Science fiction for socialists

May 4, 2005

China Mieville compiled a list of 50 fantasy and science fiction works that socialists should read. A selection is featured below — visit <> for the full list. Mieville points out that it is not a compilation of the best science fiction, but of those works that touch on social and political issues that are of particular interest to socialists and radicals.

  • Alexander BogdanovThe Red Star: A Utopia (1908; translated 1984)

This Bolshevik science fiction sends a revolutionary to socialist Mars. The book's been criticised (with some justification) for being proto-Stalinist, but overall it's been maligned. It deals well with the problem faced by someone trying to adjust to a new society she or he hasn't helped create.

  • Mikhail BulgakovThe Master and Margarita (1938; translated 1967)

Astonishing fantasy set in 1930s 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 science fiction. It's unusual in that it was published by the Left Book Club and was written while Hitler was in power, so the fear of a Nazi future was immediate.

  • Octavia ButlerSurvivor (1978)

A black American writer, now discovered by the mainstream after years of acclaim in the science fiction field. This brilliantly blends science fiction with issues of colonialism and racism.

  • Thomas DischThe 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 EklundAll Times Possible (1974)

Study of alternative worlds, including an examination of hypothetical left-wing movements in alternative USAs.

  • Anatole FranceThe White Stone (1905; translated 1910)

In part, a rebuttal to the racist "yellow peril" fever of the time — a book about "white peril" and the rise of socialism.

  • Mary GentleRats 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 GilmanThe Yellow Wallpaper (1892)

Towering work by this radical thinker. Terrifying short story showing how savage gender oppression can exist in "caring" relationships just as easily as in more obviously abusive ones.

  • George GriffithThe Angel of Revolution (1893)

Rather dated, but unusual in that its heroes are revolutionary terrorists.

  • Imil HabibiThe Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (1974; translated 1982)

Habiby was a member of the Palestinian Community Party, a veteran of the anti-British struggle of the 1940s and a member of the Knesset (Israel's parliament) for several years. This amiable, surreal book is about the life of a Palestinian in Israel (with aliens).

  • Ursula K. Le GuinThe 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 LondonIron 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 MacLeodThe Star Fraction (1996)

British Trotskyist (of strongly libertarian bent), all of whose (very good) works examine left politics without sloganeering. This features virtual reality heroes of the left, by name — a roll call of genuine revolutionaries recast in digital form.

  • J. Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) — Gay Hunter (1934, reissued 1989)

By the Marxist writer of the classic work of vernacular Scots literature A Scots Quair, and Spartacus, the novel that proves that propaganda can be art. Bit dewy-eyed about hunter-gatherers perhaps, but superb nonetheless.

  • Toni MorrisonBeloved (1987)

It's well known that Beloved is a superb book about race, slavery and guilt, but it's less generally accepted that it's a fantasy. It is. It's a ghost story that wouldn't have half the charge without the fantastic element.

  • Marge PiercyWoman on the Edge of Time (1976)

A Chicano woman trapped in an asylum makes contact with a messenger from a future utopia, born after a "full feminist revolution".

  • Mack ReynoldsLagrange Five (1979)

Reynolds was, for 25 years, an activist for the US Socialist Labor Party. His radical perspective on political issues is reflected throughout his work. This book examines a quasi-utopia without sentimentalism. Also of huge interest are Tomorrow Might Be Different (1960) and The Rival Rigelians (1960), which explicitly examine the relation between capitalism and Stalinism.

  • Kim Stanley RobinsonThe Mars Trilogy (1992-96)

Probably the most powerful centre of gravity for leftist science fiction in the 1990s. A sprawling and thoughtful examination of the variety of social relations feeding into and leading up to revolutionary change.

  • Lucius ShepardLife During Wartime (1987)

Horrific vision of a future (thinly disguised Vietnam) war. Within the savage examinations of the truth of war and US foreign policy, Shepard also investigates the relationship between science fiction, fantasy and magic realism, and uses their shared mode to look back at reality with passion.

  • Eugene SueThe Wandering Jew (1845)

Huge book by radical socialist Sue, about the adventures of the family of the Wandering Jew of legend. Symbolic fantasy elements: the Jew is the dispossessed labourer and his partner is downtrodden woman.

  • Michael SwanwickThe Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993)

Great work that completely destroys the sentimental aspects of genre fantasy. From within the genre — fairies, elves, and all — Swanwick examines the industrial revolution, the Vietnam War, racism and sexism, and the escapist dreams of genre fantasy. A truly great anti-fantasy.

  • Alexei TolstoyAelita (1922; translated 1957)

Distant relative of the other Tolstoy. The "revised" version is not as good, written in the stern environment of Stalinism. A Red Army officer goes to Mars and foments a rebellion of native Martians. Good rousing stuff, but also interesting in terms of "exporting" revolution. See also the superb avant-garde film version from 1924.

  • Ian WatsonSlow Birds (1985)

Left-wing author whose short story collection includes a cold demolition of Thatcher and Thatcherism. His take on oppression — cognitive and political — informs all his rather austere, cerebral writing.

  • Oscar WildeThe Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888)

Children's fantasies by this romantic, socialist author. Marked by a sharp lack of sentimentality and a deeply subversive cynicism, which doesn't blunt their ability to be intensely moving.

  • Yevgeny ZamyatinWe (1920; translated 1924)

A Bolshevik, who earned semi-official unease in the USSR even in the early 1920s, with this unsettling dystopian view of absolute totalitarianism. These days often retrospectively, ahistorically and misleadingly judged to be a critique of Stalinism.

From Green Left Weekly, May 4, 2005.
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