From 1984 to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, from Fahrenheit 451 to Westworld, science fiction has always congratulated itself on being the literature of ideas, a tool for examining society and human nature. And in its toolbox one of its most powerful tools is allegory. With science fiction allegory we can turn a situation upside down, reverse it, take it to its logical extreme and bring to light aspects of it the audience couldn’t, or often, wouldn’t allow themselves to consider through a more realistic lens.
A far too brief history of sci-fi allegories
Look at The War Of The Worlds. One of things that separates that book from its numerous adaptations and copycats is H.G. Wells’ and the narrator’s steadfast refusal to cast any moral judgement against the Martians. Countless times it’s pointed out that what they do to the human race is no worse than what the British Empire was doing to Aboriginal people. When they drain human blood for sustenance, the narrator asks us to pause our outrage and consider how our own feeding habits look to the rabbit. The Martians aren’t satanic monsters, they’re the British Empire seen from the other side, they’re doing what Britain was already doing, but they’re better at it.
To find the golden age of science fiction allegory, look at the censorship heavy, advert dependant American TV of the 60s. In The Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, the terrifying witch hunt of a suburb expecting an alien invasion is a burning satire on the Red Terror, and translates just as easily to our fear of terrorists today. By removing the specifics and replacing them with the fantastic, the story not only manages to slip under the radar of those who’d consider it dangerously political, it allows the story to be universal, relevant to every era when the same demons pop up again.
And of course there’s Star Trek, the flagship of science fiction allegory on TV. Countless times Star Trek and its spin-offs have covered the Cold War, racism and intolerance in ways that (not always flawlessly) made the issues accessible, not least because they were allowed to be aired in the first place.
In Deep Space Nine, one of my favourite episodes growing up was the episode Chimera. It’s a powerful episode about just where the limits are to the Federation’s supposedly all encompassing tolerance, and how someone at the limits of that tolerance can internalise that. From Odo’s reluctance to ‘link with’ the new changeling (by holding hands) in public, to the repeated reminders from usually sympathetic characters that they’re fine with Odo being a shape shifter, they just don’t want it well, rammed down their throats, it’s an episode that had at least one teenager under the LGBT umbrella beaming and cackling until their parents told them to stop.
It was a joy, because at the time there had never been a non-straight character in Star Trek (and you know, Sulu giving that guy a hug in Beyond just barely counts). Oh sure, there was that one episode where Dax kissed another woman who she’d been married to when she had a male host. And that (er, not great) The Next Generation episode where Riker has a romance on a planet where having a gender and being in a mixed-sex relationship was a crime. And the actors who played Garak and Bashir had tried to play it as a romance. You took what you could because there was a total lack of characters in the Star Trek TV universe who just happened to have same sex relationships.
Because here’s the problem with science fiction allegory – all too often it talks about difficult issues by completely removing the people most affected by them from the narrative.
Rights for super heroes
Another popular ‘We’re not talking about gay people, honest’ moment in science fiction is the famous “Have you tried not being a mutant?” line in X2 (which I’ve been informed is what we’re supposed to call X-Men 2). The X-Men have a long history of working as stand-ins for marginalised communities of all stripes, with a deeply, deeply mixed bag of results.
There is of course, the famous ‘Charles Xavier is Martin Luther King, Magneto is Malcolm X’ comparison that has been increasingly taken on by comic and film makers. There is a long, nuanced argument to be had over whether that comparison has been an empowering one or a dangerously reductive one (Martin Luther King never assembled a team of black people to defend white people from the ‘evil’ black people for a start). There’s a very good look at that whole discussion here.
The nadir of that particular allegory is probably found in X-Men: First Class, a film that keeps Darwin around just long enough for the camera to cut to him when someone says the word “slave” and then immediately kills him off. At the same time, the film frequently drops the phrase “Mutant, and proud!” in film set about seven years before the Stonewall riots would popularise the idea of gay pride, and includes a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ joke 32 years before that would become a thing.
But the danger of appropriating the slogans and phrases of activists in marginalised groups isn’t just in getting your dates wrong. Last year Deus Ex: Mankind Divided attracted the wrong kind of attention for having their cyborgs waving “Augs lives matter” banners in the pre-release game art.
The problems in both cases are two-fold. Firstly, the problem is a storytelling one. Marginalised groups don’t have superpowers. By definition they have less power than the groups marginalising them. Creating a register of people who follow the Muslim faith is a human rights atrocity. Creating a register of people who can shoot laser beams from their eyes has a lot of crossover with gun control. The allegory doesn’t bear examination.
I’m sure there are a lot of people in various marginalised groups that would like to shoot laser beams from their eyes, and it’s possible to tell important and empowering stories with the superpowers-as-marginalised metaphor (Naomi Alderman’s The Power is definitely in that territory), but far too often the ‘what if’ these sci-fi stories explore is ‘What if white, cis, straight guys were the marginalised group but were also really badass?’
But the second problem here is that these stories have a cargo-cult attitude to minority activism. ‘Pride’ with a capital P is a slogan born of the Stonewall riots, and the prevalent attitudes towards LGBT people that preceded them. It’s a response to the idea that to be anything but straight and cis is something seedy, deviant and shameful. By the same token the phrase ‘Black lives matter’ is one that comes from a very specific place and time, that is tied to the recent deaths of real people.
This isn’t science fiction allegory being used to get past any kind of censor, or to force people who otherwise wouldn’t to consider the world that less privileged people live in. This is sometimes taking hard won battles and real suffering and using it to give undeserved gravitas to your special effects punching movie or your face shooting simulator.
Think it through
Which brings us back to our opening point. We all like to think of sci-fi as more than just a home for special effects bonanzas and childish power fantasies. We know that at its best it’s the genre of the 21st century, the one that begins thinking and talking about real issues where other genres sometimes lack even the vocabulary to do so.
But the flipside of that is if science fiction is a tool for talking about real issues, real people will be affected. There is science fiction about people who find their home invaded and culture destroyed by another culture with better weapons and more technology, about people who one way or another don’t fit the static and binary interpretations of gender that are widely taken for granted, about people that are seen as things and about being attacked by flying killer robots. But all of these situations are real things that happen and have happened to real people.
This isn’t about placing subjects ‘off limits’ but about trying to write well and thinking about the implications of what you write (because those implications are there whether you intended them to be or not).
If science fiction is a genre that thinks of itself as important (and it is) it can’t afford to treat the situations it portrays as abstract thought experiments, and it can’t remove the real people who face those situations from its stories. If we’re going to ask people to see humanity in robots and space arthropods, we need to establish that ‘humanity’ covers all the types of human first.
Chris Farnell has written numerous sci-fi stories which are meant to be taken entirely literally and at face value. You can read some of them in his short story collection, Dirty Work. Equally literal is his Omegle-based cyberpunk noir RPG, Silicon Bullets.