A couple of days ago, Slate published a piece by Jacob Brogan provocatively entitled “Science Fiction is for Slackers.” Brogan argues that sf icons like Luke Skywalker and the replicants from Blade Runner are popular because they are lazy, heads-in-the-sky dreamers whose main goal is to escape their jobs. And indeed, Luke is exasperated with his work on his aunt’s and uncle’s farm and dreams about joining the Force, while the replicants, androids who have been built to work, live in exile on Earth to escape hard labor. Ultimately though, Brogan claims that these slackers are a good thing, because they valorize “real life” over the mundanity of waged labor.
Although Brogan briefly acknowledges our social conditioning about work–or the idea that it is inevitable and even essential to our existence as members of society–he fails to mention the profoundly anti-capitalist subtext of sf texts. The Matrix, which Brogan takes as an example, is a blatant metaphor for capitalist wage slavery in which society–in the movie, the virtual reality created by the machines–serves to veil the truly miserable conditions of workers by offering them futile pleasures. The same analysis can easily be made of Blade Runner, whose replicants claim their right to freedom and “humanity” by escaping basically labor camps.
Of course, Brogan’s piece is meant to be light and funny, not make an in-depth Marxist study. But his brief analysis of staples of the genre still fails to see the radical potential of these texts. It is not solely that sf is pleasurable because it explores worlds of exciting adventures for people bored with their jobs; it is also that speculative fiction as a whole is particularly apt for acute social criticism and alternative realities. More and more contemporary sf texts are no longer preoccupied with the basic story of the (white, male) Chosen One whose inherited special abilities and unique courage will conquer all and save the world and seduce the girl. In the recent anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, for example, editors Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown redefine science fiction as “visionary,” as a tool for social progress.
Good sf is capable of much more than rehearsing classical tropes from realist genres on red planets. Sf is about imagining solutions to current problems, creating universes in which these problems don’t exist, rewriting history, exploring a profound philosophical tale, and so much more. Think about the radical power of Ursula Le Guin’s (1966!) The Left Hand of Darkness, credited with being the first novel with a genderqueer protagonist. Or think about George Schuyler’s satirical novel Black No More (1931!) in which a black man invents a machine to make black people white, a book that produces an astounding critique of America’s obsession with racial purity. Recently, my favorite book Ancillary Justice (by Ann Leckie) creates a world in which gender does not exist, in which “she” is the universal pronoun, and in which you never have access to the characters’ sex (! I am still blown away by such simple brilliance).
So all in all my point is that science fiction really isn’t for slackers. It’s for thinkers.