In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Cathryn Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.
Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”, not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.
I think I can go further than Hartwell or Cramer or Benford in defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field. To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls “radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category “fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype “apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already been sorted into the “like an apple” category.
Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”) whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”, “avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits are important and tend to be conserved across the entire radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while some are only weakly bound (color).
In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition, but traits that are common to the core prototypes nevertheless tend to be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as “fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable interior with a sweet flavor.
SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic story, eutopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound” — or, almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of the core (hard-SF) prototypes”.
The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics continues to be a fact of life in the field. It it is telling that the only form of politically-inspired award presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF fans.
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
June 8, 2016
June 4, 2016
In some respects, it took me thirty years to understand what I was seeing. I’m one of Heinlein’s children, one of the libertarians that science fiction made. Because that’s so, it was difficult for me to separate my own world-view from the assumptions of the field. In grokking the politics of SF, I was in the position of a fish trying to understand water.
Eventually, however, a sufficiently intelligent fish could start to get it about hydrodynamics — especially when the water’s behavior is disturbed by storms and becomes visibly turbulent. I got to look back through the midlist at the Futurian ripples. I lived through the New Wave storm and the pre-Startide-Rising doldrums. By the time cyberpunk came around, I was beginning to get some conscious perspective.
Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF. William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief ideologue of anti-Cambellianism in the late 1980s, called it “the Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard target.
Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality, pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism) had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge’s 1978 hard-SF classic True Names, and even further back in The Space Merchants. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes, buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated in dozens of computer games.
Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in 1992’s Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix and Walter John Williams’s Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk took for granted a background in which late capitalism had decayed into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass grin.
By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however (figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated on New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia Butler. While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian tradition — Golden age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1998 work Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
May 15, 2016
Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging — all these SFnal tropes are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures.
SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.
At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different place than the present.
SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that the future not only can be different but can be different in many, many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.
All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism, applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the terminology of radial categories.
Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies. Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. And it is is here that we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.
The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysekoism). In the narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy of the future.
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
March 31, 2016
SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this. Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for storylines in which (as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who Sold The Moon) scientific breakthrough and and free-enterprise economics blend into a seamless whole. These stances are not historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of freedom.
This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.
Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian tradition: ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the enemies of the future.
The partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are thus victims of a category error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or “conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest imperatives of the genre.
The SF genre and libertarianism will both survive this mistake quite handily. They were symbiotic before libertarianism defined itself as a distinct political stance and they have co-evolved ever since. If four failed revolutions against Campbellian SF have not already demonstrated the futility of attempting to divorce them, I’m certain the future will.
Eric S. Raymond, “Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance”, Armed and Dangerous, 2002-11-09.
March 6, 2016
Until about 1910, in both England and America, a liberal could be defined as someone who believed in limited government under the rule of law, and who opposed state regulation of interactions between consenting adults. Since then, the word has been applied to various kinds of statists – some of them rather totalitarian. One day, it may come back to us. But there really is no point in sharing a word with people like Nick Clegg and Hillary Clinton. For this reason, we grabbed the word libertarian back in the 1960s. It had been coined by, and was first attached to, leftist anarchists in the 19th century. However, they did little with it after about 1917, and it was almost bona vacantia when we took it up.
There is a further difference between us and the old liberals. Twentieth century statism was so frightening that many of us lost all faith in even a limited state of the 19th century kind. I don’t know what proportion of self-defined modern libertarian are anarchists. But it might easily be half.
Sean Gabb, quoted in “Wayne John Sturgeon talks to Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance”, Sean Gabb, 2013-08-26.
December 9, 2015
Published on 4 Dec 2015
Just in time for the holidays, The Star Wars Libertarian Special features Senate filibusters, border patrol stops, eminent domain, a guest appearance by Edward Snowden, and rarely seen footage from Chewbacca’s galaxy-trotting documentary series about free-market economics.
About 3 minutes.
Written by Austin Bragg, Meredith Bragg, and Andrew Heaton. Featuring Andrew Heaton and Austin Bragg. Produced by Austin Bragg and Meredith Bragg. Edited by Austin Bragg.
This parody is not affiliated with the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), though you should watch it if you haven’t already.
December 3, 2015
I came to a libertarian ideology quite early in life and have never abandoned it. I am opposed to the initiation of violence. I think governments are always and everywhere in danger of reverting to the status of gangs. I believe that taxation is essentially theft and should not happen without the kind of clear moral justification that would excuse a theft. I believe in virtually unrestricted liberty of speech and the press; I believe property is a sacred foundation of society.
None of which really helps me answer questions about nation-states. As I’ve gotten older and immersed myself more deeply in the study of history — while watching libertarian principles become steadily more respectable — I’ve begun to realize that the issues you can resolve by simple appeal to a libertarian ideology are the low-hanging fruit of the political universe. Libertarianism helps you see that things like dairy supply management or Internet content policing are shocking absurdities. But does it settle issues like abortion, or immigration, or tort reform or voting criteria?
Not on its own. It dictates that human lives should not be taken without due process, but it doesn’t tell you whether murderers ought to be hanged. It insists that persons should be allowed to organize for collective aims, but does not say that a legal system must have limited-liability corporations. It says private individuals should be allowed to use whatever money they want — but not what kind of money is really best.
Libertarians have an instinctive horror of larger states: what we call libertarianism sprouted in Cold War-era fears of a worldwide superstate, which we now call “paranoid” in retrospect only because we forget how popular the idea was. The world is, in general, better off with more states. Ideally there will always be refuges from authority, and more states mean more potential laboratories for libertarian success and functioning non-state institutions. (One thinks of the increasing number of European towns without traffic signals, all of whom had to fight the general prejudice in favour of laws and rules we have never tried to do without.)
But there is a level of state size below which libertarian principles cannot be practised. A state must have the means of collective self-defence, whatever principles it is founded upon, and total anarchy is not a stable equilibrium. This is the point at which the concept of the nation comes into the argument. But nations are all more or less fictions. The problem, in Scotland or Quebec or Catalonia or Tamil Nadu, is that a) they are fictions people believe in strongly and b) often they believe equally strongly in irreconcilable fictions.
Colby Cosh, “The Strange Fiction of Hadrian’s wall”, Maclean’s, 2014-09-27.
November 3, 2015
At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait discusses why Uber comes up in conversation with libertarians … constantly:
I and my libertarian friends all love Uber. By that I don’t just mean that we love using Uber, the service, although I am sure that just like many others, we do. I mean that we love talking about Uber, as a libertarian issue, as an issue that nicely illustrates what libertarianism is all about and the sorts of things that libertarians believe in. In particular, we believe in: technological innovation and the freedom to do it, for the benefit of all, except those in the immediate vicinity of it and overtaken by it, because they make a living from the technology that is being overtaken.
To me, the really interesting thing about Uber as an issue is how it makes a nonsense of the old Public Choice dilemma in pro-free market lobbying and opinion-mongering. I’m talking about the fact, which it does often tend to be, that when there is a lurch, proposed or actual, towards a free market, unleashed either by politics or by technology or by a mixture of the two, the people who suffer or who look like they will soon suffer are highly concentrated and easily organised and know exactly who they are. However, those who will benefit from the new dispensation are dispersed and hard to organise and tend not to know who they are. Consequently you get this imbalance in the political argument, in favour of the status quo, even if, in the longer run, many more people would benefit from the new dispensation than the old, and would like it very much, in the event that that ever discovered that they were benefiting from it.
Uber might have been invented to solve the above problem.
Thought: maybe there is a sense in which it was invented to solve this problem. Discuss.
October 28, 2015
October 13, 2015
The US Libertarian Party’s nomination race won’t make much of a splash in the media (for the usual reasons all minor parties encounter), but if Gary Johnson wins the nomination again he might be the most normal candidate in 2016:
Gary Johnson, not yet an official 2016 Libertarian Party candidate for president, spoke to the two-day LibertyFest 2015 at the Warsaw hall in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City this weekend. He defended freedom in all its forms, from the unregulated entrepreneurship of Uber and Lyft to marijuana, reduced taxes, and reduced warfare.
Yet even I — an anarcho-capitalist, as you may recall — am beginning to wonder if it’s necessary to emphasize philosophy for Johnson to shine in the strange setting of the 2016 race. I mean, if the Republicans end up offering someone as odd as Trump or Carson, and the Democrats offer a criminal such as Clinton or a socialist such as Sanders … couldn’t Johnson plausibly just run as the non-weird candidate for whom America has been waiting?
And believe me, I know how strange it sounds to be talking about the Libertarian as the normal one for a change. (Jimmy McMillan, the “Rent Is Too Damn High” guy, spoke on the same stage a couple hours before Johnson, and it’s not clear McMillan is even a full-fledged libertarian — maybe more of a Georgist? Or just an interesting, earnest character?)
Let us assume for the sake of argument that Johnson beats other would-be Libertarian Party nominees including Austin Petersen, who gave an energetic LibertyFest speech about mobilizing libertarian activists as if for war and hopes he’ll one day get the chance to institute a flat tax. Much as Libertarians usually worry about having a candidate who lacks the guts to push their philosophy in a full-throated way (witness their occasional wariness about Rand Paul), might this be a good year in which to skip ideology and use mere sanity as a wedge issue?
September 23, 2015
In the Washington Post, Ilya Somin draws attention to two new books of interest to libertarians:
Two exciting new books have just come out that are likely to be of great interest to readers interested in libertarianism, and political and legal theory. They are Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests, by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, and Justice at a Distance: Extending Freedom Globally, by Loren Lomasky and Fernando Teson. As the titles imply, both books have a libertarian orientation. But you don’t have to be a libertarian (or close to it) to agree with the authors’ positions on these issues, and even those interested readers who ultimately reject the authors’ conclusions can learn a lot from them.
In Markets Without Limits, Brennan and Jaworski argue that anything you should be allowed to do for free, you should also be allowed to do for money. They do not claim that markets should be completely unconstrained, merely that we should not ban any otherwise permissible transaction solely because money has been exchanged. Thus, for example, they agree that murder for hire should be illegal. But only because it should also be illegal to commit murder for free. Their thesis is also potentially compatible with a wide range of regulations of various markets to prevent fraud, deception, and the like. Nonetheless, their thesis is both radical and important. The world is filled with policies that ban selling of goods and services that can nonetheless be given away for free. Consider such cases as bans on organ markets, prostitution, and ticket-scalping. Perhaps the most notable aspects of the book are that the authors don’t shy away from hard cases (see, e.g., this summary of their discussion of the sale of adoption rights), and that they thoroughly address a wide range of possible objections from both left and right. The issue addressed by the book has enormous practical significance, in addition to its theoretical importance. To take just one example, the ban on organ markets condemns thousands of people to death every year, because it leads to a severe shortage of transplantable kidneys relative to the number of people who need them.
September 1, 2015
Allum Bokhari claims to see a rising tide of cultural libertarians in our future:
A new force is emerging in the culture wars. Authoritarians of all stripes, from religious reactionaries to left-wing “social justice warriors,” are coming under fire from a new wave of thinkers, commentators, and new media stars who reject virtually all of their political values.
From the banning of Charlie Hebdo magazine across British university campuses on the grounds that it promoted islamophobia, to the removal of the video game Grand Theft Auto V from major retailers in Australia on the grounds that it promoted sexism, threats to cultural freedom proliferate.
But a growing number of commentators, media personalities and academics reject the arguments that underpin these assaults on free expression, in particular the idea that people are either too emotionally fragile to deal with “offence” or too corruptible to be exposed to dangerous ideas.
In a recent co-authored feature for Breitbart, I coined a term to describe this new trend: cultural libertarianism. The concept was critically discussed by Daniel Pryor at the Centre for a Stateless Society, who drew attention to the increasing viciousness of cultural politics in the internet age.
There is a reason for the sound and fury. Like all insurgent movements, the emergence of cultural libertarianism is creating tensions, border skirmishes, and even the occasional war with lazy incumbent elites. Some of these rows can be breathtakingly vitriolic, as self-righteous anger from social justice types collides with mocking and occasionally caustic humour from cultural libertarians.
August 20, 2015
Well, that’s what the Washington Post says anyway. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie disagrees:
There’s no question that Rand Paul’s presidential campaign has hit a soft patch. He got the least amount of air time in the first GOP debate and his numbers have been slipping for a long time. I’ve been critical of some of his positions over the past few months but Weigel quotes me this way:
“It’s a mistake to conflate Rand Paul’s electoral success with that of the libertarian moment,” said Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com. (Disclosure: I worked for Reason from 2006 to 2008.) “Rand Paul’s high visibility is better understood as a consequence of the libertarian moment than its cause. There’s a reason why he’s been at his most electrifying and popular precisely when he is at his most libertarian: calling out the surveillance state, for instance, and leading the charge against reckless interventions in Syria and Libya.”
Libertarians such as Lawson Bader, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and David Boaz, vice president of The Cato Institute, note that on fronts such as gay marriage, pot legalization, gun rights, criminal justice reform, general distrust of government, and more, things are going in the libertarian direction.
More important, broad indicators that Americans prefer social tolerance and fiscal responsibility continue to grow:
According to a composite index of libertarian views on social and economic issues developed by pollsters at CNN, something clearly is afoot. The pollsters look at whether people believe that government is trying to do too many things individuals should be doing and whether or not people think government should enforce a particular set of morals. In 1992, the index of libertarian belief stood at 92 points. It’s now at 113 points. Virtually all surveys show trends of people thinking the government is doing too much, is incompetent or untrustworthy, or represents a larger threat to the future than big labor or big business.
As Matt Welch and I argued in The Declaration of Independents, politics is and always will be a “crippled, lagging indicator” of where the country is trendng.
It certainly doesn’t help that the American political scene has been rigged in so many different ways to be a duopoly of the two major parties … very few political issues are binary, yet that is the only way American voters are presented with a “choice” every election. Vote for the Red Faction of the Boot-on-your-neck party … or vote for the Blue Faction of the Boot-on-your-neck party. No matter who you choose, the government always gets in.
August 13, 2015
Libertarianism is not the claim that individuals are always rational, or that markets are always efficient, or that the distribution of income under laissez-faire capitalism is always “fair.” Rather, it is the claim that, despite the imperfections of private arrangements, government interventions usually make things worse. Thus, non-intervention is the better policy.
June 21, 2015
“Why libertarianism is closer to Stalinism than you think” … unless you actually know anything about libertarianism, of course
Alan Wolfe, I’m reliably informed, is a highly respected sociologist and political scientist at Boston College. If this kind of thing is typical of his output, I’m inclined to doubt my sources:
“Libertarianism has a complicated history, and it is by and large a sordid one,” charges Wolfe. It is “a secular substitute for religion, complete with its own conception of the city of God, a utopia of pure laissez-faire and the city of man, a place where envy and short-sightedness hinder creative geniuses from carrying out their visions.”
I’d call him the Hitler of Hyperbole, but that seems, I don’t know, a tad over the top. Sort of like equating a live-and-let-live philosophy such as libertarianism to Stalinism. Which I confess it totally is. Except for the gulags, the mass murders, the forced relocations, the belief in statism, a demonstrably insane economic policy — I’m probably forgetting one or two other points of similarity.
Predictably, Wolfe disinters the corpse of Ayn Rand and insists not only was the Atlas Shrugged author “an authoritarian at heart” but that she remains the beating heart of an intellectual, philosophical, and cultural movement that includes a fistful of Nobel Prize winners (Friedman, Buchanan, Smith, Hayek, Vargas Llosa, etc.); thinkers such as Robert Nozick and Camille Paglia; businessmen such as Whole Foods’ John Mackey, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Overstock’s Patrick Byrne; and creative types ranging from Rose Wilder Lane to the creators of South Park to Vince Vaughn. Sound the alarum, folks! Team America: World Police and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story are running on Comedy Central again!