Episode 2: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy Kehrli
Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the meaning of science fiction. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] And I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science. This podcast is going to be the two of us geeking out about books, movies, TV shows, comics, and why it all matters.
Annalee: [00:00:20] And you’ll be able to find us every two weeks on iTunes, Stitcher and anywhere else that fine podcasts are made available.
[00:00:30] Intro music plays. (Guitar riff with organ synth).
Annalee: [00:00:39] One of the things that I’ve been really obsessing about for the last couple weeks, and I know I’ve chewed your ear off a lot about this already a lot, Charlie is the fact that the Russian interference in the US elections and the ongoing sort of Russian bot drama on Facebook and Twitter feels science fictional. It feels like we’re at a point in history where a lot of the stuff that we used to fantasize about in science fiction in the mid-20th century is now true, and that’s kind of a revelation for a lot of people. I don’t mean that in a kind of oh, Trump is pretending it’s not real. I mean that a lot of us are genuinely surprised even though we kind of suspected it that robots are basically influencing our political beliefs.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:31] Yeah, and the walls of reality are sort of breaking down under this onslaught of unreality created by these pre-programmed bots that spread their own version of events. It is a very science fictional scenario in which it feels sort of like a Philip K. Dick novel, or some kind of 1960s kind of head-trip kind of movie with lots of swishy, swirly lights and colors. You know?
Annalee: [00:01:56] I mean, it’s really—it’s a little bit Hunger Games, too, although less overt. That’s what’s kind of interesting about this is it’s not the kind of propaganda which we’re used to, which I do think is more of a Hunger Games model.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:10] Yeah, it’s like the blending of social media and the kind of Hunger Games style propaganda, which is the Entertainment-Industrial Complex being turned towards propaganda and just a general sense of nothing is real, let us bombard you with weirdness.
Annalee: [00:02:26] It really was brought home to me when—after the shooting at the Florida high school, suddenly Russian bots were being—journalists were tracking how Russian bots immediately jumped into the fray with their own hashtags and were really trying to influence the conversation. And we know now from the FBI report that there’s an incredibly sophisticated operation behind these bots. There’s actually people, it’s not just bots kind of running wild, but people are thinking very carefully about how to influence American opinions using Twitter and Facebook and a couple of other places.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:12] It’s a really sophisticated social engineering system that targets our kind of prejudices and week points and divisions with surgical skill. It really shows that you can get people to believe all kinds of things that play to their prejudices, which is something that science fiction has warned us about for a long time. I think science fiction has a long track record of warning that human bias and human ignorance can be weaponized, and I think we’re seeing that now in a really new way. It is very science fictional and scary.
Annalee: [00:03:42] It’s funny because we’ve all had this model in our heads from the novel 1984, which it’s kind of a cliché to bring it up in this context. But, it’s true, it’s basically one of the premiere science fiction novels, or science fiction stories about propaganda and how it works. And it’s also, as many people have pointed out, a kind of early social media nightmare.
1984 Clip: [00:04:08] Forces of darkness. The treasonable maggots who collaborate with them must, can, and will be wiped from the face of the Earth. We must crush them. We mush smash them. We must stamp them out!
Annalee: [00:04:25] The telescreen talks to you, and you can talk to it. And it is true that it’s intended to be basically television, but it’s interactive television. It’s a surveillance device. It’s not just something that is dumb in your room that you watch. So, I feel like there are a lot of—there’s a lot of models that we get of how propaganda will work from that novel in the mid-century. There were also science fiction writers who were working specifically with intelligence agencies to create psychological warfare, and famously the science fiction author known as Cordwainer Smith who’s probably best known for his short story called Scanners Live in Vain, which you can find for free online. I highly recommend you read it. It’s really intense. It’s about people who go on deep space missions and sort of what it does to their minds. But, he worked for US intelligence agencies during WWII under his real name, Paul Linebarger, and he wrote a book called Psychological Warfare that was used by the military. And it was used to confuse troops overseas that were fighting on the side of the Japanese, and that were easily able to be swayed in some ways by propaganda written in their own language. So, he—science fiction helped create this subtle propaganda that we’re seeing now from Russia.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:03] Yeah, and I just want to bring it back to sort of Philip K. Dick and this whole sort of strand of 1960s science fiction. I think that the classic mode of propaganda is that it will dehumanize us and the combination of universal surveillance and themes like that the loudspeaker spitting out all these slogans at us will rob us of our individuality and turn us into bald pajama-wearing conformist drones. But, what actually happens is that it targets us very individually, and this notion of reality kind of falling apart is something that’s very individualized and aimed at taking people apart on the personal level in order to make them vulnerable to control. I think that’s a very different kind of thing that you see in some of this trippy ‘60s stuff, like Philip K. Dick. Some of Philip K. Dick’s novels, but also some other stuff.
Annalee: [00:06:52] I love that idea of a sort of a personalized propaganda, because that is what we’re getting on Facebook. We’re seeing that people were specifically targeted in a very granular way. And it isn’t that loudspeaker model, which, again, not to keep picking on Hunger Games, but I feel like that’s kind of where Hunger Games leaves us, is with the feeling that there’s going to be propaganda coming to us from one place, from The Capital. And it will be broadcast on loudspeakers or on television and we will all see the same propaganda, and that’s not what’s happening. We’re not seeing that.
Hunger Games Clip: [00:07:35] This is Capital TV.
Since the dark days our great nation has known only peace. Ours is an elegant system conceived to nourish and protect.
Annalee: [00:07:49] The other thing about it is that propaganda in the mid-20th century when Cordwainer Smith was coming up with Psychological Warfare, was always viewed as being kind of dreary and depressing. Like, that’s what we see in George Orwell, too. Where it’s this kind of, ugh, they’ve taken away all the pretty parts of language, and they’re just lying to us. But, that’s not what propaganda is. It’s actually super entertaining, and that’s what I loved about the episode of Black Mirror called The Waldo Moment.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:24] Right. And that’s such a great episode and it’s about this guy who creates this sort of cartoon character who he can control through a little microphone and it’s kind of like—it’s almost copying his movements, and his—
Annalee: [00:08:38] It’s like a mocap kind of thing.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:40] It’s like a mocap character. And it’s just this kind of weird, subversive cartoon guy, but it ends up becoming a political force and destabilizing actual political figures and the guy who creates it can’t control it in the end. It ends up kind of getting out of his control and becoming kind of the wedge that leads to political instability and destruction.
Annalee: [00:09:01] Yeah, it leads to, it seems like at the end of that episode, that Britain has become a kind of Brexit nightmare, this sort of police state. And, I just—I think this is a big theme in Black Mirror generally where entertainment or cultural commentary that’s intended to be subversive becomes a tool of state power to rob us of our freedom. And so, I feel like that’s one of the things that’s scary about propaganda as entertainment. Because we think of entertainment as something that kind of rescues us from—
Charlie Jane: [00:09:43] Yeah, it’s an escape. It’s benign—
Annalee: [00:09:43] It’s an escape, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:44] –it’s happy, it’s like—escaping into a happy fun thrilling world of bright colors and cool stuff. And I think a lot of what attracts us to these giant escapist stories about swashbuckling heroes who triumph over evil, can also be weaponized and twisted into something xenophobic and paranoid, and kind of bigoted against people who we can define as the other or the enemy. And that’s something that’s a vulnerability in our love of stories of good and evil and triumph and all the things that make entertainment escapist and fun for us also make it an ideal vehicle for propaganda.
Annalee: [00:10:22] It’s so funny because I was thinking of The Matrix in relation to this theme. Because of course, The Matrix is sort of about propaganda and all of the people are stuck in this illusion. But, the film itself—maybe the whole series—was intended as social criticism. Like, the film is criticizing kind of the horror of our lives and how people are kind of ruled by just wanting to get the next steak instead of wanting to help people escape from slavery. And the Wachowskis deliberately include in the second movie they have Cornell West, who’s a famous Marxist and anti-racist commentator, he’s in there just kind of as a character. They kind of throw in a lot of stuff that makes it clear that they’re kind of on the lefty side of the spectrum. And then, the biggest cultural legacy of that film today is the red pill, which is a term that comes from a Reddit community but now has really spread far beyond that to describe Men’s Rights Activists. And talk about how if you take the red pill you kind of wake up to understanding how women are terrible and men are awesome and a variety of other things. I’m not—I don’t mean to reduce the complexity of the red pill culture to just that, because I’m sure it’s a lot more than that. But it’s a very weird cultural turn that this kind of lefty alternative film that’s all about yay people of color fighting against the terrible machine world has become like, it’s kind of led to this rallying cry for a very reactionary right-wing movement.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:10] But that’s actually kind of plays into what I was saying, which is that everybody wants to see themselves as the hero of their story. And these kinds of stories about breaking free from programming and breaking free from The Man and freeing yourself can easily be turned around and the people who support our government the most vituperatively nowadays are also the ones that see themselves as the most oppressed and the most discriminated against, and the most, you know. There’s this whole meme in right-wing circles that Christians and conservatives are constantly being discriminated against, which has a grain of truth to it, but also is massively exaggerated and magnified to turn into a story in which they’re the kind of underdog fighting against something unstoppable and powerful, which is—
Annalee: [00:12:56] And that’s propaganda, just as the other side, the liberal side has its propaganda about how it’s beleaguered. And that’s kind of what we’re talking about here, is how propaganda and these stories can fit whatever political persuasion that you have and they can be—even if you as a filmmaker, say if you’re the Wachowskis and you’re trying to make a movie that’s a kind of liberal movie, that doesn’t mean that people will see it that way. People can appropriate it as they want. What do you think are some really good examples of how propaganda is being handled in science fiction? What’s a—you had talked to me earlier about George Saunders being a big—
Charlie Jane: [00:13:39] I think if you read George Saunders’s short fiction, not so much his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but a lot of his short fiction has long passages of authority figures and corporate leaders and politicians spouting these long paragraphs of double-think and double-speak that include self-justifications and weaseling out of the reality of what’s going on. Often in these George Saunders stories, there’s something really horrible and amoral and brutal and awful going on at the core of it that our characters are being co-opted to taking part in. And part of how that happens is that they’re just sort of bludgeoned into accepting terrible things because of these speeches that they’re given and some of these weird catch-phrases that they’re taught. I feel like he’s drawing on a long tradition of Kafka-esque, slightly surreal fiction to kind of get at that way in which people are co-opted and controlled by these messages.
Annalee: [00:14:31] I think one of the big themes that you see in science fiction about propaganda is that there’s this sort of surreal aspect to it. We see this of course in Philip K. Dick, where he has characters who are either going crazy or they’re on drugs, or both.
Through a Scanner Darkly Clip: [00:14:49] What does the scanner see? Into the head? Down in the heart? Does it see into me?
Annalee: [00:14:58] And part of that is because they’re living in a culture—these characters are often living in futuristic worlds where they’re being bombarded with advertisements and lots of other propaganda. And what you were saying about Saunders was making me think about how science fiction about mind control is often about propaganda. It’s about how do you co-opt someone’s mind? How do you make them think thoughts that they wouldn’t have thought before?
Charlie Jane: [00:15:27] Yeah, and I think that there’s always like, the kind of blurred lines between advertising, social media, propaganda, and mind control. They all kind of blur together in science fiction, and I think in real life to large extent. We’ve learned that it’s really easy to kind of change people’s minds just by bombarding them with messages that change their idea of what is normal and what the frame of reality is. And, to some extent, all propaganda is science fiction because it’s about positing an alternate world and an alternate history in which certain people are right and certain people are wrong. Or certain things are normal and acceptable. And to create propaganda is in a sense to write science fiction.
Annalee: [00:16:05] Yeah, and I mean that kind of gets back to 1984 where part of the job that the main character is doing, Winston Smith, is changing history and altering how we remember things. I was thinking of They Live, which is such a great—
Charlie Jane: [00:16:20] Yeah, we just rewatched that recently, yeah.
Annalee: [00:16:23] And that’s a really great example of kind of combining advertising and mind control and of course some wrestling.
Charlie Jane: [00:16:32] There’s a lot of wrestling in that movie. Yeah. And They Live, that is the sort of consumer conformist world-view where all of the ads turn out to be actually saying consume, reproduce, obey. And it’s just sort of this constant stream of messages that are designed to turn rowdy Roddy Piper into obedient Roddy Piper.
They Live Clip: [00:16:54] They’re everywhere!
Maybe they can see…
Alley 5th and Spring.
Now hold on. You ain’t the first son of a bitch to wake up out of their dream.
Annalee: [00:17:05] But it’s funny because there’s a sort of a state power behind those ads and one of the things I think that’s interesting about Philip K. Dick and some earlier science fiction that I think influenced him, like the space merchants for example, which is a great 1950s novel that you should all read, is that it’s sort of capitalist propaganda. A lot of it is advertising. Certainly, it’s true that in Dick, we do see also like nefarious government agencies and things like that, but I think in something like They Live, which I think is also influenced by Dick. All of these ads that would normally be for Crest or for Ford or whatever they were buying in the ‘80s, that it all turns out to be from this weird alien state power. So, it turns out that the government is using capitalist advertising to sell us on this kind of new state power, but I think there’s also science fiction. This is a long-winded way of saying, I think some science fiction is more concerned with capitalist propaganda and other kinds of science fiction, like, for example 1984 are mostly concerned with government propaganda, if that makes sense. But they are, they get merged—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:21] They do, and I think that, you know, in fact the mid-20th century was the rise of totalitarianism, and the rise of these giant statist regimes in Russia and China, elsewhere that were filling every space with propaganda about Chairman Mao or Stalin or the party and how to follow the party, and the past 30 or 40 years have been more of the rise of corporatism and international capitalism as our new kind of guiding regime for the entire world. And so, those are the people who are most eager to propagandize us, and the line between advertising, all advertising is propaganda to some extent, because it is—
Annalee: [00:19:03] It is absolutely. It is 100% propaganda, right. And like you said, it is science fiction. It’s about selling you on a fantasy oftentimes. And I mean, so is government propaganda.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:12] Advertising is like this is what life should look like, this is what life does look like. If you don’t look like the people in this ad, there’s something maybe wrong with you.
Annalee: [00:19:19] No, no. You can just buy an iPhone and then you’ll look like them.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:25] Listen to U2 on your iPhone and then everything will be fine.
Annalee: [00:19:26] Oh, no. Invasion of the Body Snatchers really is kind of the ultimate mind-control movie because people are being replaced with these aliens who are kind of these mindless conformists. We don’t really know what their guiding principle is, but audiences at the time really felt like it was about the communist menace. I think that was definitely the intention of the filmmakers, too, is that it’s just a fear that your mind will be usurped, and then your culture will be usurped and then you’ll be part of this blob of unthinking, obedient creatures. I think that fear, and that image of people’s minds being taken away from their bodies basically is still all over the place in science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:18] Yeah, the loss of individuality, the loss of self-hood, of person-hood. The conformity kind of taking over everything. Those are huge themes in science fiction. It’s part of what science fiction often rails against. Individualism is very much built into the DNA of science fiction on a very deep level.
Annalee: [00:20:35] Well, at least in the west it is.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:36] Yeah, western science fiction. The western science fiction tradition is all about the individual and humanism and our human potential. And, to some extent the idea is that propaganda will rob us of that and will turn us into drones, or, you know, bald people in pajamas.
Annalee: [00:20:53] But also, it’s, I think it reflects a real fear that we have in the west where we do value individualism, at least in the United States, that’s a big thing. We’re all supposed to think individualism is super awesome, but at the same time we know that our minds can be changed. We know that we don’t always control our own thoughts, and when we see a story that’s really persuasive, or hear a speech that’s really moving, it can in fact remind us that we aren’t really just individuals. We’re also part of a community and a group, and that can be really awesome, but it can also mean that you end up believing in something that kind of is harmful. And, did you read the tripods novels growing up?
Charlie Jane: [00:21:40] I watched the TV show but I’ve never read the books.
Annalee: [00:21:43] But you know what they’re about. It was this series that I think must have influenced Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:53] I’m sure they did, yeah.
Annalee: [00:21:54] It’s about kids in a future Britain who are having skull caps implanted that control their minds, and so in order to grow up, you have to get the skull cap. Which is kind of—that’s sort of what’s happening in Uglies, too. They’re not actually getting skull caps, but they’re getting kind of brain surgery and plastic surgery to make them more obedient, and I think that’s—again, that idea that the process of growing up is a process of having stuff installed in your brain that makes you conform. We just see that all over the place.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:29] Yeah, and propaganda is also a huge theme in superhero stories and particularly superheroes themselves are kind of artifacts of propaganda. Captain America with his patriotic costume is created as sort of a symbol of American values and during WWII he’s kind of sent out to inspire people. Pretty much—
Annalee: [00:22:47] Wonder Woman was fighting the Nazis.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:49] Yeah, and pretty much every superhero is kind of designed to represent a world view or to kind of justify themselves partly through their costume and their great name and their whole mythology. And superhero stories are constantly wrestling with the idea of propaganda.
Batman DKR Clip: [00:23:06] Tonight I am going to maintain order in Gotham city. You are going to help me. But not with these. These are loud and clumsy. These are the weapons of cowards. Our weapons are precise and quiet, in time I will teach them to you. But for tonight, you will rely on your brains and your fists. Tonight, we are the law. Tonight, I am the law.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:39] One of the biggest problems Batman always has in Batman stories is that people don’t understand him and that—in The Dark Knight Returns we see these TV screens where people are talking about him and saying negative things about him, or kind of discussing him. I feel like that pops up a lot in Batman stories, that like, the media is kind of against him, and that—
Annalee: [00:23:58] Smear campaigns. Fake news about Batman.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:00] Yeah, there’s like, fake Batman news. And that Batman, part of what he has to do is protect himself against being misunderstood by the masses who are being fed all of this stuff. And Batman, meanwhile, doesn’t want to be understood. He wants to be an urban legend. But I feel like a lot of superheroes are constantly trying to control their image and constantly trying to fight against various forms of propaganda that cause them to be misunderstood.
Annalee: [00:24:24] Yeah, and I mean, we see this a lot in the current Marvel movies. They’re having a big problem with their branding basically. Their image has been tarnished because they’ve been wrecking cities. They, you know, came really late to the fight at the UN, and they’ve just—they’ve had a lot of mistakes, and—
Charlie Jane: [00:24:46] And Spiderman, one of the big classic conflicts in Spiderman is he’s helping to create anti-Spiderman propaganda, while also being Spiderman and that’s his constant, like, I wish I didn’t have to do this. But, my boss, J. Jonah Jameson, just wants pictures that make Spiderman look bad so that he can have headlines that say Spiderman is a menace. And I have to do it because my Aunt May needs medicine. I think it’s interesting because the superheroes come out of fighting fascism, they originally created to fight back against the Nazis and against the rise of global fascism, but then in a post-WWII secular kind of civilian world. They are actually fighting against the media and the way that they’re portrayed in media. And they actually sometimes are forced—
Annalee: [00:25:30] And they’re participating in media. Because of course, Superman is also part of the media. And Supergirl, like, works for a blog now.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:39] Yes. Supergirl now works for CatCo media, which is like the weirdest. Like, there are giant cats in the CatCo office. It’s like giant pink, purple cats.
Annalee: [00:25:48] That is not weird.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:48] Yeah. We’ve been in some media offices that looked weirder than that.
Annalee: [00:25:51] I feel like we’ve worked in places that had weirder decorations than that.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:54] Yeah. So, it’s like, they’re entangled in the media and to some extent superheroes are kind of portrayed as being fascists now, and there are [crosstalk] to kind of break free from the constraints of what people will think about them. They’re forced to do extreme things to get the job done because people don’t understand them and won’t support them. And that kind of pushes them to fascism.
Annalee: [00:26:17] Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, that kind of puts an interesting spin on maybe why superhero movies and TV shows are so popular right now. Because we’re kind of living in the golden age of propaganda. Social media is the perfect propaganda machine as indeed George Orwell predicted, that interactive TV would be the best way to control the masses. And it makes me also think about the popularity of zombie stories. The never-ending popularity of zombie stories. I mean, maybe they’re finally about to not be popular anymore, but of course zombies are also a great metaphor for people who are being controlled by alien thoughts, or baser instincts. Dawn of the Dead, of course, famously, is about zombies going to the mall and that was a clear commentary on kind of mindless consumerism. I think as zombie stories have grown in popularity, we’ve seen a lot of different examples of how fighting zombies is kind of trying to fight for individualism. It’s trying to fight against a kind of mindless obedience, or a mindless you know, love of cities, or something like that. I don’t know why zombies always go into cities, but.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:36] Zombies are the masses. They’re the kind of rampaging masses that you can’t really talk to because they’re just like a herd of people who just won’t even listen to you. And they just keep moving forward and they all have the same thought on their mind. They don’t think for themselves, and—
Annalee: [00:27:50] Feed. Consume.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:52] Eat brains, you know?
Annalee: [00:27:53] It goes right back to They Live, right? Consume. Consume.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:58] I feel like there is a connection there. And, yeah, I think that both superhero stories and zombie stories are about the individual and society and we root for the individual against society all the time, but that also is a form of propaganda, because we want to think that we’re the individual and that whatever we believe in, whether it’s that we support Donald Trump or that we hate Donald Trump, that’s us fighting against this mass of people who are against us. And so, yeah, those kinds of stories are popular right now because we feel as though our individuality is being threatened by this groupthink.
Annalee: [00:28:34] We all feel under siege. I think that’s, again, crosses political lines for sure. I think everybody is feeling like, whether their candidate is in office or not, or their beloved politician has won or not. I think we all feel like we’re fighting some crazy tide that we don’t understand where it’s coming from.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:54] Yeah, it’s anxiety producing. And actually, I want to talk for just a second about the film trilogy that I feel like has become super influential, or super important in the Trump era which is the Purge films. Which, how many of them have there been now? I think there’s about to be a fourth one coming out this summer. Those are movies that basically pick up the Paul Verhoeven model of propaganda in movies.
Annalee: [00:29:18] Paul Verhoeven who did RoboCop and Starship Troopers and the original Total Recall.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:24] Right. And Paul Verhoeven always has these really campy ridiculous propaganda videos that always pop up where it’s like—
Annalee: [00:29:32] Especially in Starship Troopers.
Starship Troopers Clip: [00:29:34] [Fanfare] Young people from all over the globe are joining up to fight for the future.
I’m doing my part!
I’m doing my part.
I’m doin’ my part.
I’m doing my part, too.
They’re doing their part. Are you? Join the mobile infantry and save the world. Service guarantees citizenship.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:00] Yeah, and it’s just kind of really in your face and ridiculous, and kinda over the top. And the Purge movies are that times a hundred. These people are sitting there watching these super stars and stripes bathed videos about the Purge, and for those who are new to the wonder that is the Purge movies, The Purge takes place in a future America where crime is legal once a year for basically I think 12 hours. From like, midnight... From like 8pm to 8am.
Annalee: [00:30:32] Overnight.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:32] One night a year, crime is legal, and the first movie was kind of a little bit incoherent. It’s a home invasion movie about there are people getting inside the house. But, the second movie kind of takes it much further into showing that really the purpose behind the Purge is to let rich people hunt and kill poor people, which is often a popular pastime of the rich in many movies. But, that—
Annalee: [00:30:54] That happens in Hostel, too, by the way. My beloved torture porn film.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:59] The Purge movies are just crammed full of weird propaganda and weird videos about like, the American way and how going out and hunting your neighbors to death is the American thing to do, and it’s very dark and satirical and warped and fully in the Verhoeven tradition of over the top kind of messages.
Annalee: [00:31:21] And it feels so creepily relevant now with the new debates over gun control in this country. Because, this is—I mean, the Purge is, the Purge series is kind of about the logical extreme of the gun rights position. Everyone with a gun and the one night a year, we all just get to use them on each other and whoever wins, is the person who’s alive at the end.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:45] Yeah, and it’s usually the ones who can afford the really nice guns and the armored vehicles.
Annalee: [00:31:47] Yeah, and the armored cars, and—
Charlie Jane: [00:31:50] –all of that stuff. It’s very much about class, but it’s also about our obsession with guns and violence, for sure.
Annalee: [00:31:57] But I love the idea that it kind of reveals this hidden class bias underneath all of that stuff. Because that’s something that we rarely hear about in gun debates is how there’s actually—if you’re wealthy enough to live in a place where you can protect yourself, then, you know, that’s great. You have a gun. Whatever.
Charlie Jane: [00:32:14] Gated community, yeah.
Annalee: [00:32:16] Yeah, but for people who are in a more vulnerable position, having a gun really might not do that much good and indeed might do harm. So, we’ve been talking a lot—pretty explicitly, actually, about US politics throughout this episode, and I wanted to end by asking you, Charlie, what do you think? Has science fiction given us any good advice about dealing with propaganda? What do we learn from science fiction about how to handle Russian bots trying to control our minds, or—
Charlie Jane: [00:32:50] Or Sinclair Media which now owns TV stations across the US and actually broadcasts segments that are pure propaganda for the Republicans.
Annalee: [00:32:58] Yes. So, what do we—what do we learn from science fiction about how to handle that? I mean—
Charlie Jane: [00:33:05] I mean, I think good science fiction. The best science fiction teaches us a certain amount of skepticism and hopefully helps us to understand that the messages that appeal to us the most, or that make us feel the most virtuous and happy might be the ones that we should interrogate. But also, just that—
Annalee: [00:33:24] It might be the worst messages.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:25] And also just that it’s good to kind of try to shut that stuff out and try to think for yourself.
Annalee: [00:33:31] I think it’s important to remember the message of The Waldo Moment from Black Mirror which is that sometimes, even when you’re creating a piece of art or writing that feels subversive and satirical, it might turn out to actually be something that you can weaponize as propaganda from the other side.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:54] Pepe the Frog.
Annalee: [00:33:55] Pepe the Frog. Whatever. It doesn’t—the point is that you sometimes think you’re being really smart with your social criticism, but actually you’re just creating more propaganda, or more memes.
Charlie Jane: [00:34:10] Like Judge Dredd. Judge Dredd started out as a satire of authoritarianism and excessive police brutality, and then he became incredibly popular as the embodiment of those things among people who celebrate that.
Judge Dredd Clip: [00:34:22] Inhabitants of Peach Trees, this is Judge Dredd.
Let him talk.
In case you people have forgotten, this block operates under the same rules as the rest of the city. Ma-Ma is not the law. I am the law.
Annalee: [00:34:44] Yeah, and it’s interesting because when we see science fiction about propaganda, or mind control, where people kind of throw off the yoke. Sometimes the solutions are not that great. Like, to go back to the Hunger Games. I mean, it’s kind of seize control of the means of propagandizing. It’s very unclear whether Katniss is really going to be all that much better. I mean, sure she’s nice, we like her, she saved that chick one time?
Charlie Jane: [00:35:13] Well, actually, the Hunger Games movies, or the books and the movies end with a very much darker note because the people who take over after the bad guy, who depose President Snow, actually turn out to be just as bad as him, and there’s no good authority in those movies.
Annalee: [00:35:29] Yeah, and they’ve turned Katniss into their meme, basically. She was a rebel who has now become a meme for a resistance which is perhaps no better. So, and also, I was thinking a lot about Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series, which includes a novel called Mind of My Mind, which is about telepaths in Los Angeles. They’re people who have different kinds of ESP. some are healers. Some are telepaths. Some can have telekinesis. But they, as individuals, they are often schizophrenic. They are street people. They are disempowered but when they come into contact with this one type of telepath, called a Patternmaster, she can help them come into their powers and kind of suppress the madness that it causes and they become super powerful. This is all to say that the Patternmaster shows up in Mind of My Mind, gets together a big band of telepaths, who have been living on the street and a lot of them are racial minorities, and they become very powerful, and they start to take over the minds of rich white people in Beverly Hills and are able to bend them to their will and take over the city. Eventually, as we find out later in the series, they take over the world. And so, it's this kind of weird reverse situation where the mind controllers are, again, the people who are the most outcast from society. And the solution is to just take over in another way, and so even though it feels temporarily awesome in the novel that these characters are now able to control the people who once controlled them and cast them out and put them into prisons and mental institutions. We realize, actually, that might not really be the best solution.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:33] Part of what I love about Octavia Butler is her constant questioning of the idea of hierarchy, and the idea of domination. I guess my final takeaway is just that I think that what a lot of science fiction, especially classic science fiction teacher us, is that sometimes you just have to be like, rowdy Roddy Piper and just blow up the machine, and put a stop to it with like a giant explosion.
Annalee: [00:37:53] But also, put the frickin’ glasses on.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:56] Put the glasses on.
Annalee: [00:37:59] Look at what you’re really being told in those ads. And, I think that’s really important, is what’s the real story underneath the fun entertainment. What’s the real message. And when you take away the pretty picture, it just says Obey. Consume. I think so much science fiction is dedicated just to trying to teach readers and audiences to do that.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:24] To have a filter.
Annalee: [00:38:25] To have a filter and not to be fooled into the idea that just because you’re thinking your own individual unique thoughts, that makes you awesome. Because you can’t just stop there. Once you have the filter, you have to teach other people how to use the filter. It doesn’t mean that you get to become the mind-controller at that point, or you get to become Katniss. You have to become, I guess I’m kind of saying, you have to share the glasses. Make a whole bunch of glasses.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:51] Make some more glasses, yeah.
Annalee: [00:38:53] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:55] You’ve been listening to Our Opinions Are Correct with Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz, which is available every two weeks wherever fine podcasts can be found. And thanks so much to our engineer at Women’s Audio Mission, Veronica Simonetti, and thanks to Chris Palmer for our theme music.
[00:39:10] [Outro music plays.]