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The Wisdom of Science Fiction in the Age of Trump

Forget The Man in the High Castle—The Expanse and The Collapsing Empire have more to say about political resistance than straightforward stories about fascism and authoritarianism.

By David M. Perry


The Expanse, on Syfy, depicts the complexity of staying decent within corrupt societies. (Photo: SyFy)

The Man in the High Castle should’ve had it made. Sure, its launch in the fall of 2015 may have been slightly overshadowed by Netflix’s hit show Jessica Jones, but High Castle did well enough to become Amazon Prime Instant Video’s most-streamed original program in its first four weeks. It was renewed for a second season just a month after its debut, and, by the time season two launched in December, it had been handed the greatest news hook any show about American fascism could ask for: the election of Donald Trump.

In any event, the final product contains neither tips nor encouragement for would-be resistors, nor does it engage with the mentality behind collaboration and acceptance of fascist rule. The bad guys in Amazon’s series — functionaries for the Axis governments in New York and San Francisco — are bad, but not because they’ve been steeped in oppressive ideologies: They’re just reflexively bad. The show engages only on the surface with anti-disability violence: One Resistance leader has a child with Down syndrome, and the chief New York Nazi Obergruppenführer, John Smith (Rufus Sewell), has a disabled child slated for execution — regardless, the show fails to depict how Nazi eugenics manifested and killed en masse. (It does not touch on the Nazi anti-Semitism, or Japanese or American racismundergirding World War II-era societies either.) Season two casually rehabilitates a Japanese police official who gassed, without compunction, a Jewish woman and two children to death early in season one — now he’s just a good, if tortured, man holding back the chaos.

Of course, there’s a time-lag between filming a television show and airing it — often five or six months. If the folks behind TheMan in the High Castle were reading the pollsters in March or April of 2016, they probably thought Hillary Clinton was on her way to a victory. No one knew then that, come 2017, George Orwell’s 1984 would again become a bestseller, and the showrunners presumably didn’t anticipate that millions of people concerned about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies might be eager for a high-concept show about resistance to fascism. And in past years perhaps the show’s premise would have worked. We do love our antiheroes in fancy dramas (take Walter White in Breaking Bad and, I would argue, Sherlock Holmes in his titular BBC series).

But after Trump’s travel ban, American governmental employees now get dressed, go to work in the airport, and engage in what the Baltimore Sun’s Chris Edelson called “inhumane acts” — handcuffing children, separating families, incarcerating people for 20 hours without food. As #TheResistance trends on Twitter to protest breaking White House policies, The Man in the High Castle fails to engage with the “banality of evil.” (Sadly, it’s mostly just banal.) Meanwhile, fictionalized state violence set in 21st-century America — Designated Survivor, the new 24 — can telegraph like agitprop for the expansion of executive authority.

Entertainment’s most insightful titles about resistance to authoritarian and fascist regimes, instead, are currently set further afield, in vast, futuristic galaxies—they’re science fiction.

The Expanse at once captures captures the mood of America in 2017 while depicting some modest victories against repressive forces.The TV series, which has just begun its second season on Syfy, depicts the complexity of staying decent within corrupt societies, even as it takes place far, far away from angry presidential tweets and antagonistic White House press briefings. The series is set a few centuries in the future, when, thanks to the development of a spaceship drive based on nuclear fusion, humanity has been able to colonize the solar system. Humans have exported both old forms of inequality (economic racism, resource deprivation) and also invented new levels of bigotry based on cultural and physiological differences between the “Inners” who live on Earth and Mars and the “Belters” who populate moons and asteroids in the rest of the solar system.

The Expanse at once captures captures the mood of America in 2017 while depicting some modest victories against repressive forces.

The balance between reality and fantasy is a delicate one: The show is futuristic, but solidly grounded in physics. The Expanse also contains an ongoing alien mystery, but the real drama emerges from basic anthropological failings — humans are greedy, and they exploit and then ignore inequality. As a result, the show’s cast of good, complex, humans must do their part to stop a massive war, save lives, and somehow stay physically and mentally intact in the process. In other words, while it’s not about Trumpism per se, The Expanse is just dark enough to match fears about the rise of fascist racist kleptocracy and optimistic enough to be entertainment. Which, after a long day of responding and reacting to tweets from the president, you may (like I do) need.

Author John Scalzi also didn’t intend for the first book of his new space-series, The Collapsing Empire, to reflect contemporary U.S. society. (He writes in his closing acknowledgements, “It just happened to look like commentary because, let’s face it, 2016 was a historically fucked-up year.”) And yet, for readers that pick Scalzi’s book up upon its March 21st release date, the concerns its characters face will seem familiar. The novel centers on a far-flung galactic empire connected by “the Flow,” another dimension that makes faster-than-light travel from system to system possible. The Flow is collapsing, and the empire’s political system, called The Interdependency, is going to collapse right along with it. Will humanity discover just how truly beholden they are to their surroundings and save themselves, or will this catastrophe plunge the species into isolation and destruction? By the end of the first book the problems, but not the solutions, are clear. (The same might be said of the fate of our planet at a moment when the U.S. is governed by a president who said climate change was a hoax.)

The book — especially for people concerned about collapsing food and resource networks and related political chaos — does read like an accidental commentary on the globe’s current predicament. It connects with Earth-bound readers emotionally, even as its environmental subject transports them to another galaxy, and hints humanity may find salvation. That’s one of the advantages science fiction holds in 2017: Maybe Scalzi’s good empress and smart scientists, like the heroes of The Expanse, will be able to find some hope in the midst of epic disaster. Earth’s fate, meanwhile, remains unclear.

Culture, of course, is always entangled with the moment in which it is produced. That can be an asset as well as a drawback. Yesterday, as many on social media were mourning the confirmation of a particularly controversial Trump cabinet pick, Betsy DeVos, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors, N.K. Jemisin, tweeted: “I can’t spend more energy on these evil people. I got a book to finish.” A lot of artists, right now, are back at their desks, in their studios, on their stages, working whiletrying to parse out the shapeof the crises to come. The disconnect between creation and context — the world before Trump and the world in which we live — will slowly vanish as their work gets published and released. Hopefully, whatever grim visions emerge will be mitigated by successful resistance and victories — enough to keep readers and viewers hopeful, as well as wary.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching and reading intelligently crafted political stories set in outer space.