Space the Nation: If Russia's our enemy, is cold war sci-fi back too?

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Aug 31, 2018, 2:27 PM EDT (Updated)

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The spectacle of the Trump-Putin summit and its weird "it's opposite day" aftermath has passed, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around what will probably wind up being one of the most consequential and head-scratching moments of modern American history. What is Russia to us? Obviously, my first thought was to wonder if science fiction could help.

I grew up at the very tail end of the Cold War, and so I am (in a completely unironic way) old enough to remember when the Soviet Union was the epitome of a Big Bad. Libraries have been written and a university’s worth of classes have been taught about how that adversarial relationship molded science fiction and horror from the end of World War II to the end of 1980s. The two countries’ “space race” boosted both audience’s hunger for stories about extraterrestrials and (for an all-too-brief period) boosted interest and funding for science in general. Cultural anxiety about the USSR was a through line for every major work of the era, from The Night of the Living Dead to Star Trek, and almost any comic book you can name. The prospect of nuclear war made the post-apocalyptic genre (once a kind of niche interest) a growth industry. Paranoia about communist infiltration fueled stories about not really knowing your neighbors. (They could they be pod people, or robots, or Satanists!) Without the Soviet Union, we would have neither The Avengers nor Star Wars, neither Doctor Who nor The Thing, neither Mad Max nor War Games. (The Soviets had their own Cold War science fiction, a subject for another time.)

So with Russia once again our ambivalent dance partner on the global stage, can genre fiction help us make sense of the show?

I thought back to one of the most dramatic narratives in the Trump-Russia relationship — his innocent campaign was minding its own business when Russian agents presented an irresistible prize: dirt about his opponent. I thought of stories about alien invasions that begin with grand promises and end with conquest. “To Serve Man” is the ur-text of this subgenre, most popularly known from the Twilight Zone episode based on a short story. The plot is simple: aliens give humans peace and prosperity, but it turns out they’re just making sure their livestock get fat and don’t kill each other before the aliens get to slaughter us themselves. For a narrative arc that is mostly contained by the three-word title pun, the episode has left a remarkable cultural wake — it’s been parodied by The Simpsons and referenced in Madagascar. (For a particularly thorny take on the trope, I cannot recommended Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow highly enough.)

Yet it is also not quite the right metaphor for what’s happening with Trump and Putin, or at least with the United States and Russia. The idea that an alien organization could trick us into such total submission only works if you believe communism is an all-consuming force that obliterates individuals and countries (The Blob, dontcha know). Indeed, it’s the understanding of the Soviet threat as life-or-death fuels most of the narratives that came out of the Cold War. The relationship was, after all, a war, a zero-sum contest for the fate of the planet.

But if one looks at the geo-political goals of today’s Russia, and especially if one looks at the relative power of Russia to America, well, if it came to war, there’s no longer a question of who would “win” it. Russia is smaller in every way than the U.S. — less well-armed, poorer, more chaotic, more isolated. Not only are they no longer our military equal (if, in fact, they ever were), but their ambitions are smaller, too. As has been widely reported, Putin’s agenda with regard to the United States isn’t conventional victory or annexation or colonization — all he wants is keep us out of the way as he goes about achieving those goals in other countries.

None of our Cold War metaphors will work in this situation. No matter how much you may hear about “cyber warfare,” I suspect martial tropes are generally useless right now, too. How can anything be a war if it’s not about winning?

Trump’s inability to get beyond his own Cold War-era understanding of international relationships (in which you can only win or lose) is itself probably one reason that he seems to truly believe that there was “no collusion” (insert your own capital letters and exclamation points). He doesn’t see himself as a spy or double agent; he isn’t helping Russia “win” in any way he can see.

What’s more, this enemy isn’t even using its own weapons to achieve necessarily Russian ends. The tools that did the most damage in the 2016 election had little to do with pro-Russia propaganda. If we must use a military frame, they did the most damage with ammunition scavenged from us: those hacked emails, as well as social media exploitations of existing cultural divides.

How do we make sense of an enemy that doesn’t want to conquer us? I think we need to leave behind all ideas about invasion and aliens. Our national borders are safe and our biggest weaknesses are entirely our own fault. If we didn’t already have cracked fault lines about race and gender, if we didn’t already cede so much power to celebrity, if we didn’t already structure our elections as popularity contests, well… there would be slightly fewer components to our once-in-a-lifetime black (orange?) swan event.

If anything, we should turn to biological metaphors. I'm thinking an auto-immune disease.

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