Reposted from Fantastic Metropolis, author China Mieville lays out a list of 50 science fiction and fantasy works he feels every socialist ought to read.
When I became a socialist I was also studying Sociology and Philosophy academically. I experienced something that seems to be a trend among many (though assuredly not all) folks who delve into these worlds: a sudden loss of interest in fiction.
Over time I only read non-fiction work and discovered something missing. Reading fiction again had a major impact on me, stimulating parts of my brain that had laid mostly dormant (or only experienced anything through film and TV shows). I feel invigorated from diving back in and also feel better equipped to deal with issues as a socialist (and as a sociologist and a philosopher).
I recommend Mieville’s recommendations because he is himself a fantastic science fiction author. There is a fantastic interview with him at the website of the International Socialist Review. He is the author of such fantastic works as The City & the City, Kraken and his new book that I’m holding in my hand in eager anticipation, Embassytown. Enjoy!
This is not a list of the “best” fantasy or SF. There are huge numbers of superb works not on the list. Those below are chosen not just because of their quality—which though mostly good, is variable—but because the politics they embed (deliberately or not) are of particular interest to socialists. Of course, other works—by the same or other writers—could have been chosen: disagreement and alternative suggestions are welcomed. I change my own mind hour to hour on this anyway.
Iain M. Banks—Use of Weapons (1990)
Socialist SF discussing a post-scarcity society. The Culture are “goodies” in narrative and political terms, but here issues of cross-cultural guilt and manipulation complicate the story from being a simplistic utopia.
Edward Bellamy—Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888)
A hugely influential, rather bureaucratic egalitarian/naïve communist utopia. Deals very well with the confusion of the “modern” (19th Century) protagonist in a world he hasn’t helped create (see Bogdanov).
Alexander Bogdanov—The Red Star: A Utopia (1908; trans. 1984)
This Bolshevik SF sends a revolutionary to socialist Mars. The book’s been criticized (with some justification) for being proto-Stalinist, but overall it’s been maligned. Deals well with the problem faced by someone trying to adjust to a new society s/he hasn’t helped create (see Bellamy).
Emma Bull & Steven Brust—Freedom & Necessity (1997)
Bull is a left-liberal and Brust is a Trotskyist fantasy writer.F&Nis set in the 19th Century of the Chartists and class turmoil. It’s been described as “the first Marxist steampunk” or “a fantasy for Young Hegelians.”
Mikhail Bulgakov—The Master and Margarita (1938; trans. 1967)
Astonishing fantasy set in ’30s Moscow, featuring the Devil, Pontius Pilate, The Wandering Jew, and a satire and critique of Stalinist Russia so cutting it is unbelievable that it got past the censors. Utterly brilliant.
Katherine Burdekin (aka “Murray Constantine”)—Swastika Night (1937)
An excellent example of the “Hitler Wins” sub-genre of SF. It’s unusual in that it was published by the Left Book Club and it was written while Hitler was in power, so the fear of Nazi future was immediate.
Octavia Butler—Survivor (1978)
Black American writer, now discovered by the mainstream after years of acclaim in the SF field.Kindredis her most overtly political novel, the Patternmaster series the most popular. Survivor brilliantly blends genre SF with issues of colonialism and racism.
Julio Cortázar—“House Taken Over” (1963?)
A terrifying short story undermining the notion of the house as sanctity and refuge. A subtle destruction of the bourgeois oppositions between public/private and inside/outside.
Philip K. Dick—A Scanner Darkly (1977)
Could have picked almost any of his books. Like all of them, this deals with identity, power, and betrayal, here tied in more directly to social structures than in some other works (though see Counter-Clock World and The Man in the High Castle). Incredibly moving.
Thomas Disch—The Priest (1994)
Utterly savage work of anti-clericalism. A work of dark fantasy GBH against the Catholic Church (dedicated, among others, to the Pope…)
Gordon Eklund—All Times Possible(1974)
Study of alternative worlds, including an examination of hypothetical Left-wing movements in alternative USAs.
Max Ernst—Une Semaine de Bonté (1934)
The definitive Surrealist collage novel. A succession of images the reader is involved in decoding. A Whodunwhat, with characters from polite commercial catalogues engaged in a story of little deaths and high adventure.
Claude Farrère—Useless Hands (1920; trans. 1926)
Bleak Social Darwinism, and a prototype of “farewell to the working class” arguments. The “useless hands”—workers—revolt is seen as pathetic before inexorable technology. A cold, reactionary, interesting book.
Anatole France—The White Stone (1905; trans. 1910)
In part, a rebuttal to the racist “yellow peril” fever of the time—a book about “white peril” and the rise of socialism. Also interesting isThe Revolt of the Angels, which examines now well-worn socialist theme of Lucifer being in the right, rebelling against the despotic God.
Jane Gaskell—Strange Evil(1957)
Written when Gaskell was 14, with the flaws that entails. Still, however, extraordinary. A savage fairytale, with fraught sexuality, meditations on Tom Paine and Marx, revolutionary upheaval depicted sympathetically, but without sentimentality; plus the most disturbing baddy in fiction.
Mary Gentle—Rats and Gargoyles (1990)
Set in a city that undermines the “feudalism lite” of most genre fantasy. An untypical female protagonist has adventures in a cityscape complete with class struggle, corruption, and racial oppression.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman—“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)
Towering work by this radical thinker. Terrifying short story showing how savage gender oppression can inhere in “caring” relationships just as easily as in more obviously abusive ones. See also her feminist/socialistic utopias “Moving the Mountain” (1911) andHerland(1914).
Lisa Goldstein—The Dream Years (1985)
A time-slip oscillating between Paris in the 1920s, during the Surrealist movement, and in 1968, during the Uprising. Uses a popular fantastic mode to examine the relation between Surrealism as the fantastic mode par excellence and revolutionary movements (if nebulously conceived).
Stefan Grabiński—The Dark Domain (1918–22; trans. and collected 1993)
Brilliant horror by this Polish writer. Unusually locates the uncanny and threatening within the very symbols of a modernizing industrialism in Poland: trains, electricity, etc. This awareness of the instability of the everyday marks him out from traditional, “nostalgic” ghost story writers.
George Griffith—The Angel of Revolution (1893)
Rather dated, but unusual in that its heroes are revolutionary terrorists. Very different from the devious anarchist villains of (e.g.) Chesterton.
Imil Habibi—The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (1974; trans. 1982)
The full title is much longer. Habiby was a member of the Palestinian Community Party, a veteran of the anti-British struggle of the 40s, and a member of the Knesset for several years. This amiable, surreal book is about the life of a Palestinian in Israel (with surreal bits, and aliens).
M. John Harrison—Viriconium Nights (1984)
A stunning writer, who expresses the alienation of the modern everyday with terrible force. Fantasy that mercilessly uncovers the alienated nature of the longing for fantastic escape, and show how that fantasy will always remain out of reach. Punishes his readers and characters for their involvement with fantasy. See alsoThe Course of the Heart.
Ursula K. Le Guin—The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)
The most overtly political of this anarchist writer’s excellent works. An examination of the relations between a rich, exploitive capitalist world and a poor, nearly barren (though high-tech) communist one.
Jack London—Iron Heel (1907)
London’s masterpiece: scholars from a 27th Century socialist world find documents depicting a fascist oligarchy in the US and the revolt of the proletariat. Elsewhere, London’s undoubted socialism is undermined by the most appalling racism.
Ken MacLeod—The Star Fraction (1996)
British Trotskyist (of strongly libertarian bent), all of whose (very good) works examine Left politics without sloganeering. The Stone Canal, for example, features arguments about distortions of Marxism. However, The Star Fraction is chosen here as it features Virtual Reality heroes of the left, by name—a roll call of genuine revolutionaries recast in digital form.
Gregory Maguire—Wicked (1995)
Brilliant revisionist fantasy about how the winners write history. The loser whose side is here taken is the Wicked Witch of the West, a fighter for emancipatory politics in the despotic empire of Oz.
J. Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)—Gay Hunter(1934, reissued 1989)
By the Marxist writer of the classic work of vernacular Scots literatureA Scots Quair, andSpartacus, the novel that proves that propaganda can be art. This is great science fiction. Bit dewy-eyed about hunter-gatherers perhaps, but superb nonetheless. As an added bonus, it also has a title that sounds amusing today. Check out his short fiction, which includes a lot of SF/Fantasy work.