Sunday, July 16, 2017

How Larry Niven Made Donald Trump President (Sort Of)

The American press periodically ascribes the election of Donald Trump to working-class rural whites, but post-election polling tells a different story. DJT’s core support came from “respectable,” middle-class white suburbanites. It seems hard to believe that this staid cohort supported such a vulgar, racist demagogue, but it really shouldn’t surprise us. The suburban populace has historically chosen to live in a racially-segregated, socially isolated environment, and to view with suspicion city-dwellers and activist governments.

What did surprise me was my discovery, in reading David Forbes’s long article “The Old Iron Dream” (2015), of how strongly the reactionary ideology of the suburbs infused one of the most ostensibly progressive, escapist genres of American media: science fiction. Forbes observes that sci-fi has nurtured authoritarian and racist tendencies since at least the late 1950s, and that publishers and booksellers gave prime placement to the more fascistic sci-fi authors well into the 1980s. To an extent not found in contemporary mainstream literature, the “Iron Dream” writers indulged in thinly-disguised racism, less thinly-disguised elitism, sexism, authoritarian leader-worship, and a narrow definition of liberty. John Campbell, the much-lauded editor of Astounding Science Fiction, prefigured the SF reactionaries' racism in his editorials. Robert Heinlein became the most well-known example of the type, with his seminal military/authoritarian sci-fi novel Starship Troopers (1959, movie review here), his libertarian parable The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and his racist fantasy Farnham’s Freehold (1964).* Jerry Pournelle gladly assumed Heinlein’s mantle in the ‘70s and ‘80s, inveighing against revolutionaries, urban “barbarians,” and welfare cheats in his novels. He later colonized book racks with his There Will Be War anthologies, each a melange of masculine mil-porn and Cold War propaganda. Orson Scott Card, probably the hottest new SF writer of the 1980s, purveyed an increasingly toxic brew of elitism, moral casuistry, and right-wing paranoia. Piers Anthony, who seemed to have an entire bookcase to himself in some bookstores, laced his fantasy and SF novels with sexism and misogyny, not to mention occasional pedophilia. Much of the popular sci-fi of the Reagan era thus reinforced the attitudes that helped Reagan's conservative and reactionary successors (George I, George II, DJT) win elections and push their political agendas.   

Forbes adds another name to his list, though only as a part-time “Iron Dreamer:” Larry Niven. Niven seems and odd fit for this category. His Known Space stories and novels, written in the ‘60s and ‘70s - the most famous of them the classic RINGWORLD (1970) - featured exotic alien worlds, bizarre aliens, and morally easy-going if over-populated human societies. He did co-write several novels with Jerry Pournelle, such as LUCIFER’S HAMMER (1977) and OATH OF FEALTY (1981), which featured darker and more reactionary story lines. Most readers ascribe these stories' right-wing politics to Pournelle alone. This, on reflection, seems another mistake.

Educated in Kansas, Niven spent most of his life in southern California, where a large inheritance (family oil money) helped him begin his writing career. He liked the libertinism of 1960s Los Angeles, but it did not make him a liberal. Niven considered himself a “right-libertarian,” one willing to support the Vietnam War (he co-signed a 1967 pro-war petition) and Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), and to advocate anti-immigrant policies. His Known Space novels and stories suggest that even early in his career, Niven leaned more to the conservative side of the libertarian spectrum. His future societies were libertarian utopias, populated by pleasure-seeking “flatlanders” (Terrans) and self-reliant, problem-solving miners and colonists. Not surprisingly, his heroes (like Beowulf Shaeffer and Gil Hamilton) tended to come from the latter elite group.** Niven did not obsess over welfare drones like his friend Jerry Pournelle, but he did base one alarming feature of his 22nd and 23rd-century societies, the Organ Banks, on a right-wing epigram beloved of Pournelle and Heinlein: democracy can only last until the poor realize they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. In Known Space, the “treasury” consisted of the bodies of criminals broken up for organ transplants, and the “poor,” the mass of unhealthy citizens willing to approve the death penalty for increasingly trivial crimes.

Niven later evoked the Organ Banks in his (2007) proposal that the Department of Homeland Security spread the rumor, in Spanish, that doctors were kidnapping emergency-room patients and stealing their organs. This would, he hoped, drive Hispanic immigrants away from public hospitals. Niven might perhaps say that he meant his “modest proposal” as a joke, but it is an unspoken rule in comedy that you avoid punching down. L.N. probably thought he was “punching upward,” because he sees poor non-Anglo immigrants as a threat, financial if not cultural.

Some of Larry Niven’s SF contemporaries went beyond mere elitism, anti-democratic skepticism, and anti-Latino racism to endorse authoritarian leader-worship. Pournelle admired monarchy and what he called “Iberio-Italian” fascism (i.e. Mussolini), and Orson Scott Card valorized ruthless warlords and religious leaders. Niven implicitly endorsed anti-democratic politics in LUCIFER’S HAMMER, in which the besieged heroes bring back slavery, and OATH OF FEALTY, whose heroes' massive gated community brings back feudalism. Even before these works, however, Niven included a troubling speculation about freedom in PROTECTOR (1973). In this later Known Space novel, an asteroid miner named Jack Brennan was transformed by an alien disease into a sexless monster - but a monster with enormous strength and superhuman intelligence. Asked by one of his former fellow humans to describe his new mental abilities, Brennan replied that he no longer had free will: he could immediately see the optimal course of action to take in any situation, and any other decision would have been a stupid one. This is a fairly narrow definition of intelligence, privileging problem-solving over creativity or kinesthetic acumen, but that's not altogether relevant in this context. The implication of Brennan’s revelation is that true freedom belongs to the young and stupid, and that those who want good, intelligent leadership cannot value freedom. It is a pretty short way from this to the conclusion that free societies are immature and stupid, and that the best leadership comes from supermen, warlords, or other autocrats.

So, let us not let Larry Niven off the hook. He had a lot more creativity and joie de vivre than his more didactic contemporaries, but he still shared their elitist, autocratic principles, and shared them with his impressionable readers. I was a big fan of Niven in my youth, having been introduced to his novels by my gaming buddies in the sixth grade, and read his fiction almost compulsively until I was eighteen. If I left my teen years feeling politically schizophrenic, this may have resulted from my dual interest in history, which introduced me to revolutionary idealism, and sci-fi, much of which told me that was dangerous hokum and that I should defer to my Republican political betters. Fortunately, my interest in history won out, and the emergence of a more progressive group of popular SF and fantasy writers - Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett, Nancy Kress - in the 1990s helped turn the genre back into one that offered a genuine escape from suburban reality.

That a small but dedicated group within the "alt-right" are now earnestly trying to restore Card, Pournelle, Heinlein, and their reactionary kindred to the center of the genre should alarm us. Youthful dreams shape adult attitudes, and the merchants of Iron Dreams apparently want adults who will support out-and-out fascism. Last year more than fifty percent of American voters my age and older voted for a fascist TV celebrity, and I will bet that at least some of my DJT-supporting contemporaries were old sci-fi fans. If we are to keep the millennials from climbing on the Trump-and-Brexit train, offering them alternatives*** to Heinlein, Niven, Vox Day, and their creepy future visions is essential.

(Photo of Larry Niven [2006] is by David Corby and licensed by him under Creative Commons. Space Nazi Armstrong photo via

* Featuring a future African civilization that eats white babies.

** Louis Wu, the sybaritic flatlander hero of Ringworld, was a partial exception, but he was also a xenophile and explorer.

*** Examples of SF authors pursuing more progressive visions include Ann Leckie (author of Ancillary Justice and its sequels), Ted Chiang, Adam Rakunas, and Becky Chambers.

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