Coded commentary: science fiction and contemporary politics

Science fiction is often described as being ‘proleptic’ – as a vehicle for prediction of the future, if not reflection of the present, and a lot of debate has been kicking around the blogosphere concerning that definition. Jose at Meme Therapy has been grilling notables and authors on the scene as to what sf works they feel reflect the current political climate. It’s a thorny issue, for sure. His question was:

“Science Fiction often presents a coded commentary on the present. What current work of science fiction do you think delivers the most relevant/poignant message with respect to our present geopolitical situation?”

There’s not many answers I could come up with that aren’t covered there already, to tell the truth; Stross’s ‘Accelerando‘, the more sf-nal works of Neal Stephenson and (of course) William Gibson all get a mention, and all of those works have a lot to say about the here and now, even though many of them are quite old by sf literary standards.

But there is one metaphor for human society that I feel deserves a mention, as far as the current state of affairs goes. In my view, the fundamentals of human politics haven’t really changed that much in a fair while, although the outcomes of people’s reactions to them surely have. And there is one book in particular by a favourite author of mine that deserves a mention in this context – for two reasons, not just one.

The book is Iain M. Banks’ ‘Player of Games‘. If you’re an sf fan and haven’t read this book yet, you’re missing out, as far as I’m concerned. Although part of the Culture sequence, it stands alone, and I have found it to be a great book to use to introduce intelligent readers to the sf form. Why? Because it’s an allegory.

POG pitches two diametrically opposed civilisations against each other: the Culture (advanced, post-scarcity, post-economics, enlightened if a little bizarre in outlook and attitude), against the Empire of Azad (repressed and repressive, bigoted, vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed and destructive). The confrontation is not a space-opera battle-front, but the journey of one man from the Culture, Gurgeh, the eponymous ‘Player of Games’, into the heart of the Azadian mindset and worldview – he goes to take part in their ‘great game’, which is a metaphor both in and outside the book for their entire approach to civilisation.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll use little detail. If you’ve read it, you’ll grok where I’m coming from; if not, it’s high time you grabbed this book and read it. Because the Empire of Azad are humanity as we are at the moment, and the Culture are humanity as we could be. The whole book is a cunning lens that Banks uses to shine a less than flattering light on the whole of human affairs, through the Culture, a piece of glass that represents all that our race might become, if only we pulled our heads out of our political arses.

‘Divide and conquer.’ It’s an old phrase, but one that serves politicians well. While they have us split down cultural, gender, religious and economic lines, we will never wake up to the fact that our strings are being pulled by the people with the money. Yes, ‘they’. Am I a paranoid, an conspiracy-theorist X-files buff? No. There is no conspiracy. But there is a force that mimics one in the affairs of man, and that force is a simple emotion. Greed. The greed of those who have everything, but are not satisfied; the greed of those who have enough, but want more; the greed of those who have nothing, and resent those who have for what they have.

Greed is, in my view, a function of economics. While there is profit to be made from pre-existing advantage, then people will take it. And in the current system, they can’t be blamed for that – our entire society, worldwide, is geared toward securing advantage. Ever since the first priest realised he could extract rent for land in the name of his god, we have been falling from whatever racial grace we were created with, if any. If someone wins a deal, then the other person loses. Mutual gain is not an acceptable outcome.

‘Player of Games’ highlights this issue perfectly, in my view. The Culture has no need of anything – it only seeks entertainment, as exemplified by its avatar, Gurgeh – and possibly the promulgation of its worldview. The Empire of Azad is mankind now – manipulative, power-hungry, exploitative, and (deep down) insecure in its own tenure as major player on the scene. The denouement is an excellent portrayal of what might happen if two such ideologies clashed.

So, reason one; because the Empire of Azad represents us as we are at the moment. Reason two; because the Culture are what we could be.

Oh, the Culture are flawed; they have a power structure too, but there’s no brainwashing or indoctrination for perfection enforced. Culture beings can be bad, manipulative, sneaky, wrong. But they do so in a framework of ideas which encourages them to think about what they are doing, and to accept that their choices affect them as well as others.

But better that than the Empire, where might makes right, where oppression is a given thanks to social or gender status, where the fundamental wrongness of taking from those who have nothing to take is the base of the pyramid of power. We live in the Empire, right now. A divided, schizmatic version of it, perhaps; but the Empire, nonetheless.

I, however, aspire to defecting to the Culture. Because the Empire is consuming itself and the people who consist it. This is beyond party political differences. It is about politics itself – it is about politics being the entire problem. While we fight each other, verbally or physically, the power-mongers on both sides always win, while normal people die for force-fed ideologies and rotten dogmas. Only when we topple the ideologues and policy-makers will we be free to become the species we have the potential to be.

That is why I see ‘Player of Games‘ as an allegory for our present time, if there is one.

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