Political Science Fiction

Associate Professor of Political Science Stephen Dyson studies decision-making during crisis, a theme that is prevalent in science fiction and fantasy, he says.

Associate Professor of Political Science Stephen Dyson studies decision-making during crisis, a theme that is prevalent in science fiction and fantasy, he says.

How “Star Trek,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Battlestar Galactica” Explain International Relations

Imagine a future in which the human race has been nearly obliterated by an army of sentient cyborgs. Some fifty thousand remaining people are fleeing the enemy’s pursuit aboard a handful of spaceships. Reports say that an airliner carrying 1,200 civilians might be infiltrated by the enemy, and the military commander is urging that the airliner be shot down.

Now, imagine you’re the President, and the decision is yours. What do you do?

From the first episode of the popular 2004 show “Battlestar Galactica,” this scene is a gripping example of the deeply political issues rife throughout the genres of science fiction and fantasy, says Stephen Dyson, associate professor of political science.

Dyson says these connections are just the thing to help students and scholars understand real-world international relations.

“There’s a great genius in the ability to dramatize the core values of human nature through science fiction,” says Dyson. “You can talk about Spock or Captain Kirk from ‘Star Trek,’ and everyone knows what you’re talking about. An otherwise abstract academic subject suddenly becomes accessible.”

Dyson does just that in his upcoming book, Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica. The book examines the shows’ deliberate parallels with real-world ideas of empire, war, and civilization – all of which can teach us about our own human condition.

Of Fictional Realities

If you talk with science fiction writers, like “Battlestar Galactica’s” Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, Dyson says, most will tell you that they love history and politics, and many studied these topics in school. So it’s not a surprise that science fiction television and literature present weighty explorations of foreign policy.

dysonbook-2“Star Trek,” for example, was “born of the Cold War,” says Dyson. The wildly popular show exposed intricacies of the intense bitterness between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“The allegory presented the Federation as an idealized version of a virtuous America, and the Klingons, who represented America’s perception of the Soviet Union as warlike and barbaric,” he says.

As director of UConn’s Humanities House learning community, Dyson regularly hosts movie nights to get students talking about issues in the humanities.

“Sci-fi is such a useful learning tool,” says first-year political science major and Humanities House resident Benjamin Watson. “It can illustrate complex ideas by increasing the scale. And that’s why Professor Dyson is such a good teacher. He finds movies that deal with complex issues and allow for a freer and more productive discussion by removing reality and all the baggage it carries, while keeping all the nuances.”

As Dyson points out in the book, the introductory episode of the “Battlestar Galactica” series was a representation of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Dyson is particularly interested in political decision-making, especially in times of crisis.

By making viewers care about and relate to individual characters, shows like “Battlestar Galactica” can force people to empathize with difficult political decisions.

“What must George W. Bush have been thinking that day, when the military was asking him what to do about errant civilian airplanes?” he asks. “It illuminates a lot about politics. It’s about hard choices, and very often there is no right decision – only upsides and downsides.”

Dragons of Mass Destruction

Thomas Briggs, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science and teaching assistant for Dyson’s Introduction to International Relations class, says discussions of science fiction allow an entry into complex political theory.

“If you’re unfamiliar with the details of international relations theory, there are loads of lessons you can learn through science fiction,” he says. “I think it’s a rich way of exploring themes like ethics, warfare, morality.”

In particular, referring to fictional people and events encourages debate about difficult and polarizing issues without the limitations of political predispositions.

“We can talk about things like clashes between the civil and military side of governments, or the balance of security and liberty, in a post-9/11 context,” Dyson says. “It gives the space for a freer exploration of ideas.”

Or, when Dyson lectures at universities in China each summer, he can use pop culture references from the series “Game of Thrones” to overcome disparate historical backgrounds.

“When I teach about weapons of mass destruction, I might use Daenerys Targaryen’s [of ‘Game of Thrones’] dragons,” he says. “All of my Chinese students had seen the show, so it helped them understand how a qualitatively different type of weapon can create a totally different set of interactions within a conflict.”

“We make sense of the world using stories. And if you remember the story, you remember the lesson,” Briggs adds. “So students walk away with a clearer understanding of international relations.”

Dyson unequivocally recommends that everyone should see “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” In its final scenes, the character Spock advocates – “and follows through in the most final of ways,” describes Watson – that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

So when Dyson screened it for his Humanities House students, Watson says, it allowed students to talk about the value of life in an unconventional way.

“By removing reality from the equation, we were able to talk about the value of life in a far less conventional way, which led to more insightful discussion and far more useful discourse,” he says. “Simply put, Professor Dyson utilizes the genre in the way it was intended: as a tool to discuss issues present today without the constraints of the present.”


By: Christine Buckley, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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