Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance

(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
science.

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
of art.

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
authors themselves.

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
post-World-War-II era.

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
Land
.

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
time.

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
publishing.

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
in 1988.

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
understand water.

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
target.

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
grin.

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)
prototypes”.

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
fans.

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
intrinsic connection?

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)
vice-versa.

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
freedom.

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.

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