Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Hard ReadingLearning from Science Fiction$

Tom Shippey

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382615

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382615.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM LIVERPOOL SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.liverpool.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Liverpool University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in LSO for personal use.date: 26 July 2021



Why Politicians, and Producers, Should Read Science Fiction

(p.274) 14 Introduction
Hard Reading

Tom Shippey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter opens with a study of Robert Heinlein, an author at once extremely patriotic and extremely critical, whose works often display a violent switch of direction: apparently because Heinlein’s core belief was that the American way, while often at fault, was inherently self-correcting. His work was carefully noted and built on by Kim Stanley Robinson, whose “Orange County” trilogy offers three views of a future America: apocalypse, dystopian capitalism, and utopian socialism. Two other works by Tom Disch and Geoff Ryman move the critique of America into the regions of fantasy and perhaps allegory. All the later works demonstrate science fiction’s increasing sophistication in terms of narrative structure.

Keywords:   American way, Apocalypse, Dystopia, Capitalism, Utopia, Socialism, Sophistication, Narrative structure

This article began as a talk delivered at Mexicon, in Scarborough, on 29 May 1993. It was published in Interzone 88, again in the Dutch literary journal File, and in a final revised form in Foundation (all in 1994). It counts, then, as one of those pieces of mine that have attracted most attention within the sf world. However, and probably not coincidentally, it also led to a clash in the literary world that forever terminated a not-very-beautiful relationship. As I recall, I had been invited to talk on the BBC radio literary programme Kaleidoscope, and got there to find that I was on trial for only having included one female author (Ursula Le Guin) in my Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. This actually was not true, in that a glance at the notes in the back would have shown that ‘Raccoona Sheldon’, alias ‘James Tiptree Jr.’, was really Alice Sheldon, while ‘Lewis Padgett’ was a blend, the proportions still unknown, of Henry Kuttner and his wife C.L. Moore. And, furthermore, a number of the stories selected, notably those by Sheldon, Schmitz, ‘Cordwainer Smith’, Wolfe and the end-piece by David Brin, were strongly female-oriented and female-dominated. Still, there is no denying that in early sf, as in most pre-modern literary genres, female authors were underrepresented and often obliged to disguise themselves under initials and pseudonyms, like ‘George Eliot’ and the Brontë sisters: the past did not play by our rules.

Anyway, the smoke from this exchange of views was just about clearing when the lady moderator, perhaps a bit anxious about the social situation, began a long burble (in a markedly upper-class accent, and with the characteristically British upper-class iteration of ‘one’) about how unfair it was that people criticised programmes like this, and the Booker award business, just because one always found oneself interviewing people one couldn’t help meeting at dinner-parties, because they were the ones who wrote the most interesting books. Not at all, I replied. The accusation is that you ignore people who write much more (p.275) interesting books, just because you don’t meet them at dinner-parties. Like, for instance … And this led into a long rant on the virtues of Geoff Ryman’s ‘Was …’ (1992), which I had just read and which should have been a cert for the Booker Prize if there was any justice. Subtle, sad, relevant, deeply affecting, working on almost a mythic level. What more could one ask? I have never been asked back on to Kaleidoscope, though it is true I did go off to America almost immediately after. It is an exclusion I have borne with fortitude, as the BBC clearly thinks academic riff-raff should turn up for the honour and glory of it, paying minute appearance fees and then short-changing you on the expenses.

That said, I think the most admirable feature of most of the works discussed here is their even-handedness. Robinson and Ryman in their different ways present devastating criticisms of American icons and American realities, of the kind that (if directed against one’s native land) would get you locked up or worse in most of the countries belonging to the United Nations. Even Heinlein is well able to see such criticisms, and mounts equally aggressive if again quite different ones in other works (see item 15, below). Yet at the same time they can see the power of the icons, as does Brin in the novel discussed just above, and all the authors, Disch included, leave you unsure which way sympathies should go. Little Billy Michaels is, yes, a mass-murderer, but so are the people he comes in contact with like the cigarette-marketer, and you can see that what he is trying to do is teach people a lesson. It is a grim lesson and there are (one hopes) in reality other ways of learning it: the best one being, reading books like these. If only more people did … But the literary caste and the major media spokespeople are too happy in their own habitus (see item 1, above). Or addicted only to gesture politics (see item 2). Or maybe sf and fantasy modes are too unfamiliar (see item 8).

Finally, one aspect of the coming-of-age of sf is surely, as mentioned in the piece that follows, the increasing complexity of structure in sf novels. It is always very risky to say anything about what makes an author do anything (see pp. 48, 132, above), but Robinson’s Pacific Edge (1990) does look as if it might be a response to arguments like Greg Benford’s (see Benford 1987) that Utopias are just not writable any more. Greg has a strong point: most of the modern Utopias I have read, from Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) to Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), and taking in Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), have been, if not unwritable (because written) and not quite unreadable (I read them), at least rather dull.1 But Robinson worked out how to get conflict, and (p.276) movement, into what could easily be a static non-story. It is a tour de force, and it could not be done outside sf. Alas that such works are not more generally recognised … They are not just entertaining, it would do everyone good to read them, critics and politicians included.


(1) Many more Utopias are considered, more sympathetically, by Edward James (2003).