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From reading science fiction to libertarianism – and to reading history

Not long ago, Rob Fisher asked, back at his blog, before he started writing here, whether there is a correlation between an early enthusiasm for science fiction and later being a libertarian, and if so what might be the cause of such a correlation. And I seem to recall the notion finding its way here also, although I can’t recall or find where. It may have been in a comment thread. My take is that SF embodies the idea that things could be very different. Maybe a more general version of the same idea is that SF leads to political radicalism of all kinds. There was certainly a huge enthusiasm for SF on the left before World War 2. Think only of H. G. Wells.

I recently mentioned to Michael Jennings that I too went through a big SF phase in my teens and twenties, while in the process of becoming a libertarian, and that although I subsequently stopped reading much SF, I did later become very keen on reading history. I still am. The connection between reading SF and reading history, at any rate in my mind, is that just as SF says that the world can be very different, history is all about the fact that, in the past, the world actually was very different. Things change, from era to era, from epoch to epoch. History and SF both say that very loudly. Libertarianism, and all the other isms, say that also.

As far as history is concerned, I’m thinking of things like how the sea, in the European Middle Ages, far from being any sort of defensive wall (as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt famously describes it – and as it later became) was actually more like a motorway system, for those able to command the vehicles to make use it of. I’m thinking of how very different life was if most of the people in the place you lived in were illiterate, perhaps including you. I’m thinking of how very hard it was even to preserve the great ideas of the past, let alone accumulate new ones with any success, before the printing press was contrived. I’m thinking of what a difference swords and bows-and-arrows and gunpowder and machine guns successively made, and what a difference atom bombs and hydrogen bombs have made to our own time. I’m thinking of what a different world it was when it was very hard to send messages of any complexity (or for that matter human beings) any faster than a succession of very expensive horses could gallop.

Michael’s response was that reading lots of SF, then becoming something like a libertarian, then reading lots of history, is a fairly common intellectual biography. So rather than ramble on, let me ask commenters. Does that sequence of interests ring any bells with any of you good people?

33 comments to From reading science fiction to libertarianism – and to reading history

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, there was Heinlein, but on the other hand there was Asimov, whose ‘Foundation’ series was pretty much the apotheosis of the Liberal dream of Rule by the Elite.

    But I think that the science fiction of the ’40s and ’50s that I read as an adolescent was pretty heavily weighted towards engineering, with all the fondness for rationality that that entails. That doesn’t quite make me a libertarian because I can’t figure out how to become a virgin, but it certainly ruined me for either the passionate Left or Right.

  • I read SF from an early age, and developed the soul of an engineer (despite being trained in more arcane sciences). I read history — I’ve written historical fiction. And some have labeled me a libertarian.

  • Brian, that is exactly the route I took.

    Science fiction in my youth, libertarianism, as initially taught by Prof de la Paz. At the same time reading about Arthur from all of, TH White, Mary Stewart, John Steinbeck and Thomas Mallory led me further. They primed me for Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and then I Claudius led me to Suetonius, Tacitus and Rome, which led me to Byzantium. Early on James Morris helped me understand the Empire, which led me right back in time again.

    Pretty much everything I know of history I learnt since leaving formal education.

    Today, wikipedia, with all its faults, is a godsend to a mental pack rat.

  • Actually what I said to Brian was that people who read science fiction, and even more people who write science fiction, are often also interested in history. I think this connection is actually stronger than the connections to libertarianism, and it holds even when libertarianism is not involved. People have mentioned Asimov, who was certainly interested in history as well as science fiction, but who was not in any sense a libertarian. (That said, I think it is fairly clear though that having created the Foundation series – which was indeed initially the apotheosis of the Liberal dream of Rule by the Elite – Asimov became quite uncomfortable about the message he was sending. By the later Foundation novels, the Foundationers have ceased to be the good guys).

    People who are interested in science fiction are more likely to be libertarians than the average person (and vice versa), so the three things do often go together, but I am not sure really where the causality is. Do we get people with an interest in history becoming fans of science fiction later, or is it always the other way round? And are history buffs without an interest in science fiction inclined to become libertarians. I just do not know.

    My personal route is the one described. I started out with Science Fiction, and the libertarianism and interest in history came later, although looking back I can now see the seeds of both of them pretty far back.

  • Dale Amon

    Although I count myself as one of ‘RAHs grandchildren’ in the intellectual sphere, the big SF change that hit me was Eric Frank Russell’s “The Great Explosion”. MYOB/IW.

  • Alsadius

    Sounds right to me.

  • RedMoonProject

    Interesting. I read science fiction in high school. Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury, Herbert, Heinlein and so on. Discovering Rand in college meant that I also eventually went on to read Von Mises, Hayek and other economists and conservative writers as well.

  • Chip

    Have always loved sci fi and I think there’s something to the idea that it opens the mind to more radical thinking. Yet, my current favorite is Iain Banks and the Culture series; and Banks, for all his great ideas, is a dully conventional socialist in real life.

  • Chip

    Have always loved sci fi and I think there’s something to the idea that it opens the mind to more radical thinking. Yet, my current favorite is Iain Banks and the Culture series; and Banks, for all his great ideas, is a dully conventional socialist in real life.

  • Robert Howden

    Well my personal story is slightly different. I’ve been interested in history from a young age, then I began reading sci-fi and now i’m beginning to embrace libertarianism.
    I think it stems from the fact that I read history and didn’t always like the outcome (ie my favored side lost the battle) and so sci-fi meant you could come up with your own ending. Being in charge of your own outcome is really what sums up libertarianism.

  • John B

    SciFi allows you to set your own norms/paradigms. People who live backwards (to us) in time, etc.
    So it is the playground of the mentally agile.
    You have to be a bit intelligent and perceptive to step beyond all the propaganda and embrace the truth/freedom, the reality that is the foundation of where libertarians want to go.
    Natural bed fellows.
    Safe journey!

  • Fiend's Brave Victim

    I got heavily into Philip K Dick (whom I still rate as one of the great writers of philosophical literature) roughly concurrently to getting into free market economics and whatnot. This may be partly to do with having some friends/mentors who guided me to both (I believe you know them actually Brian), but they do certainly seem to compliment each other, if not exactly leading from one to another.

  • Might I suggest an underlying cause for all of the above – intellectual curiosity. You can be anything from hard left to hard right because your great Grandpappy was or whatever but libertarianism requires thought. You ever met a dumb libertarian? Thought not. You met a dumb Tory or socialist? Bet you have!

  • Sorry, but I can only agree with Brian’s original view.

    As a kid at school, I wasn’t much interested in history. It seemed to me about lists of dead people and dead events.

    It was only going through Science Fiction (Asimov, Cordwainer Smith, Arthur C. Clarke) then flinging into Fantasy (JRR Tolkien and others) that led me back to history in the form of I Claudius and Claudius the God.

    From then on history became more of a passion with me than the Science Fiction and Fantasy of my youth. There is a certain thrill in knowing that people like Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cato, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, Nero, et al actually existed even if our knowledge of them is very fragmentary.

    For me the true treasures of history are things like the Vindolanda tablets which are a bunch of letters, notes, documents and scraps from a rubbish heap of one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall which detail the minutia of Roman life on the furthest Northern border.

    In these letters are detailed such dull, but utterly fascinating aspects of life such as preparations for a lady’s birthday party and requests home for more socks to deal with the freezing cold.

    To me these aspects give us a common link back to some of the very earliest (albeit foreign) residents of Western Europe.

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

    As for the matter of Libertarianism, history teaches by example that time after time our ancestors have fought and died for the very lessons and freedoms that we take for granted today.

    Equally, I don’t think it very surprising that the American Constitution and The Wealth of Nations were written within a few years of each other as they both deal with different aspects of the same viewpoint, freed from restrictions both the economy and the human spirit will thrive.

    That is why I am a lover of Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, History and Liberty.

    Quod Erat Demonstrandum

  • I think people are if not born, are brought up at an early age to be individualists or collectivists (or none of the above). I don’t know if SciFi appeals more to either category – I rather tend to agree with John B. on his mental-agility point, which in and of itself does not necessarily correlate to the individualism/collectivism dichotomy. That said, I think that most people have more of an inherent individualism than collectivism in them, so if you pick the mentally agile among the individualists, you may well get a good showing for SciFi fans…or something like that:-)

  • I guess I’m the one different person here: other than reading Jules Verne when I was a kid, I wasn’t much for science fiction, and still am not. I’m the poster whose eyes glaze over every time the libertarian posters start trying to show off just how obscure of science fiction they love — the more obscure the better! it seems to me.

    I’d agree more with the poster who wrote about intellectual curiosity above; I was interested in geography and wanting to learn one or more foreign languages from a young age. My grandparents emigrated from Germany and subscribed to National Geographic and Reader’s Digest, and we got the old issues, which I read on those long winter mornings when there wasn’t anything else to do.

  • RAB

    Well that was my route too. I was always interested in history from an early age. Then I inherited a complete set of HG Wells from an uncle when I was 12 and read my way through them, then on to Asimov, Heinlein etc.

    I didn’t know much about Libertarianism until I came across Samizdata when I first got on the Net.Grateful thanks, and merry Christmas all.

  • Nick beat me to it, with a more concise version…

  • Ted, why do you call us ‘posters’?:-)

  • David Roberts

    Are not Science Fiction and Libertarianism both examples of “broad churches”. Other examples being the Church of England and the Conservative Party as they used to be. In other words they resonate with the sort of people who not only tolerate differences with others but actually relish them. This also seems to me to require these individual to have self belief and confidence. Thus it behoves us cocky sods to go easy with those not so endowed.

  • William H Stoddard

    It happened very much that way with me, though in my case the interest in history evolved equally from libertarianism and from my involvement in roleplaying games. Wanting a more accurate economic model of the Middle Ages opened the door to endless questions.

    People who share this mix of interests might like to take a look at the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Web site. We give an annual award for the best science fiction or fantasy novel with libertarian themes—not always novels by ideological libertarians (I think Jo Walton was a bit bemused by hers), but novels that are favorable to freedom or critical of authoritarianism.

  • This idea also got mentioned about my post about maps and territories, which is what Brian couldn’t remember. I was playing with Insightify at the time and made a poll at the suggestion of someone in the comments. 21 people responded, all were libertarian and all read science fiction in their formative years. That’s out of people who read far enough through the comments and clicked the poll link, though.

  • Chuck6134

    Been reading scifi since I was a preteen and history (military,political, economic) at virtually the same time. Did they influence my gradual movement philosophically from (from want of a better term) small ‘r’ republicanism to a small ‘l’ libertarian?

    Taken together, the answer is yes. From the world of facts in history to the varying what ifs of scifi, both highlighted the actual and likely failures of the state as God. That and growing up in the 60s/70s with ALL their attendant failures of the state….

  • Westerlyman

    Since I started reading books for pleasure at 8 years old I have been interested in reading just about anything. But my especial favourites are Heinlein, Varley, Tolkien, Pratchett, Scarrow, O’Brien…. You get the point: fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction (and non-fiction).

    Brian certainly seems to have a point. I am not sure about libertarians being more intelligent (I think there are different types of intelligence anyway) but I do think that libertarians tend not to be conventional thinkers. Certainly most seem more interested in testing ideas for truth and not in seeking approval of others or joining gangs. Probably why getting libertarians to agree on anything is quite tough.

  • Dale Amon

    I think SF led me towards libertarian ideas but not towards history. I read my mom’s Latin Primer when I was about 8 or 9 and was interested in Romans and such; in my teens I was drawn to Hornblower and Dumas and I think I read my way through all of them before I was 16.

  • Mr Eugenides

    SF is obviously a very broad church, but one strand that I have long noticed is that SF writers don’t tend to write about government unless they’re describing despotisms, galactic empires of various hues of unpleasantness, or occasionally bureaucracies. Even though Iain Banks is careful to make his hedonistic, individualistic Culture a mixed blessing (lest socialists get any unwise ideas), his depictions of government and authority is pretty laced with contempt.

    Sure, there’s always been a strong element of utopianism in SF too – “after the nuclear holocaust of the early 22nd century, the surviving people of Earth came together in a world government to ensure that mankind never again had access to the most destructive weapons that his technology had created”, etc etc – but a lot of SF shows a future in which all things are possible as a result of technological innovation and human ingenuity – not through the offices of benevolent, efficient governments.

    In that regard it’s probably more realistic than much contemporary fiction.

  • Absolutely and totally right, Brian. It was exactly the route you said.

  • Yep – pretty much my development curve: altough I read at least as much history as I did science fiction as a kid/teenager. I think I was mainly interested in looking at a time/place where things were different from the here/now.
    Now, I create a world … as a writer of historical fiction. A fun amusement for the detail-obsessed!

  • Hmm, looks like I’m a bit of an exception. While I read a lot of history as a child I read almost no sci fi at all.

  • Steve Willson

    I started with Heinlein and Andre Norton as a pre-teen, then got into military history and did that up through my four years in the US Army. Later my studies of World War Two moved more towards the human aspects than the military – questions like “How did people not see Hitler was dangerous?” and “What really happened during the Holocaust; not just the numbers but who did this and why?”

    Now for 4 years I’ve been studying the Enlightenment and the era leading up to England’s civil wars and the rights which developed from those conflicts. I now watch the continuing erosion of those rights in the US and other countries and I am truly afraid for the future. For the first time in my life I am grateful I don’t have children. But my nephews and my girlfriend’s grandchildren will not live as free as I have and I think that is tragic.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes I was (and am) a fan of science fiction.

    And I am big reader of history – always have been. And the sort of questions that Brian mentions are the sort of questions that interest me.

    So, yes, I fall into the sterotype.

  • Al Nugent

    By rough count 7 of 30 comments mention Robert A Heinlein. Is there another author of science fiction who gets as many mentions?
    Recently I’ve been re-reading his juveniles from the 1950′s, while deciding if I’d get in too much trouble if I gave them to my Nephews and Nieces.
    At one point or another in nearly every Heinlein “children’s” story the protagonist eventually has to go to bat against the “authority’ figure in their life to succeed and survive. That has to have had an effect over time, especially if as in my case they lead you to read all of his adult novels too.
    Having read the Harry Potter novels with my children the same sort of rational actors versus the system theme seems to be a recurring feature of them too. I wonder if in 30 years some son of Samizdata won’t be asking the same question about them.

  • Cousin Dave

    I went through phases. I read SF as a young child, but had no interest in history prior to high school. The semseter that I had Civics was when the Yom Kippur War occurred. The teacher seized on the opportunity, and deviated from the syllabus to cover the war and its antecedents in class. We learnd about the Six Day War, the UN’s creation of modern Israel, the Soviet support of the Arabs and who the players in the region were, and what happened there during WWII. We unfortunately didn’t go back much further than that, but there wasn’t time in the semester. That was my first sense of “wow, history matters.” From there I took an interest in history, mostly 19th and 20th century, and didn’t read much SF (or any other fiction) for a while.

    In college, I was inspired to go seek out Rand’s “Anthem” by listening to Rush’s “2112″. That kicked off a new phase of SF for me (that and access to the university library), and it was the first time that I really started to put SF and history together. I remember, when I read “Anthem”, being hit by the realization that the age of freedom was a historical event in the story, and being horrified that a society of human beings would ever willingly turn their backs on freedom and liberty. (That was before I knew much about Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, or the Roman Empire.) Over time I sought out more stories like that, attempting to understand that phenomomen. A frequent trope in ’80s SF is that Earth has become a repository of socialism and tyranny, and that all freedom-loving people have moved out into space and developed new societies elsewhere. All of Earth has, in effect, become Europe, and space is the new American West. I still wonder if that is actually going to be the outcome in another half-century or so.