by Greg Beatty
Defining the Genre
Trying to define science fiction is always a good way to start a controversy. Allegiances emerge quickly, and it's virtually certain that people will start talking past one another almost as soon as they start talking. Add a qualifier, such as "libertarian," and the task gets harder. For the purposes of this essay, I'll try to keep my discussion focused by using a fairly basic definition of the genre assembled from a number of sources. In his study of the fantastic, Tzvetan Todorov suggests that there are two kinds of literary genres: theoretical genres and historical genres. Theoretical genres are defined by the presence of specific key structures, which may exist in only a single example. I follow Darko Suvin, and argue that science fiction is defined by the presence of a "novum," some new thing that works as a rupture in the assumed fabric of reality and demands a new form of narrative that coherently integrates this novum. This novum can fall into almost any category -- Suvin suggests biology, social structure, physical reality, and so on. What I want to ask is, what sort of "new things" does libertarian science fiction posit, and what do they mean?
For Todorov, a historical genre is produced through an accrual of genre conventions and narrative tropes shaped by an ongoing interaction among a community of readers. It's this sort of thing that makes it possible to legitimately say, "I can't define science fiction (or pornography, or westerns), but I know it when I see it!" and have the claim make sense. To help answer my core questions, I want to document the genre conventions that libertarian science fiction shares -- the things that accompany their novums, and which slip by unnoticed in the authors' rush to explore freedom. I do this, because like John Cawelti, I assume that these genre conventions indicate what a specific readership finds socially acceptable or desirable. These genre conventions are also where we'll find the ideological underpinnings of these books. If we look at the definition of freedom that libertarian science fiction uses, we'll find a striking pattern of assumptions about the nature of reason, sexuality, and the self.
Libertarian Science Fiction
Since libertarian science fiction is also a debatable term, I'm only looking at the novels that have won the Prometheus Award, the award given annually since 1982 by the Libertarian Futurist Society. The award was founded in 1979 by L. Neil Smith to honor libertarian science fiction, and was given that year to F. Paul Wilson for Wheels Within Wheels, but due to the cost of the award—then a gold coin valued at $2500—and the lack of a formal supporting organization, the award fell into limbo until adopted by the LFS. The public documents of the Society itself provide our first clues as to the nature of these books; it was founded in 1982 "to provide encouragement to science fiction writers whose books examine the meaning of freedom." This claim, so open-minded as to be philosophical rather than political in nature, is immediately qualified. The Prometheus Award is given to the "best libertarian novel of the year." The best "examinations of freedom"—a term which could include challenges to it, rejections of it, or positing proper limits for it—will be found specifically in libertarian science fiction. The selections standards are therefore narrowly pre-defined: examining freedom will always produce works in favor of it, and these works will all be libertarian.
Defining libertarianism can be as difficult as defining science fiction, even for someone who has been in and out of the libertarian movement for decades, such as myself. Clues to the complexity of this struggle can be found in the name of the award, and in what the Society says it represents. In Greek mythology the god Prometheus, whose name means "forethought," was charged by Zeus to create mankind. However, Prometheus's brother, Epimetheus ("afterthought") got the job of creating the animals, and followed his first impulses by giving out the best gifts lavishly. The eagle got flight, the tiger claws, and so on, until there was nothing left for humanity when Prometheus got there. He thought it through, and formed mankind in the image of the gods. He then stole fire, symbolic of reason, from the heavens, and gave it to man. Zeus, who had decreed that fire was to remain the property of the gods, was so angry at this that he chained Prometheus to a rock, with a vulture continually eating his liver. However, Prometheus was also tortured because he knew the identity of Zeus's offspring who would someday overthrow him. Prometheus refused to tell the name, and suffered for years before being freed by Hercules. Therefore, in addition to being responsible for the uplift of mankind, Prometheus was instrumental in overthrowing divine tyranny. The Prometheus award, however, stands for "free trade and free minds," reducing free mental activity to that of economic man in the marketplace, and equating free trade (whatever its motives) with freedom, and with rebellion against moral tyranny, conveniently ignoring the offense against property rights committed by Prometheus.
Pandora and Wonder
Most people remember most of that part of the myth. What they fail to remember was that Prometheus gave reason to men, and men specifically. In this myth women were created later, as a punishment for men. Pandora (the gift of all) was created to be lovely, a wonder to look on for both men and gods, but possessed by powerful curiosity. Pandora was unable to withstand the temptation offered by a beautiful box, a gift which she was forbidden to open. By opening it, Pandora released a host of misfortunes on humanity. Combining the two myths, male rebellion against authority is what is most likely to be conflated with freedom. One would expect libertarian science fiction to accent a traditionally masculinist form of reason, and to treat female beauty as a dangerous given. The sense of wonder so central to science fiction comes, in libertarian science fiction, from rebellion and material achievement, and not from curiosity and its satisfaction, which are innately less important in this schema. When we look at the novels that have won the Prometheus Award, we see this hierarchy repeated again and again—and is it an accident that, despite the fact that women are more highly represented in science fiction than ever before, all the Prometheus Award winners to date have been male?
Turning to the books themselves, what do we see? Immediately, we see that the defining novum of libertarian science fiction is not liberty, but rebellion. Some of these rebellions encompass an actual overturning of the social system (Wheels Within Wheels, Pallas); all of these novels emphasize the actions of an individual (occasionally a small coalition of individuals). In a few cases (most notably in Marooned in Realtime), the action is not rebellion proper, but the demonstration of the superiority of private action to government action. However, the prevalence of rebellion is so strong, that this, rather than freedom, seems to provide the core plot for libertarian fiction. In several books, criminals who do not just break the laws libertarians disagree with -- laws impeding free trade, for example -- but who kill or rob are cast as the hero (Varley's The Golden Globe is the most overt example here). In others, the fundamental structures of organized society are taken to task for the threats they carry against the individual.
This is most clearly the case in Pallas, in which agriculture is seen as a wrong turn in human history, rather than the advancement that allowed all human development, especially the accumulation of learning that became the sciences. This example is extreme, but it is a case where the narrative thrust to overturn accepted notions leads the author to cut the theoretical ground from under his own feet. In the philosophical traditions of classical liberalism, which the libertarian claims to use as a justification for its political stances, agricultural labor is the metaphoric base for all property rights. The argument used in this tradition is that which John Locke developed in his Second Treatise on Government; by mingling one's energies with the world via labor, and causing the earth to bring forth new produce by means of this combination, one deserves to own that land and those goods. Since one consumes the results, one's property becomes, functionally, an extension of one's own body. Railing against agriculture itself undercuts the philosophical justification for a libertarian society.
There are three arguments in libertarian thought against government action. These arguments justify overthrowing a government and creating instead a society defined by private action and organized through market action: the essential, the ethical, and the practical arguments. Though these arguments intertwine, they can be separated into distinct strands for the purpose of discussion. The essentialist argument says that societies should be organized around individuals because that's who we essentially are, and that all larger groupings are fictional and/or must consist of voluntary associations of these individuals. As the examples above indicate, this is taken to such an extreme in these novels that it becomes an ahistorical truth, and is such an absolute good that no cause, however lofty, is worthy enough to allow another to impinge on the rights of the individual, even, as threatened in Marooned in Realtime, the complete extinction of the human race.
In classical liberal political philosophy, the primacy of the (male) individual is based on residual claims about the divine source of human nature; this is most evident in Locke's Second Treatise on Government, the single most influential source for the designers of The Declaration of Independence. However, there is a crucial difference between Locke's theories and contemporary libertarian thought as expressed in these novels. These novels place man at the center of creation, and reject God, either explicitly or implicitly. This is most clearly the case in Victor Koman's The Jehovah Contract, in which an assassin is hired to kill God (he does so by combining magic, extrasensory perception, drugs, and mass hypnosis), but it's a common thread found throughout the award winners.
The Secular/The Mystic
Science fiction has always had a strong inclination towards the secular. Indeed, some have argued that science fiction and religious faith cannot coexist, because reason and faith are innately contradictory. However, religion has at times been treated at least anthropologically, as a defining element of culture. Many of Arthur C. Clarke's works do this. Other works have tried to find an explanation in physical reality for specific religious beliefs (again, Clarke did this in Childhood's End). However, writers of libertarian science fiction seem to draw on the writer which one survey identified as the single strongest influence on formal members of the Libertarian political party, the philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand. In all of her works Rand equates religion with mysticism, and mysticism with the irrational, qualities which are then attributed ahistorically to the supporters of the state. Supporting statist government and believing in religion are treated both as transgressions on man's essential nature, which is that of a rational (empiricist) being.
The debt these novels owe to such a position is most explicit in Fallen Angels, in which Niven, Pournelle, and Flynn fuse the worst aspects of ecological concern and spiritual inquiry, and attribute both to a desire to have power over others. Time and again in these novels, reason is used as a synonym for proper mental behavior, and is equated with goal-oriented behavior; these goals are specific, take material form, and directly benefit the individuals involved. Altruistic behavior of the kind that directly benefited mankind in the Prometheus myth is always suspect. At best it is inaccurate, because no one can know what another individual desires; at worst and most common in these novels, expressions of compassion are a thin cover for the desire to control others.
The ethical argument for the libertarian societies has two branches. The first argues that since we are fundamentally individuals, government action that restricts individual action in any way, except to protect other individuals, is simply wrong. The second fork of the argument is that used by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, namely that the good of the whole is best served by the selfish actions of individuals, through the "invisible hand of the market" which yokes private desire to public good and makes a society more productive. Since in these books concern for others in a generalized or collective fashion is suspect, this second branch of the ethical argument is driven underground, so that private action is explicitly championed as the primary good above all else -- but is also shown to "just happen" to be more effective at producing those economic goods.
However, these novels also stack the deck and simplify the issues involved in ethical questions. Individuals who serve the state are never misguided, following a different path that they believe will produce a good end. They are instead lying monsters, whose perversion emerges in a variety of ways, sexuality prominent among them. The primary voice of collectivist thought in The Rainbow Cadenza is fond of rape, and is most spontaneously aroused sexually by degradation. He has a spontaneous orgasm when he forces the novel's heroine to shit herself. The collectivist leader in Pallas responds primarily to women considerably younger than himself (well under the age of consent), and so on.
The deck is stacked, because apparently in a free world no one has to make difficult ethical choices. Literally no one has to choose between fulfilling a dream and earning a living in these books, or, more to the point, no one has to consider the side effects of their own actions on anyone else, as might be the case in a sweatshop environment or a highly toxic industrial concern. Only a few novels are honest enough to produce superscience advanced enough to make this premise in any way logically viable. Vinge, for example, with his wonderful technology of "bobbling," enables individuals to enter a condition of stasis, in which no time passes, for as long as is needed for the ecology to heal itself and the toxic substances to decompose. In the rest of the novels concern about pollution is absent, ridiculous, or a thin cover for government desires to interfere with industry, as in Fallen Angels, which suggests that not only are concerns about global warming fallacious, but also that atmospheric pollutants produced by heavy industry are the only thing holding back an ice age.
Libertarianism's Limits on Creativity
The practical argument is based largely on the problem of economic calculation. Due to the protean nature of human desires, and that fact that these desires are specific to the individual, capitalist theory says there is no way that a centralized planning system organized by the state can accurately perform all the necessary calculations to ensure a smoothly functioning economy. These calculations must be performed by the individuals themselves, who make endless calculations throughout the day as to what actions will maximize their personal satisfaction. This has certainly been largely true in the industrial age, but isn't science fiction about change, and isn't it possible that the information age will be different? No, and no. These novels endlessly replay the concerns of the early industrial age. They do this by creating a new frontier (near space is common) and, more strikingly, using a set of genre conventions that severely curtail the nature of scientific advancement.
Given the vast spectrum of human science and practices, one might expect wonderful hypothesizing in any or all of them in a randomly chosen score of science fiction novels. In libertarian science fiction, the wonders of the world come from and for the individual, which makes for some very strange narrative twists indeed. Varley's The Golden Globe imagines far greater malleability of form and biological system for humans; genitals can be sucked into body cavities at will, drugs are available to reliably stimulate the sexual drive, and so on. However, rather than make definitions of humanity more porous—more cybernetic, if you will—these powers are always put in the service of the coherent individual self. Pallas postulates household-sized fusion reactors—but computers are largely absent, and the planning computers of the government have not advanced along with fusion or space exploration. Vinge does posit the ability to interface mentally with machines, and immense advancements in computing power, but these are all located in individual computers. The possibility of meeting mind to mind and reaching a shared agreement about the needs of the community or race is never acted on. The dream of connecting with other humans and really knowing them is age-old in the human race. It is so completely absent from these novels that it almost reduces to an equation: libertarian science fiction is about the freedom to explore and manipulate the entire universe, so long as the essential human self is not tampered with.
The Essential Self
At various times the stability of this essential character is so extreme that it is self-evident, maintains itself essentially (beyond physical bounds), and is self-propagating. To give examples of each of these qualities, the detective in Vinge's Marooned in Realtime can accurately read faces and say without a hint of irony that someone looks like a murderer. The character is, of course, a former member of a government. In Milan's The Cybernetic Samurai, a scientist whose mind is downloaded at the time of death into a computer system inhabited by an AI maintains an independent existence within his circuitry, and thinks "privately" despite his omnipresence in the system. Finally, in Pallas the son of the leader of the collectivist state is literally a sociopath, a condition that is an implicit extension of his father's statist policies. James Gunn has stated that science fiction "is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people." Given the stability these novels claim for human character, libertarian science fiction is more about stasis, or, more charitably, about people effecting change on the universe without being changed by their actions.
One area where all the libertarian arguments about how humans are innately individuals dissolves is the family unit, most especially the heterosexual couple. Time and again in these novels man and wife do—somehow—form a unified collective. Within the family unit it is somehow possible to reach an accord that is genuine, in which a) individuals do not strive to reach their own goals over those of others and/or b) the goals of two individuals somehow fuse and become one. Sexual relationships are the site where the male orientation most often becomes painfully obvious, and where the male perspective fuses with the (forgive me) thrust towards rebellion to become explicitly adolescent. In these novels sexuality is a force that leaps across all cultural barriers and obstacles. No libertarian character, for example, is drawn only to partners who come from a similar cultural matrix or ethnic background. A free mind leaves these things behind. However, in these novels it is only women whose desire must leap over physical unattractiveness or age. The inventor hero of Pallas, who is scarred and has only one eye, is sexually exciting to a woman less than half his age (who is also the daughter of his first true love); the heroine of The Rainbow Cadenza accepts the proposal of her former teacher, many decades older than she, and so on. Given the power to do so, it seems clear that male sexuality will reshape its object to be younger and prettier. The disembodied but somehow male AI in The Cybernetic Samurai reshapes the virtual form of his scientist mother to be more slender and fit, despite lacking a body himself, so that they may have virtual sex (that he assumes will be more satisfying for her).
The relationship of parent to child is more slippery. If a parent nurtures a child's abilities, allows free rein for his or her curiosity, and allows free sexual expression, parent and child will have a good relationship. However, if a parent acts for what he or she perceives to be the child's own good and this contradicts the will of the child, the parent will inevitably be shown to be, well, wrong. To justify this, most children in these novels are prodigies, with judgment and insight far beyond their years. Pallas's Emerson Ngu is both inventor and instinctively pro-freedom, and the child-actor in The Golden Globe is both a genius and instinctively pro-freedom.
Two things are missing in these portrayals of family. The first is any sense that guidance or schooling is necessary. Families too become (somehow) voluntary units, in which already formed and complete humans are simply cared for. Enculturation is unnecessary, and schools, long the tool of statist socialization, are almost completely absent from these narratives. The second missing element is any recognition that the family could be either drastically reshaped by culture and circumstance (as happens, for example, with the line marriages in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, one of the LFS's Hall of Fame Award winners), or, contrarily, form the metaphorical basis for a state that is less oppressive. The specific qualities of romantic love that allows it to form the base for a non-oppressive assemblage would surely be a worthy object of inquiry in any examination of freedom, but passes instead unexamined.
The absence of an examination of the family is particularly telling because it is another example of libertarian science fiction cutting all ties with the lineage of actual libertarian and classical liberal thought. Locke, and many thinkers since, Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill among them, have argued that challenging the accepted nature of the family is a crucial step in freeing the mind. Rather than finding ways to make the maturation period more graceful, or examining how we can relate to children in ways that better equip them to be free, these novels show a self that is somehow naturally coherent and naturally equipped to operate responsibly in a market economy. All attempts to guide this self are oppressive. Individuals who are not perverted statists can reason purely and cleanly to their ends, an ability which passes beyond reason into some direct perception of the nature of existence, one that happens to align nicely with Western heterosexual desire, a desire that somehow transcends its physical container and is written into the nature of the universe. It would not be going too far to suggest that in rejecting the presence of a Judeo-Christian deity, as these books have, these authors have simply taken the position and qualities to themselves.
The result of this schema is a grand melodrama, populated at its best by archetypes, but more often by thinly characterized placeholders for the reader's point of view. Such a narrative design makes a wonderful engine for a teen adventure story, but produces science fiction that is curiously distorted by the ideological limitations placed upon it, and allows examinations of freedom that are only marginally honest.
The Wondrous Exceptions
It's clear that I've judged the winners of the Prometheus Award harshly. (Hey, that's what happens when a libertarian looks closely at what he's been reading.) Despite the many specific examples I've provided, I've also generalized broadly. This was intentional; I've been looking at the genre's shared characteristics. The obvious question now is: is that all there is? Stated more positively, do any winners of the Prometheus Award actually write fiction that is both good science fiction and that honestly examines the nature of freedom?
The answer is a resounding yes, and two examples spring immediately to mind: Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (the 2000 Prometheus Award winner) and the works of Ken Macleod (who won in 1996 for The Star Fraction, and again in 1998 for The Stone Canal). If I had to summarize my objections to the majority of the Prometheus Award winners, there would be three: they repeat the past, thinly disguised, in the future; they assume that the nature of freedom is unchanging; and they naturalize the social contexts in which classical liberalism arose (assuming the family, heterosexuality, etc.).
The joy and wonder of books such as A Deepness in the Sky and The Stone Canal is precisely the sweeping zest with which they reverse all three of these characteristics. As perhaps should be obvious, both books change the very nature of humanity, by changing the physical limits on the free minds that libertarianism celebrates. Vinge does this twice over. First, he creates a convincing alien race with different physical constraints upon their mental functions. They live on a planet warmed by a unique star known as the OnOff star which, as its name suggests, goes dark periodically, then re-lights. This means that the aliens are regularly cast into a crisis situation similar to wartime, which often demands collective action, and that as they enter a technological era, they are still fighting their biological instincts that urge them to seek "deepnesses" in which to hibernate. Second, and more startling, Vinge concocts a viral poison referred to as Focus that turns humans into engines of creation. When infected, people focus fiercely on their selected area -- and biologically surrender their larger judgment. The result is a biological hierarchy that is more productive in basic inquiry than the free society opposing them. The result is a set of truly complex moral questions, to which there are few easy answers. One reason for this is that Vinge takes economics seriously. Rather than being a place for easy answers, his characters repeatedly face tough moral decisions akin to the core problem in Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" (1954): what do I have to do to survive, and be the person I want to be, in a universe of limited resources?
Macleod's The Stone Canal offers a very different perspective on the problem of freedom, but among other things, admits a commonality among all revolutionary doctrines (left, right, anarchist, et al.), documents the intensely learned political action necessary to bring an anarchist society into being, and, most fundamentally, documents how the moral choices that define freedom will morph almost beyond recognition as the human form does. If a body is cloned, who owns it? The original living embodiment of the genotype? Classical liberalism would say yes. Or, rather, he who mixed his labor with it, fed it, raised it? Classical liberalism would also say yes, and break down into a Zen-like state of confusion. More profoundly than any of the other winners, Macleod shows why libertarian science fiction must be science fiction first, libertarian second, in order to succeed at being either. To restate that more positively, Macleod writes good libertarian science fiction because he takes change seriously. He looks first at what it will do to us to conquer death, to create AIs, to download consciousness into machine bodies, and then asks, "What will freedom look like?" If you're interested in the answer to that question, I urge you to pick up Macleod's novel The Stone Canal—and to keep a close watch on the future winners of the Prometheus Award.
Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Gunn, James, ed. The Road to Science Fiction: From Gilgamesh to Wells. New York: New American Library, 1977.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1969.
Koman, Victor. The Jehovah Contract. New York: Avon Books, 1987.
Macleod, Ken. The Stone Canal. London: Legend, 1997.
Milan, Victor. The Cybernetic Samurai. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Niven, Larry, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn. Fallen Angels. New York: Baen Books, 1991.
Schulman, J. Neil. The Rainbow Cadenza. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Smith, L. Neil. Pallas. New York: Tor, 1993.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Genre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1973.
Varley, John. The Golden Globe. New York: Ace Books, 1998.
Vinge, Vernor. A Deepness in the Sky. New York: Tor, 1999.
—. Marooned in Realtime. New York: Bluejay Books, Inc., 1986.
Wilson, F. Paul. Wheels Within Wheels. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Greg Beatty lives with his wife in Bellingham , Washington , where he tries unsuccessfully to stay dry. He writes everything from children's books to essays about his cooking debacles. He won the 2005 Rhysling Award and the 2008 Dwarf Stars Award, and in 2008 published his first poetry chapbook, titled Phrases of the Moon. It is available from Spec House.
For more information on Greg's writing, visit http://gregbeatty.net.