Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Imagining the future of organized labour (part one of two)

List of unions.
This is the first of a two-part blog post about the historical invisibility of organized labour in science fiction. The second post, which will be published in early January will explore recent works that address this notable absence. These articles could not have been completed without the help of science fiction historian Alec Nevala-Lee and labour researchers Mark McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson.
Science fictional narratives are filled with depictions of employment.

Whether it’s Gaal Dornick taking a job with the mathematics department at the University of Trantor, or Robinette Broadhead leaving his job in the protein mines to pursue an opportunity with the Gateway corporation, the genre is rife with examples of standard capitalist employment relationships.

Often given less focus, however, are the rights of those workers, and the means by which those rights are asserted. When it comes to employment, the majority of science fiction offers either utopian visions in which everyone has a share in societal prosperity, or dystopian nightmares in which the elites have all the power and workers are crushed underfoot.

For example, neither Star Trek nor Babylon 5 ever explore the reason why productivity gains of new
The character Robocop crosses a picket
line to appease the corporate masters
of a privatized police department.
In the labour movement, he would be
called a 'scab.'
(Image via DenOfGeek.com)
technologies have not been concentrated into the wealth of an ultra-elite. Conversely, neither Altered Carbon nor Neuromancer offer explanations for why the working class has failed to organize solidarity-driven or democratic responses to societal problems.

Few of us have memories of the might of the North American union movement in the 1940s and 1950s. It was this movement that accorded workers stability and living wages that increased on par with productivity gains. It is probably this era of increasing income equality that made expansive utopian imaginings without explanation seem plausible.

In 1951, famed science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote to H. Beam Piper, one of his regular writers, asking the author to tone down anti-union language in the story Day Of The Moron. He did so not because he supported the labour movement, but because he was afraid of offending members of the printers’ union that his magazine, Astounding, relied upon.

At their peak in 1954, unions represented almost a third of workers in the United States, and it was easy to take their existence — and their action as a counterbalance to the power of capital — for granted. Even employees in non-union workplaces enjoyed gains because employers had to keep up with union shops to retain and recruit labour.

But despite their prevalence in society, labour unions were largely absent from science fictional narratives during the Golden Age, and their few portrayals in the genre are usually either comedic or antagonistic.

As labour activist and science fiction author Eric Flint pointed out at WorldCon76, the major
At Worldcon 76 in San Jose, Eric Flint,
Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Cory
Doctorow discussed the dearth of
labour unions in science fiction.
(Photo by Kateryna Barnes)
contributors to the development of science fiction — from the dawn of the Golden Age of Science Fiction through this era of union organizing and stability — were largely drawn from academic circles or the upper middle class. Despite working for a living, these authors and editors did not see themselves as part of the proletariat, and thus based their narratives on assumptions that their privileged working relationships allowed them to hold.

Arthur C. Clarke’s scientist and astronaut heroes exist in a rarefied academic bubble that’s divorced from more typical job markets. Even when tackling a worker’s revolution in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Heinlein defined the conflict in terms of nationalism rather than solidarity. Ray Bradbury seems to be largely unaware of conflicts about labour conditions. And the Amalgamated Union in Alfred Bester’s classic The Demolished Man is largely a force for ill due to corrupt leadership.

Of all the big-name authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, special notice should be given to Isaac Asimov’s troubled relationship to organized labour. Despite the fact that Asimov came from a working-class background, his portrayals of workers is often problematic and condescending - In Caves of Steel (1954), workers who are displaced by robots are shown to be semi-literate at best, using pidgin like “‘Maybe it’s time the gov’min’ reelized robots ain’t the only things on Earth.”

If his portrayal of individual labourers is dismissive, his depiction of organized labour is actively hostile: In Robbie (1940), the labour movement forms an unholy alliance with religious fanatics to oppose progress in the form of robots; in the Foundation saga, nepotistic labour guilds are in part responsible for the collapse of the Empire; and to make his antipathy more obvious, he wrote the story Strikebreaker (1957), in which the heroic lead character forces a worker to accept employer demands.
A hero to many left-wing science
fiction fans, Isaac Asimov had feet
of clay on some subjects, including
workers' rights.
(Image by Rowena Morrill) 

It is disappointing to note that Asimov, member of the Futurians and an author often perceived as a progressive voice, might have had such a significant blind spot.

Even one of the most labour relations aware works of that era, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s comedic novel The Space Merchants, is far from a paragon. The novel introduces us to the United Slime-Mold Protein Workers of Panamerica, a union that both exploits its membership through unfair fees, and is unable to stand up against the corporation’s might.

The progressive New Wave of science fiction of the late 1960s may have addressed the genre’s blind spots around race and gender, but when the subjects of class and labour were examined, it was usually with a sense of despair. This viewpoint is understandable in the context of the times: after declining for most of the previous four decades, American inequality was on the rise; trust in liberal democratic political institutions was being undermined; and the worst aspects of hierarchical business unions were on full display through such figures as Jimmy Hoffa and Carlo Gambino.

Those few representations of labour-rights organizations are presented with either antipathy or comedic disdain. When Douglas Adams introduces the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the union’s representatives Vroomfondel and Majikthise are actively fighting against knowledge and research. Arnie Kott, the antagonist in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, is a broad caricature of a union leader and is presented as bigoted, corrupt, egotistical, and thin-skinned.

One notable exception to this anti-union sentiment was found in Larry Niven's 1966 short story A Relic Of Empire, in which unions are described as a necessity

Depictions of workers rights and the struggle to defend those rights are few and far between by the
Has anyone from the Occupational
Health and Safety department
completed an ergonomic assessment
 of this power armor?
(Image via TheVerge
late 1970s and 1980s. Employees of the Weyland-Yutani corporation in Alien have little-to-no recourse when it comes to their right to refuse unsafe work. Neoliberal assumptions around employer-employee relations are reflected in more and more depictions of independent contractors in the genre. Johnny Mnemonic is a precarious worker, as are most denizens of the sprawl.

It could be argued that the cyberpunk subgenre is the apotheosis of despair over the state of workers’ rights. In The Diamond Age, the thete (lower-class) citizens have absolutely no rights, let alone employment rights, while workers like Molly in Neuromancer are even stripped of their right to remember the tasks they perform.

In these corporatist dystopias, workers are either unwilling or unable to organize in opposition to these measures, and what few escapes from serfdom exist are accomplished through heroic personal narratives. This view of the struggle for workers’ rights can be seen again in Neil Bloekamp’s 2013 box-office dud Elysium, in which a disenfranchised worker fights an unfair system, but does so on his own through violent action, rather than by organizing his workplace.

Interestingly, even in Ursula LeGuin’s exploration of anarcho-syndicalism The Dispossessed, workers rights are defended in neither the capitalist society of Anarres, nor on the anarchic world of Urras. On the latter world, the protagonist is forced into manual labour due to societal strictures, while on the former he’s part of a labour protest that’s violently put down. In neither world do we see an example of an effective labour movement.

As Mark A. McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson argue in their 2016 paper Resistance is Futile: On The
(Image via BBC.com)
Under-Representation of Unions in Science Fiction
, “The paucity of realistic representations of unions in SF thus has political implications: it reinforces the absence of alternatives to ... neoliberal capitalism.” This observation is mirrored by Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan, “There Is No Alternative.”

The rigid adherence to one paradigm might be understandable in memetic (non-genre) fiction that strives to represent the world as it is, but in a genre like science fiction, which purports to be based on imagination, it is deeply disappointing. As Cory Doctorow noted this summer at a Worldcon76 panel on the working class in science fiction “There is no sentiment more antithetical to science fiction than ‘there is no alternative,’ … what we do as science fiction authors is exactly to imagine alternatives.”

Thankfully, a new generation was about to do exactly that.

Part two of this blog post, covering a renewed interest in organized labour in science fiction in the 1990s and 2000s, will be posted on January 7, 2019. 

Organized labour in science fiction

Organized labour in science fiction

Additional suggestions are welcome.


Business union” is defined as an organization that is legally certified by the government to negotiate on behalf of a group of workers. 

Solidarity union” is defined as a group of workers organizing themselves on a grassroots basis to seek concessions from an employer. 

Guild union” is defined as a group of workers whose labour negotiating ability stems from their near-monopoly on a particular set of skills.

(Note: This list excludes inherently criminal organizations such as the Assassin's Guild from
Discworld, the Guild of Thieves from Robert Silberberg and Randall Garrett's A Little
Intelligence or the Traitor's Guild from James Blish's A Style in Treason.)
Title / Author
Union Model
Qualitative Depiction
Robbie - Isaac Asimov
Business union
Negative depiction - Antagonistic to progress.
The Roads Must Roll - Robert A. Heinlein
Business union (Transportation)
Negative depiction - strike must be quashed violently.
The Man In The White Suit - Ealing Studios
Business union
Negative depiction - Antagonistic to progress.
The Traders (Foundation) - Isaac Asimov
Guild union
(Atomic engineers)
Negative depiction - Nepotistic and anti-intellectual.
Day Of The Moron - H. Beam Piper
Business union
(Atomic engineers)
Negative depiction - Protects unqualified workers. Bureaucratic and obstructionist.  
The Space Merchants - Frederick Pohl & Cyril Kornbluth
Business union (Agricultural)
Negative depiction - Labour union exploits worker.
The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester
Business union
Negative depiction - Corrupt union leadership.  
Strikebreaker - Isaac Asimov
Solidarity union (Waste processing)
Negative depiction - Strike threatens survival of colony.
Martian Time-Slip - Philip K. Dick
Business union
Negative depiction - Corrupt union leadership.
A Relic Of Empire - Larry Niven
General statement about unions.
Positive depiction - Described as ‘necessary.’
Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
Guild Union
Negative depiction - Antagonistic towards progress, interested primarily in “gravy train.”
Robocop - Paul Verhoeven
Business union
Negative depiction - Antagonistic towards progress, endanger the city by going on strike.
Heavy Time - CJ Cherryh
Business union (Mining)
Negative depiction - employer-dominated union.
By Any Means Necessary - Babylon 5
Business union
Mixed depiction - Striking workers are violent, but achieve fairer wages.
Night Sky Mine - Melissa Scott
Business union
Positive depiction - Ensures equitable wages.
Bar Association - Deep Space Nine
Solidarity union
(Service industry)
Mixed depiction - Achieves fairer wages, but must be disbanded because it’s “no longer needed.”
1632 - Eric Flint
Business union
(Mine workers)
Positive depiction - Organizing prosperous economy.
Candle - John Barnes
Guild union
Positive depiction - Union provides health, dental and legal coverage.
Company Man - Robert Jackson Bennett
Solidarity union
Positive depiction - Union works to combat inequality.
Cosmonaut Keep - Ken MacLeod
Solidarity union
(Online workers)
Positive depiction - Balances power of capital.
Perdito Street Station - China Mieville
Business union
(Dock workers)
Mixed depiction - Crushing of strike provides background for story.
Dirty Hands - Battlestar Galactica
Solidarity union
(Mining workers)
Negative depiction - Heroic governor bargains in bad faith by holding gun to the head of a worker.
The Wind-Up Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi
Guild Union
(Animal handlers)
Negative depiction - antagonism towards entrepreneur protagonist.
For The Win - Cory Doctorow
Solidarity union
(Online workers)
Positive depiction - ensuring workers’ rights.
Damage Time - Colin Harvey
Guild Union
(Sex trade workers)
Negative depiction - Union excludes vulnerable population.
Existence - David Brin
Business Union
(Child care workers)
Positive depiction - Union is part of positive and functional workplace.
Fortune’s Pawn - Rachel Back
Business Union
Positive depiction - Union provides information to employees.
Windswept - Adam Rakunas
Business union
Positive depiction - ensuring fair wages.
All The Childhood You Can Afford - Daniel Suarez
Business union
Positive depiction - Ensures gains of automation are shared more equitably.
Company Town - Madeline Ashby
Business union
(Sex trade workers)
Positive depiction - Ensures workers’ safety and rights.
Another Girl, Another Planet - Lou Antonelli
Business union
(Duct workers)
Positive depiction - Ensures safety standards in construction.
Sorry To Bother You - Boots Riley
Business union
Positive depiction - Balances power of capital.
Unfulfilled/Bike Parade - South Park
Solidarity union
(Warehouse workers)
Positive depiction - Union fights for safety standards and fair pay.

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Thursday, 29 November 2018

The thoughtless utopia

There are more ways for the world to go wrong than ways for things to go right.

At least, that’s what a careful review of science fiction indicates. It seems it is usually easier for science fiction authors to create a compelling and believable dystopia than it is for them to offer a utopia that rings true. One supposes that if there were an easily imagined path to utopia, we’d all be on it by now.

But these facts don’t mean that when writing stories about utopian societies, creators should be absolved of at least providing some bare-bones explanations of what societal structures have led to the perfection of their imagined nation.

This speculation about social structures doesn’t need to be convincing — Heinlein’s utopian world of Beyond This Horizon suggests that a socialist command economy, gun rights, and eugenics are the secret recipe. Hardly believable off the printed page, but he at least put in some thought about how his world would work.

All I know is that I didn't vote for
Jaresh-Ino to be president of the UFP.
(Image via MemoryBeta) 
What is bothersome is the intellectually lazy utopian imagination, the offering of a science fiction paradise in which there is no thought about how that utopia was achieved.

The United Federation of Planets, as depicted in Star Trek's Original Series and Next Generation is an exemplar lazy utopia. Sure, some handwaving is offered around humanity ‘evolving’ beyond a need for money, but little concrete evidence is offered about how this utopia actually works.

How are the competing needs of different citizen species balanced? How are minority rights ensured? How do they balance the right to privacy with the need for security? These are the types of questions that all free societies must struggle with, and yet in hundreds of hours of Star Trek stories that have been filmed, no solid answers are offered.

Of course, the nebulous nature of the United Federation of Planets offered authors and fans plenty of opportunity to impose their own ideas and ideals onto this world — sometimes to excellent effect. For example, economic historian Manu Saadia uses Star Trek as a jumping off point to explore socialist ideas about a post-scarcity economy in his book Trekonomics.

Another example of a poorly crafted utopia is Wakanda, the high-technology kingdom that is home to Black Panther. How Wakanda became a utopia while neighbouring countries did not is never fully explored.

It is suggested that the presence of a miraculous resource — the metal vibraneum — may be the root cause of the nation’s perfection. But in the real world, resource riches rarely lead to anything like
Supreme executive power derives from
a mandate from the masses, not from
some farcical aquatic ceremony.
(Image via MarvelCinematicUniverseWiki)

If the natural resource of vibraneum had been paired with a democratic governance system, or an alternative inclusive governance model, it would have been easier to buy into the idea of Wakanda, but the country is ruled by an absolute monarch. This would make it one of only seven absolute monarchies on Earth, and none of the others are human rights leaders. To put it bluntly, absolute monarchy and utopia are utterly incompatible.

It is interesting to note that current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has begun to address these questions of governance in Wakanda. One hopes that this new more democratic version of Wakanda may make it to the movie screen one day.

We would argue that Coates’ work on the book is a recognition that a believable utopia would not be based on resources, wealth or technology, but on equitable distribution and respect for the rights of those who live in the utopia.

In short, utopia is in large part a matter of societal institutions and cultural practices.
The libertarian utopia
of The Unincorporated
is compelling (if
unconvincing) in part
because the authors
had the courage to
be political.
(Image via Amazon.com)

Proposing alternative — utopian — societal institutions and customs will always risk alienating a good portion of your audience. Social institutions are inherently about the distribution of power in a society, and therefore the imagining of different social institutions is political, and political arguments will always offend someone.

For the broadest audience to remain unoffended by an imagined utopia, the author — or studio — needs to be as vague as possible. Perhaps that’s why so many high-budget productions — like Star Trek and the movie Black Panther — depict banal utopias that offers vagaries and magic to explain the perfection of their societies.

Utopia is more difficult an construction than dystopia, both artistically and in the real world. No author will ever write a utopia that is convincing to everyone, but those who try should try to offer ideas, and should be upfront about their politics.