Is Science Fiction Getting More Conservative?
I am a complete science fiction geek.
It started when I was little more than a toddler. One of my earliest memories: sitting in the basement with my parents as they watched Walter Cronkite narrate one of the Apollo missions as it rounded the moon. (Which one? I couldn't have been more than three or four, and I was born in 1971. You do the math.) It left an impression. I've been a fan ever since.
In the last few years, I've noticed more and more that science fiction has taken a bit of a turn to the right. I've also seen more than a few reviews lambasting those authors for their views -- which seems to matter not a whit to their sales.
So I emailed four of them -- two relative newcomers and two legends -- and asked why.
The legends, Dr. Jerry Pournelle and Orson Scott Card, need no introduction. But it bears mention that Ender's Game, Card's best-known work, is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps recommended reading list as a treatise on what it means to be a leader. The newcomers, Lt. Col Tom Kratman (Ret.) and Larry Correia, both write for Baen.
I asked them all three simple questions: Why do you think there has been a trend toward conservatism in mainstream SF over the last few years? What does this mean for the future of the genre? And: is this a good or a bad thing for science fiction, and why?
Being writers, their answers roamed freely -- but revealingly.
Suggesting that part of the problem is defining "conservatism," Dr. Pournelle isn't sure there's been such a drift.
"The problem here," he said, "is that 'conservatism' means many things to different people -- and many of those you call conservative would not call themselves that, nor would many conservatives call them that. There has certainly been a move toward the concept of freedom as a good thing, but that was always true of most science fiction writers.
"Meanwhile, planetary history has shown that vast powerful central bureaucracies don't generally produce either general welfare or freedom or wealth, and science fiction writers have sort of noticed that -- even as welfare liberalism has become a consensus among a large part of the literary elites in academia."
Card noted that he wasn't at all sure where the trends even stood in science fiction these days -- because he had long since stopped paying attention. "I left SFWA [the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America] in 1987," he said, "and haven't looked back. I have very few friends among sci-fi writers and have no idea at all what their politics might be."
"Back when I cared," he continued, "most of the writers of my generation were so extremely leftist in their formal opinions, and so extremely elitist in their practices, that it would be difficult to discern where they actually stood on anything. It's as if the entire Tsarist aristocracy fervently preached Bolshevism even as they oppressed their peasants. But that view is based on observations back in the mid-1980s. Since then, my only exposure to their views has been the general boycott of mine. In short," he said, "I'm their Devil, but I have no idea who their God is anymore."
Correia, author of the excellent Monster Hunter International books, said sci-fi writers are increasingly unafraid to speak out.
"I don’t really know if there are more of us or if we have just become less shy about it," he said. "The publishing industry is primarily based out of Manhattan, which I’ve been led to believe is a completely paved island that doesn’t even have any shooting ranges. Of course us conservative types from fly-over country are going to seem odd to them. I’ve heard some real horror stories from other writers about the way they’ve been treated because of their personal politics."
Correia also noted that most of the bad reviews he's gotten have been from people who apparently objected to his politics.
"I’m primarily known as a contemporary fantasy author rather than a sci-fi author," he said. "I’m usually writing about our current world with some fantastical elements thrown in."
"I often get lumped into the genre 'urban fantasy'," he said. "Apparently, in urban fantasy it is really odd to have a main character who is a gun-loving, anti-authoritarian, stay-off-my-lawn libertarian accountant, who ends of working for a group of Alabama contractors that are constantly being harassed by petty regulations even while trying to kill monsters. I’ve received many negative reviews from people who don’t think it is realistic that I show the government as lumbering and bureaucratic at best, and cold-bloodedly ruthless at worst. This tells me that these reviewers have never worked with the government in real life. Ironically, every really scathing review I’ve gotten has felt the need to mention my personal politics."
Dr. Pournelle cautioned that any discussion of an ideological drift would have to account for writers like Stanislaw Lem. While basically "socialist," they thought that "individual liberty was a good thing," if not always "easily achieved." Norman Spinrad, for instance, "has always been for liberty, while embracing socialist economic ideas and often rather radical social beliefs."
Like Dr. Pournelle, Col. Kratman -- perhaps best known for his collaborations with John Ringo and his solo work such as A Desert Called Peace -- was not entirely certain there has been a drift to the right, but perhaps for different reasons.
"I'm not sure that's the way to describe it. If there has been such a drift," he said, "I sense -- and it's only a sense -- that it's been more of a drift away from socialist Utopian science fiction. The whys of the thing are probably rather complex," he warned, "and my understanding of them, such as it is, is no doubt colored and clouded by my being very America-centric."
"Still," he went on, "surely the collapse of communism in the former USSR, and the revelation of communist crimes so starkly that only loons can deny them -- and rejection of the reality while retaining the name in China -- have something to do with it." For Kratman, "previous generations of heavily left-wing sci-fi have probably motivated some conservative writers."
Motivated him? "No, not so much. I tend to take my motivation from leftist thought outside of science fiction, though I admit to urinating on the glib sci-fi staple of monocultural, unified, peaceful planets wherever possible. We probably ought not discount the growing and obvious failure of the social democratic state and liberalism-slash-progressivism, either."
As for the future of science fiction, Pournelle submitted that "science fiction will always be just a bit out of the mainstream of political thought."
The authors weren't quite in agreement as to whether this move to the right -- assuming it exists -- was a good thing.
"The thing is, I write what I know," said Correia. "I’ve been a small business owner, firearms instructor, and a military contractor. That’s the perspective that I have. Some people absolutely hate that I dare to have a worldview that differs from theirs. On the other hand, conservatives are used to being able to overlook the politics of the entertainer we’re watching/reading/listening to, because if we weren’t, we sure wouldn’t be able to watch very many movies."
"The thing is," he told me, "all of us red-staters read books too, and though we are used to being constantly beaten over the head about how everything we believe in is wrong by Hollywood and Manhattan, it is really refreshing for us to be able to be entertained while not being bludgeoned about the dangers of global warming, mean capitalists, or whatever the liberal cause of the day is. There is a huge market of people that just want to be entertained, without being personally slighted, and not to be preached to."
Kratman took a more cynical position. "What does it mean? Probably not much." Any shift is "probably neutral," he said. "Some more or less conservative-leaning readers may join or come back to sci-fi. But there will still be enough progressive and socialist pap to feed the -- ahem -- 'enlightened cravings of the masses.'"
He admitted that "a close debate may someday rage. It isn't raging yet because, for the most part, the leftist and rightist wings pretty much ignore each other," with the lefties "fairly well cocooned by the magazines, the awards system, the reviewers, and no small number of readers who read only them, and the right by -- I think -- smaller groups of fans who are probably more loyal readers" than their opposite numbers.
"In any case," Kratman concluded, "nobody converts anybody; we, as a society, are way past that. Right and left don't share basic assumptions, don't use the same words with the same meanings, and generally just talk past each other."
Correia was more optimistic. "It is kind of like how most of the mainstream news outlets can’t figure out why they’re getting lousy ratings and Fox is getting such good ratings," he said. "When the population is divided in half, and ten outlets are competing for one half, and one outlet is competing for the other half ... well, duh. If openly conservative writers sell well, then there will be more writers that aren’t afraid to be open about what they believe in."
Warning that entertainers shouldn't "go out of their way to offend any of their potential market," Correia insisted that more conservative science fiction authors "should write what we’re passionate about and not have to sulk in the shadows. Just because I believe that I shouldn’t have to give half of my income to pay for ACORN’s Honduran sex slaves doesn’t make me a bad person. I’m lucky in that my publishing house doesn’t care what their authors' politics are. We’ve got actual socialists all the way to people just to the right of Genghis Khan, as long as they write entertaining books."
In the end, all four men seemed to see science fiction as a place where ideas like individual freedom could be freely examined and explored.
Me, I just got to talk to four of my favorite authors.
You could say I'm over the moon.