Do science fiction writers dream of fascist dictatorships?

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Some years ago in a book review, I made an off-the-cuff comment that thriller writers tend to be quite wright-wing in their outlook whereas science fiction authors are much more progressive and leftist. This is obviously an undue generalisation (as most of such comments tend to be) but it felt intuitively right. Even then I thought of Michael Chricton as the obvious counterexample – a thirller writer with distinctly liberal leanings – but I couldn’t think of a science fiction writer that would provide the counterexample. I put this down to my lack of comprehensive sci-fi reading and thought nothing more of it. Now, I’m not even sure that the general trend is there or at least that the implications are very straightforward.

Recently, I was listening to the excellent public policy lectures by Mark Kleiman and remembered that years ago, I’d read some similar suggestions in the Bio of the Space Tyrant by Pierce Anthony. It wasn’t a book (or rather a book series) I was going to reread but I set to it with a researcher’s determination. And frankly, I was shocked.

What I found was not a vision of a better society (Anthony projects the global politics of his day – the early 80s – into the Solar system 600 years hence) but rather a grotesque depiction of what the elites of the day would consider ‘common-sense’ policies: free-market entrepreneurship with social justice with a few twists. It was anti-corporalist and individualist on the surface but with a strong sense of collective duty (and pro-militarism) that was much more reminiscent of fascism than communism. It espoused strong, charismatic leadership with a sense of duty and most of all a belief in the necessity of change led by common sense. The needs of the collective justified the suppression of the individual in almost any way. But all of this is couched in good liberal politics (like the free press, free enterprise, etc.)

It is not clear whether Anthony means this as a parody of a fascist utopia but there are no hints there that this is the case. The overwhelming sense I get from this book is one of frustration of the intellectual elite that nobody is listening to what they have to say and a perverted picture of what the world would be like if they only got to start over with their policies.

Speaking of perverted. Through all of this is woven a bizzare and disturbing mix of patriarchy and progressive gender politics. On the one hand, Anthony is strongly against violence against women and treats women as strong and competent individuals. But on the other hand, his chief protagonist is an embodiment of a philanderer’s charter. All women love him but understand that he cannot love just one! The policies are there but what is to prevent any man from feeling that he is the one exception. So despite the progressive coating one is left feeling slightly unclean.

Now, is Anthony the exception I was looking for years ago? I don’t think so. First, I think he would fall in the liberal to libertarian camp if asked. But second, I don’t think he’s any exception at all. I recently reread some SciFi classics and found hints of to full blown monuments to this rationalist yearning for control over society – the “if they only listened to us” syndrome, also known as the “TED syndrome”. We understand so much about how things work, so now we have the solution for how everything works. That’s why we should never seek to be ruled by philosopher kings (Plato, Hobbes, and any third rate philosopher – more likely to be fascist than liberal). Classics like “Mote in God’s Eye“, “Starship Troupers” (the movie was a parody but the book wasn’t), “Foundation” or less well-known ones like “The Antares Trilogy” or “The Lost Fleet“. They all unwittingly struggle with the dilemma of we know what to do but we know it can’t be achieved unless we have complete control. I found echoes of this even in cyberpunk like Snowcrash.

So am I seeing a trend that isn’t there? I’m not as widely read in SciFi as other genres so it’s possible I just happened on books that confirm my thesis (such as it is). Again, the exception I can think of immediately is Cory Doctorow whose “For the Win” is as beautiful and sincere a depiction of the union movement as any song by Pete Seger. And I’m sure there are many more. But are there enough to make my impression just that? (Of course, there’s SciFi  where this doesn’t come up, at all.)

But this tendency of the extremely intelligent and educated (and SciFi writers are on the whole just as well versed in anthropology as they are in science) to tell stories of how their images of the just society can be projected onto society as a whole is certainly a worrying presence in the genre. It seems to be largely absent From fantasy, which generally deals with journeys of individuals within existing worlds. And while these worlds maybe dystopic, they generally are not changed, only explored. Fantasy has a strong thread of historical nostalgia – looking for a pure world of yore – which can be quite destructive when mis-projected to our own world. But on the whole, I feel, it contains less public policy than the average science fiction novel.

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  • TGGP

    Mark Kleiman is one of my favorite intellectuals I disagree with. “When Brute Force Fails” is an essential book for our time.

    Funny that Tyler Cowen linked to this on sci-fi and libertarianism some days ago. I think sci-fi tends toward rationalism, which fascism tends to deride. I distrust rationalism as well, but don’t go in for irrationalism (instead I think pluralism/empiricism helps us better attain accuracy).

    “strong, charismatic leadership with a sense of duty and most of all a belief in the necessity of change led by common sense. The needs of the collective justified the suppression of the individual in almost any way.”
    Except for that second sentence, it sounds pretty normal. And if it was spun in a more mild version than “almost any way”, that would also sound normal. I don’t read much sci-fi, but I think (as with most fiction) the individual tends to be held above the collective. Sympathetic individual protagonists make for better stories.

    For fear of tripping spam filters I’ll refrain from linking to Scott Sumner’s post at TheMoneyIllusion arguing that the narrative form is inherently liberal. You can google the title “Is the term ‘political art’ an oxymoron? (Part 2)”. “Part 1″ has a completely different title, so don’t try searching for that.

    • Dominik Lukeš

      Thanks for the links. Fascinating. But I’d say there’s a distinction between focusing on the individual as part of the narrative – that’s a fairly universal and perhaps unavoidable feature of story telling (although different eras use different codes for describing the individual’s inner states and immediate social interactions – cf. Tolkien and Edda) – and an individual as the focus of a political movement.

      Also, I’d distinguish reason from rationalism – reducing everything to reason. I fear rationalism, but reason is a fun thing to play with. The fascist rejection of rationalism was itself a product of rationalism – and I see hints of that in some SciFi. Two reasonable/ing people can disagree amiably, two rationalists would tend to try to annihilate one another (because, if reason is infallible, only one can be right and remain who they are). Also rationalists hold in them the seed of the suppression of any more rationalism once the pinnacle of their ‘reason’ was reached.

  • llLeoll

    Sometimes, it isn’t that SF writers so much want a fascist future as they think it likely. Some would find it a good thing, others a nightmare. Especially as higher tech requires both greater specialization. Which means education that normal folks probably will not have.

    Example: Witness how many computer “power-users” cannot write code or work in the command line.

    That specialization does lead to concentrations of (properly trained) brain-power. Which leads to more specialization as people bounce ideas off each other. Which inevitably leads to capital concentration.

    Examples are, of course, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But also mechanical engineers thronging to the Great Lakes region during the Henry Ford era, or mining engineers concentrating in the West Virginia/ Pittsburgh area.

    It seems rational (if you think it through) that such a concentration will lead to oligopoly. And should it become a system where industrial magnates wield undo power OVER the government, fascism is a very likely outcome… especially when that high tech is militarily oriented, As is extreme income inequality.

    Which has happened again and again. Ancient Rome. Japan. Germany.

    As a PS, it should be noted that many industrialists in the 1930′s thought fascism an good thing. Many actually wished Roosevelt would declare himself dictator. Luckily, he had more sense than that.