When 20th-Century Science Fiction Anticipates 21st-Century Politics

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The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, lives up to its name. With a century’s worth of stories and an international scope, this anthology weighs in at around 1,200 pages. Stylistically, a host of moods are represented: readers might be captivated by the surreal imagery or sweep of stories that lean towards the space operatic, or they might shudder at more…visceral ones. (See: Octavia E. Butler’s “Bloodchild” and George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings.”) The editors describe the stories as being from “roughly 1900 to 2000,” but regardless of when they were written, most have an urgency that the years haven’t dimmed.

As tends to be the case with science fiction, several of these stories use visions of the future (whether far or near) to comment on aspects of contemporary society. The ways in which they do so range from the metaphysical to the satirical to the outright horrific. Some raise political concerns that seem specific to the the time in which they were written. Others, such as W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet,” have kept their thematic resonance even as the specifics may have changed. His story, in which a comet wipes out most people in New York except for a black man and a white woman, is suffused with questions of trust and the need to overcome deep-seated racism that haven’t changed much in the ninety-odd years since it was first written.

Questions of gender and how it’s perceived also occur in stories throughout the collection. Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed” is set in a feminist utopia, and focuses on its residents as they encounter men from a patriarchal society for the first time in hundreds of years. Here, the tension begins with the title and remains throughout: after establishing a functional society, Russ lets the threat that it might be wiped away by the beliefs of the new arrivals hang over the proceedings. Several of the stories feature transgender characters, including Iain M. Banks’s “A Gift From the Culture” and Frederick Pohl’s 1968 “Day Million,” about a brief romance between two evolved humans a thousand years in the future. Some of Pohl’s language about gender is dated, but his overall point, addressed to an imagined reactionary reader, is powerful: that love and emotional connections will persevere and evolve, and to deny that is to be on the wrong side of history.

Michael Blumlein’s more recent “The Brains of Rats” is one of the collection’s most unsettling stories. It’s a character study of a doctor whose views on gender and society are so dissonant that to call them contradictory would be a huge understatement. In the span of a few paragraphs, the narrator declares, “I have been a feminist for years,” and writes of wanting to eliminate the societal sexism that his daughter will face. He also refers to his hatred of a woman speaking at an awards dinner, stating, “I wanted to shake her, shake her up and make her pay the price.” It’s not much of a stretch to imagine this character, in 2016, taking to his computer late at night to post awful things on Twitter or Reddit. The science fictional element here involves the narrator’s internal debate over whether he should use the results of his research, a virus, to “ensure that every child born on this earth is male,” transforming a study in troubling takes on gender into something potentially apocalyptic.

Political, corporate, and societal organizations are also among the subjects of certain stories. Katherine MacLean’s “The Snowball Effect,” from 1952, takes an overtly satirical look at politics that rapidly turns chilling. In it, a casual debate between two academics about the nature of organizations leads to certain principles being adopted by a local sewing circle — which gradually turns into a sinister political organization, and continues to expand and expand beyond all reasonable projections. The tone is jaunty and borders on the absurdist, but the implications are much more ominous. It’s hard to avoid thinking of your least favorite totalitarian/populist organization as you read this, and in this year of conventional political wisdom being increasingly useless, it hits home in a number of ways.

Satire and body horror blend in Stepan Chapman’s “How Alex Became a Machine,” adapted from his 1997 novel The Troika. The narrator of this story exists in an already-mechanized condition: as it begins, he works at a factory, putting in far more hours than expected. He recalls, “I drew three salaries, since I worked all three shifts every day, under differing surnames.” Gradually, more and more of his body is replaced with prosthetics, and his connection with other humans slowly fades, culminating in a horrific sequence involving the extermination of bugs from an elderly woman’s house. Chapman’s story reads like a vivid and painful metaphor for the alienation that accompanies a lopsided work/life balance.

Some of the shortest works in this collection are also the most devastating. Manjula Padmanabhan’s 1984 story “Sharing Air” reads as a cautionary tale. The narrator discovers an ad for “a selection of antique atmospheres,” and orders a blend evoking the air inhaled by the inhabitants of five cities late in the twentieth century. This, in turn, prompts the narrator to ponder questions of climate change, pollution, and the “total civic breakdown” that occurred between our time and theirs. It is only in the final paragraphs that the reader sees the cumulative effect of ecological devastation. It’s one of the more overt cautionary tales in this collection.

In a recent interview with Kirkus, Ann VanderMeer commented that “Really good science fiction is commenting on the present at the same time it’s talking about tomorrow.” While making one’s way through the vast landscapes found in this anthology, hopefully more than a few readers will walk away with a deeper understanding of our own moment in history.