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Volume 28, Number 1, Fall 2009

Political narratives of science fiction

2009 Prometheus Award Best Novel acceptance speech

By Cory Doctorow

Thank you very much, and a special thanks to the jury of the Libertarian Futurist Society. I find myself in very good company this year, of course, and it’s a double honor to win in a field that includes such books as Half a Crown and Saturn’s Children. It’s really marvelous. I’d also like to thank my wife, Alice, who unfortunately is in the hotel with strep throat, but Alice is one the most patient and understanding and supportive spouses a writer could hope for. I actually finished the last chapter of the first draft of Little Brother at 5 in the morning in our hotel room in Rome on our anniversary. Rather than celebrating our anniversary I had gotten up at 4 to finish the book and by 5 I was done. I woke her up to celebrate. She is an extremely patient and understanding wife who deserves all thanks even as she can’t make it tonight. I’d like to thank my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden who really ushered this book into existence and oversaw it. And also my agent Russell Galen, who isn’t here tonight but between he and Patrick were integral to making the book the book that it is today and the success that it is today.

So I want to talk for my remarks tonight a little about science fiction’s role in envisioning ways of governance and in telling the story that becomes the narrative that drives our politics. It’s one of its most socially important roles, to contrive these situations that make the case for some set of values or another. And that power isn’t always used for good. Obviously we’re now all familiar with 24 ginning up these situations in where it seems moral and ethical for Jack Bauer to stick his revolver in someone’s thigh, pull the trigger and blow a bullet into the meat of it in order to get him to tell him where the ticking bomb is going. And science fiction can also contrive situations in which any kind of authoritarian or extraordinary measure can be made to feel right. Heinlein in Farnham’s Freehold contrives an elaborate situation in which life-boat rules can be justified. The idea that people should have a say in how things should be can be thrown out the window because imminent danger is at the door. And of course when there’s imminent danger at your door all notions of self-determination or consensus or of individual liberty can be thrown away. The situation is itself contrivance.

As John Kessel’s pointed out, in [Orson Scott Card’s] Ender’s Game we have an incredibly powerful and ultimately manipulative argument for the doctrine of pre-emption, where you have a character who is really one of the most sympathetic characters in science fiction, I think, who repeatedly finds himself bullied by people who make him feel uncomfortable and who responds by killing them. And who time and again is made to seem the good guy for having done so, because we’re made to see that if he didn’t kill them eventually they would have killed him, the bullying would have just escalated. We see also in non-science fiction from some of science fiction’s practioners, books like [David Brin’s] The Transparent Society, the kind of council of defeat that holds that our ability to control our political rulers will never allow us to stop them from spying on us, so we should just give up, and nevertheless hope that we can somehow have enough power over our political rulers that we can force them to let us spy on them.

The fact is that you get any situation that you can contrive. All of these situations involve a narrative in which the author has from a whole cloth created a set of circumstances that led inexorably to this conclusion and made it feel like authoritarianism, like surrender, like pre-emption were the right course to take. This is a seductive and powerful way of conveying values, for as human beings we have the infinite capacity to use post hoc logic to defend vigilantism or pre-emption or the naked arrogation of power as something that was somehow necessary or even inevitable. These narratives becomes the substance of our political and social reality.

In the United Kingdom where I live as an immigrant, I’m constantly meeting people who have a narrative about immigration. The story about immigration is really the last place in which people can say things that are ultimately racist but not feel like they’re being racist, who say things like “Of course, the people who are trying to enter our country today aren’t the kind of people like you. You’re the right kind of immigrant. They’re the wrong kind of immigrant. They come from a country with backward values. They come in having told a lie to get across the border, because they want to sneak in and jump the queue.”

Then I say my father was born in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan to Red Army deserters, and I’m not the right kind of immigrant either because they stole their papers and cheated and lied their way across Europe to find their way to Canada and a freer life because that was the only way that they could get there. Ultimately, all of us who are the children of immigrants have a story like that in our background, whether or not we want to admit it.

But, nevertheless these narratives start to dominate the way that we feel about people. Again, it’s a rare week that goes by if you talk about prison life with people in crime that doesn’t doesn’t tell you about how cushy and easy people have it in prison. All you need to do is point to the Amnesty reports and the other reports that have been prepared by organizations like the John Howard Society on the prevalence of things like rape as a means of coercion among prisoners to really make that narrative pop like the soap bubble that it really is. Nevertheless that narrative, because we hear it told so many times, persists.

Story-telling has in its remit to create, abolish, justify or defend a multiverse of political realities. And all fiction has done this from Genesis to Sense and Sensibilty. Science fiction does that explicitly. I actually think that’s the best news that we have about science fiction because it means that it’s part of our toolkit for understanding what the stories are and what they mean. We can say and admit that this is one of the reasons that we write it. And it’s what I set out to do with Little Brother because I see the narratives of authority and of pre-emption and of surrender gaining ground everywhere in the three countries that I call my home—the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Tony Benn, the very astute and really wonderful British politician, a man who renounced his royal title because he thinks that they’re rubbish, was recently on Canadian radio describing the problem of politicians today is that they’ve come to see themselves as managers of the people rather than representatives of the people. I think that this is a really key insight into what’s happened to our political reality.

Technology can enslave us or liberate us, and it depends on what story we tell about it, as to which outcome we get. If we see the role of government to manage us rather than to represent us, then we can defend any number of measures that use technology to be more intrusive and to take away more of our liberty day to day. If we see the role of government to represent us then again technology can be used to expand the ability of individuals to collaborate together to take on some the roles that a manager might otherwise have to fulfill, and to have a truly anti-authoritarian regime in which personal liberty lives comfortably alongside the idea of solving some society’s greater ills through governance. That eschews this narrative of defeatism that says that we have to allow governments to spy on us and that the best that we can hope for is that they may allow us to spy on them as well. So thank you very much for this award.

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