For those of us concerned with anarchist storytelling, Michael Moorcock’s 1978 essay Starship Stormtroopers simply knows no equal. Here is a science fiction legend, an anarchist himself, explaining the politics of the 1960-70s science fiction scene and ruthlessly attacking the reactionary and conservative elements in genre fiction. While much of the essay discusses stories that seem less relevant today, other parts tear apart many science fiction legends whose presence lingers on in the world. Of particular interest to me is how masterfully and concisely Moorcock pieces apart the romanticism that draws us to conservative writing.
While this essay has been online more than a decade, it has long since languished in the more antiquated and unreadable corners of the anarchist internet. We reproduce it here in full, in a good faith effort to keep these words in the light, adding links for annotation and context whenever possible.
Originally published in 1978 in Anarchist Review #4, published by Cienfuegos Press. Later printed in 1984 in the Moorcock short story collection The Opium General and Other Stories.
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.
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.
Some years ago I remember reading an article by John Pilgrim in Anarchy in which he claimed Robert Heinlein as a revolutionary leftist writer. As a result of this article I could not for years bring myself to buy another issue. I’d been confused in the past by listening to hardline Communists offering views that were somewhat at odds with their anti-authoritarian claims, but I’d never expected to hear similar things from anarchists. My experience of science fiction fans at the conventions which are held annually in a number of countries (mainly the US and England) had taught me that those who attended were reactionary (claiming to be ‘apolitical’ but somehow always happy to vote Tory and believe Colin Jordan to ‘have a point’). I always assumed these were for one reason or another the exceptions among sf enthusiasts. Then the underground papers began to emerge and I found myself in sympathy with most of their attitudes — but once again I saw the old arguments aired: Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and the rest, bourgeois reactionaries to a man, Christian apologists, crypto-Stalinists, were being praised in IT, Frendz and Oz and everywhere else by people whose general political ideals I thought I shared. I started writing about what I thought was the implicit authoritarianism of these authors and as often as not found myself accused of being reactionary, elitist or at very best a spoilsport who couldn’t enjoy good sf for its own sake. But here I am again at Stuart Christie’s request, to present arguments which I have presented more than once before.
During the sixties, in common with many other periodicals, our New Worlds believed in revolution. Our emphasis was on fiction, the arts and sciences, because it was what we knew best. We attacked and were in turn attacked in the all-to-familiar rituals. Smiths refused to continue distributing the magazine unless we ‘toned down’ our contents. We refused. We were, they said, obscene, blasphemous, nihilistic etc., etc. The Daily Express attacked us. A Tory asked a question about us in the House of Commons — why was public money (a small Arts Council grant) being spent on such filth. I recount all this not merely to establish what we were prepared to do to maintain our policies (we were eventually wiped out by Smiths and Menzies) but to point out that we were the only sf magazine to pursue what you might call a determinedly radical approach — and sf buffs were the first to attack us with genuine vehemence. Our main serial running at the height of our troubles was called Bug Jack Barron written by Norman Spinrad, who had taken an active part in radical politics in the US and used his story to display the abuse of democracy and the media in America. He later went on to write a satirical sword-and-sorcery epic, The Iron Dream, intended to display the fascist elements inherent to the form. The author of this novel existed, as it were, in an alternate history to our own. His name was Adolf Hitler. The book was meant to point up the number of sf authors who were, in a sense, ‘unsuccessful Hitlers’.
Many Americans came to use NW as a vehicle because they couldn’t get their stories published in the US. Thomas M. Disch, John Sladek, Harvey Jacobs, Harlan Ellison and others published a good deal of their best and at the time most controversial work in NW — and Heinlein fans actually attacked us for ‘destroying’ science fiction. Escapism this form might be, but it posed as a ‘literature of ideas’ and that, we contended, it wasn’t — unless The Green Berets was a profoundly philosophical movie.
SF writers in favor of the Vietnam War:
- Poul Anderson
- Anne McCaffrey
- Daniel F. Galouye
- Keith Laumer
Against the war:
- Michael Moorcock
- John Brunner
- Brian Aldiss
- Robert Silverberg
- Harry Harrison
- Harlan Ellison
- James Blish
- Frank Herbert
- Larry Niven
Another example: in 1967 Judith Merril, a founder member of The Science Fiction Writers of America, an ex-Trotskyist turned libertarian, proposed that this Organisation would buy advertising space in the sf magazines condemning the war in Vietnam. I was around when this was proposed. A good number of members agreed with alacrity — including English members like myself, John Brunner, Brian Aldiss, Robert Silverberg and Harry Harrison were keen, as were Harlan Ellison, James Blish and, to be fair, Frank Herbert and Larry Niven. But quite as many were outraged by the idea, saying that the SFWA ‘shouldn’t interfere in politics.’ Okay, said Merril, then let’s say ‘The following members of the SFWA condemn American involvement in the Vietnam War etc.’ Finally the sf magazines contained two ads — one against the war and one in support of American involvement. Those in support included Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Daniel F. Galouye, Keith Laumer and as many other popular sf writers as were against the war. 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…
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.
The bandit hero — the underdog rebel — so frequently becomes the political tyrant; and we are perpetually astonished! Such figures appeal to our infantile selves — what is harmful about them in real life is that they are usually immature, without self-discipline, frequently surviving on their ‘charm’. Fiction lets them stay, like Zorro or Robin Hood, perpetually charming. In reality they become petulant, childish, relying on a mixture of threats and self-pitying pleading, like any baby. These are too often the revolutionary figures on whom we pin our hopes, to whom we sometimes commit our lives and whom we sometimes try to be; because we fail to distinguish fact from fiction. In reality it is too often the small, fanatical men with the faces and stance of neurotic clerks who come to power while the charismatic heroes, if they are lucky, die gloriously, leaving us to discover that while we have been following them, imitating them, a new Tsar has manipulated himself into the position of power and Terror has returned with a vengeance while we have been using all our energies living a romantic lie. Heroes betray us. By having them, in real life, we betray ourselves. The heroes of Heinlein and Ayn Rand are forever competent, forever right: they are oracles and protectors, magic parents (so long as we obey their rules). They are prepared to accept the responsibilities we would rather not bear. They are ‘leaders’. 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.
In a writer like Lovecraft a terror of sex often combines (or is confused for) a terror of the masses, the ‘ugly’ crowd. But this is so common to so much ‘horror’ fiction that it’s hardly worth discussing. Lovecraft is morbid. His work equates to that negative romanticism found in much Nazi art. He was a confused anti-Semite and misanthrope, a promoter of anti-rationalist ideas about racial ‘instinct’ which have much in common with Mein Kampf. A dedicated supporter of ‘Aryanism’, a hater of women, he wound up marrying a Jewess (which might or might not have been a sign of hope — we haven’t her view of the matter) Lovecraft appeals to us primarily when we are ourselves feeling morbid. Apart from his offensively awful writing and a resultant inability to describe his horrors (leaving us to do the work — the secret of his success — we’re all better writers than he is!) he is rarely as frightening, by implication, as most of the other highly popular writers whose concerns are not with ‘meeping Things’ but with idealised versions of society. It’s not such a big step, for instance from Farnham’s Freehold to Hitler’s Lebensraum.
I must admit I’m not following a properly argued critical line. I’m arguing on the assumption that my readers are at least familiar with some of the books and authors I mention. I attack these books because they are the favourite reading of so many radicals. I attack the books not for their superficial fascination with quasi-medieval social systems (a la Frank Herbert). Fiction about kings and queens is not necessarily royalist fiction any more than fiction about anarchists is likely to be libertarian fiction. As a writer I have produced a good many fantastic romances in which kings and queens, lords and ladies, figure largely — yet I am an avowed anti-monarchist. Catch-22 never seemed to me to be in favour of militarism. And just because many of Heinlein’s characters are soldiers or ex-soldiers I don’t automatically assume he must therefore be in favour of war. It depends what use you make of such characters in a story and what, in the final analysis, you are saying.
Jules Verne in The Masterless Man put some pretty decent sentiments in the mouth of Kaw-djer the anarchist and his best characters, like Captain Nemo, are embittered ‘rebels’ who have retreated from society. Even the aerial anarchists of The Angel of the Revolution by George Griffiths have something to be said for them, for all their inherent authoritarianism, but they are essentially romantic ‘outlaws’ and the views they express are not sophisticated even by the standards of the 1890s.
H.G. Wells was no more the ‘father’ of science fiction than Jules Verne. He inherited a tradition going back some thirty or forty years in the form he himself used and several centuries in the form of the Utopian romance. What was unusual about Wells, however, is that he was one of the first radicals of his time to take the trappings of the scientific romance and combine them with powerful and telling images to make Bunyanesque allegories like The Time Machine or The Invisible Man. Wells didn’t have his characters talking socialism. He showed the results of capitalism, authoritarianism, superstition and other evils and because he was a far better writer than most of those who have ever written sf before or since he made his points with considerable clarity. Morris had been long-winded and backward-looking. Wells took the techniques of Kipling and preached his own brand of socialism. Until Wells — the most talented, original and intelligent writer of his kind — almost all sf had devoted itself to attacks on ‘decadence’ and military unpreparedness, urging our leaders to take a stronger moral line and our armies to re-equip and get better officers. By and large this was the tone of much of the sf which followed Wells, from Kipling’s effective but reactionary “With the Night Mail” and “As Easy as ABC” (paternalistic aerial controllers whose rays pacify ‘the mob’) to stories by John Buchan, Michael Arlen, William Le Quex, E. Phillips Oppenheim and hundreds of others who predominantly were following Kipling in warning us of the dangers of socialism, mixed marriages, free love, anarchist plots, Zionist conspiracies, the yellow peril and so on and so on. Even Jack London wasn’t what one might call an all-round libertarian any more than Wells was when he toyed with his ideas of an elite corps of ‘samurai’ who were actually not a great deal different to how Soviet Communist Party members saw themselves, or were described in official fiction and propaganda. The quasi-religious nature of sf (which I describe in a collection of pre-WWI sf Before Armageddon) was producing on the whole quasi-religious substitutes (a variety of authoritarian socialist and fascist theories). A few attacked the theories of the emerging dictators (Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night, 1937, seemed to think Christianity could conquer Hitler but is otherwise a pretty incisive projection of Nazism several hundred years in the future). 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. The reality of these hero-leaders was not, of course, entirely what had been visualised — Nuremberg rallies and Strength Through Joy, perhaps — but Kristallnacht and gas ovens seemed to go a bit too far.
At least the American pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories were not, by and large, offering us high-profile ‘leadership’: just the good old-fashioned mixture of implicit racialism/militarism/nationalism/paternalism carried a few hundred years into the future or a few million light years into space (E. E. Smith remains to this day one of the most popular writers of that era). John W. Campbell, who in the late thirties took over Astounding Science Fiction Stories and created what many believe to be a major revolution in the development of sf, was the chief creator of the school known to buffs as ‘Golden Age’ sf and written by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt — wild-eyed paternalists to a man, fierce anti-socialists, whose work reflected the deep-seated conservatism of the majority of their readers, who saw a Bolshevik menace in every union meeting. They believed, in common with authoritarians everywhere, that radicals wanted to take over old-fashioned political power, turn the world into a uniform mass of ‘workers’ with themselves (the radicals) as commissars. They offered us such visions, when they attempted any overt discussion of politics at all. They were about as left-wing as The National Enquirer or The Saturday Evening Post (where their stories occasionally were to appear). They were xenophobic, smug and confident that the capitalist system would flourish throughout the universe, though they were, of course, against dictators and the worst sort of exploiters (no longer Jews but often still ‘aliens’). Rugged individualism was the most sophisticated political concept they could manage — in the pulp tradition, the Code of the West became the Code of the Space Frontier, and a spaceship captain had to do what a spaceship captain had to do…
The war helped. It provided character types and a good deal of authoritative-sounding technological terms which could be applied to scientific hardware and social problems alike and sounded reassuringly ‘expert’. Those chaps had the tone of Vietnam twenty years earlier. 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.
Starship Troopers (serialised in Astounding as was most of Heinlein’s fiction until the early sixties) was probably Heinlein’s last ‘straight’ sf serial for Campbell before he began his ‘serious’ books such as Farnham’s Freehold and Stranger in a Strange Land — taking the simplified characters of genre fiction and producing some of the most ludicrously unlikely people ever to appear in print. In Starship Troopers we find a slightly rebellious cadet gradually learning that wars are inevitable, that the army is always right, that his duty is to obey the rules and protect the human race against the alien menace. It is pure debased Ford out of Kipling and it set the pattern for Heinlein’s more ambitious paternalistic, xenophobic (but equally sentimental) stories which became for me steadily more hilarious until I realised with some surprise that people were taking them as seriously as they had taken, say, Atlas Shrugged a generation before — in hundreds of thousands! That middle-America could regard such stuff as ‘radical’ was easy enough to understand. I kept finding that supporters of the Angry Brigade were enthusiastic about Heinlein, that people with whom I thought I shared libertarian principles were getting off on every paternalistic, bourgeois writer who had ever given me the creeps! I still can’t fully understand it. Certainly I can’t doubt the sincerity of their idealism. But how does it equate with their celebration of writers like Tolkein and Heinlein? The clue could be in the very vagueness of the prose, which allows for liberal interpretation; it could be that the ciphers they use instead of characters are capable of suggesting a wholly different meaning to certain readers. To me, their naive and emblematic reading of society is fundamentally misanthropic and therefore anti-libertarian. We are faced, once again, with quasi-religion, presented to us as radicalism. At best it is the philosophy of the Western applied to the complex social problems of the twentieth century — it is Reaganism, it is John Wayne in Big John Maclean and The Green Berets, it is George Wallace and Joe McCarthy — at its most refined it is William F. Buckley Jr., who, already a long way more sophisticated than Heinlein, is still pretty simple-minded.
Rugged individualism also goes hand in hand with a strong faith in paternalism — albeit a tolerant and somewhat distant paternalism — and many otherwise sharp-witted libertarians seem to see nothing in the morality of a John Wayne Western to conflict with their views. Heinlein’s paternalism is at heart the same as Wayne’s. In the final analysis it is a kind of easy-going militarism favoured by the veteran professional soldier — the chain of command is complex — many adult responsibilities can be left to that chain as long as broad, but firmly enforced, rules from ‘high up’ are adhered to. Heinlein is [an] Eisenhower man and his views seem to me to be more pernicious than ordinary infantile back-to-the-land Christian communism, with its mysticism and its hatred of technology. To be an anarchist, surely, is to reject authority but to accept self-discipline and community responsibility. To be a rugged individualist a la Heinlein and others is to be forever a child who must obey, charm and cajole to be tolerated by some benign, omniscient father: Rooster Coburn shuffling his feet in front of a judge he respects for his office (but not necessarily himself) in True Grit.
To be an anarchist, surely, is to reject authority but to accept self-discipline and community responsibility. To be a rugged individualist a la Heinlein and others is to be forever a child who must obey, charm and cajole to be tolerated by some benign, omniscient father. An anarchist is not a wild child, but a mature, realistic adult imposing laws upon the self and modifying them according to an experience of life, an interpretation of the world.
An anarchist is not a wild child, but a mature, realistic adult imposing laws upon the self and modifying them according to an experience of life, an interpretation of the world. A ‘rebel’, certainly, he or she does not assume ‘rebellious charm’ in order to placate authority (which is what the rebel heroes of all these genre stories do). There always comes the depressing point where Robin Hood doffs a respectful cap to King Richard, having clobbered the rival king. This sort of implicit paternalism is seen in high relief in the currently popular Star Wars series which also presents a somewhat disturbing anti-rationalism in its quasi-religious ‘Force’ which unites the Jedi Knights (are we back to Wellsian ‘samurai’ again?) and upon whose power they can draw, like some holy brotherhood, some band of Knights Templar. Star Wars is a pure example of the genre (in that it is a compendium of other people’s ideas) in its implicit structure — quasi-children, fighting for a paternalistic authority, win through in the end and stand bashfully before the princess while medals are placed around their necks.
Star Wars carries the paternalistic messages of almost all generic adventure fiction (may the Force never arrive on your doorstep at three o’clock in the morning) and has all the right characters. It raises ‘instinct’ above reason (a fundamental to Nazi doctrine) and promotes a kind of sentimental romanticism attractive to the young and idealistic while protective of existing institutions. It is the essence of a genre that it continues to promote certain implicit ideas even if the author is unconscious of them. In this case the audience also seems frequently unconscious of them.
It was Alfred Bester who first attracted me to science fiction. I’d read some fantasy and Edgar Rice Burroughs before that, but I thought that if The Stars My Destination (also called Tiger! Tiger!) was sf, then this was the fiction for me. It took me some years to realise that Bester was one of the few exceptions. At the ending of The Stars My Destination the self-educated, working class, ‘scum of the spaceways’, Gully Foyle, comes into possession of the substance known as PyrE, capable of detonating at a thought and probably destroying the solar system at very least. The plot has revolved around the attempts of various powerful people to get hold of the stuff. Foyle has it. Moral arguments or forceful persuasions are brought against him to make him give PyrE up to a ‘responsible’ agency. In the end he scatters the stuff to ‘the mob’ of the solar system. Here you are, he says, it’s yours. Its your destiny. Do with it how you see fit.
This is one of the very, very few ‘libertarian’ sf novels I have ever read. If I hadn’t read it, I very much doubt I should have read any more sf. It’s a wonderful adventure story. It has a hero developing from a completely stupefied, illiterate hand on a spaceship to a brilliant and mature individual taking his revenge first on those who have harmed him and then gradually developing what you might call a ‘political conscience.’ I know of no other sf book which so thoroughly combines romance with an idealism almost wholly acceptable to me. It is probably significant that it enjoys a relatively small success compared to, say, Stranger in a Strange Land.
Leaving aside the very worthy but to my mind journalistic The Dispossessed by U.K. Le Guin, it is quite hard for me to find many other examples of sf books which, as it were, ‘promote’ libertarian ideas. M. John Harrison is an anarchist. His books are full of anarchists — some of them very bizarre like the anarchist aesthetes of The Centauri Device. Typical of the New Worlds school he could be described as an existential anarchist. There is Brian Aldiss with his Barefoot in the Head vision of an LSD ‘bombed’ Europe almost totally liberated and developing bizarre new customs. There are J. G. Ballard’s ‘terminal ironies’ such as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash and so on, which have brought criticisms of ‘nihilism’ against him. There is Joanna Russ’s marvellous The Female Man. So little sf has fundamental humanitarian values, let alone libertarian ideals, one is hard put to find other examples. My own taste, I suppose, is sometimes at odds with my political views. I admire Barrington J. Bayley, whose stories are often extremely abstract. One of his most enjoyable books recently published is The Soul of the Robot which discusses the nature of individual identity. Charles L. Harness is another favourite of mine. The Rose, in particular, lacks the simplifications of most sf, and The Paradox Men with its sense of the nature of Time, its thief hero, its ironic references to America Imperial, is highly entertaining. I also have a soft spot for C. M. Kornbluth who to my mind had a rather stronger political conscience than he allowed himself, so that his stories are sometimes confused as he tried to mesh middle-American ideas with his own radicalism. One of my favourites (though structurally it is a bit weak) is The Syndic (about a society where a rather benign Mafia is paramount). Fritz Leiber is probably the best of the older American sf writers for his prose-style, his wit and his humanity, as well as his abiding contempt for authoritarianism. His Gather, Darkness is one of the best sf books to relate political power to religious power (this was also serialised in Astounding during the forties. John Brunner, author of the CND marching song ‘H-Bomb’s Thunder‘, often writes from a distinctly socialist point of view. Harlan Ellison, who for some time had associations with a New York street gang and who has identified himself for many years with radicalism in the US, writes many short stories whose heroes have no truck with authority of any sort, though the conventions of the genre sometimes get in the way of the essential messages of his stories. This has to be true of most genre fiction. Ellison’s best work is written outside the sf genre. Philip K. Dick, John Sladek, Thomas M. Disch, Joanna Russ…
To my mind one of the best examples of imaginative fiction to ear in England since the war is Maurice Richardson‘s The Exploits of Engelbrecht, written in the forties and recently republished by John Conquest (available from him at Compendium Books). These ‘Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportman’s Club’ are superbly laconic pieces, concentrating more original invention into fewer words than almost any writer I can think of. They outshine, for me, almost anything else remotely like them, including the stories of Borges and other much admired imaginative writers. Richardson goes swiftly from one idea to the next, using a beautifully disciplined prose. He has the advantage of being a great ironist and I find that more palatable. Such a style can become one of the most convincing weapons in the literary arsenal and it often astonishes me how cleverly Kipling influenced generations of writers by disguising his authoritarian notions in that superb matter-of-fact, faintly ironic prose. Many writers, not necessarily of Kipling’s views, have used it since. We find a debased version of it in the right-wing thrillers and sf novels of our own day. It is probably this ‘tone’ (employed to suggest the writer’s basic decency and commonsense) which enables many people to accept ideas which, couched differently, would revolt them. Yet what Heinlein or Tolkein lack is any trace of real self-mockery. They are nature’s urbane Tories. They’ll put an arm round your shoulder and tell you their ideas are quite radical too, really; that they used to be fire-eaters in their youth; that there are different ways of achieving social change; that you must be realistic and pragmatic. 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 middleage, 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.