaks to issues of ethics and morality, can it do so in a way that is rigorous enough that it helps us come to reasonable answers?  If Science Fiction only describes feelings and situations, it will forever remain in the realm of entertainment.  Political Theory, being a sub-set of Political Science, requires a level of rigor and thoughtfulness beyond just description.

The following section, Science Fiction as Political Theory, will continue the task of placing Science Fiction into a Political Theory context.  Political Theory maintains certain conventions, viewing one author’s work as a more or less unified model for understanding a particular problem, for example.  While the public may not care about this, these conventions persist because they bring value to the issues under consideration.  (Hence the use of terms such as Rawlsian or Hobbesian through which theorists give meaning to authors or their works).  By examining concepts such as a “shared universe,” “in-universe explanations,” and “fandom communities” we will see how Science Fiction mimics and even extends this idea to provide meaning to its audience.  The result is a shared language and worldview which enriches the conversation.
Following are a series of chapters in which specific aspects of Science Fiction are examined to understand how they relate to the issues of Political Theory.  “Science Fiction, Nationalism, and the Politics of Exclusion” looks at issues of loyalty and belonging through the lens of a Babylon 5 episode which challenges the audience to defend the standard views of what it means to be a loyal citizen and to challenge the concept of authority.  “Science Fiction Symbolism” examines how the visual language of Science Fiction has migrated to the political world to be used by groups as diverse as feminists, animal rights advocates, and student protesters in Thailand.  This chapter links the emotional aspects of entertainment with the practical aspects of accomplishing a political goal.  “Science Fiction and Civic Participation” delves into questions about how the individual relates to the public/private sphere of society.  What is the proper role of a citizen concerning the economy and making a living?  Can Science Fiction empower a person to work towards economic agency even if they depend on a wage to make a living?  How does Science Fiction inspire refugees to make a better life for themselves?

The modern world is a complicated dance in which people can take on many roles; leader, follower, worker, union member, soldier, protester, student, refugee, and on and on.  Each role changes their relationship to those around them, and each role requires people to adapt and change to new circumstances.  One of the most pressing questions of our day is how is a person to know how to adapt?  While Political Theory provides a framework in which people can work out these questions based on rights and responsibilities, this avenue is closed to most people because of a lack of experience with the field.  Science Fiction, however, can fill this void.  Its unique aspects of encouraging people to see themselves in new roles, its habit of encouraging questions about fundamental topics, its tendency to promote rigorous thinking, its drive to explore previously unimagined worlds combine to empower people in ways that most other aspects of society do not.  The intrinsic qualities of Science Fiction combined with its popularity make it an invaluable tool for the modern age.


What is the Value of Political Theory?

Before we look at the benefits that the general public gets from experiencing  Political Theory in Science Fiction, we must first understand how Political Theory itself is experienced, or more pointedly not experienced, by the general public outside the realm of Science Fiction.  As Thomas Brooks[1] points out, Political Theory can be divided into two distinct phases, historical and current, the historical phase includes what the public likely identifies as Political Theory, Plato and his works through John Stuart Mill would be an approximate conception.  This is not meant to imply that the modern phase has not included important works, certainly Robert Dahl’s Who Governs?RawlsA Theory of Justice, and Walzer’s Spheres of Justice are just a few examples; but in the eyes of the public, how well known and read are these modern works?  Further, as Giles and Garand[2] say, the vast bulk of Political Theory done today is accomplished through journal articles, which by their nature include high barriers to entry that discourages consumption by the public.

Political Theory in the University

Regarding the modern era, at a base level, Political Theory is an academic discipline composed of various university departments (with various names that might include “Political Theory,” “Political Philosophy,” “Moral Philosophy” etc.) which are composed of researchers, teachers, and students all working diligently at their various jobs. Virtually every college and university has a Department of Political Science or something similar, virtually every one of these teaches at least a few survey courses at the undergrad and graduate level in Political Theory. Also, a significant fraction of these provides complete programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in Political Theory. Conferences are regularly held throughout the world to examine the latest ideas and trends in excruciating detail. To a great extent, universities, and those who work in them, have become the locus, and the focus, of almost all of the work done today in modern Political Theory. However, the knowledge produced in Universities tends to stay in Universities and with those associated with Universities. For example, the website of San Francisco State University’s Political Science department tells us that “The department offers undergraduate and graduate programs designed to help students develop knowledge, analytical skills and critical insights into the nature of politics, political systems, and political activism.”[3]That makes perfect sense, it is the point of having a Department of Political Science, but it is indicative of where the knowledge resides. The question is, where will the knowledge travel, and how will it do so? Even in the case of “political activism” from the quote above, the knowledge resides in an academic setting; the imperative of the activist to educate the general population is at best informal and diffuse.


Political Theory in the Wild

Does Political Theory exist beyond the university setting? It is by no means impossible to find Political Theory at the local bookstore (if you can find a local bookstore) or for purchase at an online bookstore such as Amazon, from which you can buy the great works of the ancients such as Plato or modern works from theorists such as Robert Nozick. It will, however, take a concerted effort to dig beneath the layer of “popular tittles” and “best sellers” to find these. The politics section of our bookstores are overflowing, but these works tend very strongly to be either partisan in nature (such as Ben Shapiro’s How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps, which includes the tagline “A growing number of Americans want to tear down what it’s taken us 250 years to build—and they’ll start by canceling our shared history, ideals, and culture.”) or are political memoirs. Are these Political Theory?

To determine that, and to illuminate what Political Theory is and how the average person experiences it, we must determine what questions Political Theory seeks to answer and how these questions are asked. For this, we can turn to Isiah Berlin’s 1962 essay “Does Political Theory Still Exist” in which he says

“Among the problems which form the core of traditional political theory are those, for instance, of the nature of equality, of rights, law, authority, rules. We demand the analysis of these concepts, or ask how these expressions function in our language, or what forms of behavior they prescribe or forbid and why, or into what system of value or outlook they fit, and in what way. When we ask, what is perhaps the most fundamental of all political questions, ‘Why should anyone obey anyone else?’, we ask not ‘Why do men obey?’ – something that empirical psychology, anthropology and sociology might be able to answer- nor yet ‘Who obeys whom, when and where, and determined by what causes?’, which could perhaps be answered on the basis of evidence drawn from these and similar fields. When we ask why a man should obey, we are asking for the explanation of what is normative in such notions as authority, sovereignty, liberty, and the justification of their validity in political arguments. These are words in the name of which orders are issued, men are coerced, wars are fought, new societies are created and old ones destroyed – expressions which play as great a part as any in our lives today.”[4]

Isaiah Berlin’s conception of Political Theory has two parts, what is normative (or to phrase it in more conventional terms, what is fair) combined with the ability to justify the “fairness” of the matter in political terms, that is to say, what is appropriate without undue recourse to theology or history. This conception of Political Theory implies a certain vitality to Political Theory; it is, or at least should be, composed of ideas that speak to the here and now. Political Theory should be an active endeavor that molds itself to the time and circumstances people find themselves in. The assumptions and motivations of people’s political lives are affected by their life circumstances and technology; therefore, it is only natural that the conception of what is fair (the conception of Political Theory) of someone from the past would be different from people of today. The corollary of this question of fairness is, therefore, to also determine what is not fair. In this way, we may view Political Theory’s works as a critique of the societies in which they are written. Political Theory, we may say then, is (among other things) the process of asking questions about both what is right and what is wrong with society.

Other issues that stand in the way of the public’s understanding of Political Theory are the tensions that theorists themselves grapple with over the field’s aims and methodologies. For example, is the goal of Political Theory pure knowledge accumulation, or is it social change? Since Thomas Kuhn‘s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the view of science as pure epistemology has been a matter of great debate. One of the arguments Kuhn forwards is that accepted scientific facts (and their underlying truthfulness) must be viewed in the context of new observations (and their underlying truthfulness), where the two diverge is the space where progress is achieved. In other words, a model is helpful until its underlying facts are contravened by observations that do not support the facts of which it is composed; when this happens, a new model is needed. The old model is then discarded as not an accurate representation of the new observations. Alexander Bird has called this the “semantic approach,” which he argues is flawed, or at least not a helpful paradigm because it is more concerned with modeling knowledge rather than the purpose of the knowledge.  Bird says that Kuhn, and by extension those who are primarily concerned with epistemology are “neutral over questions of truth and knowledge.[5]”  For Bird, the old system should be discarded only if the initial observations were in error. If the initial observations were correct, but just interpreted differently, this would be an error of methodology.

For Bird, truth follows true knowledge, not verisimilitude. Therefore, we can say that if two different and independent models could be drawn from the same observations, both can be honestly defended until one no longer fits the facts. Issues arise however when independent observers cannot agree on the facts (“true knowledge”) or the facts’ consequences. As Bird says, “The semantic and epistemic accounts diverge when it comes to considering beliefs with insufficient epistemic support to count as knowledge.”[6] In Bird’s conception, if two theorists cannot agree on a basic principle, such as when Nozick disagrees with Rawls’s assertion that society should be structured so that it tends toward a relatively balanced distribution of resources, neither should be able to claim that they have discovered the truth. Nevertheless, of course, they do! So we are left in the same position where we started, with the public grappling over various theorists’ claims of truth.

This method of casting Political Theory as a model, or we might say as a system, is common today.  For example, John Rawls opens his A Theory of Justice by saying

“My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant.  In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government.  Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.  They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of association.  These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established.  This way of regulating the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness.[7]

Presenting Political Theory in this way places a premium on understanding the model in context; to appreciate the model, the reader must have both a vocabulary and background knowledge that the public is unlikely to possess. Indeed, it is difficult enough for Political Theorists that over the last 50 years, there has been something of a cottage industry in books explaining it and replying to it, or in some cases outright challenging it. Among those who have challenged Rawls is Robert Nozick with his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which laid the groundwork for the surge in libertarian thinking in America in the years after its publication. Together, these works are a kind of conversation between theorists who have set the boundaries of the most critical debates in modern American politics. These books have had an enormous impact on every American’s life, but they remain opaque to the public. Despite their importance, they are not nearly as prominent with the public as Ayn Rand‘s 1957 work Atlas Shrugged, which examines many of the same ideas, and interestingly is a Science Fiction oriented novel.

Why Ask Questions

Why do Political Theorists ask questions? What seems like a simple question on the surface deserves some consideration. The reason is that it has a considerable impact on how Political Theory is conducted, and on the field’s ultimate direction. In particular, the answers to this question will impact some essential topics for us, the questions of who can contribute to the field, what the field will have to offer to society, and from where it will draw its inspiration.  The mid-20th Century was a crisis point for Political Theory with several prominent thinkers predicting the demise of the field based on a lack of progress, for example, Isiah Berlin bemoaned the lack of development of any new conceptual paradigms[8] in the field within his lifetime, and David Easton had severely criticized the credibility of the field based on what he considered to be systematic mistakes in methodology.[9] Perhaps the most substantial criticism came from John Plamenatz, who in his essay “The Use of Political Theory[10]” argued that Political Theory had devolved into little more than “linguistic analysis.” As he says, “Political philosophy is dead, I have heard men say, killed by the logical positivists and their successors who have shown that many of the problems which exercised the great political thinkers of the past were spurious, resting on confusions of thought and the misuse of language.”[11] As a result of these criticisms the currents of thought of those who would work in Political Theory moved away from “moral philosophy” and towards something else, perhaps more appropriately called Analytic Philosophy. Drawing on Max Weber‘s work (and to a lesser extent Thomas Kuhn and others), the result was the rise of behaviorism, which favored empiricism over historicism and other forms of theory. Weber refers to this as the “bitter conflict about the apparently most elementary problems of our discipline, its methods.”[12] Thus began an era in which those who thought about political problems would talk primarily to others who thought about political problems and would do so in the language of science rather than the plain language of stories and narration as Plato and Machiavelli had.

Weber began his criticism of the social sciences by evidencing a deep distrust of the ability of academics to dispassionately examine the world around them, believing that no matter how fervently they wish to understand the true nature of a problem, they will have issues separating the causes of social ills from societal (and personal) values.  As he said

“It is true that in our sciences, personal value-judgments have tended to influence scientific arguments without being explicitly admitted. They have brought about continual confusion and have caused various interpretations to be placed on scientific arguments even in the sphere of the determination of simple casual interconnections among facts according to whether the results increased or decreased the chances of realizing one’s personal ideals, i.e., the possibility of desiring a certain thing.[13]

Weber realized that all researchers have personal biases and that it is all but impossible for a researcher to keep their bias from interfering with their project, if even unconsciously, unless their project is structured in such a way as to make this impossible.  This is the key to Weber’s empiricism: observe your subject, understand it without interjecting your own biases and values, then report your observations.  Critical to the methodology of empiricism is the concept that “a systematically correct scientific proof in the social sciences, if it is to achieve its purpose,[14]” must separate empirical truth from value judgments; further, the observations must be valid in the absence of any personal or societal values.  The conclusions should be understandable by any person who has sufficient prior knowledge to understand the system regardless of their cultural biases.  Also, any resulting axioms will only be valid if they can be understood by a person who does not accept the same “ethical imperative”[15] as the observer.  When these conditions are met, the research will be “completely free of the prejudice which asserts that reflections on culture which go beyond the analysis of empirical data in order to interpret the world metaphysically can, because of their metaphysical character fulfill no useful tasks of understanding.[16]” We are therefore left with a methodology that strips down a system to its essential components, simplifying it and making it more understandable.  This methodology divorces the theorist from his or her values.  This does not mean that Max Weber had no room for values, but that is a point we will come to later.

David Easton continued this line of reasoning by emphasizing the importance of transparency in data collection.

“Failure to realize the function that value-creation plays in empirical research means that the choices of political scientists, like other social scientists, will be molded not by the conscious adoption of a set of values, but by the implicit and intuitive acceptance of a value framework which they have accidentally acquired. Clearly this conflicts with our first principles as social scientists, that is, to be strictly aware of our operations so that the validity of the results can be known in terms of the way they were derived.[17]

For Easton, the most important aspect of research is that the subject of observation is understood within its own framework, separate from the values of the observer.  The lack of understanding on the part of the theorist of their layering their personal values on the society they observe leads to “social blindness”[18] according to Easton, this, in turn, inhibits, or even wholly negates, the usefulness of the observations.  In the end, ironically, the theorist is reduced to simply stating their views of how they believe society should be arranged.[19]  Because the theorist does not understand the place that their accepted values hold in their theory, Political Theory ends up living “parasitically”[20] on the ideas of the past.  Easton refers to this as the “double burden of guilt” because Political Theory

“traditionally, although this is seldom recognized or acknowledged, it deals with two major orders of knowledge, facts and values. Although it has always shown a primary concern for values, we would be seriously misled about the nature of a political theory if we did not recognize that in practice it does depend upon factual statements about political relations.[21]

Given how these arguments have divided the field for the last 50+ years, is it any wonder that when the public pays any attention to Political Theory they are confused by the goals (or lack of goals) of the field and its applicability to building a just and fair society?

These arguments over methodology and goals are not the only guiding forces in the type of work that is being done in the social sciences, however.  Political Scientists tend to work in Universities, and their livelihood is bound to a system that values quantification of results (as in the number of papers published) as a means of advancement.  Michael Giles and James Garand put it bluntly when they said

“Academic journals play a key role in the dissemination of scholarly knowledge in the social sciences. Hence, publication in journals is critical evidence of scholarly performance for both individuals and the departments that they populate. While in the best of worlds each scholar’s performance would be evaluated based on a close reading of his or her published journal articles, in the actual practices of hiring, tenure and promotion review, and departmental evaluations this ideal is often honored only in the breach. Instead, evaluators commonly base their judgments of the importance and quality of published articles, at least in part, on the journals in which they appear. The higher the status accorded a journal, the greater the weight attached to publications appearing in it.”[22]

For our purposes, this is not a criticism of the work being done as much as it explains where the work is being directed.  Serious work in Political Theory tends to be done in journal articles which by their very nature are more suited to consumption by other theorists rather than by the public.  Context, jargon, and methodology make these works unsuitable for the public.

Should Social Science be Value Neutral?

It would be unfair to claim that all aspects of empiricism are value-neutral, however.  Even Max Weber went to great pains to point out that the value of Political Theory is best expressed not within the system being examined but within the context of people’s lived experiences.  The point of empiricism is to structure a process so that a question can be asked and answered under impartial circumstances.  The structure of the process should be clear and open to examination; following the process should prevent anyone from unintentionally (or intentionally) affecting the outcome.  The question and results should be internally consistent and logical.  Within an experiment or study, the work should be value neutral.  However, if all our attention is limited to just answering the question being asked, the work is virtually useless.  Any value the answer provides lies outside of the work being done. As Weber says,

“The distinctive characteristic of a problem of social policy is indeed the fact that it cannot be resolved merely on the basis of purely technical considerations which assume already settled ends. Normative standards of value can and must be the objects of dispute in a discussion of a problem of social policy because the problem lies in the domain of general cultural values.”[23]

Isaiah Berlin’s conception of Political Theory implies one aspect of the field that has only been looked at here tangentially, for whom does Political Theory exist?  (Or if one does not believe that Political Theory has an intrinsic meaning, who and what do Political Theorists value?)  Political Theory justifies why “orders are issued, men are coerced, wars are fought, new societies are created and old ones destroyed.”  Wars are not limited to only the military and the benefits of society should not be limited to just those who make the decisions.  All the people who make-up a society have a stake in how society justifies itself.  Those people who are treated least fairly are those who have the most to gain from an understanding of Political Theory. Ironically, it is these people who likely will have the least exposure to Political Theory given that modern Political Theory exists primarily in the University setting, an environment difficult for those with limited resources to enter.  Political theory is written by theorists for others in the field; it is published in books and journals which are inaccessible to most.  When an article does fall into the public consciousness, it is all too easy for its subtleties to be lost behind a wall of jargon and a lack of background knowledge.  Political Theory illuminates power structures, those who do not understand Political Theory are in danger of having those power structures used against them since resources tend to accumulate with those who have power.

If the public could be exposed to the ideas inherent in Political Theory, they would be more likely to understand the concepts of liberty, democracy, and power irrespective of how these concepts are situated in the field.  A public empowered by this knowledge would be better suited to compete for economic and political resources.  We have examined some of the barriers to this that exist within the field of Political Theory; below we will begin to examine how science fiction can remedy this deficient situation.

What is Science Fiction?

Science Fiction is marked by an odd ability to defy a strict definition, a characteristic evident from the many lengthy and strained attempts at definition by those who write about it.[1]  Many texts about Science Fiction spend considerable time and energy in the attempt, only to make the definition so general that it becomes useless.  Paul Kincaid defines it as “a form of the literary fantastic employing any of a wide variety of commonly recognized themes, techniques and approaches that have tended to braid together over time into something to which we now give the name science fiction.[2]”  As Kincaid implies, even the name of the genre is controversial with many variants such as “scientification” and “scientific romance” being used in the past.  Many definitions emphasize the technological aspects of Science Fiction stories making the improvement in technology a central feature, though that has changed somewhat since the advent of “social science fiction” in the 1970s.[3]   This very problem of definition can tell us something important about the field; it is dynamic, descriptive, interpretive, and interactive while being old-fashioned and modern all at once. In this sense, it mirrors the society that it participates in.  While most definitions of Science Fiction concentrate on literary characteristics, modern multi-media aspects of the genre should also be considered. Science Fiction is made up of many different facets which have many different possible avenues of delivery to its audience.  Further, these facets are not static; they are, in fact, supremely malleable, interacting, changing places, and taking on new roles in different situations.  Fans can read Science Fiction in a book, watch Science Fiction in a television show or movie, then later publish their own story via the web or produce a video critique hosted on YouTube, play a Science Fiction oriented video game and later attend a Science Fiction convention.

Still though, some attempt at a definition must be made.  Science Fiction is a genre that exists in the broader category of Speculative Fiction, which also includes Fantasy, Horror and Gothic Tales, stories of the occult, and more.  Most formal definitions include terms and ideas such as “future technology,” “impact of science,” “utopia,” “dystopia,” “encountering change,” and such.  What these definitions all have in common is a method that Science Fiction uses to radically change the audiences’ frame of reference.  A person’s frame of reference grounds his or her identity and their place in society, these frames of reference are so fundamental that in some ways they are invisible to most of us, despite the power they hold over us.  For example, we believe that because we are Americans we must be “rugged individuals,” we must be either a Democrat or a Republican, we must follow the law, believe in God, and do hundreds of other things just because.   But how does this make Science Fiction different from Fantasy which might transform the protagonist into a unicorn?  The primary differences between Science Fiction and other forms of Speculative Fiction, such as Fantasy, that are important to us are a particular method of “world building” that results in certain expectations on the part of the audience in terms of how the story works.  Unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction must maintain a sense of realism and internal consistency.   So, for us, Science Fiction is a genre that radically changes the audience’s frame of reference, which often challenges the audiences identity at a fundamental level while still keeping the audience in a realistic, internally consistent world.  Through this process Science Fiction encourages questions about how the world works, particularly in regard to power relationships between society and individuals.  This is often accomplished through the introduction of new technology or by envisioning people in a future or significantly different world.


Science Fiction as Genre Fiction


Science fiction has a few other fundamental characteristics which we must take note of.  Unlike other genres, it consciously strives not to have limits.  But to say that an area of literature is a genre is to set limits; Westerns are set in the West, Romances have romance, detective stories have detectives, etc.  But a Science Fiction story can be placed in any time past, present, or future; it can use Western tropes or include romance elements.  Of course, Science Fiction has its own tropes. Where would Star Trek be without spaceships or Star Wars without lightsabers?  However, we should not over-emphasize the importance of these tropes to Science Fiction; they are more important as plot elements than they are in their own right.  Science Fiction and Westerns have many tropes in common, for example, the use of strongly drawn evil characters, gunfights, and the lone hero fighting a lonely battle for good, among many others.  Westerns however are limited in the tropes that they can use; a sheriff cannot have a transporter and an old-time country doctor cannot have a computer.  To do so would fundamentally change the work into a different genre.  Compared to Science Fiction this limits other genres’ ability to engage in social commentary in at least two respects.  First, practically speaking, the use of Science Fiction allows a plot to move in ways that stories in other genres cannot.   For example, a recurring trope in Star Trek has been the use of “replicators” (devices that turn energy into almost any type of matter needed, such as food or other consumer goods) to examine issues around economics and to examine the effects of a post-scarcity economy on the common person.  This has been used to great effect to examine issues in colonialism, racism, and capitalism for example.  It’s difficult to envision how the examination of a post-scarcity economy, or any other issues, could be done within the confines of a Romance or a Detective Story for example.

Secondly, Science Fiction provides a means for authors to evade censorship, to tell stories that would be difficult or impossible to tell in any other way.  As Gene Roddenberry said,

 “I was tired of writing for shows where there was always a shoot-out in the last act and somebody was killed. “Star Trek” was formulated to change that. I had been a freelance writer for about a dozen years and was chafing at the commercial censorship on television. You really couldn’t talk about anything you cared to talk about. It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam, and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by, and it did.[4]

Censorship occurs most often when gatekeepers feel threatened by the dissemination of ideas because of commercial, political, or social reasons.  For example, a television network is a gatekeeper in that they control the funding and distribution of television programs.  Television networks are generally for-profit corporations that do not wish to alienate the viewing public and so may be unwilling to broadcast shows that they deem have objectionable material, such as plots that involve LGBTQ characters.  As Roddenberry said, commercial censorship made it difficult to tell stories such as these, particularly before recent times.  But if the characters and relationships were disguised in some way, the impact of the message would be more subtle, and less likely to be objected to by the network.  In 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) aired “The Outcast.”  In this episode, the Star Trek crew are helping an alien race rescue a lost ship, while helping Commander Riker finds himself attracted to one of the aliens.

Soren, the J’naii pilot, is androgynous, while Commander Riker is the most overtly masculine character in the Star Trek crew.  Their relationship is an allegory for the situation that Gay Americans find themselves in.  The relationship is first hidden, then when it is discovered, it is terminated by Soren’s society.  By the end Soren is even put through a medical procedure that renders her “normal” to her society, that is to say, she was made androgynous. While many LGBTQ fans have criticized this episode as being out of touch[5] or for not going far enough in making its intentions clear[6], it was at least aired on a very popular show in America in 1992.

Beyond the obvious, that is set in the future and deals with aliens, why is this an example of Science Fiction?  More particularly, why is this VSF which embodies elements of Political Theory?  After all, it could be thought of as just another forbidden love story, not so different from Romeo and Juliette.  It is because of the way that this episode treats the audience.  The audience identifies Commander Riker as the classic leading man, within the show he has a well-documented romantic relationship with one of the show’s female leading characters.  Despite being a member of the Federation, in spirit, he is the All-American hero who defeats the bad guys and wins the day.  His pairing with Soren is no accident; the use of another less masculine character would not have had the same impact.  Further, at times it is Soren who initiates the relationship, placing Riker in an unusual situation.  Especially for those who identify with Riker (straight White males), this is shocking.  It violates the role that Riker the character is portraying, in-universe, as the first officer in charge of a starship and also in the real world as Jonathan Frakes, since the stars of popular television shows do not normally take a role that would challenge their masculinity.  The audience’s frame of reference is being challenged; Riker is no longer who we thought he was.  On a fundamental level his, and those who identify with him, identities are being challenged.  Without the use of what is clearly a Science Fiction oriented plot device, it is doubtful that this story could have been told on prime-time television in 1992.


The Believable and the Unbelievable


Science Fiction draws its strength through embodying a tension between what is believable and what is unbelievable.  How can we expect a genre such as Science Fiction to comment on important questions such as “Are people fundamentally free,” or “Is Democracy better suited to America than Fascism” if Science Fiction is literally unbelievable?  Fundamental to Science Fiction is the concept of “the suspension of disbelief.”  Science Fiction owns a debt to Gothic Literature, from which it flows naturally, in this way Science Fiction has incorporated many unique traits from the Gothic, particularly its use of metaphor, terror v horror, the fantastic, and its expectation of the consumer’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Unlike other genres whose origins can be debated, we can trace the birth of Gothic literature to the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto on Christmas day 1764.[7]  Written during, and likely as a response to, the Enlightenment, The Castle of Otranto is filled with all the elements that we have come to associate the Gothic Tale with today; the supernatural, ghosts, skeletons, dark moody forests, strong villains, emotional distress, and romance.  Although somewhat forgotten today it is impossible to underestimate the effect this work had on 18th Century European and American culture.  As Clive Bloom says:

“The gothic is a ‘feeling’ expressed by certain formulas which have been readily expanded upon ever since the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  These gothic feelings took shape in architecture, poetry, novels, short stories, pornography, romance and painting; they had political and ecclesiastical ramifications and formed a coherent philosophy of living.”[8]

Referring to the Gothic as a “feeling” is an indication of the relationship it has to the Romantic period and as such how it stands in (partial) opposition to the ideas of the Enlightenment.[9]  Walpole started a process in which fantastic ideas migrated from the realm of the mythic into our everyday world.  Fantastic ideas and circumstances were no longer dictated by the Gods but were placed in our everyday world.  Yet these fantastic ideas (such as “living skeletons” and animated suits of armor) were incredible.  They required the audience to negotiate between elements of fantasy and reality in ways that they can draw out meaning despite the implausible story elements of Gothic (and later Science Fiction) stories.

This tension between belief and non-belief places a burden on the audience to determine what aspects of a story can contribute to a greater understanding of what the story is commenting on, and which should be discarded.  This process is vital to our understanding of the social commentary embodied in the work in question, Stuart Hall has called this the “active audience” theory.  It describes a process in which the person consuming the media actively accepts elements of the story which they find pertinent, those story elements then become a filter through which reality is viewed.  Through this process, a living skeleton in The Castle of Otranto is no longer an unbelievable story element but is changed into the guilt a father feels for the death of his son.  This conception of what a story is has continued in Science Fiction so that now audiences have no issue with accepting elements of, for example, Star Trek as commentary on today’s political themes.  Further, it legitimizes how two people may draw different meanings from the same source material through subjectively accepting or disregarding various story elements.

David Easton said

“The task of the social scientist has been too sharply and artificially divorced from that of the politician. The function of the latter, it is said, is to sense human purposes and to reconcile them into a viable political order, whereas the task of the social scientist is to accumulate data about the relation of facts.” But this distinction is only partly true. Between these two tasks there lies yet a third which by oversight has been assigned to no one. This is the function of sensitively responding to the urgent problems of society and to the emerging social needs so that it becomes possible to articulate a sophisticated system of values that will help both the citizen and the statesman to define their situation.[10]

While some may argue with Easton’s conception of the role of a “social scientist,” this does highlight a role in which Science Fiction provides significant value to both the public and the field of Political Theory.  Easton believed that theorists had “shirked” their role of being political advisors because they conflated emotions with values.  Because of this, he said, “we do need some serious political guidance, in the broadest and most sophisticated terms; and by “we,” I mean the politician as well as the humble citizen.”[11]  To remedy this Easton proposed a three-step process that, when a Political Scientist was examining a problem, would constitute proper Political Theory; these three steps are 1) a statement of the actual situation, 2) a statement of the goals that should be sought, and 3) a means to achieve the goals.[12]  So we must ask, do we see these elements in Science Fiction?


Is The Comet Political Theory?


Can these same elements be found in Science Fiction?  In 1920 W.E.B. Dubois published The Comet, later hailed as an early example of Afrofuturism, the story tackled the issue of racism as it existed in early 20th Century America.   The main character, Jim, an African American, works in a menial job in a bank in New York City.  The bank’s vault has been flooded and Jim is asked (though for all practical purposes he is told) to retrieve a few valuable ledgers. Retrieving the ledgers is a dangerous disagreeable job that would not be given to a White employee.  The bank President asks “Well, Jim, are you scared?”  Although he answers no he thinks to himself “they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men.”  So, Jim must endure the ensuing danger and discomfort because he is a Black man.  While he is in the vault a catastrophe befalls the city as it is subjected to the poison gases from a passing comet; in a turn of fortune, Jim is protected by the very vault which he was forced to enter.  Upon emerging he finds that all the people around him are dead.  He then experiences the city as he could not before, realizing that it took a tragedy for him to enter a fancy restaurant to find food.  So the first element is established, racism is real, and Jim suffers its effects for no other reason than the color of his skin.

After a while, Jim does find one other survivor, a financially well-off White woman who is overjoyed to find another.  In fact, she is so happy at first, she “had not noticed before that he was a Negro.”  For his part, Jim had not “thought of her as white. She was a woman of perhaps twenty-five—rarely beautiful and richly gowned, with darkly-golden hair, and jewels. Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would scarcely have looked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet. She stared at him. Of all the sorts of men she had pictured as coming to her rescue she had not dreamed of one like him. Not that he was not human, but he dwelt in a world so far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought.”  Because these circumstances are presented as a story it may not at first be apparent that this is a way of stating a goal.  The audience is required to put themselves in the place of Jim to understand the implications; that it was wrong before the catastrophe to treat people unfairly because of their race and it should not take the deaths of so many for two people from different social backgrounds to see each other as human.  It is unfortunate that we can imagine African Americans would be more likely to understand this than White Americans would, but this does satisfy the requirement that a goal should be stated, namely that racism is evil and should be eliminated.

The Comet presents two survivors of a catastrophe as a new Adam and Eve, “She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong, vigorous manhood—his sorrow and sacrifice. She saw him glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast of another clime and blood, but her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.”  This satisfies the last step, a means to achieve the goal previously stated.

W.E. B. Dubois did not of course think of this in any way as a reasonable course of action, it is a story meant to illuminate themes that were difficult to talk about.  As a story, it might reach an audience that would not be responsive to these issues in any other way.  It is a thought experiment that explained the difficulties that so many people at the time experienced, and it pointed out just how hard it might be to overcome these issues.

Science Fiction as Political Theory

As of 2022, the Star Trek franchise is composed of 11 television series, including hundreds of episodes, 13 movies, and dozens of books, with more of each on the way. Star Wars includes 11 movies, 7 television series (as of this writing), dozens of books, and two theme parks. Stargate, four television series, one web series, three films, and 6 graphic novel series. Dr. Who includes six television series, four movies, dozens of audio dramas, and hundreds of novels. Battlestar Galactica, three television series, hundreds of books, games, and podcasts. This is just scratching the surface; there are many more franchises, each of which has thousands of independent fan-based videos, podcasts, and stories. The list goes on and on. Given this astonishing variety, can we treat any one of these franchises as a coherent whole with a consistent political school of thought analogous to how we would treat any one recognized political theorist? Must the political message from the 1960s produced Star Trek be the same as the 2021 produced Star Trek Discovery?  Certainly, we must expect some difference between two shows produced 50 years apart, given the different environments in which they were produced.  Star Trek, taking its cue from the 1960s zeitgeist, presented a world in which racial differences were minimized while arguing for the need for cooperation between different cultures. Star Trek Discovery, on the other hand, taking its inspiration from the racial unrest of the George Floyd era pointedly presented its main character with an “ethnic hairstyle,” which is congruent with the desire of many African Americans demands to be acknowledged.  Does this change in the style of presentation of questions surrounding racial harmony fundamentally change the underlying message?

The Science Fiction Franchise

More than any other genre, Science Fiction uses the concept of a “shared universe” that its characters exist in, what is often called a franchise. Why does this happen? The answer lies in a combination of commercial and creative areas. From a studio’s standpoint, commercially, there is a great incentive to make the best use of the tools that they have. Movies and television series are costly to produce, and studios have limited budgets, making every production something of a gamble. (Universal Pictures reportedly lost $150 million on Waterworld in the mid-1990s, endangering the viability of the studio).[1]  Nevertheless, a hit franchise can produce millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars for its studio. Capturing an audience is a massive expanse for a studio, so it makes sense to leverage past series as an avenue to capture an audience for a new series. Of course, a new production within an established franchise will start with huge advantages, including a built-in audience for the first few episodes or movies chief among them. Studios even save costs by reusing sets and props between shows. So, we see that studios have solid financial reasons for making multiple shows within one franchise, and also for attempting to make subsequent shows appealing to the original audience.

However, none of this means that a follow-on show in a franchise would be particularly close to the preceding shows from an editorial standpoint, which is what we are interested in.  Why would we expect a franchise to maintain a consistent political or social theme?  The answer lies in the original reason that a Science Fiction show is created and the consistency of the creative crew behind the show(s) when they become a franchise and the culture that grows up around the franchise.  For an example of the first point, we can look to the origins of Star Trek under the direction of Gene Roddenberry.  Gene Roddenberry was what we would today call a “showrunner.”[2]   A showrunner is a person who is recognized as the principal creative force behind a show, he or she may be the originator (who conceived and sold a pilot) or a producer or director, though they will almost always have a principal role in writing and editing scripts.  In fact, Gene Roddenberry said that during the first year of production of Star Trek he stepped away from producing the show to become a “full time story and script rewriter.”[3]  Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek for a reason, he had things that he wanted to say, and Star Trek was his platform.  As he said,

“It troubles me that there are no programs on television, at least none I’ve see, that point out that the world is operating in a very primitive way on the basis of hate.  Our own president hates the Commies, and he and his henchman believe that therefore everything they do to defeat the Commies, whether it’s illegal or not, is justified because of their hate.  The Ayatollah feels the same way, and in Northern Ireland both sides feel the same way, and in India the same things are happening.  If we are ever to turn the corner away from that, we need our artists and poets and entertainers pointing it out.”[4]

Gene Roddenberry intended to point out the mistakes he believed people were making, and as the primary creative force on Star Trek, the show reflected his ideas. The point here is not that he injected any particular political belief into the show (although he certainly did) as much as it is that the show’s point was to act as a platform for his political beliefs. It is only natural that a show is likely to favor the beliefs of its showrunner, whatever those beliefs may happen to be.

However, Star Trek is a complicated franchise composed of many individual movies and series; what relationship do the subsequent works have to Gene Roddenberry’s conception? Are they an extension of what came originally? Are they a restatement or a “reboot”? Does the audience understand Star Trek one way because Gene Roddenberry produced it, and do they then treat a subsequent series differently because it was produced by someone else? Or does the label “Star Trek” supersede any differences? Political theorists are use to treating one author as a unified whole but still can see the evolution of ideas within his or her works. Theorists often speak of a younger Rawls writing A Theory of Justice and then an older Rawls writing the similar, yet different, Political Liberalism, for example. However, is it fair or proper to expect the general public to make these fine distinctions? Michel Foucault looked at similar questions when he examined how he (and others) thought about literature.[5] Foucault questioned the author’s relationship to the works he is credited with; he examined the strange interplay between author and audience and the tendencies to both glamorize and forget the author at the same time. He understood that, on the one hand, society tends to look at authors within “systems of valorization” which causes the author to be, in his words, “individualized.”  One work, whether it be a book or a television series, one author in the public’s mind. Star Trek is Roddenberry and Roddenberry is Star Trek. Yet at the same time, Foucault brought to the fore “the conception of ecriture”, which is societies “profound attempt to elaborate the conditions of any text, both the conditions of its spatial dispersion and its temporal deployment” which when combined with the tendency to “reinscribe in transcendental terms the theological affirmation of” an important texts sacred origin, transposes “the empirical characteristics of an author to a transcendental anonymity.”  To put it another way, rather than just being “individualized,” an author can also be mythologized so that subsequent conceptions of a text are reflected back onto the author in a way that gives the text new and consistent meaning in the eyes of its audience.

Three points Foucault made in his 1969 essay What is an Author? may help us understand these issues.  First, one person, perhaps an author or a showrunner may be an organizing motif behind the various aspects of a work or a franchise.  For example, movies and series after Star Trek include the tagline “Based upon Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry” in order to link themselves to his “myth” even though many of these were created long after his death.  This is often even given prominence over the current producers such, as when Star Trek Deep Space Nine reminds us of this in the opening credits but do not acknowledge the producers until the closing credits.

Deep Space 9 credits

Deep Space 9 credits

This is a type of “appeal to authority” in which subsequent series are blessed by their association with the original source material.  The unstated assumption being that the politics portrayed in the latter series are linked to the politics in the former series.

Foucault’s second point is that the author constitutes a principle of unity. This is an extension of the first point, though since it seemingly depends on the author’s close association with his work, we might say that in Science Fiction, this is limited to an “in-universe” perspective. This is similar to fundamental interpretations of the Bible in which the word choice of translators decides complex doctrinal views, or in a more contemporary setting, issues surrounding interpretations of the law based on the theory of Constitutional Originalism. Just as lawyers before the Supreme Court make their point based on what the text of the constitution says, Star Trek fans argue the politics of the future in Star Trek: The Next Generation based on what was written in Star Trek TOS.

The third and most germane point is that the author serves as an arbiter of ideological purity, though this is primarily in “real life” as opposed to in-universe situations. In this case, the author is a signpost who can guide both the audience and the creative talent to adapt a later series politics to be consistent (in-universe) with an earlier series, or at the very least to give a rational way that this could be so. This is particularly true after the author has died! This is when we see the current creative team become a kind of secondary author who can interpret the ideology of the original author to meet the needs of the current situation. After the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry was in declining health, and he handed creative control to Rick Berman (who had worked with Roddenberry from the start of the show) and to Michael Piller, who began as a writer and producer in the third season. After Roddenberry died in 1991, Paramount Studios gave Berman and Piller complete control through the remainder of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 7-year run, as well as with Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. How did the creative team handle this? Did they view the franchise as a continuation of a specific political ideology? Rick Berman’s comments strongly point us in this direction, as he was quoted in 1994, “What Gene wanted me to do was basically carry the ball for him, and to try to maintain his vision,” Berman says. “He saw that I had respect for his vision – not because it’s my vision. I don’t believe the 24th century is going to be like Gene Roddenberry believed it to be, that people will be free from poverty and greed. But if you’re going to write and produce for `Star Trek,’ you’ve got to buy into that.”[6] Indeed Berman and Piller’s following series, Deep Space Nine, had many stylistic differences from the preceding series, often being called dark and moody compared to the light and optimistic tone of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the underlying ideas which had made Star Trek popular with the public were still in evidence. As Berman continued, “Whenever there is an instance in a story or in a piece of casting or in the general fabric of society in the 24th century, I always feel Gene sitting on my shoulder,” says Berman. “And if I feel that something goes against what he believed this show should be, I will fight for it.” Piller was more explicit, “Rick Berman and I are not out to change `Star Trek,'” Piller stated. “And `Deep Space Nine‘ is not a redefinition of `Star Trek.’ It’s an extension of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.”[7]

Beyond the issues of authorship, we also see that franchises tend to share behind the camera production staffs, which strongly implies a consistency of political outlook from show to show. For example, in the Star Trek franchise, Gene Roddenberry was the creative force behind both Star Trek TOS and Star Trek: The Next Generation, while Rick Berman was on the creative team for both of those shows as well as Star Trek: Voyager. Brannon Braga was on the creative team for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager,Enterprise, and several Star Trek movies. There are many instances of the same creative team working as directors, writers, and producers on the many Star Trek iterations. This is often a case of the commercial pressure to make a profit dictating the hiring of creative talent since these people are proven to be successful within the franchise. The creative success of these people reinforces the commercial success of the subsequent shows as it draws in an already existing audience, producing (at least in the eyes of the studio) a virtuous cycle of commercial and creative success. This leads to a consistency of visual and storytelling elements that the audience associates with the franchise and comes to expect as a defining element. When any of these elements are violated, such as with the look of the Klingons in Star Trek: Discovery season one, the push back from fans can be considerable. Even to the point of necessitating a re-design of the characters. This indicates the value that the audience (and hence the studio) sees in the consistency of the look and feel of a franchise.

Science Fiction and the Shared Universe

A franchise’s canon is one of the most important topics we must examine to understand the ability to interpret a franchise as a coherent political whole.  As we have already examined, world-building is integral to the concept of Science Fiction; because of this, each Science Fiction franchise has its own unique canon.  (In this instance, the term canon is used in the sense of “official knowledge”[8] not to be confused with a set of literary works which are fundamental to a particular type of literature.).  A franchise’s canon springs from several different sources.  First, as noted, the world-building exercise necessitates a body of knowledge that will allow the new fictional world to make sense.  In this form, the canon is called a “pitch bible” if used to sell a show to a studio or a “show bible” if used to educate prospective writers or producers who use it to help them assemble a story.  It is essential to understand that once a show has become successful, this will not be a static document but will evolve as the franchise adds new episodes, characters, etc.  This is one of the prime differences between true Science Fiction and other branches of Speculative Fiction such as Fantasy; true Science Fiction is held to a much higher standard of consistency by its fans than other branches.

The show’s creators do not dictate a franchise’s canon, it has morphed into an interactive exercise in world-building shared by those creators and the franchise’s fans.  This interactive canon is embodied in the concept of “fandom.”  Science Fiction franchises such as Star Trek and Babylon 5 have become public conversations in which creators and fans discuss (or perhaps argue?) over the meaning of in-universe politics and how the show relates to today’s politics, as well as over plot and character.  As Shun Duke said while speaking of the interaction between fans of a franchise and the creative team in Science Fiction, “I do think that the community of science fiction makes change a more practical expectation. For one, public discourse is a constantly evolving entity; by simply adding new voices to the fray, you can effectively change a conversation. It’s not an easily evolved entity, mind, but it does change.[9]”  While this might seem contradictory on the surface, that a franchise can be treated editorially as a whole while allowing the fans to interpret and extend the canon, this process also inoculates the franchise from straying too far in new directions.  This is because the conversations are conducted, in part, through official franchise web pages and semi-authoritative digital forums such as websites with a high degree of visibility and respect from the fans, and via social media managed by the various franchises’ creative teams.  The “fandom community” is devoted to a show because they identify with certain elements, lines of thought that stray too far from what the fans identify with will likely be ignored in the long run.  The community members that treat a franchise with respect will likely become more popular within the community.  An example from the Star Trek franchise of a semi-authoritative fan site would include Memory Alpha, a fan-run wiki that has over 50,000 articles, or Trekspertise, a YouTube channel with over 100,000 subscribers.  J. Michael Straczynski maintains an ongoing conversation with the fans of his various Science Fiction shows through his social media presence.  In fact, the Star Trek creative team has gone so far as to open the official Star Trek website to the fandom community. “StarTrek.com accepts pitches for essays, reported work, features, and more”[10]  they say.

What are the advantages of thinking about a Science Fiction franchise as a unified whole comparable to how we would think of one theorist’s work?  First, we will get a richer, more thought-provoking experience, with insights that might not be apparent otherwise as similarities and contradictions between works are brought out.  A prime example of the value, and the pitfalls, of this in Political Theory is Niccolò Machiavelli.  Perhaps the first modern political scientist, Machiavelli has quite a reputation among most people as a realist who teaches politicians how to attain and hold power via his work The Prince. Most people who have no idea what Political Theory is or how it works will still have heard of Machiavelli and may even have a basic understanding of his best-known work.  Moreover, his name has even become synonymous with realist, some would say manipulative, politics.  It is unfortunate however, that few people outside the field of Political Theory have had the opportunity to read his Discourses on the Ten Books of Titus Livy, which provides a much fuller and much different viewpoint on his thinking.  The Discourses show Machiavelli in a much different light than The Prince; he is revealed as a man who values personal liberty and security, who is concerned with citizens leading a virtuous and good life, and with the defense of republicanism.  A person who has read both works will likely have questions about the differences in Machiavelli’s thinking.  Are these differences simply because each work has a different audience, one is for a leader and the other for citizens?  Or has he changed his mind at some point?  Or perhaps, reading both works, we can glean something more subtle about this thinking that is not apparent from reading just one.  For example, the idea of “vivere sicuro” (secure living) is explicit in The Discourses but implicit in The Prince. The Prince deals with questions concerning how a leader should treat his subjects when the leader is mainly concerned with his own well-being, The Discourses deals with how subjects should respond when their liberty is threatened.  When the two works are taken together, we see the relationships between citizens and leaders in a new way.  Are the two fated to always be at odds, or is there a way that leaders and subjects can live in peace?  Machiavelli has a lot to say about the subject, though that is harder to understand when one reads just one of his works.

Further, two or more works do not need to be by the same author (or in the same Science Fiction franchise) to benefit from such an examination.  In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin questioned the viability of Political Theory as a field because “no commanding work of political philosophy has appeared in the twentieth century”[11]  though it would not be too long after that that John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, which changed the landscape forever.  Some have said that the next 30 years consisted primarily of responses to Rawls.  Many of these responses have been criticisms of the implementation or the viability of Rawls’s theories (by Amartya Sen, for example). Others, however, have “replied” to Rawls by conceiving of entirely new ways of organizing society!  Would Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice from the left or Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia from the right been published if not for Rawls?  It can be argued that the tension between these opposing paradigms has been the driving force of Political Theory ever since.  What does it mean when we say “Life is never fair” or when we debate the role of government in establishing an egalitarian society?    It has been through contrasting these visions that we examine these ideas in a profound and meaningful way.  The arguments between these different conceptions of how society should be organized have enriched our lives ever since.

Comparisons within a Franchise

However, how does this work in VSF?  The perception has always been that Star Trek portrays a particular ethos of non-violence in all of its forms.  This has been true on the individual level, where we can see the respect that Star Trek TOS has for people regardless of their ethnicity or nationality (as racism is a form of violence).  The treatment of aliens is an extension of the concept that all people have value and should be regarded as equals.  Mr. Spock is a Vulcan and a significant cast member; one of the reasons he is included is as a reminder of these values of inclusion and respect.  In Star Trek, the concept of respect and equality also extends to different societies, hence the “Prime Directive.”  The Prime Directive is a guiding principle that informs how the Federation (analogous to a Superpower such as the United States or Russia) should treat other less technologically advanced cultures.  The Prime Directive (also sometimes called the “non-interference directive”) is Star Trek’s response to issues of colonialism and Cold War politics.  Gene Roddenberry was explicit in his condemnation of violence and stated that he did not believe that violence would continue into the 23rd Century.  However, in the 1960s war had not been eliminated, the Vietnam war, in particular, was consuming the nation, and the questions around it provided fodder for several episodes of Star Trek.

How did Star Trek look at issues of warfare?  Two episodes will be instructive here.  The first, “A Taste of Armageddon,” looks at a situation that is similar to that of the United States relationship towards Russia (the Soviet Union at that time), while the second, titled “A Private Little War,” is a clear Vietnam War allegory.

In “A Taste of Armageddon,” the Enterprise crew attempt to open peaceful relations with planet Eminiar VII only to stumble into a war zone, but this is no ordinary war. Eminiar VII has been fighting a virtual war with a neighboring planet, Vendikar, in which attacks are conducted via computer simulations followed by the “casualties” committing suicide by entering disintegration chambers which confirm their deaths. This situation has been going on for hundreds of years; without the physical destruction of a “real war,” the two sides have found their arraignment not only sustainable but in a strange way even comforting. The people of Eminiar have accepted that they are a violent people, and their war has become a way of life that they feel no need to challenge. They pride themselves on their self-perceived enlightened approach to warfare. The two planets have a treaty that governs this arrangement; failure to abide by the treaty terms both by either side will result in traditional fighting.  The Enterprise is “destroyed” in one of these simulations, causing the Eminiar leadership to detain the Enterprise delegation; the crew is then expected to enter a disintegration chamber. Captain Kirk, of course, fights back and gets the upper hand by destroying the computers which conduct the attacks. Eminiar is given the choice of abrogating their agreement with Vendikar, or they could attempt to negotiate peace.


When it was first broadcast during the 1960s Eminiar VII and Vendikar would have reminded American fans of the US and the Soviet Union, which often seemed to be on the verge of war. The US and Soviet Union maintained the peace partly through the concept of “mutually assured destruction,” in which each was subject to catastrophic casualties in the event of a nuclear war. Eminiar VII and Vendikar had suffered over a billion casualties in their war, not unlike what might happen on Earth in a real war. However, the horrors of war are hidden on this planet, they have sanitized and modernized horror. Death has become industrialized; it is hardly even objectionable. Roddenberry seemed to be saying that war should not be clean and convenient, we should not be removed from the consequences, making war easy only perpetuates rather than ends it. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” the concept of a real war is entirely evil; it has no redeeming quality whatsoever. Nevertheless, this arraignment might have continued indefinitely were it not challenged by Kirk; only through forcing the two parties into a real war was the peaceful resolution of their grievances considered.

Just a year later, Star Trek broadcast “A Private Little War,” in which the same crew visits what they believed to be a peaceful planet only to find the “Village people” hunting and killing the defenseless “Hill people.” After a bit of investigation, they learn the village people have been corrupted by the Federations archenemy, the Klingons, in violation of a treaty between the Federation and the Klingons. Kirk has a decision to make, does he work towards a peaceful resolution to save the hill people, or does he arm them so that they can defend themselves?

As important as these questions are when we look at these episodes individually, we find subtler questions when we contrast the two.  First, why is violence treated differently in these situations?  In “A Taste of Armageddon,” the Federation does not have a significant stake in the situation other than a general concept of maintaining good foreign relations; they are in effect just observers. The violence is occurring between two different parties, the Federation ambassador even makes a point of saying he is a neutral third party only interested in peace, yet the protagonists’ reaction is vehement disgust.  Why would the peoples of Eminiar VII and Vendikar consent to voluntary suicide to maintain a treaty that condemns them to unending war? Clearly, in the eyes of the Federation, this is not reasonable. Kirk risks everything to change the situation; by forcing abrogation of the treaty, he may be causing the very horrors of war that he believes are evil. The people of Eminiar VII and Vendikar are suffering, and he has decided that this is intolerable! This reflects the highest ideals of Star Trek; as Gene Roddenberry said, violence is not a reasonable course of action. A truly evolved race will look to reason and will rise above the moment to find a solution that works for all. At the climactic moment when the leader of Eminiar VII cannot quite bring himself to take the leap and turn his back on violence, Kirk pleads with him to rise above himself. “Were human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands,” Kirk says, “But we can stop it, we can admit we are killers, but we are not going to kill today. That’s all it takes, knowing that we are not going to kill-today!” His argument turns the tide allowing the Eminiar leader to conceive of a new way, to turn his back on his violent instincts and work towards peace. In “A private Little War,” we find two cultures in a similar situation, they are fighting and dying over trivial issues. Though there is one big difference here, the Federation has a stake in the game. This time the Klingons (who are a stand-in for the Soviet Union) are supporting the antagonists. Now the Federation is willing to engage in state-sanctioned violence as a matter of policy. Worse, this will not be a sanitized war, it will be fought at close range with primitive weapons that will cause massive amounts of suffering. This is violence in support of state policy. The audience would be right to ask, what has happened? What has changed? The answer is that this is a surrogate war in which the Federation has a stake. The relative political positions of the Federation and the Klingons have become more important than the rejection of violence.

This is a choice that the producers of Star Trek have made, that violence is acceptable in one situation but not the other. However, by showing these two similar but slightly different situations, they have in effect invited the audience to question this choice. Why is violence acceptable in one instance but not the other? Are the Hill People more worthy of our involvement than the people of Eminiar VII? Is the Federation’s political standing more important than the lives that will be lost? Implicit judgments about the value of lives are being made, but it seems that these lives have a different value to the Federation. Those on Eminiar VII are worth saving, but the lives of the Hill people are less important than the Federation’s rivalry with the Klingons. Is it just that violence is OK if it supports the aims of the state (in fighting the Klingons) but not OK if it benefits someone else? Are our goals (fighting our enemy) more important than someone else’s goals (living as they see fit)?

Do we find space for moral leadership here? On Eminiar VII, Kirk takes a stand because Star Trek’s message of the sanctity of life is being violated. We might even believe that the plot of “A Taste of Armageddon” is explicitly drawn to point this out. Gene Roddenberry was a committed humanist,[12] and he believed that it was the task of the poets and artists to bring these ideals into public focus. However, what is the audience to make of this ideal? Why do our leaders act differently in different situations? How are they seemingly enlightened in one situation and ready to shed someone else’s blood in a different situation?  Why do we treat some people as less worthy of self-determination (the primitives) than others (the sophisticated)? Are we in charge just because the primitives cannot fight back, because they are weaker? Do we as a people have the courage to live up to our rhetoric? Do we have the right and the ability to stand up to our leaders when they do not meet our high ideals?

Although we have seen significant commercial and creative reasons why it makes sense that Science Fiction shows and franchises will act as a coherent whole, nothing within the genre mandates this. However, the franchises and the audience are richer for the experience when they do. The ability to compare and contrast, or interrogate a question, as we might say in Political Theory, opens lines of questioning that would not be apparent when shows are viewed in isolation. In turn, the answers to these questions can bring a deeper meaning to the franchise, supporting the audience’s commitment to the show. Commitment will often result in a fandom community that supplies the show with a creative life outside of the production crew, resulting in a significant interaction between the creative team and the fans as well as between the fans themselves; all of this leads to a virtuous cycle.

There is no reason we should insist or even expect that a franchise will have the same consistency that we would expect in any one political theorist’s work. Franchises are made by many hundreds of people over many years; they are dynamic storylines that sometimes take unexpected turns for a plethora of reasons, either creative or otherwise. And, of course, even theorists change their minds occasionally. The real value in looking at science fiction as a whole is the ability it gives us to ask questions that we would not ask otherwise.

Science Fiction, Nationalism and the Politics of Exclusion

We have already referenced the general lack of exposure to the concepts of Political Theory in particular and Political Science overall among the general population; this situation tends towards a lack of rigorous thought concerning topics that are complicated and emotionally loaded, such as the interplay of nationalism and identity politics. Issues of nationalism have taken on increased importance since the termination of the Cold War ended the Capitalist (United States) v Communist (Soviet Union) paradigm as local and ethnic political issues have taken on central importance. The exclusion of minority ethnic, cultural, and religious groups from membership in the states in which these people have lived, sometimes for hundreds of years, has led to the denial of political and human rights and to violence that has at times verged on genocide. Even when the stakes are not so dire, issues of nationalism have complicated topics such as immigration and the right to vote within many developed countries. The lack of political education has made some susceptible to manipulation by nationalist organizations who tend to see every political issue as a zero-sum contest for resources between ethnic or cultural groups. The desire for nationalist groups to accrue power by expanding their base is often accomplished through appeals to divide rather than unite populations.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag

How would an examination of these issues be different if they were conducted within the confines of VSF? In November of 1994, while the Bosnian war was playing out with its overt calls to Serbian nationalism, Babylon 5 broadcast an episode titled “The Geometry of Shadows” written by J. Michael Straczynski. This episode included a “B” plot (a secondary story usually unrelated to the main plot) that investigated these questions in an unusual way.

The episode opens with ominous music and a shot of the Drazi, who up to this point had not been an important part of the series. Before this episode the audience had not seen this race as more than background and had no expectations about their psychology or knowledge of their history; this is important to the message of the episode in that other races had been endowed with specific characteristics which would have interfered with the viewers’ conception of their motivations. The use of what up to this point in the series had been a minor race made them an ideal stand-in for humanity in general and modern America in particular. Curiously each Drazi is wearing either a green or purple sash. For reasons unknown to the audience, the two groups of Drazi are spoiling for a fight; a close examination of the scene reveals that the two groups are divided by the colors of the sashes they are wearing. The minor civil disturbance is taken care of, and the audience is left to ponder the meaning of what had just happened.  Later, this unrest in a part of the civilian population comes to the attention of the station leadership; it is in the scene that follows the audience learns some of the background, two groups are fighting to become “the dominant group’; the fighting is political! Notice that the scene stipulates that this is not a fight to the death, once a group gives up, the battle is over. The dominant group is determined by the number of battles won, but further details are scarce.

At this point the plot line could just be an amusing distraction or a chance to inject some drama into the episode, but instead the writers begin to question the motivations of the Drazi, and in so doing they begin to interrogate issues around loyalty, political leadership, the use of symbols and even the role of ethnic groups in politics.

As the scene begins, Ivanova reminds the audience that the space station Babylon 5 is a place dedicated to working problems out peacefully, but at the very mention of peace, the Drazi become uncomfortable. What is the precise nature of your conflict, she asks, followed by the simple declaration by the purple Drazi while pointing at the other, “green.” The point is amusing and jarring at the same time; the audience is asked to believe that these “people” are fighting over, what? As the scene unfolds, we learn the truth, at least the truth that we are meant to see, they are fighting over what seems like nothing. There is no “point of contention” between the groups from our viewpoint. We hardly even see the possibility of contention since the factions are picked at random. We see the groups through Ivanova’s eyes, outside of their culture; therefore, we do not understand the differences which seem very real to the Drazi. At this point, the scene becomes a bit ambiguous, are we being asked to believe that the concept of green v purple is important enough to fight for, as many of us would say about our own political beliefs are? Or is the point that from a distance, no point is important enough to fight for, that all points should be settled peacefully, as Ivanova says is the purpose of Babylon 5?

The viewer might notice that the leaders of the Drazi do not need to expend any effort in earning the loyalty of their people or in appealing to their sense of reason, or deal in any way with what we would see as political leadership. “He who takes purple is purple and follows purple leader.” While it has not been unheard of for a country to use some random selection method to fill essential offices, indeed, in modern America, this is the common method used to fill jury pools; it does not seem that Straczynski was calling for appointing leaders by random selection! Instead, it seems that the emphasis the viewer is likely to understand is the lack of accountability in this system. Green follows green because the leader has the mark, not because of any political contest or promise of care on the part of the leader. The right of the governed to have a say in who their leaders are is less important than achieving the goal of the faction. We might think that it is an irony that the system seems unlikely to pick the best leader, but the same can be said for monarchies. Or perhaps the viewer may come to think about how their leaders are selected? Are democracies meritocracies, or is the pool of leaders limited to those who have money and connections, essentially making the choice of a leader random? The green leader continues to explain that “Where there was one Drazi people now there are two. The two fight until there are one.” The Drazi are wholly committed to their positions within the system, they leave no room for discussion or compromise. Once the two sides are drawn, they advance to violence. The scene ends by making a subtle comment on identity; when Ivanova moves one Drazi from one group to the other by changing his sash, the former group member is immediately attacked by his former compatriots. We see that the attack is not on Ivanova for assaulting a group member; she is simply caught up in the violence, the Drazi later apologizes to her, perhaps to make this point clear to the viewer. The attack is clearly on the former group member whose identity has been involuntarily changed. The concept that the Drazi are not given any chance to choose what group they belong to is being reinforced. Identity is being forced on the individual without regard to the individual’s wishes. The individual does not choose purple or green, it is chosen for them and they will be treated as members of that group regardless.

After this the situation begins to spiral out of control.

We have seen that this system has boundaries; it is not a “fight to the death.” However, the situation has changed; for reasons we do not know, one faction has started to kill the other. This change did not begin with the characters on the space station, we are told that this change has started somewhere else (on the Drazi home world). Nevertheless, the characters we know, though far removed from that place, reflect this change. At this point, the viewer is left with a conundrum, are the Drazi on the station being carried along by events that are out of their control, or are they willing participants in a kind of genocide? The green leader, who has most of the screen time, is portrayed as a relatively likable character; during one scene, he apologizes to Ivanova and says he wishes to rise above their problems. The audience might be reminded of Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the banality of evil since we are shown that the goodwill of the Drazi leader is not extended to members of his species. The following scene points out the lack of regard the green Drazi has for the purple Drazi.

The greens have hatched a plan to kill all their rivals; when Ivanova expresses horror at this, the green leader is indignant, the purple Drazi are not regarded as worthy, they are simply an obstacle. Ivanova questions how they could contemplate killing “your own people,” only to be reminded by the green leader that they are purple, and so are not the same people.

The greens attempt to complete their plan only to be intercepted in route by station security, providing an opportunity for Ivanova (who had been taken hostage and then rescued) to continue the previous conversation. The focus of the conversation changes from Ivanova’s shock at the green Drazi’s lack of seeing the purple as “people” and their casual willingness to murder them, towards questions about their allegiance towards their group.

Now the previously unstated analogy between the Drazi’s colored sashes and our use of flags is made explicit. “Don’t you understand, this is insane. It doesn’t make any sense to go around killing other people over a piece of cloth,” Ivanova says. If the audience had not realized this point, the green leader makes it clear, the sashes are their flags, and they will kill for them just as humans will kill for their own.  Ivanova still does not understand and argues that human’s flags are special while the Drazi sashes are just “a stupid piece of cloth.” “But there’s nothing special about it,” she says, “it’s not patriotic, it’s got nothing but this stupid little star in the middle of it.” After she grabs the “stupid piece of cloth” in frustration, the Drazi snap to attention showing their allegiance. “But I’m human,” she says; it does not matter, she is holding the sash with the mark of leadership and so she is the leader. The sash is revealed as being just as special to the Drazi as our flags might be to us.

With less than 10 minutes of video, this episode exposes the viewer to many vital issues. Ivanova is a stand-in for the audience, and her uncomprehending shock and concern at the root of the violence is a clue to the viewer that there are real and important questions here. First, how can people fight over what from the outside seems like a meaningless issue?  Interestingly she knows the reason for the fighting from the beginning, we learn this in her explanation of the situation at the start, but she does not believe it herself. In her mind, there must be a deeper reason. Ivanova, the career military officer, asks the Drazi, if they are going to fight, why is it over a “stupid” symbol instead of things she thinks are essential, such as honor. “This is our way,” they reply, this is their form of honor. The use of honor, the flag, and similar concepts have been reinforcing nationalist tendencies for ages. The United States, like many other countries, has a national flag day and codes about how the flag should be treated. Flags are particularly prominent in military and government settings for obvious reasons. Any flag is a method of manipulation, if a person “pledges allegiance to the flag,” they are asking to be part of a group, part of a country. No wonder the practice is encouraged from an early age.

A closely related issue is that of identity. Why is someone a citizen? Is it because they choose to be or because they are born into it? Is citizenship something that comes from the inside (a belief) or the outside (a sash)? Who gets to decide who a citizen is? The Drazi are one people until the rules changed. We are never given the reason for the division into green and purple; perhaps that is part of the point the episode is trying to bring out. From our outsider’s perspective, the issue would probably not matter, or it might be religious or economic, or it might be so alien that it would make no sense to us. It seems the Drazi are engaging in a type of “identity politics,” just as we cannot pick the group we are born into, or how others view that group, the Drazi have no choice about what group they belong to. Though the term is relatively new, concepts surrounding “identity politics” have a long and troubled history in America. The parallels between Drazi combat and the Holocaust, for example, are all too apparent. Unfortunately, identity politics has become a hot-button issue in America, especially within the context of liberal versus conservative politics, perhaps to the point where the phrase itself is self-defeating. To use the phrase at all is to invite into the argument so much political baggage that issues of discrimination, self-determination, economic justice, and so on have become lost in the rhetoric. George Orwell pointed out that one of the defining characteristics of nationalism is that “For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible.”[1] How can issues such as these be divorced from partisan politics so that we as a society can discuss them and advance solutions? One of the advantages of portraying these issues in relation to an alien species (who are, of course, stand-ins for human ethnic or cultural groups) is that when the average person watches this episode, they are unlikely to identify the Drazi with any particular group in their experience. Once the break is made between personal experience and the concepts depicted, the merits of the issues have a much better chance of being examined rationally rather than emotionally.

Inclusion and Exclusion

Contrary to our idea of society being a melting pot, identity politics is an indication that groups of people are being excluded from meaningful participation based on what should be politically trivial characteristics by the mainstream population. Whatever the reasons for this exclusion, whether they be cultural or political, it is extraordinarily hard to overcome once the dynamic is set. Political factions adapt their behavior to maximize their position within a system and are resistant to change, so long as they are successful. For example, powerful people may find it easier to get and maintain power by being at the top of a system based on excluding some segment of the population.  Exclusionary politics can provide leverage that elite politicians can use to manipulate the mainstream by stocking fear of political, economic, and cultural strife. Also, those who have benefited are naturally resistant to admitting they have been part of a “problematic” system and have benefited from a privileged position rather than merit. People are often loath to give up the benefits of being in a privileged position even while they understand the negative moral implications of the system. Further, they do not want to be blamed for a system in which they participated but did not construct. Identifying the phenomena of identity politics is partially a method of attempting to make mainstream society fully understand the system they are participating in, and so it a method to push mainstream society to change. We may find that VSF is a reliable partner in this project to change society via its ability to point out problems in society in a non-confrontational way. Would this episode cause people to think about the politics of difference and modify their behavior?

As is the case with most examples of VSF, Babylon 5 is consciously relevant to the time and place in which it is being produced.  It works well as political and social commentary as long as we do not ask it to do more than it attempts.  While it is not meant to be a clear allegory for 20th Century politics, it is informed by 20th Century politics.  Unlike some other forms of Science Fiction, it does not take into account, and it does not encourage, any possible radical transformation of society or human nature.  In this sense, it is Science Fiction that is qualitatively different from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness which examines questions of the human condition and Feminism through the eyes of radically different beings, or Arthur C. Clarks Childhood’s End, which questions the nature and ends of humanity.  VSF simply does not have the freedom that traditional literature does.  Babylon 5 and similar franchises must speak to their audience within the confines of Hollywood’s corporate studio restrictions on commercial viability, which has enormous implications for both the scope of production and the allowed plots.  Although these limitations on scope may be a disadvantage in one regard, it does predispose VSF to confine its message to the experiences of its audience.  Rather than investigating radical transformations, as Science Fiction in literature is more suited to, this provides space for VSF to speak to the general audience about the world they are in.  Because of these limitations, we find that VSF is better suited to investigating issues such as the drift towards authoritarianism in the modern world rather than existential issues such as the nature of being.

As with many VSF episodes such as this, “The Geometry of Shadows” is a little over the top. However, it must be understood that this is a secondary plot in a larger episode, and time is of the essence. Remarkably in less than 10 minutes of video, the episode manages to ask many important questions. It must also be understood that despite any perceived self-selection bias in which we might expect an audience that watches a show that continually brings up political themes to be accustomed to these types of arguments, the show cannot assume any special knowledge on the part of the audience. Babylon 5 does not talk down to the audience, and although it might nudge them in a particular direction, it does not preach. The show treats the audience with respect, trusting them to think about the issues and come to conclusions that work for them. Ultimately, we must ask, is this episode empowering? Does it provide a lay audience with the perceptive and tools they need to understand the politics of exclusion at a fundamental level?

Science Fiction and Symbolism

Jacques Derrida has been critical of Philosophy’s (and by extension Political Theory’s) tendency to privilege one form of communication over another, for example, we see the glorification of the intimacy of the “wondering prophet’s” conversations as embodied in the Old Testament as well as the image of Socrates speaking to his students on the street of Athens, above the recorded texts of those conversations.  This line of thought was popular during the Romantic period; Rousseau, in particular, bemoaned the loss of complexity when conversations were reduced to text.  Derrida pointed out, however, that the relationship between text, literature, and symbols can be a remedy to this loss of complexity.  While semiotics and deconstructionism have been issues of intense debate ever since we cannot deny the importance of symbols in today’s culture.  As opposed to literary Science Fiction, VSF presents symbols with a frequency and vibrancy that only make them more critical than ever before.[1]  Below we will see that these symbols are not limited to what we see on television or in a film; they include the decals on our cars, the clothes we wear, and how we protest political oppression.  In addition, we will examine the ways in which symbols can be used to establish and reinforce communities that are based on shared ideologies.  If we do not understand how society uses the symbols it finds in Science Fiction, we will not appreciate the contributions that VSF provides to Political Theory.

Images Matter

Shortly after 9/11 George Bush stood atop a pile of rubble on the World Trade Center site to give what came to be known as the “bullhorn speech”.  Although it was unscripted it was filled with the symbolism that many in the country were looking for at the moment.  The President dressed as an everyman in casual attire, with his arm around a fireman (who was wearing his helmet) was handed a bullhorn to address the crowd. After a short speech in which he praised the crowd composed mostly of firemen, policemen, and search and rescue workers, he promised unspecified acts of retribution for the terrorist attacks.  The moment ended in chants of “USA, USA”.  The speech played on America’s television channels repeatedly over the next few days, it was just what many people in the country were eager to hear.  Almost 20 years later the speech is still remembered and cited, particularly within the conservative media.[2]  The public outrage, amplified by the media, resulted in near-unanimous Congressional support for the invasion of Afghanistan.  This was despite demonstrations in opposition in nearly every major city in the country, demonstrations that often attracted tens of thousands of people.[3]  Almost 20 years later, the opposition demonstrations to the Afghanistan war are all but forgotten.

Symbols Can be Used to Control an Argument

The issues surrounding the decision to go to war in Afghanistan in late 2001 have shown us that the use of symbols in a media-driven world is asymmetric, strongly favoring governments over opposition groups.  For example, the United States government has unfettered access to the media through its own press offices, Presidential news conferences and addresses, Congressional press offices, paid staff for elected officials whose primary job is to influence the media, etc.  The media is of course in a reciprocal relationship in that access to the government results in increased ratings (and therefore money).  The President’s office has famously been called “the bully pulpit”.  Complicating matters during times of uncertainty there is a natural tendency of citizens to rally around their government as a sign of unity in the face of attack; during the run-up to the Afghanistan war demonstrations against it were even criticized as un-American and disloyal.  Some governments, such as Thailand’s, explicitly prohibits demonstrations aimed at the state, as embodied in the principle of lese majeste (from the French “to do wrong to majesty”), making it a crime to criticize the rulers or the state.  Many governments closely regulate what their citizens can see and hear, particularly on the internet. The Chinese government has explicitly stated its policy of censorship is designed to enhance the stability of the ruling government[4], resulting in the so-called “Great Firewall of China”. Even in a democratic society in which the government is theoretically bound to at least listen to the wishes of all the people, the deft use of symbols will often turn the course of events in the direction that the government wishes.[5]  Writing in 1957 Anthony Downs wrote that the disadvantaged position citizens find themselves in in terms of influencing the government is primarily a result of the mechanics of living in a large democracy, as he remarks about the efforts of citizens (he calls them “decision-makers”) to stay informed about political events and issues, information gathering “in a large-sized democracy cannot be undertaken without fantastic costs unless (1) information is gathered for the many decision-makers by a few specialists and (2) the information each citizen receives is prefocused” upon the area under examination.[6]  It is this problem of the government’s ability to deal efficiently with information, and citizens’ inability to find relevant information that places undue power in the government’s hands.  Although some political communication specialists believe there is hope that modern technology (i.e., social media, blogs, etc) will still lead to a new paradigm in which the flow of information is more symmetrical between citizens and politicians, the evidence so far is to the contrary.[7]

Those who are opposed to government policy, whether it be an issue of government repression of civil rights or a simple policy dispute, are at a significant disadvantage.  In a democratic or otherwise benevolent society issues such as a lack of money and organization will provide significant roadblocks to action among the citizens.  Any level of government beyond a small town will often require significant resources just to bring issues to the public’s awareness.  In the 2020 US election cycle for example just one ballot initiative in one state, California’s proposition 22 (an initiative to regulate the employment of Uber and Lyft ride sharing drivers) total spending by both those in favor and those against was over half a billion dollars![8]  The situation can be markedly worse in countries which are less open to citizen activated politics; Amnesty International has complained that in Thailand peaceful protesters have been assaulted with water cannons and subjected to indiscriminate arrest[9] when they demonstrate for democratic reforms.  The underlying problem lies in the inherent difficulty of a group of often powerless people, who are usually without significant resources, organizing in such a way that they can compete with large corporations and/or state and national governments.  When governments are willing to use force to control a civil population, just the act of organizing can be dangerous.

What can an opposition group do to combat the inherit advantages of governments and other powerful segments of society?  What tools do opposition groups have that affect the policies of government?  As Ludger Helms says, “It has long been acknowledged by democratic theory that the principle of legitimate political opposition belongs to the most fundamental components of any liberal democracy”[10], yet remarkably little work has been done in modern Political Theory to systematize the understanding of how opposition groups who work outside of the corridors of power, yet still wish to be perceived as a legitimate opposition accomplish their goals.  In other words, we are dealing with groups who wish to affect change but do not want to be viewed as “hard core” or “revolutionary” opposition.  In fact, he asserts that the fundamental text addressing these issues is still Robert Dahl’s Political Opposition in Western Democracies which was published in the mid 1960’s.  Carole Pateman has said that in the field of Political Theory, contrary to expectations while talking about the common person “the concept of participation has only the most minimal role” when questions of political power are addressed.[11]  For the common people to be able to participate in political arguments with the government or organized wealthy political factions they need a relatively easy way to access the public “mind share.”  Mind Share is a concept more popular in Sociology then Political Science, it references the ability of the public to understand a group of complicated issues as belonging to one meta-idea while implying an unresolved public debate about the merits of those issues.  For example, the debate over a national $15 dollar minimum wage v allowing Uber to hire drivers as independent contractors would constitute one integrated policy argument.

One of the most common and effective answers to this problem has been the tendency to embody issues in a symbol.  To understand some of the advantages of using symbols that originate in Science Fiction we need to understand where symbols come from and some of the disadvantages of using mainstream symbols.  At their most basic level, all symbols are just made up!  Even symbols that that have come to have historical meaning and are closely associated with their group were at one point simply the invention of one person writing a story or drawing a picture.  One example would be the association of the donkey with the US Democratic Party which can be traced to campaign posters used by Andrew Jackson in the 1828 Presidential campaign.  His opponents called him a “jackass” so in a brilliant marketing ploy he turned the image around to portray himself as a donkey, and by association a stubborn supporter of democratic party principles.  This was based on the then common conception of a donkey being a stubborn animal that would only do what it wanted to do.  The association was later cemented by a series of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in the late 1800’s.  The Democratic party has since embraced the image by using it as a metaphor for its “stubborn support” of its base.  One problem however with the use of a symbol like this is that it has become detached from its meaning.  In the 1800’s the general population were well acquainted with donkeys and understood the characterization of them being stubborn.  By the 21st Century it would be fair to say that most Americans have little or no interaction with the animals, and perhaps have not ever even seen one in real life.  The connection between the donkey and the democrats is now essentially meaningless, perhaps useful only because of its alliteration.  We could call this an “historical symbol”.

Problems Inherit with the Use of Symbols

Historical symbols have other issues also, for example they can be hard to control.  This can occur because the symbols can be used by a movement’s detractors, or it can be taken over by another faction of the same or closely allied movement.  Modern tools have made it easier than ever to modify and share images.  However, in the past the barrier to such activities were rather high, modifying images required the talent to draw well, and the availability of the materials needed (ink and colored ink, drawing paper etc.) could not be taken for granted in the 1800’s.  Sharing images was particularly difficult as access to a publisher such as a newspaper would have been problematic.  Distributing posters and leafleting were a common means of sharing, but this was only practical in dense urban areas and even then, the reach would have been limited to a small essentially random population.

Today only the basic skills needed to understand an image editing program, a computer and an internet connection are needed to modify almost any image and to distribute it widely.  For example, the image of the Democratic donkey has been modified almost beyond recognition by some groups in order to focus attention on their various areas of interest.  Further, the image can be shared with a like-minded group or searched for by those who might (or might not) be interested in the message.

Evolution of Democratic Party Donkey

Evolution of Democratic Party Donkey

Thomas Nast’s Democratic donkey is an example of the malleability of images in the computer age.  While it is unalterably intertwined with the mainstream Democratic Party, it is also fluid enough to be used by used by almost any group that falls under the umbrella of Democrat.  In the example above we can see the evolution of the donkey over the years.  At first it was meant to recall the moral fortitude of one man in his fight against the forces of elitism and public greed (Jacksonian Democracy) it has evolved into an icon which can be modified for use by many.  Despite this radical modification the underlying motif still informs the audience of “the big picture,” which is an alignment with the goals of the Democratic Party (fighting for the working class for example) while at the same time focusing attention on a subset of the population (in this case the LGTBQ population).  Here the LGTBQ donkey packs a lot of new meaning into an icon that already has a great deal of meaning for many, is very recognizable, and would be very hard to duplicate in any other way.

A symbol being used by a group that is less aligned with the dominant group, or perhaps even hostile to the dominant group is arguably much more pernicious.  While emerging norms in today’s digital society would lead us to believe that in most cases an historical symbol being hijacked would be evident based on the way it is being used, the same cannot be said for the sincere use of such a symbol by another group.  This can lead to genuine confusion and dilution of the symbols meaning.  An example would be the use of Red, Black, and bisected flags in the anarchist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.  In the later part of the 18th century Anarcho-Communism as envisioned by Peter Kropotkin was strongly associated with a plain red flag, however the anarchist movement was anything but monolithic with several schools of thought vying for attention and working to attract adherents.  In this environment icons and symbols are extremely important and could be contested.  Before long the plain red flag was being used by several groups, including some who had widely divergent views including Bolsheviks.  In early 1900’s Russia, where all forms of socialism and anarchism were repressed and where large barriers to information existed, it is easy to understand how one symbol could be used by multiple groups leading to confusion.  The situation became so confused that at Peter Kropotkin’s funeral his own supporters famously marched under black flags (against his wishes) in order to avoid confusion about who they were, since by this time most anarchists had adopted black as their symbolic color.

Symbols in the Information Age

In the intervening 100 years the information environment has changed dramatically.  Where once information was hard to come by, where the original meaning of symbols was often in question, people are now overwhelmed with information.  Given our easy access to the Internet, to movies and television, information threatens to overwhelm us.  What are the implications for modern society?  How are citizens in a democratic society impacted?  How does the ability to share and to manipulate images impact citizens in a political context?   We live in a society dominated by popular culture[12] so it is only natural that popular symbols will find their way into our political world, Science Fiction has been a particularly rich contributor to this phenomenon.  It is common to see decals from Star Trek (the Federation insignia) and Star Wars (the Rebel Alliance insignia) on our cars, women dress in costumes that imitate those found in the Hand Maids Tale in political demonstrations, Guy Fawkes masks (popularized by the comic book and subsequent movie V for Vendetta.) were common at Occupied demonstrations and continue to this day.  Why have people coopted these symbols for their own use?

Star Trek Federation Icon

Star Trek Federation Icon

First, they have several “natural advantages”.  Beyond any ideological significance (which will be examined later) they are ready-made with well thought out graphic designs.  The Rebel Alliance symbol from Star Wars is striking in its simplicity, for example, instantly recognizable once it is known, with great use of positive and negative space, and is composed of only one color it can be used in many different ways, on T-shirts, stickers, decals, it can even be easily spray painted by graffiti artists.  Compared to the Empire’s symbol which is composed of hard edges and a fairly intricate design the Alliance symbol is smooth and pleasing to the eye.  These qualities should not be underestimated, corporations for example spend millions of dollars attempting to establish logos without this type of success.  The Alliance symbol is ubiquitous on the Internet and so is easily downloaded by anyone.  From a pure graphics standpoint, the alliance symbol couldn’t be better suited for its ability to allow people to express who they are and what they believe through its use.  These symbols come with an emotional attachment thanks to their use in popular media and their association with in-universe back-stories.  Greater advantage is given in that symbols drawn from popular Science Fiction are already embedded in the public consciousness and so start from an advantageous position of recognizability.  A recognizable symbol stands out in our graphically cluttered world

Star Wars Rebel and Empire Icons side by side

Star Wars Rebel and Empire Icons side by side

Beyond their natural advantages, Science Fiction symbols come with emotional and ideological advantages that they derive from the perception of the universe they belong to as well as their back story; people are primed to have certain feelings about these symbols.  The already mentioned Star Wars Rebel Alliance Starbird for example derives meaning from its use in the Star Wars franchise before it is used by any real-world person or group for political purposes.  The Star Wars protagonists, the “rebels” are fighting the evil empire who are oppressing the common people who are portrayed by Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle Beru, poor “moisture farmers” who are reminiscent of the “dust bowl” farmers of the 1930s.  By extension, Luke is a naive farm boy who “hates the empire” though at first he is too caught up in his own life to risk fighting against it.  After his innocent Aunt and Uncle are needlessly killed by the Empire, Luke finds enlightenment with the help of a Jedi Knight and a princess (whose entire planet has been blow-up by the Empire).  Luke, now a rebel himself, risks his life to defeat the Empire and in the end he wins a thrilling victory!  Star Wars premiered in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon which marked a low point for an America already battered by the Watergate scandal, the first OPEC oil embargo, and a troubled economy.  The emotions of that time (as well as the commercial success) have carried both the Star Wars universe and the Starbird symbol forward almost 45 years later.

In 2012 Disney purchased Lucas Arts and so became the owner of the Star Wars brand.  While it might seem counter-intuitive that one of America’s largest corporations is the owner of a symbol that represents common people fighting an over-the-top evil empire, it points out two of the strengths of using symbols that are drawn from VSF.  First, once a movie or television episode is made, it becomes a primary document that can be used to set the meaning of a symbol in place regardless of how others might try to use it.  As has been referenced above, before the ability to record the written word and drawings through film or digital media existed there were obvious difficulties in the common person being able to define the precise meaning and origin of a political symbol.  That is not the case however with popular symbols taken from VSF, especially those that have achieved a high level of popularity.  Those who are interested in using symbols as well as those who consume them will always be able to find the original use of the Starbird and so will be able to fix its meaning in the fight of the rebels against the evil empire.  While it may be ironic that Disney owns the rights to this symbol, they do not have the power to alter how it has been used in the past or the ability of consumers to see the original films, which are the primary documents.  Related to this point, secondly, the popularity of blockbuster films is a partial defense against recuperation.  Recuperation in the sociological sense is the co-option of a symbol and/or an idea by one party for use in a way antithetical to the intended original use of that symbol or idea.  An example would be the use of the ideas and symbols centered on environmental sustainability on one high-visibility product by a corporation as a cover to deflect blame from that corporation’s overall environmental record (in this instance a practice also known as Greenwashing).   Even if Disney were to use the Starbird as a marketing ploy, it original meaning would remain, even if it were just layered underneath.

This is not just a one-way street however, Science Fiction often takes meaning from real-world symbols in order to make a political statement.  For example, in the Star Trek franchise, the governing body is the United Federation of Planets, it has a flag that is obviously based on the flag of the United Nations.  This design, which comes to us from the 1960s is politically significant given the desire of the creative team behind Star Trek to portray a future world united in social harmony.  During the 1960s moments that sought to remove the United States from the United Nations were active, giving the decision to use this design obvious political overtones.  Given 21st Century politics, this iconography can continue to have meaning when viewed in terms of Brexit and other polarizing issues.

Compare Flags of the United Nations and Star Trek Federation

Compare Flags of the United Nations and Star Trek Federation

In 2012 The Hunger Games movie based on the book by Suzanne Collins was released.  It portrayed a dystopian world in which the United States has devolved into the country of Panem which is composed of 12 districts and a capital.  The capital rules over the districts with an iron hand leaving them no freedom, no voice, and no representation.  The districts exist to serve the capital, the result is that they live in destitution while the Capital citizens live in luxury.  In retaliation for a past attempted revolution the capital requires each district to provide “tribute” in the form of citizens (often children) who are then forced to fight to the death as a form of entertainment for the capital, thus the eponymous “Hunger Games.”  The district citizens are persecuted until they lose all hope, and the audience is left wondering how they continue on.  Although the book was written as young adult entertainment the movie allowed the obvious political themes of authoritarian control and economic inequality to play out, portraying the tributes as freedom fighters and heroes.  The movie includes a visually impressive image salute on the part of the district citizens, three fingers of one hand are held together high in the air; it was meant in the imagined world as a sign of respect and as a way to say goodbye to a loved one.  When the salute is used at a memorial for a fallen tribute the salute takes on political meanings of resistance and revolution.

Just a few years later in Thailand students began to protest in favor of increased democracy and against political corruption.  The students had seen the movie and the symbolism between the plight of the district citizens and their own situation must have seemed obvious.  In the real world, the Thai students used it in demonstrations in which they demanded significant political reforms from the military-supported government.  Just as the demonstrators in the Hunger Games movies risked personal safety the Thai students risked arrest at the hands of the government in their quest for political reform.  The three-finger salute has become one element of the social reinforcement that keeps the student movement viable in the face of government violence.  The salute has several advantages as a political symbol, it is easy to use, and you do not need any supplies to make a protest sign for example.  It is distinctive, once the public is familiar with it there is no doubt about its purpose, plus it plays to the camera well.  Note the prevalent use of the symbol from this early news report of the civil unrest.

Most of all it inherits connotations of freedom and self-determination from the Hunger Games movies.  Not to mention that in the movies the rebel factions won!

Most of all it inherits connotations of freedom and self-determination from the Hunger Games movies.  Not to mention that in the movies the rebel factions won!

Protester dressed as Lady Liberty, but also using three-finger salute

A protester dressed as Lady Justice makes the three-finger salute as she takes part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 11, 2021. (Photo by Ye Aung THU / AFP) (Photo by YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images)


This image highlights the fluidity of symbolism as it combines the motifs of a historical symbol, the blind-folded Lady Liberty, with that of the modern three-finger salute taken from a piece of popular entertainment.  The three-finger salute is likely especially meaningful to the people of Myanmar given the similarity of their struggles to that of the Thai people against a government that seems more interested in retaining power than in respecting the population’s civil rights.

Clothing as a Symbol

Political symbolism drawn from Science Fiction even extends to the cloths people wear.  Joss Whedon’s 2002 Science Fiction-Western series Firefly, set in a world to which people have fled from Earth because it was “used up” was inherently political in nature.  A new solar system with many habitual planets and moons allowed settlers to diversify their cultures depending on the local environment.  After a time, the technologically oriented “Alliance” planets dominate the agrarian planets, which leads to a civil war in which the agrarian planets loose.  The majority of the shows main characters are drawn from the losing side of the war and much of the dramatic tension of the show is realized through the characters interaction with the authorities.  The soldiers of the losing side wore brown coats as part of their uniform (reminiscent of the American old west), as a mark of defiance after the war they continued to wear the coats and so came to be called Browncoats.  The lead character in particular, Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds has overt libertarian views and is often shown wearing the iconic brown coat.  The show’s creator Joss Whedon described Mal as “if not a Republican, certainly a libertarian; he’s certainly a less-government kinda guy.”[13]  The show plays-up this anti-government persona as the characters are portrayed as just trying to make a living by hauling (and occasionally stealing) freight between planets while they fight for the common person who is being continually oppressed by the central government.  The show has become particularly popular in libertarian circles with reviews on libertarian websites and screenings with members of the Cato Institute and the Institute for Human Studies.[14]   The term Browncoats has come to be used within the Science Fiction and the libertarian communities in reference to people who resist authority.[15]  (Browncoats have nothing to do with the Nazi Brown Shirts, and are in spirit completely opposite)

Rebel space cowboy using a long brown coat as a uniform

Mal Reynolds of Firefly wearing brown coat uniform

The use of Science Fiction clothing as a prop also extends to gender issues with women taking on the red cloak and white bonnet from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale novel and streaming adoption.  Set in a dystopian America renamed Gilead and governed as a repressive theocracy, women have become second class citizens unable to work while some are forced to bear children for the elite men.  The plot of the show offers a natural affinity for women (and men) who are concerned with the marginalization of women in society and restrictions on reproductive rights.  The show became popular no doubt in part because it became available for streaming at the beginning of the Trump Administration.  The Administrations conservative bent on judicial appointments caused concerns among feminists that reproductive rights might be endangered.   Concerns about civil and reproductive fights have empowered many women to monitor the actions of state legislators when they perceived threats to their ability to have control over their own bodies because of proposed restrictive laws.  These activists have in many cases taken on the costume of The Handmaid’s Tale.  The cloak and bonnet provide many advantages for those who wear it, as Heather Busby (executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice) said while speaking of demonstrations against potential legislation in the State of Texas, “The cloaks are an effective protest prop, adding: “It is very eye-catching. People are always turning and looking, and a lot of folks get it and how that relates to what is being done on the policy side in Texas.”[16]  The cloak and bonnet provides another advantage in that they are relatively easy to make and distribute, as Heather Busby continued, “Initially we rented red cloaks from a local shop and rush ordered white bonnets off the internet,” now she said “we have teams of seamstresses making the cloaks.”

Women wearing Handmaid Tales style clocks in Texas Statehouse

Women wearing Handmaid Tales style clocks while protesting inside the Texas Statehouse

Since the release of the dystopian movie V for Vendetta the Guy Falkes mask has become popular at Anarchist and Anonymous protests.  Although the mask does not originate in the Science Fiction genre, it has become closely associated with the movie in the United States as this was many Americans first exposure to it.  The mask actually originated in the Catholic-Protestant rivalries of the 1600’s after Guy Falkes became a martyr for the Catholic Church fighting the Protestant English government when he unsuccessfully attempted to blow-up the British Parliament building.  After this every November 5th became Guy Falkes day in the UK and was celebrated by burning him in effigy and distributing masks to children to play with.  The mask took on a more modern theme when it was used by David Lloyd and Alan Moore in their V for Vendetta comic book where the character became an urban gorilla fighting a future British fascist dictatorship.  The masked urban gorilla persona was retained in the movie where, ironically, Warner Brothers studio popularized the mask that would later be used to demonstrate against corporate America by distributing thousands of them at the movies premier.

V wearing Guy Fawkes mask in front of state propaganda

V wearing Guy Fawkes mask in front of state propaganda

The mask has been taken on by many groups who find its perceived symbolism congruent with their own, typically revolving around issues of the powerless fighting the powerful, as well as economic and moral justice.  For example, it has been widely used in the Occupy movement in protests against economic inequality and corporate greed as well as by the hacktivist group Anonymous “to protest against the Church of Scientology because, as they say, “we believe it’s a cult/scam.”


Pamphlet distributed by the Anonymous hacker group The animal right group “Anonymous for the Voiceless” has been particularly open about the advantages that they see in using V for Vendetta iconography.[17]  Given that they specialize in person-to-person contact to advocate for animal rights they see great advantages in the use of the mask.  They list, for example, the tendency for people to look past activists’ individuality and so to focus on the message at hand as well as the ability for a person who may not be comfortable working with other to in essence, hide behind the mask.  But most interestingly they see a kind of fellowship with other organizations that they believe situates their struggle in the progressive framework.



The Value of an Immaterial Symbol

We see that two types of symbols can be taken from Science Fiction, material symbols such as clothing and immaterial symbols such as the Federation and Star Wars logos noted above.  Although even immaterial symbols require some type of physical representation to be useful, I will include them in this immaterial category to signify their iconic nature.  The value of an immaterial symbol lies partly in the way they have often originated in the literary or visual arts.  As consumers we did not invent the Federation logo, it was developed by a creative team as a representation of what they envisioned what the future could be.  But that does not mean that the use of these symbols are a one way street, symbols exist interactively, imbued with meaning both by the creators and the users.  Because of this we find that our use of a Science Fiction symbols such as Star Trek’s Federation icon often says something very specific about how we wish to portray ourselves.  What any one symbol means to an entire community is of course not without controversy as different people will have different opinions, but these symbols would not be useful if there were not some basic consensuses on the ideas behind the symbols.  As a case in point the concepts that underpin Star Trek are well known in the community, they include a vision of technology supporting human well-being, a shared faith in reason to solve mankind’s problems, a rejection of prejudice and bigotry, cooperation between different races and nationalities, and more.  To value Star Trek is often seen as a rejection of superstition (and sometimes of religion) and an acceptance of humanism.[18]  Notice that these concepts tend to be viewed at a societal level, dealing with interactions between people and groups.

Those who take on the Star Wars persona are often saying something very different.  The Star Wars community tends to value the individual.  “Overcome the fear within yourself,” “Keep your mind open to new possibilities,” “A little hope goes a long way” are invocations common to this community, even to the point where they have become canonized into lore.[19]  Star Wars (as a community) does not reject the meaning and trappings of faith in the way that the Star Trek community does.  “May the force be with you” is both a salutation and an invocation.  The two communities are not mutually exclusive in that there is room for disagreement within the communities and there is also space for different emphasis on varying aspects of the philosophies.  But to take on one symbol versus the other is to say something very different.  They display who we are, they make us part of a community.  They signal to others the values we hold.  Through signaling community we re-enforce those values both for ourselves and for the community.

Car with a Star Trek decalScience Fiction symbols can mark us as being part of a “brand” such as Star Trek or Star Wars with all the emotional baggage that that entails.  They facilitate the formation of communities much in the same way that professional sports do, though they provide an ideological and philosophical component beyond those found in the mostly geographically based support for sports.  Affixing a Star Trek Federation decal to one’s car says something very different from displaying a baseball or football team’s logo.

The material symbols we have investigated tend to have a much more practical application; they exist as a form of protest.  They are valuable because they are not ordinary, they demand attention.  They too mark those who use them as a community, but it is a community with a specific purpose.  They are protesting a law or working for a cause.  Those who protest find strength in numbers, especially when the protest is unpopular or even illegal.  To wear a costume can mark you as a member of a group and a group can give you strength.  A group can accomplish what individuals cannot.  “The Guy Fawkes mask unites Anonymous under one face, with one voice.  All humans together” they say.  The mask as well as the Red Cloak and bonnet from The Handmaid’s Tale have emotional impact, they can be shocking when seen in the real world.  This is of course the point.  This is the power of a symbol.

Science Fiction and Civic Participation

Science Fiction is about possibilities; to consume Science Fiction is to think about those possibilities.  Much of Science Fiction is Space Opera, the telling of tales on a grand scale!  Galactic Empires rise and fall, computers rival and even exceed Man’s intelligence, humans evolve into new forms.  Sometimes however, Science Fiction examines the possibilities open to all of us on a scale in which the average woman can see herself and how she interacts with the world.  So we realize that consuming Science Fiction can lead to us thinking about your own possibilities.  Science Fiction can be a conduit for how people examine the paradigms that otherwise may seem to be out of our reach.  People are born into systems of Capitalism and Communism; many never think deeply about the underlying morality of whether these systems are right or wrong and how these systems compare to their personal values.  Society (whichever society a person finds themselves in) has a vested interest in portraying itself as the best possible system; society has every reason to discourage its members from questioning the possibilities of change.   As Rousseau said, “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”  Science Fiction can be an antidote to the blinders that Rousseau was warning us about.

Most of today’s Political Theory is written on a scale that the average person may have difficulty relating to.  While Political Theorists may be practiced in the art of understanding how the vast political forces express themselves in our daily lives, those who are not conversant in Political Theory will often have difficulty seeing this.  (This is a prime force related to alienation which Science Fiction may help with).  For example, many people have difficulty relating to Locke’s justifications for political consent and private property through the use of a theoretical social contract combined with natural law as a justification for modern liberal democracies.  This issue is particularly salient when we examine questions surrounding work, consumption, and participation in people’s everyday lives.  How do people come to think about their place in society?

Science Fiction has always had to pay attention to issues of participation and economics, if for no other reason than that those are a huge part of our lives and so cannot be ignored.  Engage in world building and before too long economics will need to be dealt with, it would be impossible for example to think of a Utopian novel that did not deal with the question of how its invented societies’ economy worked.  This has been true from the beginning when Thomas More wrote the work that lent its name to the sub-genre.  More’s Utopia was thought up from scratch and so he had the luxury of setting any circumstance that he wished to build his economy and to use to that economy to make any political or economic point that he wished.  Even so he was maddeningly elusive in describing the economic underpinnings of his economy other than to say it was managed by a class of people specially educated for the task, the “syphogrants.”  These syphogrants had the best interests of their countrymen at heart and managed the economy so that everyone worked but 6 hours a day, and in this time they produced more than enough material goods to keep the entire country happy.  More’s people lived a pastoral life, they were brought up to be content with simple physical pleasures and to devote their time and energy to pleasures of the mind in place of creature comforts.  They wore simple cloths which did not stand out from what others wore, they did not take more resources than they could use, and they were content with this lifestyle.  He was so vague about the details of how the economy worked however that at different times his work has been used to support ideas as divergent as mercantilism and communism.[1]

More had the opportunity to build his world so that every aspect of it supported the ideas he wished to express.  It was a far-off island that had few security concerns, good farmland and a serviceable climate, no overcrowding, and a seemingly homogeneous population in terms of ideology, religion, culture etc.  Much of VSF reflects a much more realistic world in terms of diversity of opinion, lifestyle, ideology and all of the other circumstances and beliefs a modern audience would expect to see in such a work.  This is partly an accident of how these shows are produced in that they are a product of many different writers, directors and producers, the need to fill many hours of television, of having many different characters and a wish to be relevant to a modern audience.  The result however is a more nuanced reflection of the real world, and so these works result in a dramatic presentation that is more likely to speak to the average person.  Importantly it also mitigates against the tendency of some films to speak to one concept.  The movie District 9 for example is about discrimination while the movie Soylent Green is about environmentalism.  Science Fiction television franchises however often have a more dimensional presentation of their characters’ lives than we have seen in the past; with questions of economics, politics, discrimination, colonialism, nationalism and more combining into one story.  In this way these stories can be a more realistic representation of how the average person experiences the world.

 The reality however is that Science Fiction often exists on a level that can be difficult for people to relate to.  While many politically oriented people who consume VSF are interested in thinking about large scale paradigm shifting ideas, many others just want to be entertained.  They may be content with the economic system they find themselves in, they may genuinely believe it is the best economic system they can hope for.  But that does not mean that they are happy or that the system is beyond reproach.  When VSF tells stories about economics it is also telling stories about power and control.  Who has the power to control how an economy is structured?  Perhaps it is politicians, or it could be corporate elites?  Or a combination of the two.  Or does that kind of power even exist?  Perhaps we are at the mercy of a system made manifest by historical accident.  Does “the system” (if an engineered purposeful economic system even exists) control us, or do we have the agency to take control of our own lives?  It might be that it is the type of person who is just interested in living his or her life and is not looking at the grandiose ideas prevalent in VSF that stands to benefit the most from being exposed to these concepts.  It could also be that VSF is the most likely way that the average person will be exposed to this way of thinking.  It is the person who is the least likely to investigate these ideas that is the person who will suffer the most when they lose (or never develop) a sense of agency; to not understand how the world you live in works is to risk being taken advantage of.

Star Trek’s Portrayal of Refugees

Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode “Ensign Ro” provides some interesting perspectives on these issues.  This is a character driven episode in which a newly introduced crew member is shown to be a member of a race (the Bajorans) whose planet has been colonized by another more powerful race.  The Bajorans have become refugees without a home of their own and as a result they have no political voice.  They therefore have little in the way of an economy or the ability to fend for themselves.

In this way the Bajorans are not dissimilar to the Palestinian or Jewish diaspora, or any number of refugee communities.  No doubt African American or American Indian communities can see many similarities between their place in society and the Bajorans.  The Bajorans have decisions to make as a society and as individuals.  As a society, do they militarize and fight for independence?  Do they work non-violently to appeal to the better nature of their tormentors?  On an individual level how do they work towards a better life for themselves?

Ensign Ro has taken the path of individual empowerment.  She left the refugee camps that she grew-up in and joined another society, in this way she is the quintessential American.  Like Russian, Polish, Jewish, Arab, Chinese, Japanese and members of many other cultures she has left everything she knew to make a better life for herself somewhere else.  This is one of the most consequential decisions a person can make for themselves and their family, it will change everything that follows.  Ensign Ro shows she may have come from a place without power, but she is not powerless, she left because she believed that those around her were “lost, defeated” but she “will never be.”  How many refugees will see this in their camps or temporary homes and decide as she does?  How many people in America will see this and know that they are like her, that they or their family have had to make a similar decision?

The Bajoran leader, Keeve Falor, has made a different decision.  He has stayed where circumstances have placed him, and he tries to make the best life possible for his people.  He criticizes the Federation for turning a blind eye to their suffering because they live on the wrong side of “a line on a map.”  He tells Picard that “We live in different universes you and I, yours is about diplomacy, politics, strategy, mine is about blankets.  If we were to exchange places for just one night you might better understand.”  This is the plight of the average person, even one who is a leader.  Political and historical forces have their own momentum that few normal people can influence, but all people must make their way in those currents.

Keeve Falor’s comment about blankets make an impression on Picard that many viewers might take notice of.  Ensign Ro began the scene by giving her jacket to a little girl because she was reminded of herself at that age.  The girl is living in a refugee camp and is presumably cold and perhaps hungry.  The Bajorans material prospects are not good, as refugees the Bajorans have been displaced from their homes and their ability to have an economic life.   How can you have industry when you might not even have any rights to be where you are?  Yet it is so easy for Picard to provide for them.  With just a command to his crew he provides blankets and medicines “before nightfall.”  The Federation world is different from our own, they live in a “post scarcity” environment that we might have trouble imagining.  But when a refugee looks at the modern West might they not think in similar terms?  One side has so much while the other side has so little.  How many viewers, from either side, wonder, is this fair?  Picard wonders why “In an age when technology should be able to feed and clothe all of them, that they should live like this”.  To which Ro replies that she wouldn’t.  On a societal level these are huge issues that strike at the heart of our political systems and our sense of morals.  Ensign Ro brings these questions down to an individual level.  Without being overly ideological the episode asks those who are watching, what is fair?

They Live depicts Economic Exclusion

You do not need to be a refugee to experience these issues however, since at least 1971 the American working class has experienced significant economic disruption.[2]  In 2020 the top 1% of American households by income accounted for 15 times more wealth than the combined bottom 50%.[3]  Trends in income distribution, asset distribution and poverty rates have all been worsening for the bottom 90% of American households. In 1988 John Carpenter explored the issues facing the working class in America when he released They Live.  This was the era of “Reaganonomics” during which Neo-conservative economic policies were popular in the Republican lead government.  These policies were an attempt to improve the economy through the use of the “Laffer curve” (a hypothetical inverse relationship between tax-rates and tax-receipts) and the intentional suppression of the money supply in an attempt to control inflation.  These policies caused a marked reduction in social services because of reduced government income; when combined with a rise in elements of social conservatism which favored entrepreneurial activity over social activism, rates of homelessness and unemployment began to rise.  America began to notice the contrasting levels of income and well-being between the top and bottom of the social ladder.

In John Carpenter’s They Live a down on his luck working class man (although his name is never given to us in the movie, in the credits he is listed as “Nada”) has moved to Los Angeles to find a job.  After being ignored by the government unemployment office he ends up homeless and hungry, living on the streets.  He eventually finds a construction job where he meets “Frank” who is supporting his wife and two children who he has left behind in Detroit and has not seen for six months.  Frank brings Nada to the homeless encampment where he is living because he cannot afford anything else.

Within the film’s frame of reference Nada is of course the embodiment of the socially conservative poor person who will support the very system that is not working for him.[4]  “I deliver a hard day’s work for the money, I just want the chance” he says, “It will come. I believe in America. I follow the rules.”  This sets the White Nada in opposition to the African American Frank who has a much darker understanding of the politics of his day.  The audience is meant to see Nada as a political conservative who is sure that if he works within the system he will be rewarded.  Whereas Frank who has also worked within the system (he is a blue-collar worker, probably union, with a wife and children) has lost everything.  Further, Frank attributes the lose not to impersonal market forces but to the greed of the management class.  Nada listens and is respectful, but he seems unconvinced.  “You should have more patience with the system” he says.  Until this point the film has been a simple drama, but after this conversation, while residents of the homeless encampment are watching television, it becomes Science Fiction.  A “hacker” breaks into the broadcast telling people that they are being manipulated, “Our impulses are being redirected.” What impulses are these?  “The poor and the underclass are growing, racial justice and human rights are non-existent.  They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices.”  Nada listens, but he still does not believe.  He is not ready to question the system in which he has placed his faith.

Then something happens which shakes Nada to the core.  He comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses, once he puts them on, he learns the truth of his situation.

The sunglasses are an analogy for Nada’s previous condition, they represent what Frank and the hacker has been trying to tell him.  They trigger the change in Nada’s frame of reference through which he comes to question the system.  For most people it is an intellectual and emotional journey which they must take to break out of their previous assumptions and attitudes.  As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  Nada has suffered greatly at the hands of the system, yet he (and those like him) have clung to what they were familiar with.  John Carpenter is telling us that once we are committed to a system, we would rather suffer its evils as long as we are able before we are willing to question it.  Nada experienced the homeless encampment with Frank, he listened to Frank’s explanation of how the system worked.  He heard the hacker, but he was “asleep.”  He needed the glasses to jolt him into awareness, just as Carpenter hopes the film will jolt the audience.  Now that Nada sees the aliens, he understands that he is being controlled.  Previously he was content to work within the system, believing that if he played by the rules of the system, he would be rewarded.  “I believe in the system” he said, “I just want the chance.”  Carpenter is telling us that Nada never had a legitimate chance.

Once Nada understands the situation, like many converts, he becomes committed to making a change, he seeks out and joins the resistance.  When the audience is introduced to the resistance, they learn that the aliens are simply seeking resources.  Just as Western corporations have been criticized for plundering the Third World for their resources, we learn the aliens are “free enterprisers” seeking to take what they can from our world.  And just as Western corporations have used indigenous people as a means to take control of their countries, so do the aliens use us.  “Most sell out right away” we are told, “We’ll do anything to be rich.”

 “They Live” is inspired by the plight of the poor and disposed during the Reagan Revolution.  John Carpenter, along with many social progressives, were frustrated by what they considered the successful brainwashing of many working-class Americans.  Why were so many people willing, even eager, to participate in a system that seemingly worked to their detriment?  As the author Thomas Frank says, “For the Republican Party to present itself as the champions of working-class America strikes liberals as such an egregious denial of political reality that they dismiss the whole phenomenon, refusing to take it seriously.[5]”  This begs the question, why was this happening?  The hacker said, “Our impulses are being redirected.”  What impulses are these?  Presumably our impulses to be masters of our own fate, to take charge of our lives and to live as we please.  Instead, we are lulled into a false sense of well-being, into believing that if we play by the rules the system will take care of us and we will experience material well-being.  They Live is Science Fiction as social commentary, it identifies a problem and attempts to show the audience what the problem is, and to an extent how the problem is manifested in their lives.  In this sense it provides a social service, it points out a problem (this is assuming the audience actually agrees with the premise of the movie).  In the end the aliens are (presumably) defeated when their true identities are shown to the people.

In an interview about this film John Carpenter said, “I truly believe there is brain death in this country.[6]”  He made the point that people are not willing to question authority, they look around and see the world, but they do not question.  Most people are products of the system, they play their part by working, consuming, obeying the authorities and not asking questions.  People do have a right to live as they please, it is not a requirement that all citizens should be as engaged as John Carpenter would like.  But if they are not, what are the consequences?  They Live is making the point that no one is necessarily looking out for the average citizen’s best interests.  In fact, the average citizen may be seen more as a resource to be exploited and a profit center than anything else.

Encouraging People to Seize the Initiative

Sometimes though Science Fiction has specific suggestions for ways that people can make their lives better, ways that they can fight exploitation.  One example would be Deep Space Nine’s examination of labor and the right of workers to unionize.  We see the Ferengi, who are a species devoted to “profit,” in particular they are devoted to profit that is extracted from others through business deals.  The spirit of profit has subsumed their culture so that it is the driving force of how they live, and it is the pursuit of profit that drives them into the galaxy in search of money.  The idea of profit is so fundamental to them that it becomes the yardstick by which they measure their self-worth, they judge each other only by how much profit they have and how that profit is attained.  They live by the “Rules of Acquisition” (one of which is “A man is only worth the sum of his possessions”) which have become a kind of religious doctrine in Ferengi society.  The Ferengi never willingly question their own motivations, that is until the producers want to make a point.  In season 4 of Deep Space Nine the episode “Bar Association” shows us Quark who owns a bar and casino; as a good Ferengi; he has been exploiting his workers (including his brother) to the point of exhaustion.  As in real life the workers are more inclined to suffer then to take a chance to remedy the situation.

Rom, the bar owners’ brother and employee is seeing a doctor after having collapsed on the job.  After questioning him about his situation the doctor comments that the workers need a union, to which Rom explains that the doctor does not understand, “Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation, they want to become the exploiters.”  Rom is in a sense owned by the system, the only avenue he can see for his own advancement is to work within the system’s guidelines.  Rom’s expectations of what is possible are confined to what the system provides.

The workplace is often unkind to employees, profit motive and competitive pressures conspire to minimize their worth.  If the employee cannot look past what the system provides, they have little hope of improving their material position.  Further, in most Capitalistic systems, the power to make decisions lies exclusively with management, resulting in the alienation that the working class may feel towards their own labor.  When times are good there is often enough resources to keep everybody happy, but when times get tough it is the worker who suffers first.  Workers can only be pushed so far though, eventually they can take no more.  Unionizing though is a dangerous step for workers, it is only likely to happen when they are desperate to remedy poor and sometime dangerous working conditions, or when they cannot make enough money to live a decent life.  Often the motivation to form a union happens when the worker is most vulnerable.  Unionizing therefore requires solidarity, which can be difficult in the best of times; to maintain unity in the face of inevitable opposition is a tall order.

Notice the conceptual problem the Ferengi have with the concept of a union.  Rom, the most devoted adherent to the idea can barely say the word at first.  His fellow workers are at first confused and then aghast.  Previously Rom had said that “Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation, they want to become the exploiters.”  Like John Nada from They Live, the Ferengi are in a sense asleep.  After all, only a few people can be the exploiters.  But if you “believe in the system” as Nada said, as Rom believes at first, you think that someday you might be the one who does the exploiting.  Only when it becomes apparent that this will not happen are the workers ready to move past what they thought of as the correct way to live.  Rom’s hesitation disappears as his conception of what Ferengi society allows changes.  Rom asks his compatriots, “Were Ferengi, and when a Ferengi sees an opportunity what does he do?” In this case the opportunity is the union, and he intends to “grab it”!  “We’ve been exploited long enough, it’s time to be strong, take control of our lives, our dignity and our profits!” he says.  Rom has equated forming a union with the Ferengi pursuit of profit, allowing him and his fellow workers space to organize the union while still being part of the society that he clearly values.

Unions typically promote themselves through a combination of economic and moral arguments, these arguments however often put employees in competition with “free-market advocates” who promote the idea that the owner of a business should be able to set the working conditions of “his own company” even when the company in question is publicly traded and run by the “management class.”   (This of course ignores issues of the alienation of labor as has been pointed out by Marx, see “The 1844 Manuscripts”[7] for example.) Free-market thinking has been prevalent in America and has had a tremendous (generally negative) impact on the perceptions of the place of unions in America.[8]  While a discussion of these arguments is beyond the scope of these paper, we must note their place in the public perception of unions.  Science Fiction can show us one way past this argument.  The ability to meld conceptions of individual agency with the paradigm of free enterprise (aka profit) is not new or particular to Deep Space Nine,[9]although the concept may well be new to those who watch Deep Space Nine.  Unions depend on convincing employees that they have the agency needed to take charge of their own destiny, it is not inconsequential when this same argument is viewed outside of the workplace.  This episode may well expose many employees to a way of thinking about the propriety of unions that they would not be exposed to otherwise.

In addition to the economic and moral arguments, unions recognize that workers must feel empowered before they will participate in the labor movement.  Previously we had seen that the bar workers were so afraid of the “FCA” (Ferengi Commerce Authority) that they at first refused the chance to stand-up to management.  The tendency of the state to side with management in labor disputes is well documented and need not be rehashed here, though it has huge consequences for prospective union members.  Quark, the bar owner, starts from a position of power and so attempts to ignore his employee’s pleas, even to the point of being contemptuous.  In the end the workers come to understand their inherent power, by withholding their labor they force concessions from management.

It is it not enough that the bar workers have rationalized their acceptance of the union process, they must change the inherit power dynamics in order to provide themselves with a better life. We see that although there is no actual change in the amount of power that the bar workers have from the start of the episode to the end, the workers go from a state of not recognizing their power to one of actualizing their power.  This is of course a vastly oversimplified stylized portrayal of how these power dynamics actually play out in the workplace, nevertheless they present the audience with a legitimate path to economic and social change.  This is really about one faction’s attempt to set boundaries versus another factions attempt to open opportunities.  Should people be limited to working in system that may or may not work for them (Nada) or do they realize that they can become masters of their fate (Rom)?  Some forces would rather that the question never comes up, without the realization that change can happen, nothing will change.  Those who see what Rom accomplishes may not necessarily start or join a union, but they may have their eyes opened about what they can accomplish in terms of participation and economics.

Endnotes – Introduction


1 Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P. 48

2 Green, M. C., et al. “Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds.” Communication Theory, no. 4, 2004, p. 311.

3 Bullough, Edward (1912/1989). ‘”Psychical Distance” as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle.’ Dickie, G., Sclafani, R., Roblin, R. Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s. 322.

4 Green, M. C., et al. “Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds.” Communication Theory, no. 4, 2004.

5 Nationalist Clubs. 22 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalist_Clubs.

 6 Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1981. P. 255

7 Books: Frankenstein (Sorted by Popularity). www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=frankenstein.

8 Edgar Allan Poe published as early as the 1830’s though his works are usually regarded as proto-science fiction, tending towards the Gothic and Horror genres.

9 Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2020 .” Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia.com, 16 Nov. 2020, www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/time-machine.

10 “List of Best-Selling Books.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books.

11 “Scholastic Media Room.” The Hunger Games | Scholastic Media Room, Scholastic, 2020, mediaroom.scholastic.com/hungergames.

12 “List of Best-Selling Books.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books.

13 Rowe, Adam. “7 Publishing Insights Revealed By Last Year’s Top 100 Bestselling Books.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 5 Jan. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2019/01/05/publishing-insights-revealed-by-last-years-top-100-bestselling-books/?sh=80d950d69139.

14 Box-Office Top 100 Films of All-Time, Filmsite.org, 2020, www.filmsite.org/boxoffice.html.

[15] https://www.motionpictures.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/MPA-THEME-2019.pdf

  [16] How Marvel’s Black Panther Marks a Major Milestone. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://time.com/black-panther/

 [17] J.P. Telotte.  The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. The University Press of Kentucky, 2008.  EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=224570&site=ehost-live.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Herman, Alison.  The Great Sci-Fi TV Boom of 2018. 30 Jan. 2018, www.theringer.com/tv/2018/1/30/16950634/science-fiction-peak-tv-altered-carbon-star-trek-discovery.

 [20] Star Trek: The Next Generation (Syndication): United States TV Executive Insights Updated Daily – Parrot Analytics. tv.parrotanalytics.com/US/star-trek-the-next-generation-syndication.

[21] Babylon 5 (TNT): United States TV Executive Insights Updated Daily – Parrot Analytics, Parrot Analytics, Nov. 2020, tv.parrotanalytics.com/US/babylon-5-tnt.

[22] Luckhurst, Roger. “Science Fiction and Cultural History.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2010, pp. 3–15. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40649581. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.

[23] Ibid p. 13

Endnotes – What is the Value of Political Theory


[1] Brooks, Thom. “In Defence of Political Theory: Impact and Opportunities.” Political Studies Review, vol. 11, no. 2, May 2013, pp. 209–215, doi:10.1111/1478-9302.12007.

[2] Giles, Micheal W., and James C. Garand. “Ranking Political Science Journals: Reputational and Citational Approaches.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 40, no. 04, 2007, pp. 741–751., doi:10.1017/s1049096507071181.

[3] Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University, 17 Sept. 2020, politicalscience.sfsu.edu/.

[4] Berlin, Isaiah. Does Political Theory Still Exist? berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/cc/polthe.pdf.  p.148

[5] What Is Scientific Progress? Author(s): Alexander Bird Source: Noûs , Mar., 2007, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 64-89

[6] Ibid. p.65

[7] Rawls, John. “Chapter 1.” A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, 1971, p. 11

[8] Berlin, Isaiah.  Does Political Theory Still Exist? berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/cc/polthe.pdf.

[9] Easton, David. The Decline of Modern Political Theory, Southern Political Science Association, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121.

[10] Plamenatz, John. Political Studies. No. 1 ed., VIII, 1960.

[11] Ibid.

[12] While it is true that Weber is mainly  thought of as a Sociologist, he often refers to himself as a Social Scientist, while in “Science as a Vocation,” he declares that Political Science is one of the topics that is “close to me.”   Further, David Easton refers to him liberally in his essay, “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.”

[13] Weber, M. (n.d.). 1Objectivity of Social Science and Social Policy. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from http://jthomasniu.org/class/Stuff/PDF/weber-objectivity.pdf

[14] Ibid. P.11

[15] Ibid. P.10

[16] Ibid. P. 12

[17] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P. 49

[18] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021.

[19] This is a common complaint and one not limited to those who criticize theorists.  Plamenatz for example, levels the same type of criticism against empiricists who choose the parameters of their investigations to arrive at their desired outcomes.

[20] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P.36

[21] Ibid. P.37

[22] Giles, Micheal W., and James C. Garand. “Ranking Political Science Journals: Reputational and Citational Approaches.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 40, no. 04, 2007, pp. 741–751., doi:10.1017/s1049096507071181.

[23] Weber, M. (n.d.). 1Objectivity of Social Science and Social Policy. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from http://jthomasniu.org/class/Stuff/PDF/weber-objectivity.pdf p.37

Endnotes – What is Science Fiction?


[1] Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1981.

[2] “Through Time and Space.” Teaching Science Fiction, by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright, Basingstoke Hampshire, 2011, p. 22.

[3] Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1981.

[4] Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. An Oral History of “Star Trek”. 1 May 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/oral-history-star-trek-180958779/.

[5] Sandifer, Elizabeth. “Born This Way”: The Outcast. 2015, www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/born-this-way-the-outcast/.

[6] Kay, Jonathan. “Gay ‘Trek.’” Salon, Salon.com, 25 Sept. 2011, www.salon.com/2001/06/30/gay_trek/.

[7] In fact, the genre takes its name from Horace Walpole’s subtitle, “A Gothic Tale”.

[8] Bloom, Clive. Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present. London: Continuum, 2010. P. 2

[9] It’s important to note that like many literary genres historical periods do not necessarily have precise definitions or timeframes.  Various experts have different viewpoints and different societies often date the start and end of historical periods based on local events.  For example, the English speaking world often uses 1687, the publication date of Isaac Newtons’ Principia Mathematica as the beginning of the Enlightenment while the French speaking world often uses 1637, the publication date of Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method.  Given this lack of definition historical periods, like literary periods, can often overlap.

[10] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P. 48

[11] Ibid. p.47

[12] Ibid. p.48

Endnotes – Science Fiction as Political Theory


[1] Waterworld. 2 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterworld.

[2] “Showrunners Explain How They Literally Run the Show.” StudioBinder, 15 June 2020, www.studiobinder.com/blog/what-is-a-showrunner-definition/.

[3] “Gene Roddenberry.” The Star Trek Interview Book, by Allan Asherman, Pocket Books, 1988, p. 13.

[4] Ibid., p.6

[5] Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” What Is an Author?, Open University, 2020, www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/pluginfile.php/624849/mod_resource/content/1/a840_1_michel_foucault.pdf.

[6] Cerone, Daniel Howard. “Berman in Firm Control Of Starfleet Command.” Chicago Sun-Times, LATE SPORTS FINAL ed., sec. WEEKEND PLUS, 18 Nov. 1994, p. 25. NewsBank: Access World News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/0EB421F1365B642E. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

[7] Cerone, Daniel. “`Trek’ Rolls On Without Roddenberry.” Chicago Sun-Times, LATE SPORTS FINAL ed., sec. SECTION 2 FEATURES, 2 Jan. 1993, p. 21. NewsBank: Access World News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&docref=news/0EB421151767A097. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

[8] “Canon.” Urban Dictionary, 2005, www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Canon

[9] Duke, Shaun. “The Science Fiction Canon: Function, Limits, and Problems.” Dr. Shaun Duke, Professional Nerd, 23 Dec. 2016, shaunduke.net/2016/12/sfcanonproblems/.

[10] Author, N. (2020, November 09). How to Pitch Stories to StarTrek.com. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.startrek.com/Pitching

[11] Berlin, Issiah. Does Political Theory Still Exist? berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/cc/polthe.pdf.

[12] Gene Roddenberry’s 1991 Humanist Interview. (2017, April 19). Retrieved December 04, 2020, from http://trekcomic.com/2016/11/24/gene-roddenberrys-1991-humanist-interview


Endnotes – Science Fiction, Nationalism and the Politics of Exclusion


[1] Orwell, George. Notes on Nationalism. 6 Feb. 2019, www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/notes-on-nationalism/.


Endnotes – Science Fiction and Symbolism


[1] Green, M. C., et al. “Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds.” COMMUNICATION THEORY, no. 4, 2004, p. 311.

[2] Lynn R. Mitchell / September 14, 2018 @SWACgirl. The 9/11 Bullhorn Speech by President George W. Bush. 14 Sept. 2018, bearingdrift.com/2018/09/14/the-9-11-bullhorn-speech-by-president-george-w-bush/.

[3] “Protests against the War in Afghanistan.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protests_against_the_war_in_Afghanistan.

[4] 吴哲钰. State Media Should Play Due Role in Properly Guiding Public Opinion. 22 Feb. 2016, www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-02/22/content_23580181.htm.

[5] On September 14th the House of Representatives voted 420 to 1 in support of the resolution to invade Afghanistan.  The Senate voted 98-0 in favor.

[6] Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. 1957, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015007226056.

[7] Metzger, Miriam J. Broadcasting versus Narrowcasting. 24 Aug. 2017, www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199793471-e-62.

[8] Rowan, Harriet Blair. Deep Pockets: Here’s Who Is Spending Big Money in California Elections This Year. 9 Oct. 2020, www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/09/deep-pockets-who-is-behind-the-big-spending-in-californias-elections-this-year/.

[9] “Police Use of Water Cannons in Thailand Is ‘Deeply Alarming’ Escalation in Protest Policing.” Amnesty International, 17 Oct. 2020, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/10/thailand-water-cannons-deeply-alarming-escalation/.

[10] Helms, Ludger. “Five Ways of Institutionalizing Political Opposition: Lessons from the Advanced Democracies.” Government and Opposition, vol. 39, no. 1, 2004, pp. 22–54. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44483055. Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

[11] “Recent Theories of Democracy and the ‘Classical Myth.’” Participation and Democratic Theory, by Carole Pateman, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, pp. 1–21.

[12] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. , 2006. Internet resource.

[13] Sanchez, Julian. Out to the Black. 30 Sept. 2005, reason.com/2005/09/30/out-to-the-black/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thielman. Ten Years Later, ‘Firefly’ Continues To Resonate. 5 Nov. 2015, thefederalist.com/2015/11/05/ten-years-later-firefly-continues-to-resonate/.

[16] Hauser, Christine. A Handmaid’s Tale of Protest. 30 June 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/us/handmaids-protests-abortion.html.

[17] https://www.anonymousforthevoiceless.org/why-the-mask

[18] “The humanist values of Star Trek.” Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-faith-column/2007/02/star-trek-humanist-values, Copson, A., & Andrew, British Humanist Association

[19] Geek, A., & Geek, W. (2015, September 02). 10 Things We Learned from Star Wars. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from https://www.starwars.com/news/10-things-we-learned-from-star-wars


Endnotes – Science Fiction and Civic Participation


[1] WTF Happened In 1971? (n.d.). Retrieved December 05, 2020, from https://wtfhappenedin1971.com/

[2] WTF Happened In 1971? (n.d.). Retrieved December 05, 2020, from https://wtfhappenedin1971.com/

[3] Beer, Tommy. “Top 1% Of U.S. Households Hold 15 Times More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Combined.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 8 Oct. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/tommybeer/2020/10/08/top-1-of-us-households-hold-15-times-more-wealth-than-bottom-50-combined/?sh=3810c7355179.

[4] For a simple explanation of the psychology see Ronald E Riggio’s explication of Joanne Ciulla research at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201712/why-do-people-vote-against-their-best-interests

[5] What’s the matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives won the heart of America [Introduction]. (2005). In 1327263635 974138097 T. Frank (Author), What’s the matter with Kansas?: How conservatives won the heart of America. New York, NY: Metropolitan/Owl Book.

[6] Starlog Magazine Issue 136 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming. archive.org/details/starlog_magazine-136/mode/2up.

[7] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm

[8] Domhoff, G. William. “Power in America.” Who Rules America: The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions in the U.S., University of California, whorulesamerica.ucsc.edu/power/history_of_labor_unions.html.

[9] Ibid.

Endnotes – Conclusion