That has always been here, part two: or politics aren’t a new thing in sf/f — including Star Trek
I get really tired of hearing certain fans yell about politics in science fiction. There are multiple reasons I find it annoying. The most important reason is that all of the sf/f that those people hold up as examples of politics-free sci fi is actually loaded with politics — usually white supremacist, misogynist, colonialist, homophobic politics — which they don’t notice because all that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and heterosexism reinforceses their own beliefs.
The next reason is that these same people inevitably hold up older sci fi works as examples of so-call non-political writing, which was sometimes even more loaded down with a lot of politics than the newer stuff they are decrying — but unlike the other example, the reason they don’t notice this time is not so much because the politics are favorable to them, but because they are ignorant of the social-economic-political landscape that was prevalent in the world at the time those things were created.
For instance, let’s look at Star Trek: the Original Series which broadcast from September 8, 1966 through June 3, 1969. That was a total of 79 episodes while the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War (and protests against it), the Civil Rights movement (including a fight for racial equality, a separate fight for equal rights for women, a separate fight over any rights at all for gay people, and the fight for religious equality for such a distant dream it was laughable).
I mentioned last week that the original Star Trek series had episodes that commented (sometimes ham-fistedly, yes) on the civil rights issues playing out in the real world at the time. For example, the original draft of “The Enterprise Incident” (September 27, 1968) was such a scathing indictment of the real world Gulf of Tonkin events (America’s excuse for invading Vietnam), that the network censors pressed for rewrites that watered it down… but even watered down it was still recognizable as a commentary on the Cold War with the Soviets and China in general, and how that Cold War was playing out in Vietnam in particular.
For another example, the sixth episode of the series ever broadcast, “Mudd’s Women” (October 13, 1966) delved into many issues related to the social and economic disparities between men and women and related topics.
The “Balance of Terror” (December 15, 1966) was an extemely obvious commentary on the Cold War in which the U.S. and allies were deeply embroiled with against the Soviet Union and allies at the time. There were also more than a few bits of the story that commented on the racial aspects of World War II.
And then there was “Plato’s Stepchildren” (November 22, 1968) which involved a lot of arguments with the network censors because Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura kiss! Oh, em, gee! A white man kisses a black woman! How will civilization survive such a thing?
And let’s not forget “I, Mudd” (November 3, 1967) which includes the scene where Uhura appears to be acting out the expected sexist trope of elevating her own vanity above other issues, but instead it is a trick she and the captain worked out in advance, and more importantly, not of the stereotypical sexist tropes related to the notion of a woman doing the right thing instead of the expected thing played out, either. That couple of minutes in the middle of that episode was an incredibly radical political statement for the time, believe me!
I could keep going, but it just becomes a pile on at this point.
Politics isn’t just about squabbles between elected officials. Politics is about public policies the govern the way the ordinary people are allowed to live within the society. That does far more than cause an occasional inconvenience. Politics can and does have profound impacts on quality of life including our health. It quite often has life and death consequences for several groups within the population.
Science fiction has sometimes been described as the literature of change. And changes made in societal attitudes, policies, and laws are certainly a legitimate topic for sf/f stories. The very oldest tales we have the people classify as the roots of sf/f do precisely that. It’s part of the genre from the beginning. And there is nothing wrong with keeping that tradition going.