Rockets & Raytheon: A Debarkle Coda – 1

In the last weeks of 2021 I attempted to write just one more chapter of the Debarkle series. It was poor timing and that additional chapter quickly spun out of control. So I put it aside and decided to return to it later on.

The reason for the chapter was twofold. The initiating issue was the surprise sponsorship of the 2021 Worldcon by the infamous arms manufacture/aerospace company Raytheon. There are many unanswered questions about this sponsorship including what the financial arrangement was and the timing of the decision. The program book of the convention did not list Raytheon as a sponsor and while there was (apparently) a Raytheon booth at the convention, the primary publicity given to the company (specifically the Raytheon Intelligence & Space division) was at the start of the live-streamed Hugo Award ceremony.

The subsequent controversy embroiled not just the Washington DC-based convention but the Hugo Awards and the Hugo finalists as well. The presence of a “red carpet” photo event with a backdrop of Raytheon logos further embroiled finalists with the controversial company. What was less apparent on social media, was that the Raytheon sponsored photos were not at the main entrance to the ceremony nor were they the official photos of the events.

“Raytheon” has become something of a synecdoche for the high-tech arms industry. Raytheon’s drones have helped create a new kind of warfare. The ethics of this are naturally closely tied to the ethics of warfare in general. However, Raytheon’s involvement in the Saudi Arabian-led conflict in Yemen has added a very specific set of issues which implicate the company in attacks on civilian targets. Compounding this is the economic moral hazard that arises out of a powerful company, dependent on continuing conflicts for profits and dependent on US government policy. With the war in Yemen in particular, Raytheon lobbyists actively worked to maintain sales of weapons to Saudi Arabian even after the US Congress attempts to reduce them due to humanitarian concerns.

“…Raytheon Company, did more than wait for decisions by American officials. It went to great lengths to influence them, even after members of Congress tried to upend sales to Saudi Arabia on humanitarian grounds.”

When Obama was replaced by Donald Trump as US President, Raytheon’s chief lobbyist Mark Esper would go on to become Army secretary and then defence secretary.

Seen as the company actively lobbying to sell weapons used in apparent war crimes, the choice of Raytheon looked not just disturbing but also bizarre. Of course, the connection with the world of science fiction and science fiction fandom was a much older and more basic one: space and rockets. It wasn’t Raytheon in general that had sponsored the convention but specifically the Raytheon Space & Intelligence division. In the immediate controversy following the ceremony, some people defending the decision pointed to the distinction. The specific division was involved in space technology and civilian projects but it was also involved in Raytheon’s drone program as well.

The convention subsequently apologised for the choice of sponsor and the money provided by Raytheon was donated to a charity, as explained by the convention chair Mary Robinette Kowal.

“The decision tree that led us to this point is filled with branches that sound like excuses for my own culpability. At the root of it is simply that in accepting funding from Raytheon Intelligence and Space and partnering with them for the members’ red carpet event, I was wrong.

That choice has caused harm and damage to people: the finalists, who were unaware; the people in our communities; the members and staff of Worldcon, who trusted me to make good choices.

I am sorry that I let you all down.

DisCon III is making an anonymous contribution to an organization dedicated to peace, equal to the amount we received from Raytheon. I am also personally contributing to the same organization.”

The discussion at the time was on these matters: Raytheon’s reputation, the embroiling of Hugo finalists in Raytheon publicity and the unanswered questions about the decision to use them as a sponsor. However, having just completed a lengthy book about the role of a right-wing current within science fiction fandom and the Hugo Awards, I was also struck by a thread that exists in Debarkle that I didn’t highlight. Put simply, if the Raytheon sponsorship had happened in the 2020 Worldcon rather than the 2021 Worldcon, then it would have changed some aspects of the project.

A specific example is this single paragraph in Chapter 7 of Debarkle:

“In 1966, the SFWA began the Nebula Awards as a new set of awards for science fiction writing. While there has always been a fair amount of overlap between the Nebula and Hugo Awards, the Nebulas are intrinsically an award for writers chosen by their peers. Like the Hugo Awards, they have not been without controversy but a full account would fall outside of the Debarkle story. However, one overlap with the political thread to the Debarkle was the 1991 Nebula Awards. The outgoing SFWA President Ben Bova invited the Republican politician Newt Gingrich to give the keynote address. The context was the awards were being held in Atlanta, Georgia and Gingrich was a congressional representative from Georgia at the time and had a specific interest in space exploration. Several SFWA members walked out.”

Debarkle Chapter 7: The SFWA

Gingrich’s address at the Nebula conference has obvious parallels with the Raytheon sponsorship. In particular, it was Gingrich’s passion for space exploration and space technology that led to the surprising overlap of partisan politics and a science fiction award. I had not expected Newt Gingrich to be a recurring character in Debarkle and yet this wasn’t his only appearance. Weapons, fandom and far-right politics have a weird intersection when it comes to one set of objects in particular: rockets.

I’m not going to rewrite Debarkle but I did want to expand a little on some of these overlaps. I should add that this is an exploration rather than a set of posts with a clear thesis or moral. I do have strong opinions about the arms trade but this series is less about that and more about these intersections. There is not an overarching point other than there are topics I would have expanded on more. I am not even sure how many of these posts there will be but the main topics will be:

  • Verein für Raumschiffahrt and the early connection between fandom and rockets
  • Campbell, Heinlien et al, WW2 and the cold war era
  • The space program and the Hugo Awards
  • Newt Gingrich and the Baen/Tor/Gingrich book scandal
  • Jerry Pournelle and SIGMA

Each of these is linked to parts of Debarkle and I want to expand upon what I said. As always, these posts are first drafts and comments, corrections and counter-arguments are not just welcome but encouraged.

26 responses to “Rockets & Raytheon: A Debarkle Coda – 1”

  1. Chapter 9 of the Debarkle mentions Jerry Pournelle seeing Newt Gingrich speaking at the 1983 Balticon. File 770 #62 (p. 32) mentions Gingrich speaking at the 1986 Worldcon’s Opening Ceremonies.

    … how many conventions did Gingrich get to?!?

    Liked by 1 person

    • When you look for the answer, see what year his book with Fortschen came out. They may have made appearances to plug it.


    • I was at the 1986 Worldcon* and I don’t remember Newt. Either I didn’t go to opening ceremonies because a) I skipped it because of him or b) I was already bored AF by opening ceremonies by then.

      *Held in the Time Variance Authority, fwiw.


  2. Very much looking forward to reading this!
    I guess you’ll be touching on the whole Heinlein, Hubbard, Parsons and Alastair Crowley ‘thing’? (I had a side interest for a while in trying to pin down some connections to the history of quantum mechanics – eg Parsons-von Karman & Hubbard’s classes at George Wash U – but never got very far)


  3. I was surprised that any WorldCon had sponsorships besides the publishers, games/comics and maybe local businesses for each convention locale. Why would Raytheon want to be there? An arms, planes and tech dealer isn’t going to get any real bang from doing it, even if the Hugo award is a rocket and the convention is in D.C.

    What usually happens in these cases is that there’s one person involved in the convention who has a friendship/contact/bright idea and pursues it and the other folk in charge don’t know it’s going on or sign off without thinking about it because the idea person wants to do it. In this case, Kowal took full responsibility as the chief person, but was she actually the one who initiated contact with Raytheon and arranged what presence they had? She may have been — her research for her Lady Astronaut series has put her in contact with lots of NASA people and related space folk. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someone else with a connection and she and others running the convention just didn’t think about the wider implications of allowing it.

    A number of SF authors over the years have either worked in the sciences/space fields and/or done consulting and think tanking for such agencies and organizations on tech and the future. So there has always been some connection between the speculative field and the space field, and thus to a lesser degree with the defense contractors involved with the space field. But it would be interesting to see if there’s been much involvement of defense contractors and major SFF conventions or at least WorldCon. I don’t think there has been. Gingrich just really wanted to be a SF author — and use his fiction to promote conservative propaganda. But there is perhaps something of a connection to the Puppies in these conservatives who decide that SFF is the “cool kids” club that they are being shoved out of but instead should rule.

    In any case, WorldCon 2021 should not have been held in person. It was a superspreader event. Maybe that factor led to a shortage in the usual sponsors and somebody got the bright idea to bring in Raytheon to make up the lack.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I see the whole obsession over Raytheon as a sponsor as misguided. WorldCon was lucky to get them as a sponsor, and they should have stood their ground.

    Raytheon makes the Javelin and Stinger missiles that Ukrainians are currently using to destroy Russian tanks and airplanes. Does that make them heroes now? If not, how can you argue that they were villains when their stuff was being used for bad purposes? The truth is, this stuff is like fire: it can be used for good or for evil, but it’s not good or evil in its own right.

    This gets back to a point I’ve made over and over, but at the expense of repeating myself, I’ll repeat myself: Corporations are not and cannot ever be moral actors. They can be ethical, by which I mean they follow laws and regulations, but other than that, they’re essentially machines for making money. They’re not immoral, but they’re definitely amoral, and expecting them to be anything else is a mistake.

    The manager at a corporation who decides to make a moral decision that costs his company money is being unethical (unless that decision was to resign in protest). Trying to make companies be moral is, in my view, a waste of time and effort–like trying to teach a horse to sing. Effort that would be much better spent fighting to change he regulations to get the desired outcome. But these last two only work for specific issues; you cannot, in general, get corporations to make moral decisions about future events. No more than you can train fire not to burn nice people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • //
      Raytheon makes the Javelin and Stinger missiles that Ukrainians are currently using to destroy Russian tanks and airplanes. Does that make them heroes now? //

      You are smarter than that Greg.
      Pfizer makes a covid vaccine that has saved millions of lives that I actively sought out to have given to me. That doesn’t magically make all the fundamental ethical issues with how Pfizer operates null and void.

      Raytheon has actively lobbied for wars and actively sought to undermine legislation critical of war crimes committed AGAINST CIVILIANS in Yemen.

      Bombing inoccent people in aggresive wars is BAD. It’s bad in Ukraine and it is bad in Yemen. I’m glad the Ukrainians have got weapons to fight the Russian army but Raytheon don’t get an ethical halo as a consequence of that anymore than I’d celebrate a serial killer if they flew off to volunteer for a Ukrainian militia.

      //Corporations are not and cannot ever be moral actors. //

      That is an argument FOR action against corporations acting in anti-humanitarian ways. It’s an appalling argument for sitting on your hands and expecting them to clean up their act by themselves. As you point out THEY WON’T and that means they WILL spend money to actively subvert your democracy to shape laws that remove restrictions on their behaviour.

      Liked by 5 people

      • This is why I think the focus needs to be on laws that restrict the ways corporations can lobby–particularly with a focus on preventing regulatory capture.

        Efforts to shame organizations that do business with selected corporations doesn’t accomplish anything. It may feel good, but it doesn’t produce a useful result. (Not in my opinion, anyway.)

        Remember that I’m an old-school activist: I care a lot about results, not so much about niceties. The whole history of the gay rights movement comprises one awful compromise after another (e.g. don’t ask, don’t tell), and yet we accomplished a huge amount by accepting incremental progress. Had we insisted that everything be perfect from the start, we’d have gotten nowhere. Also, we had to focus effort in areas that had a hope of making a difference. Tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmills, and keeps you from making real progress,

        I tend to apply that same thinking to any area I feel strongly about. What do I actually want? I want corporations to be restrained from controlling the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. Does trying to shame WorldCon from accepting Raytheon’s sponsorship advance that goal? Not that I can see.

        Maybe I’m just old 🙂 but a great deal of modern activism seems to me to be just for show. (These young people are RUINING everything!) 🙂


        • //This is why I think the focus needs to be on laws that restrict the ways corporations can lobby–particularly with a focus on preventing regulatory capture//

          Absolutely, and part of how corporations resist such regulation is by promoting themselves as positive and beneficent members of the wider community e.g. Raytheon promoting themselves as the nice nerdy space rocket people at a sci-fi convention. It’s part of laundering their image because the-robot-warcrime business is not what they want to be known as.

          Liked by 4 people

          • And right now, they are promoting themselves as, “Look, we’re helping Ukraine”, while conveniently forgetting that they are getting paid a lot of money for sending anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.

            Liked by 1 person

        • “Efforts to shame organizations that do business with selected corporations doesn’t accomplish anything. It may feel good, but it doesn’t produce a useful result.”

          Well, that isn’t historically true. An organization is made up of people — a leadership (which in WorldCon’s case consists of both a core one that lasts for a bit and a revolving group that changes each year) and members (which for WorldCon, a non-profit, has also a core base that lasts for a bit and a revolving group for each year.) Those people make decisions about what they will and won’t accept, which then affects whether other people join into it or not and affects how the organization operates. And so organizations have atmosphere/culture, they have social norms and those norms affect the rules. For instance, for years it was considered unethical to do vote slates (a norm.) It was looked down on, people would yell at you for trying to do it, because of past Hugo history. But it wasn’t against the official rules, so the Puppies tried to change the norms. So when the Puppies did voting slates and hate campaigns, people who had or wanted to participate in WorldCon and the Hugos had a choice to make about what would be not simply the voting rules but what were really the norms they wanted. The atmosphere had been forcibly changed and they had to decide what they wanted from the WorldCon organization going forward and what they would publicly stand for.

          Likewise, when confronted with Raytheon, run by some truly horrible people, horning into a WorldCon convention, people had a choice. They could accept the inclusion as acceptable or not worth protesting over and that would then become the norm, the culture of WorldCon. Or they could complain and argue for different norms that said companies had to be vetted for sponsorship and corrupt arms dealers were not acceptable. Enough chose the latter that the leadership of WorldCon accepted at least part of that as the norm going forward, with apologies for past behavior.

          With a revolving leadership, the next set of WorldCon organizers, working for a different convention, may try to change the norm back again. But those folks know that it will be objected to as part of the culture of WorldCon and in enough volume and numbers to be a problem. So there’s not a lot of upside and the core leadership of WorldCon doesn’t want that argument. So could it happen again with a future WorldCon? Possibly, but it involves higher stakes and oversight because of the make-up of the organization. So the protest did produce a useful, tangible result because enough of the organization refused to accept the inclusion of Raytheon as a norm of WorldCon culture.

          Right now, thousands of these struggles are going on with much higher stakes. But they are all part of the development of culture — what will be accepted and what will not. The least that people can do (if they feel safe/willing enough to do it) is stand up and declare what their values are, what they will and will not accept in an organization, a corporation, a government, etc. The queer employees at Disney stood up against the Florida anti-queer unconstitutional law and pressured their amoral bosses, as did many consumers, and that helped pressure Disney to tepidly protest against the law. That’s led to a larger struggle. It got a result. Where it’s going to fully lead, we don’t know yet, but it was a rejection of a bigoted and unjust norm. I doubt the folks protesting at Stonewall were thinking, “let’s get marriage equality” as their lead idea for what they stood for. And they would certainly have been depressed to learn it would take over thirty years to actually get marriage equality/legal equal status in the U.S. and then have to keep trying to hold on to it. But it’s still a chain of small results from people standing up for their values in the culture, from Stonewall to now, through the years. And those struggles do affect how corporations act, openly and secretly, even if the people who run them are amoral.

          The point of being the superior dominant is to have the cultural status of the righteous chosen — the good person. Dictators demand being seen as good. Amoral corporate CEO’s and billionaire stockholders want to be seen, demand to be seen, as good. So shaming does in fact work, even if it’s not actually going to affect their profits. They’ll either kill you to get rid of your noise and/or they’ll change their behavior to deal with the new norm from enough voices. That’s how there came to be any openly gay employees at any corporations in the first place. And something that is small and doesn’t get much result at first can act like a seed for a full blown tree later because it shifts norms.

          As Ursula Le Guin so well put it: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

          Liked by 2 people

    • Personally, I think any Worldcon accepting the sponsorship from Raytheon should be the target of boycotts, protests and campaigns both against the convention itself and every person involved in the decision. The protests should take part both online and onsite. You say that you care about results rather niceties? Then lets use that logic to make the convention a miserable place for organisers who accept the sponsorship of war profiteers. The result will be that they stop.

      It isn’t that hard. Do not accept sponsorship from tobacco, oil and war companies. An amoral convention might just skip on Code of Conducts if they don’t care about the massive murder of civilians.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Clearly you have never had the experience of starting a boycott only to discover that so few people participated that almost no one cared or noticed.


        • Clearly I have had that experience on both sides of the rail and also have have the experience of successful boycotts. It is a bad habit of you to make uninformed and stupid guesses about other peoples experiences.

          In this case, we also know that the protests against Raytheon were successful.

          Liked by 1 person

          • In the case of WorldCon, yes, but it wasn’t really a boycott; it was just a complaint. WorldCon is a pretty liberal bunch (especially since the Puppies left), so you were pretty much pushing on an open door.

            The trouble with pushing on an open door is that it doesn’t accomplish very much. Some feelings were probably hurt, but few/no minds were changed.

            “And everybody praised the Duke
            Who this great fight did win.”
            “But what good came of it at last?”
            Quoth little Peterkin.
            “Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
            “But ’twas a famous victory.”

            The Battle of Blenheim, by Robert Southy


            • That is of course entirely wrong. Pushing against an open door makes sure that the door stays open. You started with claiming that Worldcon should have received sponsorship from brutal war profiteers and lobbyists for mass murder. Pushing against the open door made sure that this will not become an acceptable choice.

              Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, I suspect that there would have been far fewer complaints, if Raytheon had sponsored the 2022 Worldcon, because suddenly delivering weapons into an active warzone is the right and moral thing to do and anybody who dares to criticise this or even ask if sending weapons into an active warzone is a great idea, especially since one of the parties involved is a crazed tyrant with nukes, is an evil coward.

      Liked by 1 person

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