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« American High Culture III: The Role of Real Estate | Main | TV Alert »

November 09, 2002

Libertarians and sci-fi

Friedrich --

One thing I notice over and over that I've never managed to make much sense of is the appeal sci-fi seems to have for many libertarians. Can you help me with this?

I confess that the taste for sci-fi makes me a little suspicious, though this may not reflect well on me. Shooting entirely from the hip... Sci-fi has always struck me as an early-adolescence taste: Superman fantasies crossed with a craving for feelings of, "Ah, to be entirely unfettered from earthly shackles." The storytelling and characters never seem the point; the energy always seems to go instead into things (alternative universes; "philosophy") that don't interest me much as entertainment goals.

I'm happy to admit a) that, having managed to get through about a half-a-dozen sci-fi novels, I couldn't be less qualified to reach conclusions, and b) that this may all reflect nothing but taste and temperament anyway. Still, rightly or wrongly, I tend to be as wary of anyone who's crazy about sci-fi past the age of about 25 as I am of anyone who takes Ayn Rand entirely seriously past that age. Before that age these tastes seem commonplace and harmless. After that age? Well, hmmm.

Musing heedlessly on, I also notice that some libertarians are as prone to utopianism as socialists are, though the two groups dream of different kinds of utopias. The dogmatism of both groups -- they always have the one right answer, and it's always the same one -- can become really oppressive.

An example: there was an attack in Reason magazine on the New Urbanism a year or two ago whose argument was that the New Urbanism is nothing but a (probably socialist) attempt to impose new regulations, and that the only real answer to anything is no regulations.

"OK, but back in the real world..." was my response. The New Urbanism can certainly be criticized (what can't be?), but the piece seemed crazed (and juvenile) in its absolutism, and in its unwillingness to wrestle with what the New Urbanism does in fact propose, which is that, given that (in the real world) a region simply is going to have development regulations, why not minimize them, and tinker with them in such a way that playing by the rules leads to a more pleasant, rather than a less pleasant, neighborhood?

So, I return to my hunch (and my fear): that libertarians enjoy sci-fi more than most groups do because many of them tend to be attracted to utopias, as well as to what's completely unrealistic. I guess what I'm long-windedly getting to is this: that the taste for sci-fi, like the preference for a dogmatic libertarianism, seems to me the taste of immature people who'd rather float off into fantasy than wrestle with what's before them.

I wince as I type these words because I have my own taste in fantasy, namely erotica. And what's wrong with a little harmless indulgence in fantasy, darn it? And I suppose it is harmless provided it isn't taken too seriously.

Yet: dogmatism, sci-fi, fantasies of absolute freedom ... I find it all a little offputting. And, attracted as I am to libertarian and classical-liberal approaches, I wonder what gives. Is it all just a matter of differing tastes in fantasy material? Does it reflect anything of real-life consequence? I do notice that on a practical level I have more of a taste for piecemeal improvement than do the more dogmatic libertarians (who seem to prefer the idea of pushing it all off the table).

Anyway: sci-fi and libertarians -- what do you make of 'em? Is the not-uncommon libertarian taste for sci-fi something meaningless and harmless, or something telling and worth thinking about?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at November 9, 2002




Comments

Well, first you have to ask: what kind of sci-fi are you referring to? You don't say which scifi novels you have read, so I can't tell which subset of the genre (yes, there are subsets) you are referring to. Off the top of my head I'll guess you tried Heinlein or something of his ilk -- he's real popular among libertarians, from what I've read. To tell you the truth, I stopped reading Heinlein after I was no longer a teen, and I had only read whatever they had in the "teen" section of my severely categorized local library. I tried to read one of the Lazarus Long books, but lost interest after about seven time-travelling orgy-mixed-with-philosophico-political-talk scenes or so. I have never read any of his really big "deep" books such as Stranger in a Strange Land, which were such a fave among the patchouli-and-hemp crowd. I may have read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I retained little of it if I did.

Enough of Heinlein. He's part of the genre I call "hard political scifi." Then there's straight "hard" scifi (all gadgets and lean, steely guys in spacesuits in the fifties, and now it seems to be devoted to nanotechnology, featuring interchangeable characters who are transformed into giant space butterflies or something by nanoviruses). There's erotic scifi -- which is porn with aliens and/or mutated humans. There's leftist political scifi, which is often utopian and boring. There's feminist scifi, which is also often utopian and boring, though sometimes there will be a lesbian sex scene to spice things up. There is safari adventure and/or treasure hunt disguised as scifi, which I admit is my personal favorite. (For one thing, stories in this vein rarely preach.) Perversely, I like C.S. Lewis's trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, which is a variety of Christian allegorical fiction, a genre I usually have no time for. But I like the books not so much for the characters (which are not very interesting) or the plots (same) but for the visual descriptions of weird places that he thought up and for the little side comments on society and science and academia and the like.

The thing about science fiction is it's a type of genre fiction in which idea more than plot is often the most important element. (As for character: like you said, it's rarely important, though some science fiction writers are good at creating individual, interesting characters.) This results in a lot of very dreary tract fiction that whose authors should have devoted themselves to writing pamphlets. I have read a lot of sci fi, but I have flipped through and rejected a lot more. Authors you may want to try are Jack Vance -- his books are not typical, and his style is unique and almost reminiscent of eighteenth century English novelists; Ursula K. LeGuin (though lately I think she has gone down the multicultural chute into Oh Really? land, but try her earlier books); and Andre Norton, who has written tons of books from the thirties to the present (she is very old), mostly for "young people," but her style is more dignified than a lot of writing "for young people" today. Her stories are straight, simple adventure stories, usually involving a hero or heroine's attempt to extricate themselves from a difficult situation while retaining their honor. (I'd avoid her collaborations with second authors, though -- they were obviously written by the other author, and her name was appended to the novels as a way of giving them a leg up; very nice, but none of the secondary authors have pleased me.)

Another interesting new author is China Miéville, who writes some unclassifiable stuff that is neither science fiction nor fantasy but a combo of both. Be warned: he likes grotesquery, and he seems to be of a Marxist political bent, and you can see that in his plots, though they are by no means utopian. He does, however, have actual characters in his novels, unlike traditional scifi whose authors seem to use their own set of stock archetypes instead.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on November 9, 2002 04:16 PM



Don't think I can't tell what you're up to here. You're trying to goad me into writing something about Philip K. Dick in response to your puerile ravings. Hah. Well, I will, but in my own good time.

And as for criticizing the great Robert Heinlein, both of you can go soak your heads. He has his moments of ludicrously "hard" politics, and the books of his old age are mostly well-skipped, but he is also very funny (I remember Heinlein's books, like those of Raymond Chandler, mostly for their throw-away humor.) And his tough-guy right wing stance has always been a great curative for the time I've had to spend in the left wing bog (like our years at our Lousy Ivy University). While I won't make any argument for him as a great writer, there are a number of times in life when Heinlein's main theme, the necessity to taking responsbility for yourself, has been practically very inspiring to me. Moreover, he invented the tightly wrapped time travel story (James Cameron had obviously read a lot of Robert Heinlein before drafting the first "Terminator")and his premise for "The Puppet Masters" was ripped off by "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Moreover, at the end of his life, when he was very, very rich, Heinlein went around subsidizing struggling sci-fi writers including...Philip K. Dick. So there.

Posted by: Friedrich on November 9, 2002 06:19 PM



Steve Sailer here:

One amazing thing about Robert Heinlein is that his three famous cult novels appeal to almost completely non-overlapping cults:

"Starship Troopers" (1959) is the first book listed on the official U.S. Marine Corps recommended reading list.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961) became a huge hit among hippies in the late 1960s. (It's a pretty lousy book, to my mind, but it may have the most perfect title of any book.)

"The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (1966) is a favorite of libertarians.

Let me point out that the latter is not a particularly utopian libertarian book. Like Charles Murray's "What it means to be a libertarian," Heinlein emphasizes that reduced government means everybody has to be awfully neighborly to get by. It undermines the kind of anti-social libertarianism that is so prevalent. A working libertarian society has to be rather conformist, charitable, and socially egalitarian. (Personally, I prefer paying taxes to have the potholes filled to having to go to a lot of neighborhood meetings and then having to get out there fill them with all my neighbors pitching in.)

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 9, 2002 07:55 PM



I think the emphasis of ideas over other story elements in an earlier comment here has a lot to do with sci-fi. Many sci-fi authors are using fiction as a vehicle for transmitting ideas that they would get skewered over by the Leftist Professoriat in this country. You can say things in it (social commentary and the like) that you cannot get into other media easily here in the US. It's usually just dismissed as merely trashy genre fiction, which I'll admit most of it is.

When was the last time anything truly new appeared in literary fiction? Oh look, its the LATEST deconstruction of an indiginous people as they "find their voice"!! Post-modernism makes very poor entertainment in my opinion.

You just have to dig for the sci-fi gems, those with good ideas AND well executed traditional story elements and characterization, as the shelves are mostly filled with crap (silly fantasy-esque quest stories, romantic adventures, boilerplate trash, etc).

All of which has combined to make my sci-fi reading tastes much pickier as I"ve gotten older (although sometimes I WANT escapist trash, as I don't watch television :-)

Note that my main objection to TV watching is that it's "the taste of immature people who'd rather float off into fantasy than wrestle with what's before them. "

But I digress. I think that the main reason the Libertarian party is so awful, and why so much non-PC political sci-fi is adored by them, is that they and said sci-fi authors share a flaw with the post-modernist crowd, a belief in the perfectibility of Man, and lack any truly deep insight into human nature.

I'd suggest some Herbert, Dick, Gibson or Sterling if you want some decent sci-fi.

Ciao,

David

Posted by: David Mercer on November 9, 2002 08:36 PM



Thanks to everyone for their thoughts. Would anyone care to suggest specific titles of good-to-excellent sci-fi books? I'm a big fan of good genre fiction; maybe I just haven't yet been turned onto the good sci-fi genre books.

Posted by: Michael on November 10, 2002 01:10 AM



It is impossible to generalize about sci-fi (although most people do) because there is a broad variety of different styles. I personally don't go for the overtly political sci-fi. One notable exception is Jack L. Chalker. His stories are so weird it's fairly easy to ignore the all the political preaching but even so, a little Chalker goes a long way for me. Sometimes it just gets too weird. I'm more put off by the weirdness than the politics.

I read and enjoyed "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" mostly for the humor, but I haven't read anything else by Heinlein that I like. With apologies to Heinlein fans, it mostly seems pointless.

If I had to pick one favorite sci-fi author it would be Anne McCaffrey. One of the main things I like about her work is that her characters seem real. A lot of people complain that sci-fi characters are shallow and cartoonish. That's not at all true of McCaffrey's characters. I often come across characters in her books that seem familiar; I think "yeah...I know people just like that." Sometimes I even find characters that remind me of me and it kind of makes me wish I could meet and get to know Anne McCaffrey herself. I think we might have a lot in common.

Another author who writes good characters is Elizabeth Moon.

My boys like Larry Niven a lot especially the Ringworld books. I'm not so wild about most of his books but I do like those he has co-authored with Jerry Pournelle.

One very political book that I did enjoy recently was "Jupiter" by Ben Bova. It helped that I happened to agree with the author's politics but the science was fascinating also.

Posted by: Lynn on November 10, 2002 09:57 AM



Science fiction is a large field, and there's plenty in it beside power fantasies. In fact, it's hard to find a good power fantasy in sf these days--where's another _Jack of Eagles_ when you need it?

If you want an author with a moderate attitude toward political change, I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold--she can start off with a power fantasy (not welcome in your home society? start your own mercenary troop), but the mercenary troop isn't sustainable, and other, less drastic solutions have to be found. (Bujold's work is character-driven and quite popular.)

More generally, I think science fiction tends to appeal to libertarians (and to people with a lot of other political views--as far as I can tell, libertarians much more common in fandom than in society generally, but far from a majority) because there's an underlying premise that things can be different and better--this isn't entirely discreditable.

I'm writing this as a 49-year old fan of science fiction who's less sure of libertarianism than I used to be. I'm not convinced that either is a tremendous public hazard, and I suspect that the human race needs some people who like theory--it's just that we shouldn't be put in charge, and libertarians are so bad at practical politics that they aren't likely to get to be in charge.
Nonetheless, it's not so bad to have someone saying the war on drugs is a monstrosity and that immigrants aren't a plague.

As for willingness to grapple with real issues, I haven't heard that practical politics is a major theme of *any* branch of fiction.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on November 10, 2002 11:02 AM



Personally, I don't see a link between Libertarianism and sci-fi, since most sci-fi is either an exploration of ideas in the once-removed context of a false and/or non-existent environment, OR is a dystopia of some sort (as opposed to utopia of which there aren't many in sci-fi). However, here's a good starter list of seminal and, more importantly, fun stuff to read.

I've put together two lists, ones to read if you haven't, and ones you've probably already read not thinking of them as sci-fi.
_____________________
--- To read if you haven't:

"The Caves of Steel," "The Naked Sun," and "Robots of Dawn" by Issac Asimov
Perhaps the best sci-fi I've read because it has it all: mystery, romance, societal commentary, and pathos. All the robot short stories are worth hunting down, too, such as "I, Robot."

"Childhood's End," Arthur C. Clarke
The logical next step in evolution?

"Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card
Aliens invaded and kicked our butt hard, and they're coming back. What to do?

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and " The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" by Douglas Adams
Monty Python-esque humor with a bright shiny sci-fi wrapper.

The shorts:
"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
"Born of Man and Woman" by Richard Matheson
"First Contact" by Murray Leinster
All found in: "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame," ISBN: 0-380-00795-9
(http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380007959/)
__________________________________________________
--- You've probably already read not thinking of them as sci-fi:

"The Stand" by Stephen King

"The Watchers" and "Demon Seed" by Dean Koontz

"The Andromeda Strain," "The Terminal Man," "Timeline," "Sphere," and "Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton

"Cat's Cradle," "Galapagos," "Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children's Crusade : A Duty Dance With Death" and "Timequake" by Kurt Vonnegut

"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace


I've never been a fan of Heinlein's stuff because all the women are monochromatic fuckmonsters, and the men are all monochromatic fuckmonsters. Philip K. Dick had some of the most striking sci-fi ideas, concepts and situations, but his writing is always a chore to slough through. Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Lathe of Heaven" is good (if not a bit dull), but the rest of her stuff is stuffy socialism and feminist dystopias hiding as sci-fi. General rule: avoid all dystopias unless they're funny. Have fun!

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 10, 2002 12:16 PM



Let me put my two cents in and nominate John Varley and Joe Haldeman. Varley's Steel Beach is a wonderful read with some interesting political aspects. It is very good at extrapolating both computer technology and medical advances into future societies. Haldeman is a great read, especially for fans of Starship Troopers. I'm amazed no-one else has mentioned these two...

Posted by: Bryan on November 10, 2002 05:40 PM



"You got your politics in my sci-fi!"
"No, you got your sci-fi in my politics!"

In any case, the most recent Great Work of science fiction is Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). I drifted away from the genre after my teen years for the usual reasons (poor characterizations, mostly), but KSR managed to craft something very, very special when he wrote these books. They focus on the creation of a new world government on Mars after it has been settled by immigrants from Earth, the relationship between the two worlds, and the clash between the "metanational" businesses that invested heavily in the terraforming effort and the government which essentially wants to distribute the resources of the world between all of its people. It's very difficult to characterize the government that is created. In any case, the characters here are magnitudes more interesting (more human) than those of most "hard" science fiction novels, and it's particularly interesting to read these books after 9-11, since certain factions of the colonist movement resort to some truly tremendous acts of terrorism, and the metanationals respond with wholesale carnage and assaults on cities. The analogy is far from perfect, of course, but it's interesting reading nonetheless.

Posted by: Matthew on November 11, 2002 03:05 AM



The very term 'science fiction' is an oxymoron, perhaps better illustrated in the childishly simplistic approach of Hollywood SF movies than in books.

Typically, the movie maker mixes the one single good idea he may have for an incredibly advanced futuristic technological concept with stale psychological and political techniques and ideologies from our time which must surely be outdated; often also with anachronistic technologies in transport, communication, medicine, weaponry, etc that have advanced little, if at all, from today despite the huge advance supposedly shown by the central concept. (At least with a book, your imagination can usually fill in a satisfyingly linked background.)

Good science doesn't always make for good fiction - and vice versa.

I guess those could be the main reasons SF generally has less appeal to the mature mind.

So you need to look for SF which combines three elements:

1) unique and thought-provoking concepts

2) a huge scope of imagination for creating other cohesive, fully-rounded, universes

3) plenty of plain good writing

Individual SF writers have strength in one or maybe two of these areas, seldom all three.

You could try:

Ray Bradbury, Bob Shaw (slow glass - now there's a concept for you!), Alfred Bester, A E Van Vogt (huge imagination for intergalactic activities) and any early Vonnegut - add The Sirens of Titan and Player Piano to the list somebody else already gave you.

No moderns in my list - nothing against them, but I haven't read enough to be qualified to comment.

Posted by: Peter on November 11, 2002 11:35 AM



Science fiction is large and contains multitudes. That is, as somebody pointed out above, there are subsets. And among them there is an active libertarian subset that even has its own annual award (the Prometheus). The story goes that the Libertarian Party convention was held a couple of years back in the same city as that year's World Science Fiction convention so that Libertarians could go to both. But even at that, I doubt if conscious capital-L Libertarians make up a majority of active science fiction fans, who in my experience match a typical slice of highly educated liberal arts grads, and in the voting booth would probably tend leftish. Despite a few well-known righties like Jerry Pournelle, traditional Republicans would probably finish dead last in any vote taken among strictly SF fans. As a small but committed group, Libertarian SF fans probably make themselves heard out of proportion to their numbers. One of the big names there is author L. Neil Smith (who, due to some factional dispute within the Libertarian Party was actually on the 2000 Arizona ballot as a candidate for President on the Libertarian line instead of whoever the national candidate was, and got some 5000 votes). A book has been published collecting Smith's essays ("Lever Action"), which I found interesting more for the essays talking about the state of science fiction and the publishing industry. His hard-core Libertarian political essays had the effect of making me doubt many of my long-held positions and most cherished beliefs. (Not good, since I started out largely agreeing with him on most things. The book was written in such an over the top, arch, flip, and obnoxious tone that by the time I finished it I was sick of Libertarians and all their works. Most political books are written to win converts, but when one actually turns off the supporters a political position already has, there might be a bit of a problem.) Another SF writer, David Brin, recently gave a speech to a Libertarian Party group, in the vein of a sympathetic outsider telling them where they were going wrong and how they might better appeal to the multitudes. That speech, available on Brin's website, might be worth a read. It's a bit arrogant in that an outsider cheerfully informs a group what it's been doing wrong, but reportedly it was well received. The speech addresses some issues Michael brings up in his original remarks above (such as utopianism versus the art of the possible. As for the appeal of SF...at its best, science fiction is more than just geek power fantasies. Even geek power fantasies have to operate in imaginative and plausible settings. Libertarians might like SF because it gives them a chance to demonstrate what their ideas would lead to in practice, more vividly than any political tract. For not-so-Libertarians, SF can be an exploration of humanity confronted by the new and different. It would take a book to cover all that in any depth (not only to describe all that is good about SF but to discuss the problems the field has), and there isn't that much room here. From my point of view, the SF I like plays with new ideas -- but plausibly and entertainingly. Many books do that. Many don't. Like I said, it's a big field. Caveat lector, I guess.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 11, 2002 01:25 PM



A notion on your approach to sci-fi:
I've not been reading the blog for long, but what struck me when reading the sci-fi question was that the subject material you are obviously interested in relates more to the past then the (potential) future. Which is to say, what I read here so far is largely contemporary ephemera and relatively deeper historical inquiry. Not to condemn your approach in the least--I find the page quite interesting--but my reaction to your opening paragraph was, "Of course he doesn't 'get' sci-fi..." You just both seem more interested in pondering the past than the future.
Ayn Rand, on the other hand, is in fact juvenile and without redemptive qualities. :-)

Reccomendations, anyway: William Gibson writes brilliantly fluid "near-future" fiction that illustrates aspects of contemporary society without needing to resort to critique. Greg Egan's later books are wonderful examples of taking an idea (generally hard science) from the present day and running with it--some of the best idea-sci-fi available.
I also second the suggestion for Asimov's Robot books--you would enjoy's Asimov's penchant for extensive deductive dialogues. And not to rabble-rouse, but Robinson's Mars Trilogy is nearly unreadable Utopianism, though at least slightly progressed from the old-model socialism that some contemporary authors have at their core. The characters were a forced puppet-show of brightly colored cutouts (not the standard characters, but you can see the strings nonetheless). But wait, this is not a book review cagematch.

Oh, and Andrea--Nymphomation was the most insulting piece of pseudo-style posing as trendy "sci-fi" that I have ever read. I'm sorry you read it too.

Posted by: Euphrosyne on November 11, 2002 04:01 PM



I am both a sci-fi fan and do tend toward the libertarian side of politics myself. It never dawned on me that the two were connected, but now that you mention it. . .

There seems to be something very non-establishment about both topics.

There is little pop-culture libertarianism in the same way that there is for say the anti-globalization, pop-Marxist philosophy in the guise of Che Guevera T-shirts. One cannot just pick up the latest libertarian take on world politics in the same way that say, we here in New York can get the latest anti-government “social justice” drivel in the free edition of the Village Voice that we all look up to for concert listings.

Moreover after belonging to mainstream republican/democrat politics, the path of least resistance is to pick up a quote by Zizek in a fashionable cafe.

But Libertarianism requires a lot more. After one is an Ayn Rand fan and gets lots of dirty looks from educated people for it, if you want to understand the libertarian position, you have to do some work. You must be willing to plow through Robert Nozick, or at least be familiar with something of Adam Smith or Milton Friedman. None of this is easy. Libertarians are not a self-selecting bunch. It is a group of people who have been fighting for these beliefs in the face of strong opposition.

Sci-fi fans are also not used to being popular. The chess club and the sci fi club generally share a membership roster in any high school. They are the same people who are ignored for being the smart geeky kids. Who else is interested in sci-fi besides the overachieving science geeks and gadget freaks. Who else has the intellectual resources and the intestinal fortitude to both work their way through a genuine enough understanding of a complex moral and economic system enough so that they think they can defend it to their friends, and are already used to others not sharing their mental proclivities?

Posted by: Karl on November 11, 2002 07:38 PM



Quick answer - pick up a few anthologies and read a handful of short stories. It's quick, it's easy, it's fun.

One warning - libraries and bookstores seem to be in an unofficial competition to see who can find the most maddening method of shelving anthologies. Rarely will you find them all nice and neat and next to each other.

Posted by: Gert on November 11, 2002 08:13 PM



A few recommendations:

Most science fiction/fantasy (differentiating between teh two is generally a fools game) is admittedly bad, but thena gain, so are most mysteries. But the good ones are oh so fun.

I would recommend:

Gene Wolfe--Everything
David Zindell--Neverness
Jeffrey Ford--The Physignomy
Pual di Fillipo (and by the way, a mouthful of tongues is decent erotica/SF)
China Mieville--Perdido Street Station
*The Troika--by Stephen Chapman--is great
Jeff Vandemeer

The "Fantastic Metropolis" site has excellent recommendations, and is really the place to go for good recommendations and interesting reviews.

Posted by: Brennan on November 11, 2002 08:35 PM



Well, this has been worth the time, that's for sure. A genre I had abandonded years ago is brimming with good stuff.

The amazing thing to me is how long it took for someone to bring up William Gibson and his ilk. "Near future" is probably not sci-fi enough for most fans, but him, Ballard, Gaiman, a couple of others I can't find -- they fill my need for sci-fi these days. Heck, I'd throw Neal Stephenson in there, too. I'd cry tears of joy for another Cryptonomicon or Super-Cannes or Neuromancer or similar to be waiting at the side table for me to get off the internet.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 11, 2002 10:12 PM



There are three categories of science fiction: so-called space opera, razzle-dazzle adventure novels typified by the Lensman novels of E.E. "Doc" Smith, but carried on wonderfully in the modern day by authors such as Larry Niven in RINGWORLD; stories that play with some typically-recently-discovered facet of nature, stories that are really imagination puzzles for people with a pre-dilection for science; and finally stories that reflect on the human consequences of possible scientific and technological change. Most really good science fiction falls in the last category, though there are great stories in the other two as well. In addition, there are vast swamps of fantasy novels masquerading as science-fiction, novels with dragons, telepathy, primitive societies, wizardry, and various other characteristics either supernatural (as in the case of telepathy) or unrelated to science (as in the case of primitive societies, usually rationalized as SF by placing them in the far future).

Here's a list of thought-provoking stories and books, many of which have won the two major awards in the SF world, the Hugo and the Nebula. Most are SF, but a couple are SF-like fantasy. I doubt anyone would begrudge the time spent reading them.

"First Contact", Murray Leinster -- dated but still compelling thought piece on the importance of ethics in meeting other cultures. (Hugo 1946)

"Microcosmic God", Theodore Sturgeon -- on the irresponsibility of research and the greed of commerce.

"The Man Who Sold the Moon", Robert Heinlein -- about practical politics and commerce, and the marketing game. A classic.

THE STARS, MY DESTINATION, Alfred Bester -- a fantasy about responsibility, destiny, and duty.

DUNE, Frank Herbert -- fascinating fantasy about monopoly, classes, and ecology, beautifully constructed. (1965 Nebula, 1966 Hugo)

THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, Robert Heinlein -- probably the best of Heinlein's novels, about interplanetary commerce and colonization, how intelligent computers might work with humans, the parameters of prisons, and how politics actually works. Coins the classic acronym TANSTAAFL -- There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. (Hugo 1967)

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Ursula K. Le Guin -- a complex novel pondering cultural and gender differences. (Nebula 1969, Hugo 1970)

THE GODS THEMSELVES, Isaac Asimov -- perhaps the only novel Asimov ever wrote with decent characterization, and to my mind his best. About the ecological perils of an apparent perpetual motion machine, in a hugely entertaining story. (Nebula 1972, Hugo 1973).

"Beggars In Spain", Nancy Kress -- reflections on the issue of genetic engineering "improvement" of the human species. (Nebula 1991, Hugo 1992)

TITAN, John Varley -- another 'first contact' story, this time with a vastly more intelligent but interestingly limited alien lifeform. Unbelievable that this didn't win a Hugo.

"Something Up There Likes Me", Alfred Bester -- satellites and an accidentally intelligent computer network decides to take care of humanity. (Also see Jack Williamson's classic and chilling "With Folded Hands" for more on the problems with perfect mechanical servants).

THE DIAMOND AGE, Neal Stephenson -- a world based on nanotechnology and the importance of education (Hugo 1996).

BETWEEN THE STROKES OF NIGHT, Charles Sheffield -- fascinating set of reflections on controlling time (the last frontier) by slowing the human metabolism, and how the world might seem if we could do so, posed as a simplistic novel (really a collection of sketches).

Posted by: Bill on November 11, 2002 11:21 PM



Fascinating discussion, here.

I think the Utopian/Libertarian link is weak, as one of the overwhelming messages of most good speculative fiction is that utopias cannot exist. Still, there are some subgenres out there that go against the trend.

There's also the academic/scientist/researcher fantasy, best epitomized by Asimov. It's sort of porn for the grant-seeker's soul, and so I guess a sort of utopianism. The notion that an objective scientist calls the shots and solves the problems and saves the world is very appealing to professionals who in real life depend so heavily on the graces of administrators and politicians for their daily bread.

SF is extremely broad, though. I'll not get deep into all the sub-genres here, but point out an example or two for consideration. For instance, Kim Stanly Robinson's stories of colonization (and then rebellion) on Mars are deep with scientific, engineering, economic and political theory and weak on character. On the other hand, just about everything written by Orson Scott Card is really an excuse for him to explore family relationships in their most convoluted and painful forms. David Brin's Uplift series, on yet another hand, is all millieu and mood; despite the piled-deep speculative thought on alternative evolution and the natural consequences of an interstellar society evolved over billions of years, what comes out strongest and lasts longest is more visceral, more thematic—innovation vs. tradition, hope against hopelessness, personal loyalty, etc.

Suggestion:

Pick up a well-edited anthology of science fiction that spans multiple sub-genres and eras. Since you're reading novellas and short stories, the cost is lower than exploring it all in novel length; besides, sci-fi still roils and shouts most in its shorter forms.

My personal recommendation would be to pick up Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century, edited by Orson Scott Card and published in 2001. It covers a good (though subjective) A-list of the authors that have defined and subdefined the genre, and Card's introductions (both to the collection and to each story) help provide context for the evolution and variation that have gone into the broad field of SF. Along the way, Card also discusses the motivations and tastes of readers and writers of science fiction, as well as the "genrefication" of SF and its merits with respect to "li-fi" (as he refers to genreless literary fiction).

Now, the editor himself makes it clear that he is not attempting to present a survey of the history of sci-fi, but nevertheless for someone wanting to learn more about the genre I cannot recommend a much better collection. Finally, if you find you really do like some of what's in the anthology (liking it all is highly unlikely for most), you'll then have a guideline to use, a way to seek out "more like this".

[Disclam: I am registered Libertarian, but only on a lark and only temporarily.]

Posted by: Mac on November 12, 2002 04:28 PM



Good lord, there's enough in the way of brains, ideas and recommendations in this conversation to get anyone through an advanced degree -- but in what? Fascinating as well to read so many observations from deep inside the sci-fi miind. Many thanks to all.

As someone who never went through a sci-fi period, and who never caught the sci-fi bug, I'm curious about the appeal of it, and I wonder if anyone wants to take a shot at that. (Heck, "Wild over-generalizations" is our middle name here at 2blowhards.) Many of the genres -- horror, erotica, mystery, even romance -- I "get". Sci-fi I've just never gotten.

I suspect that any individual's tastes are largely a matter of temperament, and I suspect that may be doubly true of anyone's taste in fantasy material. Even so, perhaps a few basic things can be said. I notice, for instance, that many of you talk about sci-fi as a good venue for trying out ideas. And that corresponds to something for me -- which is that, when I read sci-fi, my head always hurts and my emotions are never stirred. Maybe it's a form for very head-y people.

Which, I hate to say it (but will anyway), brings me back to my initial hunch: that there's a connection between the taste for sci-fi and the taste for libertarianism. Sci-fi: could it represent an enjoyment of the fantasy that earthbound rules no longer apply? Libertarianism (at least in a very naive form): could it represent the fantasy that life without politics is possible?

There's a parallel there, no?

Posted by: Michael on November 12, 2002 06:12 PM



Incidentally, I just finished PKDick's "Ubik": brilliant, but my head hurt and my emotions weren't stirred. Currently halfway through "Hitchhiker's Guide": pretty much what it is (whimsical/eccentric hippie-early-Vonnegut), but with more easygoing charm than I expected.

Hey, I'm trying.

Posted by: Michael on November 12, 2002 06:16 PM



What this discussion demonstrates is a point that came to me immediately upon reading the question posed. To wit:

There may well be a correllation between science-fiction enthusiasts and libertarians, but there is an even greater overlap between sci-fi fans and people who use web-logs as social outlets.

Is it any surprise, then, that in response to your query, you've recieved many defenses of sci-fi, and little discussion of libertarianism?

These defenses are curious. Every one of them seems to start off with the claim that science fiction is too various to be defined, but this is of course patent nonsense.

Science fiction is literature in which the contstraints of real world are selectively cast aside and attributed to some advance or change in science or engineering (which need not be particularly plausible).

Unlike other genre fiction, sci-fi (and its magical twin, fantasy) is fundamentally and necessarily escapist. The escape does not have to serve the sole purpose of entertainment, of course, and the political polemics and philosophical meanderings that sometimes result are invariably brought up by the genre's apologists. The fact, however, remains: science fiction takes place in a world that is overtly unreal.

Given that contemporary science fiction is as likely to be dystopian as utopian, I think your analysis is slightly off the mark.

Science fiction and dogmatic (or, perhaps, revolutionary) libertarianism both appeal to people who dislike so much about the world they live in that they reject it entirely. Having rejected the constraints of the modern world and its moral complexity, such people seek solace in freer, fictional realities and/or simpler political orthodoxies.

Fortunately, this sort of flight usually ends, as you have observed, with adolescence, but I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised to find that there are a few who, for whatever reasons, continue in adulthood to live in what the publishing industry calls the "golden ghetto," and to cling to impossible political ideals as well.

Posted by: Mr. Contrary on November 12, 2002 07:10 PM



In a episode of synchronicity, Eric S. Raymond has just recently published an essay on his views of the link between science fiction (in all its guises) and libertarianism (both small-l and big-L forms) at his own blog. If the link doesn't work, as it often doesn't, scroll down to "Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance".

Mr. Contrary, I feel your pain. The unimaginable gloom you must suffer under as the world around you continues to try to improve their lot without your expert "adult" guidance is just heartbreaking. Please consider a career in the State Department, where we uneducated unintrospective mindless peasants can all receive the wisdom of you and your breathtakingly staggering intellect.

Posted by: Mitchell Morris on November 14, 2002 01:43 PM



Dear Mr. Morris:

You have no idea how much I enjoy a whiny little stream of insults; it shows the hater has nothing to say in response to my actual arguments.

Calling me a jerk isn't going to do a damned bit of good. I know I'm a jerk. It's deliberate. Think about that for a bit.

Furthermore, I think your reference to Mr. Raymond is the height of comedy. Have you read his sex tips for geeks?

Raymond is exactly the sort of emotionally stunted person under discussion: he is not just a famously dogmatic libertarian and a slavish science fiction fan, he's also a loud enthusiast of all sorts of other escapist and immature behavior, such as Live Action Role Playing, "Polyamory" (nee "free love"), and the tiresome politically motivated language reform typical of dogmatists of all stripes (his stewardship of the Jargon File is the most egregious example of this).

How, pray tell, are dogmatic libertarians and sci-fi addicts "improving their lot?" I can see a case being made for more pragmatic libertarians, who do things like work within the current political system, campaigning and putting actual candidates on the ballots and so forth, but the dogmatists don't seem to do much beyond ranting against the status quo and hoarding firearms.

If you like the Cult of Raymond, you're welcome to it, but don't expect the slightest bit of respect from those of us who have retained our full critical faculties.

Posted by: Mr. Contrary on November 15, 2002 04:47 PM



Children, children...

A little civility, please. A bit of politeness, a bit of respect.

Excessively obnoxious behavior (namecalling, insults) will be punished. Or at least deleted.

And why does this kind of behavior crop up regularly when the topic is sci-fi?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 18, 2002 01:02 PM






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