Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1985

SF and Freedom

Worldcon Report II

By Michael Grossberg

What do Norman Spinrad, David Brin, James Hogan, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Jean Lorrah, Brad Linaweaver, Julian May, Victor Koman, J. Neil Schulman, and dozens of other writers have in common? They have all written fiction with libertarian themes, and almost all of them talked about why they’ve been attracted to such themes at panel discussions and private conversations during the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim this year.

In the year of Orwell’s 1984, it’s no surprise that political issues were the focus of many of the Worldcon’s scheduled panel discussions and debates. But it may be surprising to some people to realize how many of the political panels explicitly raised libertarian issues—even when the panel theme did not explicitly focus on libertarianism, and even when none of the panelists were self-defined Libertarians.

For example, Norman Spinrad, David Brin, Donald Kingsbury, Frederick Pohl, and Warren Salomon participated in a fascinating panel discussion on “Beyond Communism and Capitalism.” Not one of them is a self-described libertarian. Yet, with the exception of Pohl, a consistently brilliant novelist who seemed uncertain about the very meaning of “freedom,” each panelist made some exceedingly libertarian remarks.

Norman Spinrad made a very interesting point that set the tone for the entire panel discussion: While there has been almost no literature describing a communist system, there have been dozens of novels describing various types of anti-authoritarian societies—from capitalist to anarchist.

Spinrad added that one obvious exception to his point are the many novels—the whole dystopian category from Orwell’s 1984 to Ayn Rand’s Anthem or Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day—which do portray communism, but as a morally corrupt form of tyranny, not as an ideal. That exception, of course. only proves Spinrad’s point.

Spinrad, like many other liberals, is much closer to libertarianism at heart than he seems to realize. But he’s certainly beginning to realize it, for one of the funniest and most charming moments of the entire Worldcon was the crowd’s spontaneous reaction to another of Spinrad’s remarks.

“Government should only act like a referee in a pluralist society,” he said, “not as a (coercive) unifier of separate interests.”

That remark—which sums up rather well the essence of the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, if not the more radical 21st century liberalism that libertarianism truly represents-managed to generate more applause for Spinrad (or almost any other panelist) than anything else he said.

But the applause flustered Spinrad so much that he protested it. “I’m not a libertarian” he explained out of the blue, although no one had used that political label previously in the discussion.

“Society is much more complicated than any theory, whether Marxist, Keynesian or Libertarian,” Spinrad said. trying to disown the audience’s response, “and government must also protect the weak from the strong.”

From such remarks, it is obvious, that there are two major misconceptions about libertarianism shared by most liberals, even the more intelligent liberals exemplified so well by Spinrad.

First, libertarianism is much more complicated and subtle a philosophy than most liberals (and unfortunately, many libertarians) realize. Only libertarianism has built into it a deep respect for the limits of human knowledge (read Hayak), and thus the limits of any government scheme to centrally plan the economy—i.e. our lives.

While liberals. conservatives, and socialists tend to focus only on the more immediate linear consequences of a social problem, libertarians take a more long-range ecological view. realizing that most government programs are counterproductive precisely because of their unanticipated side-affects and coercive byproducts.

Second, like Spinrad, many liberals are rightfully concerned about protecting the weak from the strong—a concern certainly shared by libertarians. But they don’t realize that governments-by their nature as coercive class-creating institutions—inevitably represent the strong not the weak. Nor do they know that the diverse, decentralized. non-coercive free market system offers more real protection for the weak, the poor, the minorities and that smallest minority of all, the individual, than any other political system.

Although Spinrad identified himself as a liberal, he acknowledged that two of his novels have been extremely libertarian: Songs from the Stars. a Prometheus Award finalist that portrays an ecological anarchist culture, and A World Between, a Prometheus Award nominee that has strong free enterprise elements in its imaginary utopia.

Libertarian elements also appear frequently in the novels of David Brin, a panelist who managed to outshine even Spinrad in his emphasis on libertarian ideas. Brin paid libertarians several left-handed compliments, all unexpected:

“Most sf people are extremely anti-authority,” Brin said. “I believe in taking pluralism to an extreme, just as long as you don’t offend people. We’re on our way to a situation where a free market might become possible. Libertarians believe that a free market doesn’t exist today, and they’re right. I wish Libertarians were the second major party in this one-party state.”

Brin wowed the crowd with his charismatic style and ideas, which seemed to be some kind of strange hybrid between Gary Hart’s neoliberalism—which grudgingly acknowledges that the free market is the engine of progress, but wishes to harness and direct it in government-approved “high-tech” directions—and Pierre Proudhon’s classic libertarian anarchism, which recognizes that intelligent, compassionate human beings do not need the coercive institution of government in order to live together in social harmony.

“How much authority is it safe to focus in a central government?” Brin asked, taking a skeptical, evolutionary approach. “How the hell do we get there [to freedom]?”

Despite Brin’s complimentary remarks about libertarianism, he calls himself a Democrat. “The reason I”m not a Libertarian is because they have no chance of getting power. The reason I’m not a Republican is because they talk about ending regulations, but Jimmy Carter deregulated five times as much as Reagan.”

Yet it’s clear where Brin’s sympathies lie in the long run. Just read his books. Brin won the 1984 Worldcon Award for Best Novel for Startide Rising, an epic intergalactic adventure mystery in which it turns out that human beings are virtually the only admirable—and libertarian—species in a power-politics galaxy of species enslaving each other. His Stardiver, which takes place in the same universe as Startide Rising, focuses on a human expedition into the center of the sun that is sabotaged by political intrigue, while his 1984 fantasy novel, The Practice Effect, (which I’m nominating for the 1985 Prometheus Award) tells the story of a scientist transported to an alternate world where he must fight to free himself and his loved one from an evil tyrant.

Frederick Pohl (Jem, Starburst, and Gateways and Donald Kingsbury (Courtship Rite) were two panelists who objected the most to any talk about freedom. Yet even their objections were illuminating.

“I’m not in favor of the lack of freedom,” Kingsbury said. “I’m just suspicious of anyone who tries to provide it. Marx was often wrong. But he was a good critic of our modern alienation.” [see William Stoddard’s review of Courtship Rite in this issue—Editor.]

Echoing Kingsbury’s remarks, Pohl explained how throughout his life he’s heard all sorts of people—from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan—talk about freedom, but he’s never heard an intelligent, coherent definition of it. That certainly makes sense—if Roosevelt and Reagan are typical of those whom Pohl has heard mangle that subtle concept.

All in all, the libertarian tendencies of Spinrad and Brin were so obvious. and had such an impact in setting the tone for the “Beyond Communism and Capitalism” panel, that even the leading sf trade magazine noticed it.

Confirming the correlation between sf and anti-authoritarian ideas, this panel was far more engrossing than the boring Rand Corporation-type “Delphi future-casting session of the hour before,” commented Pascal Thomas in his Locus report on the Worldcon programming.

Reporting on another panel, “The SF Political Spectrum,” Thomas said: “Discussing the politics of the future is arduous when those of the present are on everybody’s minds. Thus in spite of Greg Benford’s efforts to push his theory on two-dimensional political classification, the SF Political Spectrum panel never got away from acrimonious controversy.”

Naturally it was acrimonious. The panelists included Spinrad, again, Julian May (a Prometheus Award finalist for her Many Colored Land), Octavia Butler, Greg Benford (Timescape, Across the Sea of Suns), and our own Brad Linaweaver, acting as LFS representative.

Linaweaver said later that he couldn’t really tell what part of the political spectrum May and Butler represented from their remarks, a1though consensus has it that May is somewhat liberal and Butler is a bit further left than that. But what was interesting was the interplay between Spinrad, again trying to stake a claim for liberalism, but instead sounding more libertarian than not, Benford, a “libertarian conservative,” and Linaweaver a radical libertarian.

“It’s not fair debating libertarianism when your liberal and conservative opponents have stolen half your philosophy away from you,” Linaweaver concluded. (Incidentally. Benford’s two-dimensional political spectrum mentioned by Locus happens to be the same spectrum used by libertarians to explain why our philosophy is neither left not right.)

Linaweaver also explicitly represented the LFS viewpoint on another panel: “History: Does It Repeat Itself?” sharing the spotlight with C.J. Cherryh (whose Pride of Chanur was a Prometheus Award Nominee), Steve Golden, and Paul Edwin Zimmer.

Finally, in a speech focusing on the future of America’s space programs, libertarian Gary Hudson attacked government restrictions, controls and subsidies as a threat to the future of our species in space.

“I think the entire space program should be done privately,” Hudson asserted, prompting loud applause from the audience.

Hudson attacked the Securities and Exchange Commision, which he said has kept small investors out of the small but growing space industry. He charged the SEC also has kept him, a private space entrepreneur, from getting the finances he needs to establish his own project: a low-cost off-the-shelf approach that would compete with the government-operated Space Shuttle. Hudson explained how he has researched a way to lower the cost of such a rocket program from the Space Shuttle’s present subsidized $1,500-a-pound earth-to-orbit payload all the way down to only a $50-a-pound payload.

“Reagan is being very good to us by allowing us private entrepreneurs to do our launches,” he said. “But ultimately Reagan’s interest in the space program is tied up with his military interests.” And he added, that’s not the best foundation for future development of space.

Or, to sum up Hudson’s remarks by quoting the title of his equally libertarian speech on the same subject to would-be space cadets at the L-5 Society’s 1983 National Space Conference: “Would you want the U.S. Post Office to deliver your oxygen?”


Next issue the third and concluding part of Michael Grossberg’s Worldcon report will be featured—a look at private conversations with Libertarian and libertarian-leaning novelists such as James Hogan, Julian May, Robert Silverberg, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Jean Lorrah. At which time Mr. Grossberg will have used up his allotment of Prometheus space for the next two years—Editor.

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