Speculating a Better Future

For too long, speculative fiction has been hostile to emancipatory politics. That's finally starting to change.

In the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Crossover,” characters Kira and Bashir experience operational difficulties on their way home. Upon arriving at the eponymous space station, they find it to be a strange and terrible place.

Bashir is forced to work in the station’s ore processor, which had long been disabled on their home station. The two realize they are in a mirror universe, so they organize a revolt among the human workers to escape this station and return home, where the ore processor is merely history and the station is free for trade, shopping, and entertainment: a neoliberal dream fully cleansed of the working class who had been the mechanism of their delivery.

Productive work is rarely shown in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and when it is, it’s usually marked by slavery or some other form of coercion. The use of forced labor in the ore processing center, for example, is used to illustrate the brutality of the Cardassian civilization. In fact, much of modern speculative fiction, or SF, has been complicit in the repression of portrayals of workers and production from our social imaginary.

Human labor is outsourced to machines or simply moved offstage, deemed irrelevant to the main characters and story. Or worse, labor is portrayed as a site of danger and marked for discipline or outright removal. Either way, both visions separate consumption from production and set reactionary limits on what should be a visionary and forward-thinking genre.

Those limits have never been absolute, however, and in recent years, an increasing number of authors have bucked this trend — working to create more politically inclusive narratives that engage issues of identity, economy, community, solidarity, and change.

SF’s omission of labor, or even non-elites, is longstanding. As Ursula LeGuin writes, in her foreword to a new edition of the Strugatsky Brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic, the “use of ordinary people as principal characters was fairly rare in science fiction when the book came out, and even now the genre slips easily into elitism — superbrilliant minds, extraordinary talents, officers not crew, the corridors of power not the working-class kitchen.”

Elites take center stage even as the work that maintains them is effaced. As authors take for granted the material supports that their extraordinary heroes rely on, they disappear the reality and necessity of the working class that furnishes those supports.

Even critically praised work that elaborately reimagines the world economy suffers from this fundamental flaw. Karl Schroeder’s recent story “To Hie from Far Cilenia,” for example, posits a libertarian revolution by mobile hackers who secede from society and evade the state by living in shipboard cargo containers. Needless to say, this utopian tale barely even mentions the crews that pilot the ships or the dockers who shift the domiciles.

When industrial and other workers enter the picture, it’s most commonly in the form of actions — strikes, revolutions — that the author looks upon with suspicion. The labor-as-dystopia model, often rooted in anticommunism, paints industrial labor as socially dangerous.

Take Robert Heinlein’s short story “The Roads Must Roll,” in which roads operate like moving sidewalks. Heinlein describes in vivid detail the workers who maintain the transportation network, laboring in below-ground powerhouses that propel the roads at speeds of up to a hundred miles an hour. But after acknowledging those laborers and their abysmal conditions, Heinlein sells them out cold.

The villain of the story, Shorty Van Kleeck, is a radical who forms an organization to shut down the roads (with no warning, causing harm and havoc) so that workers will get better pay and respect and receive recognition as a vital force of production in society. In the end, Shorty is brought down by the protagonist, Engineer Gaines, who exploits Shorty’s class insecurity.

Heinlein’s narrative pits masculine individualism against a feminized collectivism. Gaines is hyper-masculine and practically phallic; meanwhile, the unionist villain Van Kleeck “blubbers like a child” in their final confrontation. This contrast is part of a long tradition in American literature and politics in which a restrained, macho individual has to stand up to a hysterical, feminine mob comprised of strikers, communists, and agitators.

The story is also a direct attack on the idea that labor creates value. It portrays the strikers as foolishly misled by a new religion: the Cult of Functionalism. Adherents of this faith argue that workers should be respected and rewarded for the value they produce and the function they serve. Heinlein belittles this idea as the provenance of contemptible nobodies who pretend to occupy a higher station than they deserve. His anti-labor stance exemplifies the proto–Cold War politics that pervaded much (though not all) of what is called “Golden Age” SF.

But even sympathetic creators can be trapped in their political context — a bind particularly evident on the small screen. The 1990s television series Babylon 5 featured a dockworkers strike that is emblematic of this problem. The episode evinces an obvious sympathy for labor; indeed, it’s nearly as didactic about labor history as John Sayles’s film Matewan, chanting a litany of labor history events and showcasing a clearly dangerous and oppressive situation. Yet capital is completely missing from the story — there are no shipping companies to be striking against.

In the neoliberal age, even leftish texts find it easier and more compelling to attack the state instead of capital. This is a marked departure from earlier stories — even the anti-union film On The Waterfront shows dockers and loaders actually laboring for shipping magnates. In B5 the political state is the enemy, and the military ends up being the hero.

Some of SF’s most prominent popularizers have created powerful stories characterized by a fundamental ambivalence toward labor. HG Wells’s cautionary tale The Time Machine tells the story of a neglected working class called the Morlocks who emerge as monsters from underground — where the society’s factories had been relocated — to prey upon the beautiful and innocent Eloi, who must be saved by the hero. Wells wanted to secure better treatment for workers in his time, but relied on exaggerated social fears to do so.

Karl Čapek’s 1920 play RUR also mixes a liberal sympathy with a fear of the working class. Written shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, RUR envisions a world where robots as workers have exterminated their masters and created a new order. Čapek displays a solicitude toward the robots and condemns the shortsightedness of the human bourgeoisie, but like Wells, he casts revolution as a threat to be avoided.

Čapek was also uneasy about the possibility of a postcolonial world. In his novel The War with the Newts, a race of intelligent newts are discovered by the European powers and transformed into workers. Čapek’s narrative shows how the newts have their own agenda — they turn against humanity, destroying coastal cities and coastlines to create more territory for their home estuaries. While the novel brilliantly skewers Eurocentrism and international politics, Čapek can’t hide his anxiety about what a world free of colonialism might look like.

The American science fiction writer Thomas Disch criticized Čapek along just these lines. Yet that same blend of support and dread of the working class can be seen in Disch’s own work. His Reagan-era The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars engages deindustrialization and unemployment through the metaphor of planned obsolescence. The hero travels to Mars upon learning of a plot by self-exiled Populuxe appliances to return to earth and lead an appliance revolt.

The book’s political satires are hilarious, featuring slogans such as “all power is in the cords of the appliances.” The images of battle toasters and vacuum cleaner combat troops parading in a parodic Soviet Mayday are also dead on. However, while Disch is partial to workers, he is critical of revolutionary solutions. He suggests that such remedies are inevitably totalitarian: the appliance revolution is led by an authoritarian strongman.

The final resolution of the narrative occurs when the Brave Little Toaster wins his case through electoral struggle, persuades the Martian appliances that earth appliances just enjoy serving humanity, and convinces the Populuxe machines to abandon earth liberation in favor of scientific space exploration as their true destiny.

Like Disch, Ian MacLeod betrays a liberal pessimism about the possibility of dramatic social change through collective action. His novel The Light Ages is set in an alternate England where the Royalist Restoration never occurred after the Civil War. English industry is powered by an industrial yet magic substance called Aether, which the working class is trained to use to run factory engines and facilitate their work.

We follow the main character from his working-class childhood in a northern mill town to his adulthood in the revolutionary fringes of London to his life as one of the new elites after the rebellion. During this process, the personal and social costs of technology are painfully clear. Like machinery for Marx, Aether powers industry but endangers workers, literally turning them into trolls who are banished to asylums on the fringes of society.

Aether thus functions as a metaphor both for industrial accidents and the transformation of workers’ bodies under the influence of machine work and chemical exposure. The social costs depicted in the novel are a moving figuration of the workplace dangers that attended capitalism’s rise, such as devastating accidents and diseases like black lung or mesothelioma.

The Light Ages brilliantly illustrates the formation of working-class subjectivity in relation to the factory. For Marx, one of the major shifts in working-class consciousness occurred when children were brought up with machinery and expected machine work to be their future. In MacLeod’s novel, this sense of class fate and the socialization of machine life is described by the main character as an internalization of the sound of the pit shafts. The “sh-booming” sound begins to mark the psyche of the town children; it is a sound that those raised near the mill carry with them even if they manage to escape the town itself.

MacLeod’s novel ends with a labor revolution that ushers in a new age. However, although the revolution benefits workers in its initial stages, they do not control its direction. The revolutionary faction represented by the book’s main character is unsuccessful, and the uprising puts a William Morris–inspired reformist in control. Rather than a working-class-led new age, McLeod’s revolution craters, ultimately bringing in different sections of the aristocracy and continuing past patterns of class hierarchy.

Yet some of MacLeod’s contemporaries are increasing the depth of diversity in SF perspectives, changing the genre’s portrayals of labor and working people. They resist defeatist trends by emphasizing working-class community, identity, and solidarity.

Veronica Schanoes, for example, writes brilliantly about such themes, mixing history, politics, and the fantastic to produce class-conscious narratives. Her story “Phosphorus” blends Irish folklore, magic, Marx, and social commentary with the true story of a match women’s factory strike in London.

Schanoes also deals with the physical agony of working conditions: the white phosphorus that women in match factories worked with impregnated their bodies and deformed their faces, making them living monsters, until it ultimately killed them. Abjection marks the story. Schanoes opens by describing the path home from the factory as marked by glowing piles of vomit, and concludes by describing the main character’s death by phosphorus as her jaw decays, an illness known as “phossy jaw.”

Crucially, though, the matchwomen win better conditions through their strike — and this part isn’t fictional. As Louise Raw writes in Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History, the work stoppage can fairly be called the beginning of industrial unionism in the UK. Schanoes’s story resurrects the importance of these women, historically overlooked for being both women and working class, and fleshes out their personhood, their strength, and their effectiveness.

Likewise, Catherynne Valente’s resetting of the Russian folktale “Koschei the deathless” in the years between the Russian Revolution and the siege of Leningrad demonstrates a new openness to ideas and sources that would have been out of bounds before the fall of the USSR. The scene of a domovoi revolutionary Soviet house committee complete with Bolshevik propaganda posters provides a refreshing contrast to the slavish house elves of the Harry Potter series, who are collectively treated with the same “they like to serve” abandonment as Disch’s earth appliances.

Slavic myth shapes another retelling of a momentous event in US labor history: the Lattimer Massacre. In “Against the Seam,” by Sunny Moraine, Baba Yaga comes to visit a young Polish miner in Lattimer, Pennsylvania and talks Iwan/Iwanka through recognizing her own queer and trans identity; that struggle is mirrored in the struggle of the mostly Slavic miners to strike for a decent living. Mother Jones also features as a local organizer.

In real life and in the story, local sheriffs opened fire on a peaceful miners’ march on September 10, 1897, leaving nineteen dead and over forty wounded. The massacre catalyzed the United Mine Workers, which began to welcome Slavic workers and recruited thousands of new members. In “Against the Seam,” Iwanka reaches her own apotheosis, coming to terms with her identity and develops a deeper sense of the urgency that lies behind the unity of political and social uprisings.

In another brilliant combination of theory and history, Sofia Samatar blends postcolonial critique and labor action in “Ogres of East Africa.” The story sympathetically chronicles the actions of African workers, who deliver their colonial boss to the ogres he thought he would be hunting.

Like Kwame Nkrumah, Samatar posits African unity as the solution to European colonization. Her workers are ethnically and linguistically diverse and from geographically disparate regions, but in the face of oppression, they unify through their shared experience and common numerical language of Swahili. In”Ogres” (which features details like a colonial catalog of ogre natural history), capital becomes the prey of the colonized — an inversion of Marx’s metaphors of capital as predator.

In Sarah Prineas’s Ash and Bramble, the main character wakes up as a seamstress in a factory that produces the glass slippers and elegant ballgowns fairy tales use. The workers at the factory, overseen by the wicked fairy godmother, labor under brutal sweatshop conditions. Thanks to the surreptitious aid of the workers around her, the protagonist briefly escapes with one comrade. But she’s recaptured and recast as Cinderella.

The “happily ever after” story provided by the godmother serves as the ideological mechanism of social oppression. The heroine refuses to marry the prince and instead joins a collective rebellion that liberates both factory and city, breaking the story and ending the godmother’s power. Among other things, the book argues that individual escape from an oppressive system is illusory — that the only genuine way to escape is to change the underlying system through collective action and mutual empowerment.

To be sure, revolutions and utopias are difficult to portray and can easily sap narrative tension. In China Miéville’s 2004 novel Iron Council — which tells the story of a group of workers and rebels whose return is awaited by the revolutionary elements of the city of New Crobuzon — the author manages to reconcile this difficulty by literalizing a Marxist metaphor.

The novel — an SF retelling of the Paris Commune with elements of the Bolshevik Revolution — is set in several different time streams and chronicles the formation of the council and the failed revolution of New Crobuzon.

In the first timeline, railroad workers from New Crobuzon strike against their employer and, in a dramatic moment that parallels the actions of the rail workers in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Strike, take over the train that they had been building. As the workers lift the tracks from behind the train and lay them in front, the train itself becomes their moving city of revolution (complete with a flatcar graveyard for revolutionary heroes). In the second timeline, the revolutionary situation in New Crobuzon reaches a crisis as the city moves into open rebellion, seeking to overthrow the repressive state.

The novel reaches its climax as the Iron Council returns to assist the collective workers state in the revolution against the government. While the workers collective falls, the Iron Council train stays frozen in time, awaiting the next revolutionary moment. The author himself has a similar purpose in Iron Council, lodging the revolution in our imaginations and calling on us to rebuild it when the time is right.

Each of these authors demonstrates the power of the fantastic to help us rethink our history and our present. Good fantastic literature can destroy the tyranny of the normal and of unexamined assumptions, opening our minds to new ideas. But even more importantly, it can furnish us with novel ways to think about those ideas.

As Miéville suggests, fantasy provides both a guide to clear political action and a medium for thinking through the challenges we face, considering the fantastic and grotesque nature of reality itself.

The present moment is plagued by a suspicion of labor and a skepticism about collective action’s ability to transform our political destinies. A current of cynicism impedes the radical project of expanding democracy from the realm of the electoral to other parts of society, like the economy, the workplace, and the home.

SF becomes extremely valuable in this context. It can help us envision a future that is unbounded by our contemporary common sense — perhaps even one that includes a worker-owned ore processor on Deep Space 10.