Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Body Politic

This will be the first of a series on this topic. Warning, some political discussion follows in this atypical lengthy posting. So, dear reader, be warned.

In a writers group to which I once belonged, whenever I mentioned politics and fantasy, or politics and science fiction, I was quickly chastised and to some degree censored. "We don't talk about politics here," someone said. What the hell???

Science fiction and fantasy grew up in a nursery where politics replaced rattles and hobby horses.
Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" , while wonderful fantasy, was also merciless satire attacking aspects of British culture and political thought. "Alice In Wonderland", also had deeper meanings. Dodgson, the author, on the Governing Board of Christ Church, involved himself deeply in such matters as the extension of the voting franchise and the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons. Naturally his politics inevitably found their way into the subtext of the work.

That political and social commentary has continued to play an important role in modern literature, and by modern, let's qualify that as post WWII, is an indisputable fact. Some of today's best work, from "Lord of The Rings" by Tolkein to "Ender's Game" by Scott Orson Card, are either highly influenced by political and social elements, or outrightly advocate a specific point of view. Likewise some classic examples of the cinema fantastic were also deeply political: "Planet of the Apes", "Logan's Run", "Farenheit 451", "Clockwork Orange", "The Matrix", "Blade Runner", "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" were all ensured a higher degree of relevance through passing years due their political themes or subtexts.

The most brilliant work is work which thematically addresses controversial issues, either directly or through deliberate subtext.

Let's highlight an example: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".

Written by Jack Finney during the late fifties, the novel is a study in paranoia. The plot involves an alien invasion by a life form that mimics the appearance of a human before replacing the individual altogether. Once the replacement is complete, the alien assumes the life of that human, without major outward change in function and behavior other than a subtle shift to conformity.

Finney's novel and the motion picture which was based on his work were a statement on McCarthyism.

For those few people who may not understand this reference, Senator Joe McCarthy, during the fifties, made numerous specious statements and outright lies about Communist infiltration in different United States institutions such as the State Department. His accusations created a wildfire of paranoia and led to massive investigations. To be accused of Communism was a kiss of death for many, and they found themselves jobless and isolated, without real recourse or the ability to defend themselves. Amazing, considering that the claim and practice of Communism should be considered protected under the Bill of Rights, but still.

Removed from the era, it is difficult to understand how such paranoia could be spread (wink wink...Patriot Act..9/11...wink wink...Bill O Reilly...nudge nudge...Cheney), but a people who worried about immediate nuclear war and the spread of Communism through Asia and eastern Europe were easily manipulated. It's astonishing to think someone has written a book defending McCarthy, and that that book has been published in the last ten years. Who could have written such an absurd text??? Hmmm..Ann Coulter.

Now, patient reader, all this being said, here is the crux of this posting..the first cinematic version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was an amazing work. Filmed in black and white, starring deslily's Kevin McCarthy, it was smothering, claustrophobic, and paced so that the audience felt each tightening of the wrench. Brilliant. The pod people were the McCarthyites, advancing mindless conformity, ferreting out and destroying those who dared to be individuals. Or, some people would argue that the film was about the spread of Communism and the pod people were mindlessly following that leftist ideology. The fact that both interpretations can be argued is a testament to the depth of the film.

However, the second cinmeatic version, made in the 1978, and starring Jeff Goldblum and Donald Sutherland, filmed without the political overtones, received in the context of that time, was a meaningless thriller that received the lackluster reviews it received. Without the political teeth, "Invason of the Body Snatchers" had become a pod.

Looking at such contemporary fare as "Eragon", "Independence Day", and "War of the Worlds" one wonders how much those films might have been elevated had they had within them something more than the disposable mindset given to Saturday afternoon movie fare aimed at adolescent males. I adored "Batman Begins", but what made it rise wasn't the action, but the character development and the subtext of the individual fighting against the corporate state.


SQT said...

My favorite sci-fi and fantasy books tend to take on politics and/or religion. I have been working on an idea of my own and religion plays a big part in the sense that religion often tries to take a part in government policy making.

It bugs me to no end when politicians throw religion into the equation. Separation of church and state and all that...
But I personally belive that politicians will push any emotional button they can and religion fits neatly into this.

I think it's great when sci-fi/fantasy authors explore this. If we were to have contact with alien intelligence, it would throw the political community into a tizzy, so it's unrealistic not to address it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT I had a book that gathered together science fiction stories with religious themes. I think one of them was Clarke's "..names of God". But one magnificent story was about the discovery of an angel who had been shot down during wartime. They call in the Catholic, the Protestant, the Muslims, the Jews, and each tries to claim the angel for their own group. It was obviously pure satire, and deliciously scathing. I will have to try and find the name of that for you. The anthology.

SQT said...

And then of course, there begs the question, how can an angel get shot? I'd want to read it just to get the answer to that question.

DesLily said...

gosh Kevin was a cutie when he was young.. oh sorry, that's not the point.. what is? oh..duh

aren't most all sci fi and fantasy political? I mean most have some sort of "WAR" and that's pretty political if ya ask me.

jedimerc said...

I agree with you on 'Batman Begins', and sometimes a little light fare is nice (though Eragon was an utter waste of celluloid) and you make an interesting parallel with 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'.

Most of the great authors rebelled with comments on the body politic, some subtle and some not so subtle. Arthur C. Clarke was not as subtle at times, but to me, Asimov, was endearingly subtle. I think a comparison with current 'commentator' authors is not as apt. I mean Ann Coulter makes Rush Limbaugh seem rational. Political commentary seems to me a lost art. Even proper histories are laced with commentary and as Napoleon wrote 'To write history one must be more than a man, for the keeper of this great justiciary must be free of all preoccupation of interest and vanity'. Needless to say, even Napoleon had an agenda.

Now with fiction, let us comment away, though because of the political bombardments we face on all fronts in other mediums, I sometimes tire of it and escape a little into ligher fare.

Still, great discussion and some excellent points about how literature has changed.

Stewart Sternberg said...

jedimerc, God bless you for mentioning Asimov. As we walk into the new century, his name seems to be fading. I sincerely hope something ignites a renewed interest in his work. I don't mean a sequel to the abomination that was "I, Robot".

And jedimerc, I think you are correct as well about the need to escape into light fare from time to time. Lord knows we all need release. And trust me, I read an amazing amount of garbage. It keeps the drool from collecting in my cheek.

SQT said...

Oh don't get me wrong, I LOVE light, mindless fare. Sometimes, I really don't want to think at all. I don't watch a lot of drama's because I think entertainment should be escapist. Life's dramatic enough, right?

But if someone can throw in a pointed political or religious commentary that's really on target, well, you gotta love that too.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A good well-written post. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was a classic for the themes it pursued.

SQT said...

Boy, the weekends are sure slow, aren't they?

jedimerc said...

It's the playoffs :)

As for Asimov, I think it would be cool if say, sci-fi or some other outlet did a mini-series on the Foundation series, but one can hope...

SQT said...

Yeah, I can't compete with playoffs.

Crunchy Carpets said...

Miss me! (I PROMISE I will write something for here soon!)

Excellent essay and great topic.
I think that is why I LIKE sci fi so CAN explore so many current issue's 'safely' in an unreal universe.

It is also fun to try to imagine how the world will turn out if this or that does or does not happen.

Sci fi can make political statement timeless. You are not picking on some current event or person...but you can sure extrapolate what could happen without the novel or movie dating itself either.

I was thinking of non-sci fi Bob Roberts last night...watching all the stuff about Iraq. Wow.

Heck, even Robo Cop loses it when the are watching a crappy old tv and the McD's is still in the styrofoam containers.

I think that a majority of the current writers out there do a fine job. Probably as good as the old masters themselves.

I am thinking of Brin and Bear of the top of my head.

I think the cyber punk crew did a great job of this too.

I wonder how historians will look on the 21st Century writers and their influence on politics etc.

SQT said...

The beauty of sci-fi is that it most often occurs in what we imagine as our future, and the politics can be whatever the author imagines will happen.

ShadowFalcon said...

The best thing about the current bsg is the political commentary "hidden" in the story...

Stewart Sternberg said...

You are correct..actually several political questions which has been thrust upon us by the Bush administration have insinuated themselves in several television shows. Battlestar dealt with the themes of crooked elections and the morality of torture. The torture issue was brought to the fore as Darth Cheny was pushing the torture bill through congress under the blanket of national security.

Also, speaking of Darth Cheney, the last Star Wars film had blatant overtones and took more than a couple jabs at the Bush administration.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Stewart, perhaps what you are showing is the left wing bend of Hollywood and other elitist intellectual types. Did you notice though how outraged people got when Mel Gibson released his "Passion of the Christ"? Like the left, he had an agenda, but it was a conservative religious agenda, and so many held his feet to the fire.

I understand we should have vigorous political discourse in this country, I just get annoyed when there is a double standard.

Stewart Sternberg said...

actually that anonymous post was me...just wanted to give the other side a voice. seemed only fair.

Crunchy Carpets said...



SQT said...


Stewart, you are nothing if not fair.

Stewart Sternberg said...

What, so you're saying I'm like...what...nothing?

SQT said...

No, never that Stewart, never that.

jedimerc said...

Well, if you had not posted about the double standard, Stewart, I might have :)

Supposedly, Lucas said he had no intentions of politicising Star Wars(but everyone has an agenda)... though I hated Obi-Wan saying 'Anakin, we are a democracy!' when in fact a Republic is not a true democracy, especially their bloated republic, but as someone with a background in poli sci I am amused at the terms thrown out about our government that are not true... A federated republic doth not a democracy make :)

On the politicizing issue in fiction, the best recent book I read regarding it was Michael Crichton's 'State of Fear'. Terribly wordy at time, but it attacked both views of the contentious global warming issue and he made some excellent points about politicising sciences (especially in his afterword and an article on eugenics)... anyway, great book that got scathed because Crichton really refused to take a side but offered all points of view in the process.

And I agree with you on Gibson and 'The Passion' but I could go on all day about the historical Yeshua as opposed to the faith-based Jesus... but since this is a sci-fi based blog, I will cast such aspersions on religion in my blog sometime.

Morgen said...

you can't have a complete society without politics or religion -- and the best sci-fi/fantasy books are about complete societies.
So yes, they are relevant.