Why is strong fascism missing in screen sci-fi?

In the last post, I went through every candidate movie and TV show I had collected to illustrate that we barely see strong fascism in screen sci-fi.Read about the distinctions amongst fascisms being used in the first post of this series. What we do have is…

  • A few dozen “weak” examples of fascism
  • One that has straight-up Nazis in an ongoing alternate-history dimension-hopping series. (The Man in the High Castle.)
  • One “pretty damned close” (Star Trek Discovery)

Why is this so? Why is strong fascism largely missing in screen sci-fi?

I don’t know the answer to that question for certain, but if you’ve read this blog, you know that that hasn’t stopped me before. Here are my best guesses.

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Of course the first thing we should note is that sci-fi isn’t indebted to show fascism. Very arguably, the core of the genre concerns the effects, challenges, and opportunities of technology/science. Sometimes that means swords made out of cauterizing light. Sometimes that means green-skinned aliens. Sometimes that means software hyperevolving and abandoning its users. There’s nothing that says it must care about fascism.

But, it is a lens through which many readers prefer to do their speculative thinking, and fascism changes with technology, so it still feels like a bit of surprise to be missing.

The distinction may not be important to the story

For example, does it matter to the story that it’s fascism rather than, say, despotism? Or tyranny? Or just a bad guy? If not, the writer may not bother working out what kind of evil it is. It may not be worth it.

There may not be enough narrative time

In short formats like film, showing strong fascism takes a lot of narrative time, and must be fit in along with all the other stuff pertinent to your story. Sci-fi in particular has the narrative burden of explaining the new rules implied by its speculative technology, so doesn’t have a lot of room to also include a bunch of stuff about a political movement. If you’re telling a love story about Space Mooks discovering The Cake is a Lie, it may not make sense to go into detail about the government system wrecking things in the background, even if it informs the diegesis. A caustic boss and violent peers may be all you can “afford” to detail.

In longer or serial formats like television, you have more time, so it makes sense to me that that’s where the strongest example of fascism appeared. I note that in Star Trek Discovery we see evidence of T’Kuvma’s fascism only across several episodes rather than all at once.

Background fascism is tough

If you do go to the trouble to depict strong fascism, you then have the problem of perspective: Do you tell WWII from the leaders’ perspectives? Like Mussolini and Farinacci’s? Or from a perspective more similar to your viewership’s, like a layperson? If you tell it from the fascist leader’s perspective (as Star Trek Discovery has), you’re perpetuating the discredited Great Man Theory of historical events (though I suppose most of sci-fi commits this same error), and possibly building up empathy in the wrong place. But to tell it from the layperson’s perspective means you have to convey how and why the society is beginning to burn around them, and that leaves you with a lot of exposition or taking even more time out of your narrative and away from the lead character’s focus. Neither of these options is very satisfying. I imagine it’s a tricky place to write for.

It may not fit the tone

Fascism is a dark thing with its real-world psychological seductions, politics, racism, and ultranationalism. Fascism operates through violence and that almost always warrants a violent response to end it if the society in which it metastasizes can not resolve it through politics. That kind of violence may not fit your age group or the tone you’re going for. No parent wants their young kids watching “Paw Patrol Very Special Episode: The Pups Fight Fascism.”

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Additionally, investors may want to tone down any realistic violence as they hope to be part of the next hyper-palatable Star Wars blockbuster franchise.

You have to avoid the uncanny fascism valley

If a writer pens something that feels too much like Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, it begins to feel derivative, preachy, or maybe even too on-the-nose to be believable. (If you’d told me three years ago that I’d need to put reviewing sci-fi interfaces on hold to write posts on sci-fi fascism I’m not sure I’d have believed you.)

Audiences who sense they’re watching a morality play instead of an engaging story will turn off, unless, as with V for Vendetta, or even Shadow on the Land, it is obviously the point. And for reasons noted above, those tend to be social fiction or alternate history, not sci-fi.

The fascists have to have their comeuppance

If a story does bother to put all the narrative effort to describing a dictator, and his palingenetic narrative, and how it foments violent ultranationalism amongst his authoritarian loyalists, then something damned well better happen to that dictator over the course of the story, i.e. he is defeated. It would be very depressing for the hero’s journey to play out, but no change in the background fascist government in which it happens. (I am waiting for every last fascist in The Handmaid’s Tale to get what’s coming to them. Under His Eye.) Think of this as Checkov’s Dictator. It can’t just be there and not be used.

Authors hadn’t thought it important

Another possibility is that the authors haven’t been exposed to the dangers of fascism in the real world, (or forgotten about it from history) and so couldn’t imagine why they would want to explore it in speculative ways. 

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A sea change a-coming

So there are lots of reasons why strong fascism may not have appeared in screen sci-fi. But I don’t see any reason that can’t be overcome with diligent attention (and skill), But sci-fi tends to reflect, amplify, and extend trends in the world around us, so I’ll bet we’re going to see a lot more examination of fascism cropping up in sci-fi over the next years. The green light and production processes being as relatively slow as they are, we probably won’t see a rise in strongly fascist stories until the end of 2018 and beyond.

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In the meantime, I’m going to keep an eye on Star Trek Discovery to see where they’re taking that storyline, and of course rewatch V for Vendetta and The Handmaid’s Tale. Not strictly sci-fi, but awesome and on point.

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