Friday, July 31, 2015

Science Fiction and Dystopia-Part Two

Science fiction, being a fantasy, is by definition escapist. Fans would probably prefer that real life not intrude upon their fantasies. They would rather escape. Nonetheless, reality intrudes, especially in the form of politics. Why is that?

There are two kinds of people in the world, those for whom everything is political and those for whom only political things are political. People in the second group can get along pretty well without giving much thought to politics. People in the first group on the other hand have to insert politics into everything. Their sense of outrage requires them to act, and by acting, impose their will upon everyone around them. They are the kind of people C.S. Lewis called moral busybodies, what we might as well call progressives. They simply cannot rest. They simply cannot leave things alone. The things they can't leave alone include science fiction.

As a fantasy about the future, science fiction has a built-in flaw, i.e., its tendency to become politicized. Left alone, science fiction is escapist fun, or, at the other extreme, big, ambitious, and thought-provoking. But science fiction won't be left alone for as long as there are moral busybodies at work, for they have carved out an exclusive claim to the future. The future once belonged to everyone equally, including writers and readers of science fiction. Now the future belongs only to progressives. If you don't agree with them, you are on the wrong side of history and will be banished from participation in the future. If that requires only your silence, good. If your silence comes only with your being eliminated, well, these things are sometimes necessary. It's as though the future has become simply an extension of history, and because history is known, the future can be known as well. And because history has become a science, explicable by materialist methods, the history of the future is predictable and controllable. It is a simple unwinding. (1)

The idea of history as a science seems to have come from Marx, whose philosophies have been relabeled as scientific socialism, dialectical materialism, and historical materialism. The idea that the future, as an extension of history, can be predicted by scientific means may have entered science fiction by way of Isaac Asimov, who was, incidentally, a materialist. The economist Paul Krugman, a progressive if there ever was one, was inspired by Asimov and his concept of psychohistory from the Foundation series. Here's a quote from "The Deflationist: How Paul Krugman Found Politics" by Larissa Macfarquhar from The New YorkerMarch 1, 2010
Krugman explained that he'd become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he'd read Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon. Seldon was a "psychohistorian"--a scientist with such a precise understanding of the mechanics of society that he could predict the course of events thousands of years into the future and save mankind from centuries of barbarism. He couldn't predict individual behavior--that was too hard--but it didn't matter, because history was determined not by individuals but by laws and hidden forces. [Emphasis added.]
Note the dismissal of the individual, the materialist and collectivist "understanding of the mechanics of society," and the belief in "laws and hidden forces." I'll call on C.S. Lewis once again:
I have great hopes [writes the demon Screwtape] that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy [God]. . . . If once we can produce our perfect work--the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls "Forces" while denying the existence of "spirits"--then the end of the war will be in sight. (Ch. VII)
Note the use of the word forces in both quotes. Same word, same meaning.

Like Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis wrote science fiction. Unlike Asimov and Marx, he was a man of faith. Unlike Paul Krugman, he was a conservative. Here is his take on the future, all from The Screwtape Letters (1942) and all in words of advice given by the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to win over his human "patient":
Don't waste time trying to make him think materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous--that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about. (Ch. I)
[W]e want a man hagridden by the Future--haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth--ready to break the Enemy's [God's] commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain one or avert the other. . . . (Ch. XV)
We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now . . . . (Ch. XV)
Of a proposed course of action He [the Enemy, God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible? Now, if we can keep men asking: "Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way History is going?" (2) they will neglect the relevant questions. (Ch. XXV)
We have trained them [men] to think of the future as a promised land which favored heroes attain--not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is. (Ch. XXV)
Here, then, is the Progressive, a materialist, "a man hagridden by the Future," one who believes that history is an unalterable force that merely extends into the future, one who believes that the future is attainable only by "favored heroes." His program is twofold. First, to prevent what he believes to be hell on earth by preventing people from being free and therefore some from being unhappy. (The disorder of freedom is a hated condition to the Progressive.) Second, to bring about his vision of heaven on earth, a utopia of perfect order and perfect happiness. Utopia, another word for Dystopia, requires perfect order because without perfect order, people will remain free and imperfect, thus human. In the mind of the Progressive, the future belongs only to him and shall be by his command Utopia. Because science fiction is about the future, it, too, must be utopian, belongs only to the Progressive, and must be made under his command.

To be continued . . .

(1) Our current president--Paul Krugman, too--likes to use that phrase, "on the wrong side of history," as if he and his coreligionists know the difference between right and wrong, as if they and they alone are capable of seeing how history unfolds. Here is another of the  president's claims to the future: In 2012 he issued a fatwa by pronouncing, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." That one paid off earlier this year with the slaughter of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Now, from Charlie Hebdo, there is silence.
(2) In other words, "Is it on the right side of history?"

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Well, I agree with you -- sf is in the hands of those who wish to politicize everything. They will, of course, tell you everything is political.

    Politics is, ultimately, the management of violence. If something is a political problem, it potentially becomes a problem of violence.

    Example: Don't want people smoking? Make it harder to buy cigarettes. People undercutting that, selling single cigarettes on the street? Arrest them. If they resist, well .. policeman have guns and cuffs and clubs.

    I'm not saying government and violence have no role in human affairs. I am not a libertarian. I'd just like to limit what the authority of the state is used to do. Progressives seem to have few such limits.

    Interestingly, sf author Jerry Pournelle took a different path than Krugman though starting at the same place. He studied psychology (he has PhDs in political science and psychology) in order to be a Hari Seldon. He was even a Marxist. However, he became conservative and a C. S. Lewis fan.

    But I mostly wanted to relate some thoughts inspired by a recent Barry Malzberg column in the May 2015 issue of Galaxy's Edge.

    When talking about the self-destructive side of certain sf authors, he mentions that sf's problem is a "contempt for limits" is, of course, a characteristic of modern progressives. Right now they reject the realities of human biology: group and sex differences. (It must be said many conservatives reject them too, just a different set of realities.)

    I think sf has come to confuse playful or useful speculations on otherworlds. Yes, contemplating worlds where humans can change genders at will could illuminate what role the sexes play in humanity. Or imagining a world where humans have been biologically engineered to be communal.

    But there is a vast gulf between using a what-if scenario to think about aspects of our reality and history and thinking the what-if can be realized just by willing it.

    Our behavior lies on a matrix of chemicals and drives and desires that are hereditable. We can sometimes fight against it -- indeed certain aspects of civilization including religion fruitfully can curb the bad ones or channel them to productive uses. We cannot will them into insignificance.

    Malzberg's full quote is: "Was it the solipsism, the meglomania at the center of the genre itself, which made narratives like this possible? “The capitalist will sell you the rope with which you will hang him,” Marx is reputed to have said or written—and the science fiction writer will furnish, lavishly, the materiel for her own destruction, for the eager reader who is always looking for a way out, a special, flaming odyssey which will mark her sensitivity and originality. James Blish wrote of this phenomenon more than six decades ago, the audience ever slack-jawed and in search of greater thrills, greater sensation. Blish identified the slack-jawed as the enemies of the form, the fulcrum for all that was meretricious, but I have long been struggling toward another view. Blish’s slack-jawed were not the enemies or the hinging factor against the True Quill, Blish’s folks were science fiction, the heart of the artichoke. It was from its modern origin—Verne, Wells, Mary Shelley Moskowitz’s Science Fiction by Gaslight people—profoundly opposed to the common reality. And in that opposition, in that contempt for limits, it took its practitioners in the same direction that the post-technological culture had taken the West...toward oblivion."

    1. Dear Marzaat,

      I agree with you that government is violence--or the threat of violence. Here is a quote that is supposed to have come from George Washington. The fact that he probably didn't say it doesn't make it any less true:

      "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence--it is force."

      Your example of cigarettes is good. Food is another example. People in this world starve en masse not because food is scarce but because starvation is used as a weapon against them by their own or other governments.

      Anyway, you're onto the exact thing: progressivism is a creed without limits. Progressives, being economically illiterate, are ignorant of the concept of marginal costs. Their goal is perfection, but they don't realize that perfection, like the speed of light, cannot be reached, only approached asymptotically. In other words, it would take an infinite amount of effort to reach perfection: an infinite amount of time, an infinite amount of money, an infinite amount of lives expended. Yet they will never cease in their pursuit of it because they are so unhappy in their own lives.

      I have never read Jerry Pournelle. It sounds like he has taken a familiar path. C.S. Lewis was himself an atheist before converting.

      I have never read Barry Malzberg either. His comments about a "contempt for limits," "solipsism," and "megalomania" in science fiction are interesting. Those things appear to be taken to the extreme in recent years, but I might argue that a "faith in the infinite future" easily becomes a contempt for limits, and that the science-fiction writer's and fan's sense of superiority over ordinary humanity easily becomes a kind of megalomania. In other words, those things might be built right into science fiction--its fatal flaw. (I'm not so sure about solipsism, although Robert A. Heinlein wrote some of the most solipsistic stories by anyone ever.)

      So if science fiction is essentially the literature of progressivism, it shouldn't be any surprise that it, as a genre, would go the same way as a progressive society, i.e., into either tyranny or dissolution, eventually into oblivion.

      By the way, do you know what Mr. Malzberg was talking about when he referred to James Blish and slack-jawed readers?

      Thanks for writing.

  2. I'm suspect Blish's "True Quill" and the "slack-jawed readers" who didn't appreciate it probably refers to the literary standards Blish hoped would reign in sf. (He was a James Joyce fan.) However, I have none of Blish's critical work about to know for sure

    Malzberg is a man of the left. I've found the short pieces of fiction by him I've read a mixed bag.

    Malzberg and his friend Mike Resnick, editor of Galaxy's Edge which gives Malzberg free rein to express his opinions, both found themselves the subject of leftist hatred as detailed by Malzberg's friend Andrew Fox at

    I will say this, though, Malzberg has never been afraid to voice unpopular opinions.

    In the September 1992 issue of Amazing Stories, he said modern sf had three taboos not allowed to be published: xenophobia, biological imperativism, and that rape can perpetuate biologically based characteristics that otherwise, for social reasons, would not be transmitted.

    The Galaxy's Edge piece I quoted is actually an attack on the cult surrounding James Tiptree Jr, aka Alice Sheldon aka Racoona Sheldon, a writer much beloved by progressive minded readers obsessed with "gender issues". Malzberg is blunt: "Sheldon was a fraud from the hair on her chinny-chin-chin to her dancing twinkletoes, a bigger fraud than her and my own deeply-admired Alfred Bester and those making excuses for her ('this was her truest self') are like the people making excuses for John Campbell. ('He was just trying to shake them up.') She was a narcissist, and at the end a murderer. She killed her husband. Planned it for years. Blame it on her mother if you will, or circumstance or fate or karma, but those are facts."

    Progressives tend to lack a sense of proportion in many things and strive for the truer faith.

    But that's a young radical's game. Eventually you loose interest and energy. Then you're denounced by the new generation ad loaded into the rhetorical tumbrel and taken off for public shaming and economic destruction.

    1. Dear Marzaat,

      I read about the Malzberg/Resnick affair at the link you provided. I'm not sure what to make of it. Thanks for the link though.

      September 1992 was a long time ago. I think there are a lot more taboos in science fiction today. And I would guess that a lot of those have to do with political correctness.

      It's interesting that Mr. Malzberg would call Alfred Bester a fraud. I wonder what he meant. I can guess what he was talking about when he said that people have made excuses for John W. Campbell. As for James Tiptree, Jr., I have never read any of her works and I didn't know that she killed her husband. Was she a narcissist? I wish people would explain the things they say.

      Thanks for writing.


    2. Malzberg wrote a whole column on Alfred Bester and why he thought him a sort of fraud. However, that issue of Galaxy's Edge is now behind a payroll, so I'll have to buy it and read it again.

      As to Tiptree, she killed her husband and herself. Allegedly, it was a "mercy killing", but the Wikipedia article on her says she had long planned her suicide.

      It does not support a contention I've believe I've heard -- that her husband was not as ill as she made out.

      I have not researched the matter, so don't have an opinion on the truth.

    3. Thanks, Marzaat,

      Barry Malzberg sounds like man with an opinion. I should read something by him. If he had a collection of essays that would be the place to start.

      Thanks for writing.