The politics of science fiction

by on December 18, 2013 at 6:30 am in Books, Philosophy, Political Science, Science | Permalink

Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.

That is from Tim Kreider, who praises the political visions and fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson.  Kreider also longs for a more political literature, devoted to such ideas as common stewardship of land and water, and also “small co-ops” instead of “vast, hierarchical, exploitative corporations.”  Among other changes.  He then writes:

My own bet would be that either your grandchildren are going to be living by some of these precepts, or else they won’t be living at all.

What is a good response to that?  Let’s look at the article itself, and we can see sentence which is smarter than Kreider himself seems to realize:

If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death.

I would myself note that the politics of science fiction, on average (with exceptions), encourage us to think about “breaking a few eggs,” and not for the better.  The reality is that when it comes to the future, we can “see around the corner” only to a limited degree.  The upshot is that the rights of the individual — when applicable — should remain paramount, and no I don’t mean Caplanian libertarian rights.  You can only rarely be sure you will get such a great gain from violating rights, so why not do the right thing instead?  Science fiction inhabits the realm of fiction precisely because the building of grand scenarios is denied to us, for the most part.

To again use Kreider’s own words, societies where “nothing can be taken for granted” are exactly the ones I would never wish to visit, much less live in.  I know the radical anarcho-capitalist strand, but is there a Burke-Oakeshott-Hayek science fiction, in the traditionalist and conservative sense of that combination?  Or must we resort to the “fantasy” genre to capture such a vision?  What would a science fiction account of a macro-level spontaneous order look like?  Iain Banks?  Frank Herbert?

Vernunft December 18, 2013 at 6:47 am

Liberals are anti-Hegelian and conservatives commit the naturalistic fallacy.

In…what world is any of that true? F- repeat Intro to Philosophy.

Da December 18, 2013 at 10:52 am

Haha. My thought exactly.

john personna December 18, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Should we do comic books next? Or television soap operas?

(Each of these things deals with a fantastically narrowed reality, narrowed specifically so that strange dramas may predominate. The best sci-fi may present a sketch of some political idea, but “Science fiction is an inherently political genre?” Pull the other one. It’s an arrtifical domain where you can have space cowboys.)

Rafael G December 19, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Comic books are a medium and not a genre.

Rafael G December 19, 2013 at 7:19 pm

For instance, this comic book is considered to be a very significant work of science fiction: http://www.amazon.com/Nausica%C3%A4-Valley-Wind-Box-Set/product-reviews/1421550644/ref=cm_cr_pr_top_link_1?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending, but there are comic books in other genres. This particular comic book is one of the most politically illuminated works of science fiction, in fact, it’s very subtle as it starts from a rather socialist ideology and works it’s way towards nihilism by it’s midpoint and near the end towards liberalism still with a heavily nihilistic shade. It’s the first comic book I read as an adult and it shows that the medium goes way over it’s popular image (specially in the west).

Sam December 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Seems more or less accurate. The Hegelian project today tries presents itself as the perfect antithesis of modern liberalism. As for conservatives, social-cons commit the fallacy on a regular basis. Burkean economic and political conservatives move from saying “what’s natural is right” to “what’s natural is likely to be right as a reliable heuristic”. In this way they convert a logical fallacy into a mere bias for institutions and norms that are pre-existing.

Ape Man December 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm

“More or less” accurate seems like an awful generous phrase to use. It is true that some people who are called conservatives could be described as Burkean (heck, I would describe Professor Cowen as being Burkean to a large degree). But if you are talking about conservative VS liberal in terms of science fiction and you fail to deal with Hobbes, then I think your use of the term “conservative” is awfully narrow.

Burkean conservatives are just liberals who believe that the precautionary principle applies to politics. Only conservatives who take after Hobbes can truly be differentiated from the liberal tradition. And people who are largely governed by a religious tradition are in another category altogether.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 6:58 am

I think the main polarity of liberal v. conservative these days is in terms of loyalties. Conservatives tend toward concentric loyalties, while liberals are ostentatiously into leapfrogging loyalties.

Ronald Reagan, who watched a lot of science fiction movies, told the UN in 1987: “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” In other words: concentric loyalties: the USA and USSR would team up to fight alien invaders. (When Reagan would muse on the topic of how an alien invasion would wrap up the Cold War immediately, it used to freak out his literal-minded national security adviser Colin Powell.)

But, lots of sci-fi is about how aliens are more evolved and spiritual than humans, and superior people would team up with the aliens against their own benighted species, such as Avatar. Close Encounters and ET lean in that direction of leapfrogging loyalties, too, although Spielberg is smart enough to keep it ambiguous. In contrast, conservative sci-fi movies would be ones where the earthlings team up out of concentric loyalties to blast hell out of the aliens, such as Independence Day.

Martin Keegan December 18, 2013 at 7:54 am

To what extent is “leapfrogging loyalties” explainable by DISloyalty, caused by envy or regret at downward social mobility?

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Tom Wolfe answered that question in Back to Blood:

“If you ask me, newspaper reporters are created at age six when they first go to school. In the schoolyard boys immediately divide into two types. Immediately! There are those who have the will to be daring and dominate, and those who don’t have it. … But there are boys from the weaker side of the divide who grow up with the same dreams as the stronger … The boy standing before me, John Smith, is one of them. They, too, dream of power, money, fame, and beautiful lovers.

“Boys like this kid grow up instinctively realizing that language is like … a sword or a gun. Used skillfully, it has the power to … well, not so much achieve things as to tear things down – including people … including the boys who came out on the strong side of the sheerly dividing line.

“Hey, that’s what liberals are! Ideology? Economics? Social justice? Those are nothing but their prom outfits. Their politics were set for life in the schoolyard at age six. They were the weak, and forever after they resented the strong. That’s why so many journalists are liberals! The very same schoolyard events that pushed them toward the written word … pushed them toward “liberalism.””

Michael Turner December 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Thank you for reminding me of this passage, which represents Wolfe at his most incoherent. I REALLY needed a good laugh today and that provided it. By way of a rejoinder I offer Robert Benchley: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t”.

Al December 18, 2013 at 7:08 am

The Dune and the Culture series feature the seemingly random circumstances that ultimately represent the actions of competing super-intelligences. Dune features the Kwisatz Haderach, a person who is basically enslaved by his values and his almost complete vision of the future.

The Takeshi Kovacs series uses the concept of digitized awareness to consider some effects on relationships, aesthetics, inequality, and warfare. I dunno, maybe Warhammer 40k?

Anon. December 18, 2013 at 10:49 am

Honestly a Culture-like future seems somewhat inevitable as long as we don’t blow ourselves up. Strong AI is coming eventually no matter what. And a spaceship is obviously where an immortal machine superintelligence would like to reside.

weareastrangemonkey December 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm

In the most optimistic of worlds we end up as something like the Culture.

FredR December 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm

The Culture is just about the most wildly optimistic scenario I can imagine of what Strong AI would do to and with us.

W.E. Heasley December 18, 2013 at 7:09 am

“What would a science fiction account of a macro-level spontaneous order look like?”

Macro-level [the extended order] with decisions based on individual time and individual circumstance producing spontaneous/emergent order, in an infinite series, with dynamic interaction causing experimentation resulting in success and failure…..is difficult for many to comprehend hence the phenomena itself becomes science fiction to many.

Meanwhile, back at technocratic central planning headquarters, where the future is certain and nothing fails, where third party “expert” decisions prevail with decisions based on individual time and individual circumstance become null and experimentation is muted, ending in the infamous “one best way“….. is the ultimate fiction held forth as science.

Paul M. Jones December 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm

“Macro-level [the extended order] with decisions based on individual time and individual circumstance producing spontaneous/emergent order, in an infinite series, with dynamic interaction causing experimentation resulting in success and failure…..is difficult for many to comprehend hence the phenomena itself becomes science fiction to many.”

This sounds like a time travel story. The emergent order is *shown* as contingent when a character travels to the past, changes one decision, and travels back to the future in the new timeline to find everything changes.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 7:19 am

Most dystopian sci-fi is more or less conservative: 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, etc. Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” with a script worked on by Tom Stoppard, seems like an attempt to envision what 1984 would have looked like if it had been written by Waugh instead of Orwell.

Thor December 18, 2013 at 11:28 am

True of most 20th cen. dystopian fiction in general. And no wonder: all but the most die-hard Stalinist could see what the Soviets wrought.

Re: Sci Fi, I have found Robinson to be almost unreadable. Conversely Iain Banks is really good, at times, and he’s on the left.

enoriverbend December 18, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Iain Banks *was* good, I regret to inform you of his demise on June 9th of this year.

JWatts December 18, 2013 at 11:30 pm

” I have found Robinson to be almost unreadable”

Second that. I plowed my way through the first two Mars novels but gave up before the third. He’s really not that good a writer.

weareastrangemonkey December 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Authoritarian governments are also dystopias feared by the left. The Nazis were as much a part of the inspiration for 1984 as were the Soviets. Many authoritarian dystopias are religious (such as Atwood’s handmaiden’s tale) or created by fascists (Starship troopers, Enders game, Gattaca or V for Vendetta). However, all powerful authoritarian governments are not the only dystopian game in town. Look at the work of PK Dick, Burroughs, JG Ballard, Gibson; or more recently the Wind Up Girl by Bacigalupi.

In general, there is something intrinsically (small c) conservative about dystopian novels: They envision a future that is very different to the present and this future is bad. But the authoritarian lilts to these dystopian futures are only conservative because authoritarian governments are very different to what we have now. This is only the case because anti-conservative political radicals put so much effort into dismantling the authoritarian states of Europe (and then elsewhere). Consequently, the nature of the authoritarian governments described in these dystopian futures would have been very conservative if only they were written 300 years ago, in our dystopian past.

cthulhu December 19, 2013 at 1:08 am

If you think that “Starship Troopers” is a fascist dystopia, you’re totally nuts…that’s not what Heinlein was exploring at all.

Tracy W December 19, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I think Monkey is using facist in the conventional sense of “anyone to the right of Chairman Mao”.

Steve Sailer December 19, 2013 at 2:59 am

Gulliver’s Travels is 300-year-old Tory sci-fi. The third voyage to the flying island of Whig scientists is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 7:23 am

Niven and Pournelle’s “The Mote in God’s Eye” is an interstellar detective story: A U.S.-Soviet fleet encounters the first intelligent alien species. They are as technologically advanced as us, except they lack our faster-than-light drive. Their ambassadors are charming. Should we invite them to join us in the galaxy or keep them bottled up in their solar system? A few skeptics begin an investigation of their ecology …

albatross December 18, 2013 at 9:19 am

I think good SF that’s not set pretty close to the present day is going to be a lousy fit for anything like current political distinctions, just because the problems faced by some far future civilization are so different. But a conservative sense of how people and the universe works is pretty common–you can find that in Niven and Pournelle’s work, and in Bujold’s work–both tend to deal heavily with loyalties to family and nation and species/people. Both of those also seem to assume relatively standard family structures, nations not unlike what we know now, etc. (Though if Bujold’s work focused on Cetagandans instead of Barrayarrans, things might be quite different. Or the men of Ethan of Athos’ planet.) I’d say Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky has, in some sense, a really fundamentally conservative worldview, transplanted into a completely novel environment where essentially none of the current liberal/conservative splits have much currency.

Will people, families, and nations be more-or-less like what they are now? How will people organize their time and lives? How can you know who the good guys and the bad guys are in this far future world? Those are questions SF stories kind-of have to answer, to make a comprehensible story.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Although the Empire in those novels is based upon Imperial Rome, with a Victorian British overlay.

When you get to ‘The Gripping Hand’ (set about 25 years later) it’s clear the Empire has evolved: become more bureaucratic, more ossified, more decadent.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 7:29 am

Kreider says: “And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics.”

Back when I was a boyish sci-fi fan, I thought the same. But in reality the central question of politics is Whose Side Are You On?

magilson December 18, 2013 at 10:16 am

“But in reality the central question of politics is Whose Side Are You On?”

This.

Frederic Mari December 18, 2013 at 11:25 am

Hahahahaha. +1.

prior_approval December 18, 2013 at 7:49 am

‘ The reality is that when it comes to the future, we can “see around the corner” only to a limited degree.’

Only a certain type of reader actually thinks science fiction is about the future.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Nothing looks more of-the-moment-it-was-filmed than sci-fi movies. Costumes and set designs normally just exaggerate the latest trends in fashion and architecture.

Corey December 18, 2013 at 8:19 am

“What would a science fiction account of a macro-level spontaneous order look like? Iain Banks? Frank Herbert?”

Answer: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

No rules. Spontaneous order. Rebellion.

My favourite Sci-Fi book by lightyears. I’ve read it many times.

Corey December 18, 2013 at 8:31 am

There is another short book (much more obscure) by Heinlein that touches on true Macro issues.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_This_Horizon

There’s some discussion there of how/why new money is printed, what it’s used for, etc. There’s weird government mitigation of the excessive “surplus” the sky-high productivity produces.

I don’t think it’s all that sophisticated or even plausible but it’s got a bit more “Macro” than Mistress has.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Beyond This Horizon is a utopian eugenics novel, a theme Heinlein picked up from his hero H.G. Wells. After WWII, Heinlein’s interest in eugenics goes underground, but you can trace it in many of his subsequent books.

JWatts December 18, 2013 at 11:34 pm

The book Friday of course. But it’s not really eugenics, it’s genetic engineering. Though from one point of view, they are the same.

cthulhu December 19, 2013 at 1:11 am

But “Friday” was very diminished Heinlein; pretty much everything he wrote after his major illness of the early ’70s is deeply flawed and generally non-interesting. From “I Will Fear No Evil” onward, say.

albatross December 19, 2013 at 2:25 am

All the stories involving the Howard Foundation are pretty clearly dealing with eugenics, albeit selecting for nothing but survival to old age. The novella Assignment In Eternity is based on a secret society of supermen, homo superior more-or-less. I think they mostly intermarry, but it’s not clear they’re doing selective breeding. (Thanks to regression to the mean, supermens’ children will generally just be on the bright and healthy end of normal.)

Steve Sailer December 19, 2013 at 3:04 am

Most of Heinlein’s protagonists have superb math ability.

For example, his outstanding juvenile “Starman Jones” is set in an economically stultified future where guilds (i.e., crafts unions) reserve all the good jobs for sons and nephews of members. The hero is a nephew of a starship astrogator, but for various reasons can’t join the guild. But he turns out to have all the mental computing abilities needed to be a first rate astrogator.

Heinlein believed in careers open to talents, but expected the talents to be fairly heritable.

albatross December 18, 2013 at 9:23 am

The Peace War also has a lot of spontaneous order happening, as well as a sense of the loyalties of the important characters that makes villains as well as heroes have some depth.

FredR December 18, 2013 at 10:02 am

“No rules. Spontaneous order.”

Although Heinlein cheats a little by having a super-intelligent computer secretly organize everything…

Adrian Ratnapala December 18, 2013 at 1:03 pm

The spontaneous order is not the revolution. It’s the aftermath where the libertopia gently descends into statisim.

Careless December 18, 2013 at 7:50 pm

“Everything is going according to plan, therefore our odds of success have dropped”

Drove me crazy. One stupid brilliant AI

albatross December 19, 2013 at 2:26 am

I assumed that this was supposed to reflect other changes that had happened offstage–a particular politician gaining power here, a crop failure there, etc.

Adrian Ratnapala December 19, 2013 at 3:20 am

I’m fairly sure it’s because Heinlein just didn’t understand probability.

JWatts December 18, 2013 at 11:38 pm

That’s just the book “The Moon is A Harsh Mistress”. He wrote a lot of books. Very few were centered around a super-intelligent computer. Quite a few had AI that were around a human level of intelligence.

Many of his books had a strongly Libertarian theme based upon people trying in a Wild West frontier type environment or attempting to make it to such an environment.

Steve Sailer December 19, 2013 at 12:00 am

Heinlein’s most common ideological theme is “pioneerist:” he favored exploration, settlement, and independence: i.e., his sci-fi recapitulates the history of America.

Of course, settlerism brings up the problem of the intelligent life that was there already, as in the West Bank today. Heinlein finesses that because the aliens in Heinlein books typically don’t take up all that much room on their home planets. So if they are respected by humans, there is room to share. Mars is usually portrayed in Heinlein books as a sort of Tibet populated by philosophically sophisticated but exhausted spiritualists with very low birth rates, while Venus is the Amazon populated by tribes that willingly cede the polar regions to earthlings but fight back against human exploiters of their equatorial region. (The second half of 1948′s “Space Cadet,” which involves the space cadets helping the Venusian natives fight an evil human mining company, for example, is pretty much the basis for “Avatar.”)

mkt December 19, 2013 at 2:36 am

Interesting. When I saw “Avatar” the first SF story that I thought of was LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest”. I didn’t think of “Space Cadet” but I must admit I remember almost nothing of the plot; it was decades ago that I read it.

Steve Sailer December 19, 2013 at 3:07 am

From Wikipedia’s description of Heinlein’s Avatar-like Space Cadet:

Then, he receives an urgent message to investigate an incident on Venus. He sends Lieutenant Thurlow and the cadets to the planet’s surface. The lander touches down on a sinkhole, barely giving the crew enough time to get out before it disappears in the mud. With Thurlow comatose, injured when the lander fell over, Jensen assumes command. He contacts the sentient usually-friendly Venerians, but the entire party is taken captive. They soon find out why.

These particular natives had never seen human beings before, until old classmate Burke showed up in a prospecting ship. He had taken the matriarch of the local clan hostage when she refused to give him permission to exploit a rich deposit of radioactive ores. The locals promptly attacked the ship and killed his crew; Burke managed to send a message for help before being taken prisoner.

Jensen skillfully gains the matriarch’s trust and convinces her that they are honorable and civilized, unlike Burke, and the Patrolmen are released.

David December 19, 2013 at 9:41 am

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. No rules. Spontaneous order. Rebellion.”

Not quite right. Everyone seems to forget that the existing order in Heinlein’s lunar penal colony is only possible because the space where human beings generally organize and contend for power–politics–has been fully and harshly occupied by the Authority. Even then, the existing situation is only stable because the Authority restricts itself to excluding any challenges to itself: it ignores anything the convicts do to each other.

It is only when the Earthside part of the Authority insists on making changes that turn its lunar presence into King Stork instead of King Log that the rebellion gains any traction.

For another look at what Heinlein thought about this, try the short story “Coventry.” There you have a truly totalitarian society–people who won’t conform to the social order face “reprogramming” (brainwashing) or must accept exile to another libertarian hellhole (excuse me, “paradise”) similar to the lunar penal colony…except that it’s actually possible to return from Coventry.

I think if you read Heinlein’s fiction (particularly including his juveniles) you will come away with the understanding that while Heinlein values freedom, he is not particularly sanguine about its survivability: most of the societies he portrays are soft authoritarianisms, and the exceptions tend to be, well, hard authoritarianisms.

This isn’t because Heinlein likes authoritarianism–I think that’s quite clear–but I think he understood it to be the historical norm rather than the exception–and he was sufficiently “conservative” (in the Burkean sense) that he didn’t believe human nature was susceptible to long-term change.

“Spontaneous order” is a fine and praiseworthy thing, but it has its limits: ask the inhabitants of the cheerful libertarian paradise of Mogadishu. As one of Larry Niven’s characters observes in “Cloak of Anarchy”, anarchy isn’t stable. Or as one of my friends points out, lie down with anarchists, wake up with warlords.

For better or for worse, most people will choose order and security ahead of freedom: an insight propounded by Thomas Hobbes.

Indeed Abraham Maslow would argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, but that physical security and a more or less predictable day-to-day environment are foundational and precede liberty in the hierarchy of needs, which he would classify as a form of self-actualization and therefore at the apex of the hierarchy of needs.

And…no, I don’t like it any better than you do: but I am realistic enough to realize it.

CPV December 18, 2013 at 8:20 am

Well, the “science” in science fiction usually implies investigating how technological progress might occur, and what it’s effects on human or other societies might be, As mentioned, there seem to be divergent views on whether technology will enable the perfection of the human species or cause it’s destruction or near destruction. There seems to be a good reason to be suspicious that the “internet of things” and individual liberty are broadly compatible. Is there an individual empowerment that comes with technology that will trump the ability of NSA type activities (and worse) to compromise civil liberties? Should large central governments disappear in favor of cooperative distributed government? So far the answers seem to point towards larger concentrations of power and greater inequality driven by technology.

Dan Weber December 18, 2013 at 8:22 am

Science fiction is thought experiments. “What would happen to society if X happened?” It can very often be social commentary, allowing discussion of current events without discussing current events.

Problems arrive when fans of a work think that the author’s conclusion on a topic is the final word. It’s merely one argument in a much wider conversation.

Zach December 18, 2013 at 8:35 am

I think your science fiction of “macro-level spontaneous order” is akin to what you see in the various worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. She posits various initial conditions and imagines what kind of equilibrium such a society might reach. For example, even though the colony Anarres in The Disposssessed is a so-called anarchist utopia, the cyclical nature of living standards and the exploration of the subtle ways individuals are manipulated (or not) suggests Hayek to me. I’m sure UKL was familiar with him, whether or not she intended to bring it out in her writing.

David December 19, 2013 at 10:06 am

And then there’s UKL’s most minatory story, that in a few hundred words repudiates all the high-flying rhetoric about the “sacrifices” that are “necessary” to usher in Utopia: “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Jamie December 18, 2013 at 8:57 am

I know you said, no anarchists, but Vernor Vinge is probably the author who has explored spontaneous order the most. A Fire Upon the Deep comes to mind, and he wrote a seminal story called True Names about crypto and anonymous communication that was inspirational to the Cypherpunks in the early 1990s.

Fun trivia: Julian Assange was one of the many colorful people on that mailing list.

But otherwise, Robert Heinlein, when he wasn’t having mental issues, is probably your best bet for a strong conservative narrative.

Dan Simmons. Fall of Hyperion is one of his works I enjoyed.

Or Greg Egan, in an odd way. He managed to write a book (Diaspora) in which people automate themselves out of existence, and ‘people’ are already software.

Banks was famously liberal- he described The Culture as attempting to find narrative after a socialist utopia exists.

But yeah, I think you need to check out the fantasy isle to find strong conservative narratives. They like hereditary privilege and such over there. Charlie Stross is probably the standout counterexample, but he’s only a secret fantasy author.

David December 19, 2013 at 10:11 am

“Robert Heinlein, when he wasn’t having mental issues, is probably your best bet for a strong conservative narrative.”

Agreed, but another you might wish to consider is Jack Vance, in particular the novels and short stories set in the universe of the Oikumene–the loose association of human-settled worlds with no central government, in which such policing as exists is provided either by private agents (“Milton Hack of Zodiac”, “Shape-Up”, or any of the Magnus Ridolph stories) or by agents of planetary police forces that qualify for accession to Vance’s interstellar version of Interpol, the IPCC (Interplanetary Police Coordinating Committee).

FredR December 18, 2013 at 9:03 am

The best sci-fi book ever written is Ada, which has very little to do with politics except that it mashes all of the cultures and traditions Nabokov loved best into one country so that he may evade the trauma of exile.

On another note, I don’t think liberal/conservative is the best way to chop up contemporary science fiction. The two main themes I see in major sci-fi authors from the past 50 years are: the morality of liberal interventionism (which usually cuts across the classic liberal/conservative divide), and the existential question posed by artificial intelligence, which Samuel Butler already answered 150 years ago.

albatross December 18, 2013 at 9:28 am

Right. The Culture stories are all about trying to put liberal interventionism in a post-scarcity world, where the liberal interventionism is largely about keeping the AIs’ pet humans (and the AIs) entertained and feeling good about themselves.

Some of The Culture stories also examine the idea that there are many societies about as advanced as The Culture, and they mostly don’t make their AIs full citizens or give them autonomy. The Culture is owned and operated by the most powerful AIs, who keep humanoids and lesser AIs around as pets, more or less.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Besides Ada, Nabokov also wrote two exquisite soft sci-fi short stories, Time and Ebb and Lance, that are among the last and best in his collected short stories. Think Ray Bradbury with an order of magnitude more literary skills.

Nabokov’s politics were roughly those of his favorite political magazine, National Review.

FredR December 20, 2013 at 10:32 am

Except on the issue of segregation, no? In Ada, the American South was settled by African explorers, whose descendants seem to be a fairly contented and prosperous crew, all in all.

Tim December 18, 2013 at 9:05 am

Fiction is also driven by conflict, so science fiction is always going to bend towards dystopias and pessimism. I think macro-level order is not a particularly implausible future, especially in an increasingly connected world. But I do think it is really hard to find an interesting story in it.

Urstoff December 18, 2013 at 9:35 am

What a silly essay. He doesn’t find the fiction he wants because moralizing or political wish fulfillment generally makes for bad literature. Krieder’s got a very strong (and seemingly shallow) worldview, and he’s mad that fiction isn’t catering to it.

Thor December 18, 2013 at 11:33 am

I completely agree. And he doesn’t realize he’s doing this. It was a terrible essay on a fascinating topic.

Is the New Yorker now channelling its inner Slate?

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm

A huge amount of journalism published these days under prestigious old brand names is really just $15 per post click bait churned out by over-caffeinated 23 year olds.

Kevin C. December 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm

+1

steve December 18, 2013 at 9:37 am

I think the cyber-punks more or less got it right. Technology continues to advance in leaps and bounds, intelligent AI, human implantable electronic aids, etc.

But, human psychology remains more or less the same, sometimes selfish and greedy sometimes altruistic. The resulting world envisioned is complete with criminal gangs, the middle class, and the ultra-rich living in orbital colonies.

Ted Craig December 18, 2013 at 9:38 am

I remember a comment in one of the sic fi classes I took in my misspent youth that while many authors predicted a future with giant, evil corporations, few predicted world with no corporations. This was used as an example of the limited ability of writers to envision a radically different world.

prior_approval December 18, 2013 at 11:16 am

And here, Heinlein steps in with Starship Troopers, for example – a future where corporations, to the extent they exist, are utterly subservient to a state where the right to vote is only granted to those that serve the government, mainly through military type service.

Something utterly anathema, it appears, to those we elect to higher office. Not to mention their children.

mike December 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm

So you’re in favor of electing more people with a military background? I wouldn’t have guessed that.

albatross December 19, 2013 at 2:30 am

It could also be a civil service background, IIRC. But you had to serve the state before you got a vote, and I think when you volunteered, you might not know what you’d get assigned–spend 20 years maintaining code in the VA system, or climb into some powered armor and start blowing away bugs.

FYI December 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

Tim,
I am not sure about that. Take Charlie Stross for instace. What bothers me on his books is not the conflict – it is the forced/out of place political statement that is planted as a conflict. The whole ‘we have grown out of the pre-conception of gender’ he loves to mention is soooo… 2000s… I don’t know, I think Star Trek, for all its flaws, it is a pretty conservative vision of the future. It is considered liberal because of the lack of money but that is missing the point. Achievement is still the main driver of that society. The Federation rank is not egalitarian, it is the apex of inequality.

In fact, I wonder why space exploration still have not become the “solution” to our economical problems. Thousands of people volunteered to go to Mars knowing they will have a lower life quality and will die sooner. There is no other human endeavor that can create this kind of motivation that I know of.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Star Trek is pure JFK Cold War — an extension of the thinking behind JFK’s pretty good idea of a race to the moon as a nonviolent showcase struggle with the Russkies.

SterlingO'blivion December 18, 2013 at 10:23 am

What about the Foundation series? I don’t think that Asimov was a conservative but those novels struck me as conservative.

Also if you are looking at political sci-fi you can’t ignore the Strugatski Brothers. It would be odd to call them conservative, given their context, but they were certainly writing against communist Russia.

Also, no one has mentioned Norstrilia, I thought that was very political, in sort of the same way that Heinlein was.

Millian December 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

“Foundation” inspired Paul Krugman to be an economist, which was a good thing all in all. It may be conservative in the European sense of supporting paternalistic planning, but the messages are counter to American conservatism – religion as manmade opiate, trade as the non-spontaneous outcome of a social plan, and so on.

wiki December 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm

+! on Norstrilia. Not only is the novel conservative in feeling and temperament, but the highly tradition oriented Norstrilians are described with sympathy and without irony, despite their wealth, their desire to promote a constrained lifestyle, and their fierce willingness to exclude the rest of the universe and defend their uniqueness against all comers. Flashes of colonial USA, Switzerland, Singapore, and Israel come to mind as you read the book.

David December 19, 2013 at 10:02 am

Asimov’s Foundation series are in part a re-imagining of Gibbon’s version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with the SF hook being, what if you could manipulate human behavior at a macro level using a kind of “nudge” approach?

The McGuffin (not quite the term I’m looking for, but it will have to do) of the series, the science of “psychohistory” (I put the term in quotes because–confusingly–there is another, more recent meaning to it) is basically Marxism made scientific, largely by increasing the numbers involved so that true statistical analysis of human behavior becomes plausible.

Alas, Asimov discovered about halfway through that he’d written himself into a corner: in part because the underlying concepts don’t take “Great Men” statistical flukes like the Mule) into account (or for that matter any effects from technological change, which is remarkable dormant throughout). So he’s forced to violate his own ground rules in the second half of the series, starting with the Mule.

So I would agree that the Foundation series is “conservative” in the sense that it assumes an essentially unchanging and unchangeable human nature. But it is hardly conservative in its macro view of the implications of that: I doubt that anyone who can plausibly be characterized as conservative, now or historically, would be in favor of an environment in which the great mass of human beings were being subtly manipulated by a small coterie of elite thinkers.

If you want to consider an alternative view, try the Poul Anderson short story, “No Truce With Kings”, whose central argument is that true liberty and dignity require that humans should have the right to live their potty little lives without outside interference, even if this turns out badly.

Dan Hanson December 18, 2013 at 10:29 am

By its nature, science fiction has to describe a possible future. Even science fiction authors who understand that change is spontaneous and unpredictable have to do this. But you can get around that conundrum by simply accepting that the author is saying, “what if emergence caused a future like the one I’m describing?” It’s just one possible future – not necessarily a declaration that the future is in fact predictable or will follow from current trends.

Science Fiction is not naturally liberal. Nor is it naturally conservative. It’s just a form of literature. The author can imprint on it whatever political/socioeconomic philosophy he or she chooses.

Robert Heinlein was not a ‘conservative’ – he was a libertarian. But some of his books have strongly conservative themes. “Starship Troopers” describes a society where high school students are required to take a course in ‘History and Moral Philosophy’, in which they are taught broadly conservative ideas, supposedly turned into fact through scientific analysis.

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” describes a moon colony that was left largely ungoverned, and therefore has developed social mores and economic systems that are largely emergent and spontaneous. For example, the colony has evolved line marriages and clan marriages to answer two big issues – the relative scarcity of women, and the lack of a social safety net. Line marriages are essentially multi-generational contracts between groups of people that ensure the elderly and the young will be cared for. Even the legal system emerged spontaneously from the unique issues the colony faces. And when the government does try to control things, it creates unintended consequences that the colony has to deal with. The message of the book is, “Leave people alone, and they’ll work out their own problems more effectively than if some distant ruler tries to run things.” The parallel is to the start of the American and French revolutions. Heinlein’s famous acronym from the book, TAANSTAAFL (“There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”) is a fundamentally conservative/Austrian principle.

There are many other such books, both by Heinlein and other authors. Niven and Pournelle wrote books with largely conservative or libertarian themes. So did/does James P. Hogan, L. Neil Smith, Vernor Vinge, Neil Stephenson, David Brin, Brad Linaweaver, F. Paul Wilson, and others. One of the major SF awards is the Prometheus award, given to the best libertarian science fiction in each year.

Steve Sailer December 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Heinlein was a lot of different things politically, depending upon whom he was married to at the time. He was a staffer in Upton Sinclair’s far left campaign for governor of California in 1934, for instance. Heinlein was a creative writer, not an ideologue. Picking up and discarding ideas kept his books fresh during his long prime from 1939-1966 and staved off any idea he might have had of heading a cult, like his friend L. Ron Hubbard or like Ayn Rand.

Libertarians have first call on Heinlein because his 1966 novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress shows him at the peak of his powers just before his severe health problems silenced him for a few years. Even that is a Charles Murray-type libertarianism where, without a state, you have to rely on neighborliness to get you through all the things that can go wrong. And lots of things can go wrong on the moon.

JWatts December 18, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Many of Heinlein’s book follow a Libertarian theme.
To name a few: The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, Friday, Glory Road, The Number of the Beast, Time Enough for Love, Have Space Suit will Travel, The Cat Who Walks through Walls, The Rolling Stones, I Will Fear No Evil, JOB: A comedy of Justice, Farnham’s Freehold…

Dan Hanson December 19, 2013 at 5:12 am

I’ve heard it said that Heinlein’s politics followed his wives, but I don’t believe it’s true. Heinlein’s early flirtation with socialism and social credit had more to do with his being an engineer and believing that you could engineer an economy along with anything else. But he became disillusioned with the left before WWII, long before he married Virginia, the woman said to turn him conservative.

Heinlein’s later views were much more influenced by the Cold War, which made him take a hard look at the Soviet system and see the flaws within in. He became not just a military hawk, but an economic liberal. He never went conservative because he had quite liberal social views – shockingly so for the time. So he fell upon libertarianism (broadly speaking – he was never a member of the party, and was careful to not associate himself with any specific political party after the 1950′s, so far as I know).

From the late 1950′s on, his views were pretty solidified, and I don’t believe they changed much until the end of his life.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

Heinlein’s ‘hard look’ at the Soviet Union included a significant trip there– several weeks. During the 1950s (I think post Stalin). His wife learned Russian in preparation for the trip. He writes about it in ‘Expanded Universe’ and there’s a piece ‘A bathroom of her own’ (about the privations of Russian life, including communally shared bathrooms – 1 per hall of apartments).

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:59 pm

One should also mention RAH’s experience of civic politics. Again in ‘Expanded Universe’ he writes a short story about that, then admits in the afterwards it was true. It’s a pretty cynical story.

David Drake was in civic politics, after law school and before becoming a writer. The dystopian ‘Lacey and his Friends’ is based upon it.

Bill December 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

Books predicting future economic events share the same features of science fiction in that futurists or science fiction writers only see or imagine what their current views or opinions permit them to see, imagine or predict.

Millian December 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

The first quote is a very confused analysis. Descriptions of the future can be neutral as to their morality. And why must conservatives disbelieve in contingency? They’d have been less worried about Communism if they did – less worried, in fact, about everything. Instead of trying to defeat Obamacare, they’d calmly wait for it to fail. In practice, conservatives do believe strongly in contingency, albeit with a good dose of path-dependency. They just happen to support their perception of their society’s contingent outcomes.

As for the topics of contemporary literature, why would future critics assume it addressses societal problems? Death may not matter much to “society”, but it matters a lot to individuals. Do we assume Banquo’s ghost was a societal problem? Spanish windmills? Troy?

prior_approval December 18, 2013 at 11:12 am

‘But some of his books have strongly conservative themes. “Starship Troopers” describes a society where high school students are required to take a course in ‘History and Moral Philosophy’, in which they are taught broadly conservative ideas, supposedly turned into fact through scientific analysis.’

Without trying to get into any debate about Heinlein, but the reality is that ‘Starship Troopers’ is not a conservative book, unless one believes that the military (those who serve, in a more accurate sense) being in charge of the government, with any who have not volunteered to serve the government being denied the vote, is a conservative vision.

valuethinker December 18, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I’d call that highly conservative – limited franchise. Think back to the 18th century USA (white, property owning males) or England (even more restricted, and hence the problem of ‘rotten boroughs’ which Blackadder sent up so well).

In one of his essays, Heinlein calls for just that (in his ‘Expanded Universe’)– limited franchise. Probably does in Time Enough for Love (not sure about that one).

Although RAH has this rep from his later books as a sexual and human libertarian, his earlier novels (which are much better, in my view) are quite ‘small c’ conservative in their outlook.

Jay December 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I’m sorry I missed why limited franchise is associated with “highly conservative”. Jim Crow laws were passed by southern Democrats and are the most recent example of actual limitations (voter ID laws not withstanding as that is debatable and were also passed by Democrats in some cases).

Millian December 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Southern Democrats were highly conservative…

Urstoff December 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm

In this thread, ‘conservative’ is a word used without meaning.

Careless December 19, 2013 at 12:45 am

+1 urstoff

Brian Donohue December 18, 2013 at 5:19 pm

19th century Tories pushed to expand the franchise in the UK.

JWatts December 18, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Communists were definitely big on a limited franchise. So really the limited franchise doesn’t break along conservative/liberal lines.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 11:37 am

Sigh. You cannot put an American political template onto every conversation.

Conservative parties the world over, and historically, are generally for restrictions on franchise, and liberal parties for widening the franchise. Votes for women, for example. Or for non property owners.

The US south was a case where one political party was historically anti-slavery (the Republicans or at least their more extremist elements). And so another political party grew up that was pro slavery (or at least pro leaving the south alone). The Democrats. That struggle continued post the Civil War. That’s quite separate from what the national parties advocated. Teddy Roosevelt did lots of things which were ‘left wing’ by our standards (national parks, busting the Trusts, etc.). Woodrow Wilson did things which were paleolithic (segregating the civil service etc.).

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Look at it another way.

Define conservative as ‘seeking to protect the existing social order. And believing that the existing social and economic hierarchy is justified and that human beings resist and sabotage attempts to radically alter that order, making utopian socio-economic engineering largely fruitless and even destructive’.

So the English Tories (any time up to Margaret Thatcher: she herself was an interesting and contradictory mix. Ultra conservative say on South Africa (undermined support for anti apartheid measures by other countries) or communism, but quite radical in some of her domestic policies). Or the less revolutionary parts of the Estates General in Revolutionary France (let alone the Monarchists or the Bourbon restorationists). Or any of the more right wing Christian Democratic regimes in modern Europe.

It gets a wee bit more complex if we go back to Cavaliers v. Roundheads, but generally the High Anglican Tories around the King were for Anglicanism as opposed to more radical forms of protestantism, and for asserting the King’s traditional rights and prerogatives, whereas the Parliamentarians were for circumscribing it. And if we get to the Levellers and the 5th Monarchists (extremist Roundhead factions crushed by Cromwell and the New Model Army) we are talking positively 19th century notions of individual equality and liberty.

It gets complex when you get to the former Communist states, where the ‘conservatives’ can be ex communists. But parties like the Law and Justice Party in Poland which are anti Russian, anti German, anti Jewish (at least in taint that latter, not them so much as some of their supporters and more right wing parties) and pro Catholic conservative are well within the pre WW2 historical tendency in Poland (Roman Dmowski and the nationalist party).

China? The radicals have been for economic reform. The conservatives more Maoist. Nobody is for democracy as we would recognize it.

KWA4250 December 18, 2013 at 4:47 pm

The term “limited franchise” is way too vague to be helpful in this context. In terms of “conservatives” who favored restrictions on the right to vote, none of them (that I know of) wanted it restricted to men or women that previously served in the military. In the 18th century, I expect that “conservatives” would be horrified if the rabble in the army were given the right to vote.

In fact, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers world is quite “liberal” in some senses – the society appears to be quite egalitarian, and measures success and political power according service to the state through the military. You’ll also remember that the Mobile Infantry is commanded by generals who started their service as enlisted grunts, and that all officers must deploy in combat jumps (including the highest-ranking general).

Dan Hanson December 19, 2013 at 5:19 am

You were not required to serve in the military in get the franchise. Heinlein made it clear repeatedly in the book that what was required was simply some form of difficult service. It could be civilian federal service in some miserable job like clearing a jungle. The point was to demonstrate that you were willing to put the good of society ahead of your own narrow interests before being granted the right to vote. You had to work for it.

Heinlein wasn’t about glorifying the military overall. His big fear was that democracy would fail as soon as the people figure out that they can vote themselves personal largesse from the public purse. He may have been right about that. In any event, he was simply theorizing that this problem could be avoided by selecting only those who had shown themselves capable of avoiding this type of temptation.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm

That’s the anglo-saxon bias at work, what has been called “Burgoyne’s Revenge”.

Outside of the matrix of the British military and its descendants (US, Canada, Australia) it’s normal for officers to have served as non-commissioned officers first. See the Israeli or the German Army.

The result is you get, in the Anglo Saxon militaries, small units that are commanded by ‘gentlemen’ (young officers with 4 year degrees either from mlitary colleges or civilian ones with an officer training corps) but are in fact led by sergeants and senior NCOs, typically with 10-20 years of military service behind them. The Regimental Sergeant Major exists as a ‘back channel’ for the senior NCOs to appeal to the higher levels of command when young Jonathan doesn’t prove to be a leader of men.

So you might read it as ‘more egalitarian’ but, in fact, it’s just a norm in the world’s historically most effective armies.

The point, and I think it was a fundamentally small c conservative one, is that Heinlein imagined that the franchise should be limited by more criteria than being 18 and having a pulse and no obvious mental disability.

Probably as a result of having been forced out of the US Navy (due to tuberculosis) before its great test (WW2 in the Pacific) Heinlein had a general worship of the military he never lost in his books. They generally avoided the scorn he poured upon just about any societal structure (organized religion and politicians, first and foremost).

lxm December 18, 2013 at 11:17 am

Science fiction is not “inherently political” because it is much too logical, rational, and thought out. In fact, it is apolitical: Conflicts are resolved and usually the good guys win. I have never read any science fiction that can match our current dystopian, irrational and destructive political world.

JWatts December 18, 2013 at 11:56 pm

” have never read any science fiction that can match our current dystopian, irrational and destructive political world.”

Well there’s plenty of then out there. David Gerrold’s (he famously wrote the Trouble with Tribbles episode of Star Trek) Chthorr series has a destructive political world. So did Heinlein’s Friday. Pretty much all of Pournelle’s later books did.

Careless December 19, 2013 at 12:57 am

Ben Boca went through an episode of severe Republican Derangement Syndrome while writing Mars Life, plenty of jackass politics in that one.

Careless December 19, 2013 at 12:58 am

Ben Bova. Stupid auto correct.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm

No Bova was always that way– a lapsed Catholic (anecdote about he and Isaac Asimov, somewhere romantic with their new partners, having left their wives: Asimov full of Jewish guilt, Bova full of Catholic guilt, Asimov saying ‘I guess people will think we are having the times of our lives’ and Bova saying ‘but Isaac, we *are*’). Quite conservative in his views (although ‘Kinsman’ is quite a good novel about the politics of the military and space exploration amongst other things).

John Thacker December 18, 2013 at 11:38 am

Most science fiction draws upon broad themes and mix appeals of both a liberal and conservative nature. Trying to pigeonhole things ends up being like calling xkcd Burke-Oakeshott-Hayek-Chesterton simply because of this comic.

Richard Harper December 18, 2013 at 11:57 am

Writing dystopias is relatively easy. Utopias are hard. Actually worse than hard – After Snowcrash (brilliant) Neal Stephenson wrote Diamond Age, attempting a somewhat realistic and mildly utopian future. I haven’t really liked anything he’s written since. Similarly for Aldous Huxley and other writers – once they write a utopian or somewhat utopian novel (which always sells badly) their writing after that never again seems as entertaining as before. Somehow in my mind it seems related to the problem of proving a negative – it’s easy to find faults in an ideological structure than to build such structures that are free of faults. Finally, weirdly, I think the ‘utopian’ (ish) novel that works best is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers which is however premised on the threat of the annihilation of the human species. Restricting the context to a specific and extreme problem (actually the Vietnam War) seems to help the false negatives problem.

asdf December 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Snowcrash was terrible. It is the only book in my life I actually set fire to and destroyed.

lxm December 18, 2013 at 3:18 pm

What exactly made you light the match?

How long did you soak the pages?

Did you break the binding and shred the book to make the fire easier to ignite?

Did you grill a steak or two on the fire?

Did you send a flaming email to Stephenson about it? A video? Can you share it?

Edward Burke December 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Science fiction becomes inherently political once it embodies the author’s satiric intent: e.g., Swift’s account of Gulliver’s travels in Laputa, et cetera, Bulgakov’s science satires “Heart of a Dog” and “The Fatal Eggs”, Zamyatin’s dystopian novel WE. (H. G. Wells seems to’ve injected political reflections into some of his works without recourse to satiric intent, but I’ve not read Wells’ work enough to know of his satiric ability.)

Capable science satirists seem to work with a healthy skepticism toward science itself.

As soon as satire and high irony depart from works that purport to be “political fiction”, the reader is left often only with programmatic, propagandistic fiction as celebrated (and as entertaining) as Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to be Done?” or Bellamy’s soporific “Looking Backward”.

valuethinker December 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Pournelle writes of future societies which are *very* conservative (with a small c). He’s really basing a lot of it on ancient Rome and the rise of the Roman Empire (as is David Drake, more overtly).

Niven (on his own) in Known Space is more classically libertarian. The Earth is a highly regulated place (18 billion people who live practically forever, strong population controls, Sigmund Ausfaller as the civil servant/ intelligence agent, etc.). Lots of creepy stuff about state controlling people (in the context of a very ‘liberal’ society on sexual and social issues).

Some of the colonies are pretty buttoned down to (most notably in ‘A Gift From Earth’ where control over organ supply leads to an near absolute dictatorship) due to environmental constraints.

Poul Anderson ran the full gamut of human political systems. The Polesotechnic League is libertarian (in space but not on Earth) but it falls and is replaced by a Roman-style empire locked in an interminable war with Mersia (ie ancient Sassanid Persia).

Andrew McDowell December 18, 2013 at 12:18 pm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_H._Schmitz used a background in which an Overgovernment provides only very loose constraints on our variety of other actors, including both our heroes and a variety of other people and organisations. This provides a more reasonable excuse than usual for teenage girls to become involved in events that could change the history of entire worlds, and might count as macro-level spontaneous order.

Science Fiction world-builders have little time to explain entirely different ways of organising people, so at first sight they can only provide a crude picture of a complex organisation. However I note that most citizens do not maintain a particularly accurate image of the way their society is organised, and societies have to work despite this, so perhaps this constrained brevity is not as limiting as it might seem at first.

Joe Smith December 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I stopped reading Heinlein after reading Farnham’s Freehold – ugh. It still makes me sick thirty five years later.

JWatts December 19, 2013 at 12:03 am

That’s hardly his best work, but it’s not bad either. It’s written to be an anti-segregationist allegorical tale, and so is a bit dull in parts.

Careless December 19, 2013 at 1:04 am

The Wikipedia page makes it sound like Planet of the Apes was based on it.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Since Planet of the Apes was written by a French novelist (in French) I somewhat doubt it. Not impossible, but one would have to come up with hard evidence (that Pierre Boule had read Heinlein and commented upon it).

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:07 pm

A grim one. He was making a parable about racism, and he made it in a pretty ugly way.

It’s about the turning point with RAH. Anything (including) before Moon is a Harsh Mistress is very good science fiction. Especially, but not only, the juveniles. Everything (virtually) in The Past Through Tomorrow for example. Time Enough for Love (later, in parts) has its merits (in parts). Then it all turns pretty drecky (I’ve never been able to understand the popularity of Stranger in a Strange Land, nor I Will Fear No Evil).

There are glimpses of the old Heinlein in ‘Friday’ (and Charlie Stross has written a memorable homage to it ‘Saturn’s Children’). But it’s pretty much all downhill from Moon IAHM.

His real peak is probably ‘Starship Troopers’ ‘MIAHM’ and ‘The Past Through Tomorrow’ (a unification of previous stories). Plus his juveniles (Podkayne of Mars his most controversial). Some of his early short stories are pretty powerful too.

Alexi Panshin made a memorable counterpoint in ‘Rite of Passage’ to the RAH juveniles. And Michael Kurland wrote a little known one (hardback only) ‘Princes of Earth’ which I think really could be almost by Heinlein.

RPLong December 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Here’s something I didn’t see anyone else cover in their comments: How about selection bias? To what extent do the thoughts of science fiction writers reflect the thoughts of society, anyway? Hubbard was a science fiction author. How representative is that?

Mark Brown December 18, 2013 at 3:08 pm

C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy – especially the third one, That Hideous Strength – tends to be small c conservative. Not in an emergent social order way, but in the sense that looking for the “inner loop” is a mistake that leads to self-slavery and centrally planned things are always abominations that do harm to real humanity.

RPLong December 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm

In answer to Cowen’s final question, might Edgar Rice Burroughs qualify as Burke-ish? Especially the original A Princess Of Mars?

It would be tough to find an example of spontaneous order in a work of deliberate fiction, but there are hints of it in, say, Manuscript Found In A Bottle by Poe….

Jason Kuznicki December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub is a rather Burkean piece of science fiction.

Rod Kierkegaard December 18, 2013 at 9:08 pm

As a lifelong SF reader and occasional SF writer I would like to say that the moment any author projects his political views of the moment into his writing about the future, then those views become almost immediately absurd as the future he depicts fails to materialize. They become, in short, so unbelievable as to be…science fiction.

Banks, most of whose books I’ve read several times, was like his friend McLeod, an ardent socialist who imagined a distant future where that socialism was ingrained into the prevailing Culture. The result was a hedonistic techno-feudalism where nobody actually did any work except spying or waging war, and people were rich and powerful as the result of heredity. Banks, who wrote at times exquisitely and imagined alien cultures with a degree of sheerest originality, nevertheless suffered from the “world-builder’s” Achilles heel; his universe existed with no visible means of support and no economy, even among machine intelligences. The very opposite of his vision would be that of a cranky libertarian like Jack Vance, whose worlds were people by shopkeepers, money-grubbers, and sly villains who constantly cheated their indentured servants. His future is people by primitive humans who have migrated to the stars merely to act out their individuality, however quaint and brutish; Banks’ humans are all too often merely hyper-violent action figures moving through a landscape like automata–he reserves most of his human traits for his drones and ships.

Kim Stanley Robinson suffers from what I can only describe as “Van Driessen Syndrome” after the hippie teacher on Beavis & Butthead. Reading his books is a little like listening to William Gibson speak; West Coast PC-dom made monumental. In the mech-kibbutzes of Red Mars, that worked and very well; by Blue Mars, it was embarrassing. The worst book I ever read of his was something about Washington DC (where I happen to live, beside the river) drowning in heavy rains because of global warming. It wasn’t necessarily entirely preposterous–anything can happen in this world–but it was extremely ignorant regarding the local drainage system and the vast amount of engineering the government has done in the tidal flats. It was also gleeful, and therefore mildly offensive. In my own work I postulate a mini-ice age in our future instead, something supported by the findings of several climate scientists I’ve known personally, but I’m sure the version I’ve imagined in my near-future books is equally absurd.

However, I don’t take myself seriously.

In conclusion, great works of genius in SF own no politics. Huxley was no sexual prude or political conservative, yet he was horrified by the future he deduced from meeting young Californians in the 1920s. Orwell was a Marxist, yet was horrified by what he read about Russia under Stalin’s Communism. Philip K. Dick was a Berkeley leftist, a hippie, and at one time a drug addict, yet he increasingly became sympathetic to right wing authority figures and actually volunteered to work secretly for Nixon and the FBI. His friend Heinlein once bailed him out with a no-strings-attached loan, yet this arch-conservative went on to write several gender-bending novels that became leftist icons and contributed to hip language. The contradictions–rather than false certainties–in their political views contributed to the greatness of their work. It’s why they’re still remembered–and why many of us writing today in the field will not be.

Steve Sailer December 19, 2013 at 12:14 am

Thanks.

An example I like to use is that Heinlein’s three cult novels have three different cults:

Starship Troopers — militarists
Stranger in a Strange Land — hippies
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress — libertarians

Now, that I think about it, you could group together several of his juveniles, from Rocket Ship Galileo to Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, as cult books for engineers.

That’s an impressively broad range.

cthulhu December 19, 2013 at 1:21 am

In retrospect, the juveniles are the true gems in the Heinlein oeuvre – especially the last two, “Citizen of the Galaxy” and “Have Space Suit, Will Travel”. And I confess that I became an engineer partly because of the inspiration of “Space Suit”.

David December 19, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Cthulhu, I agree with you. My personal fave is Between Planets, which–as portrayals of harshly authoritarian pseudo-democracies (and the revolts they inspire, and the petty politics of those revolts…) goes–is pretty convincing: I never imagined I’d live in that world.

The “Venus and Freedom!” moment never fails to choke me up.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm

How about ‘Time for the Stars’? An interstellar journey by 2 telepathic twins which is all about the less dominant one learning to stand separately from his brother?

The Star Beast has similar themes about growing up. As does ‘Tunnel in the Sky’.

Douglas Levene December 18, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross imagines the far future as a universe where the problems of interstellar debt come first.

JWatts December 19, 2013 at 12:13 am

” Is there a Burke-Oakeshott-Hayek science fiction, in the traditionalist and conservative sense of that combination?”

Does space opera count? David Weber’s Honor series is based upon Napoleonic era Britain.And Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series antagonists are oddly egalitarian Imperialist Lizards from a decidedly conservative culture.

valuethinker December 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm

David Drake’s With the Lightnings (decidedly better than David Weber, in my view) is consciously based on O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (‘Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World’ as an example). ie the (very Tory) world of a British frigate during the Napoleonic Wars.

But whereas Weber’s society is based on the British (or the Americans?) at that time, and the enemy is very clearly Napoleonic France, Drake’s society is based on late Republican Rome, with its occasionally homicidal struggles between rival oligarchic families.

Hammer’s Slammers is also a pretty conservative view of the world, where to stop the chaos, the military take over (but Drake is too good a novelist not to point out some of the problems *that* brings).

Being a classicist makes Drake sceptical of human nature, and very Edmund Burke or Nicolo Machiavelli in that regard.

Careless December 19, 2013 at 1:10 am

Peter F Hamilton’s first series (Mandlebrot) is set in 2030ish Britain in a period of finishing purging the recently deposed communists. The Conservatives (big C) are, basically, the good guys.

Published in 1993, I think. Wonder where he got that idea.

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