THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 441, October 28, 2007
"The best idea since sliced bread!"
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
First, the bad news.
Several years ago, I wrote an essay, "On a Clear Day You Can See BulgariaBut Who Wants to Look?" (See Lever Action), about the sad state that science fiction, as a literary form, then found itself in.
The principal symptom was rapidly shrinking rack space in the grocery stores and drug stores that had been SF's "natural habitat", monopolization of the genre by franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek (or by techno-military and dragon fantasy), even the wholesale elimination of entire SF paperback sections in establishments like Wal-Mart.
My essay was aimed at explaining how all this had happened.
Things have only gotten worse today.
America, as most of us know it, grew up parallel with SF, starting with Jules Verne during the War Between the States, through H.G. Wells and the Progressive Era, to the "Golden Era" of Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, George O. Smith, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. European writers, for the most part, wrote with an American audience in mind. While SF helped give American culture its unique, optimistic, future-oriented character (it's significant that Tomorrowland and Fantasyland were distinct entities in Walt Disney's mind) the unique, optimistic, future-oriented character of American culture influenced SF.
Since its inception around the mid-19th century, SF had always been the literature of promise. It told stories of a universe that was knowable and lawful, in which rational human beings were capable of applying what they learned from it to make life better for everyone. For the most part, the central element was the advance of technology. But the driving ideology was almost always some form or another of socialism.
As we all know, socialism failed. At the height of its popularity it caused widespread starvation and deprivation, wrecking whole economies wherever it was applied. It inspired childish, petulant dictatorsidealogues who were eager to do anything except give up an idea that didn't workto put millions against the wall and send millions more to places like Siberia because the people couldn't (the dictators said "wouldn't") gladly transmogrify themselves into New Collectivist Mankind, or whatever the slogan was at the time. In the end, it finally destroyed the most enormous empire history had ever known.
With every failure of socialism, the promises made by socialist- inspired SF rang more hollow until, sometime in the late 1950s, the genre tried to turn itself inside-out, becoming skeptical of science and technologyinstead of junking its broken ideologybecoming increasingly inner-directed and "psychological" as the real world grew more unbearable for disappointed leftists to look upon. Sliding into something resembling nihilism, SF writers lost interest in a future thathowever else it might turn outwould not be socialist. And as SF writers lost interest in the future, readers lost interest in SF.
The sweeping nature of this change may have been difficult for the average consumer to notice at first. As literary SF was dying a slow, agonized death on the racks, SF in the movies and on TV appeared to flourish. But it was a narrowly-defined kind of SF, wedged between the anachronistic feudalism of Star Wars and the paramilitary fascism of Star Trek without any room remaining for individuality, let alone individualism.
Exactly like the dictators who were willing to sacrifice millions, rather than give up their precious but unworkable ideology, America's northeastern publishing establishment was willing to let SF die out, rather than give up the socialism of its youth and embrace a new philosophical and political viewpoint that offered real hope for the future.
At the same time, expectations of the last two generations had changed. Instead of almost breathlessly anticipating a better world, after decades of insane, idiotic, downright criminal mismanagement of the country by Republicans and Democrats alike, Americans, become afraid of the future and all that it threatened to inflict on them. Today they have no interest in new plans by "progressive" politicians and bureaucrats, by ivory-tower socialists of every political stripe to controland consumetheir lives and narrow their hopes even further.
As for SF, even the great franchises are gone now, mostlytheir place having been taken by various vampire fantasies (and what does that say of Americans' expectations for the future?)leaving a bleak, barren field behind, devoid of hope or even interest in the future.
Which brings us to the good news.
To begin with, there are still at least a few million stubborn, rugged individuals and individualists in this country and overseas who desire a future that's worth living for and fighting for. They're interested in space travel, in extending their lives, in having more freedom rather than less, and in having less government rather than more.
Even better, there are fresh legions of children who, thanks variously to the Internet, homeschooling, and to J.K. Rowling, are more literate, and understand the differences between good and evil better than their parents, steeped as they are in a lifetime of moral relativism.
What this all means is that SF, as a literary genre and a cultural institution, is up for grabs. Any publisher, already in business or just starting out, that can navigate its way through the new territory created by computers and the Internet, any publisher that can attract that small handful of forward-thinking libertarian authors who have largely been rejected by establishment publishing, any publisher that is willing to cater to bright, cynical, individualistic, forward-thinking readers, can have SFAmerica's last remaining literature of ideas, America's last remaining literature of hopevirtually to itself.
The tenor must be upbeat, optimistic. The themes must revolve around individual liberty, the scientific search for immortality, and humanity's reach for the stars. Beyond that, Kevin Costner's baseball movie Field of Dreams said it best: "If you build it, they will come."