Science Fiction

Science Fiction: Revolutionary SF


Hope springs eternal, and so does revolution. Ours is still a revolutionary age, but it is one that has been hard on revolutionary ideals. Hope there may be, but of fulfillment there is little.

Often it seems as if the world has become exhausted by revolution; that revolution is now only a sterile ritual in a game played by cynical leaders in a struggle for personal power, revenge against real and imagined enemies, control of diminishing natural resources.…

Yet hope there remains in science fiction, which can even call new worlds into existence to redress the balance of the old. And should fact follow fiction, as it often has before, the future of human freedom can still be more than a hope.

One recent novel, Ben Bova's Millennium, pits barely a thousand colonists of the American and Soviet lunar settlements against the combined Great Powers of Earth—both to secure their own independence and prevent a world war by seizing the control centers for the American and Soviet anti-missile laser satellites.

Bova, best-known as editor of Analog, may not be one of the great sf writers, and as fiction, Millennium is rather pedestrian. But he knows his facts—when he tells you the kind of revolution he describes could succeed, you can believe him.

Millennium, of course, is part of a long and honorable tradition, of which the high-water mark was perhaps Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), a novel so familiar to libertarians by now it need hardly be described—save to say that Heinlein too knows his facts, even if a sentient computer to lead a revolution remains, for the time being, speculation.

There were revolutions in science fiction long before anyone thought of the Moon as a base for one—perhaps the earliest of note was Caesar's Column (1890), by Ignatius Donnelly, a Populist whose account of a bloody and totally destructive revolt by an enslaved proletariat against the Wicked Capitalists was intended as a warning against what America could expect if it failed to embrace Populism.

Socialism still seemed a fair dream then, and was exploited in such novels as Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907), in which the heroic Ernest Everhard leads the bitter struggle against the tyranny of wealthy oligarchs; and George Allan England's The Air Trust (1915), in which an attempt to corner the oxygen "market" backfires on the monopolists and leads to their downfall.

Fellow-travelers notwithstanding, this sort of revolutionary sf failed to survive the Russian revolution—except in Russia. In the West, a sense of disillusionment was expressed in such works as Edward Shanks' People of the Ruins (1919), in which a socialist revolution leads England back to medieval conditions. In J.D. Beresford's Revolution (1920), a reactionary counterrevolution defeats the socialists, but the novel ends on a Spenglerian note of despair for the future of Western civilization.

In America, there was a "patriotic" reaction, and the first to exploit it seems to have been none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame. Shortly after World War I, he planned a series of stories that was to depict the Communist conquest of the United States and a subsequent revolution against the conquerors.

Apparently Burroughs' editors didn't think this situation was exotic enough for the creator of Barsoom (scene of A Princess of Mars et seq.), so he rewrote the work to make the conquerors Moon men and it came out as The Moon Maid (1923), The Moon Men (1925) and The Red Hawk (also 1925)—a disjointed series that mixes interplanetary adventure with flag-waving and even the return of the Red Man.

Burroughs set the pattern for writers like Charles R. Tanner in "Tumithak of the Corridors" (1932) et. seq.—stories of revolutions by Us against Them. But this school did lead to more fruitful works—John W. Campbell Jr., in his Don A. Stuart guise, gave some psychological and philosophical depth to what had become a trite them of interplanetary conquest and rebellion.

In a 1935 series, "The Machine," "The Invaders" and "Rebellion," over-dependence on the machine opens up the Earth to easy conquest by an alien race. But when the aliens try to breed an "improved" human race, they get more than they bargained for. "Out of Night" (1937) and "Cloak of Aesir" (1939) developed the idea of psychological revolutionary warfare—turning the rulers' rules against them.

Campbell was directly influential on Heinlein's Sixth Column (1941) and If This Goes On…(1940), in which a fake religion and exploitation of the superstitions encouraged by an established religion are the keys to the success of revolutions. Fritz Leiber took the idea to its limit in Gather Darkness (1943); in a world ruled by a scientific elite that pretends to be a priesthood and awes the populace with "miracles," the underground is made up of other scientists who pretend to be witches and perform their own "miracles" while discrediting those of the "priesthood."

Heinlein tried to develop new revolutionary ideals—the principles of the Covenant derived from Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics. And he also realized a revolution in a modern society has to be a large-scale operation, not simply a palace coup. That realization may be a major factor, however, in the decline of Earth-based revolutionary sf: modern governments appear too well-organized, and to have too much social inertia behind them, to be overthrown.

Even before Heinlein, however, revolution had found a new field of action in science fiction. Virtually forgotten today, The Birth of a New Republic (1930) was a crude, but signal epic about the Moon's war for independence against a future Earth controlled by multi-national corporations (the moon men, in fact, are seeking an independent corporation, as opposed to nation). Miles J. Breuer collaborated with Jack Williamson, who later became better known for his space operas, on what proved to be the grandfather of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Colonial rebellions against Earth are now familiar fare in sf—Heinlein's juveniles Red Planet (1949) and Between Planets (1951) carried the theme to Mars and Venus even before it was brought back to the Moon. More spectacular is Arthur C. Clarke's Earthlight (1955), in which the already-independent outer planets aid the Moon in a struggle that ends with a battle between an Earth-controlled fortress and an interplanetary fleet—a battle so epic that it could be the centerpiece for a science fiction movie to end all science fiction movies. Clarke plays this against an espionage plot that turns on ideals more evolutionary than "revolutionary."

Finding freedom on other worlds may still seem a remote dream, if any dream at all—yet it could become reality. And some of the arguments now are purely economic: Larry Niven, in his Known Space series, depicts a self-sufficient mining society in the asteroid belt that succeeds because it is a more practical source of raw materials for export than deep "gravity wells" like Mars or Venus. But Jerry Pournelle, in works like "Tinker" (1975) argues that Niven's society wouldn't work because there aren't enough asteroids close enough together to make it economically cohesive.

It's gone beyond the stage of fiction, too. Gerard K. O'Neill, a professor of physics at Princeton University, has developed a "space colonization" program that he argues would not only be practical—but profitable, with existing technology. Creation of artificial worlds in space for human colonization is an idea that goes back as far as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's Beyond the Earth (1918). Even O'Neill, however, was skeptical until his students worked out the economics: using material from the Moon, fabricated in space, huge self-sufficient colonies can be built in lunar orbit—and pay for themselves by selling the Earth solar power, beamed planetside by microwave.

An organization called the L5 Society (c/o Space Resources Program, Polytechnic Institute of New York, 333 Jay Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201) has been founded to promote O'Neill's ideas, and the possibilities of space colonies as, not only solutions to Earth's energy and resource shortages, but as habitats of "the rebirth of a new frontier for social, political and economic experiments."

It seems like a science fiction dream come true, and while there are obvious problems for libertarians (given the state of the world, the chances are that only governments can afford the initial investment in space colonies; on the other hand, Britain, France and Spain financed colonization of the New World and what do they have to say about running it any more?), it is a dream that could lead to a new birth of freedom, a new revolution, when all hope had seemed lost.

John J. Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.