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[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 6, 2006 at 4:47pm] Trackbacks
Decentralization and Federalism in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature:

Inspired by the interest generated by my post on "The Law of Star Trek," I thought I would devote a post to the intersection between science fiction and fantasy literature and one of my major academic research interests - federalism and decentralization. Despite the quip in the previous post, I think there is some value to exploring political themes in SF, although that value is easily overestimated. And even if there isn't any value it's still fun!

In sharp contrast to legal scholars and other academics, the majority of whom tend to favor relatively centralized government, major science fiction and fantasy writers tend to support decentralized political systems or even anarchy. I am not arguing that decentralization is the main theme of these works and in some cases it isn't even conscious. But it does seem to be there.

A few examples:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien

Sauron and Saruman's efforts to unify Middle Earth under centralized rule are portrayed negatively. When the "good guys" win at the end, King Elessar (Aragorn) establishes a highly decentralized state, with regions such as the Shire and Rohan enjoying near-total autonomy. This was actually a conscious theme of Tolkien's work, as he hated what he considered the excessive, homogenizing centralization of modern industrial society, and also despised the centralizing policies of Britain's post-WWII Labor government.

2. Ursula LeGuin

LeGuin is, of course, an anarchist, and many of her books explicitly promote anarchy and denounce government, particularly The Dispossessed.

3. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

The Harry Potter series portrays government so negatively that even the "most cold-blooded public choice theorist could not present a bleaker portrait." The state is portrayed as both venal and incompetent throughout the series and virtually every positive achievement is the result of decentralized private initiative.

4. Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

A centralized galactic empire breaks down as a result of bureaucratic sclerosis (symbolized by the literally labyrinthine bureaucracy on the capital planet of Trantor). Only decentralization combined with the private initiative of the shadowy Foundation saves the day. The work is somewhat ambiguous because the Foundation's goal is to eventually establish a new and better empire. Nonetheless, the evils of centralization are powerful portrayed, while its benefits receive short shrift.

5. Marion Zimmer Bradley.

In The Mists of Avalon, Bradley is very hostile to the efforts of the Church and the central government to curb the autonomy of local communities (including Avalon itself) and impose a unified state and religion. Centralization is also viewed skeptically in her Darkover series.

6. Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein attacked centralization in many of his books. Not surprising, given that he was a libertarian.

7. Vernor Vinge.

Same as Heinlein above.

8. David Brin.

Defends decentralization in several of his novels.

9. Frank Herbert

In his famous Dune series, a horrendous war arises from the efforts of the galactic Emperor to extend his power over a what had been a relatively decentralized political system (Dune). Even more carnage arises from the hero's efforts to consolidate his own imperial authority after he overthrows the previous emperor (Dune Messiah). Eventually, only the destruction of the empire enables humanity to be saved and renewed (God Emperor of Dune).

10. Orson Scott Card.

This is a partial exception. Card's Ender series portrays sympatheticallyPeter the Hegemon's efforts to unify Earth under a single (and increasingly powerful) government. However, the effort succeeds only because dissenters are given the chance to establish colonies on other worlds that will be highly autonomous.

Two prominent examples from TV sci fi:

1. Star Trek.

The Federation is a very loose federal system with each planet enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This is portrayed favorably, while centralized empires such as the Romulans, the Dominion, and the Borg are viewed negatively.

2. Babylon 5.

There is a sympathetic portrayal of the efforts of Mars and other colonies to secede from Earth. Centralized empires (the Vorlons, the Shadows) are criticized for their efforts to destroy local autonomy. Even the efforts of "the good guys" to establish a UN-like Interstellar Alliance are portrayed as a failure that ends up making the situation worse.

Conclusion:

What is interesting about the strong support for decentralization in sci fi and fantasy works is that it cuts across ideological lines. It is not just libertarian (Heinlein, Vinge) and conservative (Tolkien) writers who favor it. So too do liberal (Rowling, Herbert, the creators of B5 and Star Trek), and radical ones (LeGuin, and also Samuel Delaney, whose work I probably should have included in the list). In several cases, particularly LeGuin, Tolkien and Vinge, the critique of centralized authority and advocacy of decentralization is a consciously intended theme.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive analysis and I'm sure I've missed some counterexamples as well as inevitably oversimplified the work of the writers I've covered. Nonetheless, this is an interesting trend, especially given the contrast between the sci fi and fantasy writers and the views of most other intellectuals, particularly those on the political left.

UPDATE: I thought it was reasonably clear in the original post that decentralization does NOT = libertarianism. Although most libertarians support political decentralization, so too do some nonlibertarians. Thus, I tried to point out that the support of LeGuin, Rowling, etc. for decentralization is interesting - in part - precisely because they are NOT libertarian or conservative. However, it seems that I was not as clear about this as I thought, so I have tried to restate the point here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Decentralization and Federalism in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature:
  2. The Law of Star Trek:
Steve Lubet (mail):
As i recall, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series is pretty much pro-centralization.
4.6.2006 5:59pm
Cheburashka (mail):
Lubet is right; in fact, many of the examples seem twisted to fit into the idea. (I thought the Foundation was a governmental initiative in any event.)

Tolkein was (indeed politically and publicly) a Royalist, not an anti-centralist.

Neither the Vorlons or Shadows had an empire in Babylon 5; they were criticized for being high-handed, not autocratic.
4.6.2006 6:11pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Don't overlook Anne McCaffery, whose 'Pern' books feature a Dragon-Dragonrider society which is essentially fascist, albeit in a nice way.
4.6.2006 6:12pm
Rue Des Quatre Vents (mail):
The "Empire" of the Star Wars film series is decidedly totalitarian, monolithic and dependent upon centralized decision making. However, the "prequals", I think, show the Republic not to be much better. Who are these people on the Jedi council? Who elects them? Are they subject to some bipartisan confirmation process? They are judicial activists in the worst sense.
4.6.2006 6:22pm
Mersmann (mail):
The central conflict in the short-lived Firefly and the spin-off movie Serenity is between the "meddling" and authoritative Alliance and the rebelious outer planets. The Captain of the ship is characterized by a strong anti-Alliance stance that seems to stem from a general distrust of government.

It is probably safe to say that decentralization is a main theme of this series, although many times the writers are quick tom point out that the Alliance is neither an Evil Empire nor a Benevolent Federation.
4.6.2006 6:25pm
David Cohen (mail):
With respect to Cheburashka's comment on Tolkien, you have it not exactly right. Tolkien had strange political views - he was (I believe in his own words) an anarcho-royalist. He said something to the effect that he would prefer to be rule by an absolute monarch who would rather spend the entirety of his days playing golf and ignoring the affairs of state.

If you look at how the Shire was run, which is clearly his preferred mode (especially post-Sauron), it is highly decentralized. I think the royalism in Tolkien comes more, in any event, from a religious motivation, in that the King is somehow God's representative on Earth - and not from any thought out political program.
4.6.2006 6:25pm
Wombat:
How much of this trend is anti-Soviet/communist belief though?
4.6.2006 6:27pm
JB:
A lot of sci-fi was written during the Cold War. No wonder it portrays centralization as bad.

That said,

Firefly is another good example of the 'centralized government is bad' genre.

And what do folk think of Lois McMaster Bujold's cheezy-but-insightful Miles Vorkosigan series, which bashes the unrestrained capitalism of Jackson's Whole, the tightly-controlled Cetagandan Imperium, and the traditionalists of Barrayar, while partially giving a pass to the progressive Barrayaran damn-the-laws, rule-by-cult-of-personality and the Betan anything-goes-except-objecting-to-anything-goes.
4.6.2006 6:28pm
Bored Lawyer:
"Who are these people on the Jedi council? Who elects them? Are they subject to some bipartisan confirmation process? "

Not to mention that some, like Yoda lived for something like 900 years. Talk about "lifetime tenure!"
4.6.2006 6:31pm
Vovan:
Sauron and Saruman's efforts to unify Middle Earth under centralized rule are portrayed negatively. When the "good guys" win at the end, King Elessar (Aragorn) establishes a highly decentralized state, with regions such as the Shire and Rohan enjoying near-total autonomy. This was actually a conscious theme of Tolkien's work, as he hated what he considered the excessive, homogenizing centralization of modern industrial society, and also despised the centralizing policies of Britain's post-WWII Labor government.

If you go farther back and look at Tolkien mythological ethos, he seems to be completely at peace with Pope, or the Ayatollah running the show - I mean Aman was literally run by the Valars, and they sure weren't elected
4.6.2006 6:32pm
KenB (mail):
I wonder if there's a relationship between this trend and the "absent mother" trend in children's literature -- if you have a strong, benevolent central government, it makes the hero's actions a little less heroic and reduces some of the excitement level of the story. Nothing more exciting than a lone man facing singlehandedly the full power of an autocratic state.
4.6.2006 6:41pm
DK:
Asimov was a socialist. The whole point of the original Foundation Trilogy is that the collapse of the central government would create chaos, and that to save humanity, you needed a group of benevolent mathematicians and psychics to serve as central planners.

I doubt J.K. Rowling is a libertarian. Most of the English people I've known think bureaucracy is as ridiculous as any American libertarian does, but they usually think the problem is either Thatcher or a failure to spend more money on it. The world is full of left-wing British theater depicting heartless NHS bureaucrats.

Monty Python, BTW, satirized the bureaucracy even more savagely than Rowling. I've never heard anyone call them right wing, but perhaps they transcend politics altogether.
4.6.2006 6:41pm
NYU 1L:
Card's governments tend to be strongly federalist, but not very libertarian. Peter's government and later Starways Congress is centralized and controls everything, but allows its sub-entities (nations first, planets later) a lot of leeway. In Speaker and later novels, planets can even dictate the dominant culture and religion on their planets, as long as they provide for basic freedoms (religion and speech coming up most frequently.) This makes Card extremely rare as one of the few SF writers unwilling to impose one ruling style per government.

Other of Card's works mimic this. The Worthing Saga appears to have its planets form a federalist system when they reconnect after the Empire dissolves. The Alvin Maker saga--well, that's just set in America anyways. Homecoming? Well, that's difficult, but the kingdom in Earthborn gave its subentities plenty of sovereignty along with even the freedom to secede.
4.6.2006 6:45pm
RichC:
The whole point of the original Foundation Trilogy is that the collapse of the central government would create chaos, and that to save humanity, you needed a group of benevolent mathematicians and psychics to serve as central planners.

And not just that, but in the final, post-Original Trilogy books, Asimov ends up pimping for a super-collective Gaia-ish entity to ultimately run things.
4.6.2006 6:49pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
The characterization of Herbert's work is half right. As nearly as I could glean from the Dune series, Herbert saw the centralized control of the empire under Leto as essential for humankind's surviving an inevitable "dark age."

So I guess Herbert had a cyclic theory, dialectical if you will, of a tension between centralization and fragmentation.
4.6.2006 6:49pm
Mark Olson (mail) (www):
How about the classic "Doc" Smith Lensmen? Centralized Civilization vs power mad Eddorians? Breeding supermen to defeat evil which then are the overlords for all?
4.6.2006 7:03pm
Ramza:
The characterization of Herbert's work is half right. As nearly as I could glean from the Dune series, Herbert saw the centralized control of the empire under Leto as essential for humankind's surviving an inevitable "dark age."

So I guess Herbert had a cyclic theory, dialectical if you will, of a tension between centralization and fragmentation.


Not really, Leto's logic in the Dune series (and if we thus assume Herbert's logic) was to create something so horrible that humanity would naturally never try it again. Thus Leto created a system that was a complete antithesis of his beliefs in the direction he believed humanity need to go.
4.6.2006 7:06pm
Robert Lutton:
It is interesting to me that you cite LeGuin in a positive manner. There is no more anti-market writer out there that I know of. That is why I love the dispossessed so much. If you think that she is on your side, you need to read the book again.
4.6.2006 7:12pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
I think Ilya is quite right in describing the Foundation series as somewhat ambiguous on this point. Yes, the easy answer is that re-establishing the central Empire will, IIRC, cut 30,000 years of "barbarism" down to 3,000 or so. Look deeper, and there's a little more to it though. Remember, the Foundation undergoes vibrant and explosive growth through commerce, undertaken by private merchants under their own initiative. In fact, these merchants grow to be highly *resistive* to any attempt by the central government to organize them.

Again, not saying the pendulum is all the way in that direction either; just that I think Ilya has it right to characterize the message as mixed.

- Alaska Jack
4.6.2006 7:16pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Most science fiction has the most primitive of political systems and most science fiction writers are verging on insanity. Do we really want to take our political philosophy from the inventor of scientology?
4.6.2006 7:26pm
JohnAnnArbor:
Do we really want to take our political philosophy from the inventor of scientology?

That's bad science fiction.

We're trying to stick with quality here.....
4.6.2006 7:33pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
On this site, is it possible to "killfile" a commenter whose contributions consist almost purely of either trolls or comments which are entirely unilluminating and unconstructive?

- AJ
4.6.2006 7:33pm
strategichamlet (mail):
What about Larry Niven? The Known Space books start grim with the whole forced organ doner thing, but work out better later - anarchy parks, etc. Althogh "The Mote in God's Eye" is highly centralist (possiblely the Pournelle influence?). One common denomenator I would say though is that pretty much all science fiction writers seem liberatarian on matters of sex and privacy
4.6.2006 7:35pm
SLS 1L:
Yeah, the Foundation novels are definitely pro-centralization. While the Empire is not portrayed positively, its collapse is clearly a bad thing. Only the First Foundation whose purpose is to re-centralize everything retains the knowledge gained under the Empire: in the rest of the galaxy, the end of centralized government leads to scientific and technological regression and widespread death.
4.6.2006 7:36pm
JohnAnnArbor:
That is why I love the dispossessed so much.

Vast parts of the book are profoundly unrealistic. The anarchic planet had environmental problems, and supposedly the inhabitants just spontaneously came together and worked to solve food and other supply issues. And the lack of predatory gangs was utopian.

What was interesting was that the supposedly anarchic planet did have a council of sorts that made decisions about interaction with the former home world. The "anarchists" twisted themselves in knots to claim this wasn't a form of government.
4.6.2006 7:37pm
JohnAnnArbor:
Several individual "Star Trek" episodes of each of the series dealt with small "cult of personality"-ruled colonies.

One "Next Generation" episode dealt with an applicant for Federation membership that was not a whole planet, a first for the Federation. The applicant was clearly painted as overly paranoid of its totalitarian neighbor; it was an odd take on a pre-"sunshine policy" Korea.
4.6.2006 7:45pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
We're trying to stick with quality here.....

Then how about Steven Donaldson. He is a bleeding heart liberal (concientious objector who worked in a hospital during the Vietnam War), all his characters are tortured and never do the right thing. The governments are totally messed up, but at least realistically portray the complexities of the societies they operate in. And his main true science fiction series (the Gap Series) is truly a political thriller and extremely complex.
4.6.2006 7:46pm
KevinV (mail):
With regard to Tolkein, the very British regard for traditional institutions is apparent, alongside an equally traditional Shire ruled by a light hand. The unified kingdom of King Elessar included various kingdoms (and some cities, like Dol Amroth) with their own local rulers, customs, laws, etc. A sort of British ideal, so to speak.

With regard to Herbert, am I the only one to read Dune much differently now that we know more of Islamism and the threat it poses? Last time I tried to re-read it I found myself rooting for the Harkonnen when they were supressing the fanatical Fremen and their damn jihad.....
4.6.2006 7:50pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Dan Simmons Endymion series where an extremely futuristic Catholic Church runs the universe is also a pretty interesting political essay.
4.6.2006 7:51pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
With regard to Tolkein

Tolkein was a broken man who dreamed of an England that never existed. Like many of his generation, he saw the horrors of the trenches of World War I, and after the war he retreated into a fantasy world where he tried to reject modern society. He longed for an England that never existed--the pastoral Albion of Wise kings and simple farmers. He was a man broken by the mechanized slaughter of World War I who had the means to retreat to Oxford and live out his life dreaming of a world much kinder and gentler than the real one, or at least one where good ultimately triumphed.
4.6.2006 7:59pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
What about the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan? Many kingdoms... all with various forms of government, but all influenced from behind the scenes by the shadowy and powerful White Tower.
4.6.2006 8:00pm
Fishbane (mail):
WRT Vinge, he's more than a libertarian - in the afterward to The Ungoverned in Selected Stories, he declares


How serious am I about the anarcho-capitalism in "The Ungoverned"? It is something I think could really work In fact, it's the endpoint of many good trends of the last five hundred years.



He goes on to recommend Friedman's Machinery of Freedom.
4.6.2006 8:04pm
Peter Wimsey:
This is an interesting topic (which, if you take a look at the secondary literature you will find has been widely treated), but it does need more nuance.

Utopian literature, no matter when or where it is set, is always "about" the period in which it is written...and I think that there are useful insights to be gained from looking at SF this way.

Star Trek, the original series, clearly reflects a "High Cold War" ethos, with the Federation being a vaguely Nato-like alliance that, while militarized, is relatively benign. But it's locked in a life-or-death struggle with an "evil empire" - the Klingons - who are militarily equivalent to the federation. But who are really mean. There is also a lesser military rivalry with the romulans, although they are less dangerous and more chivalrous. I suppose they're supposed to be the chinese? And there are a lot of non-aligned nations that both the klingons and federation try to woo.

ST-TNG is completely different - it reflects a non-militaristic "we can get along" ethos that was around in the '80's, although many people in the '80s were still in cold war mode.

There are anti-corporate and environmental catastrophe SF works from the 60's; in the '70's there is a lot of "energy shortage" futures.

The kind of hard libertarian distrust of centralization started, I think, with cyberpunk in the '80's. Or at least after cyberpunk I started to see it everywhere...
4.6.2006 8:05pm
CB:
Many novels (not just sci-fi or fantasy) are by necessity anti-centralized -- for any character to be interesting at all, they must use their own imagination and initiative. It would not be that exciting to chronicle the bureaucratic machinations and committee deliberations of the governmental leviathon. Thus any adventure is individualistic.
Sci-fi and fantasy usually fit into this requirement even better, as they usually involve action in the realm of the unknown, on the frontiers. By the nature of this setting, outlaws and explorers abound.
Nice summary of many influential Hugo winners here, but really not that insightful if you peer behind the curtain...
4.6.2006 8:06pm
JohnAnnArbor:
ST-TNG is completely different - it reflects a non-militaristic "we can get along" ethos that was around in the '80's, although many people in the '80s were still in cold war mode.

The Romulan Neutral Zone was still in place, remember, and provided plenty of intrigue, conflict, spying, defections...
4.6.2006 8:20pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
What about the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan?

What about the Wheel of Time? Doesn't the man have an editor? I got through about the middle of the fifth or sixth book when I realized he was never going to end the series. I felt duped--the apparent end was getting further and further in the distance. Come to think of it, it's kind of like the current war.
4.6.2006 8:21pm
Enoch:
Back when Phanton Menace came out, David Brin wrote a scathing commentary on the politics of Star Wars - "Star Wars" despots vs. "Star Trek" populists.

By now it's grown clear that George Lucas has an agenda, one that he takes very seriously.... Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames?

* Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn't be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow.

* "Good" elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability.

* Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough.

* True leaders are born. It's genetic. The right to rule is inherited.

* Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.

That is just the beginning of a long list of "moral" lessons relentlessly pushed by "Star Wars."


He also wrote an entertaining critique of the movie itself.

More recently, I read John Scalzi's books "Old Man's War" and "Ghost Brigades". Decentralized government is definitely NOT the theme there.
4.6.2006 8:21pm
Defending the Indefensible:
Ilya, in regard to your Update, stating that Ursula LeGuin is not libertarian, I think you are wrong. Anarchism is libertarianism. It might be called left libertarianism to distinguish it from the minarchist right libertarianism ideology of the Libertarian Party.
4.6.2006 8:46pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re:
he retreated into a fantasy world where he tried to reject modern society. He longed for an England that never existed--the pastoral Albion of Wise kings and simple farmers.

I think you fail to pick up on one of the major themes in Lord of the Rings, which is the inevitability of change. It takes some of the colour out of life, makes things coarser, and more humdrum. But just as the laughter of the elves goes, so goes Sauron, and you don't get rid of one without getting rid of the other. There's a resignation to and reconciliation with modernity in Lord of the Rings, and a clear rejection of the desire to hold on to the past -- plainest in the episode with Denethor, but it's one of the themes tied to the Ring as well.
4.6.2006 9:06pm
Scott Scheule (mail) (www):
Also, in regards to your update:

One tricky part of talking about decentralization is that, I gather, most people of most political stripes are for it. Those on the left favor a centralized government only so far as it works to break up large concentrations of private wealth, to decentralize them. Those on the right, after a fashion, favor concentrations of wealth and the decentralization of government.
4.6.2006 9:09pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Many novels (not just sci-fi or fantasy) are by necessity anti-centralized -- for any character to be interesting at all, they must use their own imagination and initiative. It would not be that exciting to chronicle the bureaucratic machinations and committee deliberations of the governmental leviathon. Thus any adventure is individualistic.
Sci-fi and fantasy usually fit into this requirement even better, as they usually involve action in the realm of the unknown, on the frontiers. By the nature of this setting, outlaws and explorers abound.

The characters of Ghost in the Shell are government agents and behave basically like a fascist secret police. They hack into peoples' brains and spy through their eyes. They blackmail government officials to keep from getting shut down. An awful lot of the show is taken up with bureaucratic maneuvering. And yet we root for them anyway.

Many novels are . . . but certainly not all novels. Another good example of this is another anime -- Jin-Roh, where the main character really is a member of the secret police under a fascist regime.
4.6.2006 9:13pm
Taeyoung (mail):
*ahem* and when I say "novels" there, I, uh, I mean "science fiction narratives."
4.6.2006 9:14pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
A few other science fiction writers were omitted.

Ben Bova wrote a dozen novels that promote individualistic capitalism and display the many flaws of bureaucratic national governments and world governance organizations.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. writes science fiction and fantasy novels, many of which advocate limited, decentralized government.

But not every science fiction writer opposes big government.

Piers Anthony's five book Apprentice Adept series (a mix of sci-fi and fantasy) replaces a diffuse (but corrupt) government with a computer-run centralized government.

The entire Star Wars series is about which big centralized government will rule the galaxy.

David Weber's Honor Harrington series features wars between big government entities. The "good guys" (Manticore and Grayson) are monarchies. The large, loosely governed Solarian League gets blasted for its corruption and indecisiveness.
4.6.2006 9:26pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
Science fiction writers, necessarily, want and need dramatic conflict. If they choose to make their heroes, rebels against Empire, they do so because it makes for good action and easy sketching of cardboard

Most of SF writers are not all that interested in political arrangements, and the nature of the government or the economy is usually sketchy at best -- with, perhaps, a few strong, highly suggestive strokes, like Dune's Spice Trade.

Asimov wasn't modeling a utopia, he was stealing a plot from Gibbon's Decline and Fall and/or Toynbee. Does anyone believe that Asimov or Gibbon thought the Dark Ages, a libertarian utopia?

Heinlein's Starship Troopers adopts a right-wing authoritarian worldview in describing a Fascist State; how do we reconcile that with his supposed liberatarianism?

I once had an e-mail exchange with Pournelle, about federalism and the history of the American Civil War. What I got out of that is that his "history" and libertarian political views are even more fact-free and fantastical than his fiction.
4.6.2006 10:02pm
abb3w:
Modesitt sprang to my mind, as well; however, I'd say the positions he presents are very often not-so-limited or decentralized. In Adiamante and Gravity Dreams, social costs are centrally evaluated; that's also expressly shown in the background of The Ethos Effect, and implied (more subtlely) in The Parafaith War (which preceeded EE).

He's not so much opposed to centralized government, as to any government unable to adapt to the way conditions vary over time and expanse. Modesitt's main emphasis, regardless of the framework, is the importance of individual responsibility and decisions as to whether or not the framework works. Choices have consequences.

And Freder Frederson: Jordan may be ending his work on the Wheel very soon; he's been diagnosed with amyloidosis and cardiomyapathy, and (with treatment) has a median life expectancy of four years. Unfortunately, he also has a 10% chance of rapid fatality with treatment. He's said the next book should wrap up the main series.
4.6.2006 10:05pm
Brian Macker (mail) (www):
I read the entire Foundation series and what struck me most was that it placed way to much confidence in the ability of the sociologist ability to predict the future. The problem being that in order to predict the future so well it would need to predict future technology. Look at how the combustion engine, telephone, etc. have transformed society. In order to do this it would need to encompass all the other sciences, plus all the implications of those sciences running forward in time, random discoveries, who the inventors are, their births and what they are exposed to growing up, etc. This is quite ridiculous.

As for Star Trek, I am no trekkie but I always got the feeling it was a socialist utopia. I have seen several episodes where they talk about how either earthlings or the federation had done away with the need for "profit", and provided everyone "according to there needs". I also remember Picard talking about some, what seems to me magical, transformation in the human psyche to accomplish this. The lessons against profit often involved scolding those what seem to be stereotypes of the Jews, the Ferengi.

Don't forget Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" which had a very militaristic society where one had to earn citizenship via military service.

I also do not think it is fair to deduce an authors political persuation from his fictional works. If I were writing about elves and leprachauns and such I probably would do so with a medieval societal theme. That doesn't mean I'm pro serfdom.
4.6.2006 10:19pm
Brian Macker (mail) (www):
I read the entire Foundation series and what struck me most was that it placed way to much confidence in the ability of the sociologist ability to predict the future. The problem being that in order to predict the future so well it would need to predict future technology. Look at how the combustion engine, telephone, etc. have transformed society. In order to do this it would need to encompass all the other sciences, plus all the implications of those sciences running forward in time, random discoveries, who the inventors are, their births and what they are exposed to growing up, etc. This is quite ridiculous.

As for Star Trek, I am no trekkie but I always got the feeling it was a socialist utopia. I have seen several episodes where they talk about how either earthlings or the federation had done away with the need for "profit", and provided everyone "according to there needs". I also remember Picard talking about some, what seems to me magical, transformation in the human psyche to accomplish this. The lessons against profit often involved scolding those what seem to be stereotypes of the Jews, the Ferengi.

Don't forget Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" which had a very militaristic society where one had to earn citizenship via military service.

I also do not think it is fair to deduce an authors political persuation from his fictional works. If I were writing about elves and leprachauns and such I probably would do so with a medieval societal theme. That doesn't mean I'm pro serfdom.
4.6.2006 10:19pm
Brian Macker (mail) (www):
Sorry for the double post. I got an user id error on posting and thought I hadn't hit the button when it didn't return.
4.6.2006 10:21pm
Siona Sthrunch (mail):
Eric Frank Russell's stories are strongly anti-government in tone.
4.6.2006 10:33pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Bruce Wilder wrote:

"Heinlein's Starship Troopers adopts a right-wing authoritarian worldview in describing a Fascist State; how do we reconcile that with his supposed liberatarianism?"


Bruce forgets that participation in governemnt was completely voluntary is ST, and that noncitizens had exactly the same rights and priveleges as citizens with the sole exception of the franchise--I don't think it would work that way for long, but that's what he wrote. There is nothing more facist about it than what must be in any military existing along Western lines since the phalanx, and applies solely to the voluntary membership military.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
4.6.2006 10:34pm
Ilya Somin:
also do not think it is fair to deduce an authors political persuation from his fictional works. If I were writing about elves and leprachauns and such I probably would do so with a medieval societal theme. That doesn't mean I'm pro serfdom.

It would if the book portrayed serfdom favorably as a desirable social system. I based my analysis on what the authors seemed to favor, not just on what they portrayed (some of which is in fact portrayed negatively).

Also, many of these writers (especially LeGuin, Vinge, Heinlein, and several others) deliberately wrote the books the way they did in part to express their views on political and ideological issues.
4.6.2006 10:44pm
Tim (mail):
In the original Foundation trilogy, the collapse of the Galactic Empire is not portrayed positively. The foundation godfather, Hari Selden, saw that the empire was doomed to failure. That was predictative: Asimov was not saying that decentralization was good. Quite the contrary. The whole point of establishing the two foundations is to short the period between empires from 10000 years or so of war to only 1000 years. (Asimov elaborates on this and makes this all clear in his 'Hari Seldon' prequels to the trilogy.)

What is interesting is the shifting attitudes towards different possible futures for the galaxy.
In the third book of the original trilogy, the first foundation wanted to root out the psychohistorians of the second foundation. The first foundation did not like the idea of their fate being controlled by those who could predict and manipulate the future. The second foundation comes out the heroes, sort of (they outwit the first), but the concerns of the first foundation do not seem entirely ridiculous.

The protagonist in the fourth book has to choose between three options for the future of the galaxy. All of them involve centralization. The leader of the first foundation is portrayed negatively in the fourth book. This is because she thinks she can establish a military empire throughout the whole galaxy 500 years before Selden predicted it was possible (she thinks Selden didn't forsee the advances in weapons and technology). An empire founded on force in this manner seems unappealling, but it does have one advantage over the second option. The second option is the original Seldon plan, in which the psychohistorians of the second foundation works behind the scenes to predict (and manipulate) history. This seems very creepy and totalitarian. Then, there is the third option, which is Gaia, or rather "Galaxia", which means that the whole galaxy will become one giant collective superorganism. Even creepier. All three choices involve centralization and loss of freedom. The more centralized the option, the more sympathetic to it Asimov seems. The third option of Galaxia is chosen. Later (I think in the fifth book), the hero of the fourth book is asked why he chose Galaxia. I think he says something about humans needing to be ready and united if ever an alien force from outside the galaxy ever came. Anyway, Asimov was pretty pro-centralization.
4.6.2006 11:21pm
Larry Westrum (mail):
Star Trek had some of the manifest destiny attributes that the American Western movie genre had prior to the Sergio Leone westerns. But Star Trek really reduces to futurism. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry reportedly flew 89 missions in the pacific theater during WWII, some of which in B-17 bombers. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war he flew for Pan American World Airways and apparently even crash landed a plane in the Syrian desert enroute to Calcutta. Roddenberry was a futurist, aviator, and a television writer. His aviation influence comes out in Star Trek if you know what to watch for. You cannot help but be a futurist if you have ever strapped an airplane to your backside, taxied to the centerline of the runway, pushed in the throttle and lifted into the sky, solo. Star Trek science fiction is about a secular future where mankind has survived its adolescence of self-destructive fascination with nuclear brinksmanship. (So it's not James Joyce. After a year I'm still trying to get through Ulysses.) Star Trek is a useful mythology. The Star Trek world is a secular society that works. It is a world in which authoritarianism is obsolete and blustering partisanship is regarded as a disfigurement. You can keep the warp drives and transporter beams- mere deus ex machina. I'll take the prime directive any day.
4.6.2006 11:50pm
SenatorX (mail):
My two cents:

Dune : Very interesting series (I really only enjoyed the first three though) with the last being the best.

"Not really, Leto's logic in the Dune series (and if we thus assume Herbert's logic) was to create something so horrible that humanity would naturally never try it again. Thus Leto created a system that was a complete antithesis of his beliefs in the direction he believed humanity need to go."

Yeah that's correct and so the tyranny of Leto served what purpose? It was to survive what he "saw" but he also (quantum style) realized that was foreseen was created. What he saw for the future of mankind was eventual extinction by prescient machines. His plan for humanities survival was two-fold. One was the many thousand years of tyranny for as you said to change humanity so deeply they would never go back to that and instead SPREAD OUT as widely as possible. The second was to create a large numbers of people spreading out who were INVISIBLE to those with prescient.

Very aligned with the blog theme if you ask me. Herbert was one interesting dude and you can be sure his philosophy is embedded in the whole series. One of the most sophisticated books I have read. Tolkien's Silmarillion was another of that caliber (different though as basically a genesis).

"Do we really want to take our political philosophy from the inventor of scientology?

That's bad science fiction.

We're trying to stick with quality here....."

Classic LoL. I actually enjoyed BFE but I read the Mission Earth series and it IS really bad. This was long before I knew about the scam though. I must be one of the few people who actually bought those books to read them.

"Dan Simmons Endymion series where an extremely futuristic Catholic Church runs the universe is also a pretty interesting political essay."

One of the best series ever. I liked the first two the best by far though. Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion. Pure pleasure.

What about Snow Crash? It's been a while but I remember a complex world of franchising. (I think I remember too a russian mobster with a nuke in his sidecar wired into his brain on a suicide trigger..am i crazy or was that in there?)

Anyone read Altered Carbon? (and the two after) That's one of the best new series there is. Gibson-esc (where are ya Wintermute?) but original too. The main character is an ex "Envoy" which are specially trained centralist enforcers basically. The deal is space travel takes to long but they have managed to digitize people so that "you" really exist in a small container in your spine. You just wear "sleeves" (bodies). An interesting side note for you lawyers would be the virtual prison system. Unfortunately you don't get your body back so you serve time and get let out to return home in a different body.
Anyway when there were rebellions on colonized planets they wouldn't send a ship full of troops there. They would "hypercast" some Envoys who were specially trained to adapt to new bodies and new environments. They would have modified combat sleeves of course and would infiltrate and quell whatever...brutally. The main character is an Ex-Envoy though so is very anti-centrist and bitter about the things they did "for peace".

A must read series for those with their priorities straight.
4.6.2006 11:59pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

He said something to the effect that he would prefer to be rule by an absolute monarch who would rather spend the entirety of his days playing golf and ignoring the affairs of state.


You could make a good case for that with Heinlein too, viz Glory Road and the government on Secundus in Time Enough for Love.
4.7.2006 12:23am
Bleepless (mail):
Mack Reynolds wrote nothing but political sf, many of his pieces being studies of various proposed utopias. In his stories, they almost always worked, including the federation of collectives. Also, he loathed the USSR.

Frederik Pohl writes a lot of liberal apologias.

Poul Anderson liked decentralized feudalism and despised Communism.

L. Neil Shulman's Alongside Night ends with a libertarian revolt, the guru being an obvious bow to Milton Friedman.

L. Neil Smith (yes, the name is correct) once chaired the Libertarian Party's platform committee. He has written a series of novels taking place in a libertarian utopia wherein the Whiskey Rebellion succeeded and George Washington "exhaled his last cigarette through a dozen holes in his chest." There is mention of a large naval battle, the good guys being led by Admiral Heinlein, and a second-story burglar is named Tricky Dick Milhous. Amusing nonsense.
4.7.2006 12:34am
Robert Racansky:

What about Larry Niven? The Known Space books start grim with the whole forced organ doner thing, but work out better later - anarchy parks, etc. Althogh "The Mote in God's Eye" is highly centralist (possiblely the Pournelle influence?).


The Mote in God's Eye was not part of Larry Niven's "Known Space" series. It was part of Jerry Pournelle's "Co-Dominium/Empire of Man" universe.
4.7.2006 1:17am
Defending the Indefensible:
Bleepless,

Schulman is J. Neil.
4.7.2006 1:18am
Defending the Indefensible:
Of course I misspelled his last name.
4.7.2006 1:19am
Avatar (mail):
Niven spends a good amount of time with questions of governance, come to think of it. He posits the ARM, a super-UN-type entity that essentially controls the entirety of Earth in an (occasionally necessary) effort to prevent the whole species from dying off. Execution by disassembly for organ transplants causes huge legal distortions in that series, and if you've ever thought it was a good idea, read his books! It's counterbalanced by the hyperindividualistic Belter society and a scattering of colony worlds, but the ARM keeps on chugging along...

One of his Gil the ARM stories is a murder mystery / legal thriller on the moon, and another is of a man being executed for repeated speeding.

He isn't really for or against either method, in the sense that one is evil/wrong/bad/screws up and the other doesn't; different strokes for different folks, and anarchy is really dangerous.

But if you want to talk good SF writing and fully decentralized government, shoot, why not read Banks? Not merely post-scarcity, but post-practically anything. Society run by an agglomeration of hyper-sentient vessels and artificial intelligences, with no law whatsoever. Property rights only enforceable by mores of the individuals involved and the resources that an individual can talk others into making available to him - a system that couldn't possibly work except in an environment where satisfying people's everyday, and in fact extraordinary, needs is utterly trivial.

Works pretty well, a society run by more-or-less benevolent superintelligences. Except that the only real lever said intelligences have on each other is social opprobrium (and, way back in the background, good old-fashioned guns), and occasionally they do go rogue and cause trouble.

I'll posit that one reason SF writers are generally libertarian on views of sexual behavior in the context of their writing is because SF readers (do? are percieved to? may?) have a preference for some sex in the story, and it's hard to deliver if you're being a prude.
4.7.2006 2:37am
jpaulg (mail):
I think the best insight into Asimov's political though comes from his Elijah Bailey books (Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and the Robots of Dawn).

Whilst he seems sympathetic to the idea of an idealised socialist system of government he ultimately it's the vigor of a decentralised system that offers the best hope.
4.7.2006 4:53am
Freder Frederson (mail):
And Freder Frederson: Jordan may be ending his work on the Wheel very soon; he's been diagnosed with amyloidosis and cardiomyapathy, and (with treatment) has a median life expectancy of four years.

I did not know that. If I did, my comment would not have been so snide. That is truly unfortunate and sad.
4.7.2006 9:33am
AppSocRes (mail):
To be fair to Asimov, one of his early novels -- I cannot recall which -- involves a search for an incredibly powerful secret weapon that will give one side in a galactic civil war an enormous advantage over the centralized empire it is fighting. The secret weapon turns out to be copies of either the Declaration of Independence or The US Constitution. Asimov always seemed to me to be a realistic pessimist: His political writings always seemed aware that rule of law, democratic institutions, and physical, economic, and intellectual freedom were rare enough in human history to suggest that they were almost antithetical to our biological roots. On the other hand, he always clearly hoped for the triumph of Anglo-American liberal political philosophy and practice over those who would be happier seeing humanity subservient to one form or another of despotism.
4.7.2006 9:34am
Public_Defender (mail):
Battlestar Galactica features a very centralized democratic government with military oversight. Fans got to watch a democratic civilian government form and then bargain and fight with the military over spheres of influence.

Recently, the elected leader tried to cheat to stay in power because her opponent was a mentally unstable man who played to the people's emotions at the expense of their safety. The military stepped in and made the president play by the rules. It reminded me of how the Turkish military has acted as a check on its mostly democratic government.

The twist was that the challenger was truly mentally unstable and venal. Once in power, he led his people to a defenseless position. As the season ended, their enemy took over and occupied them without firing a shot.

That leads to the question, is it OK to cheat when your opponent really is a dangerous psychopath who will lead his people to ruin? Or do people get the government (and consequences) that they deserve?

I'm a liberal political junkie, and I love the show. I've also seen the neocons over at National Review gush about the show. It must be doing something right.
4.7.2006 9:34am
Jeek:
I'll posit that one reason SF writers are generally libertarian on views of sexual behavior in the context of their writing is because SF readers (do? are percieved to? may?) have a preference for some sex in the story, and it's hard to deliver if you're being a prude.

The reason is that the readers are mostly dorks who don't get any (and many writers are former dorks who don't get any), and they like to dream about worlds in which sex is easier to obtain, even for dorks.

Niven spends a good amount of time with questions of governance, come to think of it.

One is retrospectively amused by the Niven / Pournelle works that feature the "Codominium" in which the US and the USSR form a single government and dominate the stars. Talk about an artifact of early 1970s detente...

I am surprised that nobody has mentioned Jack Vance. Libertarian themes play strongly in his work. A number of his works feature efforts to bring down harshly centralized / static systems (e.g. The Durdane trilogy, Emphyrio, To Live Forever, The Blue World). Alastor: Wyst is a clear critique of the unworkability of Communism ("egalism"). The "Gaean Reach" featured in many novels is the loose confederation of human-colonized worlds whose only real "common government" is exerted through an interpol-type police agency. The "ideal" Vance government seems to be that of King Aillas in the Lyonesse trilogy - the King provides basic law and order, and otherwise people are free to do and believe as they see fit, limited only by their personal competence.
4.7.2006 10:10am
SenatorX (mail):
I was thinking more about Dan Simmons's Hyperion series lying in bed last night. It is a perfect example actually of Ilya's blog. The Ousters vs. Hegemon (with the Technocore manipulating the Hegemon). The Ousters are the "good" guys.
4.7.2006 10:57am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Brian Macker: "As for Star Trek, I am no trekkie but I always got the feeling it was a socialist utopia. I have seen several episodes where they talk about how either earthlings or the federation had done away with the need for "profit", and provided everyone "according to there needs"."
Yes, in the hyper-PC spin-off shows. In classic Trek, on more than 6 separate occasions we have plain reference to money/capitalism/profit motive/private property.
But you're exactly right about this:
"The lessons against profit often involved scolding those what seem to be stereotypes of the Jews, the Ferengi."
The Ferengi are indeed classic anti-semitic caricatures. Despicable.
But on the decentralization theme, SenatorX and Bleepless were right to note Stephenson's Snow Crash and L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach - both depict the ultimate in decentralization.
4.7.2006 11:12am
Robert Racansky:
The Ferengi are indeed classic anti-semitic caricatures. Despicable.

From TV-dot-com:


Ferengi
The word "Ferengi" comes from the Afghani and Farsi word for "westerner" - "fereng." The writers intended Ferengi to represent western supposedly more material-oriented cultures: European, American, etc.


Can any Farsi linguists here confirm or rebut this?

In "The Last Outpost" (the episode which introduced the Ferengi), the Ferengi are described as:


DATA: The Ferengi are... well, the best description may be "traders."

PICARD: What kind of "traders"?

DATA: A more accurate comparison modern scholars have drawn from Earth history cites the ocean-going "Yankee Traders" of eighteenth and nineteenth century America, sir.

RIKER: From the history of my forebears? "Yankee Traders?"

DATA (nods): Who sail, in this case the galaxy, in search of mercantile and territorial opportunity.

RIKER: And are those scholars saying the Ferengi may not be too different from us?

DATA: Hardly sir. I believe the analogy refers to the worst quality of capitalists. The ferengi are believed to conduct their affairs of commerce on the ancient principle "Caveat Emptor" - "Let the buyer beware", sir.
4.7.2006 11:54am
Joshua (www):
Aeon J. Skoble wrote:
But you're exactly right about this:
"The lessons against profit often involved scolding those what seem to be stereotypes of the Jews, the Ferengi."
Ironically, the best-known Ferengi character (DS9's Quark) was played by a Jewish actor (Armin Shimerman, who also played at least one other Ferengi previously on TNG and IIRC is also a prominent figure in the Screen Actors' Guild), and an outspoken liberal one at that. But as far as I know, he's never expressed any reservations about his role.

Interestingly, it wasn't until DS9 that Star Trek, with its secular-humanist overtones, began to take on the theocratic impulse, and even then they never really dealt with a true theocracy. The Bajoran government had its share of entanglements with Bajor's religious hierarchy, but temple and state were not one and the same. Meanwhile the Dominion was a pseudo-theocracy at most; the Vorta and Jem'Hadar were conditioned and/or genetically designed to revere their designers, the Founders, as gods, but there was little if any formal system of belief or Founder-worship to be seen.
4.7.2006 11:56am
John Wismar:
Here's one I didn't see mentioned: Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind. This is the sixth installment of his Sword of Truth series, and in this one you have an enterprising libertarian/capitalist protagonist working to subvert an authoritarian/socialist government. The whole book reads a bit like a libertarian PolySci/economics lecture.
4.7.2006 12:25pm
Cheburashka (mail):
I don't think the theme of Firefly was decentralization.

It seemed to be the nostalgia-for-the-confederacy theme that was a staple of early 60s Westerns.

There are surely central/local aspects to that conflict, but making it about decentralization seems misplaced.
4.7.2006 12:58pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Back when Phanton Menace came out, David Brin wrote a scathing commentary on the politics of Star Wars - "Star Wars" despots vs. "Star Trek" populists.


Yes I remember reading it when it came out. Brin came off as a jealous hack who couldn't even be bothered to get the most basic details right about either series. Someone also should have told Brin that Naboo isn't ruled by a hereditary monarch and Darth Vader didn't blow up Alderran, Grand Moff Tarkin did. What was also amusing was trying to portray Star Trek as "populist" when one of the series' most common themes was that nearly every episode would revolve around the bridge crew/command staff while the anonymous drones in the background were there to pretty much get killed off on away missions.
4.7.2006 1:27pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Neither the Vorlons or Shadows had an empire in Babylon 5; they were criticized for being high-handed, not autocratic.


Then why was it called the Vorlon Empire? And why did they use planet-killers on any world were seen as "influenced" by the other? Seems pretty autocratic to me.
4.7.2006 1:28pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
How about the classic "Doc" Smith Lensmen? Centralized Civilization vs power mad Eddorians? Breeding supermen to defeat evil which then are the overlords for all?


Well I for one welcome our Arisian overlords, so long as they really do keep the top marginal tax rate at no more than 7 percent . . .

I would just point out though, that in the Lensmen series they continued to have elections, it's just that the Lensmen kept winning because (supposedly) they really were better than everyone else and we were wise enough to realize it. Might be interesting to write a fan fic about the nefarious underbelly of the Galactic Patrol and whether they really were as squeaky clean as the First Historian said they were.
4.7.2006 1:34pm
jvarisco:
I would disagree that Jordan's Wheel of Time is anti-centralization, the whole point of the series is that Rand has to take control of everything and bring it to fight the Last Battle.

Terry Goodkind is a staunch libertarian, but his series is still very pro-centralization; Richard wants people to choose for themselves, but if they choose to be against him they die.
4.7.2006 2:01pm
theophylact:
The most famous anarchist-decentralist novel is of course Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed; but Eric Frank Russell's "And Then There Were None..." is a wonderful predecessor.
4.7.2006 2:35pm
Abe Delnore:
Ilya, I think all you've demonstrated is that decentralized political structures are more adventurous settings than centralized ones, and thus scifi authors tend to create such settings. This may strike some readers as suggestive of the author's political views, or even part of some agenda, but let's step back. Would a scifi world in which an efficient government responds to problems effectively be all that interesting to write or read about? Probably not; much more interesting to set the action on an open frontier, make the government somewhere between incompetent and malevolent, etc.

I am disappointed, although not surprised, to see Heinlein mischaracterized as a libertarian or fascist. The best categorization of his politics is liberal, particularly by the standards prevailing when he wrote Starship Troopers in the 1950s. At that time everyone would have recognized Heinlein as a "hard" (anti-communist) liberal. If libertarians are claiming to be the sole inheritors of that mantle, then they should be prepared for a fight.

The political system outlined in Starship Troopers was part of Heinlein's attempt to come to terms with the Cold War need to have a strong defense establishment (which was unquestioned in the face of the Soviet threat) without compelling people to spend years in the military (which struck Heinlein as undemocratic and Unamerican). If you read his comments on the topic you see that he didn't envision the future society as militaristic and that most of the jobs in public service, prerequisite to citizenship, were not military in character. He could have written a book about someone who drove trucks on the moon, rehabilitated buildings in a run-down city or did some other mundane task. Instead, he chose to write about futuristic infantry, because his other great interest at the time was infantry combat and anyway military action novels present an immediately interesting situation.
4.7.2006 3:01pm
Robert Lutton:
I am surprised none the gun activists has mentioned "the weapon shops of isher" by Van Vogt.
4.7.2006 3:26pm
Soldats (mail):
Regarding Dune:
It's interesting to see that everyone has a different take on it. I read into it that humanity needs to be fragmented and in conflict in order to survive - regardless of the type of government in action. That the nature of humanity and progress depended on the fragmentation and conflict in order to evolve along different lines of development.

It's interesting to see how some took it to warn of the horrors of centralized government and others took it as an indication to never try centralization again, and yet another took it to reflect the Isalamist conflict. It might behoove that reader to reflect on the factional and reconfigured religions expressed in the book and that the Fremen were followers of Zensunni Catholicism.
4.7.2006 3:36pm
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
You can add Paolini's Inheritance Trilogy to the list. The first two books 'Eragon' and 'Eldest' tell the story of a powerful emperor who came to power over what was a loose confederation of Humans, Elves and Dwarves in autonomous city states.
4.7.2006 3:42pm
PersonFromPorlock:

David Weber's Honor Harrington series features wars between big government entities. The "good guys" (Manticore and Grayson) are monarchies. The large, loosely governed Solarian League gets blasted for its corruption and indecisiveness.


It should be noted that Weber's Honor Harrington series began as a pastiche of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels and, as such, had to have governments that were analogs of late Eighteenth-century France and England.
4.7.2006 3:50pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Re the different interpretations of Dune:

I just took it to mean that, when a writer has written a great book that stands perfectly well on its own, he or she should leave it at that and not try to extend the franchise by churning out progressively murkier, more contorted sequels.

- AJ
4.7.2006 3:51pm
Peter Wimsey:
"Ferengi" is the arabic word for Europeans although its origin is from the word "Frank". It was coined during the crusades because many crusders were Franks and identified themselves as such.

I don't really think that the name was chosen to consciously identify the ferengi with the crusaders - they are extremely non-militaristic and they don't actually do any crusading. (I suppose if the goal of crusaders had been to open bars in the Abbasid caliphate, a lot of things would have been different).

While not being specifically identified with the Jews, the Ferengi behave in a manner that is very close to stereotypical anti-semitic caricatures of Jews, except with big ears instead of big noses. It would be easy to see a ferengi playing the part of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice and everyone being satisfied with the clever way the ferengi gets his comeuppance in the play. Actually, an updated Merchant set in the ST universe would be disturbingly...plausible. Antonio's ships would be starships instead of sailing ships, and they would be lost in space. The setting would be the planet venice and the planet Belmont. Portia's "three casket" test would be like any number of puzzles set by alien races for the ST crew - maybe Data/Spock would solve the puzzle by logic. I suppose solving the casket question would be necessary to save the planet, not win Portia's hand in marriage...at least not if Spock/Data is the one who solves the puzzle. But I digress.

I suspect that the uncomfortable resemblence of ferengi to anti-semitic caricatures is why in DS9 the ferengi themselves came to be seen as comic relief rather than a race that presented a challenge to the federation and needed to be taken seriously. ISTR that they were more menacing in ST:TNG.
4.7.2006 4:12pm
Robert Racansky:
The political system outlined in Starship Troopers was part of Heinlein's attempt to come to terms with the Cold War need to have a strong defense establishment (which was unquestioned in the face of the Soviet threat) without compelling people to spend years in the military (which struck Heinlein as undemocratic and Unamerican). If you read his comments on the topic you see that he didn't envision the future society as militaristic and that most of the jobs in public service, prerequisite to citizenship, were not military in character. He could have written a book about someone who drove trucks on the moon, rehabilitated buildings in a run-down city or did some other mundane task.


That's what Heinlein said in Expanded Universe, twenty years after Starship Troopers. But James Gifford, in "The Nature of Federal Service in Starship Troopers" [warning: PDF file], observes that "All explicit and unambiguous references to Federal Service in the novel make it clear that it is military/military support in nature." Heinlein may have meant for the federal service to include civilian jobs, but that's not what comes through in his finished product.

The political system was not about a strong military, but about the need for the citizens of a democratic system to demonstrate an interest in the survival of that system.


I think I know what offends most of my critics the most about STARSHIP TROOPERS: It is the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37 degrees C.

But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Democracies usually collapse not too long after the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses...for a while. Either read history or watch the daily papers; it is now happening here. Let's stipulate for discussion that some stabilizing qualification is needed (in addition to the body being warm) for a voter to vote responsibly with proper consideration for the future of his children and grandchildren - and yours. The Founding Fathers never intended to extend the franchise to everyone; their debates and the early laws show it. A man had to be a stable figure in the community through owning land or employing others or engaged in a journeyman trade or something.

[snip: see "comments" here]

d) I don't insist on any particular method of achieving a responsible electorate; I just think that we need to tighten up the present warm-body criterion before it destroys us.


As he wrote in Expanded Universe, the system in Starship Troopers wasn't the only possible solution. He also suggested wealth, intelligence, and motherhood -- "a woman who is mother to a child knows she has a stake in the future" as other possible pre-requisites for full citizenship.
4.7.2006 5:10pm
Roderick T. Long (mail) (www):
On _Starship Troopers_: despite the irony that Heinlein's characters explicitly attack Plato's Republic as an "anthill society," the whole social system in that book is based directly on Plato's Republic (only with more social mobility than Plato allows). Material luxury is confined to the lowest and allegedly least noble class, the producers (just as in Plato only the lowest class, the producers, are exempted from communism); next above them are current military, who deny themselves material luxury (Plato's auxiliaries); finally the top ruling class, who likewise deny themselves material luxury, are drawn exclusively from retired military (Plato and Heinlein both agreeing that the nobility of warfare is an appropriate preparation for leadership while the ignobility of trade is not).
(In _The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress_, by contrast, Heinlein is pretty explicitly libertarian.)

On David Brin's critique of Star Wars, I wonder if he's recanted in the light of Episode III? After all, Episode III pretty clearly came out against most of the things Brin claimed the movies were supporting.

On the Ferengi: on the bright side, there was one episode of DS9 (I forget the name, but I think it's one of the first ones to feature the Dominion) when the humans were ragging on the Ferengi as usual for being greedy etc., and Quark replied: "Say what you will, but there are no death camps in MY planet's history; no profit in it."
4.7.2006 5:58pm
Randomscrub (www):
I largely agree with SenatorX that you're interpretation of The Dune Chronicles is only half right. The entire point of "The Golden Path" was to free humanity and ensure its continued survival.

First Leto II gave them what they thought they wanted: peace. Leto's peace lasted for 10,000 years, during which interplanetary travel was forbidden to most of the empire. He knew he would eventually be assassinated, and that upon his assassination, there would be a great diaspora, as humanity desired that which they had been forbidden for so long: freedom.

But that wasn't enough. He also took over the Bene Gesserit breeding program to free humanity from being seen by those with prescient powers. Finally, the worms, each with a pearl of Leto's awareness (spawned upon his death), were wiped out in a nuclear holocaust that was also part of the plan (which Miles Teg saw at the end of book 5). This was necessary because Herbert seemed to believe (probably based on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) that the act of prescient observation of the future locks that future into predetermined paths (not any one path, but it narrows the options).

The God Emperor went all out to ensure that humanity would develop in such a way that it would be impossible to wipe out, impossible to trap via prescience, and diverse enough to continually grow.
4.7.2006 7:04pm
DensityDuck (mail):
"Starship Troopers": It would be interesting to see someone write an essay drawing parallels between Citizens and Nietzchean Supermen. The book never really explains how a man becomes a citizen--they just kind of do. Indeed, this is one of the major themes that the characters discuss on several occasions! So we have Citizens, who answer to a higher moral authority, and mere mortals like you and me are incapable of understanding that morality. (And then you have the overt Superman--lethal training, armor that lets them fly through the air and kill from unanswerable distance.)

As for the blog post: I don't think that many of these writers were arguing against centralization. I'd say that all of the works Ilya cites are railing against absentee government. It's okay to have a King, as long as he's your King, who lives down the street and sees you every day. When the Central Bureaucracy is on a different planet, often so far away that you're unlikely to go there in your lifetime, that is what sci-fi writers dislike.
4.7.2006 8:42pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
I don't think Joe Straczinski would agree with your characterization of the Interstellar Alliance. There's one major failing of it that occurred partly due to the effects of the Shadows' servants' influence and partly due to Garibaldi's recurrence of alcohol problems. In the end he treats the Alliance as a very good thing with its beginnings in a flawed but on the whole very good man. Straczynski is a real lefty, by the way. He likes Smirking Chimp.

There's also the X-Files, which is about as paranoid about government control as any show could be, albeit in the very specific context of alien coverups.

I think the Shannara series by Terry Brooks has some pro-decentralization elements to it, as well. The different races are independent, and the problems are partly due to the expanding Federation, though there's usually some other evil force as the main enemy.

Rue Des Quatre Vents: The Jedi Council isn't a political entity. It's the governing body of the Jedi order, which served as the police force of the Republic. The police force promotes from within. I don't see how that has anything to do with judicial activism. The political governing was done by the Senate, led by its chancellor, who didn't have absolute power as emperor until Episode III.

Also, the prequels are at the very end of a long and productive Republic, and it's after the influence of Darth Sidious had already been at work for a long time, particularly in the second and third movies. That is not how the Republic worked earlier in its history.

DK: I wouldn't say Monty Python could hope to transcend politics. Much of what they did is political. I'd say they're closer to the Daily Show than anything else we've got today, and they were almost definitely left-leaning in pretty much every respect, though I suspect one or two of them may be left-leaning libertarians. Terry Gilliam in particular seems as if he's more libertarian. I don't know about Terry Jones, but I think the other three are probably standard liberal types, ala their good friend George Harrison.

Orson Scott Card is a pretty typical religious right conservative, though of the more intellectual sort. He's similar in views to many other politically conservative Mormons such as Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney. We have easy indicators with him, because his blog is largely about politics. He's no libertarian on matters of sex, either. He holds about as traditional a view as you can get.

Peter Wimsey: TNG came out in 1986, but most of the influence in the early years was Roddenberry pushing his utopian socialism. After he died, you saw more willingness to tackle potential conflicts with other races, such as the Cardassians. That really came to a head in DS9 with the Dominion War, but you also started to see problems within the Federation. I think the Cold War impact was less because Roddenberry's utopianism had come to full form.

Bruce Wilder: Isn't Starship Troopers an attempt to show the extremes of fascism?

Brian Macker: The Ferengi are Social Darwinists, not Jews. They are to some degree what the stereotype of Jews is supposed to be, but that's because that stereotype reflects what Social Darwinism recommends. Ferengi do seem to be played mostly by Jews, though, at least on DS9.

Aeon Skoble: Despicable? The Ferengi are on the most endearing races in all fantasy and SciFi. If someone were trying to make fun of Jews, perhaps that would be an issue, but there's no reason at all to suspect such a thing. They decided to explore what it would be like to have a society that fully followed Ayn Rand's ethical egoism, and they did a nice job. Unfortunately, the Nagus ended up being weak-willed toward the end and handed his job over to Quark's brother Rom, a real liberal. I suppose they wanted to show that the Ferengi could progess, but it lost a lot of the charm.

Peter Wimsey: The Ferengi started out seeming more menacing, because in their first encounter they didn't trust each other, and there were some individual Ferengi who tried to do some dangerous things against Picard or the Enterprise, but there was never any sense that they were a military power except in the pilot when the Federation knew nothing about them at all and assumed them to be such.

Cheburashka: I believe Joss Whedon makes decentralization more of a theme you want to allow. Watch the interviews on the DVDs. He's proud of the libertarian view that comes forth in this series.
4.7.2006 10:05pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Jeremy -


I suppose they wanted to show that the Ferengi could progess, but it lost a lot of the charm.


Yes. Up until BSG, the last few seasons of DS9 were the best hard sci-fi I'd ever seen on television. I think that's why that misstep (IMO, of course) really sticks out for me like a sore thumb. Oh great, everything gets homogenized into the mushy Federation. It was a jarring throwback to the nauseatingly preachy early seasons of TNG.

One minor thing I think you got wrong, though -- I read somewhere (I'm sorry I don't have the source for this) that the Ferengi were originally intended to be the main antagonists of TNG. I think this can also clearly be seen in the first TNG episodes that featured them. But that didn't work out, either because the anti-capitalist take was too heavy-handed even for early TNG, or because viewers just didn't take them seriously. So they were converted to more-or-less comic relief. But my sense of it is that was not the original intent.

- AJ
4.7.2006 10:28pm
econMC (mail):
I tend to agree with this guy that Star Trek depicts a Fascist ideology. Fun show but the collectivism is nauseating.

"The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force; we work to better humanity."
-Jean-Luc Picard
4.8.2006 12:24am
jm121:
More on Herbert. Another book The Dosadi Experiment posited the existence of a Bureau of Sabotage. A government bureau dedicated to sabotaging the rest of the government.
4.8.2006 1:35am
Peter Wimsey:
DK writes -
Asimov was a socialist. The whole point of the original Foundation Trilogy is that the collapse of the central government would create chaos, and that to save humanity, you needed a group of benevolent mathematicians and psychics to serve as central planners.


Asimov wasn't a socialist unless you define anyone who plans as a socialist - he didn't believe in the rise of the proletariat or that workers are exploited by an oppressive capitalist system or that money would become useless or the state fade away.

And the "planning" in his book isn't command economy "planet X will produce 3 million tons of steel" 5-year-plans. In fact it's the opposite, since all of the planners work in secret are aren't the government. The foundation planners - to the extent they resemble anything - seem to be a cross between a secret federal reserve and an effective CIA.

Or maybe the secret cabal of jewish bankers and the masons that the black helicopter folk are always worrying about.
4.8.2006 2:29am
Friedrich Foresight (mail):
> As I recall, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series is pretty much pro-centralization

[SPOILER ALERT!]

Asimov also wrote a short story, "The Dead Past", that presented an unusually compelling argument for government censorship. The hero is a plucky journalist who wants to Speak Truth To Power by releasing, publicly, the secret for making a "chronoscope" that can look back into the distant past. He manages to outwit the government agent who tries to stop him. At the end, when the hero smugly announces that the newspaper detailing the plans has already being printed and hitting the streets, the G-man informs him that the chronoscope is not only limited to the ancient past (for which it had been used -- universities had to get a government permit to scan ancient Rome, and so firth). It could be used for any "past", up to five minutes ago: ie, it could be used for spying on anyone, even through walls. So -- "Say goodbye to privacy. The world we used to know is dead. YOU killed it." [= My paraphrase and summary from memory].

The idea that the government was correct in suppressing information, and the "leaker" might -- just might -- be wrong in publishing it, was so counter-intuitive to me that the story has always stuck in my mind. It's not just outside the mould of most SF (whose writers are usually either left-liberals or libertarian minimal-staters; collectivists and conservatives are thin on the ground in space); it also seemed very out of character for Asimov, who always described himself as a liberal who supported civil rights.

So -- either Asimov was so honest that he was willing to sympathetically portray a viewpoint he disagreed with; or else he was so dishonest that he really stood for benevolent government centralisation, not for individual liberty against the government.

C/f also Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Empire of Man:

Senator Benjamin Bright Fowler: "Parliament's been concerned about Imperial prerogatives. If there's anything that's pure prerogative, it's defence against aliens. But if they're peaceful and all that, Parliament wants a say in the trade deals. Emperor isn't about to turn the Motie question over to Government [scil Parliament?] until we're sure what we're up against. But he can't manage this from Sparta. Can't come out here himself -- boy, that would cause problems at the Capital. Parliament couldn't stop him from turning it over to Crown Prince Lysander, but the boy's too young. Deadlock. His Majesty's one thing, but appointed agents with Imperial powers are another. Hell, I don't want to give Imperial authority to anybody but the Royal Family. One man, one family, can't personally exercise too much power no matter how much they've got in theory, but give them appointed agents and it's another matter."" (The Mote in God's Eye, 1974, Chapter 48).

Frank Herbert had Paul Atreides making a similar point in "Dune Messiah": an absolute monarchy is personal and limited; a constitutional/ republican regime is impersonal, and so capable of indefinite extension. Sounds like Tolkien with his preferred golfing King.
4.8.2006 4:28am
Friedrich Foresight (mail):
> "Heinlein's Starship Troopers adopts a right-wing authoritarian worldview in describing a Fascist State; how do we reconcile that with his supposed libertarianism?"

How? Because Heinlein makes it clear throughout "SST" that his future Federation, while it has a restricted franchise, gives the vote to anyone who agrees to undergo military service. And although it inflicts punishments we would consider cruel and unacceptable (eg, whipping, and zero-tolerance for first offenders), it doesn't inflict these except on people who have chosen to commit a crime. If you prefer not to do military service, and you don't commit any crimes, you live your life unmolested by the state (and also, Heinlein argues, unmolested by ordinary criminals either).

"Fascism" doesn't mean "any government I personally feel uncomfortable about". It specifically means one that exalts the state and the leader above the individual, and that singles out certain groups (usually marked out by involuntary traits, eg race or religion, rather than voluntary conduct) as "the other". The "SST" Federation, by contrast, is quite happy to enlist any and every human regardless of ethnicity (it's giant bugs who are constructed as "The Other" here -- although this can itself in turn be challenged, eg by Joe Haldeman in "The Forever War").

Granted, the "SST" Federation is not the purest form of libertarianism; I suspect they would take a dim view of dope-smoking. But they do qualify as Hayekian semi-libertarians. No one gets harassed, except by the state if s/he chooses to break a law.

I would not personally want to live under such a government, but I don't think you have to be a "fascist" to want to. I'm pro-choice as to which of a number of different Hayekian-compliant regimes people should be allowed to choose among.
4.8.2006 8:18am
DensityDuck (mail):
Foresight: I also don't think that the Federal Service described in "Starship Troopers" was immediately military. Yes, I know what Some Guy said in an essay. He's an idiot. Heinlein specifically states in the book that it isn't automatically military service.

He does imply that it is dangerous service, where one would have a reasonable chance of death or permanent injury merely from doing the job.
4.8.2006 10:13am
Beerslurpy (mail) (www):
The movie was a very poor rendering of the book.

In Starship Troopers (the book), plenty of people did their federal service in a non-military capacity in ST. They took placement exams when they went in. Johnny Rico tested so low on intelligence that his two choices were something like Military Dog Handler and Mobile Infantry. He didnt like animals so he decided to go for Mobile Infantry. His smarter friends got much sweeter assignemnts that didnt involve fighting. I cant remember their names, but one of them got to be a weapons researcher (there was a war going on with the bugs).

I always thought it was more of the Aristotlean idea of the government being run by those who would bear arms in its defense. A very similar idea to the one that our country was founded on.
4.8.2006 2:57pm
Enoch:
His smarter friends got much sweeter assignemnts that didnt involve fighting.

Carmen became a starship pilot, which is definitely a combat assignment. Carl went into R&D, but it's hard to regard that as a "non-military" position (especially his job was NOT considered a part of the "non-combatant auxiliary corps"). It is clearly stated in chapter 2 that the three are signing up for military service.

The non-military positions in "Federal Service" are not described in detail, but sound inferior and unattractive - "digging tunnels on Luna... human guinea pig for new diseases... laborer in the Terranizing of Venus". AmeriCorps or the State Department, this ain't.
4.8.2006 5:53pm
markm (mail):
John Wismar: Yes, in many ways Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series has turned into a libertarian tract - but a paradoxical one. Richard Rall, the libertarian protagonist, is also Lord Rall, a monarch who is apparently the only one allowed to practice wizardry in his kingdom, and whose subjects virtually pray to him daily. The alternative to Rall's rule isn't freedom, it is physical and mental subjection to an empire that is terribly oppressive on the temporal plane, and is also in alliance with pure evil on the magical plane. The Emperor has the ability to take over others' minds by walking in their dream; Richard's subjects gain protection against this and most other magical attacks by their ritual submission &prayer to Lord Rall.

I take this as symbolizing a fundamental paradox of libertarianism: a free society will appear to be wealthy and easily looted, so it cannot survive long unless it can effectively wage war against predatory nations. Having the wealth to procure the best weapons makes this easier, but to use those weapons well enough to beat a heirarchical military requires a heirarchical military organization where most orders are obeyed. To keep your freedom, someone has to temporarily give up quite a lot of it...
4.8.2006 5:56pm
DensityDuck (mail):
Enoch: "Carl went into R&D, but it's hard to regard that as a "non-military" position..."

You're right, it's just like today, where everyone in NASA has a military rank, and NASA is always running Mensa Black Ops into China to spy on their manned space program.

Oh wait, THAT'S NOT HOW IT IS AT ALL!

And you're right that the non-combat options for Federal Service don't sound attractive. That's the whole idea! Federal Service is meant to be difficult--as they say in the book, it's made as hard as possible, on purpose. The idea being that only a truly responsible human would voluntarily subject themselves to such punishment, with little or no immediate reward, solely for the benefit of an abstract concept like "society". Federal Service isn't just make-work--this isn't some Cool Hand Luke "your dirt's in my hole!" deal. There is a definite need for these things, and military service is only one of the things. But the constant is that they all involve some element of danger. Even in an R&D job, you might accidentally convert your research sample into a twelve-kilogram lump of positrons.
4.8.2006 8:21pm
Enoch:
DiscoDuck, Berslurpy asserted that Rico's friends signed up for "non-military" jobs, and that is simply not true. Carl signed up for a military job - in the "Research and Development Corps". Not all military jobs are combat jobs, but they are nonetheless military.

The fact that the "non-military" jobs in Federal Service amount to ditch digger or lab rat rather undercuts the idea that it's not a militaristic society where there are viable non-military options for gaining the franchise.
4.9.2006 1:31am
Peter Wimsey:
Beerslurpy writes
I always thought it was more of the Aristotlean idea of the government being run by those who would bear arms in its defense. A very similar idea to the one that our country was founded on.


Except that our government gave the franchise to people who owned a certain amount of property, even if they did not bear arms in its defense, and denied franchise to those who did not own a certain amount of property, even if they did bear arms in its defense.

So, really, it's not at all similar.
4.9.2006 1:46am
DensityDuck (mail):
Enoch: So you consider contemporary NASA to be a military job? Or how about L3/Narda Microwave, one of Lockheed's subcontractors for the MUOS program. MUOS is a military communications satellite, so does that mean that working for Narda Microwave is now a military job? (Bearing in mind that they typically make cell-phone towers.)

"The fact that the "non-military" jobs in Federal Service amount to ditch digger or lab rat..."

Look, nobody said that these would be nice, fun jobs that anyone could do with little effort and less risk. The book itself points out that easy stuff is done by non-citizens. If a Federal Service position does not involve direct risk to life and limb, then it must be proportionally harder to constitute the appropriate test of will. Otherwise, what would be the point?
4.9.2006 7:36pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Commenter Abe Delnore -- I once had a student by that name, is that you?
4.10.2006 11:19am
Enoch:
Duckmeister, your blather about NASA is irrelevant. Carl's job in Starship Troopers is clearly a military job. His job is akin to uniformed military who work for the Air Force Research Laboratory or the Office of Naval Research.

Sergeant Ho: "A term of service isn't a kiddie camp; it's either real military service, rough and dangerous even in peacetime... or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof."

Doesn't sound like there's any significant "Civil Service" component to Federal Service to me - no hordes of GS13s, GS14s, and GS15s shuffling papers in their cubicles all day.

When Rico tells dad he wants to sign up for Federal Service, dad responds with a lecture:

Son, don't think I don't sympathize with you; I do. But look at the real facts. If there were a war, I'd be the first to cheer you on—and to put the business on a war footing. But there isn't, and praise God there never will be again. We've outgrown wars. This planet is now peaceful and happy and we enjoy good enough relations with other planets. So what is this 'Federal Service'? Parasitism, pure and simple. A functionless organism, utterly obsolete, living on the taxpayers."


Does dad's lecture make any sense if Federal Service was not purely military in nature? Why would he say this if Rico could be signing up for a civil service office job?

Really, you can't read this book and think that Federal Service is not exclusively military plus its support functions (labor, R&D, intelligence, logistics etc.) with exceptions made only for those physically or mentally incapable of serving in a military role.
4.10.2006 9:38pm