Thursday, January 5, 2017

Starship of State: Governing the Future: Introduction

Politics in Pop Culture Science Fiction

Death and taxes. According to the old saying there are few things as certain as death and taxes. The first represents the inevitably of mortality, that all living things die. The second represents the inevitability of government, that all societies larger than a few individuals require some kind of order. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, it may have amounted to no more than a certain fluid division of labor. Hunters hunt, gatherers gather, everyone contributes to the good of the tribe. As societies grew more complex, so did the institutions required to govern them, giving rise to tribal confederations, city-states, empires, nations and republics. These units of organization require citizens to contribute something to the common good, usually through taxes, to keep society functioning. If they fail, the result is a state of anarchy that may be more taxing than the taxes were.

In fiction, death is often the focus of the plot. Literary works often use the stress of death to wring emotion out of characters, and some story genres, such as thrillers and mysteries, often start with the death of a character or require the threat of death as the primary source of tension. Certainly, there are genres and subgenres of fiction that also deal with taxes, and the governments that collect them. The police detective in the mystery novel is paid by a municipal government to investigate crimes and enforce laws. The spy in the thriller can waste tons of tax revenues on fancy machinegun-armed sports cars. The stoplight in the romance novel that makes the heiress late for her yoga lesson was presumably bought with somebody’s tax dollars. You can’t build a Death Star if you don’t have the money, and the organizational skills, to do so. So even in fictions where these institutions do not play a vital role, plausibility suggests that they are a vital part of the underlying society that the characters live in.

In science fiction, writers and film producers have the luxury of reimagining these institutions. The fantastic settings allow them to have characters that live under governments totally different from those that exist in the real world, either currently or historically. Of course, some stories are more dependent on these details than others. The Empire was vital to George’s Lucas’ Star Wars saga, since it was the rebellion against the imperial government, and the struggle to destroy its Death Star, that propelled so much of the story. The Federation featured in Star Trek may be more in the background, but regulations such as the Prime Directive reveal things about the political foundations of that society. And though the platoon of marines we see in Aliens suggest the presence of a government institution, the influence wielded by Burke and his ilk suggest the true power may be vested in a corporate oligarchy. Each of these film/television series, and a dozen others that have been created in the last 50 years, have made predictions about how the future (or in Star Wars case a long time ago) would be governed.

To many people the subject of politics can be deadly dull. They are happy to ignore all of the invisible work done by governments to support their daily lives, or to complain about the taxes they have to pay to support that work, but they are in no way interested in the minutiae of political or government activity. For these people, the series of blog posts I’m planning on the politics of the future, exploring the governing systems described in pop culture science fiction may not be that interesting. Showing senatorial trade route debates in the prequel episodes of the Star Wars saga was not well received by fans or critics. But if the political aspects of science fiction world building interest you, I will be posting at least seven or eight of these essays on the politics and government of the fictional future, exploring everything from Star Wars’ Republic and Empire to the feudal system seen in Dune. How do these institutions work? How do they compare with real-world equivalent systems? What are creators and producers trying to say with their portrait of governance? These are some of the questions I will explore over the next few weeks.

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