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Communism and Science Fiction in a Post Cold War World

James Coote

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I have a real problem with communism in science fiction, both veiled and direct references.

Obviously, it makes a book feel dated, but it also pulls me out of the universe and breaks my immersion in the story. Sometimes to the point where I feel like I'm reading sci-fi set in an alternative history.

Firstly, the fact history didn't pan out the way the author predicts makes me question the credibility of the rest of their ideas. It makes the rest of the book seem like a futurism dead end. I guess that's inevitable for any story set in the near future.

However, more damaging is the way many stories are fixed in a dipolar mindset, as though there have to be two competing ideologies. Even worse is when they are obvious substitutes for capitalism and communism, but not explicitly capitalism / communism but some half-imagined analogues.

I was 4 years old when communism collapsed in the USSR, and since then I've grown up in a world where aside from Turkmenistan or North Korea, with the right visas I can travel freely just about anywhere on the planet. Now that everyone has a mobile phone and many have internet too, it seems rather inconceivable that there might be a great big chunk of the world that is a separate 'rival' doing its own thing

I was reminded about this whilst thinking about Greg Bear's Eon in another thread, but it's something that seems to keep cropping up. For example, I just finished reading Ender's Game and its geopolitics thread, in the context of present day world politics, adds absolutely nothing to the story

Are others who were around during the days of the cold war able to slip back to the mood of the times when they read older books? For me, Science Fiction is about the future, so communism in sci-fi seems retrograde
 

Kylara

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I think it works much better if you studied socialism as an ideology (of which communism is a strand) then you get to see how they take the ideology and mould it to their own ideas and plans...as an ideology communism is actually very utopic, but it is the implementation of it where it tends to fall down and this is used in fiction a commentary on the human mindset - no matter how great the ideology, humans are not intriniscally "good" enough to fulfil its ideas.

I can understand when people who haven't studied political ideologies get caught up in communism being cold war ideas or an outdated idea and always try to get them (with little success) to find a few politics textbooks/writing on ideologies which are aimed not at demanding how it would work and be implemented but on what each ideology is actually about (hence textbook) and then get a much deeper understanding of the ideas used in books. Often they are only used as a means to showing off human talent/failure (see Brave New World) and to look more closely at human nature (see 1984) as well as a fear/commentary on the ideology itself...
 

Ursa major

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I was 32 when the Berlin Wall came down, and this sort of stuff also jars with me. To be fair to those earlier authors, the Soviet Union looked likely to survive for a very long time (just as its predecessor, the Russian Empire, had), right up until it collapsed. That's the thing: one cannot predict the future.

For instance.... In its own (very different) way, the US is a country based on an ideology, but give or take the period during the American Civil War, it has held together remarkably well (to deploy an obvious understatement). And one could have looked at the two countries - the Soviet Union being a ideologically driven version of what was already a single country (and an already repressive one at that); the US being a bringing together of 13 disparate colonies (albeit all colonies of a single country) - and thought that the latter's in-built divisions would have made the US more prone to breaking up.


Oh, and to be doubly fair, I have a similar problem with older fiction set in what was the authors' future, but is in my present (or past).
 

Fried Egg

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Are you talking about pre soviet collapse SF books that predicted a future in which the Soviet/American cold war would persist far longer?

Or are you talking about post soviet collapse SF books that posit a communist future?

In the case of the former, inevitably it makes such fiction appear dated but I don't think that is necessarily a problem or detract from the veracity of other ideas they might have had. SF authors have been notoriously bad at actually predicting the future and I would hold it against them.

In the cast of the latter, again I wouldn't have a problem with it if the author can contrive some realistic rationale of how a communist future might come about (if it's in the near future).

Personally, I'm old enough to remember the cold war, even if only the end of it, and it did feel that the only way it would ever end was in a nuclear apocalypse. It is hardly surprising few SF authors (if any) predicted it would end as peacefully as it did.
 

Venusian Broon

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Firstly, the fact history didn't pan out the way the author predicts makes me question the credibility of the rest of their ideas. It makes the rest of the book seem like a futurism dead end. I guess that's inevitable for any story set in the near future.
I find this a bit of an odd attitude (in a nice way of course). Firstly I don't read science fiction to make accurate predictions about the course of history (I think I see all science fiction as 'alternative history' or 'alternative universe'). It's about imagination and playing with ideas, so it never throws me out; I accept the parameters the authors sets.

In fact I haven't read anything else, fiction or non-fiction, essay or article that has ever really made any good prediction on the big issues and trends in the future.

Invariably, it seems to be the present blown up and exaggerated. What no one can predict is the small changes that are just not present now but make enormous changes to societies and movements.

However, more damaging is the way many stories are fixed in a dipolar mindset, as though there have to be two competing ideologies. Even worse is when they are obvious substitutes for capitalism and communism, but not explicitly capitalism / communism but some half-imagined analogues.
I think humans work in Dualism, a strong belief in us and them, black and white, red and blue etc... It makes for a decisive world, simplfies complexity. At lot of us aren't always happy with how this works out, real issues are grey and impossibly complex and we actually work on a continous spectrum, but I think alot of people like the certainty of an black/white position. Hence I'm not surprised it's used a lot. It's the one thing that seems to be more or less constant in human societies.

If we take political systems, I think again we just get the extrapolations from the present - whether the author wants to make a point about the negatives/positives of current capitalism/(and in the old days) communism or is an attempt at futurism.

it seems rather inconceivable that there might be a great big chunk of the world that is a separate 'rival' doing its own thing
I don't know, China is in many respects just doing it's own thing (not aspects all of course, they need other bits of the world that aren't Chinese).

Are others who were around during the days of the cold war able to slip back to the mood of the times when they read older books? For me, Science Fiction is about the future, so communism in sci-fi seems retrograde
Personally SF for me is about ideas not the future, so I suppose it bothers me less. Hence the quality of the writing is what helps me slip back into any mood, I suppose.

Isn't Iain Bank's Culture a working communism? (i.e. to do so they have replaced all the workers with machines, so that all the biological sentients are equal [in leisure], and installed a vastly intelligent set of AI to control a command economy rather than the excess production of capatilism? I may have read his take on his own creation a bit wrong - and I haven't read much of his stuff for a while - so feel free to shoot me down on this one ;))
 

Kylara

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Isn't Iain Bank's Culture a working communism? (i.e. to do so they have replaced all the workers with machines, so that all the biological sentients are equal [in leisure], and installed a vastly intelligent set of AI to control a command economy rather than the excess production of capatilism? I may have read his take on his own creation a bit wrong - and I haven't read much of his stuff for a while - so feel free to shoot me down on this one ;))
I haven't read this, but it works much like I mentioned earlier - the machines, by taking on the bits that humans would get jealous/possessive about leaves the humans free to just worry about themselves - the set up is always where humans have gone wrong in the past (mostly there were a few working/almost working models on a tiny scale) so the author has given them the ability to get past this bit and move into the deeper territories of ideas and what he thinks is important.

I would seriously suggest reading a book/textbook on ideologies just so you can see where people have gone wrong and what each one actually has as core values (or if everyone is lazy, sometime next week when I am home I can get out the notes I had for my exams on them and shorten them up for socialism and communism and put them up (if I can find them that is!)) because there are lots of things claiming to be from an ideology when in fact they aren't. They are using the term incorrectly as an excuse for what they are doing...
 

Fried Egg

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As I understand it, with Iain Bank's "Culture" novels, scarcity has been eliminated and therefore has no economy (communist or otherwise). There is no need to economise if there is no scarcity.
 

Venusian Broon

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As I understand it, with Iain Bank's "Culture" novels, scarcity has been eliminated and therefore has no economy (communist or otherwise). There is no need to economise if there is no scarcity.
There is demand for the basics: food, energy, shelter, and mostly loads of nice things - created by the needs and desires of a bunch of humaniods that needs to be produced and distributed i.e. supplied. And you need to utlise real assets to provide this (albeit in this system I assume getting hold of material is virtually limitless - hence no scarcity).*

But overall it's still an economy in the traditional sense - just one with limitless natural resources.



* And although scarcity may be banished, can you get any impossible demand fullfilled? If I wanted a diamond the size of a solar system would the Culture provide it for me? Will the demands of the consumers invent new scarcities?
 

iansales

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Twenty years from now, we could be mocking books that don't show the US as a repressive theocracy.
 

Fried Egg

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There is demand for the basics: food, energy, shelter, and mostly loads of nice things - created by the needs and desires of a bunch of humaniods that needs to be produced and distributed i.e. supplied. And you need to utlise real assets to provide this (albeit in this system I assume getting hold of material is virtually limitless - hence no scarcity).*

But overall it's still an economy in the traditional sense - just one with limitless natural resources.
And so how who owns the capital that produces the things that are scarce (in the "Culture")? How is it decided gets what for those things where there is not enough to go around?
 
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iansales

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The Culture is a post-scarcity society and whatever management is required is done by the Minds. There's no need for capital or for ownership.
 

Kylara

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The Culture is a post-scarcity society and whatever management is required is done by the Minds.
This then is still the ultimate problem for communism. Something being in control of the 'distribution of wealth'. Not just money or objects but also knowledge is covered by that term. So the Minds in this would in fact be the ones both ruining the idea and upholding it - they are doing the work and controlling distribution, thus their society isn't completely "communist".

Who controls knowledge in this though? (Having not read it myself) Because knowledge is also a form of wealth...
 

iansales

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Have you read Red Plenty? It discusses, among other things, plan to use linear programming to manage the distribution of resources. Unfortunately, by the time such techniques became usable the system had already been corrupted by greedy apparatchiks and nomenklatura.
 

Fried Egg

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I don't think Ian said it was "communist", only "post-scarcity". If there is no scarcity, the question of communist/capitalist becomes moot.
 

Brian G Turner

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Is Communism dead? 1.5 billion Chinese might disagree.

We may not be experiencing a Cold War right now, but by all accounts the USA is now in decline as a world power, while China is very much in the ascendency as a super power.

The political landscape of the future is going to look different by the end of this century.

Also, we've seen in the UK and US that basic freedoms are being curtailed, not least individual freedoms and political expression. George Orwell is, perhaps, more relevant than ever now.

Neither Communism nor National Socialism should be dismissed as dead and buried, IMO.
 

Fried Egg

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I, Brian, are you sure you're not confusing communism with tyranny?
 

Venusian Broon

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The Culture is a post-scarcity society and whatever management is required is done by the Minds. There's no need for capital or for ownership.
Karl Marx would be proud :)


This then is still the ultimate problem for communism. Something being in control of the 'distribution of wealth'. Not just money or objects but also knowledge is covered by that term. So the Minds in this would in fact be the ones both ruining the idea and upholding it - they are doing the work and controlling distribution, thus their society isn't completely "communist".

Who controls knowledge in this though? (Having not read it myself) Because knowledge is also a form of wealth...
Thinking about this as I was frying one of main characters in hard radiation in my current WiP this afternoon.

There are a number of similarites between the Culture and a 'proper, pure' Communist state - i.e the second is deemed to be classless, moneyless and a stateless social order based on the common ownership of the means of production. Hence my observation.

But of course there are plenty of differences and perhaps this isn't the thread to go through them. Just to say, yes Kylara you've hit the weak spot of the Culture's rational. The big minds managing everything are impossbily good !
 

JoanDrake

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Twenty years from now, we could be mocking books that don't show the US as a repressive theocracy.
And may have to :p

At the risk of sounding pedantic, you need to read more history, particularly of Russia. The feeling of Russia vs the World goes back to at least 1800 and is itself just a modern manifestation of the Heartland/Rimland rivalry, which runs throughout nearly the entirety of Western History. Communist Russia was really just another dynasty of Czars. Russia may not be a superpower today but who knows what will happen in coming decades, as they still have the lion's share of most of world's resources within their borders

Mind you rivals are not always villains, and rivalry is often a positive thing. Russia and England together defeated Napoleon and Hitler

Have you ever read Jerry Pournelle's Codominium Series, or is that just what you're complaining about?
 
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