I’ve been enjoying the TV Tropes website a lot recently. Today I created my first full-fledged trope entry: the sonic stunner.
I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.
Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.
Here are some of them…
I like SF. I like wargames. I like naval adventure fiction.
These tastes put me square in the middle of the target audience for
David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. And yes, I do
enjoy them; Weber may be a hack, but he’s a very competent hack who
delivers good entertainment value for my money. So I was pleasantly
surprised to learn, this weekend at the annual Philadelphia Science
Fiction Convention (Philcon), that there is now an Honor Harrington
wargame — Saganami Island Tactical Simulator (SITS).
Ever had a moment when somebody else drops an insight on you, and you feel
totally stupid because you had all the facts and all the motivation to generate
it yourself, it was about something you’re expert at, but you
just…didn’t…see…it? And you should have, and you’re damn annoyed with
yourself for missing it?
This is storyboard art for a movie called Nightmask, with
the interesting property that I will probably get a speaking part in it
if it’s actually produced.
“Whoa!” you may well ask. “How does a middle-aged geek with no
showbiz history beyond a few singer/songwriter coffeehouse gigs in
his college days land a part in, you know, a real movie?”
The answer, it turns out, is by hacking for a movie star. And thereby
hangs a tale.
Back in October I was the top-billed guests of honor at the first
Linucon, a convention for SF fans and Linux hackers in Austin, TX.
First night I was there, at the invitation-only dinner for con guests,
I found that I knew a lot of them. Steve Jackson, Wil Wheaton, Howard
Tayler, Eric Flint…but there was one I didn’t recognize and she was
striking enough to make an impression:
This woman’s charm was somehow only increased by the fact that at
the time she was wearing black nerd-frame glasses; she looked like a
supermodel playing a geekgirl, a guess which I discovered was nearly
correct the next day when I found her sitting in the lobby of the
hotel tapping keys on a PowerBook. I introduced myself, asked her
name, and we were soon deep in conversation about all manner of
interesting techie things. And her name? Tamara Gorski.
Yes, that would be the Tamara
Gorski who played Rebecca Lowell in on an episode of
Angel and Morrigan the Goddess of War (looking like Lucy
Lawless’s kid sister) on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
She’s also had parts in quite a few B movies over the last decade; she
told me later that she thinks she could get A-list parts if she pushed,
but doesn’t really want the pressure or the fishbowl existence that would
bring with it.
I had to admit to never having seen any of her stuff, as I don’t
watch TV at all and hadn’t caught any of her movies. This, however,
did not bother her in the least; in fact she seemed happy to be talking
to someone who was (a) a low risk for going all fanboy on her, and (b)
willing to teach her techie stuff, like how to program an automated
way to mail people electronic thank-you cards. I launched into writing
a Python program on her PowerBook to do exactly that.
That program took me about three hours to write, time scattered
over the next two days, most of it with Tamara looking over my
shoulder and (I kid you not) giggling with delight as I explained how
this or that bit of Python helped get the job done. Tamara, it turns
out, is (a) extremely bright, (b) by her own description, “shy and
geeky”, and (c) intensely curious. And yes, formerly a successful
model. So, not exactly a supermodel playing a geekgirl, more like one
really letting her inner geek out to play for maybe the first time
in her life.
Tamara loved discovering SF fandom; the atmosphere of Linucon
delighted her. “I think I’ve found my people!” she said to me Sunday
night. And I was her guide to the territory. By the time that program
was finished, we were friends.
Tamara had told me early on that she was interested in writing and
direction. She talked offhand at the con about casting me in her next
film, but I didn’t know how seriously to take that until she emailed me
a script and a character list and asked which ones I was interested in.
The plot is a sort of space opera with horror elements about a
multispecies galactic future in which vampirism is a scourge that
affects every species. The part she had in mind was Klaaghu, an
initially sinister-appearing alien who dies heroically bringing
evidence to the anti-vampire resistance. After reading the script, I
agreed that of the available roles, that one seemed like probably the
best fit. It’s a nice juicy bit part; Klaaghu doesn’t get a lot of
screen time, but he does get dialogue and a dramatic scene.
The big variable here is whether Tamara can get backers to produce
the movie. She’s planning the low-budget route, shooting in New
Zealand or Bulgaria. She’s got a natural market, as this is exactly
the kind of thing the Sci-Fi channel buys. Tamara says “If you know
anyone who wants to invest at all…there will be returns, and if it’s
someone who would get their kicks from being in the film and getting
screen credit as producer, that’s all cool and kosher.”
There you have it. Calling all dot.com millionaires: you wanna
be a movie producer? Have a part in an SF flick? Your shot at stardom
Grant McCracken has argued in his book Plenitude that one of the defining characteristics of the last fifty years is an explosion of subcultural variety — people creating new lifestyles and new identities around occupations, sexual tastes, hobbies, genres of art and music, religions, and just about any other investment of time human beings have ever dreamed up.
When McCracken proposes that there is now as much divergence among individual subcultures in the life of the modern West as we can find among preindustrial tribes in the annals of anthropology he is probably exaggerating. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is onto something when he observes that the old idea of a ‘mainstream’ culture with subcultures developing in anti-conformist reaction to it is falling apart.
[S]ubcultures now come from the cultural system in place. The culture of
commotion is, as I have labored to demonstrate, dedicated to the production
of new and different subcultures.
SF fans. Skatepunks. Polyamorists. Gangsta rappers. Goths. McCracken certainly has this much right; there are now lots of voluntary subcultures out there that have the kind of adhesiveness once only associated with religious or tribal groupings. Belonging to them is not just a predilection like being a baseball fan or liking Chinese food, but a statement of identity with a whole social network and a set of myths and dreams and heroes attached to it.
Among the five groups I listed more or less at random above the culture of SF fandom is a bearded grandaddy, dating back to the late 1930s and thus predating the beginnings of the modern explosion of plenitude in the 1960s. The others are all much more recent, and illustrate how new tribes can emerge to become apparently permanent features of the landscape in less than a decade.
And this brings us to the geeks. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often
poorly socialized in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.
Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.
You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.
The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.
The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.
Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.
(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)
What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”
But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.
The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.
Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise
The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies! is indication of how far we’ve come.
I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.
There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.
Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.
For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.
In Slate magazine, SF author Ursula LeGuin complains that the
producers of the new Earthsea miniseries have butchered her
work. One form of butchery that she zeroes in on is by casting
characters who she intended to be red, brown, or black as white
I have mixed feelings. LeGuin has every right to be POed at how
her intentions were ignored, but on the other hand my opinion of her
has not been improved by learning that she intended the books as yet
another wearisomely PC exercise in
I liked those books when I read them as a teenager. I didn’t
notice any character’s skin color. I would really prefer not to have
had my experience of those characters retrospectively messed with by
LeGuin’s insistance that the race thing is important.
Note: I am not claiming that all casting should be colorblind. I
remember once watching an otherwise excellent Kenneth Branagh
production of Much Ado About Nothing that was somewhat marred for
me by Branagh’s insistance on casting an American black man as a
Renaissance Italian lord. This was wrong in exactly the same way that
casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be
— it’s so anti-historical that it interferes with the suspension
of disbelief. Fantasy like LeGuin’s, however, doesn’t have this kind
of constraint. Ged and Tenar don’t become either more or less plausible
if their skin color changes.
But what really annoyed me was LeGuin’s claim that only whites have
the “privilege” of being colorblind. This is wrong and tendentious in
several different ways. Colorblindness is not a privilege of anyone,
it’s a duty of everyone — to judge people not by the color of their
skin but the content of their character, and to make race a non-issue
by whatever act of will it takes. (It doesn’t take any effort at all
If I had produced the Earthsea miniseries or been in charge of the
art for her books, I would have both (a) respected LeGuin’s wishes
about the skin color (she is the artist), and (b) regretted that she
was so stuck on the issue.
To paraphrase one of my favorite Zen Comix punchlines “I left that
issue at the riverside. Are you still carrying it?”
I got email from Dr. Stanley Schmidt, the editor of Analog,
about an hour ago. The bad news was, he turned down the short story. The
good news was he accepted the fact article.
I’m going to be published in Analog!
/me does geeky victory dance
OK, so this is one of those things where if you don’t immediately
get why it’s wicked cool, no amount of explanation is likely to
enlighten you. I’ll just say I’ve been a science-fiction fan
for 35 years and Analog has always been the banner-bearer
for my kind of SF, the stuff with the rivets in it. I’ve wanted to
get published there when I grew up ever since I was 11 years old;
this is literally a childhood dream come true.
Oh. And Dr. Schmidt asked me to send him more fiction…
Donald, I buy your scenario in the West (Germans go home, keeping
Alsace-Lorraine) but I think Steve is right that your take on German
war aims in the East was too benign. What we’d have been looking at here
is a continuation of the Age of Imperialism, which in our history was
finished off by the exhaustion of the victors after WWI and WWII.
The situation in 1915 Europe would have been 1942 all over again,
but with one important difference: The United States would never have
gotten involved, never mobilized, and never had the opportunity to get
used to the idea of acting like a Great Power.
Right enough. Let’s carry this forward. As Donald has pointed
out, the drive on Paris revealed serious problems in Germany’s C3 and
infrastructure. There would have been a pause of, I think, about six
to eight years while the Germans consolidated their gains and built up
their road and rail net. Their most serious internal problem in the
short term would have been sporadic anti-German revolts in the eastern
Meanwhile, after the defeat of the Allies, isolationist sentiment
in the U.S. would have become stronger in the U.S. than it was
in our history. The Wilsonian “War Party” and anyone associated with
them would be completely discredited. American ethnic Germans who in our
history were finished off as a coherent political force by WWII, would
have gained more clout. President Lindbergh, maybe?
With the U.S. neutralized, the big fault line in geopolitics would
have been the British Empire versus the German Reich. One important
thing that would probably *not* have changed would have been the
development of Italian Fascism — but it wouldn’t have taken root in
Germany without the post-Versailles disaster.
The Tsarist regime in Russia was on its last legs. But Germany,
as victory, would have been in a position to turn on its agent
Lenin and back the White Russians just enough to keep Kerensky’s
govenment in power (but not enough for them to actually end the
simmering civil war).
About 1922 or so, the line-up might have looked like this: The
British Empire and a weakened, fractious Russia against a more
powerful Imperial Germany allied with Italy, Austria-Hungary, and the
Ottomans. But there’s something wrong with this picture; it ignores
geopolitical rivalries within the Central Powers themselves. So,
remembering the British grand strategy of sea control and alliances of
convenience with land powers, I’m going to suggest that England’s
course would be to snuggle up to the Ottomans and pry them loose from
the Axis. This would have made sense to the Ottomans, too; they
would want to constrain the rising power of Germany and Austria,
and I can imagine the British Foreign Office handing them back
southern Persia as a sweetener.
So the next confrontation would open with an Anglo-Russian-Turkish
alliance against a Germano-Austro-Italian one. France, even more seriously
mired in defeatism than in our history, would hardly be a player. The
U.S. would be neutral, possibly with a slight pro-German tilt.
Before general war broke out there would probably have been a
pattern of escalating friction on the imperial margins. Germany
would probably have flexed its muscles in Africa, first. Another
leading indicator would be the size of the German fleet. With no
Treaty of Washington in 1921, a serious naval arms race among
Germany, England and Japan would have been pretty much inevitable.
Imperial Japan would have been in a much stronger position than
historically, as well. With Russia weaker and the U.S. isolationist,
her main rival for influence in the Pacific would be the British. So
she would likely wind up on the Axis side, expanding onto the Asian
mainland even more agressively than in our timeline.
So the eequivalent of World War Two would have have been a bigger
and bloodier clash of empires.
UPDATE: Somebody commenting on VodkaPundit’s blog said:
Take your scenario a little further. With France as the
crippled defeated party, internal French politics mirror what
historically happened in Germany. I think you get the rise of French
fascists, who in turn blame French Jews for a “stab in the back”
(Dreyfus redux). The Holocaust has a Gallic flavor. Instead of
Teutonic efficiency, you get spontaneous mass killings by “citizen’s
commitees”. Horrendous to ponder, but anti-semitism is not an
exclusively German trait.
Very plausible. I can take this further still: on their way to
power the French Fascists have an ugly, low-level civil war with
conservative royalists that resembles the Spanish Civil War in our
timeline, except in this one Germany backs the royalists. The Spanish
Civil War itself happens more or less on schedule, but plays out
completely differently, too. Kerensky’s Russians would have had
neither the means nor the motivation to intervene that Stalin did, but
the Germans might very well have still backed Franco in restoring the
Spanish monarchy against the anarchists. So the likely outcome there
was Franco taking power sooner, probably as a generalissimo under a
weak Spanish king in Germany’s orbit, glaring across the Pyrenees
Where this is leading is that in Great War II, the France that
joins the allies is Fascist…
FURTHER UPDATE: With Bolshevism dead in Russia, the beau ideal of
the world’s anti-monarchist left becomes not “scientific socialism”
but anarcho-syndicalism on the Spanish model. At the extreme end this
movement fuses with what’s left of 19th-century romantic nihilism. As
a result, terrorism becomes an important tool of the fringe left
decades before the analogous development in our 1960s.
The British Labor Party turns increasingly syndicalist; in reaction,
British Tories increasingly link arms with French and other fascist
movements, which in this timeline are often genuinely reactionary
rather than being Marxism with a nationalist/racialist paint job.
In the U.S., trade unions also increasingly turn syndicalist and
anti-German. American conservatives tend to line up with the Bund and
the Kaiser; when Great War II breaks out in 1923. American industrialists
sell weapons to the German Empire. After a bitterly-fought election
in 1924 U.S. policy begins to tilt pro-British, but the change is
slow because many Americans are revolted by Fascist France.
Bless Jim Baen, who at times seems determined to reprint the entire
Golden Age midlist of SF. for he has given us a good thick anthology of
some of the best stories of Murray Leinster — a writer once counted
among science-fiction’s reliable best, but since unfairly forgotten.
I come away from Planets of Adventure (pb, Baen 2002,
ISBN 0-7434-7162-8) with a renewed appreciation of something I have
long known. When John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein invented modern
SF after 1938, Campbell perforce had to train a new crop of writers to
produce it. Very few writers with established careers were able to
meet Campbell’s standards.
Murray Leinster (born Wil F. Jenkins) was one of a very few
exceptions — and one of only two (with Jack Williamson) who
actually managed to produce better work after Campbell than before
him, rather than merely imitating previous pulp successes on a grander
scale (as did, for example, the now-unreadable Edmond Hamilton and the
still-enjoyable E.E. “Doc” Smith).
For this alone Leinster deserves more attention from the historians
and critics of SF than he usually gets. I, personally, was ready to
rediscover him because I had fond childhood memories of reading his work
from the 1950s and early 1960s when it was not too difficult to find
in the used bookstores of ten years later.
One of my sentimental favorites was the Med Service
series, tales of a doctor making interstellar house calls to solve
ingeniously constructed medical puzzles. I was delighted when Baen
Books printed a Med Service omnibus a few months ago — but it is
after reading Planets of Adventure that I am truly
impressed with Leinster’s achievement.
The first story, The Forgotten Planet is a fixup
novel assembled from three novellas, published respectively in 1920,
1921, and 1953. The rest of the stories were published in the decade
after 1947, the last quite coincidentally in the year I was born. In these
stories we get a fine view in miniature both of SF’s pre-Campbellian past
and the most fertile period of the Campbellian Golden Age.
The first section of The Forgotten Planet, written
in 1920, is deeply primitive. It’s a dark thalamic adventure of
regressed humans battling lethal fungi and giant insects in a fetid
alien ecology. The only touches we can recognize as SFnal are a
framing story Leinster added after the fact, in the early 1950s, which
make the humands descendents of a crashed starliner — in origin, the story
had been set on a far-future Earth. One feature of the original
repays notice; Leinster referred to climate change via a
carbon-dioxide greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels. In
The end of The Forgotten Planet, as rewritten at
the beginning of the 1950s, reads very differently. The stranded
primitives, having struggled up on their own to barbarian status, are
accidentally rediscovered by interstellar civilization. This is not
merely a different story than Leinster had begun to write thirty
years earlier, it is written in a profoundly different way, suffused
with plucky optimism and cool efficiency. The protagonist, Burl,
began the action as a a Joseph-Campbellian mythic hero; he ends
it as the archetype of the John-Campbellian competent man, bestriding
both his own world and that of his advanced galactic kindred with an
ease that disconcerts the latter.
In the next section, The Planet Explorer, Leinster
demonstrates a flawless command of the Campbellian idiom. These
stories, written in 1955-56, are classic planetary-puzzle pieces of
the sort that filled the pages of Astounding magazine.
The protagonist solves life-threatening problems posed by conditions
on alien worlds. These were intelligent stories when they were
written and they’re still intelligent today. One of them won a Hugo
in 1956. Aside from a slight stiffness in the language, they read
And we’re in for another surprise. The next story,
Anthropological Note, dates from 1957. In it, Leinster
captures perfectly the tone and style of the first post-Campbellian
wave in SF, the social-science SF of the mid-to-late 1950s and
pre-New-Wave 1960s. Truly this story could have been written by Fred
Pohl or C.M. Kornbluth. The wry tone, the anthropologizing, and the
not-so-subtle satirical edge are all there.
The story following that, Scrimshaw, is a creepy and
dark little mood piece that manages to anticipate the New Wave of the
mid-1960s by ten years. The rest of the anthology (Assignment
on Pasik, Regulations and The Skit-Tree
Planet) is mostly filler, workmanlike enough stuff from the
late 1940s obviously written to pay bills. These stories are still
readable, but of no special interest other than as a demonstration of
And there you have it. In these stories Leinster manages, with so
little effort that you won’t be aware of it unless you’re looking, to
span four eras of SF and meet all their demands with unobtrusive
efficiency. I am unable to think of anyone else in the history of the
field who can quite match that.
This observation is more interesting because Leinster was
essentially a hack writer. Besides the SF, he churned out reams of
pulp fiction — formulaic Westerns, hard-boiled detective stories,
jungle adventures — during a career that begain in 1917 and
ended only with his death in 1975. It appears that the last thing he
wrote was a Perry Rhodan novel which I have not read but
which almost certainly stank to high heaven.
His SF, though, was not mere hack-work, or at least not
usually mere hack-work. He was a genuine innovator in the
form who invented the parallel-world story in 1934 and the
first-contact story in 1945. It is impossible to read Leinster
without sensing that to him, constructing Campbellian puzzle stories
was a delight, and probably the closest approach to art for art’s sake
that he ever allowed himself. Certainly in Exploration
Team, the story that won him the 1956 Hugo, one gets the sense
that Leinster is using the story to think through some issues that are
important to him — and they are not trivial issues, even
But for all that he helped invent some of SF’s central tropes,
Leinster never quite became an SF writer of the first rank. He was a
solid midlist presence — the comparisons that leap to mind are
his rough contemporaries James Schmitz and Ross Rocklynne. His novels
tended to be uninspired; his best work (including the genre-defining
First Contact and the hilarious and rather prescient
A Logic Named Joe) was in short-story form.
What Murray Leinster does show us is that SF was as liberating for him as
for his readers — that even a hack writer could take from SF the
challenge and the invitation to be intelligent, and give back
something a bit better than he might have written otherwise. I never
got to ask him, but I strongly suspect that Wil F. Jenkins would be
prefer to be remembered for the SF more than for anything else he
I took some heat recently for describing some of Jerry Pournelle’s
SF as “conservative/militarist power fantasies”. Pournelle uttered a
rather sniffy comment about this on his blog; the only substance I
could extract from it was that Pournelle thought his lifelong friend
Robert Heinlein was caught between a developing libertarian philosophy
and his patriotic instincts. I can hardly argue that point, since I
completely agree with it; that tension is a central issue in almost
eveything Heinlein ever wrote.
The differences between Heinlein’s and Pournelle’s military SF are
not trivial — they are both esthetically and morally important.
More generally, the soldiers in military SF express a wide range
of different theories about the relationship between soldier,
society, and citizen. These theories reward some examination.
First, let’s consider representative examples: Jerry Pournelle’s
novels of Falkenberg’s Legion, on the one hand, and Heinlein’s
Starship Troopers on the other.
The difference between Heinlein and Pournelle starts with the fact
that Pournelle could write about a cold-blooded mass murder of human
beings by human beings, performed in the name of political order,
approvingly — and did.
But the massacre was only possible because Falkenberg’s Legion and
Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry have very different relationships with the
society around them. Heinlein’s troops are integrated with the society
in which they live. They study history and moral philosophy; they are
citizen-soldiers. Johnnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity.
One can’t imagine giving him orders to open fire on a stadium-full of
civilians as does Falkenberg.
Pournelle’s soldiers, on the other hand, have no society but their
unit and no moral direction other than that of the men on horseback
who lead them. Falkenberg is a perfect embodiment of military
Fuhrerprinzip, remote even from his own men, a creepy and
opaque character who is not successfully humanized by an implausible
romance near the end of the sequence. The Falkenberg books end with
his men elevating an emperor, Prince Lysander who we are all supposed
to trust because he is such a beau ideal. Two thousand years of
hard-won lessons about the maintenance of liberty are thrown away
like so much trash.
In fact, the underlying message here is pretty close to that of
classical fascism. It, too, responds to social decay with a cult of
the redeeming absolute leader. To be fair, the Falkenberg novels
probably do not depict Pournelle’s idea of an ideal society, but they
are hardly less damning if we consider them as a cautionary tale.
“Straighten up, kids, or the hero-soldiers in Nemourlon are going to
have to get medieval on your buttocks and install a Glorious Leader.”
Pournelle’s values are revealed by the way that he repeatedly posits
situations in which the truncheon of authority is the only solution.
All tyrants plead necessity.
Even so, Falkenberg’s men are paragons compared to the soldiers in
David Drake’s military fiction. In the Hammer’s Slammers
books and elsewhere we get violence with no politico-ethical nuances
attached to it all. “Carnography” is the word for this stuff,
pure-quill violence porn that goes straight for the thalamus. There’s
boatloads of it out there, too; the Starfist sequence by
Sherman and Cragg is a recent example. Jim Baen sells a lot of it
(and, thankfully, uses the profits to subsidize reprinting the Golden
The best-written military SF, on the other hand, tends to be more
like Heinlein’s — the fact that it addresses ethical questions
about organized violence (and tries to come up with answers one might
actually be more willing to live with than Pournelle’s quasi-fascism
or Drake’s brutal anomie) is part of its appeal. Often (as in
Heinlein’s Space Cadet or the early volumes in Lois
Bujold’s superb Miles Vorkosigan novels) such stories include elements
The Sten sequence by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch was
both a loving tribute to and (in the end) a brutal deconstruction of
this kind of story. It’s full of the building-character-at-boot-camp
scenes that are a staple of the subgenre; Sten’s career is carefully
designed to rationalize as many of these as possible. But the Eternal
Emperor, originally a benevolent if quirky paternal figure who earns
Sten’s loyalty, goes genocidally mad. In the end, soldier Sten must
rebel against the system that made him what he is.
Cole & Bunch tip their hand in an afterword to the last book,
not that any reader with more perception than a brick could have
missed it. They wrote Sten to show where fascism leads
and as a protest against SF’s fascination with absolute power and the
simplifications of military life. Bujold winds up making the same
point in a subtler way; the temptations of power and arrogance are a
constant, soul-draining strain on Miles’s father Aral, and Miles
eventually destroys his own career through one of those
Heinlein, a U.S naval officer who loved the military and seems to
have always remembered his time at Annapolis as the best years of his
life, fully understood that the highest duty of a soldier may be not
merely to give his life but to reject all the claims of military
culture and loyalty. His elegiac The Long Watch makes
this point very clear. You’ll seek an equivalent in vain anywhere in
Pournelle or Drake or their many imitators — but consider
Bujold’s The Vor Game, in which Miles’s resistance to
General Metzov’s orders for a massacre is the pivotal moment at which
he becomes a man.
Bujold’s point is stronger because, unlike Ezra Dahlquist in
The Long Watch or the citizen-soldiers in Starship
Troopers, Miles is not a civilian serving a hitch. He is the
Emperor’s cousin, a member of a military caste; his place in
Barrayaran society is defined by the expectations of military
service. What gives his moment of decision its power is that in refusing
to commit an atrocity, he is not merely risking his life but giving up
Falkenberg and Admiral Lermontov have a dream, too. The difference
is that where Ezra Dahlquist and Miles Vorkosigan sacrifice themselves
for what they believe, Pournelle’s “heroes” sacrifice others. Miles’s
and Dahlquist’s futures are defined by refusal of an order to do evil,
Falkenberg’s by the slaughter of untermenschen.
This is a difference that makes a difference.
(There is an extended and improved version of this essay, A Political
History of SF.)
When I started reading SF in the late Sixties and early Seventies,
the field was in pretty bad shape — not that I understood this
at the time. The death of the pulp-zines in the 1950s had pretty much
killed off the SF short-fiction market, and the post-Star-Wars boom
that would make SF the second most successful genre after romance
fiction was still years in the future. The core writers of the first
“Golden Age”, the people who invented modern science fiction after
John Campbell took the helm at Astounding in 1938, were
beginning to get long in the tooth; Robert Heinlein, the greatest of
them all, passed his peak after 1967.
These objective problems combined with, or perhaps led to, an insurgency
within the field. The “New Wave”, an attempt to import the techniques and
imagery of literary fiction into SF, upset many of the field’s certainties.
Before it, everyone took for granted that the center of Campbellian SF was
“hard SF” — stories, frequently written by engineers and scientists,
which trafficked in plausible and relatively rigorous extrapolations of
Hard SF was an art form that made stringent demands on both author
and reader. Stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the
author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology
wrong. The Campbellian demand was that SF work both as story and
as science, with only a bare minimum of McGuffins like FTL star drives
permitted; hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both
internally and with known science about the real world.
The New Wave rejected all this for reasons that were partly
aesthetic and partly political. For there was a political tradition
that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by its chief
theoretician (Campbell himself) and his right-hand man Robert
Heinlein, the inventor of modern SF’s characteristic technique of
exposition by indirection. That tradition was of ornery and insistant
individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive
distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism
that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political
ideologizing with suspicion.
At the time, this very American position was generally thought of
by both allies and opponents as a conservative or right-wing one. But
the SF community’s version was never conservative in the strict sense
of venerating past social norms — how could it be, when SF
literature cheerfully contemplated radical changes in social
arrangements? SF’s insistent individualism also led it to reject
racism and feature strong female characters long before the rise of
political correctness ritualized these behaviors in other forms
After 1971, the implicit politics of Campbellian hard SF was
reinvented, radicalized and intellectualized as libertarianism.
Libertarians, in fact, would draw inspiration from Golden Age SF;
Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, H. Beam Piper’s
Lone Star Planet, and Poul Anderson’s No Truce With
Kings (among many others) would come to be seen retrospectively
as proto-libertarian arguments not just by the readers but by the
The New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one. Its
inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss)
were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism,
linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s
cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s
later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left
and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public
disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional
questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.
But the New Wave was not, in fact, the first revolt against hard SF.
In the 1950s, a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl
and the Futurians fan club in New York had invented sociological S.F.
(exemplified by the Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration The Space
Merchants). Not until decades later did the participants admit
that many of the key Futurians were then ideological Communists or
fellow travellers, but their work was half-understood at the time to
be strong criticism of the consumer capitalism and smugness of the
The Futurian revolt was half-hearted, semi-covert, and easily
absorbed by the Campbellian mainstream of the SF field; by the
mid-1960s, sociological extrapolation had become a standard part of
the toolkit even for the old-school Golden Agers, and it never
challenged the centrality of hard SF. But the New Wave, after 1965,
was not so easily dismissed or assimilated. Amidst a great deal of
self-indulgent crap and drug-fueled psychedelizing, there shone a few
jewels — Phillp José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple
Wage, some of Harlan Ellison’s work, Brian Aldiss’s
Hothouse stories, and Langdon Jones’s The Great
Clock stand out as examples.
As with the Futurians, the larger SF field did absorb some New Wave
techniques and concerns. Notably, the New Wavers broke the SF taboo
on writing about sex in any but the most cryptically coded ways, a
stricture previously so rigid that only Heinlein himself had had the
stature to really break it, in his 1961 Stranger In A Strange
The New Wave also exacerbated long-standing critical arguments
about the definition and scope of of science fiction, and briefly
threatened to displace hard SF from the center of the field. Brian
Aldiss’s 1969 dismissal of space exploration as “an old-fashioned
diversion conducted with infertile phallic symbols” was typical New
Wave rhetoric, and looked like it might have some legs at the
As a politico-cultural revolt against the American vision of SF,
however, the New Wave eventually failed just as completely as the
Futurians had. Its writers were already running out of steam in 1977
when Star Wars took the imagery of pre-Campbellian space
opera to the mainstream culture. The half-decade following (my
college years, as it happened) was a period of drift and confusion
only ended by the publication of David Brin’s Startide
Rising in 1982.
Brin, and his collegues in the group that came to be known as the
“Killer Bs” (Greg Bear and Gregory Benford), reasserted the primacy of
hard SF done in the grand Campbellian manner. Campbell himself had
died in 1971 right at the high-water mark of the New Wave, but
Heinlein and Anderson and the other surviving luminaries of the
Campbellian era had no trouble recognizing their inheritors. To
everyone’s surprise, the New Old Wave proved to be not just
artistically successful but commercially popular as as well, with its
writers becoming the first new stars of the post-1980 boom in SF
The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if
not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also
reverted to the libertarian/individualist values traditional in the
field. This time around, with libertarian thinking twenty years more
developed, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the
libertarian impulse was more explicit. At one extreme, some SF (such
as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian
propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly
be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged,
notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.
Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public
animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein’s legacy. Heinlein
himself maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but
counted himself a libertarian for more than a decade before his death
Heinlein’s evolution from Goldwater conservative to anti-statist
radical both led and reflected larger trends. By 1989 depictions of
explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies were beginning to
filter into mainstream SF work like Joe Haldeman’s Buying
Time. Haldeman’s Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all
the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.
Before the 1980s changes in U.S. law that reversed the tax status
of inventories and killed off the SF midlist as a side effect, a lot
of Golden Age and New Wave era SF was pretty continuously in print
(though in sharply limited quntities and hard to find). I still own a
lot of it in my personal collection of around 3,000 SF paperbacks and
magazines, many dating back to the ’50s and ’60s and now long out of
print. I read it all; pre-Campbellian space opera, the Campbellian
classics of the Golden Age, the Futurians, the New Wave ferment, and
the reinvention of hard SF in the 1980s.
In some respects, it took me thirty years to understand what I was
seeing. I’m one of Heinlein’s children, one of the libertarians that
science fiction made. Because that’s so, it was difficult for me to
separate my own world-view from the assumptions of the field. In
grokking the politics of SF, I was in the position of a fish trying to
Eventually, however, a sufficiently intelligent fish could start to
get it about hydrodynamics — especially when the water’s behavior is
disturbed by storms and becomes visibly turbulent. I got to look back
through the midlist at the Futurian ripples. I lived through the New
Wave storm and the pre-Startide-Rising doldrums. By the time cyberpunk
came around, I was beginning to get some conscious perspective.
Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF.
William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre
in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political
writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief
ideologue of anti-Cambellianism in the late 1980s, called it “the
Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s
student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly
against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake,
Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard
Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as
stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New
Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond
Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality,
pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism)
had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge’s 1978 hard-SF
classic True Names, and even further back in The
Space Merchants. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes,
buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated
in dozens of computer games.
Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in
1992’s Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling’s
Schismatrix and Walter John Williams’s
Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet
the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk
took for granted a background in which late capitalism had decayed
into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals
could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow
Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock
individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass
By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the
hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and
cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within
it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however
(figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated
on New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or
anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia
Butler. While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo
ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian
tradition — Golden age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer
writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1998 work
Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and
brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).
In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up
with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Cathryn
Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of
Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all
along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from
which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated
by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater
stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes
of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or
reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood
without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.
Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder
on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well
prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”,
not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe
has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.
I think I can go further than Hartwell or Cramer or Benford in
defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field.
To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls
“radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical
predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or
customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category
“fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a
botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype
“apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they
are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already
been sorted into the “like an apple” category.
Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”)
whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”,
“avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded
by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the
number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like
the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits
are important and tend to be conserved across the entire
radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while
some are only weakly bound (color).
In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that
are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition,
but traits that are common to the core prototypes nevertheless tend to
be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the
strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as
“fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable
interior with a sweet flavor.
SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain
classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual
works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic
story, eutopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the
traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits
are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound” — or,
almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of the core (hard-SF)
The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics
continues to be a fact of life in the field. It it is telling that
the only form of politically-inspired award presented
annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian
Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal,
moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of
libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad
Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are
shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually
sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF
Of course, there are people in the SF field who find this deeply
uncomfortable. Since the centrality of hard SF has become inescapable,
resistance now takes the form of attempts to divorce hard SF from
libertarianism — to preserve the methods and conceptual apparatus
of hard SF while repudiating its political aura. Hartwell
& Cramer’s 2002 followup to The Ascent of Wonder,
The Hard SF Renaissance, takes up this argument in its
introduction and explanatory notes.
The Hard SF Renaissance presents itself as a dialogue
between old-school Campbellian hard SF and an attempt to construct a
“Radical Hard SF” that is not in thrall to right-wing tendencies.
It is clear that the editors’ sympathies lie with the “Radicals”, not
least from the very fact that they identify libertarianism as a right-wing
phenomenon. This is an error characteristic of left-leaning thinkers,
who tend to assume that anything not “left” is “right” and that approving
of free markets somehow implies social conservatism.
All the history rehearsed so far has been intended to lead up to
the following question: is the “Radical Hard SF” program possible?
More generally, is the symbiotic relationship between libertarian
political thought and SF a mere historical accident, or is there an
I think I know what John Campbell’s answer would be, if he had not
died the year that the founders of libertarianism broke with
conservatism. I know what Robert Heinlein’s was. They’re the same as
mine, a resounding yes — that there is a connection, and that
the connection is indeed deep and intrinsic. But I am a proud
libertarian partisan, and conviction is not proof. Cultural history
is littered with the corpses of zealots who attempted to yoke art to
ideology with shallow arguments, only to be exposed as fools when the
art became obsolescent before the ideology or (more often)
In the remainder of this essay I will nevertheless attempt to prove
this point. My argument will center around the implications of a
concept best known from First Amendment law: the “marketplace of
ideas”. I am going to argue specifically from the characteristics
of hard SF, the prototypes of the radial category of SF.
Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of
radical transformations of the human condition brought about through
knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging —
all these SFnal tropes are situated within a knowable universe, one in
which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal
instrument of creating new futures.
SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the
simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment
budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But
even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales
tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable
universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of
angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be
intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science
and engineering prudently.
At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is
our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants
to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not
the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that
make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of
possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different
place than the present.
SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility
compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in
anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that
the future not only can be different but can be different in many,
many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.
All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism,
applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are
weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are
powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the
terminology of radial categories.
Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and
social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it
to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies.
Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope
for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. And it is is
here that we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound
traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all
political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and
the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.
The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart
the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle
the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static
societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their
natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for
ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysekoism). In the
narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy
of the future.
SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this.
Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus
its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for
storylines in which (as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who
Sold The Moon) scientific breakthrough and and free-enterprise
economics blend into a seemless whole. These stances are not
historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from
the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the
field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of
This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF
is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and
fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely
science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most
inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.
Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian
tradition: ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the
competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and
a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and
treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be
readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the
enemies of the future.
The partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are thus victims of a category
error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By
jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or
“conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest
imperatives of the genre.
The SF genre and libertarianism will both survive this mistake
quite handily. They were symbiotic before libertarianism defined
itself as a distinct political stance and they have co-evolved ever
since. If four failed revolutions against Campbellian SF have not
already demonstrated the futility of attempting to divorce them, I’m
certain the future will.
Science fiction, because it deals in extrapolated futures, has a long
tradition of employment as a vehicle for political argument. More than that,
science fiction encourages politically-minded writers to narratize their
beliefs in ways that can sometime reveal more than the writers intended
about the problems and contradictions in their own theories.
I was powerfully reminded of this fact while reading Ken MacLeod’s
latest The Sky Road. A reference in the book led me to
think about Iain Banks, and from there I flashed on some recent
analyses of post-9/11 confusion among the European left. And I
realized that MacLeod and Banks between them inadvertently reveal some
interesting things about socialism in the post-Soviet world.
Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks are two of the most interesting young
writers in science fiction. Both are rooted in Scotland, and both
manage the peculiar and somewhat arresting trick of writing rather
hard SF from a Marxist political stance. For multiple historical and
structural reasons, the dominant strain in the politics of SF has long
been individualist, anti-authoritarian, even libertarian in tone —
and this has been most true near the hard-SF heart of the field.
MacLeod and Banks, then, are almost unique in proposing SF narratives
in which socialism has a heroic future — and in doing so giving us an
SFnal window into how socialists in the post-Soviet world think,
and the unrecognized contradictions in their ideas.
Banks is the less explicit of the two. His Culture novels
(including Excession, Use of Weapons,
The Player Of Games, and Look To Windward
are wide-screen space operas in which the good guys are a communist
utopia. In the Culture, there is no money and no want and no markets;
the economy is run by the vast AIs called Culture Minds, who somehow
centrally plan everything so that human beings never have to make
unpleasant scarcity choices. It’s Marxist eschatology entire,
with the withering-away of the state sustained by deus ex machina.
But Banks never refers to communism or capitalism or any feature of
present-day politics by name. You get his politics by indirection,
mainly by noticing how he thinks economics and history work. In his
universe all the non-communist cultures are barbarians waiting to be
assimilated by Culture contact expeditions. The cat gets let out of
the bag in a historical aside; Banks imagines Earth itself being
subsumed. Marx’s dialectical imperative having failed us, Banks is
imaginatively counting on invasion by superior aliens to sweep
capitalism and markets into the dustbin of history.
Banks’s Culture is not quite the dreary exercise in correct-think
the above description might suggest; in fact, the Culture is a lot of
fun to read about. But there is a black hole at the center of Banks’s
construction. Leaving aside all the tendentious political questions
about who gets to use force in the Culture, and when, and for what
reasons…the economics can’t possibly work. The Culture Minds, if
they existed, would run slap-bang into F. A. Hayek’s `calculation
problem’. In 1936, Hayek showed that a planned economy, deprived of
the demand signals generated by markets, will inevitably malinvest its
way to collapse. The Soviet Union took less than sixty years to act
out Hayek’s prediction, and in 2002 there is really no better excuse
for an SF writer not understanding this than there would be for
getting the physics of a story gimmick wrong.
If Banks narratizes the fundamentalist version of socialism
(believe and heaven will take you up), MacLeod gives us something
rather weirder and more complex. Unlike Banks, he is economically
literate. His characters are staunch old socialists who have figured
out that Marxism is a total crock and the Soviet Union was a doomed,
murderous failure. In fact MacLeod is an anarchist at heart, and his
futures succumb to the inevitability of markets in the absence of
state control. And yet, his characters cannot let go of that old-time
religion — they fetishize posters of Che Guevara and hate
“imperialism” and sing the Internationale and get all misty-eyed over
hammer-and-sickle emblems and even obey orders from the shadowy
remnants of the Communist Party.
MacLeod gives us post-Communist Communism, heavy metal irony,
socialist camp — indeed, one of the two viewpoint characters uses the
latter phrase to describe the “worker’s state” she runs in Central
Asia. The program is gone, all that’s left is the attitude and the
conspiracy and the dreary verbal cliches and the resentment.
Including the hatred of capitalism. The results in MacLeod’s weiting
sometimes have an appealing gritty contrarianism, but more often just
the morbid fascination of a bad auto accident. One pities his
characters in the way one might pity any gifted obsessive. In
fact, one pities MacLeod himself.
Banks’s denial-drenched wish-fantasy. MacLeod’s
self-loathing-tinged politics of resentment, intermittently
intelligent but unable to escape the sentimental gravitational pull of
the old Soviet evil. Voila! The two poles of the European left after
the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially after 9/11. Neither one
of them which much sustainability or mass appeal.
Leftist theory has been in a state of accelerating disintegration
ever since “real existing socialism” fulfilled the fate Marx predicted
for capitalism by collapsing under the weight of its own
contradictions. Once the European left could no longer seriously
propose a Marxist program, it had to settle for a defensive
hunker-down around the socialist-inspired institutions of state — the
dole, national health services, and so forth. This is why ever since
Margaret Thatcher, most of the dynamism of European political change
within countries has come from the right — and the European Union,
always an enterprise of the left, may now be in jeopardy under
populist and nationalist pressure.
Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen (to name the two most ecent
upsetters of the Euroleftist applecart) really had very little in
common except for having been branded “right-wing” by left-sympathizing
journalists. In fact, both their platforms are traditionally left
on economic policy. What they did have in common is that they were
both shrewd opportunists who stepped into the vacuum created by
the ideological collapse of the traditional left.
Nowhere in either Banks’s or MacLeod’s mythologizations of future
socialism is there any hint of an answer for the rising political
problems of the present. The failure of multiculturalism as a strategy
for preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian strife is the one Fortuyn
and Le Pen exploited. There are others; environmental policy,
information privacy, biotech. The European left, an increasingly
tired anachronism in a capitalist world, no longer has either the
energy or the intellectual heft to tackle any of these. The best its
parties can hope for is to do as the British Labor party did; shift
towards centrist pragmatism while making obeisances to left rhetoric
that everyone involved recognizes as increasingly meaningless.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that both Banks and MacLeod
are creatures of the post-Soviet world. Their fantasies of
socialism to the stars may be all the Left has left.