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Volume 24, Number 1, Fall, 2005

A Political History of SF

By Eric S. Raymond

The history of modern SF is one of five attempted revolutions—one success and four enriching failures. I’m going to offer you a look at them from an unusual angle, a political one. This turns out to be useful perspective because more of the history of SF than one might expect is intertwined with political questions, and SF had an important role in giving birth to at least one distinct political ideology that is alive and important today.

The first and greatest of the revolutions came out of the minds of John Wood Campbell and Robert Heinlein, the editor and the author who invented modern science fiction. The pivotal year was 1937, when John Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction. He published Robert Heinlein’s first story a little over a year later.

Pre-Campbellian science fiction bubbled up from the American pulp magazines of the 1910s and 1920s, inspired by pioneers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but mostly recycling an endless series of cardboard cliches: mad scientists, lost races, menacing bug-eyed monsters, coruscating death rays, and screaming blondes in brass underwear. With a very few exceptions (like E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark of Space and sequels) the stuff was teeth-jarringly bad; unless you have a specialist interest in the history of the genre I don’t recommend seeking it out.

John Campbell had been one of the leading writers of space opera from 1930, second only to E.E. “Doc” Smith in inventiveness. When he took over Astounding, he did so with a vision: one that demanded higher standards of both scientific plausibility and story-crafting skill than the field had ever seen before. He discovered and trained a group of young writers who would dominate the field for most of the next fifty years. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, and Hal Clement were among them.

Heinlein was the first of Campbell’s discoveries and, in the end, the greatest. It was Heinlein who invented the technique of description by indirection—the art of describing his future worlds not through lumps of exposition but by presenting it through the eyes of his characters, subtly leading the reader to fill in by deduction large swathes of background that a lesser author would have drawn in detail.

From World War II into the 1950s Campbell’s writers—many working scientists and engineers who knew leading-edge technology from the inside—created the Golden Age of science fiction. Other SF pulpzines competing with Astounding raised their standards and new ones were founded. The field took the form of an extended conversation, a kind of proto-futurology worked out through stories that often implicitly commented on each other.

While space operas and easy adventure stories continued to be written, the center of the Campbellian revolution was “hard SF”, a form that made particularly stringent demands on both author and reader. Hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both internally and with known science about the real world, permitting only a bare minimum of McGuffins like faster-than-light star drives. Hard SF stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology wrong. Readers, on the other hand, needed to be scientifically literate to appreciate the full beauty of what the authors were doing.

There was also a political aura that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by Campbell and right-hand man Robert Heinlein. That tradition was of ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion. Exceptions like Asimov’s Foundation novels only threw the implicit politics of most other Campbellian SF into sharper relief.

At the time, this very American position was generally thought of by both allies and opponents as a conservative or right-wing one. But the SF community’s version was never conservative in the strict sense of venerating past social norms—how could it be, when SF literature cheerfully contemplated radical changes in social arrangements and even human nature itself? SF’s insistent individualism also led it to reject racism and feature strong female characters decades before the rise of political correctness ritualized these behaviors in other forms of art.

Nevertheless, some writers found the confines of the field too narrow, or rejected Campbellian orthodoxy for other reasons. The first revolt against hard SF came in the early 1950s from a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York. The Futurians invented a kind of SF in which science was not at the center, and the transformative change motivating the story was not technological but political or social. Much of their output was sharply satirical in tone, and tended to de-emphasize individual heroism. The Futurian masterpiece was the Frederik Pohl/Cyril Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants.

The Futurian revolt was political as well as aesthetic. Not until the mid-1990s did the participants admit that many of the key Futurians had histories as ideological Communists or fellow travellers. As with later revolts against the Campbellian tradition, part of the motivation was a desire to escape the “conservative” politics that went with it. While the Futurians’ work was well understood at the time to be a poke at the consumer capitalism and smugness of the postwar years, only in retrospect is it clear how much they owed to the Frankfurt school of Marxist critical theory.

But the Futurian revolt was half-hearted, semi-covert, and easily absorbed by the Campbellian mainstream of the SF field; by the mid-1960s, sociological extrapolation had become a standard part of the toolkit even for the old-school Golden Agers, and it never challenged the centrality of hard SF. The Futurians’ Marxist underpinnings lay buried and undiscussed for forty years after the fact.

Perception of Campbellian SF as a “right-wing” phenomenon lingered, however, and helped motivate the next revolt in the mid-1960s, around the time I started reading the stuff. The field was in bad shape then, though I lacked the perspective to see so at the time. The death of the pulp-zines in the 1950s had pretty much killed off the SF short-fiction market, and the post-Star-Wars boom that would make SF the second most successful genre after romance fiction was still a decade in the future.

The early Golden Agers were hitting the thirty-year mark in their writing careers, and although some would find a second wind in later decades many were beginning to get a bit stale. Heinlein reached his peak as a writer with 1967’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and, plagued by health problems, began a long decline.

These objective problems combined with, or perhaps led to, an insurgency within the field—the “New Wave”, an attempt to import the techniques and imagery of literary fiction into SF. As with that of the Futurians, the New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one.

The New Wave’s inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.

But the New Wave, after 1965, was not so easily dismissed or assimilated as the Futurians had been. Amidst a great deal of self-indulgent crap and drug-fueled psychodelizing, there shone a few jewels — Phillp José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage, some of Harlan Ellison’s work, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse stories, and Langdon Jones’s The Great Clock stand out as examples.

As with the Futurians, the larger SF field rapidly absorbed some New Wave techniques and concerns. Notably, the New Wavers broke the SF taboo on writing about sex in any but the most cryptically coded ways, a stricture previously so rigid that only Heinlein himself had the stature to really break it, in his 1961 Stranger In A Strange Land—a book that helped shape the hippie counterculture of the later 1960s.

But the New Wave also exacerbated long-standing critical arguments about the definition and scope of science fiction, and briefly threatened to displace hard SF from the center of the field. Brian Aldiss’s 1969 dismissal of space exploration as “an old-fashioned diversion conducted with infertile phallic symbols” was typical New Wave rhetoric, and looked like it might have some legs at the time.

As a politico-cultural revolt against the American vision of SF, however, the New Wave eventually failed just as completely as the Futurians had. Its writers were already running out of steam in 1977 when Star Wars (rather obviously patterned on Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings from 1949) took the imagery of pre-Campbellian space opera to the mainstream culture. The half-decade following (my college years, as it happened) was a period of drift and confusion only ended by the publication of David Brin’s Startide Rising in 1982.

Brin, and his colleagues in the group that came to be known as the “Killer Bs” (Greg Bear and Gregory Benford), reasserted the primacy of hard SF done in the grand Campbellian manner. Campbell himself had died in 1971 right at the high-water mark of the New Wave, but Heinlein and Anderson and the other surviving luminaries of the Campbellian era had no trouble recognizing their inheritors. To everyone’s surprise, the New Old Wave proved to be not just artistically successful but commercially popular as well, with its writers becoming the first new stars of the post-1980 boom in SF publishing.

Before getting back to the Killer Bs and their Campbellian revival, I need to point out an important bit of background. Besides helping spawn the New Wave, the Vietnam War broke open a long-standing fissure in the right wing of American politics. One kind of right-winger was the cultural conservative, frequently with both religious and militarist beliefs. The other kind was the “classical-liberal” or small-government conservative. These two very different tendencies had been forced into alliance in both the U.S. and Great Britain by the rise of the socialist Left after 1910.

The aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign in 1964 had strained the alliance between these factions almost to the breaking point. The Vietnam War broke it, at least for some. A mixed group of dissident classical liberals and anti-war radicals formed the Libertarian Party in 1971, repudiating both the right’s cultural conservatism and the left’s redistributionist statism.

This is worth noticing in a history of SF because the platform of the Libertarian Party read like a reinvented, radicalized and intellectualized form of the implicit politics of Campbellian hard SF. This was not a coincidence; many of the founding libertarians were science-fiction fans. They drew inspiration not merely from the polemical political science fiction of Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, 1943; Atlas Shrugged, 1957), but from the whole canon of Campbellian SF.

Something rather similar had happened in the late 19th century, when various now-forgotten works of utopian fiction had helped shape the thinking of early Socialists. But this time the connection was more two-way and intimate; novels like Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, H. Beam Piper’s Lone Star Planet, and Poul Anderson’s No Truce With Kings (among many others) came to be seen retrospectively as proto-libertarian arguments not just by their readers but by the authors of the novels themselves.

The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also reverted to the anti-political/individualist values traditional in the field. This time around, with explicit libertarianism a feature of the political landscape, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the individualist impulse was more explicit. At one extreme, some SF (such as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged, notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.

Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein’s legacy. Heinlein himself (increasingly erratic as a writer but still the Grand Old Man of the field, immensely respected by fans and even more by other authors) maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but described himself a libertarian for more than a decade before his death in 1988.

Symbolically, Heinlein was the first among equals in a study commission of SF authors formed by Ronald Reagan to consider the feasibility of an anti-ballistic missile defense. Commission member Gregory Benford later described President Reagan as “a science fiction fan”, and the vision that emerged as the Strategic Defense Initiative was startlingly SFnal. Reagan’s threat to build SDI at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev in 1986 triggered the collapse of Soviet strategic ambitions as Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union could not match the U.S.’s raise in the geopolitical poker game. The Berlin Wall fell three years later; science fiction saved the world. Somewhere, Campbell and Heinlein were probably smiling.

Heinlein’s personal evolution from Goldwater conservative to anti-statist radical both led and reflected larger trends. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, depictions of explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies had begun to filter into non-political SF works like Vernor Vinge’s Realtime sequence and Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time. Haldeman’s Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.

Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF. William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief ideologue of anti-Campbellianism in the late 1980s, called it “the Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators—not exactly a hard target.

Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality, pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism) had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge’s 1978 hard-SF classic True Names, and even further back in The Space Merchants. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes, buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated in dozens of computer games.

Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in 1992’s Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix and Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk took for granted a background in which capitalism had decayed into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass grin.

By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however (figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated by New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia Butler.

While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian tradition—Golden Age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1997 work Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).

In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.

Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”, not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.

I think I can go further than Hartwell or Kramer or Benford in defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field. To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls “radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category “fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype “apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already been sorted into the “like an apple” category.

Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”) whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”, “avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits are important and tend to be conserved across the entire radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while some are only weakly bound (color).

In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition, but traits that are common to most of the core prototypes nevertheless tend to be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as “fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable interior with a sweet flavor.

SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic story, utopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound”—or, almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of most of the core (hard-SF) prototypes”.

The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics continues to be a fact of life in the field. It is telling that the only form of politically-inspired award presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are shrill and indifferently-written polemical tracts, actually sell—and sell astonishingly well—to SF fans.

Of course, there are people in the SF field who find this deeply uncomfortable. Since the centrality of hard SF has become inescapable, resistance now takes the form of attempts to divorce hard SF from libertarianism—to preserve the methods and conceptual apparatus of hard SF while repudiating its political aura. Hartwell & Kramer’s 2002 followup to The Ascent of Wonder, The Hard SF Renaissance, takes up this argument in its introduction and explanatory notes.

The Hard SF Renaissance presents itself as a dialogue between old-school Campbellian hard SF and an attempt to construct a “Radical Hard SF” that is not in thrall to right-wing tendencies. It is clear that the editors’ sympathies lie with the “Radicals”, not least from the very fact that they identify libertarianism as a right-wing phenomenon. This is an error characteristic of left-leaning thinkers, who tend to assume that anything not “left” is “right” and that approving of free markets somehow implies social conservatism.

Is the “Radical Hard SF” program possible? Partly this is a matter of definition. I have already argued that the SF genre cannot be culturally conservative; by nature it must be prepared to contemplate radical change. So either the partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are just terminally confused, pushing against an open door, or what they really object to is hard SF’s libertarian connection.

It’s worth asking, then: is the intimate historical relationship between libertarian political thought and SF a mere accident, or is there an intrinsic connection? And not worth asking merely as a question about politics, either; we’ll understand SF and its history better if we know the answer.

I think I know what John Campbell’s answer would be, if he had not died the year that the founders of libertarianism broke with conservatism. I know what Robert Heinlein’s was. They’re the same as mine, a resounding yes—that there is a connection, and that the connection is indeed deep and intrinsic. But cultural history is littered with the corpses of zealots who attempted to yoke art to ideology with shallow arguments, only to be exposed as fools when the art became obsolescent before the ideology or (more often) vice-versa.

In the remainder of this essay I will nevertheless attempt to prove this point. My argument will center around the implications of a concept best known from First Amendment law: the “marketplace of ideas”. I am going to argue specifically from the characteristics of hard SF, the prototypes of the radial category of SF. I’ll use this argument to try to illuminate the central values of SF as a literature, and to explain the large historical pattern of failed revolutions against the Campbellian model.

Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging—characteristic SFnal tropes such as these are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures.

SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.

At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different place than the present.

SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that the future not only can be different but can be different in many, many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.

All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism, applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the terminology of radial categories.

Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. And it is is here that we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stanc —because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.

The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else—their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysenkoism). In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.

SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this. Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for storylines in which (as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who Sold The Moon) scientific breakthrough and free-enterprise economics blend into a seamless whole. These stances are not historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of freedom.

This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and fundamentally radical—the literature that celebrates not merely science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.

Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian tradition: ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the enemies of the future.

The partisans of “Radical Hard SF”, like those of the earlier failed revolutions, are thus victims of a category error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or “conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest imperatives of the genre.

By understanding these imperatives, on the other hand, we can explain the series of failed revolutions against the Campellian model that is the largest pattern in the history of modern SF. We can also predict two important things about the future of the SF genre itself.

One: people whose basic political philosophy is flatly incompatible with libertarianism will continue to find the SF mainstream an uncomfortable place to be. Therefore, sporadic ideological revolts against the Campbellian model of SF will continue, probably about the established rate of one per decade. The Futurians, the New Wave, the cyberpunks, and “Radical Hard SF” were not the end of that story, because the larger political questions that motivated those insurrections are not yet resolved.

Two: all these revolts will fail in pretty much the same way. The genre will absorb or routinize their literary features and discard their political agendas. And SF will continue to puzzle observers who mistake its anti-political DNA for conservatism while missing its underlying radicalism.

Eric S. Raymond is the author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar and the present maintainer of the “Jargon File” (also known as “The New Hacker’s Dictionary”). After 1997 he became a leading figure in the open source movement. Raymond is an avowed libertarian. He is known to have a strong interest in science fiction, firearms, is an enthusiastic amateur musician, and has a black belt in taekwondo. This essay is reprinted with permission from the author.

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