Expect pop culture to define your politics, and you’ll probably get the politics you deserve. Hip-hop music may give you an outlet to vent joy and rage, but it’s not going to improve poor or outdated public schools. Fifty Shades of Grey may magnify your bedroom repertoire, but it won’t enable sexual equality in the workplace. And science fiction is no program for governing—or, as some would have it, for not governing. It’s there to give you dreams, ideas, and nightmares.
Yet there lately seems to be much (too much) in our political and financial culture that’s pilfered from the thick, wide corpus of science fiction (or SF, as devotees prefer to style it). Consider Jeff Bezos, the market-conquering overlord of Amazon, and now the Washington Post, who originally wanted to grace his online retail empire with the URL “MakeItSo.com”—an homage to the catchphrase popularized by Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bezos also famously has launched a side company, Blue Origin, dedicated to perfecting private space travel. It boasts its own Federation-style coat of arms, above the Latin motto Gradatim Ferociter (Step by step, ferociously). Another Bezos vanity project involves the construction of a mammoth timepiece that will tick off the next ten thousand years of life on this planet, called the Clock of the Long Now, funded under the auspices of something called the Long Now Foundation.
Other well-heeled cyber-visionaries are likewise pursuing their own “Long Nows” designed to steer their empires toward a healthier and, need we add, wealthier future. PayPal cofounder Elon Musk is concocting a hyperloop high-speed train that will set you back $1.3 million for the privilege of inhabiting one of its passenger pods. Meanwhile, another PayPal titan, Peter Thiel, is bankrolling an exploratory round of “seasteading” experiments in libertarian utopian living—self-sustaining colonies of floating ragers against the state machine, who will be freely indulging their sacred liberties as they luxuriate atop ocean waters under the international treaties of the sea, beyond the reach of any sovereign nation’s jurisdiction. And Google CEO Larry Page has recently announced another of the company’s trademark “moonshot” projects, which involves nothing less than the abolition of illness and death—a primordial recalibration of the human condition (or as SF fanboy Newt Gingrich might label it, social engineering) worthy of a plot outline from Robert A. Heinlein or Orson Scott Card.
These ambitious, mogul-driven projects all mimic one of science fiction’s raisons d’être: the deeply satisfying literary exercise of world-building—i.e., imagining a fully self-contained set of planets, space colonies, and social relations (human, post-human, or other-than-human) that operate on radically different principles from the ones we know, or affect to know.
One of the major benefits of this imaginative process, which likely began back when Thomas More wondered, not without reason, if there were a better place to be than sixteenth-century England, is its capacity to clear the mental palette, to squeegee away the mundane distractions of what’s redundantly termed “present-day reality.” It permits us to gain a fresh perspective on the ways that the human world can hypothetically function—and how we humans could or should abet such transformations.
The problem inevitably comes when speculations on individual behavior, in all its untidy configurations, are shaped into visions that are more streamlined and weirdly, even annoyingly, functional, as in (let us say) some brittle, sour, Ayn-Randian parable of individualism.
It is possible to make too much of this. Does the libertarian strain of SF storytelling mean, for example, that the genre could be blamed for the recent surge of obstructionism in the House of Representatives? I don’t know, and don’t much care, how much Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, or even Philip K. Dick the Tea Party insurgents of the Right may have read—though the more dogged students of the SF-libertarian nexus will no doubt detect great significance in the 2012 election of Utah GOP Rep. Chris Stewart, a diehard Tea Party supporter who has written two successful series of novels plumbing the popular, and immensely profitable, intersection of SF and evangelical end-times fiction, in the vein of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind franchise. (Stewart’s best-known series, the nine-part Great and Terrible sequence of novels, imagines a great cosmic political reckoning triggered by pulses of electromagnetic radiation.)
Such intersections may be little more than glancing coincidences—after all, the hyperactive investigative antics of, say, Darrell Issa don’t discredit the use of car alarms, even though that’s where the Inspector Javert of today’s GOP has made his fortune. But as a lifelong reader of SF, and an increasingly aggrieved Washington, D.C., resident whose quality of life depends on the regular paycheck of a federal employee, I have little choice but to take the prospect of a newly doctrinaire libertarian-SF alliance seriously—and personally. And to appraise the full sweep of the case against SF as a Trojan horse for political reaction, I also have to take fresh inventory of my own personal evolution as an ardent SF reader.
Like many other daydreaming, hopelessly awkward adolescents, I would drop by science fiction for a visit, once in a while. It wasn’t my first or preferred literary port of call when I was very young. It was one of many genres emerging from the chrysalis of Gothic literature—and, as with the others, SF offered a means of escaping whatever bland or dreary box had been leased from, or by, reality.
However much populist explicators such as Brian Aldiss (in Trillion Year Spree, his expansive, indispensable 1986 history of SF) may justify its influence on respected fabulists from Twain and Borges to Orwell and Burgess, the more elitist gatekeepers of our literary culture tend to disdain the genre as a disheveled, somewhat disreputable outlaw tradition. Of course, that curt dismissal only adds to its allure for readers seeking release from their psychic or social constraints.
I came relatively late to the genre’s more arcane and venerated glories, having been not quite nerdy or spacy enough in my 1960s teens to have read Philip K. Dick in the original pulp paperbacks. But by the early 1970s, Dick’s baroque tales of political intrigue and gnostic self-discovery had just begun burrowing out of the pulp literary ghetto when a friend of mine, a thirty-year-old self-professed Marxist-Leninist-Maoist rhythm-and-blues guitarist, presented me ceremoniously with the book that would whet my appetite for the elusive social promise of SF. It was a vintage paperback edition of Slan. This was A. E. van Vogt’s 1946 ripsnorter about a future-world vendetta against super telepaths. Van Vogt was a Canadian who started writing for pulp magazines at the tail end of the 1930s. His eccentric, emotionally charged approach to the genre would inspire even crazier visions, including those of the famously paranoid and socially mercurial Mr. Dick himself.
There’s much (too much) in our political and financial culture that’s pilfered from the thick, wide corpus of science fiction.
I liked Slan for its bug-like exoticism and hammer-into-anvil momentum; though even then, I knew I was at least a half-dozen years too old for it to have as galvanizing an impact on me as it had had on my radical guitarist friend. He’d first sought solace in its pages during an arduous preadolescence; then, as now, the hazards of being too smart at too young an age marginalized you as deeply (if not as lethally) as Van Vogt’s precognitive mutant race had been. Yet because I knew exactly how that felt, growing up as an African American geek in a time and place that didn’t know quite what to make of our variant species, the book’s visceral appeal persuaded me that SF, itself a marginalized mutant literature, bore enough transformative energy to disquiet the gatekeepers of official culture and other entitled bullies.
“What about Van Vogt’s other books?” I asked my friend. “Don’t bother,” he said. As one drearily representative example, he cited 1951’s The Weapon Shops of Isher. In this tale, a corrupt dystopian empire several thousand years in the future is subverted from within by the eponymous shops—weapons makers, you see, directly empower people to possess armaments in greater numbers and with more force than those of the empire.
The Second Amendment subtext didn’t much bother my friend. For ideological reasons of his own, he also hated gun control; if the Man has more guns than the People, you see, then we have no revolutionary leverage, and so on. But this book, and many other Van Vogt offerings that came in its wake, carried too strong a whiff of what, as far back as the 1970s, he dismissed as reactionary—or was it bourgeois?—libertarianism.
My friend wasn’t wrong. And yet the disparity vexed me; how could a writer who in one novel showed palpable empathy for outcasts produce another work that seemed a demagogic hiccup away from consigning such misfits—especially the unarmed ones—to history’s blackest black hole? Such was my initial encounter with what had already become one of the most prominent leitmotifs of the SF world: the penchant to identify government of any provenance or ideological persuasion as simply a lumbering gray hijacker of freedom, in the vein of the malevolent mind-hive known as the Borg in the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise.
This hostility to government-qua-government, rooted in a response to the high paranoia of the Cold War, continues to enthrall many voices competing for attention in modern SF. You can readily find it not only in The Weapon Shops of Isher, but also among other literary fantasy works endorsed by the Libertarian Futurist Society, which annually presents its Prometheus Awards for the best libertarian science fiction.
But as with any movement that’s single-mindedly committed to poaching its pet ideological game on the frontiers of literary expression, the self-conscious libertarian rebranding of the SF genre ultimately collapses into incoherence. If you want to send your own presumptions spinning into the stratosphere (along with the rest of your head), try finding any kind of consistency among the Prometheus Best Novel Award winners. Some of the authors, to be sure, are fervidly affiliated with the political right (e.g., Newt Gingrich’s friend and fellow SF fan Jerry Pournelle, coauthor of 1992’s winner, Fallen Angels, which imagines a dystopian future controlled by totalitarian environmentalists). But others lean harder to the left (e.g., three-time Prometheus winner Ken MacLeod, whose utopian space operas are each a baroque mash-up of socialist, anarchist, and libertarian ideas). Of course, there are left- and right-leaning iterations of libertarianism as well, so in order to produce a version of SF that’s an uninterrupted saga of smash-the-state individualism, the arbiters of the Prometheus Award have to burrow deeply indeed into the art of what Reinhold Niebuhr famously dubbed “emotionally potent oversimplification.”
The Prometheus Award’s Hall of Fame, for instance, is a motley selection that includes Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and George Orwell’s 1984; Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here;and, of course, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. By my count, that’s one objectivist (Rand), two socialists (Orwell and Lewis), and one Dutch critic of eccentric monarchies. Oh, and Robert A. Heinlein.
Stranger in a Strange Genre
Heinlein, whose name appears six times on that Hall of Fame list, is libertarian SF’s main man. And it’s not just libertarians who feel that way about him. As a reader who came of age—and was introduced to the pleasures of SF—amid the convulsions of post-civil-rights racial identity in the United States, I found Heinlein’s work to be a rich vein of post-racial storytelling. Though I hasten to add that Heinlein’s own racial politics, like his overall view of government, military conquest, and virtually every other imaginable human institution, was very much all over the map—a disjointed collection of shifting attitudes more than any legible program of imagined social improvement.
Indeed, my own appreciation of Heinlein coincides with that of African American polymath and SF master Samuel R. Delany. In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, his 1977 collection of essays “on the language of science fiction,” Delany recalls the frisson that passed over him when reading Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers. Somewhere in this more-than-a-little farcical tale of intergalactic war with a race of murderous super-insects, the young Delany found “a description of a mirror reflection and the mention of an ancestor’s nationality, in the midst of a strophe on male makeup, [that] generates the data that the first-person narrator, with whom we have been traveling now through two hundred and fifty-odd pages (of a three-hundred-and-fifty-page book) is non-[C]aucasian.” (Johnnie Rico, a Filipino, for the record.)
For Delany, who, I’m guessing, was still a student at the Bronx High School of Science when he first read Starship Troopers, Heinlein’s “inanities . . . [and] endless preachments on the glories of war” throughout the book were less important than “the knowledge that [Delany had] experienced a world in which the placement of the information about the narrator’s face is proof that in such a world much of the race problem, at least, has dissolved.”
It wasn’t the first time Heinlein had used protagonists of color. The Star Beast (1954) imagined an African with “ebony-black” skin as the most powerful person on Earth, while such novels as Space Cadet (1948) and Double Star (1956) used the timeworn theme of earthlings’ fear of aliens as a metonym for transcending racial prejudice.
This suggestive strategy of racially enlightened characterization by future-proxy appears to patch into a quadrant of the libertarian mind-set whose dreams of a government-free future take for granted that the future will be racism-free as well. Modern science fiction—which, significantly, shares with modern jazz an approximate mid-twentieth-century point of origin—has woven into its corpus a kind of no-sweat color blindness. This was yet another reason I was drawn to it, since it seemed to take forever for rarer-air offerings in the literary mainstream to reach similar conclusions.
Still, Heinlein’s approach to racial themes wasn’t always this generous. One of his early works, Sixth Column, first serialized in 1941, depicts white Americans fighting fascist Asian conquerors by using rays able to hone in on specific races. You could blame the novel’s many excesses on World War II, but you’d still wince at its steady tirade of anti-Asian slurs. (In retrospect, probably the most that can be said for Sixth Column is that Heinlein didn’t like it much, either.)
Then there was Farnham’s Freehold (1964), a time-travel story/survivalist manifesto in which the future brings a switcheroo of racial roles. Technologically sophisticated Africans become the dominant, decadent, slave-holding class as they belittle and browbeat (or just plain beat) uneducated or castrated whites. Heinlein devotees who bring this book up for discussion on Internet fan sites still sound confounded, if not embarrassed, by it. For my part, the long litany of quarrels with Farnham’s Freehold begins with: Did he have to make the Africans cannibals too? In 1964?
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, published two years later, is where both Heinlein’s libertarian ethos and Heinlein’s seemingly endless penchant for sociocultural mischief reach their apotheoses. The plot and characterization on display in this foundational text of libertarian SF are typically chaotic. Heinlein’s own apparent antigovernment ethos is channeled through the elderly, Peruvian-born Professor “Prof” Bernardo de la Paz. Prof is one among hundreds of outcasts, outlaws, and outsiders inhabiting underground colonies on the moon—or, as it’s known in the late twenty-first century, Luna.
Prof’s chief comrades-in-arms are an Amazonian blonde rabble-rouser, Wyoming Knott (female protagonists, like female SF writers, are a rare species, then and now), and a one-armed computer technician, the narrator-hero Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis. The ragtag trio spearheads a revolutionary movement to make this ramshackle outpost for the marginalized into a self-governing nation free of the repressive rule of the Earth.
Neither “Wyoh” or “Mannie” has any clearly defined racial identity—and the same holds true, gratifyingly, for the polyandrous extended families making up Luna’s population. The book implies that such freewheeling social arrangements help set the table for what Prof endorses as “rational anarchy.” Here, Heinlein seems to be employing his protagonist to parrot his own vision of ideal social order: a systemless system whose central tenet is “that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals.” John Galt, you have met your extraterrestrial soul mate.
For impressionable readers like, well, me at age sixteen or so, these ideas always carry a kind of invigorating rush to the senses. (Yeah, man, who needs government? We just have to be better people!) In his didactic monologues on liberated self-governance, Prof spritzes like a free-form rap artist about a contradictory grab bag of themes: the inanity of all legislatures, the underrated virtues of monarchy, and why the regulation of crime, even theft and murder, can more or less be left to human discretion.
You can see how The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress’s baggy state-bashing soon found a devoted fan base among sixties iconoclasts of similarly varied and contradictory political persuasions. It just as powerfully inspired subsequent generations of the selfishly enlightened to hector the autocrats and bureaucrats who want to put preschools in workplaces, protect pensions, or keep food free from toxins.
Still, Heinlein’s discursive, idiosyncratic storytelling steers him away from the rigid dictates of doctrinaire libertarianism—or doctrinaire anything. You sense that Heinlein was more consciously aware than his more slavish readers were of the novel’s central irony: that achieving individual freedom requires collective action among the moon’s ragtag renegades—and not just any collective action, but the kind of all-out guerilla insurgency calculated to prompt a straitlaced free-marketeer to charge the insurgent Harsh Mistress crew with outright Bolshevism.
Heinlein must also have known that nothing could be more divergent from common sense than using a fantasy novel as a manual for social engineering, even if it’s intended as a kind of antisocial engineering.
And all those readers, liberal, conservative, or otherwise, who think they’ve got Heinlein nailed down must still grapple with his views on race, which, I’ve finally decided, he was reinventing on the fly—just fodder for another novel he was plotting. When Mannie travels with Prof to Earth seeking (though by no means expecting) Luna’s formal recognition as a newly independent colony, he runs into the same kind of confusion humans at home feel about who or what they are. At this point, he tosses off an insight on racial identity so stunningly prescient that most of us, black and white, still haven’t caught up with it yet. America, Mannie observes,
is mixed-up place. . . . They care about skin color—by making point of how they don’t care. First trip I was always too light or too dark, and somehow blamed either way, or was always being expected to take stand on things I have no opinions on. Bog knows I don’t know what genes I have. One grandmother came from a part of Asia where invaders passed through as regularly as locusts, raping as they went—why not ask her?
As with Delany, who was so grateful to Heinlein for using a protagonist of color in Starship Troopers that he was willing to overlook, if not excuse, the book’s hard-core militarism, I’m tempted to cut The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress a break, if only to recognize Mannie’s mild rant against racial disingenuousness.
I can almost say the same for Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s 1985 space opera about interplanetary war, whose narrative moves like a new muscle car on an open road: sleek, smooth, and roaring all the way in a single line. Card’s breakthrough novel has been compared to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for its militaristic detail. (Even the alien enemies have similar names: “Bugs” in Troopers, “Buggers” in Ender’s.)
Card has also been compared to Heinlein for trumpeting reactionary politics that straddle the crackpot zone. His opposition to gay marriage—and, for that matter, to homosexuality—aroused a nationwide movement to boycott the movie version of Ender’s Game. He’s blogged that President Obama is a dictator, building his own totalitarian police force made up of “young out-of-work urban men” who will “channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.”
Let’s calm down and think this over, though. While Card likely shares Heinlein’s embrace of limited government, it would be hard to reconcile the former’s defense of traditional family values with Heinlein’s enthusiastic depiction of group marriage in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. And, yes, Card’s anti-Obama screed is steeped in racist innuendo. (Though I’m also sure that to some of Card’s more, ahem, pigment-conscious adherents, “out-of-work urban men” sounds like a far-too-polite euphemism.)
Still, I have to admit that when I started seeing Card’s invective coursing through the Internet, I wondered who this guy was. He certainly wasn’t the same Orson Scott Card I got to know through Ender’s Game. For all of its rampant militarism, the book is just as much an exploration of empathy and of the power of the imagination to confront death and recognize humanity in others. The gifted children recruited, tested, and manipulated for battle have souls as complex and intricately wired as their brains, and their passage from play to combat is rendered throughout with a measured, compassionate voice that is of no apparent relation to the ranting, raving scourge of liberal government and alternative lifestyles I’ve been hearing about all year. And, again as with Heinlein, Card puts forth an individualist vision that in his narratives can be realized only through collective action.
You could, if you bothered, find that same reasonable voice in Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, a 1990 primer that neatly combines the usual advice about plotting, characterization, and style with sensible tips on making sure the science in your fiction stays plausible and consistent. What’s more, this alleged racist uses many pages of the book to extol, as an example of how to do things right, the late African American SF writer Octavia Butler because, as he writes, “nobody handles exposition better.”
This, once again, may reflect the problem with expecting consistent ideas and intentions from those who make their livelihoods by making things up. It might be possible to find in such inconsistencies some genuine negotiable space in our seemingly intractable political divides—and not, as the more fawning and/or credulous members of our pundit class would have it, with a kind of tricked-up, “they’re-just-as-bad-on-their-side-of-the-aisle” faux equanimity. Instead, such salutary divergences from a larger ideological playbook might at least betoken the kind of openness to possibility, paradox, and surprise that science fiction, like most other worthwhile art, has allowed its devotees to experience.
In the broadest terms, SF appeals to its fan base’s strong allergy to being told what to do. It’s no wonder that SF has continued to replenish its fan base from waves of preadolescents who congenitally have trouble fitting in with reality’s game plan. These kids—like my old Maoist buddy way back in the seventies—tend to be smarter, more imaginative, and (thus?) more desperate to seek out a speculative future.
At least, that’s where most of them start. Things get more complicated when the kids grow up and carry these yearnings with them. Some of them, while still reaching for the stars, realize that they have to figure out a way to live and work well with others. Some, well, don’t—and they become some variant of the insurgent individualist, ever on the lookout for new ways to reject whatever new authority figure they think is telling them to behave.
Those dueling urges are best embodied in mass media, especially commercial TV space operas. On the one hand, there’s the Star Trek franchise’s version of the future, spread out over several spinoffs and sequels from the mid-1960s to now: a known universe pulling together into One Big Federation with its faster-than-light starships carrying a varied assortment of interplanetary police patrolling the galaxies and maintaining a kind of benevolent order. These selfless hierarchs are duty-bound to keep the peace while interrogating their own motives, just as democracy keeps promising itself it will. (And really, what other vision could be expected from Gene Roddenberry, an ex-LAPD officer who spent part of his pre-TV career in the 1950s writing speeches extolling the ideals of urban policing for his then-chief William H. Parker?)
On the other hand, there’s Firefly, an early-aughts space western from writer-director Joss Whedon that flamed out after a brief season on Fox. Long after its network cancellation a decade ago, the show continues to enjoy a cult following, especially among libertarians. In the world of Firefly, there’s only one solar system to deal with, but it, too, is placed a few centuries ahead of ours. Meanwhile, its heroes have no allegiance to any order, benevolent or otherwise. They’re libertarian to the core: a crew of freelance mercenaries and fugitives aboard a spaceship whose captain, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, is an embittered veteran of what’s characterized as a civil war between “Independents” or “brown-coats” and a federation of planets called the “Alliance.” The powerful Alliance, which is always sending out humorless marshals and bureaucratic enforcers of intergalactic law to harass Mal’s crew, bills itself as a democratic bulwark of civic peace and order, on the order of Trek’s Federation—only we’re not so sure about that as the series progresses.
For his part, Mal is sure—sure, that is, that the Alliance is his mortal enemy. From the first episode, his disdain for all things Federated or Allied is transparent. “That’s what governments are for,” he mutters at one point in the series pilot. “Get in a man’s way.” This might have sounded more off-key around the time of Star Trek’s 1966 TV debut, when the liberal dream still held sway over most of the American populace and when Ronald Reagan was still considered a fringe conservative activist seeking political office. Not even Marshal Dillon, the duly appointed federal lawman of TV’s Gunsmoke, would have dared express Mal’s kind of disdain over the airwaves.
Now, however, Mal’s sentiment seems a virtual off-the-shelf echo of Reaganite state-bashing rage. It’s simply the common-sense pop-culture outlook on public matters, bred by four decades of liberal disaffection and retreat—and stoked by the ever-advancing cultural tropes of the radical right.
And it sounds the loudest on Firefly for Mal’s most precious cargo: River Tam, a super-psychic, teenaged waif with powers that could topple the Alliance’s reign. She is in the care of her renegade older brother, who’s rescued her from a sinister Alliance mind-control experiment. In a flashback sequence in Serenity, the movie follow-up to Firefly, River channels the sensibility of the prevailing power structure, and she renders its cartoonishly grim agenda in one of her psychic transports, in the first-person plural. The Alliance’s basic charge, she proclaims, is to be “meddlesome.” “We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk,” she says. “We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right.”
Firefly is a neoliberal Star Trek in reverse.
While River’s soliloquy may have a certain generic rage-against-the-machine appeal, the broader narrative arc of the Firefly series is unsettling. In a far-reaching, incisive essay criticizing the use of such recent pop-cultural phenomena as Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist slave revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, as markers of sociopolitical progress, Adolph Reed Jr. notes that Firefly repeatedly channels the rhetoric and grievances that shaped the white supremacist myth of the secessionist South. Like the guardians of the Confederate Lost Cause, Mal and his crew envision themselves waging a heroic rearguard battle against a remote and sinister regime. Such sentiments often poke through Mal’s sarcastic asides against the Alliance. “May have been [on] the losing side,” he blithely tells one Alliance straight man. “Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”
Such exchanges may sound jaunty and devil-may-care to those who see no connection whatsoever with former and would-be slaveholders, but white supremacists have used similar language over our nearest two centuries to extoll their “losing side.” You want to reach through the TV to pull Mal aside (in a friendly way, of course, because he is a genuinely amiable fellow), just to let him know that his antecedents used similar plaints to justify their own “meddling” with innocent human lives, including torture, mutilation, and lynching, all of which were sanctioned by both custom and law.
These objections are—or are supposed to be—mitigated by Firefly’s heterogeneous, multicultural crew of supporting characters, which includes two persons of color: a man of God named Book, who’s a whiz with armaments, and Mal’s executive officer, a no-nonsense “warrior woman” named Zoe, who fought alongside Mal in the Lost Cause and is happily married to the ship’s Caucasian hot-dogging pilot, Hoban “Wash” Washburne.
Even Firefly’s bad guys are diverse, sometimes intriguingly so. In one episode, there’s one black nemesis, a ruthless bounty hunter, who shares with a real-life Confederate raider the name Jubal Early. And in case anyone still wants to make a big, hairy deal out of parallel confederacies, Mal makes clear at a handful of points in Firefly’s short season that he hates slavery of any kind.
But in a sense, Firefly’s persistent having-it-both-ways stance on things—How could a diverse and tolerant band of outlaws be channeling our most notorious political rationales for racial reaction, after all?—whitewashes (as it were) the nineteenth-century secessionist fantasy that the Civil War had nothing to do with race, that it was, instead, a great Lost Cause devoted to beating back all the impersonal, grasping abuses of the Northern industrial leviathan. Firefly’s glosses on the Intruder State also show, on another level, just how the creative tensions that fueled Heinlein’s formative SF experiments in both racial characterization and libertarian political theory have long since lapsed into shopworn storytelling cliché. “We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t any right” is not the sort of fire-breathing call to arms that felt fresh (if also more than a little naïve and ingenuous) in Heinlein’s broadsides against the trespasses of government.
Heinlein after all, was writing at the first flush of the Cold War, in 1946. More than half a century later, the strident libertarian message of Firefly had become so commonplace in a popular culture weaned on government-hating narratives from Die Hard to The Matrix and back again that the show’s core dramatic conflicts—which all ultimately revolve around the confrontation between the striving individual and the Borg-like drones of the state—boil down to little more than gestures. The Confederate-style patois of hating government purely for government’s sake is by now nothing more than a threadbare plot device.
Where Heinlein strained his imagination—and reader credulity, at times—to conjure a future in which technology abetted a new, pre-Lockean social contract while abolishing the lethal superstitions of race altogether, Whedon’s storytelling, lazily, takes both conditions as givens. Whedon’s space narratives are not about the effort to redefine the fundamental terms of selfhood or political self-determination; they are, instead, baby-simple fables that pivot around the strenuous efforts of Firefly’s crew to outrun their faceless, federated pursuers for another week.
Firefly is, in short, a neoliberal Star Trek in reverse, shunning the frontier for the neglected cosmic periphery and embracing an ethos of full-scale retreat instead of confident liberal discovery. And Mal Reynolds is the seasteading Peter Thiel or the rocket-launching Jeff Bezos of a blankly undemanding libertarian future, in which the main heroic enterprise is jury-rigging your own space-borne contraption to stay a step ahead of the bad guys.
It’s no surprise that the Prometheus Award panel acknowledged Firefly and Whedon with a special award for Serenity. It does bear noting though, that Whedon himself insists he doesn’t share Mal’s sour view of government. (“He’s the opposite of me in many ways,” he once told an interviewer.) Indeed, Whedon’s newest fantasy TV show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., inverts the great operating principle of the post-Reagan libertarian right by making it abundantly plain in the weekly adventures of its mythical top-secret agency that government may be more the solution than the problem. As D. H. Lawrence said long ago, trust the tale, not the teller—a maxim that holds with special force for political fables in American pop culture.
How to sort out this tangle of conflicting, self-contradictory ideological messaging in our popular genre entertainments? Well, let’s begin by returning to my Maoist friend. He surely ranks among the most committed statists I’ve ever known, but his absorption in science fiction strongly indicated that he would have had trouble fitting into any state or culture. His was the romantic dream of transformation. And that’s why one of the next books he loaned me back then was destined, much later, to turn up in the Prometheus Hall of Fame pantheon: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
Bester’s Grand Guignol space opera, published in 1956, has appeared at or near the top of many lists of the best science fiction novels ever written—including my own. As with Django Unchained, it’s a revenge fantasy, recounted in stark, fevered prose reminiscent of a jazz solo. Gully Foyle, the book’s protagonist, is the sole survivor of a spaceship wreck. He’s also a dim-witted lug who rapes, deceives, threatens, brutalizes, and kills in the course of his quest to discover who had abandoned him to drift alone in the cosmos.
I wondered, when I saw Bester’s name on the Prometheus list, what he and his book were doing there. From everything I’d read about Bester, he seemed to be more of a mid-twentieth-century liberal hipster, born and bred in New York City. The Stars My Destination, likewise, didn’t seem to bear any overt political or ideological message. It was, if anything, one of those inimitable artworks that effectively jolts its reader into a higher, richer sensory experience than one would expect from a genre novel.
But as I recently reread the book, I got toward the end and, well, there it was. Just as Gully is about to go on a fiery telepathic journey through time and space, he achieves what, for him, is total enlightenment: “Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world? Let the world make its own decisions. Who are we to keep secrets from the world? Let the world know and decide for itself.”
This is not a doctrine. This is not a program. This is not a government shutdown or a Supreme Court ruling. This is a state of being, a porch toward transcendence. It’s what drew many of us to SF in the first place, rather than a plan or even an identity. Call it permission to let go—or, at least, to imagine how it could feel to suspend your workaday understanding of the real and the possible and to allow something else to guide your imagination. I don’t know if you could put the label of “libertarian” on such a sentiment. But I’m not going to tell anyone they can’t. Or that they have to.
SF’s first, best promise—being alive to possibility—is too vital and too bright to be hammered, bent, or squeezed into anyone’s ideology. If that makes me a libertarian—well, I still have a problem with that. For I can be excited and exalted by what Gully Foyle and others like him have found out. But I wake up from my dreams when I’m ready to. And if libertarians think I have the ultimate authority over my life, then I’ve decided that I still have to find a way of living with others as best I can—even with the people who insist on badgering me into thinking they know best what it means to be free.