Science Fiction Authors Lost in the Myths of the 1950s

I’ve been watching “Childhood’s End” on the SyFy channel this week. I remember the book, a 1953 novel by Arthur C. Clarke, being a big deal when I was in junior high school. My bookish friends and I all read it. But I had little memory of the plot, so watching the show is an entirely new experience. It’s well done, mysterious, maybe a little slow. But I noticed one thing that reminds me that it was written by a British author educated in the first half of the 20th century.

The technologically superior alien Overlords arrive, take control of earth, and impose their rule on us without any real challenge. They announce that they will end war, poverty, and injustice. And they do, just like that. Sure, a few cranks in the #freedomleague complain that we’re not free, but nobody denies the peace, abundance, and good health that the Overlords have delivered. Earthlings don’t even have to work any more. That is, the book and the miniseries don’t even stop to ponder whether absolute centralized government – terrestrial or alien – could deliver more peace, harmony, and abundance than a market system. It’s just taken for granted. 

And that’s a common theme in mid-century sci-fi. In his Foundation series, Isaac Asimov imagined a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory that could predict the future. Because human action, taken en masse, can be predicted for millennia.

And as I wrote on Ira Levin’s death, his wonderful libertarian novel This Perfect Day reflected similar assumptions about centralization and government planning. The novel is set 141 years after the Unification, the establishment of a world government guided by a central computer. The computer, Uni, provides all the members of the human race with everything they need - food, shelter, employment, psychotherapy, and monthly “treatments” that include vaccines, contraceptives, tranquilizers, a drug to prevent messy beard growth, and a medication that reduces aggressiveness and limits the sex drive. Everyone loves Uni, which gives them everything they could want, except for a few hardy rebels who just value freedom.

But like Clarke and Asimov, Levin was caught in the intellectual milieu of his times. (The novel was published in 1970.) He understood the cost to freedom of a government that controlled and provided everything. But he did seem to believe that such central planning would be efficient. He had the rebels worry that if they managed to shut down Uni, planes would fall out of the sky, people would die, trains would crash, food wouldn’t get to the dinner table. In other words: centralized planning worked, in the view of Levin, Clarke, and Asimov.

In this starry-eyed view of the economic efficiency of planning, the authors were led by the world’s most famous economists. John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, wrote, “the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” And Paul Samuelson wrote in his widely used textbook: “What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth…. The Soviet model has surely demonstrated that a command economy is capable of mobilizing resources for rapid growth.” Actually, novelists writing in the 50s and 60s could be excused for their misconceptions more than Galbraith and Samuelson, economists who wrote those lines in the 1980s, only a few years before the final collapse of Soviet-style socialism.

In 1985, I had the economist Don Lavoie send Levin a copy of his fine book National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, inscribed something like “in the hopes of persuading you that central planning is no more workable than it is humane.”

I think some of the newer dystopian novels – such as Hunger Games, The Giver, and Divergence – are less prone to such misplaced confidence in planning. Those authors seem to realize that centralized control may benefit the planners, but it won’t make society prosperous. That probably reflects the failures of planning in both the communist countries and the western welfare states, which weren’t so obvious when the earlier authors were writing. Which is why writers at Salon and the Guardian keep complaining about dystopian novels and films that cause people to question the benevolence of the state.