Anarchists on the genre of sf

[NB Although this web page is new in 2018, most of the content hasn't been updated for many years. It's mainly a compilation of old research notes.]

 

For fuller citations, see the Bibliography.

 


Max Nettlau

La littérature spéciale aux Utopies ou sociétés imaginaires est plus considérable qu'on ne pourrait le penser d'après les ouvrages et les études publiés jusqu'ici sur ce sujet: sans doute un long travail de minutieuses rechereches nous ferait découvrir de multiples traces d'idées libertaires dans dombre d'écrivains utopistes déconsidéré plutôt comme autoritaires étatistes ou théocrates. Il faut bien avouer cependant que, pour la plupart, ceux des écrivains qui, des les derniers siècles, on bâti en rêve des cité plus ou moins merveilleuses, sont resté biens loin des idées anarchistes, qu'il ne leur était pas possible de comprendre encore moins de vouloir propager.

 

(Bibliographie de l'anarchie, 1897)

Peter Kropotkin

"In fact, notwithstanding Tolstoy's distrust of science, I must say that I always feel in reading his works the likeness which exists between his mind and the mind of that most conscientious man of science, Darwin, who always tried to find out the weak points of his own hypotheses and to state them himself. True science and true art are not hostile to each other, they can work in harmony."

 

(Russian Literature, Ideals and Realities, 1916)

 

[Kropotkin seems not to have known any Russian sf. Apart from Chernyshevsky, he only refers to Shcherbatov, and doesn't mention the latter's only sf work.]

Herbert Read

"To pass to more sophisticated types of Fantasy, written as deliberate artifices, it is easy to quote many quasi-fantastical compositions, but very few have the purity of traditional fairy tales. A 'Utopia', or description of a fantastical country and its civilization, might well exhibit all the characteristics of pure Fantasy, but rarely does so because the writer has some ulterior satirical or moral aim, which aim directs his composition, fixes it in space and time, gives it a basis of subjective intolerance. Such objections apply to Utopia itself, to News from Nowhere and The Dream of John Ball, to Erewhon and A Crystal Age. They do not apply to some of the fantasies of H.G. Wells, who comes as near as any modern writer to a sense of pure Fantasy. He errs, as in The Time Machine, by imparting to his fantasies a pseudo-scientific logicality; it is as though having conceived one arbitrary fantasy he were compelled by the habits of his scientific training to work out the consequences of this fantasy. Real fantasy is bolder than this; it dispenses with all logic and habit, and relies on the force of wonder alone."

 

(English Prose Style, 1928)

 

 

"It must be admitted that left to itself to imagine an ideal state of existence, the human mind betrays a distressing tendency towards authoritarianism. This is not a result, as Dr. Popper might argue, of irresponsibility, but precisely of that rationalizing faculty which he so much admires. There exists in the human mind, particularly in the mind of the scientist, an itch for tidiness, for symmetry, and formality. This leads to good results in purely mental categories, and to it we owe the achievements of logic and scientific method. But life itself is not tidy and cannot be made tidy so long as it is life. It is always spontaneous in its manifestations, unpredictable in its blind drive to the light. Most Utopians forget or ignore this fact, and as a result their ideal commonwealth can never be, or ought never to become, real."

 

"For totalitarianism is nothing but the imposition of a rational framework on the organic freedom of life, and is more characteristic of the scientific mind than of the poetic mind. It is only in those writers who retain a sense of organic freedom—Rabelais, Diderot, and Morris—that the Utopia is in any sense libertarian. It is no strange coincidence that these are the only inspiring utopias."

 

"If the realization of a rational blue-print leads to the death of society (a process which I have described symbolically in The Green Child), this does not mean that the utopian mentality itself is necessarily baneful—on the contrary, utopianism, as Anatole France said, is the principle of all progress. It is the poeticization of all practicalities, the idealization of everyday activities. It is not a rational process: it is an imaginative process. The Utopia fades the moment we attempt to actualize it. But it is necessary; it is even a biological necessity, an antidote to societal lethargy. Society exists to transcend itself, and the progressive force of its evolution is the poetic imagination, the teleological instinct that moves with the organic principle of all evolution, to take possession of new forms of life, new fields of consciousness."

 

 

(Anarchy and Order, 1954)

Alex Comfort

"I do not decry fantasy as a genre, only fantasy which is made an excuse for irresponsibility or non-responsibility, a failure to grasp the real world, and an easy escape into an arbitrary one. That is not the fantasy of writers like Kafka, who went through purgatory in writing it, or fantasy like Read's Green Child, or Alice in Wonderland, or, on another level, Candide, nor the fantasy of a talented psychopath like de Sade."

 

(The Novel and Our Time, 1948)

 

 

. . . "the most frightening risk is that the fantastic-realistic genre of the future will go on being written in actual events, not ink, by deranged people who are enacting fantasy, instead of discharging it in literature.

 

"The characteristically modern genre of fantastic is, I suppose, science fiction. This was originally no more than an imaginative forecast of the possibilities of science, but it has been captured by its literary ancestors in the same manner as the non-scientific romance, the erotic comic. At one extreme, it is not very different from that, with jargon playing the part of magic in pre-industrial fantasy, space travel as an exotic setting, and the mad scientist, who is a compound of Prometheus and Faust, playing the part of the wizard: one, that is, etymologically, contemptible for his addition to knowledge, as a drunkard is one contemptible for his addiction to drink, or a sluggard to sleep. At the other, it has become the vehicle through which more than one scientist who is not mad has tried to draw attention to the social activities of non-scientists who are.

 

"There is no room here to pursue the ancestry of Utopias and of science fantasy turned satire [ . . . ], but it stands in the same relation to comic-book science as Candide does to comic-book romance: both owe their sting to the convergence between fantasy and history. Just as Mirbeau and Kafka now sound unpleasantly factual, it is hard to tell whether some of the fantasies of science fiction are paranoiac or merely satirical" . . . .

 

(Darwin and the Naked Lady, 1961)

George Woodcock

. . . "the resurgence of revivalist religion and the vast popularity of the otherworldly fantasies of science fiction writers are phenomena which suggest that men like Wells and Koestler are the intellectual spokesmen of a widespread feeling that, for man as he is, progress has come to an end and only the realm of miracles can offer a solution to his dilemmas."

 

('Five Who Fear the Future,' 1956)

 

"The future worlds of so much Science Fiction are repellent largely because they are so total in their invention, so entirely unlike anything we know, that it is impossible for us to relate effectively to them or their inhabitants."

 

('The Equilibrations of Freedom,' 1976)

 

Paul and Percival Goodman

"And if we believe the writers of science fiction, as how can we not" . . . .

(Communitas, 1947, 1960)

Paul Goodman

. . . "the sensational technologism of Bellamy, Sant'Elia and science fiction: that is to say, visions of vaster and more marvelous achievements in the technical and managerial style that we are already used to. But this is soon admixed with the antiutopianism of Brave New World—the suspicion that more such advancements will settle us for good."

 

('Utopian thinking,' 1961)

Arthur Uloth

"It is tempting to say that science fiction resembles Christianity, in that it has died with its founder. Certainly, judging by this book, there are few who come up to Wells' standard. Few indeed who are likely to be remembered and read as long as he.

 

"Mr. Amis includes "1984" and "The Lord of the Flies" as science fiction, but it is difficult to see on what grounds, unless it is a desire to raise the general standard. A science fiction story must surely revolve around some discovery or invention, some unprecedented change in nature, or at least take place on, or bear a direct relation to some other planet, or some world other than ours. Otherwise almost any book should be counted as science fiction. [ . . . ] One cannot escape a feeling that these stores are included as "makeweights". Most of the rest is pretty light-weight stuff."

 

"The trouble is that science fiction is a form of specialised addict-literature. It is on the same level as the Western and the detective story. Wells could give it that universal appeal, which raises a story above the level of addict-literature, but his successors do not, in the main, succeed in doing this.

 

"Of course there is a good deal of variety. Some of the stories are trashy, and the author gives us, as he is bound to do if he is to survey the whole field, a fair number of examples of tripe, sadism and would-be Poe. In these latter cases the story may well cease to be "Science fantasy" and become "fantasy", simple if not pure.

 

"Not all the stories are horrific. Some are gentle, some humorous, some (not mentioned in this book) are anarchistic. But the appeal of most of these tales is to a curiously limited outlook, which is masculine, mechanically-minded, rationalist, democratic and puritan. It is an outlook which does not attract me much, but it is preferable to religious mysticism, aristocracy and tyranny, although some tales which tend this way also exist.

 

"Sex scarcely raises its ugly head, except if you count some of the sadistic "fantasy" stories. Women are treated superficially. (Though there are some women writers in this field they appear to be in a minority). Future societies are not all horrible tyrannies, but when the science fiction writer has to construct a utopia all that emerges is a society "with more decency and less television". Generally we are not told how this desirable society has been brought about.

 

Although the usual moral of these stories is that the individual must fight against all efforts to crush him, and that freedom is the desirable goal, there is very little real radical thought. We are not told how to improve conditions, only how to resist tyranny. This is inadequate. It is curious that people who are able to imagine the most fantastic worlds, creatures, machines, spaceships, flaws in the structure of the cosmos itself, are unable to conceive of social and sexual changes. No doubt this is partly due to the fact that the writers hope to have their work published without too much trouble! After all, science fiction, like many other things, is a commercial enterprise, not an effort to reform the world. But it may also be that the kind of person who is attracted to this kind of literature is the kind who is not disposed to think about the problems of sexual relations, and so forth. I wonder."

 

 

('A Science Fiction Survey,' 1961)

John Pilgrim

"Mention science fiction to an anarchist and much the same reaction is provoked as mentioning anarchism to a layman. The former thinks of Bug Eyed Monsters and half naked nubile young women in the clutch of flying dinosaurs, and the latter gets a Chestertonian vision of a cloaked and bearded figure carrying a spherical object marked "BOMB". In neither case does the public image bear much relationship to the reality. As I first made contact with anarchist ideas through science fiction short stories the following article is an attempt to explain why I feel that this medium is of great value to the dissemination of anarchist ideas, and why I think anarchist writers should attempt to write such fiction."

 

"Science fiction magazines are the only popular media that as a matter of course present ideas that the upholder of the present status quo would regard as subversive. It is no accident that many of the best writers in the field hold ideas that the parliamentarian would regard as dangerously progressive. They hold these views because the very nature of science fiction compels the writer, and therefore the reader, to examine what is wrong with society, where humanity went off the rails, what the present political systems are leading to. Continually the themes occur of the fight for individual freedom and dignity against totalitarianism, against welfare states gone off the rails, and of the dangerous tendency of the majority of humankind to accept that what they are told is good for them."

 

"An article printed in FREEDOM is preaching to the converted. If anarchist writers are anxious to spread anarchist ideas among the general public, if they are anxious to DO something other than sink pints of bitter in the "Marquis of Granby" and deplore public apathy, then may I suggest they turn to the science fiction field. When people have assimilated anarchist ideas in their light reading they will be much more likely to listen to the next anarchist speaker they hear, or read the next anarchist writer they come across. The idea of a really free society will no longer seem so alien."

 

. . . "the fact that many writers and readers of science fiction have ideas on these subjects that would not be despised by anarchists seems to show that the thinking is to some purpose. I believe that the world is a slightly better place, the prospect before us just as slightly more hopeful, and a free society a fraction nearer, because of it.

 

('The Anarchism in Science Fiction,' 1960)

 

 

"I would therefore only claim that the conclusions I reached, and the overwhelmingly libertarian tendency that I observed in science fiction is valid up to that date [1960]."

 

. . . "I realised there was already in existence a literary form, which was, if not anarchist, at least consistently liberal and anti-authoritarian in its social views, and that was science fiction."

 

"As late as 1960 most of the anarchists I met felt that science fiction was beneath their notice.  The general picture of the medium seemed to be that of a half naked nubile young woman seized in the claws of a flying dinosaur while the Errol Flynn of the spaceways attempted simultaneously to rescue her and fight off a colony of giant intelligent ants. Now this picture of science fiction bears as much relation to the bulk of the medium as does the Chestertonian vision of the anarchist as a cloaked and bearded figure carrying spherical "bomb" does to the editor of this periodical. In neither case does the public image bear much relationship to the reality."

 

"As far as the general public is concerned science fiction magazines are the only form of popular fiction that, as a matter of course, present ideas that the supporter of the status quo would regard as subversive."

 

"One of the basic premises of science fiction, not so common in mainstream fiction, is that established laws, customs, morals and taboos, are not constants, not all time truths, but part of a planetary culture that may be good or bad, but whose value must be assessed in terms of that culture's ability to give the individuals who comprise it the freedom to develop themselves to the full extent of their capabilities."

 

"It is no accident that the science fiction magazines continually portray ideas that the average establishment man would regard as dangerously progressive. It is because the very nature of science fiction compels the writer, and therefore the reader, to examine what is wrong with society, where humanity went off the rails, and what the present political systems are leading to."

 

"A major virtue of science fiction is that even where no progressive or anarchist ideas are advanced, moral questions are discussed in a manner quite unheard of in the equivalent outlets for mainstream fiction."

 

"Thus although science fiction stories on the simplest lever of appreciation can be regarded as fairy tales they differ from conventional fairy tales, (to paraphrase the doyen of the genre Edmund Crispin) in carrying a massive load of religious, political, ethical and sociological implication and so provide intellectual stimulation of a kind not met with in contemporary fiction. The critical examination of humanity and its institutions that plays so large a part in the medium could be considered destructive in that dilemmas and problems are pointed out far more often than solutions are suggested, but writers are not social engineers, and it is enough that, as the stupidities and crudities of human governments and their pernicious effect on individuality are presented, science fiction gives to many people their first glimpse of what is wrong with our society. This is what really matters: in an age when all the pressure is on non-thinking conformity, science fiction enlivens and provokes the intellect, and strikes a blow for free creative thought at the cultural necrophiliacs who have dominated our culture and stultified our universities since the Renaissance started the educational vogue for feeding on the decaying corpses and doubtful virtues of dead cultures."

 

('Science Fiction and Anarchism,' 1963)

Geoffrey Ostergaard

"As a political doctrine, classical anarchism, in all its varieties, appears as the utopianism par excellence; and utopianism as we all know is now a dirty word. Perhaps with good reason, seeing what some revolutionaries have built of their dreams, the fashion has now changed from positive to negative utopias, from William Morris's News from Nowhere to George Orwell's 1984. Except as private visions, the old-style utopias seem to have no place in the modern world. The times are too desperate."

 

(Latter-Day Anarchism, 1964)

M. Eagle

"It is rather strange that, in these days of high political activity on the left, the most coherent social criticisms and visions of Utopia are found not in the left wing press or the writings of Marcuse, but in 'science' fiction."

 

"Anarchist ideas do not appear very often, though many works deal with rebellion against dictatorship."

 

"All in all, science fiction is a very profitable field for study."

 

('The World of Tomorrow', 1969)

Lyman Tower Sargent

"One of the most interesting things that an anarchist today with some literary talent could undertake would be the development of a utopian novel that presents an anarchist society. In the past such novels have gained widespread popularity and they are, or can be, major instruments of propaganda. The anarchist must still deal with the inability of people to see the possibility of a society without government, and the presentation of such a society in a well-written novel could be an effective way of presenting answers to the beliefs of the opponents of anarchism. If such a novel is not forthcoming, it is then important to look at the anarchist utopias of the past even though in some ways they are outmoded and seem a bit naive."

 

 

('An Anarchist Utopia,' 1969)

D.P.

"Anarchism has not been very significant in mainstream Science Fiction."

 

"The more inwardly looking "new Wave" is, perhaps, closer to our point of view. It depends on your attitude to vague bohemianism, self-realisation is not necessarily the same as self-indulgence."

('The Dispossessed', 1976)

Vittorio Curtoni

"Genere letterario "popolare" nel senso migliore del termine, ha in se i germi di una ribellione profonda, di un modo diverso di considerare le cose del mondo: è, insomma, rivoluzionaria nella sua sostanza.

 

"Il che, purtroppo, non significa che abbia prodotto solo e sempre cose rivoluzionarie, anzi. Sul suo sviluppo ha influito pesantemente il fatto di essere cresciuta in America, condizionata e viziata da una coscienza politica ben diversa da quella europea; e poi molti degli autori che l'hanno usata per raccontare le loro storie ci vedevano soprattutto il trionfo della scienza, lo sviluppo di un futuro armonico che avrebbe portato l'uomo a essere signore del cosmo. Sino al termine della seconda guerra mondiale, grosso modo, predomina in science-fiction lo spirito del capitalismo battagliero che abbandona la Terra e si espande nell'universo. Nasce una specie d'imperialismo cosmico (naturalmente benevolo, disinteressato e civilizzatore, almeno stando a quanto ci dicono) che esporta i sommi valori umani sugli altri pianeti; e gli alieni, gli extraterrestri, o sono mostri guerrafondai da distruggere subito, o sono creature inferiori che di buon grado accettano la nostra superiorità, o ancora si trasformano in alleati per ulteriori lotte. Prevale la logica del contrabbando di idee reazionarie: ma gli americani sono ancora lì con le loro frontiere vergini, si credono i padroni del mondo, non vedono alternative."

 

"Gli anni Sessanta sono dominati da quella che si definisce "new wave", cioè "nuova ondata", corrente che ebbe il suo centro focale in Inghilterra e che si preoccupò principalmente di un rinnovamento stilistico della fantascienza. Esperimenti verbali di ogni tipo videro la luce sulle colonne di "New Worlds", mentre l'interesse per la dinamica sociale passò, in genere, in secondo piano. Ma, per quanto sia vero che buona parte dei lavori di quel periodo si possono vedere come pure e semplici esibizioni di narcisismo letterario, sarebbe sbagliato trarre un bilancio negativo a livello ideologico. Anzi: a me pare che proprio la "new wave" abbia rappresentato l'instaurazione di un modello anarchico in science-fiction, solo che in genere l'anarchia si fermava alla forma e non raggiungeva i contenuti."

 

 

"Il fatto centrale, credo, è che oggi sono in attività molti giovani scrittori, gente che ha vissuto l'esperienza delle rivolte studentesche (non sempre in prima persona, ma insomma di certe cose ha preso coscienza), che non crede più nelle meraviglie riservate alla nostra razza dal futuro, che vuole mettere in luce i lati negativi della società in cui siamo immersi. Il dato basilare è che la science fiction si è trasformata in uno strumento di critica, di lotta, di impegno sul terreno dei fatti concreti: certo, si continua a viaggiare nel futuro, si vola sempre su altri pianeti, ma in questo futuro e in questi pianeti si legge ormai, nettissimo, il riflesso del presente, del qui-e-ora, della libertà che non può essere soffocata all'infinito.

 

"Io credo, ne sono certo, che proprio il '68 abbia rappresentato lo spartiacque per la fantascienza contemporanea. Gli scrittori che oggi lavorano nel campo hanno assorbito, in buona parte, i temi della cultura europea, compresa la necessità di radicalizzare le scelte politiche, di non viaggiare più all'insegna di un umanitarismo generico."

 

('Su Marte c'é un Compagno,' 1978)

Gabriele P.

L'anarchia è un'utopia "reale". Proprio in questo contrasto sta la sua vitalità. È pericolo voler cercare od identificare una letteratura o una cultura anarchica, fantascientifica o meno, perché sarebbe come dire che gli anarchici e l'anarchismo sono un elemento del sistema sociale, mentre non è vero, il sistema sociale che gli anarchici progettano e perseguono non esiste ancora. Diciamo che non c'è riflesso nella fantascienza dell'anarchia a meno che non sia un riflesso espresso da un singolo individuo come è del resto. La mia paura è che qualcuno creda che ci sia riflesso della fantascienza nell'anarchia.

('Gli alieni . . . anarchici', 1978)

Lessa, Takver and Alyx

"Science Fiction has a particular appeal for those who are committed to radical social change. The construction of a parallel world embodying the worst of our fears and the finest of our hopes, delights, terrifies, stimulates and inspires us. Fantasy worlds are powerful tools. As ideas crystallize in the details of future societies, a psychological acceptance of certain possibilities is created. Attention to the unfolding of the fantasy worlds can be a practical political exercise for the readers as well as for the writers.

 

"What it boils down to is that a vision for the future is an intrinsic part of our political position—how can we act to transform society without a conception of what we want to create?"

 

"Science fiction doesn't give us a complete picture. There are some areas that leave us quite unsettled. Several books describe a need for coercion in work distribution; none of the authors successfully outlines a method for dealing with extreme anti-social behaviour. The militarism in most of the books is disturbing.

 

"There isn't enough historical detail in science fiction to connect us from here to there. But, when all is read and done, it is our future we're working on. Imagination at the very least reminds us of our goals."

 

('Daily Life in Revolutionary Utopia: Feminism, Anarchism and Science Fiction', 1978)

 

Michael Moorcock

"Utopian fiction has been predominantly reactionary in one form or another (as well as being predominantly dull) since it began."

 

"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 misogynistic 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...

 

"What can this stuff have in common with radicals of any persuasion? The simple answer is, perhaps, Romance. The dividing line between rightist Romance (Nazi insignia and myth etc.) and leftist Romance (insurgent cavalry etc.) is not always easy to determine. A stirring image is a stirring image and can be ,employed to raise all sorts of atavistic or infantile emotions in us. Escapist or 'genre' fiction appeals to these emotions. It does us no harm to escape from time to time but it can be dangerous to confuse simplified fiction with reality and that, of course, is what propaganda does."

 

"Traditional sf is hero fiction on a huge scale, but it is only when it poses as a fiction of ideas that it becomes completely pernicious. At its most spectacular it gives us Charlie Manson and Scientology (invented by the sf writer Ron Hubbard and an authoritarian system to rival the Pope's). To enjoy it is one thing. To claim it as 'radical' is quite another. It is rather unimaginative; it is usually badly written; its characters are ciphers; its propaganda is simple-minded and conservative -- good old-fashioned opium which might be specifically designed for dealing with the potential revolutionary."

 

"By and large the world we got in the thirties was the world the sf writers of the day hoped we would have -- 'strong leaders' reshaping nations."

 

"So little sf has fundamental humanitarian values, let alone libertarian ideals, one is hard put to find other examples."

 

"Next time you pick up a Heinlein book think of the author as looking a bit like General Eisenhower or, if that image isn't immediate enough, some chap in early middle age, good-looking in a slightly soft way, with silver at the temples, a blue tie, a sober three-pieced suit, telling you with a quiet smile that Margaret Thatcher cares for individualism and opportunity above all things, as passionately in her way as you do in yours. And then you might have some idea of what you're actually about to read."

 

('Starship Stormtroopers,' 1978)

Robert Shea

"Naturally, anarchists would like to see more anarchist science fiction: everybody would like to see their favourite kind of fiction reflect their favorite political ideas. There are many kinds of anarchism; at least one novel could be written about each sort. Anarchist ideas raise a great many problems to which a variety of solutions can be offered, all of which could be examined in a speculative way in fiction. Nearly every anarchist I know is also a science fiction fan, and science fiction fans always want to write the stuff themselves, so there should be enough writers to care of all the available science fiction ideas."

 

. . . "anarchist science fiction can be a most effective device for bringing the vision of freedom to concrete life. Those fans, critics, editors and writers to whom the ideal of freedom is congenial can, by each working a little harder at his or her own thing, make more room in science fiction for anarchist ideas."

 

 

('Worlds without Government,' 1980)

Leona

"The problem with utopias is that they are plans. Most anarchists understand that plans for situations we haven't been in are too limited and/or short sighted to be helpful. But the good thing about plans is that committing to them in our imagination encourages us to flesh out what we really want, what we think is possible: this imagining can be a challenge for our daily lives. Science fiction gives us leeway to be as imaginative as possible, utopias encourage us to commit to how we really want to live."

 

('DIY utopia: hope not required,' 2015 [in the BASTARD chronicles])

 

 


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