Science Fiction and Anarchism - John Pilgrim

THIS ESSAY IS BASICALLY AN EXPANDED VERSION of lectures given to the Heretics Club of Cambridge University and to the London Anarchist Group, in 1960. I would therefore only claim that the conclusions I reached, and the overwhelmingly libertarian tendency that I observed in science fiction is valid up to that date. There may in fact have been some major changes in the attitudes of writers since my notes were prepared, although to the best of my knowledge the strong libertarian bias that I observed is still extant. In one or two places I am quoting from memory as I have been unable to obtain the books I wanted, and I apologise in advance for any misquotations that may have inadvertently crept into the text. Finally I must make some acknowledgement to Mr. Edmund Crispin, whose anthologies of science fiction for Faber and Faber are still the finest of their kind, and whose introductory essays I have shamelessly pillaged.

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THE MAIN DIFFICULTY EXPERIENCED BY AN ANARCHIST in trying to convince a non-anarchist of the validity, or even the sanity of his views, is the basic idea that authoritarianism of some kind is necessary in order to prevent society lapsing into a catch-as-catch-can barbarism. The same cliches are trotted out all the time on these occasions: "We have to have law and order", "It would mean survival of the most ruthless", "What's to stop someone beating your head in with an axe", "Who will clean the sewers", and so on. Those members of the public who stop to think about the problem at all tend to dismiss anarchism as a beautiful but impossible ideal. (So do the "permanent protesters" but that's another question). The vast majority are not even aware that such an ideal exists; to them anarchy is synonymous with chaos and as they are not given to reading political pamphlets they remain isolated from the

JOHN PILGRIM has been a regular soldier, journalist, professional washboard player and barrow boy. He "left a brutal-type grammar school at 15½ and is now studying for the teaching profession", and believes that any hope of an anarchist society lies with the sociologists developing a method of working towards one.

vanguard of liberal thought which is anarchism.

The problem therefore was to make the public aware of this ideal of a free society; to get them to realise that repressive governments and police forces were not necessary evils to be borne stoically in exchange for a television set and a washing machine; that there was a substantial body of thought in existence that rejected the acquisitive, technology is all and humanity can go to hell, values of what is laughingly termed "our civilisation". As the vast majority of the population tended to shy away from anything that smelled of politics I felt that it would be necessary to get anarchist ideas into popular entertainment; a novel or short story based on anarchist ideas would reach a large number of people that political essays never touch. And when someone had assimilated the concept of the sort of freedom which anarchists desire, in light reading, the ideas that he heard expressed by an anarchist speaker, or found in anarchist literature, would not seem so alien.

It was while thinking around this problem that I realised there was already in existence a literary form, which was, if not anarchist, at least consistently liberal and anti-authoritarian in its social views, and that was science fiction. It was a short story called Security Risk, in ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION a monthly American magazine*, that had in fact, first interested me in ideas that I later found to be embodied in anarchism. This story was written at the height in the McCarthy era and concerned a sociologist who made the first crack in an apparently impregnable social order in which McCarthyism had become the completely dominant factor. It appeared at the time to be a fair prophecy of the way America was heading, of what it would have become had McCarthy retained his power.

As late as 1960 most of the anarchists I met felt that science fiction was beneath their notice. The general picture of the medium seemed to be that of a half naked nubile young woman seized in the claws of a flying dinosaur while the Errol Flynn of the spaceways attempted simultaneously to rescue her and fight off a colony of giant intelligent ants. Now this picture of science fiction bears as much relation to the bulk of the medium as does the Chestertonian vision of the anarchist as a cloaked and bearded figure carrying spherical "bomb" does to the editor of this periodical. In neither case does the public image bear much relationship to the reality.

In the body of this essay I have concentrated on the kind of science fiction that appears in the monthly magazines. I have ignored the Utopian literature of the past (a subject much better dealt with in Marie Louise Berneri's Journey through Utopia) and I have also ignored work by mainstream writers that might be considered as coming within the science fiction field. Books like Brave New World and 1984 may or may not be science fiction but they also have been more adequately dealt with elsewhere, and in any case are hardly representative of the medium. Neither do I consider it necessary to drag in the name of William Golding, as Kingsley Amis does in his New Maps of Hell, in order to show that science fiction is respectable. Golding's use of a

* Now known as ANALOG.

common SF device, that of isolating a group of individuals in order to portray and analyse their attempts to build a culture does not make Lord of the Flies science fiction any more than the use of derby hat mutes makes Rhapsody in Blue jazz. The analogy is a good one. Just as the jazz critic / historian of ten years ago was always bringing up the interest displayed by Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud and Ravel in jazz, so Amis, (whose views on jazz are even sillier than his views on science fiction) continually evokes the names of Golding, Orwell and Wells.

I feel that as SF is the medium in which most of the genuinely subversive thought of our time is set down it has no need of the kind of academic respectability that Amis would wish on it. Indeed that sort of respectability could well lead to its early demise. The writing which I wish to discuss is the sort of thing that appears in monthly magazines like NEW WORLDS, ANALOG, GALAXY, and soon. Between the covers of magazines like this most of the criticism, discussion, and examination of our present social and political attitudes is carried on, outside, that is, of technical journals like NEW SOCIETY. As far as the general public is concerned science fiction magazines are the only form of popular fiction that, as a matter of course, present ideas that the supporter of the status quo would regard as subversive.

For instance the short story Stone and Crystal from Science Fantasy. As in many magazine editors in the SF field, John Carnell the editor, writes little introductory paragraphs, in case the reader misses the moral, what Edmund Crispin has termed "silly ejaculatory editorial epigraphs". The introduction to this story reads "The so-called march of Progress always tramples something out of existence. Extend technology to an ultimate degree and it will eventually cancel out individualism". The story that follows is a horribly effective warning against a too enthusiastic worship of science.

One of the basic premises of science fiction, not so common in mainstream fiction, is that established laws, customs, morals and taboos, are not constants, not all time truths, but part of a planetary culture that may be good or bad, but whose value must be assessed in terms of that culture's ability to give the individuals who comprise it the freedom to develop themselves to the full extent of their capabilities. A common use of this premise is in a setting where Earth is the most advanced culture in the Galaxy so far discovered. The hero is the social engineer who uses his advanced techniques to change the course of a planetary culture if it appears to be developing on totalitarian lines, in an attempt to prevent that culture from indulging in the kind of internecine wars that in the remote past nearly wiped out Earth. Equally often Earth is shown as a backward barbarous culture, so ethically undeveloped that they actually kill each other, and have governments and wars and police. In fact this type of story is so common in the monthlies that their continued survival is a source of some surprise.

I have already mentioned ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION and the violently anti-McCarthy story they published. This magazine has an excellent record in that respect. At a time when the organs of mass communication in the States were terrified of printing the slightest criticism of McCarthy, ASTOUNDING ran editorial after editorial slamming McCarthyism, the whole security system, and the deleterious effects of witch hunts on creativity. To this day John Campbell the editor, is still running leaders on the stultifying effects of the security system on individual freedom, the rejection by the American establishment of really original ideas, and the dangers of a sheeplike acceptance of what the Government and Authority says, to what is left of values in Western culture.

Quite recently ASTOUNDING published a delightful story set some time in the future about a character called Tom Paine who wandered round the inhabited Universe causing social upheavals on planets that were becoming a little set in their ways. One of the protagonists in the story makes some highly unkind remarks about an anarchist planet, called Kropotkin, that he is about to visit. He is sternly admonished by his partner who gives him a run down on the fundamentals of anarchist belief and ends, "And never forget that anarchism is the noblest social philosophy that man has ever evolved. There is no better way for men to live together".
It is no accident that the science fiction magazines continually portray ideas that the average establishment man would regard as dangerously progressive. It is because the very nature of science fiction compels the writer, and therefore the reader, to examine what is wrong with society, where humanity went off the rails, and what the present political systems are leading to. As Edmund Crispin says in his introductory essay to his first anthology of science fiction for Faber & Faber:

There can be no doubt that science fiction is much engrossed with Doom … we are never going to understand the crucial reason for this unless we analyse the events from which, in these stories, the various sorts of nemesis arise; until we note how in Dormant, for instance the disaster is brought about by the arrogance, rashness and warmongering of man; in The New Wine, by the over-hasty application of a new scientific technique; in No Woman Born, by the foolhardy, if well meant, alliance of living organic matter with a machine … Science fiction is sceptical about man, it cannot in the ordinary way trust him to colonise other planets, other galaxies, without vandalism and brutality …
Now whether this is a good or a bad thing may be a matter for argument; but no one can deny that in 20th century popular literature it is a very new thing … only in realistic, "reported" fiction like Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, can an amoral attitude be maintained; the fancy, in story-telling, demands decisions about right and wrong, good and bad, before it can consent to function at all — and every SF writer must make those decisions daily, whether he is conscious of doing so or not. Moreover he cannot rely on any mere conventions of morality to guide him, for he is constantly adumbrating dilemmas which in their detail, at least, are of quite unprecedented kind. And here is the nub of the matter. SF is not all pessimism … but it certainly is all ethics, politics and sociology, is in fact a layman's textbook of vividly stated problems in those fields. In general the problems are implicit rather than consciously defined … but whether the author chooses to make them explicit or not, the problems are constantly there, because SF's subject matter compels them to be there …
To think about ethics, politics and sociology in macrocosmic terms may admittedly have its dangers but it is surely — in that it implies a consideration of first principles — a great deal better than never thinking about those chronically relevant topics at all … the inexorable condition laid down by science fiction's subject matter will remain: readers will continue to have their noses rubbed in ethics, politics and sociology — not to mention religion — and will find the process enthralling.

Science fiction is sceptical about man. This does not imply that it is unsympathetic to man, indeed, the scepticism is in fact the result of a genuine sympathy for the human condition that is brought out again and again in all science fiction above the space-opera level. A story like Flowers for Algernon shows a concern for the human condition that is far removed from H. G. Wells' two dimensional figures, which so often, in his "scientific romances" at least, seem merely devices to keep the plot rolling. This combination of scepticism for man's view of himself as "Lord of the Universe" and sympathy for his situation is brought out superbly in Francis Donovan's The Short Life. Here man is shown as a freak in a universe of telepaths. Such a freak that a story in which a writer on another planet imagines the development of a sentient non-telepathic race is laughed away as science fiction of the most improbable sort. The lack of ability to communicate clearly is held to be the reason why man developed a competitive authoritarian society instead of a co-operative anarchic one, and he is shown as a tormented frantically frightened creature trying desperately to cope with the fear and misery engendered by this unnatural competition. The Challon, the visiting race, are horrified by the results upon human beings of the coercive nature of human societies, and their reaction is very much that of the anarchist:

Thus a moral issue was raised. To the Challon, the control or coercion of an independent intelligence was a cardinal outrage. No greater sanctity existed than the sanctity of the individual, for anything that prejudiced or restricted the right of the individual to full mastery of himself was worse even than the deliberate taking of life. It was murder of the ego …
This particular story, under the guise of explaining the Challon to a human being, goes into a great deal of detail as to the nature of what human beings have termed "guilt" and "shame" and takes the view that only the development of genuinely sane individuals can save the human race.

They Shall Have Stars on the other hand, is a straightforward adventure story, of a fairly typical kind; a gigantic scientific project operating from Jupiter's satellites, ending with the development of anti-gravity and an anti-ageing drug. But all the way through the novel runs implicit criticism of Western society, by this time as repressive as Stalin's Russia. There is a vicious portrait of a McCarthy-like senator obsessed with defeating the wicked menace of communism and caring little that in the process he reduces the West to the same state that he deplores in Russia. It ends, hopefully for an SF story, with a group of people who have bucked the system setting off to create a free society in another solar system. Banal as the plot outlines may appear, the book is in fact a powerful attack on authoritarianism, power politics, and the evils of the military mind's concept of security.

A more depressing, and because of this, perhaps more typical novel is Vonnegut's Player Piano. This postulates an authoritarian society with a rigid caste system based on intelligence quotients; as one of the characters says "A better criterion than money perhaps, but not much". For the hierarchy is built upon more than just intelligence. Someone in the ruling caste must be intelligent true, but intelligent in certain approved directions, i.e. management or engineering. The only way that this barrier can be crossed is by marriage, for, as one of the protagonists says ruefully, "some things never change. Big tits will still get you in anywhere".

The managers and engineers who are running the world after the third world war have in fact managed to create a society that is free from want and war; nevertheless they find themselves facing a revolution because in the long run people need more than "two meals a day and clean straw to roll in". The rising tide of unemployment in this highly automated society does not create any real physical want — nobody goes hungry — but all sense of usefulness is being taken away from the people. The present eight hours a day conveyor belt mentality has become the normal way of life for everyone, but as the have-nots include some very bright people whose talents do not run to management and engineering, the nucleus is provided of an intelligent underground movement. In the following quotes one of the underground is explaining to a potential recruit:

… This trouble we've got now, it's been going on a long while. not just since the last war. Maybe the actual jobs weren't being taken from the people but the sense of participation, the sense of importance, was. Go to the library sometime and take a look at the magazines and papers as far back as World War II. Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production — know-how, not people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines … Even then people didn't understand much about the machines they worked at or the things they were making. They may have been participating in the economy but not in a way that was very satisfying to the ego. And… this crusading spirit of the managers and engineers, the idea of designing and manufacturing and distributing as a sort of holy war; all that folklore was cooked up by public relations men to make big business popular … Now the managers and engineers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forbears hired people to say about them. Yesterday's snow job becomes today's sermon.

Vonnegut's novel is, of course, in the tradition of the anti-utopias and ends in the usual depressing manner. After the revolution, or rather insurrection, and the initial smashing of the machines that accompanies it, the people leave the barricades and go back to repairing the machines that will put people like themselves out of work. Like much anti-utopian and anarchist writing the problem is stated and analysed efficiently but no solution is suggested.

On a more popular level a libertarian idea is often thrown away casually with no real discussion, nevertheless its presence can alter the slant of the book. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, for instance. This is a science fiction detective story set at a period when telepathy has become an accepted power for a large part of the population and psychotherapeutic techniques are much further advanced than at present. People like the hero / villain Reich who want a return to the 20th Century system of power politics are regarded as sick people and treated as such. At the end of the book this conversation occurs: "Three or four hundred years ago the cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them. Capital punishment they called it"… "But it doesn't make sense. If a man's got the guts and talent to buck society he's obviously above average … You want to turn him into a plus value … Why throw him away? Do that enough times and all you have left are the sheep". "I don't know. Maybe in those days they wanted sheep".

This particular novel, a popular entertainment mind, not a philosophical dissertation, ends in an outburst from one of the protagonists in which the following words occur: "… there is nothing in man but love and faith and courage, kindness generosity and sacrifice. All else is but the barrier of your blindness …" Such lines may not be brilliant or new to the readers of this journal, perhaps, but they are surely a new thing in popular fiction.

A major virtue of science fiction is that even where no progressive or anarchist ideas are advanced, moral questions are discussed in a manner quite unheard of in the equivalent outlets for mainstream fiction. Blish's tour de force, A Case of Conscience, for example is written from the viewpoint of a Catholic priest who is the biologist on a scientific team surveying a recently discovered planet. As Crispin says, "It has been a long while since frankly commercial magazines could offer their readers a story of this calibre and still flourish in the process".

A Case of Conscience is something of an exception in its sympathetic treatment of religion. A far more common attitude is portrayed in Harry Harrison's Alien Agony which poses the question of the amount of harm that the introduction of religion would do to a race who had managed to develop without any concept of the supernatural, or of God. The authors standpoint here is that the harm would be enormous and irreparable, and this horrific little tale was written for a public that, by and large, would not normally regard the discussion of such hypothetical situations as an entertaining way of spending an evening.

It is this constant examination of moral, ethical, and social questions that makes science fiction so important in popular literature. For instance Philip Wylie, author of the "Crunch and Des" series for television, wrote a science fiction novel The Disappearance, using as his base the idea that most of the ills of human civilisations can be attributed to sexual maladjustment between individuals and an enormous dislocation between the sexes as a whole. In view of the validity of the following quotation it is difficult to understand critics like Tony Gibson continuing to dismiss SF as childish escapism.

We may by now be cerebral dinosaurs, using our brains as those animals used their bodies, merely to deal and ward off terrible blows. The human brain could have been meant for something else; not to promulgate one war after another for hundreds of centuries as we've done; not to promulgate ideas of shame and guilt either as has been done in the name of Christ for two thousand years; not to scrape up and waste every usable molecule of matter on the planet, as has been done since history shows a record; the human brain was meant for something else …

At another point the author says "It is expectable in a species that has perverted its instincts for its immediate vanity (as religions, faiths, dogmas, dialectics, etc.) that strong cultural compulsions and taboos would everywhere surround the ancient potent instincts of sex, and such, of course, is the case. Western man's religions (and hence his culture) are rooted in sex management and sustained by inculcated sex fears. Disobedience of the sacred laws or the common rules is a sin or a crime. Sex hunger has been made shameful so as to elevate the vanity of man in relation to the other animals and so as to enhance the controlling power of cultural tradition and its agencies, the churches, the courts, and so on. The inescapable result is anxiety and tension in society; hypocrisy confusion, neuroses and madness; along with vast safety valves of vulgar activities in which libido is expended in acceptable forms".

I have departed from my own ruling to use the established magazine science fiction writers work as examples because this brilliant and little known book is one of the most convincing diagnosis of the ills of human society with which I have met, because it is an interesting use by a mainstream, if off-beat writer, of science fiction devices in order to deliver a message, and because it inspired a successor.

This was Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X a book which owed its genesis to The Disappearance. In this book, which was serialised in the monthly New Worlds, the author postulates a society set up in isolation in order to preserve at least part of humanity from the coming holocaust. This isolated society is preserved from hatred and disruption by a surgically induced bi-sexuality and thus the avoidance of sexual conflicts avoids hatred in society generally. The idea behind this society is that of the essential oneness of humanity and the people who set it up believe, and the further development of it seems to show, that when this identity of interests is realised the artificial crutch implanted by the founders will no longer be needed.

Both The Disappearance and Venus Plus X are unusual in that there is a great deal of explicit philosophical discussion. This directly didactic approach is unusual in that the more common approach, doubtless forced in some cases on the authors by the exigencies of magazine publishing, is to leave the philosophical implications of the story implicit and show any social theories actively at work among members of an alien race or on another planet. An excellent example of this is Eric Frank Russell's And Then There Were None. This portrays a planet settled by some followers of Gandhi and their successful thwarting of an attempted colonisation by an Imperialist Earth. The society portrayed is purely an anarchist one; land is owned by the person who is prepared to farm it, money is non-existent and the economy is run by a system of mutual obligation, combined with a fierce regard for individual independence. The word the visitors keep tripping over is Myob (mind your own business) and all public places have the "mystic" symbol F = IW displayed prominently on the walls. Some of the more intelligent spacemen come to realise that this means "Freedom = I Won't", and with the realisation that a mass refusal to take orders from self appointed authorities is the only road to personal, political and economic freedom large numbers of the earth delegation begin to desert.

It is interesting to note that this story was written in 1950 and published in America during the McCarthy era, long before the current outburst of civil disobedience had got under way. It would be pertinent to consider just how much influence this much anthologised tale has had in forming the political opinions of the fallout generation. It might well be found to be far larger than might be supposed for a story published in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. William Sloane in his anthology Stories for Tomorrow said, (of And then there were none):

Human beings … resist regimentation with something deep and indestructable within themselves. Brute force, the tyrannies of power and orthodox disciplines can suppress and thwart this resistance, but the only drink in all human experience headier than pure alcohol is the well-water of freedom — individual freedom. No human being who has once drunk of it will settle for anything less … This is a story for patriots, for philosophers, and for anyone who suspects that the fetishes of a regimented order of life are worth merely the lip service they invariably demand …

This antipathetic attitude to force is a common one in science fiction. The theme of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Violence is the last resort of the incompetent is indicative of the general science fiction writer's attitude to war.

An exception to this rule is Robert Heinlein, whose brilliant craftsmanship and story telling ability would make him a literary must if only he had decided to write "literature" instead of science fiction. His tour de force, "Starship Troopers", is one of the very few examples of retrogressive, one might even say fascist thought, in the entire range of science fiction writing.

This book is written from the viewpoint of a professional soldier 5,000 years in the future. The book won the International Fantasy Award for 1959 and is unique in the attacks that were made on the author when the award was made. The postulated future society of this book is a limited democracy in that an individual can only vote if he has first served a period in the armed services. Service is otherwise voluntary and every discouragement is put in the way of those attempting to enlist. The social order has restored flogging, for both adults and juveniles, and public hanging, and this has resulted, apparently, in the practical wiping out of anti-social behaviour such as child murder. This is all explained with such deadpan earnestness, and such complete disregard for such facts as we have on the causes of anti-social behaviour (and the deterrent effects of hanging and flogging) that it could be argued that his delineation of this future society was meant to point up the horrors of our own. It is always dangerous to attribute the ideas of a novel to the author, and those people who claimed that the author, in a country where the military were taking increasing control of public affairs, was trying to show the repellent nature of the military mind had a valid case. For it is certain that the mere act of trying to write objectively about a future "fascist" society would reveal it in such a brutal light that the reader would immediately recoil from it. Certainly a tremendous attack was mounted against Heinlein by those who condemned the book as a glorification of violence, war and genocide, and it is therefore pertinent to quote two sections from the book where the philosophy of its rulers is explained.

The first section is taken from the early part of the book where a sergeant at a training camp is explaining the "facts of life" to a new recruit.

… There can be circumstances when it's just as foolish to hit an enemy city with an H bomb as to spank a baby with an axe. War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him … but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing … but controlled and purposeful violence. But it's not your business to decide the purpose or the control. It's never a soldiers' business to decide when, or where — or how — or why — he fights; that belongs to the statesmen and the generals. The statesmen decide why and how much; the generals take it from there and tell us where and when and how. We supply the violence; other people — "older and wiser heads", as they say — supply the control. Which is as it should be.

The next quotation is taken from a discussion in a philosophy class at an officer training school.

… Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal … to permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their authority … other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique "poll-tax" that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible the disastrous possible happened instead — and responsibility was forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple.

A little later the student is given an essay to write proving that "war and moral perfection derive from the same genetic inheritance".
Some of his ideas on the subject follow:

Morals — all correct moral rules — derive from the instinct to survive, moral behaviour is survival behaviour above the individual level — as in a father who dies to save his children. But since population pressure results from the process of surviving through others, then war, because it results from population pressure derives from the same inherited instinct which produces all moral rules suitable for human beings

Then after saying that limiting the birth rate will only result in the human race being "engulfed" he ends:

Man is what he is, a wild animal with the will to survive … Unless one accepts that anything one says about morals, war, politics is nonsense. Correct morals arise from knowing what man is — not what do-gooders and well meaning Aunt Nellies would like him to be.
The universe will let us know — later — whether or not Man has any "right" to expand through it.

The obvious horror of this philosophy and the results of it shown in the body of the book, might well lead the reader into thinking that the author could not possibly have believed what he was writing. However, the appearance of Heinlein's Day After Tomorrow, proved beyond all doubt that Heinlein is that virtually unique creature, a fascist science fiction writer.

This is certainly not apparent in his earlier work but in recent years he seems to have become obsessed with the idea of the "leader", the Nietzschean superman who will save mankind from itself. The kind of society he appears to endorse is fascist in the sense that Sparta was fascist. And from this he has developed the kind of jingoistic racialism that appears in The Day After Tomorrow. In this book the Pan-Asians, (the old fashioned "fiendish Chinese" in a new guise) have taken over America and are subduing it with the utmost cruelty. The whites (the American negro has apparently vanished) eventually triumph by "keeping the American constitution firmly in mind".

But the hysterical absurdities of Heinlein's later work do not invalidate the overwhelmingly libertarian tendencies of the major part of science fiction. In fact it could well be argued that part of the libertarian nature of science fiction is a built-in effect, for the setting of Heinlein's ideas in a science fiction medium show up, in sharper relief than mainstream fiction could ever do, the repulsive nature of his philosophy.

I have dealt with Heinlein at length because he is so atypical in the science fiction world, a fact that is evidenced by the furore his recent books have caused. But even his work contains elements of one of the most common themes in the medium, the "warning", or "this will happen if" type of novel. It is the ubiquitousness of the apocalyptic type of story that has led to the accusation that science fiction is purely obsessed with doom. This is untrue, but the writer takes the present trends and extrapolates from them. If therefore, there is a lot of doom in science fiction it is because the world today seems bent on suicide, a tendency that is hardly the fault of the science fiction writer.

One of the tendencies apparent to even the casual observer today is the rate at which big business and advertising control ever increasing areas of our lives and our society, and it is therefore hardly surprising that this tendency is often examined in science fiction. Two writers, working in collaboration who have achieved a notable success with this type of theme are C. M. Kornbluth and F. Pohl. Their most famous novel, The Space Merchants (unsubtle pun here, very common in SF) postulates a world dominated by giant advertising combines and as usual, the hero is the man who leads the revolution against the established order. It seems to be the tendency of this type of novel to take the attitude that there is no salvation on earth, and as in They Shall Have Stars, the revolutionaries steal a space-ship and make for another planetary system.

The other notable book by these two is Gladiator at Law, and is unusual in that the insurrection is successful. The villain here is the ICI type of monopoly and the ruling powers put on vast and incredibly cruel circuses to distract the proletariat from their lack of nourishment, physical and spiritual. These circuses are in fact the Roman type of gladiatorial combat with all the refinements of technology that the times can provide, much as Nazi Germany refined and perfected the experiments in mass murder carried out by the Americans at Andersonville, and by the British in the plantation of Ireland. Once again the hero is the rebel, the non-conformist. Fairly often, in this type of story the individual is defeated but occasionally some of the more optimistic writers assert that the individual can win against a monolithic authority, or at least can maintain his personal integrity against all attempts to make him conform, although he might lose his life in the process.

A really brilliant book of this type, and here I am again stepping slightly outside my terms of reference, is David Karp's One. Here, by a judicious mixture of elements from Kafka's Trial and 1984, a terrifying picture of the future is created that is all the more horrific for what is left unsaid. In One the corporate society is firmly in the saddle and everyone is encouraged to send in reports on the people they live and work with. There is a constant statistical sampling of these reports, not for what they contain about the spy's contacts but for what they reveal about the spy. One of these, a professor at a university is gradually becoming perturbed at the continual decline in the amount of original thought in his student's work, but he continues to send in his reports on the students and fellow teachers. The point of all this is that anyone harbouring heretical thoughts about the state, or even anyone judged to be psychologically capable of forming such thoughts, is brainwashed and given a new personality, a new background, and is left with no memory of his former existence. The optimism of the book lies in the fact that no matter what is done to the main protagonist his individuality starts to show through. Since this book was written we have perceptibly advanced towards the type of society portrayed in it and therefore its message, that only death can destroy the personality completely, is a little more cheering than appears at first sight.

From time to time I have tangled with various people in the pages of FREEDOM because they appeared to be taking the absurd ideas of Kingsley Amis seriously. Amis's ideas on the medium appear to have come from a series of quick sample reading of SF material carried out in order to get a lecture tour of America, and his reputation as a light novelist should not deceive people into thinking his an adequately equipped intellectual oracle for such off-beat amusements as jazz and science fiction. One of his more astonishing blunders was to say that in science fiction the scientist is never wrong. Now this just isn't true. SF is as critical of the new gods as of the old and in fact a fairly hefty proportion of the medium is taken up with the defects, moral or otherwise of the scientist. Even where there is no direct criticism the SF writer tends to cut the scientist down to size by putting him in a situation where his science is useless, The XI Effect is a nice example of this type, as is Simak's Beachhead. Edmund Crispin's anthologies for Faber can be taken as fairly representative of the genre and in the first collection alone, a volume of 14 stories, contains four stories, that, to say the least, are a little sceptical of the automatic benefits of advanced scientific techniques. This characteristic, "to misdoubt, fairly seriously, the wisdom and moral responsibility of technological priesthoods" says Crispin in Best of SF Two is a healthy scepticism, for only by perennial widespread mistrust can the power of rulers of any kind — politicians, ecclesiastics, scientists, managers, trade unions, bureaucrats, bankers or commissars — be kept restricted within tolerable bounds".

An impressive instinct of this scepticism can be found in Frederic Brown's short story The Weapon. A scientist working on a new kind of ultimate weapon is visited by a man who tries to persuade him to stop his present line of research; the scientist, Dr. Graham, refuses saying, "I know all the arguments … possibly there is truth in what you believe, but it does not concern me. I'm a scientist, and only a scientist … advancing science is my sole concern".

Dr. Graham leaves his visitor to make him a drink. While he is doing this the visitor goes to the bedroom where the scientist's fifteen year old but mongoloid son lies, leaving what he terms a small gift … the doctor goes to see his imbecile son and finds him playing with the "gift". The final line of the story reads "Only a madman would give a loaded revolver to an idiot".
This straightforward little morality tale, so typical of the science fiction short story, completely negates Kingsley Amis's statement, a statement that could, in fact, only have been made by someone like Amis, who has the kind of superficial acquaintanceship with the subject that passes for expertise among today's "bright young dons".

In fact the type of scientist who acts as handmaiden to the military always comes in for fairly rough handling in SF, as does the military mind. Sometimes, it is true; one finds the "I'm only a simple soldier doing my duty bit" but in the overwhelming proportion of stories the professional killer is lampooned, satirised, or shown as the villain of the piece. An obvious example of this, too well known to be discussed here, is Mordecai Roschwald's Level 7. This horrifying picture of the all too probably future has been called by J. B. Priestley "the most powerful attack yet on the whole nuclear madness". Certainly it should be compulsory reading for the "lucky" administrators who are going to staff our RSG's.

A criticism that has been levelled at science fiction since it was discovered by the university intellectuals to be a useful and amusing eccentricity for "Lucky Jims" is that if its writers are going to concern themselves with ethics and sociology they might as well write mainstream fiction which can do the job better. This is as valid as saying that jazz musicians might as well give up and play "straight" music as both kinds use similar scales and chords. In fact the premise is untrue. If fiction is to deal with large general issues it can do so better by recourse to fantasy than by the methods of mainstream fiction; something that Thomas More, Swift, and Butler had already shown.

Edmund Crispin put this point well in one of his prefaces when he said, "Those of you who have read Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer, will recall how often the book grinds to a boring halt to give Mr. Propter the opportunity for a lengthy lecture. If a science fiction writer wishes to be didactic he can demonstrate his point, showing Propter's views in action among members of an alien race, and rub the point home with an account of the relationship between these beings and man".

An interesting example of this is Rex Gordon's Utopia 239. The first half of this novel is set in the near future when the world is divided up into police states of a 1984 type. A major atomic war is imminent and a scientist who has devised a means of time travel is trying to persuade his daughter's lover to join them on their trip to the future, saying, "We are an old country and less frightened than most, but it is not in our hands. It is in the hands of the Americans … and the Russians … Fighting people are either bad people or frightened people … But there are no police to arrest the Pentagons and the Kremlins".

Now this is not exactly a literary masterpiece. It is only just above the level of women's magazine fiction. But I use this book as an example because the future in which these three find themselves is an anarchist society and the book goes into some detail as to how this society works. In the centre of the main town is a stone set up as a memorial to the founder of the community. It is inscribed with these words.

The Gospel of this Community.
That no one shall have the power to issue orders
That a state of Anarchy shall prevail
That freedom shall be unlimited … uncircumscribed by law … unfettered by taxation …
Trial shall be by instant jury … malice alone shall carry punishment … the punishers shall be tried for malice.

Later one of the members of the community amplifies their trial system and the way in which their social system works. "The young married couples live as single units or in complex groups of families; the young people live in their own community where their voluntary schooling takes place; there is a community of old people where the elderly can settle, if they wish, so that they do not spend their declining years alone … and we can afford to let the young learn by experience, rather than orders, we can create this community, because we carry no army on our backs, we carry no officials …" And of the "legal system" one of the men explains, "any group of men here at any time, can try any other group of men for malice. Your lives are in our hands and ours are in yours. A man … must call his friends together, meet, try, and inflict punishment on the spot. Then he is in turn tried for malice. It is a dangerous procedure. It is extremely likely that he will suffer the punishment that he has himself inflicted. For he has interfered with freedom, and every man's hand is against him unless he can show just and overwhelming cause. You can do what you like in that town down there provided only you injure no other person".

One cannot but reflect for a moment on the salutary effect that trying a judge and jury for malice would have on our legal system even as it exists at the moment. Basically the theme of this book is that government is slavery, and unnecessary slavery at that, and it is this view of the doubtful benefits that governments confer that makes science fiction so important at a time when centralised authoritarianism is becoming epidemic.
For instance Charles Eric Maine's Subterfuge, is basically a thriller within the science fiction format. I haven't the space here to discuss the plot but towards the end of the book the following questions are posed.

Does the State have the right to compel one of its citizens to work on a security project? Werner had tumbled on a discovery that could shift the entire balance of power in a world hovering on the brink of total war, but his inherent pacifism would never have allowed him to participate in the development of a new and more precise kind of ultimate weapon. Where then did individual liberty end and social duty begin? And so far as ethics were concerned, could the requisitioning of a man in the interests of defence and security be justified by any standards, particularly when it involved mental conditioning and indoctrination … Did Werner have the right to deny the State his services, or, in the final analysis, did the State have the right to enforce co-operation in anyone of its subjects?

None of this may seem to be particularly original but in 1959, when that book was published it was a very new thing to find in popular fiction. The perfidy of governments is something of an obsession with Maine, and in his best book The Tide Went Out he gives a brilliant description of a catastrophe brought on by nuclear tests and the way in which the world's governments, using their control of police and armies, secure themselves on the polar ice caps, leaving 99 per cent of the people to die of thirst, starvation, and disease.

This idea is carried much further in Bernard Wolfe's Limbo 90 in which pacifists have assumed government and "power corrupting" as usual, bring the world to the brink of the fourth World War. In fact this book is so complex and packed with ideas that it requires a long analysis to itself. Like Wylie, Sturgeon and Alex Comfort (in Come out to Play) he seems to find at least part of the origin of the lust for power in sexual maladjustment and under the slogan "Don't be a victim and don't victimise" he has written a complex novel of the manner in which the world's most idealistic government inevitably follows the laws of the nature of power.

Thus although science fiction stories on the simplest lever of appreciation can be regarded as fairy tales they differ from conventional fairy tales, (to paraphrase the doyen of the genre Edmund Crispin) in carrying a massive load of religious, political, ethical and sociological implication and so provide intellectual stimulation of a kind not met with in contemporary fiction. The critical examination of humanity and its institutions that plays so large a part in the medium could be considered destructive in that dilemmas and problems are pointed out far more often than solutions are suggested, but writers are not social engineers, and it is enough that, as the stupidities and cruelties of human governments and their pernicious effect on individuality are presented, science fiction gives to many people their first glimpse of what is wrong with our society. This is what really matters: in an age when all the pressure is on non-thinking conformity, science fiction enlivens and provokes the intellect, and strikes a blow for free creative thought at the cultural necrophiliacs who have dominated our culture and stultified our universities since the Renaissance started the educational vogue for feeding on the decaying corpses and doubtful virtues of dead cultures.

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Apr 28 2018 18:36


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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