Politics in fiction

I thought about posting this in the book thread, but it’s a bit too political for that.

I’ve recently re-read Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium books, with an eye toward some of his personal political beliefs that I was unaware of the first time I read them. They’re very much products of the Cold War and the 70’s, even the books that were written in the 90’s. The economic background fits in closely with the high inflation and unemployment of the US of the 70’s. Interestingly enough, despite some rather rabid views he expressed on his website and in the novels written as Wade Curtis, the Russians are not the enemy. The CoDominium is a joint government of the US and the USSR, but Russian figures are as often heroes as Western figures, and the criticism of the corrupt CoDominium seems mostly aimed at the US government.

Specifically, welfare. All of the books are about the barbarian underclass on welfare. The US is a dystopia divided between the wage-earning Taxpayers and the permanently unemployed Citizens isolated into Welfare Islands. I remember that from the first time I read the books, and that aspect still feels like a possible future history rather than a clumsy political statement like L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach. In the early novels, there’s some mention of how desperate some Citizens are to get out of the welfare system. The weird conservative delusion of the “welfare queen” isn’t there.

Well, not until the last book, Prince of Sparta, written in 1993. In that book, the Spartans are trying to figure out what to do with the transportees from Earth. Then all the demented stuff comes out. The newcomers must “work or starve,” the implication being that people in dire poverty are there because they’re lazy. “The government will not pay people to be poor,” as misleading a description of social safety nets as I can imagine. Any social programs are unacceptable, because “if you pay people to help the poor, you have people who won’t be paid if there aren’t any poor, so they’ll be sure to find some.” This is an argument that applies to any charity, if you think about it. The idea that social programs, private or public, have a vested interest in keeping people poor is, to be blunt, batshit insane.

Personally, I think there’s evidence that social safety nets like the US welfare system aren’t merely altruistic, but have a pragmatic benefit to society. When the poorest segment is literally starving, that ends up dragging down the entire economy of a nation, not just the people doing the actual starving. We’ve seen that in the US with the depression of the 30’s, and you can see that today in India. This die-hard insistence that it’s somehow morally wrong to support the people at the bottom isn’t just callous, it’s myopic.

As for Pournelle, I’m not sure what to think. Did he slowly drift towards this? Or was the ugliness always there, just not visible in his SF? The 70’s novels feel rooted in the political defeatism of the time, but they don’t depict welfare recipients as liking it, and don’t suggest that the proper solution is to starve them.

There are other authors whose works I’ve enjoyed, and then later discovered harbored repugnant political views that weren’t visible in the books I read. There’s Dan Simmons and his novel depicting the election of Obama as the end of western civilization, which I haven’t read. I would never have though he leaned that way from reading the Hyperion novels or Carrion Comfort. Neal Asher has Departure, which I gather is a screed against liberal politics, which I never would have gathered from the Polity books. Orson Scott Card’s been discussed to death here.

James P. Hogan’s kind of an interesting case - he wrote a book that fairly transparently and clumsily advocated something like communism, Voyage from Yesteryear, followed almost immediately by its polar opposite, The Mirror Maze, which just as transparently advocates Libertarian politics with a “Constitutionalist Party” running on the premise that government should have no say in economic matters at all. Arguably he just went crazy at some point. This is a guy who went from writing gung-ho pro science novels like Inherit the Stars to denying evolution, HIV causing AIDS, and finally denying the Holocaust.

If you really want to hate yourself, you can always read Goodkind. Because the only thing better than turgid objectivist fantasy novels are turgid objectivist fantasy novels with pain dildos.

I made the mistake of reading Dans Simmons’ Flashback.

Why? Why did I do that? So fucking awful.

You can see the same thing in David Weber, whose later Honor Harrington novels are top contenders to win the turgidity prize for bad politics and pet-related soap opera. The bad guy commie French Revolution space empire has to conquer the good guy libertarian English Monarchist space kingdom because otherwise they can’t pay for the dole for their vast unemployed class – as if conquering someone somehow makes money for the conqueror, which of course isn’t the case.

These people like to imagine that the working class is the sitting-around-doing-nothing class, though where they imagine their food and consumer products are coming from I don’t know. But every time they see some disabled or elderly person using food stamps, they shed bitter tears. I assume they’re thinking “If only she was dead, I’d have another few cents worth in my account.”

David Weber also crossed my mind. His villains are cartoon idiots, and it’s not even the later Honor Harrington novels where that shows. The villain in On Basilisk Station, the very first one, is such an idiot. Haven, the revolutionary welfare state you mention, is the primary military opponent in that novel, though if I recall correctly there’s a Manticorian political figure who is a bigger strawman than any of the Havenites.

It’s not something I noticed the first time around, oddly enough. It’s only after I got thoroughly sick of Weber and decided to re-read On Basilisk Station to see if it was better than the later books that I did. I guess it must be a better book overall, but the flaws that annoyed me later are there from the start.

Yeah, the thing with Weber is he had decently drawn space battles, so you sighed and suffered the bad politics and the clumsy historical parallels, and the lame soap operas and the even lamer celery-munching. In the early books. Then he got to the point where the books were all politics and soap opera, and he tacked on a crappy space battle because it was expected, and there was no point anymore.

It’s a mis-characterisation of Pournelle. In the context of the society of Sparta, where there’s a major labour shortage
(Also, as you say, people can write books which are very disconnected from their actual beliefs, so…)

Pournelle’s actual views are anti-bureaucrat and anti-burocracy, basically. To the nth degree.

Miramon - Bearing in mind that, you know, the Havenites were at least partly actively manipulated by external forces into their troubles. Also, Manticore has a fine welfare system. The kicker in that one is that if have more welfare than tax, you can’t vote. The Solarians are another massively bureaucratic enemy…but you’re ignoring the fact that most of the core enemies are basically aristocrats.

Gus - If you want a transparently batshit right wing author (I mean it, even among milscifi-reading vets he’s notorious for his views), look up Tom Kratman. Michael Z. Williamson’s work and his depiction of Earth is also very very biased, but a bit more readable.

(And yes, social welfare often has a very high spending multiple, and lately I’ve been converted to the idea of a basic income. But you don’t need to go to India, look at the UK today…)

I can read most milscifi and find it enjoyable, but there’s a line and Kratman stomps all over it.

Have you read Pournelle’s blog? If anything his politics have gotten more conservative since he wrote those books. He has the decency to despise the neocons, anyway, even if he hates the left even more. And there’s this horrible affinity for Gingrich…

His blog was what started me wondering in the first place. There’s some pretty vile stuff there - he sees atheists as “the enemy,” which surprised the hell out of me, since Niven’s an atheist, and I didn’t detect a trace of religious craziness in what I’d read before that. Even Inferno I saw as a “what if hell were real?” speculation, rather than a serious depiction of his beliefs. Though I gather the 2009 sequel, Escape From Hell, is pretty awful, and does read like personal beliefs.

My recent encounter with a politically batshit author was John C. Wright. A couple years back he did a Big Idea post on John Scalzi’s blog for his new novel Count to a Trillion. The high concept that he described as motivating the book was a war between unfathomable powers in which all of the natural principles we’ve observed (at least on a macro-scale, such as stellar formation) are actually the manufacturing process for their weapons. I thought it sounded like an interesting premise for a cosmic scale SF story so I picked it up. I had never heard of the guy and was not aware at that point that Scalzi got a lot of heat for giving the guy a promo slot on his site, since he had previously pissed off a lot of people with his religious and racial bigotry and misogyny.

Again, not knowing his views, I read the book. It actually touches very little on the above grand-scale stuff and instead attempts to be a very close homage to Piper’s Skylark of Space. I thought the world he presented was interesting, although horrible. He sets forth the future a century or so from now as being very racialized. Anglos are in decline, and the two most dominant cultures are the Hispanics and the Muslims. He makes mention frequently of how they differ from Anglos, but I honestly took it as an unreliable narrator since his main character is Anglo and has grown up in this shitty mindset. Nope, turns out from reading his opinion stuff on his website that this is all shit he actually believes.

Then there’s this whole long weird part about a woman who’s been genetically engineered by a bunch of guys (at this point they’re on a deep space mission, and there’s like forty guys and no women on the crew) to be the perfect female and balance their masculinity with her femininity and utilize her traditional female strengths like empathy and shit. Again I took it as unreliable narrator, this time combined with gender essentialism from the golden age material he’s riffing, (although it was still very weird and gross) but THIS IS ALL SHIT HE ACTUALLY BELIEVES.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’s possible for someone to be such a raving shitbird that all of his writing illustrates perfectly the shitbirdedness in such a way as to create an illusion that the author has intentionally created shitbirds for your observation. Here’s an example from his recent billion-word essay series entitled “Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters.”

He has a sword cane you guys, and he’s not afraid to use it.

+1 So, so awful.

And for those who haven’t read them, no, he’s not making that up about the pain dildos.

Sword canes are cool!

I had to look up the source material, since I didn’t really get the gist of his argument from his quote. It’s vile, but as you say, he has a talent for writing vile material while giving the impression he’s being tongue in cheek, when he’s actually dead serious. When a guy talks about “flying a fighter jet while wrestling a Soviet trained python in the cockpit,” he’s obviously kidding, right? But he’s not, really.

Oh, he’s kidding about the python, but the way he feels that traditional gender stereotyping is great, and that if you’re arguing for gender equality and female characters as actual human beings you’re fighting on the side of barbarism, that he’s not kidding about. When a writer uses the term Political Correctness repeatedly and isn’t being ironic in some way, you know you’re reading something terrible.

I didn’t like On Basilisk Station too much because Weber was so clearly, desperately aping C.S. Forrester that it really distracted from the story. I read one or two more of the Harrington books and he seemed to break free of that and develop his own writing style somewhat. Ultimately though I didn’t feel much need to follow the character.

Also he misspelled “Honour”.

I honestly couldn’t tell whether Simmons was trolling in Flashback or whether he actually believed it. I decided that it was akin to Steven Colbert at his finest – just absolute genius-level trolling. When you guys told me Simmons actually believed the crap he was writing, a part of me died.

Pournelle was pretty much always like that. I was at a local SF con back in the 80s, where he was a guest. A bunch of us, including Pournelle, were up late in a hotel room drinking. At one point, a somewhat drunk Pournelle declared that government workers were a pox on the economy, and if he was ever diagnosed with a fatal disease, he’d show up at a local government office with a gun and start shooting them. (He didn’t specify local, state or federal, but I’m assuming he meant federal.)

Yea, again, that’s more his hatred of burocrats rather than actually hating poor people. It’s not quite the same species of nuts.

Soapy - Even in British English, the name’s usually without the u, since it’s directly derived from the Latin. So, yea.
Also…sure it’s Space Opera. That’s also why it’s good.

Oh yeah, I was so disappointed in that book, because the cover material made it look like he might be some kind of worthy successor to Iain Banks. But no, complete crap, with a reactionary retrogressive Marty-Stu hero, to boot. It came off like lobotomized misogynistic Heinlein, but for all his wingnut oddities, Heinlein is a hundred times as good a writer.

Edit: Oh yeah, it’s Doc Smith’s Skylark of Space, not H. Beam Piper’s. And to Smith’s credit, while his early stuff had all the casual racism, sexism, and every other form of bigoted ism of his era, he grew out of it over time, whereas Wright seems to have grown into it somehow.

Lucifer’s Hammer makes it pretty clear that he was always a lunatic.

What’s political in that book? I have had it on my amazon wish list for years because it frequently shows up on best “end of world” genre stories, but never pulled the trigger, but I’d never heard it contained political content.

Great thread, by the way. It’s also interesting to hear people complaining about politics that aren’t utopian socialist fantasies in books. So many film, novels, TV and comics are infested with ridiculous Occupy Wall Street-style, anti-conservative political delusions that it’s interesting to hear of polemics that offend for other/opposite reasons. Other than Ayn Rand (I love BioShock’s dissection of Objectivism).

Infested! Why, there were a whole half-dozen examples in the thread looking for them some time back.