Men In High Castles: The Politics of Speculative Fiction in International Relations

(Man, one assumes, is the proper study of Mankind. Years ago we were all cave Men. Then there is Java Man and the future of Man and the values of Western Man and existential Man and economic Man and Freudian Man and the Man in the moon and modern Man and eighteenth-century Man and too many Mans to count or look at or believe. There is Mankind. An eerie twinge of laughter garlands these paradoxes. For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over. If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and rightnow very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not a Women, for honestly now, whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman and scientific Woman and the alienated nineteenth-century Woman and all the rest of that dingy and antiquated rag-bag? All the rags in it are White, anyway. I think I am a Man; I think you had better call me a Man; I think you will write about me as a Man from now on and speak of me as a Man and employ me as a Man and treat me as a Man until it enters your muddled, terrified, preposterous, nine-tenths-fake, loveless, papier-mâché-bull-moose head that I am a man. (And you are a woman.) That’s the whole secret. Stop hugging Moses’ tablets to your chest, nitwit; you’ll cave in. Give me your Linus blanket, child. Listen to the female man. If you don’t, by God and all the Saints, I’ll break your neck.)

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975)

The wordless histories of walking, dress, housing, or cooking shape neighbourhoods on behalf of absences; they trace out memories that no longer have a place… They insinuate different spaces into cafés, offices, and  buildings. To the visible city they add those ‘invisible’ cities about which Calvino wrote. With the vocabulary of objects and well-known words, they create another dimension, in turn fantastical and delinquent, fearful and legitimating.

Michel de Certeau, Heterologies (1986), cited in Carolyn Nordstrom, Shadows 0f War

In ‘A Scanner Darkly’, as in ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’,  all intersubjective relations devolve into webs of suspicion and betrayal. It goes with the territory, and the territory is nowhere – an existential East Berlin where everything you do has to be deniable. You’re guided by the grim categorical imperative which agents ignore at their peril: act as if the person to whom you are talking to will sell you out. If they haven’t fucked you over yet, just wait… If they don’t fuck you over, you’ll do it to yourself… Before long, you split in two, like Arctor, and then there’s no way back (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men … ). But total mental breakdown is the best cover of all (‘they can’t interrogate something, someone, who doesn’t have a mind’). Double agents, double lives, shivering on street corners, not sure if you’re the Man or waiting for the Man, but you’re always waiting… Cold war and junkie Cold, cold efficiency (‘I am warm on the outside, what people see. Warm eyes, warm face, warm fucking fake smile, but inside I am cold all the time, and full of lies’), the duplicities and self-deceptions of the addict doubling those of the spy in deep cover.

Mark Fisher, ‘Mors Ontologica’

Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women’s movements have constructed ‘women’s experience’, as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991)

These extracted sentiments cast a weird light on some recent examinations of Science Fiction and international politics. An emergent sub-sub-field its own right, the interface of SF and IR at first sight signifies the expanding openness of the discipline to the hitherto forbidden joys of aesthetics and culture [1]. Yet, despite nods to various low-political concerns, the more obvious, and better-worn, link between this social science and that culture is to trace a commonality of geo-political units and event cycles. Space opera empires, inter-galactic wars and cross-species diplomacy order the day in a game of analogues.

This incipient tendency indicates a rather different path than that suggested by the self-image of the cultural turn. Despite PTJ’s nod to Le Guin last week (and Lauren Wilcox’s paper on gender in Battlestar Galactica at ISA in New Orleans), the general mood music is decidedly masculinist. The authors and cultural products of note (Kim Stanley Robinson; Arthur C. Clarke; Isaac Asimov; Star Trek, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica) share some common characteristics. The emphasis is on scale, technology and the detail and internal consistency of imagined worlds. The relevant comparisons with IR thus become to ideas of empire and hegemonic stability theory; or civilian-military relations in an over-extended imperium; or of civilizational clashes. SF becomes like IR as social science in that both posit counter-factuals and maintain their authority by doing so in logical ways under appropriate scope conditions. Hence Iver Neumann’s comment at LSE that SF has helped him in coming up with contingency scenarios in work for the Norwegian government.

These interpretations aren’t merely managerial or problem-solving. For many, SF seems to allow an imaginative element that they might not otherwise incorporate in their work. The SF-infused scenario planning is not a linear one and the logical coherence of worlds matters at least in part because it throws discontinuity and difference into sharper relief. That said, a kind of speculative fiction thus rather drops out of the picture.

Take perhaps the referent for SF/IR: Star Trek. Its specific historical placement famously illustrates a basic SF wager: the ‘first’ inter-racial kiss on American TV would never have been possible if it had been set in a ‘realist’ 1960s USA. But the underlying grammar of the series is some way from this emancipatory universalism. Indeed, Star Trek fairly uniformly reproduces a racial and civilizationist imaginary, with ‘humans’ themselves abolishing hunger, poverty and war while strange-looking others embody our extracted traits: violence for the Klingons; logic for the Vulcans; cunning for the Romulans; greed for the Ferengi; limitless conquest for the Borg; etcetera. In the encounters with these anthropomorphised strangers lived out by our future selves, humanity is forced back into its old ways, warring and intervening (against the best ideals of the prime directive!) across the stars, the whole thing shot through with the exotic sexual adventurings of Captain James T. Kirk.

Star Trek similarly embodies much of the technological determinism that literary types find so vulgar in SF. Its post-scarcity possibilities result from the instant replication of foods and not because of any fundamentally social reorganisation. This focus reproduces a familiar one for connoisseurs of speculative fiction and fantasy: that between hard and soft forms. The hard stuff is all ray-guns and warp drives. Detail is everything, ideally via speculations derived from the latest advances in physics and robotics. A distinctly science fiction.

The soft stuff plots inner space. The tech element is far from absent, whether time-travel in Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man, Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time or Russ’s The Female Man; clones and mechanised humanoids in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; or near-instantant transportation and communication in Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish cycle or Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. But these devices frame investigations into alienated selves, consumerist dystopias, reversed gender orders and bio-chemical and bio-mechanical nightmares that rework the possibilities of being. For those who find it hard to relate to anything that doesn’t feature gun battles and car chases (if now merely transposed to an astral register) this lineage hardly counts as SF at all.

The narrative entry point in the soft SF of both The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Dispossessed is indeed also diplomacy, and tentative cultural (mis)understanding, in the discovery of alternate worlds. Yet the themes which make up that communal difference (most prominently a dissolution of gender binaries in The Left Hand Of Darkness and of hierarchy in The Dispossessed) are both more personal and more political than the rise and fall of the Galactic Federation of Star Wars, with its cut-and-paste identities (hooked-nose merchant, fiesty princess, arrogant rogue-hero, adventuring child-man, treacherous African-American frenemy, etcetera).

Like all initial distinctions, this separation between hard and soft speculative fiction is unsatisfactory. At its worst it only reproduces the high/low binary, now marginalising the popular stuff in favour of the ‘advanced’ and serious. The internal dialogue of modernist fiction, but with trimmings. The co-option of some of the more shining representatives of SF is typical of this process (by the way, Slaughterhouse Five is a work of science fiction, as are Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World). Like Fredric Jameson, China Miéville resists this condescension at the moment he identifies it:

[I]f the same journal that contained an article on Eliott or Loach contained pieces on Kafka or Bulgakov, it is difficult to imagine any objections. As ‘high’ culture, these authors are ‘worth writing about’, because their ‘seriousness’ – their canonical status – somehow subsumes their fantastic mode.

Miéville himself should be rather a poster-boy for the SF/IR cross-over. Recipient of the Hugo and three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award, he could hardly be closer to the mechanical (steam-punk) heart of contemporary speculative fiction. He also happens to hold a PhD in International Relations. The strange, Miéville-shaped hole in these discussions is itself instructive. IR knows itself to be several decades behind all the trends, whether in post-structuralism, practice theory or its understanding of science. SF is no exception, and the curiously narrow and retro tone of current examples speaks to an almost wilful retreat into some comforting realities (or, better, some comforting illusions). Michael Moorcock famously characterised much of fantasy writing in these terms, savagely citing J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire as ‘that Surrey of the mind’:

The sort of prose most often identified with ‘high’ fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies. It is soft…Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour [Tolkien] sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo… They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.

Could we not read at least some SF/IR through this lens? It is no longer sustainable, or at the least no longer uncontroversial, to focus only on the dealings of generals and statesmen in the discipline. That kind of work will now draw charges of elitism, agentic bias and contemporary irrelevance. But in the imagined worlds of inter-species encounter, these stories can be revived. Envoys and Emperors; Spies and Armies. Such is the substance of epic SF: 19th century political science reflected in the stars.

In Miéville’s case, the agenda is more clearly political, but also more narratively complex that what we find in the great SF sagas. The embedded worlds of Besz and ul Qoma in The City & The City raise the spectre of multiculturalism, and the nightmares of its critics, in unseen side streets. Mosques, cafés and scattered offices, where others somehow like us but somehow alien go about their business, as if just beyond the field of vision. No clean encounters in galactic star-chambers between these twinned cities. As with otherly interactions in Le Guin, Dick or Samuel R. Delany, the lines and boundaries are blurred at best. The authorial voice refuses the neatly-potted histories of stellar races trading emissaries. The Others are already here. They walk among us, an implicit critique.

Existential crime in Miéville’s two cities is not about the traversing of borders, which is legal under the correct procedures and outside of the power of Breach (a kind of secret police), even where murder is involved. Crossing is fine. It is seeing and responding to, and emotional reaction and human interaction with, those who should be invisible that brings down the wrath of the Super-Ego. As well worn as this trope now is, all speculative fiction is about the present in some way, but the present offered to us by a Miéville or an Atwood is of a distinctly different hue. And the difference turns out not to be so at odds with that between the disciplinary mainstream and the disciplinary margins of IR itself.

So the mapping of SF onto IR in terms of a shared high politics, if not narrative style, risks merely reproducing those old stories while only seeming to tell new ones. In Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Jimmy and Crake play at ‘Blood and Roses’, a game in which one side tries to win by accumulating the achievements of human civilization, while the other maximises his collection of war crimes and tragedies:

The exchange rates – one Mona Lisa equalled Bergen-Belsen, one Armenian genocide equalled the Ninth Symphony plus three Great Pyramids – were suggested, but there was room for haggling. To do this you needed to know the numbers – the total number of corpses for the atrocities, the latest open-market prices for the artworks; or, if the artworks had been stolen, the amount paid out by the insurance policy.

What a neat analogy for those interested in the politics of this world. But what does all this do for SF/IR? First, it warns against integrating a social science and a literary genre on the basis of shared units or levels of analysis. The commonality is in some senses alluring, but also elusive. Thinking the decline of the American Empire through the prism of environmental degradation in Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle may be good exercise in pursuing two interests at once, but seems to promise no great analytical pay-offs.

Second, it cautions against mistaking fanboy identification for cultural critique. Nothing is more likely to denigrate SF/IR studies than the transparent reduction of things that give us pleasure to things which matter to the study of world politics. Pursuing that course in the hope that it will open academic doors and research institute cash registers seems misplaced: it traduces critique and its victories will be pyrrhic.

Third, it indicates (if only negatively) the possibilities for a more thorough-going, and more imaginatively-satisfying, strand of SF/IR [2]. Treating speculative fictions as utopias and polities (as in the kind of account already intimated by Neta C. Crawford) promises not just neat parallels or clearly divided registers of reality and fiction, but also an engaged (and less self-consciously apologetic) register:

The task of such a theory would then be to detect and reveal – behind such written traces of the political unconscious as the narrative texts of high or mass culture, but also behind those other symptoms or traces which are opinion, ideology, and even philosophical systems – the outlines of some deeper and vaster narrative movement in which the groups of a given collectivity at a certain historical conjuncture anxiously interrogate their fate, and explore it with hope or dread.

Fredric Jameson, ‘Progress Versus Utopia, Or, Can We Imagine The Future?’



[1] Definitions are vexed. ‘Speculative Fiction’ designates that which would normally be considered as falling within ‘Science Fiction’, but with a less restrictive idea of the place of technology. Where Sci-Fi is nominally future-orientated  and/or extra-terrestrial in its narrative, ‘Fantasy’ is more usually a land of monsters and old  (or faux-old) technologies. Numerous works canonical within these sets adjure such restrictions, as do sub-genres like steam-punk, or weird fiction. Yes, the borders are messy. Sorry. The works cited above are all fairly uncontroversially Sci-Fi and/or Speculative Fiction, since most have been nominated for, or won, the prizes which might be taken as marking the official limits of the club.

[2] It seems necessary, if churlish, to point out that the model for this kind of inquiry has already been provided, whether in accounts of Philip K. Dick and Walt Disney, the liberal anti-capitalism of Avatar, the neo-conservative dreamscape read through Le Guin, the android sensibilities of Gordon Brown or the consumerist drug realities of Ubik.

3 thoughts on “Men In High Castles: The Politics of Speculative Fiction in International Relations

  1. Pingback: Race, Gender and Nation in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2011) « The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: IR and the New Space Opera « Chaos and Governance

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