Böcker om marxism och science-fiction

Det finns ett par betydande nutida böcker som diskuterar marxism och science-fiction. Jag har inte läst dem men när jag gjort det ämnar jag återkomma i ämnet. De böcker jag tänker på är Fredric Jamesons Archaeologies of the FutureThe Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005) och Red Planets: Marxism & Science Fiction (2009) med China Miéville och Mark Bould som redaktörer.

Archaelogies of the FutureOm Jamesons bok skriver Matthew Beaumont i vänstertidskriften International Socialism så här:

As its title insists, Archaeologies of the Future represents a self-conscious, and triumphantly self-confident, attempt to find traces of an alternative future that lie embedded in the alienated cultural forms of the present. The first section, an essay on “The Desire Called Utopia”, asks whether culture can be political, “which is to say critical and subversive”, or whether it is instead “necessarily reappropriated and co-opted by the social system of which it is part”. There Fredric Jameson carefully sifts the dialectical relationship of the ideological and the utopian. He insists that, after the convulsive shift signalled by the rise of neoliberalism, “the commitment to imagining possible Utopias as such”, as opposed to the outdated or perhaps simply untimely attempt to create utopian blueprints, is itself potentially emancipatory.

This substantial section of almost 250 pages is written with Jameson’s characteristic skill. Without ever quite losing his exhilarated and finally exhausted reader, he pursues sophisticated and often intricately argued points both across vast tracts of theoretical and historical reflection and through dense though colourful passages of textual analysis. Among the former there is an especially interesting engagement with Theodor Adorno. Among the latter there are fascinating interpretations of utopists, as they are sometimes called, from Thomas More through William Morris to Stanislaw Lem.

This utopian corpus is elaborated and further explored in the second section of Archaeologies of the Future, entitled “As Far as Thought Can Reach”. Most of its chapters have in fact been published previously, but this book makes readily available for the first time a pioneering body of criticism on science fiction and related forms—most of them originally published in comparatively specialist journals, such as Science Fiction Studies—over the past 35 years.

There are fascinating articles in this section on Brian Aldiss, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick and others, all of them in some respect illustrative of the provocative but convincing claim that science fiction’s “deepest vocation is to bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself”. The name of this “constitutional inability to imagine Utopia” is ideology. So imagining the unimaginable Utopia is, according to Jameson, an attempt to traverse the limits of ideology—like a spaceship struggling to escape a planet’s gravitational pull.

Jameson proceeds according to the principle that “the ostensible content, the manifest topic or subject matter, always masks a deeper one of an entirely different nature”. So in an essay on George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1921), which he provocatively couples with Robert A Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973), Jameson interprets “Longevity as Class Struggle” and argues that utopian or dystopian representations of immortality are a displaced image of the class conflicts that create social contradictions in the present and that demand to be resolved collectively in the future.

Science fiction is thus for Jameson a privileged literary genre, one that has assumed the role that the historical novel played in the 19th century, because the attempt to represent society as a totality is absolutely structural to its narrative form. For the benefit of “outsiders to SF”, he emphasises that “the unique new possibilities of this representational discourse…are social, political and historical far more than they are technological or narrowly scientific”.

Red PlanetsPaul Kincaid skriver på SF-sajten SF-site om Red Planets:

Marxist thought in turn informed much of the science fiction being written, writers from Wells to the Futurians were on the political left. And from the 1970s onwards, Marxist theory became almost the default academic approach to the study of science fiction, building primarily on Darko Suvin’s notions of cognitive estrangement and the novum, ideas that are only now coming in for revision in, for example, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.

Marxist theory has been incredibly productive and valuable in the study of sf, but I have never been totally comfortable with it. For a start, as this volume demonstrates, it can be authoritarian. It is authoritarian in the obvious sense that these essays constantly appeal to authority. Names like Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson and Zizek litter the book not to raise debate but to settle it. The only time that the inarguable authority of these giant figures is disputed comes towards the end of the volume, when Althusser is pitted against Jameson (in ’Towards a Revolutionary Science Fiction: Althusser’s Critique of Historicity’ by Darren Jorgensen) and Raymond Williams is pitted against Suvin (’Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited’ by Andrew Milner); though this does no more than measure one giant authority figure against another.

It is authoritarian in other senses also. It uses a language that, in effect if not necessarily in intent, excludes many potential readers. Thus, in one of the less cluttered sentences in the entire book, Jorgensen argues:

”Jameson defers to history as the ground of his analysis while discursively constructing this history, relying on texts to construct that which is also a material horizon for the production of meaning.”

This is plain English, the words used are common and familiar, it is not an exercise in jargon, yet the sentence itself is virtually impenetrable. I have read it several times, I think I know what Jorgensen is saying, though I have still got to determine the rhetorical point in the precise placing of some of these words. Elsewhere, the specific language of Marxist theory makes many sentences in every one of the essays collected here even less plain. In other words, you have to learn Marxist theory in order to read Marxist theory, which seems to the outsider at least a recursive exercise in elitism.

And it is authoritarian in the way that, once an idea is ”theorized” (a favourite word of all the contributors), it becomes retrospectively true. This particular take on the history of ideas, for instance, allows William J. Burling (’Art as ”The Basic Technique of Life”: Utopian Art and Art in Utopia in The Dispossessed and Blue Mars’) to castigate Ursula K. Le Guin for failing, in her 1974 novel, to accommodate theories of art first formulated in 1978, and Rob Latham (’The Urban Question in New Wave SF’) to compare and contrast stories by Thomas M. Disch first written in the late 1960s with Marxist urban theories first formulated around 1975 as if they were exact contemporaries. This is not a value judgement on my part, I happen to consider the Burling one of the weakest essays in the book and the Latham one of the best, but it is a comment on the way theory is dominant. In a work that supposedly puts Marxist theory and science fiction on an equal footing, the contributors refer to many more theorists than they do sf writers. And, indeed, however radical their take on theory, their views of science fiction tend to be conventional; no-one seems to imagine any earlier work of sf than Frankenstein, no-one seeks to place science fiction within a spectrum of the fantastic (indeed all seem to regard sf as fully definable, even if they don’t all conform to Suvin’s definition), no-one cites an sf film more recent than The Matrix.


Not surprisingly, those essays which engage with specific works seem to have the most focussed and therefore the most interesting things to say: Phillip Wegner’s analysis of Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution quartet (and the internecine warfare between factions of the left familiar from so many of MacLeod’s stories are a good way of approaching the theory wars that seem to be glimpsed from the corner of the eye so often in this collection); Rob Latham on Disch; Steven Shaviro on Charles Stross’s Accelerando. Among the essays on film (Carl Freedman very readably comparing science fiction and film noir, John Rieder on Until the End of the World by Wim Wenders) the one that stood out for me was ’”Madonna in moon rocket with breeches”: Weimar SF Film Criticism during the Stabilisation Period’ which examines contemporary leftist film criticism of Lang’s Frau im Mond, perhaps because this is a topic I know little about.

In the end, though, and perhaps perversely given what I have said so far, the essay I most engaged with was ’Utopia and Science Fiction Revisited’ by Andrew Milner, one of the more heavily theoretical of the contributions. It uses the work of Raymond Williams to offer a contrast to Suvin’s definition of science fiction, approaching it primarily from the position that utopian literature is separate from science fiction. I don’t agree with much of what Milner has to say, I think he is too wedded to the notion that there is a hard and fast definition of science fiction that clearly differentiates it from other forms of the fantastic, a position that I believe to be increasingly difficult to sustain. Nevertheless, it is a good essay to disagree with because it is well argued and does offer an insightful way of approaching the genre.

Även på andra håll har dessa två böcker berörts, hanterats, recenserats, ofta kritiskt eller mycket kritiskt: Monthly Review, MUSE1, 2Reviews in Cultural Theory, Historical Materialism, Kasama, THE, Marx & Philosophy, Goodreads1, 2Google1, 2, Politics and Culture, Posthuman Destinies, The Future – a Rough Guide, Cosmos & History, Charles LaBelle, Paris Review, Oxford Journals, Locus Online,

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