The politics of science fiction and fantasy series may seem like a frivolous topic at a time when we have so many serious real political problems. But it’s nonetheless worth considering, if only because far more people read science fiction novels, and watch genre movies and TV series than read serious nonfiction literature on political issues. Besides, the politics of imaginary worlds is a lot more fun to contemplate than the dismal real-world political scene.
And so, without further ado, here are some thoughts on the politics of several major science fiction and fantasy series—chosen partly because of their popularity, but partly also because they are among my personal favorites.
Set on a strategically located space station that seeks to bring together warring powers, Babylon 5 is perhaps the most underrated science fiction TV series of the last several decades. Its politics are vaguely left of center, but often hard to pin down.
Yet one noteworthy theme does shine through: the dangers of nationalism. Otherwise admirable characters such as Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari and Narn leader G’Kar end up causing enormous harm because of their single-minded desire to increase the power and prestige of their peoples.
Londo is so intent on making the Centauri Republic great again that he seals a dangerous bargain with the nefarious Shadows that ultimately results in the death of millions and the devastation of his homeworld. Outbreaks of nationalist fervor also lead to repressive and counterproductive policies in the Earth Alliance. It’s a lesson worth revisiting in the age of Donald Trump, which has also seen a resurgence of nationalism in Western Europe, Russia, and elsewhere.
The original 1970s TV series was remade in the 2000s. Both versions focus on the survivors of twelve human colony worlds that have been devastated by an attack by the Cylons, and both feature many of the same characters. Yet the original series and the remake are otherwise fundamentally different.
The former reflects a conservative response to the Cold War: the humans fall victim to a Cylon surprise attack because they were influenced by gullible peaceniks; the survivors’ military leader, Commander Adama, is almost always far wiser than the feckless civilian politicians who question his judgment. Concerns about civil liberties and due process in wartime are raised, but usually dismissed as overblown.
By contrast, the new series reflects the left-wing reaction to the War on Terror: the Cylon attack is at least partly the result of “blowback” caused by the humans’ own wrongdoing. The series stresses the importance of democracy and civilian leadership, and condemns what it regards as dangerous demonization and mistreatment of the enemy—even one that commits genocide and mass murder.
Both the original series and the new one have many interesting political nuances, and both have blind spots characteristic of the ideologies they exemplify. The sharp contrast between the two makes them more interesting considered in combination than either might be alone. They effectively exemplify how widely divergent lessons can be drawn from the same basic story line.
Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire
George R.R. Martin’s massive, as yet unfinished, book series has spawned a highly popular HBO TV series. Both focus on the struggle for the throne in the fictional continent of Westeros. While the series addresses a range of political issues, its perspective on them is not easily classified, at least not along conventional right-left lines. The one point that comes through repeatedly is Martin’s skepticism about political elites.
Nearly all the contenders for the throne of Westeros and the rulership of its various regions can be divided into the outright evil (such as the psychopathic King Joffrey) and the well-intentioned, but still disastrous, such as Robb Stark. Even relatively sympathetic elite characters turn out, on closer inspection, to care far more about the honor and prestige of their noble houses than the actual well-being of the people. The Starks, with whom most readers sympathize, seem to be a key example of the latter pattern.
The one major potential exception to Martin’s negative view of elites is Daenerys Targaryen, the warrior queen seeking to restore a dynasty that was overthrown years before the series began. In the course of her campaign to seize the throne, she frees thousands of slaves, and takes other measures to increase the welfare of ordinary people. Especially in the TV series (which has gone farther in time than the books), there is evidence that she intends to reform government for the better, not just seize control of it for her own purposes.
But even Daenerys’ record is far from unequivocally a good one. Critics such as Bryan Caplan argue that her wars are counterproductive, ultimately causing more harm than good. While I think the criticism is overblown, the jury on this issue is still out, its resolution awaiting Martin’s completion of the series.
In the meantime, the rich ambiguities in Martin’s vision enable readers with different views to put their own gloss on the story. Libertarians will interpret his cynicism about elites as a critique of government power generally. But others might point to the fact that the governments in question are undemocratic. If the rulers of Westeros had to win election at the polls, perhaps they would do more to promote the interests of the people.
The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy and the movies based on it are subject to multiple interpretations.
In the far future, what’s left of a post-apocalyptic United States is ruled by a tyrannical central government—the Capitol—that oppresses and exploits the twelve subordinate districts of the nation of Panem. Every year, each of the districts must send two teenagers (a boy and a girl) to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised game show where they fight each other to the death until only one survives. The government uses the Games to entertain the public and divert their attention away from its oppressive nature, while also reminding the districts that any attempt at rebellion is doomed to failure. Main character Katniss Everdeen ends up in the Games after she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who was chosen in the selection lottery.
Many have interpreted the series’ message as libertarian, or at least anti-government conservative. After all, the plot focuses on the oppression of outlying provinces by a distant and uncaring central government. The anti-government message is further driven home by the fact that rebel regime opposing the Capitol—led by President Alma Coin of District 13—ultimately turn out to be just as bad as the Capitol’s President Snow. This is one of several aspects of the story that strongly suggest that the danger of oppression is inherent in the nature of government, not merely a result of having the wrong people in power.
But the series is also subject to a left-wing interpretation. The sybaritic ruling class of the Capitol and their oppression of the twelve districts can be seen as a classic leftist parable of the oppression of the poor by the rich. The game show-like nature of the Hunger Games can be interpreted as an indictment of commercialism. On this view, perhaps the true way forward for Panem is a government that cracks down on commercialism, redistributes wealth to the poor, and gives everyone free food and health care.
The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece is probably the most influential fantasy series ever. Tolkien’s strong suspicion of government power permeates the story. The Ring of Power after which the book is named allows the wielder to control the will of others and eventually corrupts himself as well. It is a metaphor for political power. Significantly, not even good people like the wizard Gandalf can be trusted with the Ring. If they try to use it, they will inevitably be corrupted by it. The only way to eliminate the threat posed by the Ring is to destroy it. It cannot be used for good. This view stands in sharp contrast to the more common belief that political power can be a force for good if only it is wielded by the right people.
Even more explicitly antigovernment is the symbolism inherent in the chapter entitled “The Scouring of the Shire.” When the secondary villain Saruman temporarily takes over the Shire (homeland of the hobbits), he and his henchmen institute a system of “gathering and sharing” under which the state expropriates the wealth of the population and transfers it to politically favored groups. The episode was likely inspired by the wartime rationing system that the left-wing Labor Party government continued even after World War II. More broadly, it represents Tolkien’s critique of socialism.
In a letter to his son written during the dark days of World War II, Tolkien wrote that his “political opinions lean more and more to anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs).” He went on to say:
The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing around other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”]
Tolkien was not a pure libertarian, and The Lord of the Rings also reflects his traditionalist conservative fear and suspicion of industrialization and modern technology. Sauron and Saruman’s ugly manufacturing facilities exemplify the author’s distaste for the degradation he believed the Industrial Revolution had brought to England.
Star Wars and Star Trek
Fear not! I haven’t forgotten about the two most popular science fiction franchises of modern times. I do not cover them in detail here because it would be impossible to do so in such a short space.
But for those interested in boldly going to check out what I think of these galaxies far, far away, I discussed the politics of Star Wars here, and Star Trek here.