We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

L Neil Smith responds

On Thursday, February 06, 2003, Paul Marks of Northamptonshire wrote on Samizdata some views on the history of modern science fiction that I found very interesting (especially since they mentioned me). The following is not so much to correct him, as to add to what he said.

Modern science fiction began as little more than another way to popularize left wing socialism. Both H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy wrote socialist Utopias, and Wells wrote allegorical attacks on capitalism and individualism. Ironically, they (and Ayn Rand) inspired me to do what I do.

I generally exclude Rand as a science fiction writer only because she didn’t know that Anthem and Atlas Shrugged are science fiction — and that science fiction is the “literature of ideas” that she erroneously believed detective fiction to be.

Anthem and Atlas Shrugged are science fiction, all right. But Rand — at least consciously — was not a science fiction writer. I realize I may be splitting hairs. For that matter, I’ve never been sure whether Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer, more because of the way he’s marketed than anything else.

On the other hand, Frank Herbert was definitely a science fiction writer who, after many years of unspeakable struggle (after being rejected by every American house: Dune was eventually sold to an English publisher, for an advance of $1000) was finally published in the mainstream.

But I digress, as usual. There was also a separate literary strand that had begun with Jules Verne that wasn’t very political, but was primarily technophilic and even became technocratic when it got around to politics. Doc Smith (who was nobody’s libertarian and was, in fact, one of the earliest of the drug warriors) and John W. Campbell were involved in this sort of thing. I’d call them “right wing socialists”. I’m not certain, but I believe Ben Bova sorts into this category.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was a young reader of skiffy (the correct way to pronounce “sci-fi”), socialist views were predominant in the genre. The whole “Milford Group” (named after a town in Pennsylvania where I believe they held writers’ workshops) in which Judith Merrill and others were involved, were blatantly collectivist, although I’d bet they’d call it “liberal”. Some famous science fiction writers of the day — or so I’m told by those who’d know — were communists.

In fact, it represented something of a revolution that they made room (reluctantly and grudgingly, I’d guess) for protolibertarians like Poul Anderson and possibly Gordon R. Dickson. This was probably on account of Campbell’s power as editor of Astounding/Analog. On the other hand, H. Beam Piper killed himself because he believed his works weren’t selling and he didn’t want to go on welfare or borrow from friends. Of course Heinlein was always a phenomenon unto himself — although as we now know, New York book publishers censored his more libertarian ideas.

I’m not the first modern, openly libertarian science fiction writer — I believe that honor goes to F. Paul Wilson — but possibly I’m the loudest. It has not come without its costs, as members of the Ceres Project know. In fact I’m now soliciting articles for The Libertarian Enterprise, discussing the heretofore unasked question of whether there’s a deliberate blacklist against libertarians in book publishing and in Hollywood.

That’ll be 800-1000 words, if you please. Send them to editor John Taylor at EditorTLE@triad.rr.com.

L. Neil Smith

Three-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith is the author of 23 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collection of articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website “The Webley Page”. Autographed copies may be had from the author at lneil@lneilsmith.com.

L. Neil Smith writes regular columns for The Libertarian Enterprise, Sierra Times RoadHouse, and for Rational Review.

26 comments to L Neil Smith responds

  • Dale Amon

    Don’t forget Eric Frank Russell’s “The Outward Explosion”. It set me upon the path of ideas which led to me becoming a card carrying Libertarian some 15 years later (just a couple years after the party was founded).

  • Dale: unless it was published under more than one name, I’m quite sure it was Eric Frank Russell’s The Great Explosion. It was pretty influential to my development too.

  • Wow, I was just thinking about this today (or at least something very similar to it).

    I was reading Typee (and hating it) and wondering if the reason I didn’t have transcendental tendencies but rather libertarian tendencies was because I love the style of Rand and hate the style of Melville and Therau.

    An interesting flip of the normal viewpoint anyway.

    I’m curious to see where you would put Heinlien in the spectrum of scif-fi/political writing though.

  • Court and Mark: please note that it’s spelled “Heinlein”. By “Thereu” I’m assuming you meant “Thoreau”.

    I’d consider Heinlein “protolibertarian”.

  • Braz

    Where does Heinlein fit in the political spectrum? Read THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. TANSTAAFL!!!

  • I’ll pick that up, thanks.

    I was mostly thinking “Starship Troopers” and the rather odd ideas talked about there.

    Sorry about the misspellings though.

  • Literature is not political pampleteering; aesthetics is more important than didactic ideology and we don’t need a Libertarian Chernyshevsky. Nor do we need libertarian tractor novels from L. Neil Smith.

    “There are gentle souls who would pronounce LOLITA meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, LOLITA has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstacy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.”

    – Vladimir Nabokov, from his Afterword to Lolita

    (And, by the way, DUNE was serialized in ANALOG. With excellent Schoenherr illustrations.)

    (Nabokov’s ADA is a alternate-universe SF novel, although VN would be pretty unhappy with that label.)

  • Nick Mallory

    Doesn’t the prolific Michael Moorcock’s muscular anarchism come pretty close to libertarianism? Jerry Cornelius seems the perfect libertarian hero to me.

    Much science fiction posits a de facto authoritarian future where the earth has become a single political entity, and most other planets have a single intelligent culture, but the reality of sub light travel means that keeping any sort of homogenous society together across the vast gulfs between the stars would be impossible.

    Our faltering space exploration so far has seen heroic individuals, backed by enormous state machines, venture forth. Without the competition of the cold war the space race has stalled. Perhaps only a private corporation, chasing a multi billion Mars prize, would dare take the risks of our next steps into space.

    Stephen Baxter in his book (he’s written many books, they’re all good, but they’re all the same one, be honest) always has a rugged individual using the detritus of the failed state filing agency which is NASA to launch a quixotic last mission which ends up being the last hope of mankind as the world gets destroyed. I’m still waiting for the soft screens but this might be the most likely future scenario.

  • Couldn’t the futures described in Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash be described as libertarian, although in Hamilton’s case that future is described as a dystopia?

  • Couldn’t the futures described in Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash be described as libertarian, although in Hamilton’s case that future is described as a dystopia?

  • Crap! Tried to stop the posting in time to rectify a spelling error in my last name. Obviously I was too late. Sorry.

  • Mike Kerner

    Asimov has an interesting history. His early stories had some references to personal freedom and self defense. As he got older, he got more socialist and the Foundation series was blatantly collectivist (scientific collectivization).

  • Dale Amon

    Russ: Correct. But cut me some slack. I read it 40 years ago. That’s quite an engram any way you cut it!

  • Dale: geez, yer old. 😉

    Court: I wasn’t trying to be a spelling Nazi, just looking out for future Googlers. Yep, I can where reading “Starship Troopers” first would cause some head scratching.

  • Tom Grey

    Well, I’ve not had much time for Sci-Fi (which I thought rhymed with High Fi), but TANSTAFL, along with free sex, were stronger in Heinlein than most others.
    DUNE/ Herbert was certainly not libertarian.

    Sigh. I really do NOT believe in faster than light travel, nor time travel, so would rather have better fantasy for fantasies.
    The Hyperion space-opera (4 big books) was a good mix of different systems and the interaction with AIs was more important.

  • Paul Marks

    Well I hope I did not say that Doc Smith was a libertarian. I mentioned him because he seemed to have a military-police view of government (and he did claim that economic life would improve if government was restricted).

    Of course the police side of his mind led straight to war-on-drugs type thinking.

    I do think America “back then” was more open to a non welfare state mind set (although, sadly, not very open to a fully libertarian mind set).

    Indeed even in Britain Conservative Central Office (of all things) was involved in producing an alternative ship wreak story where the marooned survivors (instead of organising themselves in some collective way) engage in trade and specialize in what they find themselves to be good at – no I can not remember the title of this work.

    Still I must thank you for a very informative blog and also for your works over the years.

  • Dale Amon

    All that said, what sticks in my mind from “Skylark of Space” and “Skylark of Valeron” was that a guy goes out and builds a starship and isn’t paid by the government to do it. He simply decides to do it.

  • Doc Smith (a close friend of Heinlein) was one of those semi-not-there-yet-libertarians who hadn’t thought it all through. The “Skylark” series is very pro-individualist, whereas the “Lensmen” series is more pro-collectivist. So I guess it depends on which one you read first … or last.

  • A bit arcane and OT, but this thread inspired a blog post (http://homepage.mac.com/jholbo/homepage/pages/blog.html#ten) about Michael Moorcock’s politics and whether Cornelius is a libertarian hero (re Nick Mallory’s post above). Moorcock may be an anarchist, but he’s no libertarian. Check it out if you’re interested. I am curious to read Smith’s books now…

  • back40

    I’ve enjoyed the _Fall Revolution_ series by Ken Macleod. It’s sci-fi with serious political content, but not pure advocacy. The series poses conflicts between anarcho-socialists and anarcho-capitalists for dominance in a post national, post-singularity world. There are a lot of references to political writings that inspire Libertarians, such as Kropotkin, Srirner, Proudhon etc. as well as interesting technological content.

    Many of the characters in the series are ex-Trotskyites who are sometimes characterized as ‘Libertarian Communists’. All of the characters seem to despise strong states but differ about the stability of capitalism. Socialism seems impossible and capitalism seems unstable.

    I enjoyed the series for its investigation of a variety of political views.

  • John Sabotta opines:

    Literature is not political pampleteering; aesthetics is more important than didactic ideology and we don’t need a Libertarian Chernyshevsky. Nor do we need libertarian tractor novels from L. Neil Smith.

    John, what have you actually read by Smith?

    As to what “we don’t need”, who are you speaking for? That’s for the market to decide. Apparently enough of an audience exists for his brand of fictional entertainment. Oh, and Smith seems to have been doing a superb job of convincing new readers of the idea of libertarianism… helping fulfill an otherwise unmet “need” for powerful advocacy literature. Calling his works “tractor novels” doesn’t change that fact.

    Are seriously suggesting that aesthetics without an underpinning of ideas is the only valid criterion for “literature”?

  • back40: I’ve read a couple by Ken MacLeod, and greatly enjoyed them. Right now I’m working on The Stone Canal.

  • back40

    Hi Russel,

    IMO TSC is good enough to read twice; once for pleasure and once to follow the references.

  • RK Jones

    Even if you exlude the ‘polemicists’, such as L. Neil, Schulman, Koman, and Linaweaver, antistatism still has a major presence in sci-fi.
    John Varley, John Barnes, and Allen Steele have all done very well for themselves critically, and each has a large body of explicitly pro-liberty works. You don’t get any more libertarian than Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and those who haven’t been able to find a copy of his “The Big U” should do themselves a favor and check it out.

    RK Jones

  • Parker

    Please – don’t assume you know Heinlein’s politics from the worlds he built, or from what his characters did.

    To be able to describe a fascist state, and even to write fiction set in one, is not to be a fascist…

  • Bill Patterson

    I’ve come to the conclusion that Heinlein’s politics cannot quite be contained within libertarianism, and the most that can be said is that he was a libertarian fellow-traveler — though unequivocally he ws a lover of liberty. If you had to put a label on it, “radical individualist” would suit, I think. His statement in the Schulman interview that he makes Ayn Rand look like a socialist was literal though hyperbolic: Rand bounds herself within the natural law theory of morality.

    I wonder if the people in this thread of comments are using the term “libertarian” in the same sense. For the sake of clarity, when I use the term, it is narrowly defined: a libertarian is someone who believes that all human relationships, without exception, should be conducted consensually. Some of the posts abovethread seem to be using the term as synonymous with “classical liberal” which is not quite the same thing.