Sci-fi interfaces and fascism

I have kept a blog about sci-fi interfaces for six years as of this posting. When I began it felt like the world was chugging along fairly well, with occasional needs for pit stops and course corrections, and there was time and space for looking at minutiae.

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Nowadays, when democratic institutions are under assault, xenophobia and white supremacy feel emboldened; where a deeply corrupt family that did not win the popular vote is using their positions–gotten and ill-gotten–for personal enrichment, sacrificing democratic institutions to the oligarchy, fueling constitutional crises, cuddling up to the dictator who interfered with our elections while alienating our staunchest allies, fomenting violence, spreading F.U.D., ripping families apart for political expediency*…

*the list extends, daily, so future readers, forgive how small and quaint this list must seem.

…nowadays, writing posts to analyze imaginary machines can feel not just trivial, but like an irresponsible misuse of time.
I understand that life entails many things simultaneously, but we’re heading in the U.S.A. towards very important midterm elections, so for a while, I’m going to use this platform that I have to do my part and to combine these concerns, investigating fascism through examples in sci-fi interfaces. Yes, I’ll spill some phosphorus on interfaces along the way but in full disclosure, while there could be, there aren’t any. I’ll discuss why later. Right now I have to SMASH SOME BUGS!

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Not me, Starship Troopers

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A surprisingly empty survey: Strong fascism in screen sci-fi

23 AUG 2108 UPDATE: Owing to commenter Mark Connelly’s smart observations, I’ve upped the total to 2. See below.

Equipped with some definitions for fascism, I turned to movies and TV shows that showcased fascism in some way to see what was there. (Reminder: This project focuses on screen sci-fi for reasons.) It’s not a big list, and I’m sure it’s not exhaustive. But I think it was a good list to start with.

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HYDRA scum with a double-fist salute. Captain America: The First Avenger. (2011)

Building a list of candidates to consider

In the future it would be awesome to be able to describe some criteria and have an AI read sci-fi scripts or watch the shows to provide results. I’m sure it would surprise us. But we’re not there yet. So first I worked from unaided memory, pulling up top-of-mind examples. Then I worked with aided memory, reviewing the shows I already had in the scifiinterfaces survey. Finally I looked for shows I didn’t know about, soliciting friends and colleagues and finally augmenting with web searches for discussions on the topic and pre-made lists. I wound up with 33 candidate movies and television shows. Then I went one by one and compared them to my five aspects of fascism. That resulted in a lot of whittling down. A lot. At the end I wound up with only…2 (!)

Limits of narrative

We have to admit upfront that the stories we see in TV and movies exist in larger, speculative worlds, and we only see the parts that pertain to the story. (Unlike, say, a world book or fan wiki.) Some, like Infinity Chamber, are built around showing us only the tiniest sliver of the world and leave it up to us to figure the rest out. Over the course of a longer-format show, like television, we might even get to see a great deal of its world, but we won’t ever see everything. We see and hear stuff that happens. That means we might see some aspects of fascism and even a great deal of hinting that it’s the real deal, but we can’t be sure. So, for instance, we never see a charismatic leader responsible for the oppressive bureaucracy in Brazil, but it might just be that the story didn’t take us there.

There are even some shows with actual swastika-wearing Nazis or even Hitler in them, but in most of these we don’t see evidence of all the key aspects of real world fascism. It’s more like the show relies on your knowledge that Nazis are bad, mmkay?

So some groups or societies might be fascist, but we never see enough to say for sure. These got a question mark in the spreadsheet, and are tagged “maybe.”

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Actual half-Hitler, half-dinosaur. From the Iron Sky: The Coming Race trailer.

The “almost” stuff

Describing why a show is almost-but-not-quite can be quite instructive, so let’s discuss the “almost”s. All of these examples might still fit “weak fascism” as discussed in the prior post but that’s little better than calling them “bullies,” which isn’t that useful.

Not violent

The Prisoner, the late 1960s serial, had some weird recapture balloons knocking people down, but just wasn’t violent enough to count. Violence was a romanticized ideal for Mussolini, and he suggested routine violence was important for (get this) good health. Nazis of course are almost cartoonishly associated with their horrific, at-scale violence. Violence and a fetishization of the military are key to fascists as a means for both their ultranationalism and for pursuing purity and rebirth. It just can’t be fascism without violence.

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I am not a free man. The Prisoner (1967)

Other non-examples

  • Similarly, the society in Minority Report seemed authoritarian, but its technologies were carefully depicted as non-violent. Some were psychologically cruel, but bodily, bloodless. So it’s an almost-counts, too.

Not authoritarian

Fascists are collectivist, meaning they believe that the ingroup of pure people are more important than any individual. If pressed, they’d admit a belief that government should have a centralized power with little accountability, as long as it’s doing its questionable things to the right (wrong) people.

Authoritarian governments are very popular in sci-fi, and very often going hand-in-hand with violence. In this survey, nearly every show was authoritarian. The only way a show would disqualify is if we just didn’t see governmental power in action against its citizens.

The story in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, happened within the context of a space exploration agency. If the individual liberties and pluralism were suffering back on Earth while the Discovery One was on its murderous, mind-expanding mission, we just don’t know about it.

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HAL kills Frank, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Not ultranationalist

Going back through one of my earliest posts on the blog, I was reminded of the weird authoritarian state that Korben Dallas lives in, evidenced by the police raid of his apartment block. The built-in warrant reader. The beacons and sirens. The yellow circles everywhere for placing your hands while police do their policey business. Surely, I thought, this will be fascist.

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I am a meat popsicle. The Fifth Element (1997)

But we never get the sense over the course of the movie that there is a political party that is super into being American, or fetishizing national symbols, or believing that their country/people is much much better than all the others and therefore not beholden to the same rules. If this was just, say, Walt-Whitman-type of crush on a country, it would be one thing. But when combined with militaristic violence and a charismatic leader using strong government power claiming to purify the nation, you get fascism.

Other non-examples

  • The AI Samaritan in Person of Interest is wholly totalitarian, but we don’t get the sense that the AI is programmed to think America is better than other countries. It’s just focused on absolute control within.
  • The Upper City in Metropolis certainly enjoys their class privilege born of the oppression of the Lower City, but we don’t know at all how they feel about other nations.

Not dictatorial

Mussolini and Hitler held their supporters in a thrall with their public speeches. They sold their narrative. They made people believe they really could achieve some lost state of purity and purge society of its evils. They fomented violence. In turn, their supporters had no problem letting them run roughshod over constraints to their power. There’s a good question as to whether their societies would have turned to fascism if it weren’t for these charismatic, untethered leaders. Then we come to Starship Troopers, often cited as being so gung-go military and ultranationalist that it hurts. But nowhere in the film do we see all that jingoism coming from a political, charismatic leader. And the leader is key to the palingenetic narrative, next.

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Rasczak’s Roughnecks get chomped, Starship Troopers (1997)

Other non-examples:

  • THX 1138 and Brazil feature states that oppress by bureaucracy. Citizens have no idea what the power structure is that causes their grief.
  • Gattaca, in contrast, oppresses by every parent’s drive to want the best for their children and the resulting high-pressure meritocracy, needing no leader.
  • Children of Men violently oppresses because of global hyperscarcity, rather than dictatorial fervor.

Not palingenetic

That’s a fancy word, isn’t it? It means relating to rebirth or re-creation. I felt certain that when I watched Captain America: The First Avenger, Red Skull would be an open-and-shut case for fascism. But not so. HYDRA is certainly violent, authoritarian, dictatorial, and ultranationalist in their beliefs. But the movie shows that the organization splintered off of the Nazis because Hitler wasn’t ambitious enough. They weren’t there to reclaim a past glory or return their tribe to its former purity or cull a scapegoat.

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Red skull. Captain America: The First Avenger.

The palengenetic narrative is a key element to fascism because it is the mechanism by which the dictator gets the authoritarian power they want and convinces their supporters not just to hand it over, but to throw it over and ask what more can they give. They do so because of a fear of imminent collapse invoked by the dictator, and the promise of a return to abundance/purity by purging the scapegoat in their midst. Evidence won’t support these claims, and that’s why it matters that it comes from a dictator. His authority is because he said it.

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For this reason I’d also categorize the Empire and the First Order from Star Wars as something other than strong fascism. Weak fascism, maybe. They are (thanks, @artlung for pointing out that they are) ultraviolent to the point of planet-o-cide, so full marks there. But chasing rebels is a police action, an attempt to punish them for daring to rebel. It’s not the same as routing undesirables in the midst, or of reclaiming purity and lost greatness. It has no palingenetic narrative.

This political fairy tale is the thing that sets the citizenry against themselves as neighbors turn on neighbors in a wild fury. It’s what justifies the violence. It’s what justifies the dictator overstepping his role’s balanced authority.

Of course purity arguments wind up with a onion skin problem, where after purging one thing, they just find a next thing to purge, which in turn reveals a next thing, etc. etc. But fascists aren’t really long-term thinkers. They’ve bought in to the notion that there are wolves at the door and a promised land just beyond. All Great Leader needs is more guns and your loyalty, and your troubles will be over.

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President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, from Idiocracy (2006).

Other non-examples:

  • The Hunger Games’ eponymous to-the-death contests were doled out as a tool of control, not a purging of a class of undesirables.
  • The Terran Empire from the Mirror Universe in Star Trek never had a golden age to which they hoped to return. They were warlike because they had only ever known war.
  • Idiocracy is violent, dictatorial, authoritarian, and jingoistic (if not full-fledged ultranationalist) but they have a real problem to solve, and Camacho doesn’t invoke past greatness to demand immediate change.

Now we have noted why these examples aren’t strong fascism. That is not to dismiss them. Any one of those components would be bad enough. Totalitarianism just sucks. Oligarchy. Autocracy. Theocracy. There are plenty of other super shitty ideas about government out there, but the focus of these posts is on this one, because…*gestures vaguely at everything.* Well, there is another reason, but I’ll get to that in the last post.

The not-quite-there

So if those were all examples that were missing a component of fascism, the ones in this section have a component or two that are off a bit.

The comedy nazis

It’s a risky proposition to make light of real world horrors, but I get the notion that humiliation of the dictator sends a powerful message to would-be followers. Iron Sky, Kung Fury, and Danger 5, all have Nazis and, the last two have “actual” Hitler antagonists. These gonzo shows derive part of their comedy from breaking the fourth wall and throwing believability to the wind, so any fascism they show is largely just part of a gag meant to humiliate. It would be tricky to analyze and the whole time we’d be second guessing the intent. And sure, they have fascist characters in them, but it’s only because they are historical figures, rather than any attempt on the part of the writers to illustrate fascism. But for completeness, I have now mentioned them.

I just seem to keep coming back to Idiocracy.

The so-close

There are a few societies where with just a tweak of their circumstance they can be thought of as strongly fascist.

  • The Martian Congressional Republic from The Expanse is damned close, except their nationalism (planetism) is derived from a fear of becoming what Earth is rather than something they themselves used to be. So it’s close but there isn’t a scapegoat.
  • Equilibrium and Fahrenheit 451 read as fascist, but the scapegoats are emotions and books, respectively, rather than a class of undesirable people that need rooting out.
  • The underground city of Topeka from A Boy and His Dog only lacks a charismatic leader, having a bored and bureaucratic committee in his place. If they were more charismatic, I’d overlook their being a triumvirate.
  • Zarek’s rebellion from the Battlestar Galactica reboot seemed like it had everything, but ultimately he was on the other side of a wicked problem, not bullshitting a populace to get them to give over control.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (both films) was more totalitarian, oppressive. It is so close, but doesn’t really use a palingenetic narrative to fire citizens up. It ferrets out dissent for absolute control over them: their behavior, their loyalty, and their thoughts.

The not screen, not sci-fi stuff

There are plenty of fascist-forward, awesome shows like V for Vendetta, The Handmaid’s Tale, and that are in different genres that illustrate fascism, but our focus is on sci-fi, so I have to leave these excellent shows out. The same goes for alternate history texts like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. I know this begs the question of genre, but I have to leave that for another time.

The strongest Nazi yes

The Dick novel The Man in the High Castle is deliberately ambiguous about the source of the alternate-alternate universe audio recordings, so it is more fully alternate timeline than sci-fi. But the television series is hinting more directly that the Nazis are playing with technologies that have them (and other characters in this universe) dimension-hopping. So the TV show is more squarely sci-fi. (Again, thanks to Mark Connelly for the pointer.)

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Now as we see with the comedy nazis, it’s entirely possible to wear the costumes worn by fascism but not embody it or illustrate it fully. But in this case, the show illustrates all the points of strong fascism that I’d identified in the prior post.

  • Violent: Like real world Nazis, Castle Nazis are violent through and through.
  • Authoritarian: Straight-up, strict father, hyper-empowered government as well as squelching of individualism.
  • Ultranationalist: True to form, the Castle Nazis believe their country is exceptional and special and better than the rest. It is part of the source of their tensions with their Japanese allies after they’ve won the war against the Allied forces.
  • Dictatorial: The Führer is still alive at the beginning of the series, and on his death Martin Heusmann takes the dictatorial reins.
  • Palingenetic: True to history, the Nazis are still trying to “cleanse” the Jewish and other undesirables from the population. The Lebensborn program is still underway.

So yeah. Fascist.

Now I don’t want to discount this show, but I do want to contextualize it. It’s entirely possible that the showrunners and writers here are not looking to work through the nature and issues of fascism, but rather being as accurate as possible to the historical and fictional sources they inherited, and in doing so, happened to depict fascism.

There is a difference in sci-fi’s consciously depicting a thing and depicting it as a secondary effect. Take for instance how the Cheronian race in Star Trek, the original series, helped audiences think through race issues. Or how pre-cataclysm Kryptonians illustrate the folly of climate change denialism. Or how Minority Report examined what society will do with strong prediction in AI. I won’t say these kinds of narrative mirrors are better, but they are certainly more instructive than accidental or secondary versions of the same thing. So for my money, in doing this analysis, I’d hoped to see an illustration of strong fascism not wrapped up in historical fascist drag.

Fortunately, there is one.

The strongest non-Nazi yes

So that leaves us, nearest to the center of the bullseye, one show that most shows every aspect of fascism in a sci-fi setting. If you want to look to sci-fi to see this revolting ideology writ there, look to…Star Trek Discovery.

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Star Trek Discovery (2017)

In Season 1, the Klingons who follow Kahless fight to reunite the warring houses and refocus their fury on their lost glory days of fighting the Federation. This B story exhibits strong fascism.

  • Violent: The Klingons are a warrior race, violent as a matter of principle. Their lives are militaristic.
  • Authoritarian: Through their culture of honor, they bow to the will of the leader of their Houses.
  • Ultranationalist: They seek to conquer the galaxy. They look down on other cultures.
  • Dictatorial: First T’Kuvma, then Voq, then Kol, then L’Rell each take control as leader of the Klingons.
  • Palingenetic: In the first season T’Kuvma is explicitly trying to reunite the houses to take back their position against the Federation and regain lost glory. “The Empire’s resurrection” in the above subtitled screen grab.

Only one thing missing: There is no explicit scapegoat that they’re trying to expunge or using as an bullshit excuse to rile up the population. So even this example, that is closest, is still not everything we’d need to match up to the real world.

But wait, you forgot…

If you can think of other examples, be sure and leave them in the comments. I’d love to have a full collection. If you do, be sure to explain, as I have above, how your example fulfills those five points.

So, what have we learned?

That’s the mini-survey of fascism in screen sci-fi. You want a rousing weekend of cinema? Get your hands on these. I’m sure I’m missing some things. I trust you’ll let me know in the comments.

I’ll also note that if you came with me all the way through the almosts, it wound up being a bit of practice via fictional examples in teasing apart the components of fascism, and being able to tell when you’re seeing it first hand. That will also help when somebody is using newspeak to assert that the anti-fascists are the real fascists, here.

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Yeah yeah pal. Sci-fi fans are not morons. We see through your bullshit.
We don’t just watch sci-fi. We use it.

***

Speaking of which, the paucity of examples leads us to ask WHY is strong fascism so absent from sci-fi? And that’s the next post.

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. 

***

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.