Science Fiction: Antigovernment SF
A lot of libertarians first became interested in science fiction when they adopted Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as their own—much as some of the hippies had earlier adopted Stranger in a Strange Land.
Some of them never got any further into SF than that, but the recent republication of two earlier works, Cyril M. Kornbluth's The Syndic (1953) and Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion (1962) may encourage them to explore further—who knows, they may even become fans.
Long out of print, they are being brought back as part of the Avon Rediscovery series, which aims to return classics of science fiction to print and keep them in print to make them available for college courses and the like (another book in the series is Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon (1960), mentioned here last year).
Kornbluth and Russell were both idiosyncratic writers, and their books are each one of a kind.
Just how the former came to write The Syndic is unclear. Even his friend and collaborator (Kornbluth himself died in 1958, while trying in vain to catch a Long Island Railroad commuter train) Frederik Pohl can only say he seemed to be extremely cynical about society in general, but apparently didn't have any strong political opinions, left or right.
The Syndic takes place around 2150 A.D., following a popular revolution that has overthrown the corrupt and oppressive North American government. Most social services have been taken over by what was once called Organized Crime or the Mafia, but is now known as the Syndic—at least on the East Coast.
Life under the Syndic appears to be happy and carefree. Of course, businesses still have to pay protection—but the collectors are understanding if cash is short, and the "customers" get their money's worth. Gone are the suffocating bureaucracy, the victimless crime laws and the remorseless taxation of Government days.
Yet there are still enemies abroad. What is left of the Government operates out of Iceland and Ireland as little more than a band of pirates beset by Byzantine intrigues masquerading as a continuation of partisan politics. And west of the Appalachians is the rule of the Mob—part of the same Organized Crime that produced the Syndic, but malevolent rather than benevolent.
Libertarian critics haven't been sure what to make of the book. Keeping in mind the role of the Mob, it obviously isn't a serious argument that Organized Crime would "really" be a better master than the government, but some see in the structure of the Syndic an anticipation of libertarian theories on alternatives to government, and marvel how near Kornbluth came to libertarian political theory without actually reaching it.
Actually, Kornbluth may not have had that in mind at all. One key to his intent is reference to a book, Organization, Symbolism and Morale, by F.W. Taylor—head of the Syndic.
Taylor's theory, briefly put, is that the spirit, or morale of a society is more important than its formal structure. To him, the secret of the Syndic's success lies not in having discovered some arcane secret of political science or economics, but in its social personality.
In one key scene, a Syndic lieutenant argues that to defend itself against the Government—he isn't even aware the Mob has formed an alliance with that Government, a fact that comes out later when the hero and heroine, Charles Orsino and Lee Falcaro, infiltrate Ireland on an espionage mission—it must root out those in Syndic territory who aid and comfort Government subversion by their puritanical prejudice against gambling and the like, and are therefore guilty of "treason."
Taylor is aghast: "Treason to what—us? The Syndic is not a government. It must not become enmeshed in the symbols and folklore of government or it will be first chained and then strangled by them. The Syndic is an organization of high morale and easygoing, hedonistic personality. The fact that it succeeded the Government occurred because the Government had become an organization of low morale and inflexible, puritanic, sado-masochistic personality."
And the surest way to destroy the Syndic, he warns, "is to adopt Dick Reiner's proposal of a holy war for a starter. From there we can proceed to an internal heresy hunt, a census, excise taxes, income taxes and wars of aggression." The very fact that people like Reiner—and later Orsino and Falcaro—can regard the Syndic as a holy cause, instead of taking it for granted, is, he fears, a symptom of decay.
All this takes place in the context of a spy thriller plot that develops the growing threat to the Syndic from the secret alliance of the Mob and the Government that is underwriting a series of assassinations of Syndic figures, but has an ironic twist because the very cause of the Syndic is also seen as a threat to the Syndic.
THE GREAT EXPLOSION
The Great Explosion is a novelization of three earlier Russell stories, including "And Then There Were None" (1950), which has appeared separately in both Frederik and Carol Pohl's Science Fiction: the Great Years and Ben Bova's The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2A.
Centuries after the "great explosion" that sent humanity colonizing the far corners of the galaxy, a new Terran Empire is trying to reassert the authority of the Mother Planet. That turns out to be easier said than done, for the inhabitants of those colony worlds, cut off from Earth for centuries, are perfectly satisfied to remain independent, thank you.
The first planet visited by the first Terran warship to attempt the assimilation of the colony worlds turns out to have been a former penal colony which has evolved a society based on "selfishness" pushed to the limit—everybody fights everybody, and nobody trusts anybody. The second is divided between two factions of nudists—the health-nut variety and the Doukhobors—who agree on one thing: clothes are taboo, including the uniforms of the visiting Terrans.
But it is the third part of the book that has been getting the most attention from libertarians, for its portrayal of a society based on Gandhian principles of non-violence that has no government whatever but is also free of the mutual violence and suspicion of the former penal colony.
What a strange world this is becomes clear the minute a spokesman from the ship tries to interest one of the local farmers in talking to the Terran ambassador—a man of "considerable importance," he is assured.
Oh, wonders the farmer—"What will happen to your home world when this person dies?"
"It will roll on as before?"
"Round and round the sun?"
"Then if his existence or non-existence makes no difference, he cannot be important," concludes the farmer, and goes about his work.
Others don't even want to talk to the spokesman—one keeps trying to wander off and "see Zeke" instead. And confusion persists as a Terran party tries to locate the local authorities.
"I'm hunting a local bigwig so I can invite him to a feed," explains the spokesman.
"You're going to use up a considerable slice of your life finding a fellow who wears a wig, especially if you insist that it's got to be a big one," reacts the puzzled local.
OBS AND MYOBS
Of course, there aren't any local authorities, or even any organized economic structure—possession is based on use and trade is carried on by exchange of "obligations" rather than currency. Terran forces can't conquer the planet because there's nothing to conquer—they are, in fact, not even resisted: just ignored. Except for those who persist in trying to find out just what the setup is—and end by defecting.
Russell's point, of course, is that social and political structures don't have any objective existence—they exist only in people's minds. The people on this particular world don't believe in organized government, so there isn't any—or any way to impose any, short of exterminating them and importing another population that does believe in government. And the way Russell makes his point is rib-tickling.
Republication of The Syndic and The Great Explosion may be symptomatic of a growing interest in libertarian ideas that was dramatized last year by the success of Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and a companion piece, "The Day Before the Revolution," both of which have won Nebulas and been nominated for Hugos.
There are even signs of a convergence from traditional right and left wing writers: the Commonalty of Poul Anderson's "Starfog" (1967) is very similar to the Ekumen of LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—both are far-future experiments in free association aimed at avoiding the mistakes of centralized government.
Will science fiction create a new form of social consciousness? It is too early to tell, but the potential is clearly there.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Fiction: Antigovernment SF".