Since the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818, Science Fiction has supplanted Political Theory as the locus within which citizens are challenged to explore issues of justice, fairness, citizenship, racism, nationalism, and more. This work will make two arguments. First, both Science Fiction and Political Theory are predisposed to explore the same ideas; second, for most people, Science Fiction is the best and most used venue to delve into these concepts. In addition, it will explore the unique facets of Science Fiction that make 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.
Literary Theory, Political Theory, Science Fiction, Visual Science Fiction (VSF), World Building
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Popular Science Fiction has become one of, if not the primary method in which the American public is exposed to the concepts that Political Theory has traditionally investigated. Particularly among adults, Science Fiction has supplanted the traditional education system as the venue where people are exposed to questions about justice, morality, issues of racism, sexism, and more. This work argues that the consumption of popular Science Fiction, mainly through visual media (television, cinema, streaming, and such), 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 traditional Political Science and Political Theory have had difficulty. 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. 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 on 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; therefore, we permit them to comment on 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.
In years past, the average person may have been unaware of how society changed; social mores and politics seemed stable and enduring. Significant changes did happen, but they were the exceptions. Perhaps because these changes were momentous, those were the times the average person sought out Political Theory to help guide them through the turmoil. The pamphlets of Thomas Pain and the Declaration of Independence’s public readings helped guide public support for the American Revolution. Even then, change was not swift; almost a century passed between the publication of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and the United States Constitution’s ratification. Today change is all around us. Technology allows (some might say forces) communication on an unprecedented scale, changing the very nature of politics through the 24/7 news cycle. The advent of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter has fundamentally changed how the public and politicians communicate with each other. These times of change are when we need Political Theory and Science Fiction the most; when society is changing is when the future is most malleable. Wait too long and the moment can be lost, yet we must also be able to trust new ideas.
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,” 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. 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.” 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 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. This paragraph sucks, it needs to be redone. Think about what point needs to be made here.
Political Theory, however, 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, provide the bases for how today we view the role 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 Locke and Montesquieu and the subsequent embodiment of those ideas in America’s Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution have ensured that they will resonate 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 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.* Not just in a narrow political sense but also in how we decided to live our lives, make a living in a way that we wished, marry whom we wanted, and participate both politically and socially in society as equal 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, always they were suggestions for our future selves.
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, the 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 mythicized 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** 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. 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 are also very different in many respects, 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 more nuanced, 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 in the community and have 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 of the 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.”  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 Scientia, Star 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, Twitter, 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 many fans. 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. 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 being published beginning in 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. Generally regarded as the first author to make his living by publishing Science Fiction 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. 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. 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. 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 Gameswarnings 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.
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. 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, FSF has been a dominant force. When looking at domestic box office receipts unadjusted for inflation all time, FSF takes 8 out of the top ten places, while inflation-adjusted receipts show 25 Science Fiction oriented films out of the top 100 in all-time top box office receipts. Also, many FSF “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. Over the years 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. In comparison, the Hispanic/Latino category is overrepresented 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.” “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 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. 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”
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, 26 years after it ended production! Babylon 5, which was only distributed in syndication, was in the top 15% during the same time frame. 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-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Max Headroom, and many others, cannot be denied. As Roger Luckhurst has said, Science Fiction has become a part of our “grain of lived experience.”. 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.” When TVSF 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? Two 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 the second 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.
* 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.
** Though in academic terms more properly called Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction is the popular term and so will be used here.
*** For the purpose of clarity, I will include streaming services under the category of television.
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.
 How Marvel’s Black Panther Marks a Major Milestone. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://time.com/black-panther/
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Babylon 5 (TNT): United States TV Executive Insights Updated Daily – Parrot Analytics, Parrot Analytics, Nov. 2020, tv.parrotanalytics.com/US/babylon-5-tnt.
 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.
 Ibid p. 13