Libertarianism and Science Fiction: What's the Connection?
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Libertarian Science Fiction"]
One day in the late spring of 1951, something rather astonishing happened in an otherwise nondescript shopping district in a medium-sized city somewhere in the American Midwest. Right there, right smack in the middle of the block, where Aunt Sally's Lunch and Patterson Tailors had long stood, there suddenly appeared what a later newspaper account could only describe as "a strange building, apparently a kind of gunshop."
The front of this building sported
a large, brightly shining sign … which read: FINE WEAPONS • THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE. The window display was made up of an assortment of rather curiously shaped guns, rifles as well as small arms, and a glowing sign in the window stated: THE FINEST ENERGY WEAPONS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE.
A local police officer attempted to enter the shop, according to the newspaper account, but found the door locked. Then, "a few moments later, C. J. (Chris) McAllister, reporter of the Gazette-Bulletin, tried the door, found that it opened, and entered." But when the local cop tried to follow the local reporter into the shop, the door slammed shut in his face and appeared to be locked once again.
The entire building vanished a short time later, and Aunt Sally's Lunch and Patterson Tailors were found to be just where they had long been. The employees who had been inside these establishments during the time that the mysterious apparition had startled those outside on the street seemed to have suffered no ill effects from the visitation and reported later that they had noticed nothing unusual. As for the newspaper reporter, McAllister, he was never seen again — at least not by anybody in that time and place. For, when he talked with the people he met inside the gunshop he had entered, he learned that he had somehow traveled 7,000 years into the future.
The story I've just told you — the fragment of a story, really — is the opening of a science-fiction novel called The Weapon Shops of Isher, first published in 1951 and written by an expatriate Canadian named A.E. van Vogt. Van Vogt was born in 1912 on a farm in Manitoba and died in Southern California just over 11 years ago, on January 26, 2000.
He began writing professionally at the age of 20, when he sold his first "true confession" story to a pulp magazine. Sam Moskowitz, in his 1966 book Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction, writes that "during the next seven years [van Vogt] subsisted on sales of confessions, love stories, trade magazine articles, as well as occasional radio plays." Then, in 1939, at the age of 27, he decided to try his hand at science fiction, something he had enjoyed reading ever since he was around 14 years old but had, for some reason, never attempted to write. His very first efforts won him major acclaim within the science-fiction field, and sufficient extra income that he decided to move to Los Angeles, where he spent the rest of his life.
And what about McAllister — the reporter from the mid-20th-century American Midwest? Well, as I mentioned, he found himself living 7,000 years in the future, on an Earth ruled by a single monarchical government; the Empire of Isher it was called. And scattered throughout this empire were what the imperial citizens knew, simply, as "the Weapon Shops." They were everywhere — in major cities and in small towns. And, even by the standards of the time in which they flourished, they were equipped with amazing technology.
Their front doors would not admit any government employee. Anyone else could enter freely and buy a high-quality energy weapon that could be used only defensively. If anyone tried to use it to commit a crime — to initiate force against another person — it would fail to work. The Weapon Shops also operated a system of courts, in which those who could not obtain justice, for whatever reason, from the imperial courts, might seek redress of their grievances.
One citizen of the Empire of Isher who speaks personally with McAllister calls the Weapon Shops "the common man's only protection against enslavement" and defenders of "the spirit of liberty" and "the rights of the individual." Later, another character explains that "the Weapon Shops were founded more than two thousand years ago by a man who decided that the incessant struggle for power of different groups was insane and the civil and other wars must stop forever." What this man proposed was
that an organization should be set up which would have one principal purpose — to ensure that no government ever again obtained complete power over its people. A man who felt himself wronged should be able to go somewhere to buy a defensive gun. You cannot imagine what a great forward step that was. Under the old tyrannical governments it was frequently a capital offense to be found in possession of a blaster or a gun.
According to this character,
For defensive purposes a Weapons Shop gun is superior to an ordinary or government weapon. It works on mind control and leaps to the hand when wanted. It provides a defensive screen against other blasters. …
many millions of people have the knowledge that they can go to a Weapons Shop if they want to protect themselves and their families. And, even more important, the forces that would normally try to enslave them are restrained by the conviction that it is dangerous to press people too far. And so a great balance has been struck between those who govern and those who are governed.
At one point, one of the major characters in the novel accuses a leading bank of defrauding him and takes his case to the Weapon Shop courts. The court rules in his favor and tells him, "'The bank is … triple-fined thirty-six thousand three hundred credits. It is not in our interest … for you to know how this money is obtained. Suffice to know that the bank pays it, and that of the fine the Weapon Shops allocate to their own treasury a total of one half. The other half —'" And, as if on cue, "a neatly packaged pile of bills fell onto the table. 'For you.'"
Returning triumphantly to his hometown after adjudication of his case, this character is told by a local employee of the Weapon Shops that
in the four thousand years since the brilliant genius, Walter S. de Lany … laid down the first principles of Weapon Shop political philosophy, we have watched the tide of government swing backward and forward between democracy under a limited monarchy to complete tyranny. And we have discovered one thing: People always have the kind of government they want. When they want change, they must change it. As always we shall remain an incorruptible core … devoted to relieving the ills that arise inevitably under any form of government.
The Weapon Shops of Isher is one of a number of classic science-fiction novels that embody libertarian ideas. And the widespread popularity of science fiction is undeniably one of the factors that has helped to keep individualism (including political individualism, otherwise known as libertarianism) at the center of American culture during the often-difficult years of the 20th century. All the best known libertarian novels are science fiction novels — Atlas Shrugged, Nineteen Eighty-four, We, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
Some people will tell you that there's a natural affinity between science fiction and libertarianism. One of those people is Eric S. Raymond, who makes his argument in an insightful and persuasive essay called "A Political History of SF." According to Raymond, "Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge." Its stories take place "within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures."
Science fiction is not always optimistic about the futures it portrays, Raymond acknowledges. But, he argues, when it
is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.
Science fiction's "central assumption," as Raymond sees it, "is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir" and that it is "scientists and engineers … who liberate the future to become a different place than the present." Science fiction's basic motive, he argues, is "a sort of lust for possibility," a desire "to believe that the future not only can be different but can be different in many, many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring."
Not surprisingly, then, science fiction
has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. … the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.
[t]he power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysenkoism). In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.
Science fiction is thus the natural literary expression of political individualism — libertarianism: it is, as Raymond puts it, "the literature that celebrates not merely science and technology but technology-driven social change as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere."
As if to illustrate Raymond's point (though long before it was actually made), in 1962, when Eric Raymond was four years old, an Englishman named Eric Frank Russell published a novel called The Great Explosion. The explosion in Russell's title has nothing to do with gunpowder or nitroglycerin or anything of that sort. It has to do with the fact that, sometime in the 22nd century, a hundred or more years from now, a crank named Johannes Pretorius van der Camp Blieder accidentally invented a new way to power spaceships — the Blieder Drive, it was called. "It made hay of astronomical distances and astronautical principles," Russell wrote, and
put an end once and for all to the theory that nothing could exceed the velocity of light. The entire galaxy shrank several times faster than Earth had shrunk when the airplane was invented. Solar systems once hopelessly out of reach now came within easy grasping distance. An immense concourse of worlds presented themselves for the mere taking and fired the imaginations of swarming humanity. Overcrowded Terra found itself offered the cosmos on a platter and was swift to seize the opportunity. A veritable spray of Blieder-driven ships shot outward as every family, cult, group or clique that imagined it could do better someplace else took to the star-trails. The restless, the ambitious, the malcontents, the martyrs, the eccentrics, the antisocial, the fidgety and the just plain curious, away they fled by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. In less than a century fifty percent of the human race left aged and autocratic Terra and blew itself all over the star field, settling wherever they could give free vent to their ideas and establish their prejudices. … It was written down in history as The Great Explosion.
Four hundred years later, sometime in the 26th century, the government of Terra sends out a fleet of military and diplomatic vessels, each of which will call on a few of the many planets settled by humans during the Great Explosion and attempt to unify them into an empire. We follow one of these ships as we read Russell's novel and get to know the engineers, the soldiers, the crewmen and the bureaucrats on board.
Like A. E. van Vogt's Weapon Shops of Isher, The Great Explosion is based in part on short fiction originally published in American pulp science fiction magazines during and just after World War II. The Weapon Shops of Isher is derived from three short stories which van Vogt had published in Astounding Science Fiction and Thrilling Wonder Stories during the 1940s. The Great Explosion is based mainly on a longish story called "And Then There Were None," which Russell published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1951. The original hardcover edition of The Great Explosion is 177 pages long. Seventy-eight of those pages, a little less than half the entire length of the novel, is a slightly reworked version of "And Then There Were None," which details the experiences of those aboard the big military and diplomatic vessel we've been following around, when they visit the fourth of the four planets they've been ordered to visit.
The Terrans who settled this planet call themselves Gands. They claim to derive their political philosophy from the work of a Terran of 600 years before named Gandhi. And their society is what can only be described as an anarchocapitalist paradise — though certain of their beliefs in the realm of political economy are a bit different from those that prevail among contemporary anarchocapitalists.
They don't recognize absentee land ownership, for example. The only way you can own a plot of land is to occupy it and use it. And they have no money, at least in the usual sense of the term. Instead, they have a sophisticated barter system that seems to satisfy their economic needs quite admirably — though, admittedly, their society is not a densely populated one. It has no large cities, just small towns and rural areas. Perhaps Russell believed that the sort of society he depicted in "And Then There Were None" would only be workable under such circumstances.
Russell was born 106 years ago last month, on January 6, 1905, in Sandhurst, a small town about 35 miles southwest of London, the home of the Royal Military Academy, where his father taught. The younger Russell pursued a military career (in the Royal Air Force) for two decades, before spending a few years as an engineer, and then finally, in the late 1940s, when he himself was in his mid-40s, settling down to write full time.
He had begun writing in the 1930s, breaking into the American science fiction pulp magazines at around the same time as A. E. van Vogt. He wrote part-time for around 15 years, then fairly prolifically for another 15 years or so after he began devoting his full time to his literary endeavors. He wrote very little after around 1965. He died 33 years ago this month, on February 28, 1978, at the age of 73. Since then, it's my distinct impression that his reputation among readers generally has gone into a precipitous decline. And libertarians are among those who would benefit most if this situation could be turned around.
Novels, especially science-fiction novels, have been an important means of spreading the word where libertarianism is concerned. They will continue to be an important means of getting our ideas out.
And it is scarcely possible to conceive a more hardcore libertarian science-fiction novel than The Great Explosion. Not only does it present us with a believable anarchocapitalist paradise, but it is filled with a venomous contempt for everything about the state, especially military people (the more high ranking the more odious) and bureaucrats. Imagine a libertarian Catch-22 in space. It's that hilarious. It's that good. Yet this delightful minor masterpiece is currently out of print and becoming harder to find, unless you have a taste for 20-year-old, disintegrating, mass-market paperbacks or beat-up former library copies with stamps and stickers and filament tape and card pockets and dust jackets glued to the endpapers.
Van Vogt's Weapon Shops of Isher is out of print, too, but that's less important. Van Vogt's novel is of obvious interest to libertarians and to anyone interested in how libertarian ideas have made their way into our cultural tradition. But it holds its status as a classic work of science fiction despite the fact that, considered as a work of art, it's rather rudimentary. Van Vogt was an adequate writer at best, and he wasn't always at his best. His idea for a story is almost always more interesting than the actual story he ends up making out of that idea.
Eric Frank Russell was a much better writer than van Vogt, and The Great Explosion is much more deserving of both intellectual and literary immortality, if only of a modest sort, than is The Weapon Shops of Isher. Let's do our part — shall we? — to ensure that Russell's best and most admirable novel gets its just deserts.