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The Secret Authoritarian History of Science Fiction

Many have been surprised by the recent controversies stirred up by SF's right-wing writers—but they shouldn't be.

David Forbes

David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, N.C. and author of The Old Iron Dream, a critical look at the history and influence of science fiction's far-right factions.

To outside observers, the last few years might seem to have unleashed some startling controversies in the science fiction world. There was the sexism at the Science Fiction Writers of America bulletin at the Science Fiction Writers of America bulletin, the time an SF author was expelled for hijacking the SFWA Twitter feed to call an African-American author "a half-savage," actual backlash against bans on sexual harassment at sci-fi conventions, and the recent rigging of the Hugo Awards by right-wing authors and their fans. Taken together, it might serve to make our supposedly future-forward fiction genre look sadly retrograde.

But in reality, such antics should come as little surprise. This strain of conservative reactionary thought actually dates back to a much older and nastier mentality stretching all the way back to sci-fi's roots, to the views and activism of some of its major legends, whose names grace its awards and anthologies.

Take John Campbell, the longtime editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and who is widely credited as the "Father of science fiction" by such liberal lights like Isaac Asimov, who recognized him for bringing hard science, higher writing standards, and a supposed literature of ideas to the genre. One of sci-fi's major awards bears his name.

But Campbell harbored some blatantly authoritarian and racist views, and he wasn't shy about them. Those views have, in their own way, shaped the whole genre, including the authors and ideas he tried to keep out.

In "Constitution for Utopia," written in 1961, Campbell argued outright that the best possible government would only allow the wealthy—specifically the wealthiest fifth of the population—to vote. It didn't stop there. During the height of the Civil Rights movement and riots in inner cities around the country, Campbell, resting on the flimsiest pseudoscience, sputtered in a 1965 essay titled "Barbarians Within" (originally titled "Race Riots") that humanity was divided into genetic "citizens" who made civilization possible and "barbarians" who had to be crushed.

It was those "barbarians" who, in blatantly racist terms, he blamed for the 1964 Harlem riots in response to the shooting of a black teenager. Campbell wrote that "one of the major reasons the Negro people are having so much trouble gaining acceptance is, simply, that the Negroes are not doing an adequate job of disciplining their own people, themselves."

As for how governments might discipline and deter these "barbarians,", Campbell suggested the following: "Oh, by the way—heroin and cocaine may be very useful to your program. They'll keep a Barbarian happy with delusions and illusions. If you just see to it that he has an ample supply, he will cause you very little trouble. It has the advantage, moreover, of killing him both psychologically and physiologically, without arousing any protest on his part."

Then, of course, there's Robert Heinlein, one of the most influential science fiction writers ever, and one of Campbell's proteges. He followed a similar trajectory.

Heinlein has gone down as an eccentric libertarian, a reputation bolstered by his gregarious personality and willingness to help fellow authors of all stripes. But in reality, despite some early involvement in New Deal egalitarian movements, Heinlein's political activism grew to overwhelming side with the militaristic far-right,from the 1950s until the end of his life, and his writing reflects that. That he also believed well-off white people shouldn't be penalized for having multiple partners or doing drugs — themes rife in works like Stranger in a Strange Land — doesn't contradict his authoritarian tendencies, as many might assume.

In the '50s, Heinlein associated himself with the John Birch Society — a group so conservative that the likes of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley would later seek to expel it from the movement. Shortly after, Heinlein launched a far-right campaign of his own, the Patrick Henry League, in 1958. Worried that a skeptical public was turning against rampant nuclear testing, he and his wife Virgina ran an ad in newspapers around the country supporting the military and inveighing against communism. They also wrote letters and organized meetings. The group accused opponents of nuclear testing of being not just wrong, but part of a communist plot; a move straight out of the Birch playbook. The ad warned that "if we fall for them, then in weeks or months or a few years at most, Old Glory will be hauled down for the last time and the whole planet will be ruled by the Butchers of Budapest."

Obviously, that didn't happen. The Patrick Henry campaign sputtered (in the process Heinlein dissed Eisenhower, of all people, for being too soft on communism) and the author put his plans to write Stranger in a Strange Land on hiatus in favor of penning the military sci-fi classic Starship Troopers, musing gleefully decades later that "the Patrick Henry ad shocked 'em, Starship Troopers outraged 'em."

Indeed, despite its influential reputation and numerous debates over its themes, this connection makes a lot of sense: Starship Troopers is an unsubtle defense of militarism. It glorifies a regime that came to power through a coup d'etat, and its main character/mouthpiece Johnny Rico says at one point that: "it may be verified by observation that any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand."

Musing on Starship Troopers during the '80s in his Expanded Universe collection, Heinlein denied that the regime in the book was as authoritarian as its critics asserted. But he nonetheless maintained a withering criticism of democracy: "democracies usually collapse not too long after the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses . . . for a while," he wrote. Instead, like his forebear, he argued that the rich should be able to purchase votes, or that voter eligibility should be based on an IQ test, among other methods to keep the unwashed masses out of the electoral process.

Campbell and Heinlein's far-right manifestos and deeply conservative polemics didn't even go quietly out of print, or even come to be viewed as an embarrassment. Instead, they were revived decades later by major publishing houses.

Heinlein himself dragged his Patrick Henry screeds out of obscurity in 1980's Expanded Universe, writing in a foreword that stated, "I do not ask to be forgiven and I do not want it to be forgotten." His ostensibly libertarian opposition to conscription didn't stop him from advocating for sending conscripts to die in Vietnam, both in a petition he signed with many fellow sci-fi authors (including Campbell) and in his public remarks, a position he remained unrepentant about even after the war ended. In the 1980s, Heinlein campaigned for the High Frontier Foundation, a powerful lobbying effort for Star Wars-style weapons boondoggles.

In the 1980s, prominent military science-fiction author Jerry Pournelle reprinted the three Campbell essays mentioned above under the Baen Books imprint in his "Imperial Stars" anthologies, where he mixed military sci-fi with far-right editorials.

Connections between the larger far-right and science fiction figures had always existed, especially in the defense industry, and those links have ranged from Heinlein's 1950s advocacy to politicians like Newt Gingrich's ties to multiple sci-fi authors, Pournelle, a relentless networker, proved an influential bridge. He had worked with Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty's racist and reactionary 1969 campaign which tried to paint African-American politician and former police officer Tom Bradley as a communist and black radical, edited right-wing mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune, expressed sympathy for fascism of the Franco and Mussolini varieties and helped pen Reagan's Star Wars appeals.

Along with fellow author, oil heir and self proclaimed libertarian Larry Niven, he wrote a number of blockbusters like Lucifer's Hammer and Oath of Fealty, whose plot lines, with their invectives against urban society and yearning for a social collapse that might herald a return of technocratic feudalism, share much in common with Campbell's "citizen" and "barbarian" rants.

In the same series, Pournelle details his own efforts, during his years in academia, to put in place a system that would use test to determine which students were genetically worthy of education, and fumed when the University of Wisconsin rejected the idea as racist.

Alas, this sort of activism isn't just a Cold War relic. In the 1990s, an informal think-tank of sci-fi authors, the SIGMA Forum, was assembled to advise the federal government. At a 2007 session with Homeland Security, Niven suggested the government should "spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants," as the industry journal National Defense later recorded.

Notably, as detailed in my book, the Old Iron Dream, there's also been a strain of sci-fi that's been opposed this far-right mythology since the beginning, and both the genre's history and potential future are far larger than these narrow views. Some, like Norman Spinrad's novel the Iron Dream, from which my book draws its name, have directly criticized parts of this mentality, and tied it to fascism. And sci-fi at large, of course, is also home to some of the most inclusive, progressive visions of any genre, from Ursula K. le Guin's feminist utopias to Kim Stanley Robinson's ultra-diverse vision for a humanity in the stars, in 2312.

But in a subculture that, then as now, caters too much to the whims of adolescent males, promoting the idea of some innate superiority waiting to get out and win a war against an 'other' is as toxic as it is engrossing. When applied to politics, the idea is downright destructive. Think of Campbell's refusal even to contemplate a future in which the superiority of mid-century American capitalism run by white guys doesn't win the day, or of Johnny Rico daydreaming about brutal "breeds" expanding forever, gleefully slaughtering faceless enemies, and you get the picture.

This faction's worldview rejects much of science fiction's more open-minded strains, regards them as inferior, and has devoted decades to dreaming of scenarios where right-wingers, the strong, and the populations whom they believe are superior can exterminate a good portion of a society so they can get on with the business of running things.

Of course, many professions and subcultures have endemic problems with racism and misogyny. But it's worth noting that the views of many of these prominent sci-fi figures weren't simply conservative: Even Andrew Jackson would have let more Americans vote than Campbell, Heinlein, and Pournelle.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that science fiction, even in 2015, still has major problems with a strain of far-right politics that is brutally resentful of any change,one that continues to embrace the worldview expressed above, and one that's become even more bitter within its own genre as the larger society has moved in a more open and multicultural direction. For the genre of the future to have a future, the old iron dream has to end.