My discussion of ‘The Cold Equations’ yesterday seemed to generate quite a bit of interest, so I thought I’d follow it up with this article, in which I consider why I characterise hard sf as intrinsically right wing. ‘Hard Right’ was first published in Argentus 8, December 2008.
A shuttle is delivering vital medical supplies to a plagued world when the pilot discovers a stowaway. It’s a little girl, innocent, weak, all too human, just anxious to visit her brother on the doomed planet. But the pilot knows how finely tuned his craft is, even this marginal increase in payload means it cannot safely land. The little girl would not, could not, harm a fly, but her very presence threatens the survival of an entire planet.
The situation is, of course, entirely artificial. There is no way that the shuttle, especially on such an important mission, would not have failsafe supplies of fuel on board. There are, as endless discussions of ‘The Cold Equations’ since it was first published in 1954 have amply demonstrated (see The New York Review of Science Fiction, passim), plenty of other things that the pilot might have chosen to jettison before the girl. Indeed, we know that the author, Tom Godwin, revised the story many times to try and avoid its dire conclusion, but each time John W. Campbell struck his changes down and insisted on the dire inevitability of the girl’s death. It is this that has made it the archetypal hard sf story.
What is significant about the story is not the misogyny. The fact that the victim is a little girl ratchets up the emotional impact, but the stowaway could as easily have been a little boy, the pilot’s wife, the first alien ever encountered. Who she is, is irrelevant. Nor, perhaps surprisingly, is the technology important. There is remarkably little technological know-how in the story, the pilot knows as much about his craft as the average driver knows about his car. Nothing in the story hinges on the technology other than the initial set-up, and the fact that there is no failsafe suggests that this is neither a likely nor a deeply thought-out technology.
No, what makes ‘The Cold Equations’ hard sf is the fact that there are rules that must be obeyed, rules in the face of which common human feeling is irrelevant.
The hard sf universe, therefore, is a constrained universe. Much has been achieved, much can be achieved, but there are limits in the shape of the laws of nature, the state of knowledge about science. If all fiction deals in conflict, then, at its core, a hard sf story sets up as its antagonist not a figure of evil, of moral corruption, but the cold, unfeeling cosmos. Every hard sf story involves coming up against the limits of what can be done in accord with the current state of knowledge, though the story may then go on to record submission to the rules (as ‘The Cold Equations’ does), or it may present an exceptional hero figure, the competent man, finding a way to circumvent or avoid the law. I’ll come back shortly to the figure of the competent man, but for now I will note that for the common mass of humanity there is no alternative to submission to the law, and their individual feelings, wishes and desires have no part to play in an entirely intellectual engagement with the laws of nature. Which may go some way towards explaining why characterization has never been a strong point of hard sf stories.
For the sake of comparison, let me turn to the type of science fiction story that was superceded by hard sf, and which seems to have regained a measure of dominance in the genre: space opera.
As an exemplar, let us consider the Lensman series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. The six novels that make up the series contain all the characteristics we associate with space opera: a vast scale in both space and time, immense powers, ever greater weapons. At every stage in the story the enemy becomes bigger and the powers deployed against them thus become commensurably greater. In the end they are flinging entire suns at each other. The crudity and silliness of this notwithstanding, there is one obvious underlying fact: this is not a universe of constraint, but rather one of plenty.
If we turn to a modern equivalent of Smith’s series, the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, we can see that this universe of plenty is overtly cast as a utopia. There are no limits in the universe of the Culture, at least none that constrain the characters. The laws of nature, if and where they are acknowledged (and Smith certainly seems to have paid little heed to contemporary scientific understanding), are not restrictions on action but tools that can be exploited. Humans are free to be and do whatever they might wish, which is as implicit in Smith’s creation of ever greater weapons as it is in Banks having a character in Matter remake himself as a bush.
In other words, the principle underlying space opera, the universe within which the space opera operates, is based ultimately on freedom, on openness, on plenty. In contrast, the principle underlying hard sf, the universe within which hard sf operates, is based ultimately on restriction, on the rule of law, on scarcity. I would characterize the one as liberal, the other as right wing.
We must be careful how these terms are understood in this context. I do not mean that anyone who writes space opera is a liberal or that any space opera propagandizes liberal views. Some may, but that is beside the point. Similarly, I do not mean that anyone who writes hard sf is politically on the right (that is manifestly not the case if you consider many of the leading hard sf writers of the 1940s and 50s), nor do I mean that anything they write will necessarily espouse right wing views. In political terms right and left are such flexible concepts that each can represent a wide spectrum of often contradictory views. Furthermore writers frequently, for dramatic reasons, produce work that runs directly counter to their own personal political opinions. But a hard sf story, unless deliberately subverted, will tend towards an underlying right wing position; a space opera, unless deliberately subverted, will tend towards a more liberal take on things.
There is no readily accepted definition of left and right in political terms, so this model of hard sf is bound to be contentious. The terms themselves originated in the physical positions occupied by delegates to the National Assembly at the time of the French Revolution: the Third Estate who tended to support the aims of the revolution sat to the left of the president, the Second Estate who tended to support the old order sat to the right. Since then, any notion of what represents left and right has become increasingly muddied. Fascism, generally considered as representing the extreme right wing, espoused many policies normally associated with the left; while communism, likewise regarded as on the extreme left wing, practiced an authoritarianism more normally seen on the right.
To extend this argument about the generic right wing character of hard sf, therefore, let me pick out certain features that I consider characteristic of the right and see if they can be identified as part of the structure of the hard sf universe. Generally the right favours an hierarchical approach to most social structures, from economics (the notion of ‘trickle-down’ is a classic right wing argument for concentrating funding into already high-earning financial bodies rather than spreading benefits more thinly among the masses) to town planning (post-war Britain was blighted by unpopular housing schemes because the planners refused to consider the views of the people who were supposed to live in them). Such hierarchical structures, rule by the elite, have two noteworthy concomitants: first a tendency towards the militaristic (clearly defined ranks); secondly, an underlying assumption that the ‘great man’ theory of history holds true. The right wing, furthermore, tends to be politically conservative (many right wing parties around the world are called ‘Conservative’), that is, older political orders (monarchies, empires) are defended wherever possible, while, within democracies, political change is resisted. Confusingly (and the more you go into left-right politics, the more confusing everything becomes) a conservative political body can be revolutionary, if the revolution is against a new order that has usurped the old. This, of course, is a natural consequence of the structured, hierarchical, rule-driven view of the world.
Overhead, one by one, the stars were coming on.
This short sentence (deliberately turning on its head the famous last line of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’) effectively summarises another classic of hard sf, ‘Nightfall’ by Isaac Asimov. It is a story that hinges upon the majesty of space, the vast star-bedecked infinity of the universe. What, then, could be more open than that?
And yet the story set within this open universe is as constrained as that in ‘The Cold Equations’, if not more so. Society struggles up from the quagmire of anarchy, builds a civilization, and then the remorseless and inhuman force of nature sweeps away that civilization and casts society back down into madness and anarchy. There is no escape, the law is absolute and implacable. Where, in space opera, we might expect humans to bend nature to their will, here in hard sf nature bends humanity to its will.
But it is not just the constriction of the universe that makes this story hard sf. We are told that civilization rises and falls on a regular pattern; though there may be differences in detail between each iteration, in broader terms they are similar. This historical determinism is an idea that Asimov uses elsewhere. It is what lies at the heart of the notion of psychohistory in the Foundation trilogy, for example, the assumption that historical developments are scientifically predictable. Superficially this resembles fundamental principles of Marxism: the application of science to historical development, the suggestion that societies follow a predictable historical path. But where Marxism (in principle, if never in practice) predicts a diffusion of controls over the individual with the advance of progressively less hierarchical and more communal systems of government, in Asimov the historical predictions point towards an increase in controls in the hands of a progressively more hierarchical system. The Foundation trilogy, for instance, which is predicated on the politically conservative notion of the preservation of the old order, takes as its avowed political model the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the threat to the imperial system that the Foundation is meant to counter is a less hierarchical system (which is represented as anarchy, chaos), though what turns out to be politically the most successful counterpoint to empire is dictatorship (the ‘Mule’), another form of rule by elite.
The historical recapitulations of Foundation, and by implication the historical recapitulations of ‘Nightfall’, therefore, suggest a political structure at least as authoritarian as the laws of nature.
One novel above all others exemplifies the hard sf assumption that the universe is all the antagonist a story needs: Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. It is a novel singularly devoid of human interaction as we negotiate, directly through Barlennan and indirectly through his human advisors, the various perils of the high-gravity world Mesklin. As in both ‘Nightfall’ and ‘The Cold Equations’, the law of nature is all powerful. Not only is ignorance of the law no excuse, but ignorance of the law is the most serious crime, and the verdict is usually death.
Furthermore, there is a distinct hierarchical structure in that Barlennan is guided to his destination by the absent humans. Although his local knowledge occasionally proves more successful, in the main he is required to make practical the abstract knowledge of his human mentors. At times their suggestions seem counter-intuitive, but they know better because they are applying the very laws of nature with which Barlennan must contend. Knowledge of the law is power. This is something we see not just here but also, for instance, throughout the work of Robert A. Heinlein.
The archetypal Heinlein hero, the competent man (and it is practically always a man, hierarchies seem to find it hard to accommodate women), is competent precisely because he has knowledge, and this knowledge, in the end, will give him power. If, for Clement, the end of such power is simply survival in the face of an implacable nature, Heinlein will generally include a human enemy. But the rule is still the same, there is a natural hierarchy and the peak is occupied by those with the most knowledge of the laws of nature and how they can be used.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instance, gives power to those who understand how the freight delivery system from the Moon to Earth can be converted into a weapon. The weapon is, of course, used to further the aims of a revolution, but it is worth noting that it is a conservative revolution. The colonists on the Moon, in a clear reflection of the essentially conservative American Revolution, are not seeking to overthrow the old order, but are rising up against a new relationship between colony and colonizer that is being imposed from without. As such things do, it ends up creating a new order, though there is much in the new that deliberately replicates the old. And the competent man, who led the revolution, retires from the scene because his knowledge is of the laws of nature not of man.
The ‘great man’ theory of history has it that events are shaped by powerful individuals. It is a theory that is, nowadays, really espoused only by those with a romantic attachment to the past. Most theories of history tend to revolve, to some degree or other, around the notion of social movements, intellectual movements, religious movements or what have you. Certain individuals might shape the specifics, but the general shape of things would hold even if they never existed.
The competent man, therefore, which is an off-shoot of the great man theory, is rather less common in fiction today. We need a protagonist, very often we need a hero, but very rarely does this character take the form he does in classic hard sf: the man who, through technical ability and, more importantly, through knowledge of the way the world works, is able to save the universe, create a successful revolution, steer the spaceship safe to its destination. Hard science fiction is full of competent men (and, sometimes now, competent women, though they do often feel little more than a gesture towards equality politics); indeed, for Heinlein the competent man was an essential figure for science fiction.
The competent man presupposes an hierarchical structure. Not the old hierarchies of wealth, social standing or military might (though competent man science fictions often seem to have a militaristic aspect), but a new hierarchy of scientific knowledge and technical ability. Its supporters might well claim this as a meritocracy, though it is really rule by those who ‘know best’, in both its positive and its pejorative senses. Once again, therefore, hard science fiction, so much of which is built upon the notion of the competent man, falls into a pattern more generally associated with a right wing perspective.
Having said that hard science fiction has, of late, lost its place within the literature to the resurgence of its literary forebear, space opera, I should make it plain that the form has not disappeared entirely. Hard sf is still being written, though more often now combined with other forms. For example the latest novel by Greg Egan, Incandescence, is effectively space opera in those portions of the story that deal with Rakesh and Parantham and their journey into the galactic core. This is a world of plenty, there are no limits to how long people might live, how far they might travel, what form they might occupy, and what resources they might employ. If you want a specialist tool, lo it is conjured in front of you; if you wish to be on the other side of the galaxy then that is where you materialise.
In contrast those sections of the story that deal with the Splinter are hard sf, and betray all of the characteristics I have ascribed to the form. It is, for a start, a constrained world, literally so since it occupies the inside of a piece of interstellar rock, but also metaphorically constrained since the inhabitants lead a narrowly prescribed life. No political structure is apparent in the social organisation of the Splinter, but everything is geared towards the preservation of an existing social order. So much so that when major changes are initiated to allow the survival of life in the Splinter, we are told on more than one occasion that the overwhelming desire even of those leading the intellectual revolution is to return to the old ways. Since there is no political organisation, life within the Splinter would seem to be arranged along communistic if not anarchistic lines: everyone works without bosses towards the common good. Yet even before the threat to the continued existence of the Splinter becomes apparent the great man theory begins to emerge. First Zac and then his successor Roi embody the role of competent man (or, in the case of Roi, a rare instance of a competent woman), leading the effort, recruiting others to their cause, directing the intellectual and physical direction of their entire world. Indeed, even when they have recruited so many that virtually the whole world is involved in the effort, the structure suddenly becomes hierarchical with team leaders emerging.
Hard science fiction is not right wing propaganda, it is not written by right wing ideologues, but the world view that underpins hard sf conforms structurally to the world view that underpins right wing ideologies. It is a narrowly prescribed world where obedience to the laws is essential for survival, far outweighing in importance the individual needs and desires of any of the inhabitants of that world. It tends to be conservative: if the law of nature is a universal limitation on any action, revolution or even gradual change must be resisted. And it is a set-up in which great men are fated to emerge as leaders because they know best, and the masses should bend to their will for the good of all.