Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy for Libertarians
Many works of science fiction and fantasy portray libertarian societies or otherwise bear relevance to libertarians; this list names some of the works that I consider the most essential. by Dan Clore
Monday, September 8, 2008
Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy for Libertarians
by Dan Clore
(Since this article first appeared, one Alasdair Wilkins has published a list of the "10 Greatest Libertarian Science Fiction Stories" that was clearly largely cribbed from my column without credit. No less than nine of Wilkins' ten had appeared in my column--the tenth is F. Paul Wilson's Wheels within Wheels, and his comments tend to echo my own as well. Wilkins has, however, done a fine job, with his list, and has clearly read the works in question, so it is not a matter of simple copying. I should have received some credit, but it makes a great list in its own right.)
Many works of science fiction and fantasy portray libertarian societies, detail state/societal control-mechanisms and how to fight them, or otherwise bear direct relevance to libertarianism;. This list is intended for libertarians, anarchists, autonomists, horizontalists, and other anti-authoritarian radicals who want to read great books, and aren't interested in æsthetic mediocrities that happen to push their particular ideology.
(To clarify: I here generally use "socialism" in the traditional sense of worker-ownership-and-control of the means of production. As this is the case in the first story listed below, I therefore use the term, even though the author would not have. On the other hand, I sometimes use "capitalism" in the later, non-traditional sense, just as anarcho-capitalists do. The precise sense of these words should be clear from the context.)
Poul Anderson, "The Last of the Deliverers" (1957; revised version 1976). After the USA and USSR have broken up, thanks to a source of cheap, decentralized solar energy, -- the highest level of political organization consists of libertarian-socialist townships. (Anderson would not have used the term socialist.) In these townships, the community owns the land and such tools of production as tractors, plows, and harvesters, but those who raise the crops own the produce. Others are also self-employed, preferring to produce quality, crafted goods as needed, and spending the rest of their time in other rewarding pursuits, such as making love and hunting deer, rather than worrying about making a profit. In a town in Ohio, the last capitalist debates the last communist, and everyone else is bored by their irrelevance. "No Truce with Kings" also bears mention.
J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1967-69). In a series of "condensed novels" and other experimental forms, this book expertly vivisects the psychology of a mind saturated with mass-media images of Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam War atrocities, car crashes, and nuclear bombs. The author's annotated edition, published by RE/Search, is to be preferred. While the specific celebrities and wars may change, with the advent of the Internet, the Society of the Spectacle continues at an ever-accelerating pace.
Marie-Louise Berneri, Journey Through Utopia (published posthumously in 1950). This study provides an historical survey of utopian fiction, often giving large extracts. Written from an anarchist perspective, the book is often highly critical of authoritarian utopias.
Alfred Bester, Tiger! Tiger! (1956; aka The Stars My Destination). A classic novel of rebellion and emerging ethical consciousness, told in a gripping avant-garde style.
William S. Burroughs' novels (if they can be called that) offer hilarious satirical disections of the control system in every form -- political, narcotic, sexual, linguistic -- and (sometimes) methods to fight it. Readers should begin with Junky, which offers a realistic depiction of the milieu in which Burroughs' writing arose, along with a glossary of the slang employed throughout his work. Then proceed to his masterpiece, Naked Lunch (1955-59), and follow through with the Nova trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and, best of all, Nova Express), the Cities of the Red Night trilogy (Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands), and his many other works.
Anatole France, The Revolt of the Angels (1914). In this satirical fantasy novel written with Cabellian wit, the rebel angels are portrayed in a manner that parodies the anarchists of the time. In the end, they triumph and depose God, putting Satan in his place. Satan then becomes more and more like the tyrannical God he was rebelling against, until he wakes up in a cold sweat -- it was all a nightmare.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). The "Loonies" (the inhabitants of the moon) have a governmentless, free-market society. This book popularized the phrase "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (TANSTAAFL) -- which is very popular with those who pay for their lunches with the products of other people's labor. Heinlein's novel provided a key inspiration for the founders of anarcho-capitalism. One of them, David Friedman, describes the book this way: "A stateless free market society has grown up around a lunar prison colony run by the world government. A conspiracy led by an elderly libertarian professor and a computer that has developed consciousness -- and prudently not told its owners -- organizes a successful evolution against the Authority. The book is popular with anarcho-capitalists for its sketch of how a society with private property and without government might function, but the ending is pessimistic; once independent, the loonies proceed to create a government."
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) attempts to portray an anarchist-communist society in full, with both its good and bad features readily apparent. On Anarres, moon of the planet Urras, there is a society founded on the philosophy of Odonianism, a synthesis of Taoism and anarcho-syndicalism. This novel is currently very popular amongst anarchist-socialists, but many pro-capitalists consider Anarres an unambiguous dystopia. "The Day before the Revolution" (1974) concerns Odo, the founder of Odonianism, the mix of anarcho-syndicalism and Taoism portrayed in The Dispossessed. Odo is, furthermore (according to LeGuin), one of "The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas" (1973) and refuse to benefit from a system in which some gain at the unwilling expense of others. In her introduction to the story in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975) LeGuin says, "Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories."
P.M., bolo'bolo (1985). This is a full-length attempt to design a libertarian-socialist society with enough respect for the diversity of humanity's desires that a community of cyberpunks who live on-line might be placed next to a community made up of bands of primitivist hunter-gatherers. The book is frequently whimsical but it is well thought-out; it sometimes verges into semi-fictional form.
William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1890-92). A sleeper awakes in a far future libertarian-socialist society. It is worth noting that Morris was writing against the primary (statist) current in utopian fiction, and in particular against Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. In a nice twist on the utopian literary tradition, the sleeper awakes once again to find it was all a dream. This is the best-known anarchistic utopia. While Morris called himself a Marxist, he admitted that his ideal society was practically the same as that of the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. In a satirical play, The Tables Turned; or, Nupkins Awakened: A Socialist Interlude (1887), the sleeper who awakes in a libertarian-socialist society in Part II is the corrupt judge who presided over the farcical trial of socialists and anarchists in Part I. There, he has to face the Council of the Commune (the general assembly of the local population, or folk-mote), who refuse to waste chains by shackling him, or to take care of him in a prison (they have none, anyway), but instead teach him to do useful work farming so that he might become a self-employed individual like everyone else.
J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter series. Not just essential for cultural literacy: this series is of high literary quality, and features an increasingly libertarian message as the story progresses.
Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, eds., Semiotext(e) SF (1985). Perhaps the greatest anthology of original SF ever published, the editors obtained first-rate contributions from a large number of the best SF writers working at the time, especially the cyberpunks. Writers were intentionally encouraged to ignore or violate the typical taboos, making the volume as groundbreaking as Dangerous Visions. As the editors were unable to obtain any works of "radical utopian vision" from their contributors, they reprinted "Visit Port Watson!" from a magazine called Libertarian Horizons: A Journal for the Free Traveler (this is probably a fanciful account; the real author is probably Peter Lamborn Wilson). This is a very entertaining fictional description of the (real) Pacific island Sonsorol, combining ideas from libertarian-socialism, libertarian-capitalism, and the marginals milieu.
Eric Frank Russell authored two works essential to libertarians. In "Late Night Final" (1948), the crew of an invading spaceship learns to communicate with anarcho-communist natives, resulting in the members defecting one by one until no one but the captain is left on board. The Great Explosion (1962) is a fix-up novel incorporating "And Then There Were None" (1951). Four hundred years after humanity has colonized space, a method of fast space travel is invented, and earth sends forth ships to claim the colonies under the pretence of providing for common defense against alien invasion. Two of the four planets visited in the novel provide examples of anarchistic societies. First, Hygeia, was originally colonized by a group of Doukhobers called the Sons of Freedom. They have been overrun by a group of nudist health cultists. Second, the planet of the gands, who take their name from Gandhi as exponent of non-violent resistance. The gands have an economic system based on individuals issueing "obs", or obligations. They are very fond of the expression "myob!" (mind your own business). According to James J. Martin's Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827-1908, the society of the gands is very similar to that advocated by American anarcho-individualists such as Josiah Warren.
Jonathan Swift. Gulliver's Travels (1726). This immortal satire subjects every form of folly to a thorough drubbing, as Gulliver travels from one absurd society to another, finally finding the Houyhnhnms. Because they are ruled by reason (unlike humans and Yahoos) the Houyhnhnms have no government, and Gulliver has difficulty even conveying the idea to them.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again (1930-36) and The Lord of the Rings (1936-49). Tolkien's work is relevant to libertarians for two reasons. First, it portrays what Kropotkin referred to as the "folk-mote form of self-government", and the equivalent form "moot" can be seen in the terms "Shiremoot" and "Entmoot" for these general meetings for consensus-based decision-making. (Many of William Morris's fantasy novels had previously described such societies.) Second, while the trilogy is not an allegory, the ring provides an example of Power Over Others -- the kind of power that practically no one is worthy enough to wield ("least of all those who seek the opportunity", as Tolkien put it in a letter, only an Aragorn or a Viggo Mortensen might qualify), the kind of power that almost inevitably corrupts anyone that holds it, and that is a deadly temptation even to figures like Gandalf and Galadriel.
Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969). On the planet Halma, where a society of artisans is rewarded for their labor with welfare vouchers that provide a bare living, and mechanical reproduction is forbidden, a fey youth identifies with Emphyrio, a legendary figure of rebellion. He discovers that the art works made on Halma are then mass produced and sold on other planets. Jack Vance is one of the best science-fiction writers, and this is an overlooked masterpiece.
H.G. Wells, Men Like Gods (1923). Wells was a socialist who believed that a properly-developed form of state-socialism (not Bolshevism!) would eventually develop into a stateless, libertarian-socialism like that advocated by anarchists. In the course of his career, he proposed many plans for such intermediate societies; most notably in A Modern Utopia (1905). A number of Wells' science-fiction novels present utopian societies; in The World Set Free (1914; also published as The Last War: A World Set Free), for example, a world state eventually meets only once a year, when everyone congratulates themselves on how well things are going. The Dream: A Novel (1924), contrasts life in Wells' own time with life two thousand years in the future. Wells' masterpiece in this area, however, is Men Like Gods, in which individuals from our universe inadvertently visit a parallel universe in which society is some three thousand years in advance of earth. Government is unnecessary here, as children are raised to act as autonomous individuals who do not invade the autonomy of others. As one character notes: "Our education is our government." Due to eugenics and other scientific advances, individuals are normally in such a state of health that they resemble statues of Greek gods (hence the title; these utopians do not typically wear clothing). Institutions such as marriage, private property, and commerce have long been abandoned. The utopians have free sex lives. When needed, experts make decisions scientifically, but there is no coercion involved if individuals dissent. In another novel, Star-Begotten: A Biological Fantasia (1937), a character hypothesizes that Martians ("Some of you may have read a book called The War of the Worlds -- I forget who wrote it -- Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, one of those fellows") are bombarding the earth with cosmic rays in order to create beneficial mutations. It is further hypothesized that these newly Martianized humans will bring about a libertarian-socialist society through assassination and sabotage. However, "It would be anarchism, I suppose; it would mean 'back to chaos,' if it were not true that all sane minds released from individual motives and individual obsessions move in the same direction towards practically the same conclusion."
Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1969-71). This cult classic explores conspiracy theories and other weirdness, includes many anarchist characters and groups; several of the appendices present important theoretical discussions of anarchism. Wilson's later works, such as the Schrodinger's Cat trilogy (1979), whose alternative universes include a USA in which the Libertarian Immortalist Party takes power; The Illuminati Papers (1980), which includes some important theoretical work along with engaging fiction; Masks of the Illuminati (1981); and the novels in the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, and his many non-fiction works, are all also well worth reading. Robert Anton Wilson probably ranks as the quintessential libertarian science fiction writer.
Yevgeny Zamiatin, We (1929). Along with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, We belongs to a trinity of the three greatest dystopian novels (by coincidence, all three by authors with libertarian-socialist sympathies), and it preceded the others -- and perhaps exceeds them in quality. Zamiatin wrote from first-hand knowledge of the Soviet Union. It is no wonder that he suffered persecution at Stalin's hand.
Additional note: This list seems long enough as it is, but many other authors could or should have been included. These include: Iain M. Banks, Barrington J. Bayley, Anthony Burgess, Cyrano de Bergerac, Harlan Ellison, Harry Harrison, James P. Hogan, Cecilia Holland, Stanislaw Lem, Brad Linaweaver, Ken MacLeod, Michael Moorcock, Marge Piercy, Thomas Pynchon, Mack Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson, Norman Spinrad, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge, A.E. Van Vogt, and Kurt Vonnegut; also, the initial-middle-name-last-name trio of J. Neil Schulman, L. Neil Smith, and F. Paul Wilson, though I think they might lean too far in the conservative/capitalist direction for my taste. In some cases I did not feel that the works in question merited inclusion; in other cases, I simply haven't gotten the works read yet and may add them in the future.
And finally, the list of possibilities intentionally excludes Ayn Rand's egregious enormity Atlas Shrugged. Sorry.
In any case, the list is subject to editing and enlargement at any time.
Kathryn Cramer has blogged this column, with some perceptive comments and a discussion thread, here. She notes: "I had this dream last night that Clore's reading list came with a slider bar labelled Paranoia, and which ranged from 0% to 100% and that Clore's list gave different authors depending on the readers paranoia settings. (Robert Anton Wilson, for example, dropping out as you turned it down.)" I only wish that I could provide such a slider bar; as it is, paranoia is set at 33.3% for all readers, hence the omission of many odd titles.
Jess Walker of Reason Magazine has blogged the column here, and there is another discussion thread there.
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Posted By: David Rickard
Date: 2008-09-10 11:57:24
Excuse me? You list "LOTR"--a book that celebrates an hereditary monarch claiming his divinely-inspired/justified power--as a libertarian work? Tolkien was notoriously anti-modern and pro-establishment.
You can read "libertarian" overtones into pretty much any work you want. LOTR is a fine example of this. You can read it as a struggle to overcome and destroy "power", and you can just as easily read it as a defense of monarchism and a romanticization of feudalism. And neither interpretation is really more right than the other.
I will say I agree Harry Potter has a strong anti-authoritarian tone to it. But that's not the same thing as being libertarian, which HP isn't. A lot of books are anti-authoritarian but not libertarian.
How about William Gibson's cyberpunk novels? Neuromancer, Count Zero, etc. All of those feature underground subcultures that live with little to no influence from an organized government and the unrestricted use of commerce of data on the itnernet.
Posted By: Liberty Warrior
Date: 2009-06-18 08:58:05
Good list for the most part, but I have to take issue with the "Libertarian Socialist" label. It seems to me both those terms contradict themselves. I don't get alot of the political mixes and labels people put on themselves like "Monarchist Libertarian" etc. Do people really ever read the meaning of both words? To me a libertarian is against oppressive state power and hands off policy in all areas of life. Socialism is government ownership of all means of production, now how can those two terms go hand in hand? Your either a libertarian or a socialist. I understand there is left leaning libertarians and I for one don't consider myself conservative, but I hear this Libertarian Socialist stuff so much it drives me up the wall. Your either or and I am sorry there is no way you can be for a hereditary monarchy and still be libertarian. Still a good list that is making me look into some books I've never heard of. Good job.
Posted By: Neil in Chicago
Date: 2009-07-27 07:56:47
You get extra points for both We and "And then there were none".
I would like to add Jack London's Iron Heel, about a fascist coup in the United States after the socialists win the election. It's didactic Edwardian prose, not literature, but its detailed foreshadowing of the Spanish Revolution 25 years later is eerie, and as a Chicagoan, I appreciated his putting a climactic scene here (patterned after the Paris Commune, only 40 years before Iron Heel was written). Jack London archive version Project Gutenberg version
And Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Day Before the Revolution" is a genius of atmosphere.
The list claims to be one that is "essential science fiction and fantasy for libertarians".
Then the writer intentionally excludes what is probably the single most influential fiction in terms of converting non-libertarians into libertarians, without reasoning but by calling it an "egregious enormity". You think "Atlas Shrugged" does not belong on the essential list for....what exactly? Because you didn't like it personally? Because you think it has too many pages?
If you use such non-arguments, then you shouldn't pretend to present an "essential" list of SF/fantasy for libertarians. What you have instead, is a biased list of personal favorites. Not a list of "essentials".
Your impression springs from a lack of historical concerns. The "libertarianism" itself is a term coined by the socialist movement back from the 19th century. The fact that today "libertarian" is (falsely) perceived as a description of laissez-faire free-marketers is irrelevant and historically misleading.
Socialism does not equal "government ownership of all means of production". First of all socialism does not necessarily require institutions like state or government.
"Socialist Libertarianism" is thus political synonym to "Anarchism" and it's only a question of historical or local taste which term to use. The particular point Â of being Socialist Libertarian is that except forÂ the CapitalÂ andÂ the ChurchÂ (which are two perceived evils shared by broad-stream Socialism including its radical Marxist interpretation) one equally criticizes and stands againstÂ the Stateas a central concept of oppression.
So much for the combination of two terms that, however classical and historically coherent, you might view as paradoxical. I hope it's bit clearer now.