Saturday, May 10, 2014

Presentation: No Future for Labour? On the Absence of Unions from Science Fiction

No Future for Labour? On the Absence of Unions from Science Fiction
Mark McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Paper presented at the 4th Annual Popular Culture Association of Canada Conference
Calgary, May 20, 2014

This paper analyzes the absence of representations of unions from science fiction (SF). This absence is a symptom of the genre’s reception and tropes, and jars against SF scholarship as a field for which Marxist theory has provided a “major critical-theoretical lens” (Bould 17, Butler 174). SF shows very scant representations of unions, let alone work as such (Jehmlich 27), and the absence is virtually total in SF scholarship. These absences seem striking for a genre whose “world-building is typically distinguished from other fictional world-building … by the manner in which it offers … a snapshot of the structures of capital” (Bould 4).

The virtual absence of representations of unions from SF, and of analyses of work from SF studies, bears on the two prevailing ways to understand science fiction. First, a “common-sense,” popular understanding of SF reads it as “anticipatory,” as projections or even predictions of future social relations and technologies (Jameson 5). The popular press routinely features articles like “Six eerily specific inventions predicted in science fiction” (Murdock).TK1 But many SF authors and scholars argue, instead, that SF is not a projection of the future, but a reflection of the present (Anders, Doctorow, Jameson). As William Gibson says, “novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written” (qtd. in Wallace-Wells).TK2 However, a third, radical way to read of SF acknowledges SF’s bearing on both the present and the future, and holds that SF can revolutionize the reader’s consciousness. An SF narrative makes its “snapshot of the structures of capital” strange, and subversive, by warping its seemingly self-evident but ideologically structured realism with images of “absolute difference” (Jorgenson 209) that can “foster a critical and revolutionary consciousness [...] a reading of the [SF] novel as revolutionary possibility” (202).TK3 In other words, if ideology is “the Matrix,” then SF can be both the blue pill and the red pill - it can reinforce ideology but it can also enable an escape from ideology by exposing it - by showing the supposed character of things as they supposedly are, and showing how another world is possible by extrapolating differently.

Following this radical understanding, then, if SF provides images of what is possible, then what is excluded is not only not possible, it’s not even thinkable. So in SF’s capitalist realism (Fisher 2009), the presence or absence of a specific social organization - like unions - assumes a special significance. For instance, the cyberpunk subgenre emerged in step with the hard right turn of market fundamentalism in the early 1980s; William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which “focus[es] on the structural relations that define corporate culture” (Brouillette 203), has become “the science-fiction […] community’s canonical text” (205). In cyberpunk, corporations, not nations, are the ruling powers, and among the grotesquely wealthy elites, precarious contractors, and criminals of cyberpunk, we encounter no organized labour - no middle class. The “snapshot of the structures of capital” that SF provides is thus framed more according to the interests of business than to those of workers. This selective framing lets us see in SF both an ideologically structured absence and a muted kind of warning. And this framing reflects not only the influence of cyberpunk, but the longer legacy of science fiction as a genre that has consistently represented collectives as antagonists.

The trope of the collective as antagonist is discussed in Aaron Santesso’s recent article “Fascism and science fiction.” Santesso argues that “certain generic frameworks and structures have ideological biases built into them,” and that “certain foundational tropes and traditions of the [science fiction] genre carry the DNA of fascism […] even [among] liberal, progressive authors” (139). Theorizing fascism as an ideology of patriarchal, “populist ultra-nationalism,” preoccupied with narratives of rebirth and purification (143), Santesso builds his argument around the trope of a “superm[a]n defending a utopian society against dronelike outsiders” (156), a trope that recurs from interwar pulp science fictionTK4 to contemporary, ostensibly “progressive” SF. Santesso observes that the saviour-superman’s counterpart antagonist trope, “familiar to both fascism and SF,” is that of “‘freakish,’ ‘monstrous,’ and collectivized outsiders” (152) … “invasive [and] hive-minded” (156).

The SF trope of the collective antagonist and the historical complicity of fascism and capitalism warrant more consideration than Santesso gives to either: they are closely linked, and their link offers a clue to the absence of unions from science fiction. The legacy of this link reaches back two centuries, to the ur-text of modern SF: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.TK5 As Marxist readers of the novel show, the novel’s antagonist - a reanimated collage of corpses - produced a monstrous image of the working class. “Like the proletariat,” writes Franco Moretti, “the monster [...] is a collective and artificial creature” (85). Following Moretti, David McNally writes: “in the anatomist’s assembly of the monster, [Shelley] imaginatively reconstructs the process by which the working class was created: first dissected (separated from the land and their communities), then reassembled as a frightening collective entity [...] the proletarian mob” (95). This resonant founding figureTK6 thus founded the trope of the collective antagonist, the enemy horde, seen throughout SF, from the Martians of Wells’ War of the Worlds (1897); to pulp SF like John Taine’s The Crystal Horde (1952); to the swarming, insectile antagonists of Starship Troopers and Alien; to the Borg of Star Trek and the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica.TK7

The collective antagonist trope and the absence of unions from SF aren’t a coincidence, but a symptom. The trope of the collective antagonist encodes an ideological disposition against organized labour. This disposition becomes clear in the 1940 short story “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert Heinlein; “Roads” adopts the point of view of a heroic senior manager to tell how he breaks a violent strike. The striking workers are first characterized as an “ominous, discontented [...] crowd”; then as a number - “thirty-seven men arrested”; then as an “outlaw party”; and lastly as “all the bad apples ... concentrate[d] in one barrel.” The story’s descriptions and perspective demonize the workers as a collective antagonist.

This disposition informs not only SF itself but SF studies. In the 1983 essay collection Clockwork Worlds - one of the very few studies of images of work in SF - Arthur Lewis surveys three dominant metaphors of social organization in utopian and dystopian fiction: the human body, the hive, and the machine. Echoing the SF texts he surveys (e.g. von Harbou's Metropolis, Orwell's 1984), Lewis asserts the supremacy of the bourgeois liberal individual over and against the social collective: “What the dystopian writers are demonstrating is that man is not a machine to be tempered and squeezed and set into place as part of some collective enterprise - utopia, the state, society. Men are individuals [] such conformity raises horrifying possibilities” (14). Clockwork Worlds not only reproduces the SF trope of the collective as antagonist, it also maintains a “significant silence” on organized labour (Erlich, E-mail).

In SF itself, this silence on labour organization is not total, though the genre’s trope of the collective antagonist cultivates this silence in its allegorical images of hive-minded hordes. We have identified a handful of SF texts that portray unions as we know them (that is, not as allegorically figured collectives). That we find only a few, and that these few tend not to represent labour radically, suggests these texts are exceptions that just prove the rule. But for a couple of them, a more radical reading is possible.

Three novels use trade unions to develop their settings. In The Windup Girl (2009) labour power in post-oil Thailand is provided by genetically modified elephants, which are controlled by handlers who belong to the powerful “megodont union.” In Perdido Street Station (2000), the first half of the novel includes a subplot about a dockworkers’ strike that the governing city-state violently puts down.TK8 And, finally, in Heavy Time (1992), a miners’ union forms part of the novel’s setting in a near future of space stations and heavy industry. In the denouement, the union, the company, and the government engage in tense and violent negotiations. Overall, these three novels portray unions as a restraint on trade and economically disruptive. When there are labour disputes, repression by the employer and/or state is warranted to maintain production.TK9

A second cluster of three stories—all episodes of long-running TV series—use unions as a plot device, framing them primarily as socially disruptive forces. In the Babylon 5 episode “By any means necessary” (1994), a strike by space-station dockworkers turns violent, and the government negotiator enacts emergency legislation to end it. In the Star Trek Deep Space 9 episode “The Bar Association” (1996), the workers in the station’s bar form a union—and risk violence during a strike—to improve their working conditions.

The third story—which I’d like to focus on—is the Battlestar Galactica episode “Dirty Hands” (2007). In this episode, declining fuel quality and quantity compromises the fleet’s ability to evade the Cylons. The fuel problems reflect worker resistance to Dickensian working conditions aboard a refinery ship. Hiding crucial parts to sabotage production is met with imprisonment and psychological torture. And a general strike is ended by threats of killing supporters and, later, the accommodation of some of the workers’ demands by the authorities.

While strikes provide an engaging plot device for episodic SF, focusing solely on strikes misrepresents and stereotypes the activities of unions. Strikes are actually quite rare events. More often, unions act as a stabilizing force in the workplace, forestalling disputes and resolving problems. Similarly, the recurring notion that unions form only when workers face egregious employer misbehaviour casts unions as aberrations. In fact, unions are a normal part of society reflecting class-based differences in interests.

The public interest is used to justify coercion—imprisonment, torture, threats of death— in all three stories. Yet only “Dirty Hands” provides a nuanced look at the long-term détente between labour and capital. This episode ends with the union’s leader being wined and dined in the president’s luxurious cabin, hinting at the notion that unions are often "incorporated" into capitalism, with minor concessions leaving intact the broader structures of power where employers decide what, when, where and how things are produced (Hyman 1989).

Finally, we have two novels that use unions as a plot device, framing them as socially constructive (or beneficial). In For the Win, Cory Doctorow (2010) describes a near-future organizing drive among workers in the global online role-playing game industry. Although the workers aggressively resist the low, piece-work wages and precarious working conditions imposed by the neoliberal labour market, their demands quite explicitly do not compromise the employers’ control of the workplace or ability to generate profit.

Eric Flint’s (2000) alt-history novel 1632 throws a small modern-day Appalachian mining town back in time to the middle of Europe’s 30 Years War. A labour activist, Flint gives the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) an important political role in the story—providing an organizing structure, principles and leadership cadre as the characters cope with the violent and autocratic world they face. Among the democratizing strategies employed by the town are “committees of correspondence” that disseminate democratic principles (often coupled with the provision of social services such as food, education, protection) to citizens in adjacent cities, creating a democratic insurgency in otherwise autocratic states. While unionization is not accepted by every character in these two novels, unions are presented as a normal part of the world. 1632 goes further, with unionization being presented as beneficial, not only in workplaces, but in broader society, due to the fundamentally democratic nature of trade unions.

The absence of unions in contemporary SF is consistent with the neoliberal prescription for labour-market flexibility, wherein legislative and collective constraints on employment relationships are to be reduced or eliminated to maximize employer profitability (Stevens and Nesbitt 2014, Hyman 1989, Panitch and Swartz 2008). Where unions are present in post-1980 SF, they are generally seen as disruptive—drawing on the collective antagonist trope—unnatural and warranting a coercive response to maintain production.

Where unions win accommodation of their demands, the trade off is that workers accept their subordinate role in society. This has echoes of fascist class collaboration, wherein workers’ inequity is accepted to achieve an over-arching nationalist goal (Mussolini and Gentile 1935). The nature of the accommodation is generally limited to wages and benefits—small monetary concessions capital is happy to trade in order to maintain control of the workplace and the continuation of capitalist social formation.

The significant exception is 1632, wherein trade unions are considered normal and carry out important and constructive social functions. Flint goes so far as to utilize the democratic principles, processes and techniques that underlie trade unionism as a model for democratizing an autocratic society. That said, 1632 valorizes an avidly capitalistic future, seemingly as an important precondition for the emergence of political democracy. And the main character in 1632 (union leader Mike Stearns) exhibits many of the characteristics of the superman savior protagonist trope.

Doctorow’s depiction of unions is perhaps only radical to the extent it eschews the traditional SF tropes that encode fascist ideological leanings; Flint’s is perhaps moreso, to the extent that he describes a role for unions in democracy. But perhaps both novels are more radical in terms of literary production moreso than content: both authors have made their texts freely downloadable in digital editions. This open access allows these texts to circulate widely, as teaching tools for class consciousness and labour organizing. Doctorow and Flint thus bring to the digital milieu the robust radical publishing tradition that hearkens back to Mary Shelley’s time (see Thompson).

As Miéville argues, “to the extent that SF claims to be based on ‘science’ is based on capitalist modernity’s ideologically projected self-justification: not some abstract/ideal ‘science,’ but capitalist science’s bullshit about itself” (240). Business leaders and corporate R&D labs can readily mine science fiction for potential commodities and markets, while workers and civil society can’t nearly as easily consult science fiction for organizing against the increasingly unchecked expansion of capital. Given that SF's "world-building" imagining of whole social systems supplies both extrapolative commentary on present society and futurist projections of possible worlds, the absence of unions from SF demonstrates its complicity with neoliberal hegemony, and suggests that both SF and criticism on it should pay more attention to organized labour.


TK1: On the close comparability of SF and business literature (esp business “futurists” like McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, Don Tapscott) see Gerlach & Hamilton, “Telling the Future, Managing the Present: Business Restructuring Literature as SF”

TK2: For Jameson, the implication of this approach is the understanding that science fiction’s “deepest vocation” is not “to keep the future alive” but rather “to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (6). Echoing Jameson, and invoking a genre-defining figure that will resonate with what follows, George Slusser credits this paradoxically imaginative incapacity to imagine the future as the genre’s main function, and he terms it “the Frankenstein barrier”: SF produces narratives in which the contingencies of the present foreclose on future possibilities, plots “where the present, lurking all along, rises up to avenge the sins of our uncreated future” (71).

TK3: Thus Raymond Williams calls SF “a mode of authentic shift: a crisis of exposure which produces a crisis of possibility” (qtd. in Milner 227).

TK4: (especially but not exclusively in relation to “the anti-communist movement of the 1930s” [148])

TK5: As SF historian Brian Aldiss and SF critical theorist Carl Freedman have influentially argued, Frankenstein serves as a definitive ground zero for the SF genre because it was the first novel to explicitly base its fantastic extrapolations on the current science of its day - the first novel to explicitly ask “what if?” of science.

TK6: (which still casts a long shadow over popular culture, including its representations of corporate business [McCutcheon tk])

TK7: The implications of which I’ve discussed in a 2009 paper. It should be noted, too, that the trope of the collectivized antagonist also historically encodes racialized and colonially conditioned images and anxieties about cultural "others": other ethnicities, foreigners - "aliens" of the human kind. These encodings combine with the class and gender encodings in varied, complex, and sometimes persistent ways that are also symptomatic of labour conditions and markets under what bell hooks aptly describes as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (tk) but we haven’t time, space, or scope to fully address these complexities here, so focus on class and work specifically.

TK8: Mieville has said this subplot alludes to a “long-running labour dispute in Liverpool” (qtd. in Gordon 363).

TK9: More work than is afforded by the scope and resources of this project awaits in more thorough investigations of Miéville’s and Cherryh’s fiction in particular, as well as that of Eric Flint, discussed later in our talk. Other Miéville novels (Iron Council, Kraken) also include representations of labour; and in Cherryh’s oeuvre, Heavy Time is only one of some twenty-seven novels set in the fictional “Alliance-Union” universe (and it is chronologically the first in that universe’s timeline), although it may still be the one most consistently focused on work, working conditions, and organizing. Flint’s oeuvre, too, is highly significant for further research, as it consists not only of his own further writing but also of his cultivation and curation of fan fiction based in 1632’s fictional world. (One particular point of interest in Flint’s work is how his representations of unions as a normal part of everyday life thus also suggest a progressive, pro-labour redefinition of US nationalism; in identifying unionism with everyday American life, Flint is developing in genre fiction the kind of representations Bruce Springsteen has developed in rock music.)


The authors thank the Athabasca University Office of Research and the Athabasca University Faculty Association for financial support in the production of this research.


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  1. While it's true that there's relatively little scholarship on work in science fiction, there are a few pieces about the theme in SF but published not-in-the-usual places that might be of relevance here. The first is Andrew Hoberek's "The 'Work of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States" (Modern Fiction Studies Volume 43, Number 2, Summer 1997 pp. 374-404). Hoberek treats Dick's Time Out of Joint to discuss the ways mid-20th century white collar mental labor positioned itself against both manual labor and entrepreneurs. My own "A finer and fairer future": Commodifying Wage Earners in American Pulp Science Fiction" (Endeavour, vol. 30., no. 3, 92-7) argues that 1930s pulp science fiction magazines were the site of a vigorous and explicit debate among editors, writers, and readers about modernization, labor, capital, production and consumption. I situate stories (Paul Ernst's "The Incredible Formula"), editorials, advertisements, and readers' letters in historical context to explain how the nascent science fiction fandom came to serve this generation of readers and writers as a respite from a world of work that was increasingly alien to them.

    Eric Drown