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.