Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Science Fiction That Argues Back
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
Julia and I were talking yesterday about Maureen McHugh and her excellent, searing novella The Cost To Be Wise came up. The Cost To Be Wise is in part a critique of Star Trek's Prime Directive and noninterference policies like it. This reminded me of how Nancy Kress's great Beggars in Spain novella is nearly explicitly a response to Ayn Rand, specifically Atlas Shrugged (I wouldn't say the expanded book and Beggars trilogy are). Several characters in Beggars in Spain follow Yagaiism, which reads clearly as this universe's Objectivism.
This got me thinking: what scifi interestingly critiques previous scifi? Cory Doctorow has a series that explicitly does this:
In spring 2004, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of Fahrenheit 451 to make Fahrenheit 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives.
A few other examples: Leonard makes the case that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Measure of a Man" responds to the original series's "Court Martial"; it "puts one of the underlying themes of TOS on trial and shows that it hasn't held up well." ("on trial" - zing!) And lots of fanfic does this, like "Second Verse (Same As the First" by Friendshipper/Sholio. "The power disparity between the 'Lanteans and the other peoples in Pegasus is something I think about occasionally, but it's never addressed on the show."
It's all a shared discourse, sure. We talk about themes we've read and play with them. "Another End of the Empire" by Tim Pratt, for example, is responding to a common fantasy trope. But I'm interested in hearing about science fiction and fantasy that says, "In this specific work, there is a specific ideological failing that I will now use, or refute, and that idea will be a primary premise for my story." Do you have a favorite bit of speculative fiction that's like that?
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