I got bored with my previous habit of checking on the clumsy articles at Quillette — the online magazine for people who want to be reassured that reactionary ideas are really quite nice if you stand on your head and squint at them for long enough. However, a recent article crossed into multiple aspects of my interests that I really thought I should write about it. Entitled “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction” (https://quillette.com/2020/06/12/the-libertarian-history-of-science-fiction/) it is not a particularly great examination of the topic but not so blisteringly awful as to be funny. In responding to it I appear to have gone off in many directions and have used many words and long run on sentences. So more after the fold…
The essay positions itself as a kind of response to the notion that science fiction has always been progressive. That is a bit of a straw man if posed as that is ALL science fiction has been but the essay by Jordan Alexander Hill doesn’t dispute the progressive aspects of science fiction but just argues that there is a long libertarian tradition as well. Which is true and a reasonable point to make. There is a libertarian thread within science fiction but then there is a libertarian thread in progressive politics as well, doubly so within literature because any story that includes a premise that *a* government is bad is a story that adjoins a thread of literature which assumes that governments in general are bad. Rebels fighting an evil empire can be read as progressives fighting right-wing authoritarians or as independent minded people fighting against a more generic dead-hand of government. Left-anarchist, non-anarchist left, libertarian and even conservatives can find alignment with their own politics and such stories. Indeed, consider how the term “rebel” is coded in US political and social culture and how the American far-right twists the narrative of the US civil war and the Confederacy, rebellion against an evil regime while not politically neutral is a mercurial narrative, capable of being appropriated almost without dissonance into utterly opposed ideological stances.
I’d go even further and say that while science fiction manifestly has a long and necessary progressive aspect to it, it has never lacked a reactionary and pro-authoritarian aspect. The tools of imagining the world to be different are not purely committed to the pursuit of liberty or justice. Willy Ley’s 1947 essay in Astounding “Pseudoscience in Naziland” pointed to the influence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel “The Coming Race” on some subset of Nazis.
“That group which I think called itself Wahrheitsgesellschaft — Society for Truth — and which was more or less localized in Berlin, devoted its spare time looking for Vril. Yes, their convictions were founded upon Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Corning Race.” They knew that the book was fiction, Bulwer-Lytton had used that device in order to be able to tell the truth about this “power.” The subterranean humanity was nonsense, Vril was not, Possibly it had enabled the British. who kept it as a State secret, to amass their colonial empire. Surely the Romans had -had it, inclosed in small metal balls, which guarded their homes and were referred to as lares. For reasons which I failed to penetrate, the secret of Vril could be found by contemplating the structure of an apple, sliced in halves.”
Nor should we ignore the long and ignoble history of L.Ron Hubbard and Scientology within science-fiction’s capacity to explore the mechanics of toxic ideas not as a warning but as “how to” or instruction manual for controlling significant numbers of people for regressive ends. Added to that is a very long and ugly history of racism within science fiction from writers such as H.P.Lovercraft where racism as fear of the other is rippled through his most influential work to H.G.Wells whose progressive ideas didn’t prevent him making use of racist stereotypes.
Doubling back to the essay that ostensibly is the topic of my post but which I note that I’m largely ignoring, it starts very badly but in an interestingly bad way:
“When mainstream authors like Eric Flint complain that the science fiction establishment, and its gatekeeper the Hugo Awards, has “drift[ed] away from the opinions and tastes of… mass audience[s],” prioritizing progressive messaging over plot development, the response from the Left is uniform: Science fiction is by its very nature progressive.”
The quote from Flint is from an essay post-Worldcon 2015 about the Sad Puppies decrying generalisations about the kinds of books the Sad Puppies where campaigning for*. The opening gives a clue to the framing of the essay, it is very much a shallow presentation of how Baen-adjacent culture sees itself as part of a libertarian tradition. Even the Flint link to the quote hits a Sad Puppy apologia rather than a meaty essay that followed that which explains the quote better (https://ericflint.net/information/the-divergence-between-popularity-and-awards-in-fantasy-and-science-fiction/ <- I don’t recall writing about this at the time but I think Flint is wrong in an interesting way here but I’m trying to limit the number of tangents I’m spinning off into).
While I could pick holes throughout the (is Flint a good example of ‘mainstream’?) I’ll just leave the second paragraphs peculiar political analysis here:
“From conservatarian voices like Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Poul Anderson, and F. Paul Wilson to those of a more flexible classical liberal bent like Ray Bradbury, David Brin, Charles Stross, Ken McLeod, and Terry Pratchett, libertarian-leaning authors have had an outsized, lasting influence on the field.”
I assume he doesn’t mean “classical liberal” which has a specific meaning (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_liberalism ) or maybe he really does mean that (given the next sentence) but whatever he means it is hard to see how Ray Bradbury fits into a neat political category with Stross and MacLeod and even hard to see how ‘classical liberal’ would describe the circle in a Venn diagram encompassing that whole list.
The essay carries on in much the same way, switching between (but without ever properly clarifying) the distinction between themes around liberty and personal freedom within science-fiction (which run through a range of political positions), works that have more specifically inspired US right-leaning libertarians and works that expressly are connected with those movements (i.e. Atlas Shrugged). That doesn’t negate the central argument, which, as I’ve already said, is correct: there is a long libertarian tradition in science fiction in multiple sense of the word ‘libertarian’. So the piece tends to drift around a point or swerves into a Baen advert:
“There’s also a prominent publishing house, Baen Books, that prioritizes liberty-themed SF literature. Though its authors and editors are ideologically diverse, ranging, says author Larry Correia, “from libertarian to communist,” Baen nevertheless represents an impressive cohort of staunch liberty defenders, among them Correia himself, Sarah Hoyt, and Michael Z. Williamson. Although Baen has attempted to distance itself from political affiliation, the company frequently publishes liberty-themed tracts and anthologies, including the recent Taxpayers’ Tea Party: A Manual For Reclaiming Our Country, by Sharon Cooper and Chuck Asay.”**
There are quotes from Eric S Raymond (who I’d forgotten was a Puppy nominee) and a lot of the Quillette essay appears to have been shaped by Raymond’s own accounts of libertarian science fiction. Raymond himself of course is almost a manifestation of the contradictions and ironically-authoritarian tendencies within American libertarianism. Taking you’re-not-boss-of-me or get-off-my-lawn as political maxims does not make for a coherent ideology and much of the “libertarian” aspect of tech-culture amounts to little more depth than this. That essence has led formal Libertarian Parties to become little more than crank-magnets, leaving control of the ideology as primarily a convenient fig-leaf for political conservatives who are very against government in the sense of using taxes to pay for hospitals and very much in favourite of it in the sense of using taxes to pay for a militarised police and for a political military.
What I do like is that he puts Heinlein at the heart of it and there I thing the essay touches on an essence of something. I don’t think Heinlein is easy to categories politically and there is more than enough variety in his work and his eagerness to explore multiple ideas that there’s no simple causal relation between whatever his personal political views were and his works. Also, to a substantial degree, I’m not that interested in Heinlein the man. Rather what interests me in terms of the influence of his works in terms of the political strand of science fiction is that the same three novels are cited over and over:
- Starship Troopers
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
- Stranger in a Strange Land
Each have been influential in their own way but the narrative around them is often framed in terms of contradictions. Stranger is often posed as being counter-culture and more libertine than liberty. Troopers is militaristic and dallies with fascism. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress though is the book that has been most associated with US right-wing libertarianism. As the Quillette piece notes:
“[Milton] Friedman even named his 1975 public policy book after the novel’s slogan TANSTAAFL (“There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”).”
The section on Heinlein also notes the role of the “competent man” in Heinlein’s works. Ken MacLeod in his own essay on politics in science fiction says of Heinlein:
“Heinlein’s liberalism (in the above sense) is fairly consistent, as is his movement from democratic to elitist formulations of it. His earlier works show a faith in ‘the common man’; his later, in the competent man. His works include some that are sensitive to the realities of politics, and some that decidedly are not, but which do embody the imaginative exposition of a political philosophy. The best example of the former is Double Star; of the latter, Starship Troopers. One that attempts to do both, and fails to do either, is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge Companions to Literature) . Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Of course that competent man is epitomised more broadly in science fiction in the form of the heroic engineer, indeed the Quillette essay opens the section on Heinlein with a quote about engineers (which, of course, takes us right back to Eric Flint’s Sad Puppy essay).
As I said, what Heinlein’s actual views were are not something I’m interested in establishing: the fascist elements in Troopers are there regardless of Heinlein’s personal views and pointing them out isn’t part of some prosecution case to cancel Heinlein. Likewise, that Moon is often ambiguous in its depiction of quasi-anarcho-capitalism doesn’t belie the love for it among libertarians (see Milton Friedman above). However, as a trio of stories (and again just a fraction of Heinlein’s overall work) I’d argue they really do form not a coherent common ideology but as a kind of fictional map of common ideas within the US right-wing libertarianism.
Troopers only seems to stand in opposition to Stranger if we expect that the culture of libertarianism (as opposed to the claims made by libertarians about what it is an abstract ideology) are wholly opposite to those of fascism. In reality this is simply bunk. Modern American libertarianism has at time stood in opposition to America’s wars (notably the Iraq war) but culturally and manifestly has been pre-predominately pro-military. Within science fiction, that ‘libertarian’ strand that Quillette points to is often manifest in the form of military science fiction (a sub-genre in part descended from Starship Troopers). Stranger is aesthetically quite different but it still fits within the same gamut of ideas: there are special people who know what they are doing and should be left alone to get on with it. Tech-libertarianism (e.g. Eric S Raymond) follows from that same elevation of (believed) compotence as the mythical sci-fi heroic engineer: the man with a job to do who would just get that job done if there weren’t all these people interfering***!
I see over and over again within the sci-fi right (which predominately has described itself either now or in the past as libertarian including the overtly nationalist Vox Day who very much used to call himself a libertarian) these same set of ideas applied to the military, the police and to society in general. It is a notion that there are simple natural laws of reality (‘the cold equations’ if you like or TANSTAAFL) that ‘competent’ people get (soldiers, law-enforcement, engineers of one kind of another) that if only they could get on with things everything would be sorted but which they can’t do because of [them]. The [them] being whoever the villain of the day is and for the more overtly neo-Nazis are given ethnic groups and for the others are ‘SJWs’ or Marxist professors or civil servants or whoever.
Again, that’s not intended as a dig at Heinlein. Quite the opposite. That he sort of mapped out the connection between this milieu of thinking that somehow accommodates both sexual-repression and sexual-permissiveness**** demonstrates the breadth of his imagination. The issue isn’t whether it is Heinlein’s fault that his works were admired by both Milton Friedman (see above) and Charles Manson (see Jeet Heer’s essay https://newrepublic.com/article/145906/charles-mansons-science-fiction-roots ) but rather that there is this weird space that encompasses both this trio of works by Heinlein and a cultural/ideological thread that connects utterly different people such as Friedman and Manson.
Ken MacLeod argued that:
“The central political voice in genre sf is that of Robert A. Heinlein. To recognize this is not necessarily to agree with his views. Sociology has been described as a dialogue with Marx; the political strand in sf can be described as a dialogue with Heinlein.”The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge Companions to Literature) . Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
I don’t know how true that is but I think it is notable (and paradoxical)that the voices in recent years objecting to politics within their science fiction have often aligned themselves as heir to Heinlein.
*[I’d also say it is a very disingenuous essay from Flint, he castigates critics of the Sad Puppies for claiming that they want stories about brave white male engineers with ray guns when the works of Hoyt, Ringo, Freer and Torgersen aren’t like that but then ignores that ideal of sci-fi is pretty much what Torgersen and other pups were claiming as an example of the thing that needed to be returned to science fiction or if not exactly that then Brad’s Nutty-Nugget expectation of:
“A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.”https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/sad-puppies-3-the-unraveling-of-an-unreliable-field/
Anyway the link to Flint’s piece is here: https://ericflint.net/information/do-we-really-have-to-keep-feeding-stupid-and-his-cousin-ignoramus/ ]
**[I actually have a copy Taxpayers’ Tea Party: A Manual For Reclaiming Our Country, by Sharon Cooper and Chuck Asay. It is a very odd thing and notably it is an updated version of an older book. Very odd that he calls it ‘recent’ though.]
***[And yes, I’ve been in that headspace myself so many times and I get it and I’ve also been the person interfering. Neither is a good basis for developing a model of society.]
****[Indeed, if we take the trio of novels as a map of mental space it almost predicts an otherwise improbable ideologically connected sexual-repression:sexual-permissiveness that we really did see in the alt-right which variously pivoted between pick up-artistry to anti-pornography arguments often from the same people]