Volume 29, Number 3, Spring 2011

Amy Sturgis on Liberty and Science Fiction

By Jeanne Hoffman

Jeanne Hoffman. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today I’m talking about the tradition of liberty in science fiction books, movies and TV shows with Amy Sturgis. Dr. Sturgis is an author, editor, scholar, educator, speaker and podcaster with specialties in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and Native American studies. I just want to say I’m really excited I get to talk about science fiction because I personally really enjoy it, and as we’ll talk later, a lot of people in our general community enjoy it, too. But why you do think libertarian themes are so prevalent in science fiction?

Amy Sturgis. Well, Ray Bradbury said that science fiction is the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself, and I think in a way he was very much correct. As a product of the enlightenment, of the scientific revolution, as contemporary literature of ideas, science fiction has a particular call to us, I think it’s unsurprising that people who take ideas seriously, who believe ideas have consequences, are drawn to science fiction, both as writers and as readers. And I think there are a couple of reasons in particular science fiction is attractive to libertarians. For one thing, libertarians tend not to be afraid of or threatened by change. As people who trust in Adam Smith’s invisible hand and Friedrich von Hayek’s spontaneous order, who believe in the power of innovation and entrepreneurship and uncoordinated action, we’re excited about the future.

There’s an openness to experimentation and imagination, and science fiction requires this and rewards this. Science fiction also provides a very fertile ground for thought experiments, whether that’s in issues of politics or economics, or asking all sorts of questions about the way institutions and people might change and evolve. In a way, it’s kind of a different form of modeling in the same way social sciences use modeling. I think libertarians are drawn to that because we’re interested in ideas about how things could be, how they could be improved, how they could be changed, how things might develop. But I think most importantly, science fiction extrapolates from the present day. Even if it’s set 500 million years in the future, even if it’s got furry aliens or laser guns, it’s usually talking about our world today and there’s a very strong strain in science fiction that says, if this continues, this is where we’re going to be. And, of course, there are great classical liberalism—libertarian works—Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is an example; if these things continue, this is what’s going to happen.

Science fiction gives libertarians the opportunity to critique current systems of state power, of regulation, of all sorts of thoughts, basically drawing some worst-case scenarios and drawing alternatives. I think that appeals to libertarians because we’re not living in a libertarian world, but here are some reasons why going for higher tariffs, or going for higher protectionism, or going for centralizing authority in this way or the other, won’t work or will lead us down a slippery slope we don’t want to slide down. Science fiction gives you an illustration of how this could play out. So I think that aspect of critique also draws libertarians to science fiction.

JH. So then, would you say many science fiction authors are libertarians or just that their works tend to lend themselves to libertarian themes?

AS. I think there are a number of libertarian authors in science fiction today and there certainly have been in the past. Many authors who aren’t self-identifying as libertarians are still writing works that are of immense interest and importance to libertarians. For example, Cory Doctorow’s recent works, Little Brother (2008) and For the Win (2010), speak directly to things that libertarians are interested in: the surveillance state, the use of new media as a means of connecting individuals in all sorts of entrepreneurial ways. Doctorow doesn’t self-identify as a libertarian, but his works really speak to the issues that libertarians hold dear. This is the same as the past as well, Kurt Vonnegut didn’t self-identify as a libertarian, but his 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” is one of the great libertarian texts. I definitely think there are a number of libertarians writing science fiction today, but I also think there are a number of others who don’t identify that way who are still writing works that libertarians find useful.

JH. So when do you think libertarian themes first started showing up in sci-fi? Is it something that’s been a part of it since it started, or was there sort of a timeline for when it appeared?

AS. I definitely think it’s intrinsically a part of science fiction. If you look at what a lot of historians of the genre think is proto-science fiction, you can go all the way back to Plato’s Republic and these classic works were dealing with questions of how we organize a society and politics and such. The traditional way we look at where modern science fiction comes from leads us back to Mary Shelley with Frankenstein and later The Last Man. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Mary Shelley was the daughter of a classical liberal theorist, William Godwin, and a great libertarian feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her work is permeated with questions of the individual and the community and personal responsibility and things like that. So I think the birth of modern science fiction coming from parents who were both in the tradition of libertarian thought is significant. And really, every movement you can think of, in Western cases at least, and in many cases world culture since then, since 1818, have a parallel in some sort of science fiction, whether you’re talking about the women’s suffrage movement (there was a corollary—a related movement in dystopian women’s fiction that critiqued the fact that women weren’t given equal rights as voters), the Red Power Movement, and the movement for Native American sovereignty, in which you have a parallel with Native American science fiction. Every time you have a political movement that speaks to issues libertarians care about, you tend to find a corresponding presence there in science fiction. So I think from its birth onward, science fiction has really carried these things through.

JH. Now given what’s going on in the world today, what do you think the future is going to be with sci-fi? What themes are going to start coming out?

AS. Certainly questions of new media and how they create different kinds of communities and social institutions than we’ve seen before and really allow people to interact irrespective of nation-state borders. That’s definitely a key issue, and where membership and citizenship belong and that sort of thing. But there’s also a question about what states are trying to do today, everything from immigration to questions of environmental policy that are already showing a great resonance in science fiction. I’m particularly interested in young adult science fiction because I think it’s significantly a factor in bringing in the next generation and not only making them science fiction readers, which I think is important, but also making them think about these big issues. A lot of that today is very much dystopian and I’m going to be interested to see if that trend continues. But I think in the same way that it has been in the past, science fiction is going to be reflecting whatever is in the headlines.

JH. So who are the major authors, and what are the major works in shows and movies we should be checking out?

AS. Gosh, we could be here all day! I could just go on and on...but one of the classic texts I tend to point people to immediately is Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which was written in 1966. Heinlein is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction writers period, but this was his libertarian manifesto. He has a character in there that is essentially the libertarian philosopher who does a beautiful job articulating, in a really reader-friendly way, libertarian ideas. It’s basically a retelling of the American Revolution with the moon being cast as the colonies and the Earth being cast as Great Britain. But there are many other authors. Classic authors: Paul Anderson, Vernon Vinge. Contemporary authors: Neil Stephenson, I always recommend Lois McMaster Bujold’s work as really tremendous science fiction that explores different political systems essentially being different planets, different political setups so you can then compare and contrast how the anarchist’s planet does versus the constitutional republic versus the monarchy, etc. In terms of shows and such, I think Joss Whedon’s Firefly is tremendous, from 2002-2003. Classically speaking, The Prisoner, which was from the late 1960’s, and that’s the original Prisoner, not the remake that came out last year, is still one of the great libertarian texts as a far as I’m concerned. If I can recommend one thing that might have sort of fallen off the radar for people, in 2009 a short film came out called 2081, and this was an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” It was simply outstanding, and it’s available on DVD now and I would highly recommend 2081 to anyone. But I could also recommend some of the classic dystopias from We by Yevgeny Zemyatin to 1984 by Orwell, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Brave New World by Huxley, and Karin Boye’s Kallocain, which is another work that’s sort of flown under the radar, particularly for English speaker-readers, but is undergoing a resurgence lately. It’s a great dystopian work. And I would also recommend checking out the works that the annual Prometheus Awards honor. The Prometheus Awards honor both a work from every year and a book that they consider to be Hall of Fame, so that’s a work from any time in the science fiction tradition, and those are works that emphasize the issue of liberty. Last year, “No Truce With Kings,” by Paul Anderson from 1964 won the Hall of Fame award, and 2010’s The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin won the 2010 Promethweus Award. These awards honor science fiction works that emphasize liberty and are invested in libertarian questions, whether or not they were written as people who self-identify as libertarians.

JH. And a lot of the ones that you mentioned you said were dystopias and it seems like a lot of sci fi works with libertarian themes are dystopias. Why do you think that is?

AS. I think dystopias are ultimately hopeful works because they say, we’re warning you about this, but there’s no point in warning someone if there isn’t time to change. I think libertarians are drawn to it because, for one thing, if someone were to ask you, what’s the perfect libertarian state, tell me exactly what the society, with the economy, with the political system, would look like, libertarians would tend to say, well we don’t know, right? If you look at people like Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, the whole idea is people will innovate, and we can’t predict what things will be like. So there’s all sorts of interesting thought experiments to do in the future, but we can’t draw the ideal community because if we could, we could just direct it and it would be a centralized sort of thing. What we can do is say, what we’re doing now is really bad, and let’s just give an illustration how bad this could get, of what the implications are for individual liberty, for property, for human rights, all these sorts of things. I think dystopias are so attractive to libertarians because they provide the opportunity, in a very concrete way, of saying if these policies continue, if we continue with these sorts of priorities, if we think there’s no tension between law and order and individual liberty or what have you, then this is the kind of society we might end up with. We can continue to put out policy papers and essays that say we are moving in the wrong direction, yet it’s always more effective to give a worst-case scenario and say, if you touch this you will burn yourself, here is the bad thing that could happen. So I think libertarians are drawn to dystopias because it’s in a way much more concrete and gives a worst- case scenario of the slippery slope we are going down if we follow certain trends than to create a utopian world that would be the exact place a libertarian world would be like.

JH. Still on the subject of works you would recommend, what do you think is something more obscure that our listeners wouldn’t have heard about that does have prominent themes of liberty that they should check out?

AS. Oh, goodness. I may have already answered that with Karin Boye’s Kallocain, which has a new English translation. It’s a really interesting work but it doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as a lot of others. I would also suggest looking up...I also mentioned 2081 as a great film. There’s also an earlier film, Harrison Bergeron, that came out in the early 90’s that is a little harder to find but definitely worth the effort. That was a long, feature film-length adaptation of “Harrison Bergeron” that’s really excellent, so I would also recommend checking that out as well as 2081.

JH. That has an actor from Lord of the Rings in it, doesn’t it?

AS. Yes, yes. Sean Astin plays Harrison Bergeron. Exactly!

JH. Our last liberty podcast was on Lord of the Rings so it all comes full circle now!

AS. Absolutely! It all ties together.

JH. Now, I know you’re on staff with Starship Sofa, which recently became the first podcast to receive the prestigious Hugo Award, so congratulations!

AS. Thank you so much! We’re thrilled.

JH. Can you tell us about Starship Sofa?

AS. Absolutely. We’re really excited. That award has been around for over half a century and we’re one of the first for new media, definitely the first for podcasting, to be recognized and we’re thrilled. Starship Sofa has been around for several years. It’s UK-based, the editor-in-chief is Tony C. Smith. Basically, it’s organized like an audio magazine, which means it has different segments. It has long fiction, short fiction, poetry, and various fact articles and editorials. We’ve had the good fortune of interviewing and featuring the greats in science fiction literature on the podcast. One of the things I do is to provide dramatic narrations for a number of the stories on the podcast. For example, we are getting ready to run the short stories that are up for the British Science Fiction Award. We try to be involved in the award season and what works are being recognized, so it’s really cutting edge of what’s happening in science fiction now. But another thing I contribute is the fact articles. I do a monthly segment called “Looking Back in Genre History” and there are several different factual segments on there. Some of them deal with science, some deal with music and media which relate to science fiction, but mine’s historical. And so thanks to working with Starship Sofa, I’m now in my 4th year with the podcast. I’ve been able to talk about a number of subjects, many of which are political, such as early feminist dystopias in the 19th century, and Islamic feminist science fiction. I recently did an overview of Native American authors who have contributed to science fiction. I have gone back to the classical era and proto-science fiction from authors such as Plato, thinkers from that time. It’s a great experience for me to think and talk about the things I love most and try and put today’s cutting edge science fiction into its larger historical context. Actually a lot of the things we’ve talked about, the big ideas, and why science fiction tends to reflect the political questions of the day are things I have explored at Starship Sofa.

JH. So what are some resources for people who want to learn more about various works of liberty-leaning science fiction?

AS. The first place I would send people is the Libertarian Futurist Society, which is online at www.lfs.org. It’s sort of a clearinghouse, a place for people interested in libertarian ideas and in science fiction to talk and compare notes. They are also the ones who fund and promote the annual Prometheus Awards, which I mentioned earlier, that look at annual fiction coming out each year in science fiction, and also have a Hall of Fame that recognizes historical works of science fiction, both of which obviously deal with issues of liberty. I would also recommend a book called Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film and Video which features and underscores a number of science fiction films and television series that are interested in libertarian themes, that speak to questions of liberty and ranks and reviews them. So if you’re looking to update your Netflix queue, that is a good place to go. Miss Liberty’s Guide to Film and Video certainly has non-science fiction movies as well, but it’s very good on science fiction. And I’d also invite people to check out Starship Sofa and other podcasts. There are a number of excellent science fiction podcasts. Slice of SciFi is another one that has actually self-confessed libertarians on the panel. It runs a weekly show about science fiction news, film, television, and texts. I would encourage people to go also to the podcast world and find some of us there.

JH. Great. Thank you very much for joining us and talking about science fiction!

AS. It’s been a pleasure, thanks so much for having me!

JH. And for more information on Dr. Sturgis and her work, visit http://AmyHsturgis.com, and for more interviews with academics, visit http://Kosmosonline.org, "connecting the network of liberty-advancing academics".

This interview first appeared online at http://www.kosmosonline.org/group-post/podcast-amy-sturgis-liberty-and-science-fiction, part of the science fiction and liberty podcasts from Kosmos, a social network for academics under the aegis of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. It is reprinted here with permission of Kosmos.

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