Science fiction is a misunderstood genre. Today it enjoys a respectable amount of popular and critical acceptance, but many people still think SF (the preferred term) deals primarily with scientific and technical ideas—interesting to a handful of techno-nerds, perhaps, but too esoteric.
In fact, for many years SF has been a political genre, far more concerned with social speculation than with scientific gadgetry. As fascinating as technological advances may be in themselves, their considerable social ramifications can be far more dramatic and exciting. Consider the invention of the automobile. When conceived, it may have represented nothing more than a new combination of scientific principles interesting only to engineers. But this simple contraption revolutionized life in America. The ongoing development of computer technology will effect even more profound changes in our lives.
From a purely literary standpoint, it's impossible to tell a gripping story without a believable social context. In SF this context must be created out of whole cloth, which is not true of any other branch of literature, either mainstream or historical. SF stands alone in its ability to portray and analyze new forms of society.
Needless to say, much of what passes for political speculation in the genre does not cut very deep. It is always easier to use prefabricated ideas than to build a social system from scratch, and often SF writers simply adopt whatever political notion is current at the time of writing. This explains why much SF, from the "mad capitalism" novels of the early '50s (in which society is taken over by Madison Avenue or some kind of megacorp) to the ecological, soft-tech utopia works common two decades later, has had a distinct collectivist tinge.
But at the same time there has been an alternative movement—small at first but growing over the years—based on libertarian principles of maximum individual freedom. Some of the finest writers in the field, such as Eric Frank Russell, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, and certainly Robert A. Heinlein, were writing stories on themes that could only be called protolibertarian. At times, this emphasis moved into the open, as in Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. His philosophy of "rational anarchism"—essentially, the theory that governments and social institutions can have no greater moral rights than individuals—introduced libertarian ideas to many readers. All the same, until the 1980s such themes played a relatively minor role in the science fiction world.
In the late '70s, dogmatic liberal and left-wing ideologies ran rampant through SF literature. Perhaps in part as a reaction, writers such as F. Paul Wilson, L. Neil Smith, Brad Linaweaver, and J. Neil Schulman created an antistatist subculture within SF. In the decade since this group appeared, libertarian individualism has become the spearhead of serious political writing in SF—no small accomplishment, and one worthy of far more critical attention than it has yet received.
F. Paul Wilson was the first of the new generation of outright libertarian writers. In the early '70s he wrote a series of stories about the LaNague Federation, a star-spanning society founded upon libertarian principles. He later expanded the series into three novels, An Enemy of the State, Healer, and Wheels Within Wheels.
The best of these, Wheels Within Wheels, gives a solid picture of Wilson's political ideas. In it the federation, based on the free market and a complete separation of government and business, is threatened by a group called the Restructurists, a statist movement modeled on today's liberals, who attempt a takeover using a war scare and economic pressure. In the end they are foiled, but—in keeping with libertarian ideals—are allowed to secede without much fuss.
Wheels shows a depth of economic sophistication unusual in a popular novel, particularly in showing how manipulation of the economy can be used as a political weapon. Low-key and well thought out, Wilson's work is marked by incisive political speculation as well as a quality rare in any type of fiction that can only be called decency. He creates real characters, not stereotypes, and treats them as human beings instead of narrative devices to be sacrificed when convenient.
The most freewheeling of the new libertarians is undoubtedly L. Neil Smith. Active in politics (he made a respectable showing in Colorado as a Libertarian Party candidate for state senate, despite almost no financing), he has long experience in law enforcement as a part-time cop and later as a consultant to police departments.
Smith's first novel, The Probability Broach, showed a distinct Heinlein influence. This was an example of a subgenre called the "alternate world" story, in which history has taken a different turn and events have unrolled accordingly. The Probability Broach portrayed a decadent America nearly destroyed by government intervention and contrasted it with an alternate society working along libertarian lines. In this world the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, became the true founder of our country. He was a kind of libertarian Marx, serving several terms as president and attaining the status of a worldwide revolutionary saint. Smith calls his political system "Propertarian"—all rights are seen as property rights, to be defended as such. This idea is taken to the farthest possible extreme—armed vigilantes commonly redress property crimes, and dueling is an acceptable way of resolving disputes—as much for entertainment as didactic purposes.
Half the interest of alternate world stories lies in seeing how the author handles his artificial history, and this one is a doozy, with George Washington reviled as a tyrant and such figures as Geronimo, H.L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, and "none of the above" acting as president at one time or another. Smith's major contention is that a free society is bound to be more technically advanced than any other type, and he makes his point with some of the most impressive and interesting gadgets in years.
A light, deft stylist, Smith is much given to satirical flourishes and puns. The story is carried on in The Venus Belt and Tom Paine Maru, as the Propertarians straighten out statist America and begin to colonize the galaxy. It is a wild and funny series well worth reading. One wishes that all politically oriented fiction were this much fun.
The newest of the group is Brad Linaweaver, whose major work so far is Moon of Ice, another alternate world story, based on the evergreen premise that Hitler won the Second World War. The setting is a world much like our own, with an uneasy nuclear standoff between the United States and a Nazi Europe. The libertarian element arises with the German Freedom League, a group of young Germans who, disgusted with the crimes of their elders, have united with various resistance movements to bring down the Nazi tyranny. Moon of Ice (the title is taken from the pseudoscientific "World Ice" theory popular under the Nazi regime) is a technical tour de force. It is written as a series of diary entries by the aged Joseph Goebbels. After rewriting history to justify the more loathsome events of his career, he discovers that the SS, far gone into Teutonic mysticism, intends to carry out the most deranged aspects of Nazi racial theories. Even he is horrified.
Moon of Ice caused quite a stir when first published in a short version, gaining a nomination for the Nebula Award, SF's highest professional honor. Recently expanded to novel length, the book has met with an excellent critical reception, and Linaweaver is off to a career as a major writer.
But the star of the group is J. Neil Schulman. He appeared out of nowhere in 1979 with Alongside Night, which depicted a libertarian revolution in a near future America. Revolution has always been a popular subject in SF as one of the few major political events that can be shown in all aspects on a small canvas. Alongside Night was one of the most plausible revolutionary novels in some time.
Again we see an America on the skids, wracked by hyperinflation and crime, on the verge of turning into a police state. Opposing this is the Revolutionary Agorist Cadre, a free-market outfit that arose naturally out of the current underground economy. Already in control of the economy, the Agorists attempt to take political control without the bloodshed and destruction that would result from a conventional uprising. Schulman describes their struggle in vivid and compelling detail.
Alongside Night became one of the most widely hailed libertarian novels since the classic works of Ayn Rand (Anthem and Atlas Shrugged), garnering praise from critics outside the genre including Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). Schulman's second novel, an antiutopian work called The Rainbow Cadenza, marks a slight falling off—not surprising when compared to a masterpiece—but is still good reading.
As it stands, libertarian ideas have become a major force in the genre. While good work is being done at all ends of the political spectrum—Ursula LeGuin's anarchist and pacifist utopias and Norman Spinrad's novels of media power are examples—libertarians are beginning to set the agenda. In the last few years their ranks have grown to include Melinda Snodgrass, Vernor Vinge, Victor Koman, and Victor Milan—clearly implying that libertarianism has settled in for a long run.
Critic Roland J. Green recently complained in Amazing Stories that in SF, economics is divided between "the illiterates and the anarchocapitalists"—a statement that can be taken as a compliment to the power of libertarian thought. It's ironic that a literary genre once considered an oddball offshoot of negligible interest should become the fictional voice of a political movement often dismissed in the same manner.
But it may go deeper than that. In the last decade SF has emerged as a power in the publishing industry, making up a fifth of all books published and a full quarter of profits. For the first time, SF novels regularly appear on the bestseller lists. Science fiction has come of age and is now being read by more people than ever before. In this context, the partnership between SF and libertarian ideas takes on a new meaning.
One of the most important functions of the genre as political literature is that it can look forward to future societies to see what mode of life is desirable and what should be avoided at all costs. As collectivist governments and ideologies, responsible for the most horrendous crimes against humanity in this century, begin to recede, it is of crucial importance that an alternative—based on freedom, respect for the individual, and a sane economic system—be presented. Alone in popular culture, science fiction points the way.
J.R. Dunn is a free-lance writer living in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Free Worlds".