Very few fiction writers deal seriously with the business and economic aspects of the cultures they write about; still fewer write consistently about genuine individualists. One writer who does both, and who uses science fiction as his medium, is Poul Anderson.
Anderson was born in Pennsylvania in 1926, of Scandinavian parents (his first name is pronounced somewhere between "pole" and "powi"). After the death of his father, young Poul spent several years among relatives in Denmark, before returning to the United States prior to the outbreak of World War II. After several years on a Minnesota farm, Anderson entered the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
There, he majored in physics and minored in chemistry and math, graduating with honors in 1948. Fortunately for the world of fiction, however, Anderson never practiced his ostensible profession, but managed to turn his fiction-writing hobby into a full-time career upon graduation. In the 27 years he has been writing he has turned out on the order of 250 science fiction works—novels, novelettes, short stories, and collections—including three Hugo winners. (A nearly complete bibliography appeared in the April 1971 issue of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION.)
REASON readers were introduced to Anderson's writing by science fiction critic John Costello (see "Poul Anderson and the Men Who Count," February 1972), who discussed the author's literary romanticism and presented the outlines of one of his libertarian-oriented future histories. As a history buff, Anderson writes with a vision broader than even most other science fiction writers, spinning tales of adventure, entrepreneurship, and diplomacy against a galaxy-wide, millennia-long backdrop. Seen from Anderson's perspective, the current "inexorable" drift toward statism is but the working out of a cycle; many of his stories picture a rebirth of merchant capitalism in an essentially laissez-faire galactic context.
Poul Anderson is clearly a man apart from the crowd, even within the small fraternity of science fiction writers. To explore his ideas—about philosophy, government, individualism, and his writing—REASON staffers Robert Poole and Clarica Scott talked with Anderson in the International Hotel, overlooking Los Angeles International Airport. Against a backdrop of giant 747s and DC-10s, the interview began.
REASON: What was your first published science fiction story?
ANDERSON: Let's see, my first real publication was in 1947. It was a short story in ASTOUNDING as it was then, the predecessor to ANALOG. It was a very pessimistic thing called "Tomorrow's Children." Those were the days when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in everyone's memory, and also, people were becoming more and more aware of genetic effects of atomic radiation, so this had to do with the aftermath of a nuclear war and especially with the genetic results of widespread fallout.
REASON: Was this one of the first things you had written?
ANDERSON: I had been writing just as a hobby for years, but I hardly ever submitted anything and was, in fact, quite astonished when this was accepted,
REASON: As I recall, that story had quite an interesting message in that since there was so much mutation going on, human beings had to be judged as people, individual people, and not simply by their exterior characteristics. Those humans who still looked like humans had to learn to accept mutants that didn't necessarily look like humans but were.
ANDERSON: Yes, and I did a couple of sequels developing the idea of a world in which standard type humans had actually become the minority.
REASON: For 1947 that must have been a startling idea to a lot of people. Of course, one of the things that science fiction does well is to prepare people for new ideas and new ways of looking at things. Do you consciously do that in your writing?
ANDERSON: No, I don't. In spite of what some people have said, I don't consider myself a preacher. But everyone who writes (just as everyone does who speaks) stands on his own philosophical platform, whatever it may be, and this is bound to be reflected. What I have tried to do, like a great many other science fiction writers, is explore different ideas, set up propositions for examination, not necessarily ones I believe in. For example, I am pretty skeptical of telepathy, and I don't believe in time travel. One makes certain assumptions and explores the consequences. On the sociological level, for instance, I once set forth, or at least had the characters who came out on top in the story set forth, the proposition that the best form of government for man is some version of feudalism.
REASON: Which we assume you don't believe.
ANDERSON: Well, I don't know. We could perhaps get into that a little later. At least it seemed to me worth while questioning yet another proposition that we all take for granted. ANALOG editor John Campbell had this general approach; he was always trying to shake people's intellectual assumptions, not necessarily with the idea of converting them to anything else, but at least making them examine the premises of their thinking.
REASON: Was Campbell an important influence in your development as a writer?
ANDERSON: Oh heavens, yes, on me and everybody who wrote any significant amount for him. He was a complete fountainhead of ideas; probably more than half of the classics in the field originated as Campbell's suggestions to the author.
REASON: Is that a usual relationship between editor and author?
ANDERSON: No, it's very rare. There is no replacing him and you are going to see much less in the way of these fresh ideas in the future simply because this one man is gone.
REASON: Unlike many of the "New Wave" SF authors, your own training is in science. Have you worked as a scientist, or did you start right in writing?
ANDERSON: I set out to be a physicist and took a degree in that field, but along about the time of graduation I discovered I might be able to be a second-rate scientist which wasn't too interesting, but probably my chromosomes were a little better adapted to writing for a living. Besides, writing is a field where one can be one's own boss. In fact, it's practically the last surviving free enterprise.
REASON: And is that the biggest attraction of writing to you?
ANDERSON: Well, if I inherited a million tax-free dollars I would probably still write something occasionally, though not so much.
REASON: What drew you into the field of science fiction as a writer?
ANDERSON: I always enjoyed reading it. And I keep telling young people who are interested in becoming writers themselves: One of the first rules is to write the sort of thing you like to read, write what interests you; anything else is a waste of life.
REASON: Who have been some of your inspirations other than John Campbell? What science fiction writers have you liked to read over the years?
ANDERSON: I imagine that my list of the outstanding science fiction writers would be the same as most people's. In my opinion Theodore Sturgeon is one of the best writers of any kind around, whether science fiction or mainstream, and I suspect he's probably the only one of us with any chance of being remembered 100 years from now. Probably as a writer just within science fiction I would say Robert Heinlein was the biggest influence on me. Of course, there are many other excellent ones including many of the newcomers too: Cordwainer Smith, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney. The late C.M. Kornbluth was very fine; it was a great loss that he died so young. One could expand the list forever. Outside of science fiction, it's hard to say, because a person derives from an entire cultural background including an entire literature. Certainly one of the very strongest influences on me, a writer whom I fell to be absolutely tops, the one to try to match even if I can't, is Kipling.
REASON: That's very interesting. Kipling has a real feel for history which seems to be one of your strongest interests also. Have you read extensively in the field of history?
ANDERSON: In an amateur way. I don't have any academic background in it.
REASON: If you had to do it over again would you have taken your academic training in physics or some other field?
ANDERSON: I think I would have stayed with physics: it's the basic hard science. I guess it's unfair to say that science consists of physics and tiddlywinks; but physics, you might say, is the core science, and it is just about impossible to get a good background in that through self-education, whereas many other things you can at least have some hope of picking up on your own.
REASON: Have you ever had difficulty in getting published for any ideological reason—because the message that came through in your story was not acceptable to the editor or publisher?
ANDERSON: In some instances things have been turned down because they pushed the wrong button on somebody, but they have almost always found another home somewhere else. Mostly the various things which I never managed to sell were simply not very good.
REASON: I believe you've corresponded with several Soviet science fiction writers. How did that come about, and what have you learned about Soviet science fiction and the constraints under which writers have to work?
ANDERSON: Well, let's see, the beginning of it all goes back about 10 years when the late Ivan Efremov, who was certainly their biggest name in science fiction, wrote a letter which my agent forwarded to me requesting copies of some books that he had heard of but couldn't get there. My agent said, "I suggest you answer him politely, for the sake of international relations and so on, but tell him 'no'. You realize they are not in the copyright convention and in effect you're being asked to help pirate yourself." But my feeling was, what the heck, he was a charming pirate and I had really nothing to lose. So I sent him the books, and in the course of writing back and forth we got to be more or less pen pals. We stayed off politics by a sort of tacit consent. There was enough else to discuss. He would send me lists of books he had heard of and would like to get and I would try to get them for him. In exchange he would send me some frequently very beautifully printed things, so I feel that it was a very rewarding relationship.
REASON: What sort of problems did you encounter?
ANDERSON: Various curious matters would come out; for one thing, if you want to send any kind of book to somebody over there, be sure to send it registered mail, expensive though that is. The odds are all against its ever getting through otherwise. It will get stolen along the line, because they are evidently starved for any breath of fresh air from outside. Of course, even if you send it registered it might not necessarily get through.
REASON: Are things inspected by the authorities?
ANDERSON: Oh, it might get ripped off anyway; or censorship might stop it. Afterwards a couple of other Russians also got in touch with me and I sent them some books. One of these people was in Montreal for Expo '67, and I didn't actually meet him in person, but I did suggest to him as long as he was over here he could load up with books and take them home. He explained this was impossible. A Soviet citizen returning from abroad may not bring any books or the like in his luggage because the censorship is coordinated with the Soviet Post Office, more or less, not with the Customs, so they do the simple thing and just forbid the entry of any printed matter. Of course, foreigners coming in can evidently carry most things. At one time I was hoping to get over there, before Efremov's death, and he requested that I bring a couple of books that he particularly wanted but evidently couldn't even get through the mail, like a PLAYBOY volume which included the girls from Russia.
I complimented him once on the very beautiful stamps on his letters. Certainly Russian stamps are on a par with Japanese, and I mentioned that this was especially pleasing because my daughter was collecting stamps at the time. He replied that he would like to send me a lot but it was illegal to put loose stamps in an envelope. However, I should not be surprised if I started getting a great number of post cards with not much actual news on them. And also, thereafter no two stamps were ever alike on the letters I got. Somewhat later I happened to meet an American anthropologist who had done some work over there and he explained the reason for this to me. It seems that in the Soviet Union even stamp collecting has to go through "Big Brothers." You turn everything in to a central collective that then redistributes them. Individuals are not supposed to simply swap stamps. So if you have any Soviet correspondents and want to do something nice for them, put the postage on your letter in the form of as many different commemoratives as you can find.
REASON: You seem to have a facility, which not all science fiction writers share, for creating worlds and histories on a large scale. Does doing this give you a powerful, Creator-like feeling?
ANDERSON: It doesn't make me feel powerful. I really think that probably model railroaders have more of that sort of feeling. I guess I got the basic idea originally from Hal Clement, who of course is the real master of creating imaginary worlds. It occurred to me that so many science fiction stories are laid on imaginary planets which were exactly like earth except for having either different geography or history, and inhabited by humans who were exactly like us except for acting out Ruth Benedict's fantasies. So I got to thinking, wouldn't it be possible to use those same principles that Hal Clement does, in a less radical way, and try to create imaginary planets where men might be able to live but which nevertheless would not be near-carbon copies of Earth? It isn't really that difficult to do once you get the hang of it. You make certain assumptions and then from the laws of astrophysics and astromechanics and so on everything else follows. It's using what you might call disciplined imagination.
REASON: You seem to have created several large-scale future histories in which individual stories can be drawn. How many of those are there that you have identified as large scale backdrops?
ANDERSON: Actually only 2 or 3. There was one I started out back about 1950 or so, deliberately imitating Heinlein, who of course originated the future history notion. I wasn't imitating his identical history, but I was trying to do a parallel sort of thing. I gave it up in time because, like Heinlein, I found the real world catching up. For instance, World War III did not come off on schedule. There's only a couple of others and to some extent, like Topsy, they just grew. I'd write one story and then perhaps think of a sequel to it and perhaps write another story I thought was altogether different and realize it would tie in somehow with those two. So by now, for the one particular series that includes Nicholas Van Rijn, Dominic Flandry, and so on, I have to have what's practically a concordance to try to avoid inconsistencies.
REASON: Could you describe the gross outline of the history involving the Polesotechnic League, the Terran Empire and the Commonalty?
ANDERSON: In this history we survive our current troubles and set up an international order which keeps the peace, basically just a peace of exhaustion as so many of them have been in history. But scientific and technological progress continues and a couple of very critical inventions get made sometime in the next century. One is a cheap and comparatively simple nuclear energy conversion device, so that the cost of energy nose dives. The other, and this of course is what almost all contemporary physicists would say is out-and-out impossible, is a means for traveling faster than light. Like many other science fiction writers, I make the assumption that we don't know all the laws of nature there are today and may in the future stumble on something which will enable us to get around this speed limit.
As a result, man expands out into space beyond the Solar System, finding a very wide variety of worlds including other intelligent races than the human. It becomes an analog in some respects of the actual historical discovery and conquests when the New World was opened up. But operations are on an enormous scale by our standards even though automation and computerization under these circumstances have paradoxically reinforced individualism. This is because with the help of a battery of such equipment, one man or a few men or women can oversee operations of a magnitude which today would take an enormous corporate bureaucracy like Standard Oil.
Now in this exuberant frontier atmosphere with free enterprise again finding the elbow room which it must have to survive, it does in fact revive and you have an era of merchant princes. Here the analogy goes back a little earlier than the age of discovery, back to the medieval Hanseatic League. The companies form a combine known as the Polesotechnic League in which (since I'm assuming basic human nature doesn't change), the free enterprises discover they have what seems to them a vested interest in choking off any more free enterprise. So to some extent, the League tries to operate as a sort of loose cartel. But it's also a mutual benefit association which, for example, maintains its own currency, its own combat forces, rescue fleets, and so on. There are many joint undertakings between these companies. Because the merchants are practically unlimited in the scope of their operation, whereas governments are limited to the areas that they officially control, increasingly, governments become the victims or the pawns of the merchant princes.
REASON: Do you see the same thing already happening today with the multinational corporation?
ANDERSON: Yes, there are obvious analogies here, of course.
REASON: That was an interesting prediction to have come true so fast.
ANDERSON: Well, perhaps, let's say, the same pattern happens over and over again. After all, consider what an influence the railways had in 19th Century America. But, again, human nature being what it is, the League era draws to an end, corruption sets in, and the League fails because of its own success. Too much wealth, overweening pride, too much readiness to use corruption or violence as the handiest tools. So at last, the whole thing collapses and there's quite a cutthroat time of troubles for a century or so. I should mention, by the way, one point I like to bear down on is that although this happens on an intersteller scale, it does not happen on a galactic scale. Not even many science fiction people seem to realize how huge the universe is. So although there have been occasional expeditions which covered extreme distances, most of this history takes place within a few hundred light years of Earth, a sphere which, after all, contains several million stars, most having planets and each planet being a complete world with all its own diversities.
Eventually the usual human solution to this kind of chaos comes about; namely, Caesarism. An Empire is formed governing from Earth, which gradually extends its influence and its power. As for its method of rule, since you could not control all these thousands of worlds closely from one center, I really draw more analogies to the Roman empire than anything else. Meanwhile, of course, other races than man have been touched by this influence; some of them have industrialized, gotten into the spacefaring business themselves. In particular, one race of beings, called the Merseians, are on their way up—a vigorous and aggressive race with imperial ambitions of their own. Well, in time the Terran Empire stops expanding, settles down, becomes corrupt, and in effect loses heart. At most, people only want to hang on to what they have. What I am thinking of here, if I may digress for a moment, is what I once remarked in an essay: that people who feel that the sex lives and drinking habits of the ancient Romans were what brought about the downfall of the empire merely prove that they get their knowledge from Italian movies. It wasn't so much how the Romans lived, it was that they stopped living for Rome. The Flandry stories take place in this twilight of empire, when it's pretty clear that the rickety structure can't hold together much longer. He hopes that he can help maintain it during his lifetime. At last the collapse does come, though I haven't gone into the dark ages yet in any detail. I think probably, again, like Rome or Byzantium, it would be a slow process. In fact, in the Terran Empire versus the Merseian Empire, I'm deliberately drawing some analogies between the Byzantines and the Persians, who you will remember wore each other down. Meanwhile there have been some quite far-flung human colonies sufficiently distant as to be more or less out of touch with these events; eventually on one of them a new concept of how to go about things evolves in the Commonalty.
REASON: What are some of the story titles of this series?
ANDERSON: Let's see, for the merchant prince era there are a couple of collections of stories: TRADER TO THE STARS, and TROUBLE TWISTERS, and a couple of novels like SATAN'S WORLD. Then for the earlier imperial period I just recently published a novel called THE PEOPLE OF THE WIND. And for the later imperial period, the Flandry stories and a couple of novels.
REASON: What stories deal with the post-Empire Commonalty?
ANDERSON: There's only been one. It was a novelette called Starfog. You can find it in a collection of stories called BEYOND THE BEYOND.
REASON: The Commonalty represents a voluntaristic, free-market approach to government functions. Where did you get the idea for such a system?
ANDERSON: As a matter of fact, the original notion came to me years ago in Scandinavia. In spite of the generally socialistic or interventionistic nature of those governments, there are some curious areas of pretty much free enterprise surviving, including a large operation called the Falk Rescue Corporation, which you can subscribe to. It will provide all sorts of services for you: ambulance service, emergency medical service, fire assistance with fire prevention/control, and so on. Of course, they have the usual government services there too, but it's evidently worth a good many people's while to subscribe to this private organization as well. It occurred to me that perhaps an organization could grow up which could offer a wide variety of services, including many that government gives, and might conceivably do this so much better that in time it would tend to displace the government, which might find it feasible to itself become a client. I know it seems strange, but to some extent it happens; for example, the army is increasingly turning K.P. and similar things over to private contractors, and of course, defense contractors are nominally private enterprise—although that seems to be a standing joke. As I say, I have no idea whether any such thing could be made to work in as limited a space as the Earth, but it would be interesting to explore.
Oh, another possibility, and this might conceivably help bring some such development here at home, such an outfit would presumably include banking, services of one sort or another and would issue notes in the usual manner. Conceivably these notes, by being scrupulously honored always at face value—you know, if you gave a note it would, in effect, be good for so many bushels of wheat and this value would not vary—presumably these notes could become more desired by people than increasingly inflated legal tender.
REASON: That, too, is apparently starting to happen. There's a plan starting in New Hampshire by an economist named Ralph Borsodi. He has gotten the First National Bank of Boston and a couple other banks in on a plan to start a commodity-backed money that they hope to put into circulation in competition with government money.
ANDERSON: Inflation has been called a period in which debtors relentlessly hunt down creditors and ruthlessly pay them off. It could be that people who insist on using legal tender will suddenly find that others don't want to do business with them in the first place.
REASON: What would you say have been the major influences on your political-economic views?
ANDERSON: I suppose reading, corresponding, traveling; and I have always enjoyed arguing with people with different viewpoints from mine. Particularly there have been a couple of friends who are really dedicated 19th-century liberals. I guess I started out as a fairly standard model of the 20th century, but over the years these people would keep hammering me with facts and gradually I retreated from that position. It still seems to me that the 19th-century form of complete laissez-faire liberalism, to the extent that it was tried, didn't work too well, any more than my imaginary Poleosotechnic League did; to some extent the one who paralleled the other. It seems to me that 18th-century liberalism such as expressed, say, in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution or even in the FEDERALIST PAPERS, has never had a fair trial and might at least be worth trying. We couldn't be any worse off, and the whole concept is so profoundly revolutionary that we just might get into another stage of history.
REASON: Have you done any reading of people like John Locke, or John Stuart Mill, and similar classical liberals? Have they been much of an influence on your philosophy or your writing?
ANDERSON: Yes, to a large extent, but probably more so the founding Fathers of the Republic, since they had to deal with practicalities, not theory.
REASON: So your interest runs more toward doers than toward thinkers?
ANDERSON: Oh yes, because my feeling is very strong that radicalism of any kind should confine itself to theory. It's always a disaster to try to put it into practice. Radical changes do happen—consider how radical the change was from a hunting to an agricultural economy—but let them take their time. Give people a chance to assimilate them as they happen, and especially to develop institutions that can cope with them. Basically, it seems to me that the really radical thing that they came up with in the 19th century, in fact apparently too radical to stay by very long, was the concept of government by contract. The Constitution of the United States, Heinlein once had a character remark, was a contract between the people and their government. Of course, you don't have to go along with Rousseau that this was the origin of the government; that is not true. But could it not be an ideal?
REASON: Are you familiar with Lysander Spooner's views on the later validity of that contract? Spooner claimed that it was only binding on those who were alive at the time it was adopted.
ANDERSON: Doesn't this get down to the typical adolescent complaint when things don't feel so good—well, I didn't ask to be born? However, how about this concept: that one of the most basic human rights should be the right to get the hell out. Nobody, no government, should ever restrict anyone, perhaps not even people under criminal indictment, from leaving. Of course, other people wouldn't necessarily be obliged to take them in.
REASON: How about the right of secession of your property out from under the jurisdiction of the government? Would you consider that equally fundamental?
ANDERSON: I don't know. Probably not. If you get right down to it, what does the concept of a property right in something mean? Doesn't that basically mean that you may do with it what you choose? Then there is practically no such thing as an unlimited property right. For example, I have a right not to shine my shoe (and I don't), but I do not have the right to hit you over the head. I think it could fairly be argued for example, that someone who owns a piece of land does not have the right to ruin it so that it would be of no use to future generations.
REASON: On that subject, you mention in PEOPLE OF THE WIND that "Government never had been too important on Avalon, aside from basic issues of ecology and defense." Now, it's easy to see that defense can be considered a function of a limited government. But could you explain why you included ecology?
ANDERSON: Probably the closest analogy would be matters of public health. At least since the germ theory of disease, it's been held that people do not have an unlimited right to dispose of possibly infectious wastes in any way they choose; if they have a highly contagious and dangerous disease, they must be quarantined; and so on and so forth. In other words, my right to walk around freely is proscribed when I have typhoid that others might catch; and it seems to me this is about as reasonable a restriction as limiting the right to practice physical violence on someone. Likewise, the general environment is something we all share. Furthermore, we as individuals don't exist in a vacuum. We don't suddenly pop into being from nowhere and blink out when we die, because we come from ancestors and an entire cultural heritage, and we are going to have descendants. In fact, the world is already full of people who are younger than us, who'll outlive us, and all these, including generations unborn, have rights too.
To a certain extent, the earth is common property, which does not of course mean that we should socialize it in the usual sense. We would do better to leave most things to individual judgment—the horrible counterexample being the Army Engineers—but it seems to me that you just don't get away from the fact that man is basically a social animal and that he's always going to interact with his fellow man. You can maximize the amount of liberty by accepting certain mutual restraints. I am only talking about rather mild commonsense ones.
REASON: Obviously, then, you don't think anarchism is a realistic alternative.
ANDERSON: Do you know the history of the medieval Icelandic Republic? It's one of the very few cases in which what you might call a form of anarchism was actually maintained for quite a long time. What happened was that in the 9th century, one king conquered Norway and brought it all under him and tried to set up a centralized community of sorts. There were a great many people in Norway, especially powerful noblemen and so on, who didn't like that one bit. So since Iceland had recently been discovered, they up and moved there, parceled it out, and settled down. The way their system worked was roughly this.
The franchised people, which in effect meant all the adult men who weren't held as slaves (and there were really rather few slaves), would meet from time to time in assemblies known as "Things." There were local Things, and then there were larger regional ones, and a national one that met once a year. There they would try cases, pass judgments, and determine if there was to be any change in the law. The letter of the law was regarded with a sort of quasi-religious reverence. There was somebody at every Thing known as the lawman whose duty it was to know it by heart, because this was essentially an illiterate society, at least in the early days before Christianity came and brought in books. But illiterate people usually have incredible memories. So the lawman would stand forth at each meeting and recite the law or the relevant parts of it, and the people would listen and say, yes, yes, that's the way it is, he has it right. They all knew what they were talking about.
But to go on, they had this structure of law, and a system of trying disputes between people. Suppose one person had killed another one, as frequently happened because they were very quarrelsome, or otherwise damaged him; the Thing would judge the case and find for the defendant or the plaintiff; then either levy a fine on the offender, which was paid to the offended party, not to the State, or sometimes outlaw him. That meant that all protection of the law was removed from him, anyone could kill him that wanted to, without penalty. Since most often outlawry was for a limited period of time, like for three years, if a guy had friends he would get on a ship and go to continental Europe and spend the time there.
To get to the point of this long story, there was one thing lacking though, that was an executive. They had the legislature, they had the judiciary, but there was no executive. So if the Thing found for you in a case, it was up to you to collect; and if the party who offended you was stronger than you and didn't choose to oblige, that was your hard luck. The result of this was that century by century more and more small people had to put themselves at the mercy and under the protection of powerful men, become their followers and so on. The blood feuds got worse and worse between these strong families and finally in the 13th century, it became a complete horror. People slaughtering each other right and left. Then inevitably one faction intrigued to get the help of the King of Norway, and that was how Iceland fell under Norway. So I frequently bear that lesson in mind in thinking about possible anarchism. It's a nice idea as long as only nice people are involved.
REASON: That's a good point. A lot of things look a lot better on paper than they do in practice when people start figuring out the angles and what power they might be able to wield.
ANDERSON: In one story I once had a character remark on what he called the Garden of Eden theory of history, namely, the notion that at some point, and what the point is depends on your prejudices—if you're a Catholic apologist, it's the 13th century, if you're a 19th-century liberal, then it's probably early 19th—but in any event, the Garden of Eden theory says that at some point in history things were just great, and have deteriorated since and therefore evil people must be responsible. There has to have been a snake in there somewhere. Now we know that that isn't really the case. For example, let's say powerful labor unions came into being largely in sheer self-defense against powerful corporations. Of course, today perhaps the cure is worse than the disease, but nevertheless it had a cause.
REASON: Are you a member of the World Future Society.
ANDERSON: Yes, I am.
REASON: Do you think the futurology movement performs a useful function?
ANDERSON: Oh yes. In a way you might say that it's science fiction being put to work rather than just being armchair entertainment. John Campbell frequently said that science fiction had the advantage that you could take a social system or something and test it to destruction without actually killing anybody. Some of these futurists certainly give us a lot to think about. Yes, I would say it's a good sign. Perhaps there's some danger of our getting locked into what seems like a very intellectually attractive and plausible future and basing all our planning on that. Nevertheless, it certainly seems better to try to think ahead than just to proceed blindly as we usually have.
REASON: This is the kind of thinking that you're accustomed to in putting together science fiction stories and trying to think long range and project alternative futures. Do you agree with Alvin Toffler's idea that school children should read science fiction so that they can cope better with a changing world?
ANDERSON: I don't see where it can do any harm. They can perhaps develop a little more flexibility of mind, a little more ability to roll with the punches when something unexpected comes along. You remember Herman Kahn's remark that the greatest surprise that the future could hold would be that there would be no surprises.
REASON: I was interested in what your opinion is of the psychological as opposed to the political aspects, of the women's liberation movement. Do you agree with feminists who say that women tend to be programmed into passive, inferior roles?
ANDERSON: You raise a good point, but do we really know with that much certainty what the basic statistical differences between the sexes are? For example, in the nature of the case, a woman is forever debarred from fathering a child and I am forever debarred from bearing one.
REASON: But that is not what I mean. I'm saying we will never know what the real, intrinsic differences between men and women are until we do away with artificially created differences, to whatever extent we are subject to them.
ANDERSON: Well, I'm only putting this up for discussion because I don't pretend to know either; I don't think anyone does for sure. Certainly individual women have shown high ability in any field you care to name. The question is, to what extent were they extremely exceptional in accomplishing this in spite of unnecessary handicaps? I wonder, is it not at least arguable that most of our traditions are the result of racial experience, conceivably even of instinct, frequently misunderstood and distorted, of course, but nevertheless reflecting some reality? For example, even in the countries most firmly committed to equal treatment of the sexes (I think of Israel and the Communist countries), the division of labor is not identical. Not even the Israelis send women to the battlefield anymore; they give them behind-the-line jobs. Generally speaking, it's a very sound instinct of the race that says that men should do the physically hard and dangerous work. They are, after all, more expendable than women. There's no reason why women can't be doctors—in some countries, most doctors are women. But the idea of women being combat soldiers or coal miners or something like that just doesn't sit well. And to what extent are men naturally more aggressive than women? I speak statistically, of course; there are some very shy and retiring men and some women who are hell on wheels. But speaking generally, might their glandular and anatomical difference not be reflected in some pretty profound psychological differences which we won't get away from by changing our laws?
REASON: That's all quite possible. I guess what most of the women I know in women's liberation are mainly interested in is trying to correct the error of raising young girls under the impression that anything that women are associated with is trivial, unimportant, maudlin, or sentimental; whereas man's role is always important, always grandiose, that sort of thing.
ANDERSON: Of course, we always force children to a great extent. That's what education is all about. You start with civilizing them and that doesn't come very naturally. Yes, I see your point, but perhaps some of it is a reflection of the breakdown of the extended family. In the 18th and 19th century, we had all kinds of literature at least looking on the woman, the mother, as the center of the home. Her function was considered just as important as her husband's, although of course less conspicuous. I don't want to put you ladies down in any way, but it just might be that many women's libbers are simply feeling restless because the circumstances have taken the traditional function away from them without giving them much in return.
REASON: Could you imagine a woman in the role of, say, Nicholas Van Rijn, where intellectual, rather than physical power is the important thing? In SATAN'S WORLD I got the distinct impression that there were only two kinds of women: the weak, clinging type and the very cold, efficient head-of-the-computer data system company.
ANDERSON: That's a criticism that has been made of that particular book. I can only say that that happens to be the way that particular story went. On the other hand, in THE DANCER FROM ATLANTIS, what the whole book was about was a portrait of a completely indomitable woman.
REASON: Speaking of assertive women, have you read any of the works of Ayn Rand?
ANDERSON: Yes, I've read a certain amount.
REASON: Have they been an important influence on your writing?
ANDERSON: Certainly very interesting. It seems to me that anybody who throws a fresh idea into the intellectual marketplace is making a real contribution even if it isn't necessarily a practical idea. At least it makes people think. As you know from the earlier parts of this discussion today, it seems to me that there are a couple of objections to the theory of absolute individualism. One I mentioned earlier is that some individuals are too much inclined to exploit others one way or another. For that matter, even with no intention of doing harm, with the best intentions in the world, one might commit some blunder that does great damage to society, like inventing the automobile.
Also, on a more psychological level, I wonder how many people would even want complete individualism if you gave it to them. If it were a working proposition, might they not still feel themselves too isolated as individuals? For example, I don't know if you have heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism or not, the medievalists. Their thing started about six or seven years ago in somebody's backyard. It's grown like an unchecked forest fire, it's all over the country now, spreading across much of the world. It seems to me that the reason is not just that it's fun to hit people over the head or watch other people do it or parade around in fancy clothes or whatever. I don't think that that by itself will account for the enormous amount of trouble people take and the real devotion that it inspires in many. I think it's fulfilling a lack that has developed in our society—that we have in a sense become too efficient and too impersonal. We have done away with too many rituals, we have freed ourselves from too many individual obligations, and for many people, if not all, this is not a good condition to be in.
REASON: Alvin Toffler, in talking about future shock, anticipates something like this in proposing enclaves of the past where people could find some sort of refuge, at least for temporary periods, to retain a sense of continuity, and preserve certain traditions that seem to be fast disappearing.
ANDERSON: To some extent, of course, this happens, although it's kind of artificial. But, you know, one thing I could imagine very easily developing in our depersonalized world would be either a new religion or a revised form of an old one which would make the same totalitarian demands on everybody as the original Christian church. In fact, I sometimes wonder if modern totalitarianism, especially in Western countries, may not to some extent be a forerunner of that. It's been observed often enough that Communism is a religion of sorts.
REASON: Are you of the opinion, then, that extreme individualism would create enough mutual alienation that individualism would be sacrificed in the name of community?
ANDERSON: At least I think there would be such a tendency. Therefore, I like to hark back to what would be an idealized version of the early American republic. It had many things wrong with it, including many quite unnecessary compulsions, but nevertheless basically there you had strong institutions, meaningful ones with a great deal of tradition behind them, which people were not compelled by laws to subscribe to but in which they wanted to believe. This would seem to me to be a healthy condition.
I reached a definition of freedom once which seems to satisfy me, although I would be interested to hear debate on it. It started with the reflection that totalitarians, like dedicated Communists I've known, speak of themselves as free people and work toward bringing freedom to the world and so on. It occurred to me that they sincerely believed it and it isn't necessarily even too much a perversion of the meaning of the word "freedom". This is what they want. They simply fail to see that the rest of us might not want the same. Then it occurred to me there are many things that all of us, all ordinary people, are quite free to do legally which they don't because it is distasteful or they would consider it immoral or something like that. They don't want to, and you could say they have been conditioned that way by the civilizing process. So how about saying freedom is being in a cage which reaches further than you want to fly?
REASON: That's somewhat like Harry Browne's definition of freedom as being able to live your life the way you want to live it. Where do you see American culture headed at this point? And what do you think of the prospects for freedom, of getting away from the tendency toward a centralized government bureaucracy? Do you see any real hope for a return to a more individualistic society?
ANDERSON: Well, I don't know. It could go many ways, and of course, a good bit of it is completely out of our control. For example, a major war would be bound to influence our internal evolution, probably for the worse, although there would certainly be some possibilities of getting away from the complete overwhelmingness of government. You may have read a novel of mine called THE BYWORLDER laid in the year approximately 2000, in which the suggestion was that within the rigid framework of a nominally managerial State, most individuals would be going their own ways simply because there were no great demands on them, setting up their own little institutions here and there, a tendency which has always existed within an industrial society once it got well organized. Industrialism actually provides for more individual diversity than any other system. So we might go that way. I don't think the case is hopeless by any means, except that it certainly will be if we give up hope. I think it's definitely worthwhile and necessary to keep holding up the ideal of freedom and trying to get it across, not compromising on it philosophically, in fact keeping up efforts to roll government back.
REASON: Are you familiar with the libertarian movement as an organized group of people trying to do this?
ANDERSON: Not very much. I know about the Libertarian Party and so on, but I haven't had the opportunity to attend any of its meetings. I gather it's typical of American political parties, being quite a diverse group.
REASON: The political party is only a small part of the movement—the tip of the iceberg of a group of people trying to spread and popularize the ideas and rationale for a free society.
ANDERSON: To some extent, the excesses and duplicities of government have produced a cynicism which could have unhealthy effects, but in itself it is a healthy thing to the extent it will encourage people to go ahead and do more for themselves.
REASON: Some writers, perhaps yourself included, hold that the existence of a frontier tends to have a strong effect on maximizing freedom and free enterprise. Do you think that settlement of the oceans and/or colonization of the moon or Mars would tend to have a strong effect of that sort?
ANDERSON: Again, that would be a question of technology, I would say. For example, people very frequently complain about the astronauts being just a bunch of organization men. Well, actually they are very much individual men, but as far as working together goes, what can they be except an organization? We just don't have little individual space ships that you can fly to Mars by yourself by the seat of your pants. Closer to home, this would be true of the oceans. Besides, what you can do with the oceans, I'm afraid, is much more limited than some enthusiasts believe. And the other planets of the Solar System don't look like particularly desirable real estate except as places to gather scientific knowledge. So unless we ever do get an interstellar drive, I really think more and more we are going to have to start finding the frontiers within ourselves. And I see no apparent reason why we couldn't.
REASON: I seem to detect a certain amount of elitism in your writings. Do you see a definite need for some kind of an elite, whether intellectual or otherwise, as a carrier of civilization and preserver of culture?
ANDERSON: I think inevitably you will have an elite, simply because if you take any kind of ability, the population lies on a distribution curve with respect to it; some people have more talent, some less, and of course, there are many different kinds of ability. I think you will always find a small minority doing the great works of art, a small minority making the great scientific discoveries, a small minority providing the political leadership, and so on. I suppose though, the important thing would be in the first place to have enough social mobility so that it's always possible for those whose nature is so equipped to get into the appropriate elite, so that they aren't held down artificially. Then, second, ideally not to glorify or exalt one kind over another. That is to say, the wise society would look on its scientists, politicians, its artists, and everybody else with equal respect.
REASON: I'm a little bit surprised that you include politicians in the same category—I detect in many cases a certain cynicism and contempt for politicians in your writing.
ANDERSON: Some characters do show it in some situations. After all, politics is probably the most fragile of all the arts, the most difficult. It breaks down so often, in which case probably individual leadership has to come from outside the usual political process. There is something to be said for the idea of an established aristocracy with a long tradition behind it, high standards, and organization. You might possibly do as the Romans and Japanese did, adopt promising children into it. I'm not saying I would advocate that, because where it will end is all too obvious. I'm just saying that such a system will sometimes work for awhile, for a few generations, reasonably satisfactorily. A story or two of mine may have happened to deal with such a period.
REASON: In REASON in February, 1972, John Costello said that you write about or depict in your stories "Man the doer, man the achiever—the men who count." Would you agree that this is an accurate description of the kind of people you write about?
ANDERSON: I suppose so, mostly. After all, those tend to be the kind of people who have the most interesting lives. Their stories are apt to be more interesting, at least to me.
REASON: You have written several stories about a Galactic Patrol that keeps the peace without the use of deadly force, relying mainly on psychology and intelligence. In the introduction that Groff Conklin wrote for one of these stories he stated their thesis to be that peace is to be bought, rather than kept or enforced. Do you think that idea could work in practice? Would you view something like the CIA as a viable alternative, perhaps, to nuclear arms?
ANDERSON: Probably one can't take it too seriously except as a sort of parable, because ultimately no amount of debate and intrigue will give any real answer to a machine gun. Certainly, though, it seems to me we could resort to force much less than we do. In fact, ideally force should be the last resort. To some extent this is a fairly stable situation in a well-run neighborhood. The force is potentially there in the form of a policeman, but between the courts of law and other nonviolent means of settling disputes, the policeman may never have to fire a shot.
REASON: But the question is, harking back to the Icelandic example, how well or how long would the nonviolent method function without that force in the background?
ANDERSON: There have been societies which got along quite well without anything like what we think of as government. This is the case in most primitive societies, really; the Eskimo are a classic example. It's worth bearing in mind, though, these have all been people who have had to work very hard for their living. They never had too much energy to spare. Moreover, they lived in small groups where everyone knew everyone else face to face. In fact, I have a notion (and this is just a notion—it may have no validity at all); if you stop to think how man evolved—remember the hominid animal is tremendously old—until yesterday, geologically speaking, we always did live in such little bands. It would seem to me that our instincts evolved that way in that situation, so that to try to live in larger groups is quite an unnatural thing, and this may very well be the origin of the excessive use of force, the common use of violence among people.
REASON: So perhaps it's our complex civilization that's the problem.
ANDERSON: Yes, if you are going to try to have a large community at all, so large that no individual knows all the members, you just have to knock some heads together. Or as Sprague de Camp once remarked: "Man being civilized is like a bear riding a bicycle, the wonder is not that he does it poorly, but that he does it at all."