On a Clear Day You Can See Bulgaria -- But Who Wants to Look?

by L. Neil Smith

(An excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Trouble with Star Trek)

         I've been a science fiction writer for 17 or 27 years, depending on how you look at it. During that time, it seems like there's always been some editor or agent on the phone, whining into my ear about how bad business is lately.
         Of course you have to accept some of this as a bargaining strategy on the part of editors -- or excuses on the part of agents -- for why writers should be happy to accept less money. That sort of thing's been going on since the first copper stylus got mashed into the first moist clay tablet. From an editor or an agent's point of view (and they are essentially the same, no matter what they claim to the contrary) writers should always be happy to accept less money.
         But there's a particle of truth here, too: the same period has indeed been characterized by shrinking rack space for science fiction in grocery stores and drugstores, incongruously occupied by offerings with dragons, dwarves, enchanted swords, bazookas, and armored hovercraft on their covers. Where I differ with the editors and agents -- to whom I've vainly attempted to communicate this point for virtually every one of those 17 or 27 years -- is in my belief that science fiction is dying from self-inflicted injuries. Furthermore, I believe that I'm uniquely qualified to pontificate on this subject because in many respects, I'm the only writer in the whole wide world still writing the stuff.
         Historically, science fiction has almost always been driven by some variety of Utopianism: stirring visions of the wonderful new universe that will "inevitably" result from practicing whatever it is the writer has to preach.
         Almost always it has been some variety of socialism.
         On rare occasions it has been right-wing socialism, a little- understood intellectual phenomenon in which the central idea is that the life, liberty, and property of the average individual should be sacrificed (or at least temporarily dragooned) for the sake of achieving certain collective goals -- like constructing a base on the Moon, slaughtering pesky aliens, wiping out interplanetary drug pushers, or simply moving Antarctic icebergs to thirsty tropical consumers -- goals such as those traditionally advocated by conservatives (or even outright fascists) ranging from E.E. "Doc" Smith to Dr. Jerry Pournelle.
         But most often it was left-wing socialism, in which the central idea is that the life, liberty, and property of the individual should be sacrificed for the sake of achieving certain collective goals -- like national healthcare or universal weapons confiscation -- traditionally advocated by liberals or even outright communists. These unworthies have dominated science fiction since its inception, although 20 or 30 years ago they grudgingly made room for a few token right-wing socialists because the real goal of both camps (like the viewpoints of editors and agents) is essentially the same: sacrificing the life, liberty, and property of the individual for its own sake, whatever the excuse.
         Sometimes I think the lefties moved over and made room for the righties because they became absolutely terrified of what else might be bearing down on them.
         Well, not me, exactly, but somebody like me.
         Only a lot worse.
         Ayn Rand scared the living shit out of these people. An Evgeny Zamiatin or a Robert LeFevre or even an Ira Levin they could suppress or dismiss for one reason or another, which is why so few readers have ever heard of We, Lift Her Up Tenderly, or This Perfect Day. But little old Alice Rosenbaum was always right there in their nasty collectivist faces, her literary fists clenched, challenging their most fundamental assumptions in the very language (skiffy, the correct pronunciation of "sci-fi") that socialists of both stripes thought they had invented, stubbornly refusing to be dismissed or suppressed.
         But what scared the lefties even more was the actual new universe that seemed to be resulting -- inevitably, as it turned out -- from the practice (by Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Pol Pot, among others) of what they had been preaching since the time of H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy.
         It wasn't simply that the ideas of left-wing socialism weren't working, although that was certainly bad enough. Invariably they seemed to culminate in the deaths -- from causes ranging from starvation to firing-squad -- of tens of millions of the proletarians they'd been intended to benefit in the first place. And even worse, under the stress-testing of harsh reality (this was before the Evil Empire collapsed in an unprecedented, although not exactly unpredictable, manner) they sometimes -- often -- mutated into right-wing socialism.
         Which is how it came to be that all those lonely, toothless, quakey-voiced old-timers (of all ages) still eking out their existences in the philosophical badlands and political ghost-towns that Left-Wing Utopia has become -- and even those lucky enough to be living in far greater luxury off the tailings of the statist mother-lode they once helped mine -- have nothing but bad news for us now. They're mistaking the failure of their ideas for a failure of reality.
         As a consequence, many of them have simply given up and become whining nihilists. Those who are more successful tell us tales today of interstellar super-states with the unquestioned power to quarantine whole sectors of the galaxy because, in their infinite wisdom, they've decided it would be bad for unsupervised individuals of differing species to meet and freely exchange ideas and articles of trade with one another. At the same time, they speak of local authorities with the technological ability to search individuals for concealed weapons or other contraband at a distance -- a practice nobody in these stories ever resists or even complains about on humane or Constitutional grounds.
         This kind of thing used to be a staple of negative Utopias like 1984 and Brave New World, furnishings for cautionary tales about a regrettable loss of liberty. Now it's taken for granted as inevitable, and probably even desirable, whatever other possibilities the future may present. The writers never seem to notice that nobody is listening -- at least not to that part of the story.
         So what happens to a community of timeworn left-wing Utopian writers who for decades have continued to insist on seeing a future that demonstrably -- to anyone who isn't tenured, working for television, or living in Sri Lanka -- doesn't work? Enter J.R.R. Tolkien, along with what seemed at the time like thousands of blatant imitators, sucked into the world-swallowing vacuum in the science fiction market created by the implosion of Marxoid idealism. Enter the dragons, the dwarves, and the enchanted swords. Bazookas and armored personnel carriers came later, and when they did, it seemed like a breath of fresh air.
         And so, as irrationality and magic began to displace reason and science as the motivating epistemology, and as the genre began looking backward to feudalism and the Middle Ages (for all its socialism, science fiction had been a forward-looking literature of limitless perspectives) and as readers began to tire of narrowed horizons (not to mention the same old thing re- rewritten over and over), the rack space -- "inevitably" once again -- began to diminish.
         It was the exceptions (and don't you hate it when this happens?) that proved the rule -- and still do today. The books that kept the rack space open for all those parasitic and reactionary dragons, dwarves, enchanted swords, bazookas, and armored personnel carriers, the only books that didn't gradually decrease in number, were those with spaceships, aliens, and ringed planets still on their covers, those whose subtitles now always seemed to include the word "star", accompanied either by the word, "wars" or the word, "trek".
         There is some truth in the idea that Star Wars succeeded partly by co-opting medievalism. And it's equally true that Star Trek and its progeny have remained as unabashedly, old-fashionedly socialistic as The Shape of Things to Come steadfastly (and this is an important secret of their success) refusing to acknowledge the utter demise of socialism in every other branch of the cosmos.
         But both displayed a future (yes, I know, Star Wars claims to be set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", but who believes it?) featuring individualistic causes, violent adventures, and technology almost anyone could look forward to. Hence their remarkable success in a period when science fiction generally lay dying, killed by the bankruptcy of its underlying ideas and a craven retreat from a future it knew it could no longer predict, create, or control.
         But the question is, do we really want to grant to Lucasian neofeudal mysticism or to Roddenberrian military socialism a monopoly on the future by default? Lucas and Roddenberry did their job, they held the line for science fiction, and preserved a remnant of that precious and dwindling rack space. But, to put the question a different way, how do we go about expanding it again?
         The one realistic answer will be a bitter pill for all the right-wing socialists, the obsolete leftists, the dwarfmongers, and the bazookists to swallow. Science fiction died because its self-contradictory dreams died first. Its one hope is to usher in an alternative literature of a credible yet fantastic future worth believing in, worth working for, and therefore worth reading about.
         That literature doesn't have to be created, it already exists. I'm very proud to say that I had a hand in its creation over 15 years ago, along with a dozen other novelists of my approximate age and outlook. Even better, I know of at least a dozen more science fiction manuscripts by other, mostly younger writers with the same viewpoint as ours, languishing now for lack of proper editorial attention. I predict that if New York publishing doesn't make a place for them soon, they will make a place for themselves, and on their own terms.
         I can't bring myself to believe that New York really wants that. The last time something like that happened, they got Rush Limbaugh. Do they actually want a dozen Limbaughs, with both halves of their brains fully operational (which automatically makes them libertarians rather than conservatives) occupying the intellectual void science fiction has made of itself?
         It may already be too late; New York may no longer have a choice.
         I hope so.

L. Neil Smith is the award-winning author of 19 books including The Probability Broach, The Crystal Empire, Henry Martyn, The Lando Calrissian Adventures, Pallas, and (forthcoming) Bretta Martyn and Lever Action. An NRA Life Member and founder of the Libertarian Second Amendment Caucus, he has been active in the Libertarian movement for 34 years and is its most prolific and widely-published living novelist.

Permission to redistribute this article is herewith granted by the author - provided that it is reproduced unedited, in its entirety, and appropriate credit given.

Talk to me!: lneil@lneilsmith.org

Back to L. Neil Smith's Lever Action Essays Page