Tag: science fiction

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.

Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day. It marks the end of an era.

Before the First World War, the western understanding of warfare was that it made plain things noble. It allowed superior individuals to show their valor, to exercise a virtue that both transformed themselves and offered a shining example to those around them. To act in the face of danger was what men did, and for them to do it properly, you needed a war.

Yes, there were a few naysayers out there – Thoreau, Mark Twain, Moorfield Storey – but the consensus view held that war made weak things strong, boys into men, and good nations into great ones. Yes, war was horrible. No one doubted it. But to be sublime, a thing must, on some level, be horrible. So was war – a great, terrible proving ground for the man and the nation.

Industrialized war, the thinking often went, would do all of this on an even grander scale. Just as mechanization made shirts and steel faster and better, mechanization would make warfare faster and better, too. Men of valor could be, and would be, mass produced. This view of war can be found in thinkers from the great to the pitiful, from G. W. F. Hegel to Edward Mandell House. For them, not only was war great and sublime, but it was thought to be getting better and better.

World War I changed all that. From the early months of the conflict, thinking people realized that modern warfare would certainly be more productive, if “productive” was quite the right word for it. It would not, however, be more ennobling. Modern warfare would be capable of killing on a scale never before seen. Sure, there had been some hints of it – the U.S. Civil War, the Crimean War – but this was different, particularly to most Europeans.

Personal valor meant less, not more, in the era of mustard gas and the artillery barrage. To show valor, one has to face a danger and in some sense exert a force against it. To be placed in a hole and left to wonder helplessly about one’s fate, while everyone around you randomly falls dead, isn’t valorous. It’s horrid and nothing more.

I know I will get some pushback on this, but I will say it anyway – personal valor means even less in the face of nuclear war, in which one minute you are there, and the next you can be unmade. Few if any in the nineteenth century appreciated what industrialism would do to war, but this was it. As Ludwig von Mises put it, “[I]n the long run war and the preservation of the market economy are incompatible. Capitalism is essentially a scheme for peaceful nations… If the efficiency of capitalism is directed by governments toward the output of instruments of destruction, the ingenuity of private business turns out weapons which are powerful enough to destroy everything. What makes war and capitalism incompatible with one another is precisely the unparalleled efficiency of the capitalist mode of production.”

To have an industrial capitalism is to have the ability to wage war on a scale that obliterates all pretense of humanity. That is what we commemorate today – an appalling sacrifice, and an appalling responsibility that we can never again be free of.

Grok Heinlein?

The biographer of the great libertarian science-fiction novelist Robert A. Heinlein will speak at Cato on October 21. I liked Michael Dirda’s Washington Post review of the book:

Picture a Saturday morning during one of those endless summers of the late 1950s and early ’60s. A boy climbs on his red Schwinn bicycle and rides like the wind to the public library, then to several drugstores and thrift shops. He is on a mission. He is looking desperately for a book, any book, by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), the greatest science-fiction writer in the world.

The greatest? Back then, few adolescent sf readers would have seriously questioned such a cosmic truth. Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” was certainly cool (Hari Seldon! Psychohistory!), and Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” could be poetic, scary and ghoulish almost at the same time, and, yes, Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” just might be the single best sf novel of them all, but Heinlein was … Heinlein….

[William H.] Patterson even asserts – and will presumably discuss more fully in Vol. 2 – that Heinlein “galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century: science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement.”

I hope you can join us on October 21, or watch it streamed on the web.