This was provoked by a minor discourse on Twitter which I won’t quote because the original take wasn’t some terrible thing, it was a reasonable idea — I just think it is incorrect. Essentially, somebody was speculating whether the relative popularity of fantasy over science-fiction reflected the current fascist trend in wider society.
I think the answer is a qualified “no” and I think I’ve done the necessary homework.
Let me hit the caveats and qualifications first. Fascists and the far right do love various kinds of fantasy both as genres to be read as fiction for enjoyment but also as pseudo-history to be incorporated into their worldview. The strand of esoteric and occult writing weaves between fantasy fiction and far-right mythologising has multiple roots but as I’ve pointed out before Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race is a common point both in the history of fandom AND in the history of the development of far-right beliefs in fantastical master-races. Racism and essentialism run through a lot of seminal fantasy works and Atlantean myths of lost civilisations (and hence superior “races”) is a common trope within Western high fantasy (e.g. Numenor in Tolkein). The right will habitually scrape off any nuance from that and take these ideas as aspirational (e.g. that the Numenorian were corruptable and doomed to have their influence fade in Tolkein’s mythos is ignored).
In recent years we have also seen an expressly right-wing attempt to claim medieval/dark-age “history” as somehow their “territory”. Likewise, the far right have, with varying degrees of success, attempted to appropriate Norse/Viking iconography and mythology as their own, in much the same way that the Nazis appropriated fictionalised (and Europeanised and heavily mythologised) Indo-European “Aryan” iconography and history. Fascism likes the past and it likes it in a mythologised form which requires a degree of fictionalisation. Heck, the very name comes from the desire to appropriate Roman history. We can throw mythologised Spartans into the mix as well, along with a right-wing resurgence of interest in pre-war pulp sword & sorcery.
Fascism tells lies about the past and hence prefers fictionalised versions of the past and that is easiest to do within the genre of fantasy.
So, there is undoubtedly a long-running interest in the genre of fantasy within the far-right and fascism. It’s a genre where manly men can slay evil semi-humans. Fascists are going to like that when (and if) it happens but is not something we see in all seminal works of fantasy.
However, that’s not the question at hand. The question at hand is the relative dominance of fantasy over science fiction. It would be easy to portray fantasy as backwards looking and science fiction as forward-looking and hence one as inherently regressive and one as inherently progressive. We could even pick out moments in science fiction history such as the Futurians or the New Wave, where progressive writers have used science fiction to either envisage a better future or to warn of political dangers via dystopian fiction.
So, case closed! Fantasy is right-wing and sci-fi left. I’ve disproved myself and with all the receipts to boot. No.
One person’s dystopia is another’s set of aspirational goals. There are many examples but there is no better personification of this capacity of science fiction to blur dystopias than one man: Judge Dredd.
Dredd has been striding through British comics since the 1970s and part of his longevity is you never know what kind of story you are going to get. Dredd is a satire of brutal policing, a celebration of the ‘Dirty Harry’ cop-who-gets-things done archetype, and he is the kind of implacable action hero you need when faced with an existential threat. Dredd is both “copaganda” and a warning at the same time. However, unlike Marvel’s vigilante The Punisher, Dredd has managed to maintain his dual existence without being wholly and unironically adopted by the right.
The ironic, satirical aspect of some dystopian science fictional settings can just as easily be subsumed by the right as aspirational, as the right can appropriate fantasy settings. The use of War Hammer 40K images to present Donald Trump as a heretic-killing god-emperor from 2015 to 2020, was prevalent in MAGA circles. Not unlike the use of Punisher imagery by US police officers, the images involve repurposed irony. Both The Punisher comics and the War Hammer 40K game setting can be enjoyed by people on the centre and the left because of a degree of ironic separation from the values of characters in the fictional setting and reality. The far-right employed a different mode of irony — an exploitation of the ambiguity of sincerity in the absurd and over-the-top imagery.
I could continue digging into right-wing and left-wing elements in speculative fiction but firstly people better grounded in literary criticism can do a better job of this and secondly, it still wouldn’t resolve the matter. Sure, we can have fascist elements in science fiction (Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for example), we can have satires of fascist elements in science fiction (Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers for example) and we can have progressive elements in fantasy (waves at Ursula Le Guin just for starters). Fantasy and science fiction are twin genres with a huge overlap because they allow writers to re-imagine political, cultural and social settings even to the extent of new languages whether they be Sindarin or Klingon.
There is a different way of looking at this question. Within the arena of speculative fiction, how has the American far-right chosen to express itself? This is a different question than what I examined above. The appropriation of Pulp, the use of the Punisher Logo, the “Molon Labe” in gun forums, the Sonnerand emblazoned weapons street thugs & mass murderers, the niche sub-culture of loons who think Middle Earth was real etc, is primarily about how the far-right has consumed and appropriated aspects of history and culture. However, what kind of fiction has the right sort out to express the ideas of a resurgent fascist/movement?
The two most influential works of fiction for the modern right are both near-future/alt-history works that imagine progressive/liberal aspects of the modern world as dystopian and which require a violent overthrow or civil war. William Luther Pierce‘s 1978 novel The Turner Diaries was a direct inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombing, the second largest terrorist act in the US. Jean Raspail‘s 1973 French novel The Camp of the Saints has been almost as equally inspirational for right-wing violence as The Turner Diaries. Both novels use speculative fictional elements of dystopia, alternate history and future history to role-play methods of right-wing violence and road-map a route to a fascist society. They are just two of the most notable examples of this sub-genre, which has varieties with different degrees of overt racism but which play out the race-war/helter-skelter/boogaloo fascist eschatology for Western democracy. William S Lind approached the same idea in non-fiction and also in fiction with a more paleoconservative veneer in the novel Victoria: A Novel of 4th Generation War. Lind’s fiction and non-fiction were reprinted by Castalia House, the publishing house established by paleoconservative/alt-right/nationalist/etc Vox Day.
Vox Day does at least give us a counter-example of an expressly far-right high fantasy series (sort of) with his own Throne of Bones. However, such examples are thin and far between. More typical of the far-right expression in SF&F is the Baen/Castalia published Tom Kratman. Ideologically, Kratman describes himself not as a fascist or as a libertarian but as an advocate of timocracy: a form of government where voting and political participation is limited to a subset of society. Kratman has written works that cover near-future civil conflict and also works of military science fiction in which martial values and timocratic principles come into play along with crude critiques of progressive politics.
Military science fiction sits adjacent to the far-right love of near-future conflict. It retains science fiction’s capacity to be, essentially, about anything, so there are plenty of non-fascist and anti-militaristic examples of the sub-genre. However, it is also the ideal playground for fascistic (or “timocratic”) expression. The type-defining example of Mil-SF in the timocratic style is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in which citizenship is limited to those who have engaged in some kinds of national service (not necessarily in the military but it is that aspect that has made it beloved in some sections of the right).
Mil-SF is also an arena in which the libertarian-paleoconservative-AltRight-white nationalist has played out in fiction. At one end we have more expressly hyper-individualist works by authors like Michael Z Williamson, we have more paleoconservative (and seminal and mainstream) works by Jerry Pournelle, works by timocratic Tom Kratman and then more expressly white nationalist works published by Castalia. Of those authors, only Williamson hasn’t been published by Castalia (I think).
Fantasy is a genre which the far right uses to engage with a distorted view of the past. However, science fiction, specifically in the form of near-future/alt-history and MilSF is the preferred genre for the far-right to express its aspiration and role-play violence. This latter point is quite literal, as we have discussed here before, near-future thrillers have been used by far-right spree killers to quite literally identify victims and plan out murders that the writer then commits.
My broader point is that there isn’t an aesthetic or genre shield against fascist appropriation nor are genres inherently ‘contaminated’. You aren’t going to catch fascism from watching Game of Thrones but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the elements in mainstream fiction that fascists may draw comfort from.