It has always been thus

We look at the world now and wonder how the alt-right could possibly have any popularity at all — such odious ideas, such terrible ignorant people. But the seeds were planted a long time ago. I was just reading Starship Stormtroopers, a 1977 essay by Michael Moorcock, in which he looks back on recent issues in science fiction, colored by the experience of the Vietnam War and the protests against it. I remember that time, and what I think of are the hippies, and campus radicals, and revolutionary music, and peace and love and rejecting bourgeois capitalism. And now I wonder how did that generation grow up to populate the worst, most corrupt, most destructive government in our history?

The answer is right there in that culture of the 60s-70s. We just didn’t notice the contradictions imbedded in it, which Moorcock points out in the context of the popular SF readings of the day.

There are still a few things which bring a naive sense of shocked astonishment to me whenever I experience them — a church service in which the rituals of Dark Age superstition are performed without any apparent sense of incongruity in the participants — a fat Soviet bureaucrat pontificating about bourgeois decadence — a radical singing the praises of Robert Heinlein. If I were sitting in a tube train and all the people opposite me were reading Mein Kampf with obvious enjoyment and approval it probably wouldn’t disturb me much more than if they were reading Heinlein, Tolkein or Richard Adams. All this visionary fiction seems to me to have a great deal in common. Utopian fiction has been predominantly reactionary in one form or another (as well as being predominantly dull) since it began. Most of it warns the world of ‘decadence’ in its contemporaries and the alternatives are usually authoritarian and sweeping — not to say simple-minded. A look at the books on sale to Cienfuegos customers shows the same old list of Lovecraft and Rand, Heinlein and Niven, beloved of so many people who would be horrified to be accused of subscribing to the Daily Telegraph or belonging to the Monday Club and yet are reading with every sign of satisfaction views by writers who would make Telegraph editorials look like the work of Bakunin and Monday Club members sound like spokesmen for the Paris Commune.

Ouch. I read all of those authors, but at least I can say I came to detest them, with the exception of Lovecraft, which I’ve always read as hilariously badly written dystopian kitsch. But otherwise, I agree — even Tolkien, who has become even more popular today thanks to that series of wildly successful movies, created a wierdly asexual, regressive, pastoral universe where old traditional values, like aristocracy and kingship, were revered. Moorcock also hammers on that.

The interesting thing was that at the time many of the pro-US-involvement writers were (and by and large still are) the most popular sf writers in the English-speaking world, let alone Japan, the Soviet Union, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, where a good many sf readers think of themselves as radicals. One or two of these writers (British as well as American) are dear friends of mine who are personally kindly and courageous people of considerable integrity — but their political statements (if not always, by any means, their actions) are stomach-turning! Most people have to be judged by their actions rather than their remarks, which are often surprisingly at odds. Writers, when they are writing, can only be judged on the substance of their work. The majority of the sf writers most popular with radicals are by and large crypto-fascists to a man and woman! There is Lovecraft, the misogynic racist; there is Heinlein, the authoritarian militarist; there is Ayn Rand, the rabid opponent of trade unionism and the left, who, like many a reactionary before her, sees the problems of the world as a failure by capitalists to assume the responsibilities of ‘good leadership’; there is Tolkein and that group of middle-class Christian fantasists who constantly sing the praises of bourgeois virtues and whose villains are thinly disguised working class agitators — fear of the Mob permeates their rural romances. To all these and more the working class is a mindless beast which must be controlled or it will savage the world (i.e. bourgeois security) — the answer is always leadership, ‘decency’, paternalism (Heinlein in particularly strong on this), Christian values…

Leading to the present day, where that paternalism is worshipped, and yelling about decency and Christian values is a mask over the most atrocious corruption.

At least his characterization of John Campbell is vastly entertaining, if horrifying.

Indeed, it’s often been shown that sf supplied a lot of the vocabulary and atmosphere for American military and space technology (a ‘Waldo’ handling machine is a name taken straight from a Heinlein story). Astounding became full of crew-cut wisecracking, cigar-chewing, competent guys (like Campbell’s image of himself). But Campbell and his writers (and they considered themselves something of a unified team) were not producing Westerns. They claimed to be producing a fiction of ideas. These competent guys were suggesting how the world should be run. By the early fifties Astounding had turned by almost anyone’s standard into a crypto-fascist deeply philistine magazine pretending to intellectualism and offering idealistic kids an ‘alternative’ that was, of course, no alternative at all. Through the fifties Campbell used his whole magazine as propaganda for the ideas he promoted in his editorials. His writers, by and large, were enthusiastic. Those who were not fell away from him, disturbed by his increasingly messianic disposition (Alfred Bester gives a good account of this). Over the years Campbell promoted the mystical, quasi-scientific Scientology (first proposed by one of his regular writers L. Ron Hubbard and aired for the first time in Astounding as ‘Dianetics: The New Science of the Mind’), a perpetual motion machine known as the ‘Dean Drive’, a series of plans to ensure that the highways weren’t ‘abused’, and dozens of other half-baked notions, all in the context of cold-war thinking. He also, when faced with the Watts riots of the mid-sixties, seriously proposed and went on to proposing that there were ‘natural’ slaves who were unhappy if freed. I sat on a panel with him in 1965, as he pointed out that the worker bee when unable to work dies of misery, that the moujiks when freed went to their masters and begged to be enslaved again, that the ideals of the anti-slavers who fought in the Civil War were merely expressions of self-interest and that the blacks were ‘against’ emancipation, which was fundamentally why they were indulging in ‘leaderless’ riots in the suburbs of Los Angeles! I was speechless (actually I said four words in all — ‘science-fiction’ — ‘psychology’ — Jesus Christ!’- before I collapsed), leaving John Brunner to perform a cool demolition of Campbell’s arguments, which left the editor calling on God in support of his views — an experience rather more intense for me than watching Doctor Strangelove at the cinema.

Now I’m left feeling like nothing ever changes.


  1. brutus says

    Whereas the hard sciences (done right) might be said to exist in a cultural vacuum, immune to interpretive corruption, the arts exist only within a cultural context and typically react to events of recent history, though the trappings may be displaced in a far off future or wholly imagined past. That’s why both need to be studied and understood. The wherewithal needed to analyze social history in light of dystopian fiction is accordingly no small matter, and closure never really comes.

    Many of us come to genre fiction in our youth and don’t appreciate fully the themes and threads running through it. Maturity and expertise don’t always fix that oversight. The current culture has turned toward YA dystopianism and cartoon superheroes. They’re all in effect coming-of-age stories (alternatively, origin stories that function like creation myths) that ironically keep us rooted in adolescence. So yeah, some things don’t change.

  2. cartomancer says

    I don’t think Tolkien deserves to be tarred with this brush. The complaint Moorcock seems to be airing is that this fiction is aspiring to prescribe values for the future of the real world. Tolkien most emphatically did not set out to do this. His work was consciously archaizing, in the vein of the European mythic tradition. He was a professor of medieval English literature, and he was trying to create something that drew on the Kalevala and Beowulf and Sir Gawain. That the characters of his medieval fantasy world are taken by medieval ideas of kingship and aristocracy is entirely to be expected – having them reflect twentieth century political ideals would take them out of the world he was trying to create.

    He does, perhaps, sound a note of sadness and regret at the loss of certain pre-industrial social traditions. But regret at the passing of the old and anxiety in the face of the new is not the same as a reactionary desire to turn the clock back completely. In this he is entirely in the tradition of the Romantics as well as the epic tradition – one message of his grand journey narrative is that you can’t go through tribulations and remain unchanged – you simply can’t go back to what you once were, you have to take what has changed into account.

    This, I think, is the main difference between classic fantasy literature and science fiction. Classic medieval fantasy is about enjoying worlds unlike our own qua their strangeness and difference. It’s like historical fiction in that regard – we can enjoy novels about the Romans without feeling that their authors are regressive for not having their characters challenge first-century morals and political systems. Science fiction has always tended to hold itself up as fiction about the future, about possibilities and with a distinct commentary on the nature of the real world. At least, a certain prominent strand of it has.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    As an early-teen I used to love Campbell’s editorials in Analog, persuaded by his “stable” of writers’ praises of his cool logic and encyclopediac knowledge.

    Then came the Kent State massacre, and – what with the long publishing lag for non-news magazines in those days – Campbell’s rant about it several months later. He started off with an anecdote about a railroad surveyor in the Rocky Mountains confronted by an aggressive bear, who (fortified by years as a Little League pitcher) defended himself by throwing rocks so hard and fast that he killed the animal. Therefore, “reasoned” Campbell, rocks are deadly weapons and the Ohio National Guard was fully justified in gunning down the protesters.

    By then I’d read up enough on the incident to know that, e.g., one of the young women killed that day was about 100 yards away from the confrontation, carrying nothing more dangerous than books. Poof! – my adulation of Campbell and his tactics of argumentation drained down to nothingness and below in seconds.

    I suppose I owe him thanks for illustrating and exemplifying so clearly what I then and since came to reject in the mentality of right-wing American “hard-headedness.” Still, I don’t see any of the last few decades’ crop of parafascistic rhetoricians who come close to Campbell’s imitation of fact-based logic – he may have mined that lode down to dust.

  4. cartomancer says

    Also, I’m rather fond of weirdly asexual. Given how dark, problematic and soul-crushing my own encounters with the world of sex and sexuality have been I’m rather glad not to have it there in my fantasy reading.

  5. brett says


    I always found that an interesting divide in Tolkien’s work. Moorcock’s right to point to it as reactionary fiction, but at the same time Tolkien makes it a cardinal sin in his fictional mythology to try and force things to last beyond their time.

  6. mathman85 says

    …Lovecraft, which I’ve always read as hilariously badly written dystopian kitsch.

    I actually enjoy reading Lovecraft myself, though I make no attempt to whitewash or excuse the fact that Lovecraft himself was considered a virulent racist even by the standards of his day, and it often shows in his writing. However, I find much of his work to be hilariously overwritten dystopian kitsch; this may be a distinction without a difference.

  7. says

    I have to say that calling Heinlein an “authoritarian militarist” is absurdly reductionist. Starship Troopers was seen that way, but it is only one of his 32 novels and 60 some stories. It was an early work and his later work is mostly viewed as libertarian — in fact he at times called himself an anarchist. His political views shifted over time and were sometimes contradictory. His political and cultural legacy is much debated but it certainly isn’t simple or one-dimensional.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    … [Campbell’s] increasingly messianic disposition (Alfred Bester gives a good account of this)

    Anybody know what Bester “account” Moorcock has in mind, or where to find it?

  9. anbheal says

    Our collective nostalgia for the 60s is frequently inaccurate. There were a lot more Greg Marmalades and Doug Neidermeyers than there were Abbie Hoffmans and Wavy Gravys. Okie From Muskogee and Ballad Of The Green Berets were massive hits. And all those crewcut teens in turned up cuffs screaming invective at blacks trying to enter a high school or sit at a counter are now the Governors and Senators of 15 states. Hippies were a tiny minority of college students, and usually from very wealthy families. The reason we had the illusion of progress was that after JFK’s assassination, and before Nixon’s explicitly racist “Southern Strategy”, LBJ had MASSIVE majorities in both the House and the Senate, so he was able to pass some decent legislation. But we simply weren’t a left-leaning progressive society.

    As for Tolkien, I enjoyed him as a kid, and re-read the canon when the movies came out. He’s not a very good writer, but his characters are well-developed. If hereditary privilege is a literary sin, then 90 percent of the animated movies targeting little girls are even more guilty of it — the heroine is INVARIABLY a princess, often with few skills and limited intellect, but simply pretty enough for a poor boy who is secretly a hereditary prince himself to rescue to the poor feckless flibbertigibbet. And yes, it bugs me — Frozen, for example, would have been much better if she had been a coalminer’s daughter, e.g.

  10. starfleetdude says

    I remember that time, and what I think of are the hippies, and campus radicals, and revolutionary music, and peace and love and rejecting bourgeois capitalism. And now I wonder how did that generation grow up to populate the worst, most corrupt, most destructive government in our history?

    They didn’t. There were plenty of more conservative, buttoned-down, and blue-collar people around back then who voted for Nixon and then Reagan. They’re still around, and they too will die off in the not-so distant future. The cultural changes that started in the 1960s haven’t gone away either, even though they’re still controversial. Ask anyone married same-sex couple about that.

  11. starfleetdude says

    As for Tolkien, I enjoyed him as a kid, and re-read the canon when the movies came out. He’s not a very good writer, but his characters are well-developed.

    Actaully, Tolkein’s characters are somewhat wooden, save the hobbits who Tolkein has an obvious affection for. I think Tolkein’s genius was his world-building. There’s a reason why Dungeons and Dragons owes a huge debt to Tolkein.

  12. says

    I wonder if there were various puppies with depressed moods moping around in those days decrying all the politics in their science fiction and fantasy, howling “We just want goooooood stoooorrrriiiiiieeeeeessss!” to the moon.

  13. starfleetdude says

    @14, sure there were. More obnoxious than depressed though. But it didn’t keep anyone from writing SF that dealt with feminism and other socially charged subjects.

  14. keinsignal says

    I was introduced to the work of Michael Moorcock maybe a week and a half ago (by a name-dropping reference in the song “Dickie Davis Eyes” by Half Man Half Biscuit, as it happens), funnily this is I think the third time since then that I’ve come across somebody writing/talking about him online. Baader-Meinhof Syndrome strikes again!

    Anyway, his essay “Epic Pooh”, in which he goes into a bit more detail about what irks him about Tolkien, is also very much worth reading.

  15. says


    It is impossible to do the so-called hard sciences outside of a cultural context because they are done by humans. Jesus Christ. Quine killed logical positivism in the 50’s.

    The characterization of Heinlein is fair overall. It’s not just Starship Troopers. Most of his male characters are highly competent military men who survive by force and their wits. He routinely reworks military history into sci-fi stories (i.e. Between Planets is the American Revolution) and in his more libertarian modes his individualism has a eugenic edge to it. His treatment of female character is generally awful and usually rather fucked up as well. He seems to view all women wanting to be liberated into a harem. And dear god the man had a fetish for spanking as well as incest. (It is a small mercy he never had kids).

    With that being said there’s a still a handful of his works I have no problem reading or recommending; there’s always deep tensions within his work because of Heinlein being a nudist and swinger. Double Star, by far and away his best book, isn’t remotely crypto-fascist and might even be read as anti-fascism. It’s pretty hard to see bad politics in that book where the villains are “human first” assassins and overt racists. Apart from that it is a delightful tale of acting and political intrigue. I also recommend with sever caveats Stranger in Strange Land, the EDITED version. That book had a profound impact on me growing up because it is the book that made me realize I was queer, ultimately. There’s a critical scene that I misread (?) that turned Mike the Martian into a bisexual/queer guy who because of the rest of the novel is a Christ figure. This was, obivously, very validating. Rereading the the UNEDITED version was disappointing (to be mild, my initial reaction was someone had died) because the critical scene is expanded to close off the way I viewed it as a kid. I still think younger queerish kids can get something from the edited version as long as they are talking to someone about the very problematic sexual politics of the book. I still rather like the broad outlines of the tale and if Hollywood ever gets around to making a film from it they can remove the worst stuff to improve the story.

  16. says

    Tolkien, who has become even more popular today thanks to that series of wildly successful movies, created a wierdly asexual, regressive, pastoral universe where old traditional values, like aristocracy and kingship, were revered.

    Science fiction and fantasy authors also tend to do something that authoritarian regimes particularly employ: they don’t air the enemy’s reasoning. Why are orcs aggressive and mean? Because they are orcs and that’s what orcs do. There’s no need to engage with questions about the orcs’ motives because they’re just aggressive and mean. It’s so simple. We have to kill them, of course, because they can’t be negotiated with, because it’s in their nature to be aggressive and mean. Why is Sauron bad, for that matter?

    Sound familiar?

    Science fiction and fantasy set up a situation in which political discourse is unrealistically black and white, and our lords and masters in the real world really appreciate that because it serves their needs and interests very well.

    (There is one episode of The Invisibles which is about a non-entity security guard who works for the Bad Guys company, who gets killed, casually, when the ‘heroes’ come through. We are shown that he had hopes and dreams, took the job because he needed to support his wife and kid, had an inner life in which he wondered if he was doing the right thing, etc. – all snuffed out in an instant because: he’s a Bad Guy)

  17. mnb0 says

    “The answer is right there in that culture of the 60s-70s.”
    Bah. I am reading Michael Goldfarb’s Emancipation: how liberating Europe’s Jews from the getto led to revolution and renaissance right now.

    The arguments used against giving jews civil rights at the French constitutional convention just before the Revolution are exactly the same as used by alt-right now. An infamous example of a progressive guy opposing those rights was the Prime Minister

    That famous newspaper The Times also played an odious role. Motto: present the controversy.
    The more things change the more they stay the same.

  18. mnb0 says

    @2: “I don’t think Tolkien deserves to be tarred with this brush.”
    Tolkien deserves to be criticized for his Blood and Soil philosophy and everything connected. That doesn’t mean his books are bad. On the contrary, I’ve yet to meet a better fantasy author. However thjs admiration doesn’t prevent me from recognizing Tolkien’s philosophical views (in the broadest meaning of the word) as very problematic. And they are reflected in his stories.

  19. starfleetdude says

    @22, the “Blood and Soil” slogan is definitely not what Tolkien deserves to be tarred with. Tolkien was a conservative and Catholic in his outlook, but he was absolutely not a fascist. Now if you were talking about Wagner, who also drew on some of the same myths that Tolkien did in his operas and other compositions, you’d be accurate.

    @19, Sauron is the result of what you get when you indulge a Will to Power. That much is quite clear. Sauron is evil because all that matter to him is power. Considering Tolkien was a soldier in WWI and lived through WWII, it’s not as if he didn’t have plenty of living proof about that either.

  20. anbheal says

    @13 starfleetdude — I dunno. Gandalf, Gimli, and Gollum all had memorable personalities. And some of the minor characters — Boromir, Treebeard, Grima Wormtongue, Denethor — were vivid. Aragorn, as the great hero, was stiff as a board, though, agreed.

  21. starfleetdude says

    @24, I do agree that when it came to Treebeard that… I was hasty. Tolkien did a wonderful job of creating something fantastic as a character. ‘Almost felt you liked the Forest! That’s good! That’s uncommonly kind of you,’ said a strange voice. ‘Turn round and let me have a look at your faces. I almost feel that I dislike you both, but do not let us be hasty. Turn around!’

  22. ionopachys says

    @13 starfleetdude
    His characterizations were really interesting. The big heroes were modeled on medieval and ancient literary heroes, so naturally they came off as flat. Part of what makes the Lord of the Rings so fascinating is the combination of Romantic and older styles and Contemporary Twentieth Century styles. Frodo or Sam wouldn’t be out of place in a modern novel.

    I’d also point out that he did struggle with the idea of irredeemable enemies. He was never satisfied with the orcs, and there’s a great scene where Sam witnesses a skirmish between Faramir’s guerrillas and a Haradrim unit. Sam feels sympathy for the foreigners, and wonders what they were feeling, fighting and dying so far from their homes and families.

  23. addiepray says

    Surprised to see Richard Adams lumped in with the others (though I admit having read little to any of Heinlein, Rand, and some of these others). I loved Watership down when I read it years ago and though it is indeed utopian, I appreciated that it did so within the confines of a rabbit-eye view of the world, rather than any sort of analogous prescription for the ills of our own, as rabbit needs for utopia are far more attainable than for the human version. I read plague dogs (didn’t care for it), but maybe his others are more problematic?

  24. microraptor says

    I read some Heinlein when I was in high school.

    I gave up on him when I read Farham’s Freehold, which as one review so aptly put it, was an anti-racism novel only a Klansman could love.

  25. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    To Tolkien’s credit, he created Éowyn (after being prodded by his daughter(s?), of course, but at least he listened), a kickass woman who refused to stay home and die while the men marched off to war, and who killed the second most evil being in all of Middle Earth (after laughing in his face).

  26. rietpluim says

    I’ve long wondered why it is that the fantastic genre is especially popular among people with scientific or technical backgrounds, i.e. the more rational ones. All those kings and knights and magic and ancient prophecies and bloody battlefields are not things we would want in the real world. And I’ve long thought that it was a matter of compensation, a way to satisfy the more primitive parts of our personalities that still long for a God-driven, feudal society, the parts that are usually silenced because we know such society would be horrible if it was real. I guess I was right, except for one thing: too many people really want to live in such society.

  27. rietpluim says

    What a Maroon

    To Tolkien’s credit, he created Éowyn (after being prodded by his daughter(s?), of course, but at least he listened), a kickass woman who refused to stay home and die while the men marched off to war, and who killed the second most evil being in all of Middle Earth (after laughing in his face).

    And then to be tamed by Faramir to become a house wife and build a garden, the fate of all women.

  28. militantagnostic says

    Pierce R. Butler @3 regarding Kent State

    By then I’d read up enough on the incident to know that, e.g., one of the young women killed that day was about 100 yards away from the confrontation, carrying nothing more dangerous than books. Poof!

    One of the young men killed that day was an ROTC cadet – I doubt that he was throwing rocks at the National Guard.

  29. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I’m certainly not arguing that Tolkien was a feminist, but he did show more empathy for women who were expected to stay home and accept their fate than most fantasy/sci-fi writers of his time:

    All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.

    (Of course he has to go and ruin it with the “serving-woman” comment.)

  30. starfleetdude says

    The sad thing about Moorcock’s bitter essay is that he just can’t abide that anyone should actually like Tolkien. No, he should be compared to James Joyce and found wanting or lambasted for the lovely and oh so Tory pastoral Eden of The Shire. Which, as anyone who has read Tolkien, was also laid to waste by Saruman, to make a very sharp point about how even hobbits could become nasty little hobbitsses indeed. Give me a critic like Roger Ebert any day over one like Moorcock.

  31. nomdeplume says

    As others above have pointed out, this is a very simplistic analysis of both literature and the social and political forces of the sixties (a decade I remember with great fondness). First, as others have said, the idea that in the Sixties the world was run by hippies is simply nonsense. Just as now, the percentage of progressive/liberal/idealistic/left wing young people was always small, and the proportion of “Nixon voters” (to use a shorthand) always high. Remember that Nixon only just lost an election at the start of the decade, won easily in 1968, and then in 1972 smashed the last gasp of Sixties idealism in McGovern. Second, is the author proposing that people read the works listed (and I agree that Tolkien is badly out of place here) and became converted from hippies to Starship Troopers to Randian supermen? Come on, seriously? I read all this stuff (yes, including Rand, I now shudder to think, but was amused by), enjoyed other worlds, interesting plots, weird characters, but was, and remained, as progressive/liberal/idealistic/left wing as when I started, as did PZ. I would lay odds that almost all of us did. The world later went to crap not because hippies became fascists as a result of reading, but because the fascists who were always there (and who were reading Rand unironically) came of age and into power.

  32. chrislawson says

    Much as I love Moorcock and agree with the broad thrust of his argument, I think his assessment of Tolkien is a little off. Most of Tolkien’s villains are representative of some sin taken to excess — power hunger, refusing to die a natural death, refusing to recognise which son is more loyal, etc. That is, they represent a rejection of the natural moral order of things from a very conservative view of the natural moral order.

    If anything, Tolkien’s biggest bugbear is industrialisation, so Saruman’s evil is depicted as him destroying the forests around Isengard to feed his war plans, in comparison to the bucolic quasi-utopian hobbits.

    Having said all that, there is some appalling (probably) unconscious classism in Tolkien. It’s almost impossible to read the troll scene in The Hobbit without recoiling from Tolkien’s decision to give the trolls traditional English names common in the working class (in Middle-Earth no less, where nobody else has a traditional European name!) and even worse, to give them Cockney accents to heighten the humour of their stupidity.

    Then there’s the racism, the implicit assumption of the divine rights of kings, the refusal to give a viewpoint to any antagonist…so I’m not saying any of this to minimise Tolkien’s literary failings, but I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that his villains are “thinly disguised working class agitators.”

  33. cartomancer says

    dharter, #31,

    I read the essay. I have to say I disliked it a lot. To me it seemed to embody everything that is cloying and hubristic and self-congratulatory about American culture, scientific arrogance and the Cult of Reason that has informed both since the “Enlightenment”. Not to mention haughtily dismissive of a Homer and a Sophocles that the author clearly only has a Ladybird My First Book of Greek Myth appreciation of.

    Most telling was when he called himself a child of “Pericles, Benjamin Franklin and H.G, Wells”, hinting that he belongs to a tradition of rationalism, democracy and science that is somehow superior to the humanity of the ancient and medieval mainstream. But he also lambasts Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos (he calls it Oedipus Rex, which is not the name of the play, but ho-hum), and Aristotle’s firm preference for its dramatic conventions. What he doesn’t realise is that, in a very real sense, Oedipus Tyrannos is about Pericles and his hubristic belief that his own intelligence, his own rationality, and the civic virtue of his own commitment to democracy would allow him to overcome any obstacle. Oedipus, in Sophocles’ hands, becomes an embodiment of that very same spirit of undeserved confidence in your own ability to change the future for the better that gushes from David Brin. It was everywhere in fifth-century Athens too – shining from the marble of the new Parthenon, cutting the seas with every oar-stroke of the fleet, a subtext in the disputations of all those philosophers and historians that crowded the Agora. Athens was at the height of its powers, and thought its golden age could last forever. It was wrong.

    In fact, over a decade before he wrote Oedipus, Sophocles encapsulated this attitude of optimistic belief in the supremacy of human progress in the choral parodos song of his other great Theban play – Antigone. The chorus sings of how man has learned the arts of speech and sailing, girt the world in ships, tamed beasts and built cities and thinks there is no limit to his reach. But there is. Death, at least, is beyond man’s power to overcome (and, so it turns out, is good civic order). Today we might use sending ships to the stars, taming diseases and splitting the atom as our icons of human progress, but the message is the same – because we can do some things we think we can do anything, and the universe is going to prove us devastatingly wrong on that. In the case of Antigone it’s Creon thinking he can dictate the laws of religious purity to the gods, in Pericles’ case it was thinking he could ride out the Spartan attacks by gathering the citizens behind the Long Walls. Pericles, of course, died from the plague that his short-sighted actions brought to Athens in the early 420s. We might also note how the Cult of Reason and Science in 18th Century France turned out.

    Far from being an archaic and irrelevant conception of human tragedy, Sophocles’ conception is one that has been there before and knows, drearily but inevitably, what’s about to happen. It’s a direct response to overweening optimism of Brin’s and America’s kind – a cautionary tale to blunt the ardour of those who believe everything is possible if only we set out to achieve it. What now of that glorious country of rationalists and democrats? How’s that unshakeable belief in the righteousness of your own intelligence doing you in 2018?

    Not to mention his notion that a “Homeric” hero is a two-dimensional superman character, and Homer is an uncritical cheerleader for monarchy and elitism. The Homeric epics are actually complex interrogations of old-fashioned heroic ideals, which bring out the impossible contradictions and ironies of being that sort of larger-than-life character, and the damage they can cause to those around them. People praised Alan Moore’s Watchmen in the 80s for bringing out the real world ramifications of having demigod heroes charging around the place – Homer was doing it in the 750s BC. The end of the very first book of the Iliad raises the question of whether royal rule is legitimate – Thersites, that very spear-carrier who apparently doesn’t get a look in, directly challenges Agamemon’s authority. He’s argued down by Odysseus of course: “by what right do you challenge the rule of kings?” Thersites gives no answer, but the question remains – by what right is political authority established? In the Odyssey things get even more unheroic, particularly in Odysseus’s famous trip to the underworld where Achilles denies the whole rationale behind the heroic bargain that was his existence.

  34. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    (in Middle-Earth no less, where nobody else has a traditional European name!)

    I’m with you on the classism and the anti-industrialization sentiment. Here, though, in pursuit of a well-founded conclusion, you throw in a bit of erroneous data.

    While Bilbo and Gandalf don’t have traditional European names (that I know of), the names of the Dwarves (and Galdalf) come from the Poetic Edda.

    It’s not clear when those names died out or how many of the Dwarf names in that edda were used (or how often), some of them were used for some real people.

    If you interpret “traditional” to include traditions dead by Tolkien’s day, then yes. Some of the dwarves had “traditional” European names.

    …which, again, doesn’t contradict your main point. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

  35. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Or, heck, interpreted another way: all of the dwarves + Gandalf had “traditional” European names, though they most of them were traditionally used only in fiction, they would still be “names” and still follow a specific European tradition. They’d just be traditional character names and not traditional real-person-flesh-&-blood names.

    okay, I’ve gone on way too long, and there is a qualitative difference between “Dainn” and “Bert” which is much more salient. So I’ll shut up now.

  36. wsierichs says

    To understand some things in Tolkien, you have to see his Christianity in the background. Although he disliked allegory, some Christian beliefs influenced him, in my opinion.

    In the Simarillion, he’s very clear that Morgoth is his world’s Satan, and Sauron was his chief lieutenant. In Christianity, Satan cannot create anything, only God can, or at best Satan can create poor, evil imitations of God’s works. That’s why Morgoth did not create Orcs but rather twisted, corrupted Elves to make Orcs. I have a vague memory that he created or used something to make trolls as imitation Ents. At any rate, anything associated with Morgoth and Sauron be definition must be evil.

    Morgoth’s first troops were angels that he corrupted. They, or at least some, became the demonic Balrogs. That’s why it took an army of angels from Valar to defeat hims.

    The wizard also are angels – at least that’s how I understand their origin in The Silmarillion. The significance of this is that of the 3 wizards in LOTR, one, Saruman, becomes fallen by allying himself with Sauron. This fits with the Christian belief that one-third of the angels their god created became Satan’s servants. That also explains how Gandalf could defeat a much-larger, seemingly more-powerful, fiery monster. This was actually a battle between two angels, not a man and demon.

    Finally, I think Tolkien was drawing upon the worldview created by the medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore, who used Christian traditions about the Apocalypse to argue that the world has 3 Ages. Jesus began the 2nd Age, a period in which over time the church becomes corrupt and many men fall away. The 2nd Age ends when a great Christian leader arises to cleanse the church and defeat the Penultimate Antichrist. The 3rd Age will last a thousand years, during which corruption again slowly grows, with Jesus returning to end the 3rd Age and clean up everything. Tolkien’s 3rd Age does not match Joachim’s pattern – I don’t think Aragorn is an allegorical Jesus, but the 1st Age ended when an army of angels defeated Morgoth; and the 2nd Age ended when Sauron was defeated, but not destroyed. LOTR is set in the 3rd Age, when Sauron revives and slowly corrupts men while building up his army of Orcs, etc. His ultimate defeat and annihilation effectively cleanse Middle Earth of the main source of evil remaining.

    BTW, I think there’s a good case that Adolf Hitler was also following Joachim’s system, in that he obviously saw himself as cleansing a corrupt world – with Jews as the force for corruption (Christianity saw Jews as the source of Antichrist) – and beginning the 3rd Age. That’s what he meant when he said his Third Reich would last a thousand years, just as Joachim said the 3rd Age would last a millennium. (The book that explained this said millennium did not necessarily mean exactly 1,000 years, just a very long time.) Thinking of Hitler as seeing himself as a Messianic figure explains a lot of what he said and did.

  37. zibble says

    Will someone explain what’s supposed to be so bad about Richard Adams? He doesn’t even have a “Controversy” subsection in his Wikipedia

  38. dharter says

    cartomancer, #39

    All very interesting points, thanks for your thoughts. It seems that literature and classics is probably your area? You definitely have a point, it is too broad of a brush to paint all classic lit, like say the Iliad, as being an uncritical support of supermen demi-gods and their divine right to rule. Just as an aside, I would have said things like that about the Iliad, but the Odyssey has always seemed different, an example of a progressive leader (Odysseus) who leads not because he is a chosen elite, but because he is more intelligent and can think his way out of trouble. Odysseus, from my limited experience with the classics, was (sometimes) kind of a proto-Kirk or Picard, an example of a progressive leader who builds consensus and supports rational decision making as the basis of policy and action. But would be interested in a more nuanced comparison of Iliad and Odyssey in terms of the discussion in this thread.

    But to bring the discussion back around to PZ’s original post, Brin’s article and the one PZ linked, both seemed to me to be discussions about two different kinds of world views and the human stories that result. And both were using (relatively) modern science fiction literature and popular science fiction films and TV as lenses in the analysis.

    This is definitely oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but in both articles there are those writers that have authoritarian tendencies, and those whose ideals flow more from enlightenment ideals, where not individuals but collective rational action are to be preferred. And, as pointed out in both, stories that flow from the former world views have unfortunate tendencies to rationalize neo-fascist, racist, sexist, anti-democratic and other problematic ideas.

    So I would be interested in your take, in this context, of Star Wars and Star Trek. Did you really disagree with Brin in his basic assessment of the two underlying world views of these pieces of popular science fiction? If so, doesn’t that mean you are disagreeing with many of the ideas in the Moorcock article as well? Or do you see differences?

    I suspect you would find me, maybe, personally too much of an example of that overweening optimist of (what I would argue used to be a positive part of) the American character. But yet I think it is unfair to say I believe everything is possible with just enough will, intelligence and science applied to the problem (*cough* James P. Hogan). I prefer the idea of rational optimism. But I do believe that collective action, consensus and strong democratic institutions are our only hope. Yes I am alarmed, here in 2018, to see the rise of neo-fascism worldwide, and even in my own United States, where I never thought it would be possible. But I know progress is not always linear. I would argue that a vast majority of the best progress this past century are from enlightenment ideals and institutions, and the worst setbacks and atrocities have flowed from authoritarian, elitism. My beliefs have been shaken, certainly, in 2018, but a retreat from cautious rational optimism would, in my opinion, only hasten the end for us all as a species.

  39. Holms says

    True, but you are perhaps forgetting that Faramir is also tamed to some extent, dropping the role of soldier and his high military position in favour of rehabilitating the forests damaged by Sauron.

    Some people dislike things that are generally popular, which is fine; but some within that group seem to think disliking said popular thing is itself a praiseworthy thing. “Look at me disliking that book / TV show / movie / song / artist that loads of people enjoy! Their tastes are pedestrian, while mine are subtle and complex!”

  40. emergence says

    I think I like certain thematic elements of Lovecraft’s work more than I like his work itself. I like how cosmic horror themes can seamlessly merge fantasy and science fiction. I like how it depicts supernatural creatures as being alien and otherworldly instead of being mashed together combinations of romanticized vertebrates. I also like how the powers of gods and sorcerers are over things like living tissue, radiation, and the fabric of space instead of the standard fire, ice, lighting, and so on.

    I’m wondering if it’s possible to produce a successor to lovecraftian fiction that’s socially progressive and lacks all of the overwrought pessimism about humanity’s place in the universe. Maybe turning an author’s work into it’s own antithesis can help undo the damage it’s done?

  41. gjpetch says

    Oh no, Richard Adams??? *prepares for gut punch* Can someone explain that one to me?

  42. chigau (違う) says

    …Aragorn, as the great hero, was stiff as a board…
    golly, srsly?
    book or movie?

  43. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    I think it’s more about Tolkien’s writing style than anything else, but I, too, didn’t find Aragorn to be a character that I could connect with emotionally for much of the book. The movie character was never stiff, but the book Aragorn may have required a subtler reading than I gave an adventure book as a child. Perhaps the most transparently emotional passages (for me, at least) in regards to his character were during the chase after Merry and Pippin. That first half of two towers, really, he seemed much more emotional than in the first volume or the third. The rest of the time he was just so busy doing what was expected of him…

    I connected with Sam well enough, Frodo more as things went along (he, too, is a reserved character who allows duty to dominate many of his choices) and Fatty almost instantly. Tom was very emotional, a character with a “bright soul”, as it were. But very many other characters, including Aragorn, actively worked to bury their own desires so that they could do their duty … and that makes them hard to connect with emotionally.

  44. chigau (違う) says

    CD etal
    I first read the books at the age of about 12 or 13 and I read them over and over and over for about … alot of years.
    Strider/Aragorn never, at any time, seemed “wooden”.
    He could never get through any decision without angsting on and on and on about it.
    And his relationship with the elf-chick who is 2400 years older than him.
    Like that aten’t *fraught*?

  45. brett says


    I can sympathize. There isn’t much internal character development to Aragorn over Lord of the Rings, because he’s already made virtually all the big, life-changing decisions he had to make by the time the Hobbits show up in Bree. It’s just a question of whether he’ll survive the journey, whether he should go as quickly as possible to Minas Tirith or continue trying to save the hobbits even at risk of fatal delay, whether he should risk it all to try and buy time at the gates of Mordor in the hopes that maybe Frodo will destroy the Ring, etc.

    @42 wsierichs

    I’m skeptical of the “three ages” idea. Tolkien’s fictional mythology had more than three ages, and it’s a key thematic point (in the books at least) that the defeat of Sauron will not be the defeat of evil. Great evils will still arise and exist even as the world becomes more mundane in the Fourth Age of the Sun and beyond.

  46. chigau (違う) says

    to Aragorn in the movie:
    It’s yer fukin *wedding*! Get yer hair done!

  47. mvdwege says

    As regarding Aragorn, I used to agree that he was rather flat.

    However, on rereading, I started spotting subtleties in his character that led me to believe his apparent flatness is merely someone keeping his emotions in check. To be sure, Tolkien gives us some scenes where he openly and voluntarily lets go, such as at Boromir’s funeral, but overall he is a prime example of Upper Class British Stiff Upper Lip.

    But there are a few moments when he involuntarily lets go that I applaud Tolkien’s characterisation skills. In the Council of Elrond, when he lets his sarcasm slip and belittles Barliman Butterbur as a simple man who does not know about the evils surrounding his little town of Bree, his obvious bridling at doorwarden Háma who wants him to surrender his sword in Edoras, or again when he deploys biting sarcasm at the healer who refuses him to supply with Athelas in ‘The Houses of Healing’ in ‘The Return of the King’. Another character even comments on his sharp tongue.

    It is also these scenes that belie the common criticism as him being all noble and flawless.

    Tolkien was not the world’s greatest at characterisation, but he was capable of some subtlety.

    On a side note: until the war actually started, Tolkien was certainly in favour of Fascism. In his Letters there is one letter where he praises Franco for his defence of the Church, with no hint as to ever having researched why the Spanish Republicans hated it so much.

  48. rietpluim says

    What Tolkien did understand is that monotheism makes terribly bad fiction. So he moved Eru to the background in favor of the Maiar, who are more like a pagan pantheon. And he was right. The Bible is boring, and the Edda is cool.

  49. joehoffman says

    Moorcock has interesting things to say, but I end up not agreeing with him. When he decided to reply directly to Tolkien by making his own “mythology for England”, we got Jerry Cornelius. 50 years on, they don’t look relevant to anything. The only works influenced by Jerry Cornelius I thought were any good were by Moëbius in France.

    Hey, rietpluim – Eowyn takes on the job of making a garden out of Minas Morgul, a 20th-century toxic waste dump. Not to be sneered at – I’m sure there was plenty of hacking and slashing to be done. Besides, surely you noticed that “gardener” is the highest rank in Tolkien (it’s a subclass of “steward”).

  50. Ed Seedhouse says

    “I gave up on him when I read Farham’s Freehold”

    Possibly his very worst novel (although admittedly it has stiff competition).

    In general his “Juveniles” were far better than his “Adult” novels. Go read, for instance, “Citizen of the Galaxy” or “The Rolling Stones” or even “Have Spacesuit will Travel”. These stand up well even today, methinks.

    Of his “Adult” novels “Double Star” is the main standout. Almost all the stuff he wrote after about the mid 1960’s was dreck of course.

  51. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    @rietpluim 56, 57,

    Tolkien was a Catholic, after all. They’ve been effectively polytheistic for almost 2000 years.

  52. leerudolph says

    starfleetdude@13: ” Tolkein’s characters are somewhat wooden”.
    Particularly the ents.

  53. Rob Grigjanis says

    mvdwege @55:

    until the war actually started, Tolkien was certainly in favour of Fascism

    Nonsense. He despised the Nazis and their ideology before the war. It’s not even clear that he was pro-Franco; he was certainly against the killing of priests and nuns.

  54. Rob Grigjanis says

    re #62: If its not clear, I mean that I don’t think he supported the Nationalists so much as he opposed the (often murderous) anti-Catholicism of many Republicans.

  55. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@62,63

    While the murders carried out in Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War by elements of the left are indefensible, the anti-Catholicism of the left had far deeper roots than the article you link to admits: the Catholic Church had been a vehement opponent of democracy and any form of social reform for centuries, and in particular, was a key support for the proto-fascist dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. That is the background to the anticlericalism of the 1931 Constitution, which the article essentially blames for Franco’s military coup: the Church as a whole had chosen to side with the army and the aristocracy.

  56. khms says

    No matter what Heinlein may or may not have intended, I’ve always seen Starship Troopers as an anti-war book, showing how ugly war was. (And I was less than impressed by his invented society.)

    But frankly, it seems to me one of the most important points here is that some people seem to have trouble understanding that fiction is, well, fictional, as in not real – that was never (that I can remember) a problem for me. Yes, it does usually contain real bits – but it does not usually come with a guide telling you what those are, so you need to find that out by yourself and not just pick whatever you like. Really, exact same rules as when it comes to the historicity of the bible (for good reasons) which presumably we’re all familiar with.
    And remember, most people reading thrillers have no intention of becoming career criminals.

  57. Owlmirror says

    Out of curiosity, I searched for mention of tolkien and franco. I found this forum posting,

    Franco appears only once in Tolkien’s published letters. In letter #83 he tells his son of an encounter with Roy Campbell, a “poet and soldier” who had led a rather remarkable life, according to Tolkien’s account. Campbell, a converted catholic (like Tolkien), risked his life defending a Carmelite monastery and their archives, from the communist army in Barcelona, and had subsequently fought on the side of Franco. He had then returned to England to fight with the British army. Tolkien seems to admire the man, primarily for his defense of catholisism, and makes no other comment on Franco.

    And Letter #83 itself.

  58. Owlmirror says

    And there’s also the Tolkien letter #52 to his son Christopher, which has the lines:

    My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.
    Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.

    (Tolkien gateway has it paraphrased and summarized)

  59. mvdwege says

    Yeah, I rechecked the letters. While he still seems to give Franco a pass it is obvious that he finds the Mussolini and Hitler brands of fascism odious.

    As ‘live-and-let-live’ libertarian he was, he also was a very devout Conservative Catholic. Occasionally that led to some cognitive dissonance, which his letters do show up.

    And @Rob#56: That was the background I meant that he didn’t research. He was so blind to the failings of the Church that he didn’t understand the anti-clericalism of the Republicans. And there is some doubt as to how bad the Red Terror was. After all, there were very few Republicans left to defend themselves after 1938…

  60. KG says


    There’s no doubt at all that Roy Campbell was at the least a fascist sympathiser (as well as a self-dramatising liar), although he did side with the UK against the Axis in WWII. Both before and after that war, he was happy to publish his work in a magazine edited by the British fascist Diana Mosley (wife of the better-known Oswald), which also featured contributions from Ezra Pound. There’s some interesting stuff on Campbell’s relations with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis here. Tolkien admired him; Lewis, initially at least, hated him.

    Actually, researching him, I’ve inadvertently found myself on what is clearly a fascist pseudo-intellectual site, which I won’t link to, but it seems to be called “Counter-Currents Publishing”. It’s clear the fascists consider him one of their own, and here’s a taster of his verse:

    To cheapen thus for slavery and hire
    The racket of the Invert and the Jew
    Which is through art and science to subdue.
    Humiliate, and to pulp reduce
    The Human Spirit for industrial use
    Whether by Capital or by Communism
    It’s all the same despite their seeming schisms

    Sound familiar?

  61. KG says

    My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. – Tolkien, quoted by Owlmirror@68

    This linking of two completely incompatible “political opinions” would seem to indicate that, politically speaking, Tolkien was an ignorant fool.

  62. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @71: I think he looks much less the fool if you read on in the same letter. His point seems to be that either no one be in charge, or that those in power did not seek power.

    the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men.

    Not sophisticated maybe, but hardly foolish.

  63. says

    This seemed the best place for this.

    I was playing the most recent LotR game, Shadow of War, and I’m following three orcs. I’m sneaking up on them in order to stealth kill them one at a time and the one in front is going on about one of the generals. As I kill the one in the back I hear “…and he says he’s going to make Mordor great again!”

  64. KG says

    His point seems to be that either no one be in charge, or that those in power did not seek power. – Rob Grigjanis@72

    And he thought that’s how “unconstitutional monarchy” has worked through most of history?

    Here’s a quote from Owlmirror’s link@68:

    The special horror is that the present world was all in one bag with nowhere to fly to. The only bright spot was the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations.

    Yes, those damned factories and power-stations, giving the orc-masses the chance of a longer life, with the opportunity for literacy and leisure.

  65. KG says

    Another quote from the same letter:

    Give me a king, declared Tolkien, mostly interested in stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier for the cut of his trousers. But that only works when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way.

    The kings mostly interested in stamps and race-horses are presumably George V and Edward VII respectively. But of course that was only possible because they were constitutional monarchs, and couldn’t sack the Prime Minister even if they distrusted and detested him (as George V did Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour PM). As for “the good old ineffiicent human way”, Tolkien appears to have convinced himself that the pre-industrial world was a haven of peace and bucolic pleasures. How could a medievalist possibly be so ignorant? I suppose being a Catholic helped, but even so…

  66. ethereal says

    So what’s the deal with Richard Adams? There’s the famous Moorcock’s dig that British fantasy is “by rabbits and for rabbits”, but that’s just one book, and one that scares children even today. Shardik (1974), published two years later, was brutal; so was Plague Dogs (1977). And you certainly can’t accuse Maia (1984) of being prudish. The rabbit line comes from Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987) – after everything listed previously, but before Tales from Watership Down (1996).

    Meanwhile, Moorcock himself writes exactly the sort of shallow dudebro wet dream fantasy he bashes. Naming the evil empire “Britannia” does nothing to condemn British fascism if your heroes are fascists too. Or take his constant triad of main characters – male hero, male buddy, female love interest – which, according to his books, is kind of the fundamental principle of the multiverse. There are worlds of fire and ice and eternal winds, worlds with laser swords and battle flamingoes – and yet a world where the hero is a woman cannot possibly exist.

    Screw Moorcock. He’s no less of a fascist than the rest.

  67. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @74: A minor quibble; the “quote” is not Tolkien, but a summary of Tolkien. The relevant part of the letter can be read here. Not vastly different, but one should use “quote” carefully.

    You seem to be trying to construct a Tolkien political manifesto, and criticizing its flaws. I’m reading a letter from a survivor of the WWI trenches to his teenage son, who is training to take part in another World War.

  68. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@78,

    Thanks for the link – although I think that these “anarcho-capitalists'” fondness for Tolkiens maunderings speaks for itself! As does the reference to “ant-communities” in his letter.