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A hard defence


On his blog, Paul Kincaid has been writing recently about hard science fiction and its politics. It all started with a reprint of a piece originally published in a magazine in 2008, in which Paul argued that hard sf was intrinsically right-wing – see here. Which promptly generated some comments,and which in turn Paul replied to with a second post – see here. I was one of the commentors. Well, I have written hard sf – the Apollo Quartet has been described as “art house hard sf” – and I certainly don’t consider myself right-wing. Quite the opposite, in fact. But that’s me, the writer; not the subgenre.

It seems to me there are two problems with Paul’s thesis. First, he’s defined hard sf as Campbellian sf. While it’s certainly true the origin of hard sf lies in the pages of Astounding under Campbell’s editorship, and Campbell had a very heavy hand on the tiller, that was fifty or more years ago. Genres and subgenres change, definitions evolve. The term space opera was originally coined as a pejorative; it isn’t one now. The generally accepted definition used today for hard sf is based upon either the sciences a text references – the so-called hard sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, etc; or the rigour with which the science is treated in the text. Nothing in that definition mentions politics.

Paul’s argument – and I hope I’m paraphrasing correctly – is that the rigour, ie, the adherence to inviolable natural laws, in hard sf is subsequently transferred to human laws and, as a result, hard sf presents authoritarian spaces in which to tell its stories. The example he uses is Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (a story he discusses in an earlier blog post – see here – reprinted from Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA). ‘The Cold Equations’ has long been seen as the epitome of hard sf, but I don’t think it actually qualifies. It’s certainly the very definition of Campbellian sf, but I contend that Campbellian sf no longer maps onto hard sf.

In a nutshell, the plot of Godwin’s story is as follows… A rescue starship is carrying vital medical supplies to another world. A young girl stows away aboard the starship because she wants to visit her brother on that world. But her presence aboard means the starship is overweight and cannot land. The only excess weight which can be ditched in order to safely land with the medical supplies… is the young girl herself. Clearly, the situation is completely artificial: why does the starship only carry the exact amount of fuel needed for the journey and its load? Surely there is something else aboard which weighs as much as, if not more than, the girl which could be ditched instead? The only fixed limit in the story, the only natural law in the story, is the amount of energy the pilot can get from the fuel he carries. That is unchangeable. Though the plot of the story is predicated on that limit, it uses arbitrarily applied human limits to present a dilemma… and then completely fails to solve it.

Hard sf generally does the opposite: it presents dilemmas predicated on fixed natural limits, and then finds solutions using human ingenuity. (Godwin apparently submitted three different attempts at such a resolution, but each was rejected by Campbell, who wanted the girl to die.)

Of course, that’s no more comprehensive a description of hard sf than Paul’s reliance on ‘The Cold Equations’ as a defining text. Certainly, “Analog-style” stories fit that mould (Astounding renamed itself to Analog, so Campbell’s legacy does continue to some extent), and there are plenty of examples of such hard sf stories by the likes of Clarke, Clement, Bova, Steele or Nordley. But then what about ‘Hardfought’ by Greg Bear – that’s certainly hard sf, but it’s hardly Campbellian. Or hard sf stories by Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Joan Slonczewski, Linda Nagata, Julie E Czernada, Catherine Asaro or CJ Cherryh…

I don’t think it follows that authoritarian spaces must result from a strict adherence to natural laws. Some hard sf stories are set on Mars, but that doesn’t mean all hard sf stories are. Likewise, not all stories set on Mars are hard sf. It doesn’t help that most writers of hard sf appear to have politics that lean to the right – either conservative or libertarian. But that’s an attribute of the writers, not of the subgenre in which they’re writing. I can’t think of any Marxist hard sf stories off the top of my head – in fact, Marxist sf stories of any type are in remarkably short supply. But there are certainly hard sf stories set in the USSR (as was), such as Fellow Traveler by William Barton and Michael Capobianco, or ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (which appeared in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology but is patently not cyberpunk). The USSR also makes an appearance in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge, a hard sf novel which is not right-wing. Nor indeed is his Mars trilogy, perhaps the most-celebrated hard sf series of recent decades.

Certainly a lot of hard sf is right-wing, especially the near-future variant. But that’s a characteristic brought to it by the writers, not something innate to the subgenre. That ‘The Cold Equations’ presents a right-wing aspect is irrelevant, because it is not emblematic of hard sf, even if it is emblematic of Campbellian sf. The two modes have diverged in the forty-two years since John W Campbell died, and whatever artificial constraints exist in Godwin’s story – and they were editorially, not authorially, applied – I don’t think they arise from a rigorous adherence to purely natural laws.

5 thoughts on “A hard defence

  1. Before I had my little breakdown and deleted my blog, I posted about this and made many of the same arguments.

    One thing I should say at the top is that I think Mr Kinkaid is something of a trickster genius, he says things to get debate going. I’ve heard him admit to saying things just to stir things up and get a reaction, and I broadly think that’s a good thing. He’s a catalyst, so the things he says may not represent his true views.

    One issue that I had with the claim that authoritarian positions are inherently right-wing, is that it’s startling historical revisionism. Extreme left-wing governments have been every bit as authoritarian, and I note that in your post you lump libertarians, who would broadly claim to be promoting more personal freedom (although some people are only interested in personal freedom for banks) as ‘right wing’. This would seem to undermine the claim that right==authoritarian. There are plenty of people on the ‘right’ who are for more personal freedom, and plenty of people on the left who would rather bind us with more laws.

    To be honest I think the whole left/right paradigm needs abandoning, it’s a left-over from the French Revolution and forces people to choose from two competing brands of group-think, and often doesn’t fit the reality (lots of people in the US would like to vote for fiscal conservatives, but are for gay marriage, and these days those people are increasingly pissed-off with both the major US parties). Another problem with the left/right divide is that most people define left and right from where they themselves are standing, so it’s a fuzzy terminology that can become a bit meaningless.

    Another problem I had with Mr Kinkaid’s argument, was that I felt it was subtly anti-science. He seemed to be arguing a larger claim than just that ‘Hard SF is right-wing’, he seemed to be arguing that believing there were inflexible laws of nature was right-wing. It could be I’m misreading him, but it seemed to come over fairly strongly in the piece to me, and you seem to see it too when you comment thusly:

    # I don’t think it follows that authoritarian spaces must result from a strict
    # adherence to natural laws
    I agree, although perhaps you are only speaking in terms of fiction here, and not seeing the larger ‘anti-science’ angle that I’m seeing. But if strict adherence to natural law leads to authoritarian thinking in authors writing fiction, then surely it must also have that effect on legislators writing law? Thus, there would seem to be an argument here that science itself (strict adherence to natural law) is ‘authoritarian’ and ‘right-wing’.
    But we can show that authoritarian spaces exist even where there is no respect for ‘natural law’. For instance the Soviet Union was highly authoritarian, but pursued a false view of genetics and evolution ‘Lysenkoism’ despite all the evidence against it. Religious movements are highly authoritarian, but don’t give a hoot about natural laws. But perhaps that just means that there are many paths to authoritarianism, and one of those could be science. I think that unlikely, but it’s hard to argue against because it’s easy to point to regimes that everyone agrees are authoritarian, much harder to point to regimes that everyone agrees are free. Before we can find a ‘Black Swan’ to disprove this argument (i.e. find a non-authoritarian space that is pro-science) we must find a space that we all agree is non-authoritarian, and I suspect this impossible. So, if we accept this claim that the belief in inflexible laws of reality is ‘right wing’, then isn’t science ‘right wing’? This amounts of a disapproval of science because and within the British SF community an accusation of ‘right wingedness’ bears the same force that an accusation of witchcraft might have borne in former times. But hang on, if science is ‘right-wing’ then where does that leave the left? By defining ‘the right’ in terms of commitment to ‘natural law’ the left are defined in terms of the willingness to ‘transcend’ natural law, to believe any number of impossible things. If science and rigor belongs to the right then the left are left with magical thinking, they’re essentially reduced to a mystical cult. And this is why I suspect that Mr Kinkaid was cackling to himself all the time that he was writing that piece, he’s hoping to get level-leaning sci-fi people agreeing with an argument that subtly accuses those same people of being swivel-eyed crazies. He’s hoping to get turkeys to vote for christmas. If I’m right, then one must admit that on some level, this is genius.

    • Actually no, left-wing governments are not characteristically authoritarian, although some have been. However, right-wing governments are characteristically authoritarian. Some people like to split left/right from authoritarian/liberal, but they’re missing the point. Socialism and communism are not inherently authoritarian modes of government, but fascism is. And if you claim the Nazis were socialists because it says so in the name of their party, I will hit you 🙂

      Having said that, I’m not sure the pro/anti-science divide separates quite so neatly in to left/right. Scientific bigotry is definitely anti-liberal and so right-wing, even if it is completely bogus. If you’ve read Red Plenty – and if not, why not? – you’ll know that the USSR was very big on scientific and technological solutions, and the sheer amount of money and personnel they threw at them means some of them, by the law of averages, are going to be fringe and/or bogus.

      None of which, of course, has anything to do with hard sf. I maintain that hard sf is not political – or rather, it displays the politics embedded in the story by the writer. It’s not an attribute of the genre. Paul thinks otherwise.

      • # Actually no, left-wing governments are not characteristically authoritarian,

        I didn’t say they were. I said that extreme left-wing governments *have* been, that’s not the same thing as saying they *essentially are*. Well, extreme ones probably are, but it’s the little word ‘extreme’ that matters. I was saying that neither left or right are essentially authoritarian (depending on what we mean by ‘left’ and ‘right’).

        # However, right-wing governments are characteristically authoritarian.

        Hmm… what do you mean here? At first glance this statement is untrue. Some have been, some haven’t, just like left wing governments. Compare the current right-wing UK government (which I didn’t vote for) with the current left-wing US one (which, admittedly, I also didn’t vote for). The current US government is showing signs of being very authoritarian, declaring that it doesn’t need the support of congress to bomb Syria (so what is congress for?) the current UK one has accepted defeat on the issue of war, demonstrating a lack of authoritarian instincts.

        The meaning of ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ governments varies a lot depending on context. For instance, a ‘right-wing’ government that is conservative (small ‘c’) in nature might have more respect for existing democratic institutions than a radical left-wing one. The terms ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’ are really too broad to be meaningful.

        # Socialism and communism are not inherently authoritarian modes
        # of government,

        Sorry, but communism, at least in the form of state communism (I don’t know there are other forms, but am open to the possibility that there are), requires state ownership of the means of production, and is thus unavoidably authoritarian. I know the state is supposed to ‘whither’ sometime after that, but it never has and there’s no reason to expect it really would.

        Socialism, I’m more inclined to agree with you, because there are many different approaches operating under this banner. Various types of market socialism do not require state ownership of production.

        Also, ‘the left’ is not completely covered by just communism and socialism, it’s a broader term than that (indeed, it’s so broad and fuzzy that I think left/right is useless. It originally meant Monarchist/Republican, but I think there are few on the right who would want a return to old-style monarchy (I don’t doubt there are some, if a thing can be conceived then somewhere on a planet of eight billion there’s someone who believes it).

        # but fascism is.

        Ah, but fascism isn’t the whole of ‘the right’ anymore than communism is the whole of ‘the left’. If you said fascist governments were unavoidably authoritarian, then I’d agree with you.

        # And if you claim the Nazis were socialists because it says so in the
        # name of their party, I will hit you

        I think you may have just somewhat stepped on your own claim that the left isn’t authoritarian. I’m tempted to try and do this so that people can see the violence inherent in the system, but no, I’d agree with you that though they ran something like ‘state capitalism’ the aims of that regime weren’t socialist in the least. Why would you think I’d claim such a thing? You seem to have read a different post than the one I wrote!

      • # Having said that, I’m not sure the pro/anti-science divide separates
        # quite so neatly in to left/right.

        Again, you seem to have misunderstood me. You’re not in bad company here, this keeps happening recently, and in the strangest ways, sometimes it seems like a demon is changing my words in flight from my mouth to people’s ears. I wasn’t claiming that the pro/anti-science divide separates neatly left/right, I was saying that you can get anti-science wackiness on both the left and the right. In retrospect I should perhaps have given a balancing example from the modern right, but I felt that was unnecessary, as surely everyone knows that the US right-wing harbours people who disbelieve Darwin, Einstein, etc. But we should not forget that the left has its anti-science moments too, and that there are people on the political right who are not anti-science.

        Basically people on both the right and the left tend to get skeptical of science when it tells them something they don’t like. Sometimes they’re even right to be skeptical, especially with new results that have not been widely replicated. However, denial of Einstein and the USSR’s support for Lysenkoism were both cases of going beyond rational skepticism into crazy-land.

        # Scientific bigotry is definitely anti-liberal
        # and so right-wing, even if it is completely bogus.

        I think that’s a bit of a reach. Scientific bigotry, as the USSR example shows, can pop up on either side of the spectrum. There are people on the ‘right’ (in the sense of being conservative, or free-marketeers) who believe very strongly in intellectual freedom and thus are not ‘anti-liberal’. But again, this is why the left/right model is so damaging, it leads us to lump very disparate people together, and then judge them by the most extreme members of the resulting melange, as though an atheist Hayekian economics professor was the same kind of beast as a religious fundamentalist.

        # If you’ve read Red Plenty – and if not, why not?

        One cannot read everything at once, it would have to go into the queue. Already in the queue are Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag” and “Iron Curtain”. I’ll get to reading about the benefits of Sovietism when Stalin has finished killing peasants.

        # you’ll know that the USSR was very big on scientific and
        # technological solutions,

        I knew that without reading ‘Red Plenty’. I also know that so were the Nazis (hence all the Wunderwaffe, right?). However, both regimes were only big on the type of science they approved of. Anything that was ideologically suspect was suppressed. For the Nazis, thank god, this included nuclear physics, which was too abstract and post-Newtonian for them.

        # and the sheer amount of money and personnel they threw at them means some
        # of them, by the law of averages, are going to be fringe and/or bogus.

        True, but the problem with Lysenkoism isn’t that they threw money at many things to see which paid out (a rather free-market approach to the solution). The USSR decided that Lysenkoism had to be right because it fitted with ideological concepts about the perfectibility of man/nature, and thus they actively suppressed Darwinist thought. But my point here is not to attack the USSR (you seem rather defensive of them. Suddenly all those posts about neo-brutalist architecture are illuminated in a different light!)

        Let us not lose sight of the fact that Mr Kinkaid is apparently trying to convince us that ‘hard science == authoritarian == right wing’ (not, I suspect, because he believes that, but because he enjoys seeing if he can sell us a handful of magic beans). Thus my example of Lysenkoism was intended to show an authoritarian regime that was science-denying, but left-wing. This attacks Mr Kinkaid’s argument on three points:

        1) It’s an authoritarian left-wing regime, implying that authoritarianism isn’t somehow ‘essentially right-wing’
        2) It’s an authoritarian regime that doesn’t always believe in strict adherence to natural law. Sometimes it prefers to believe something in the face of good evidence to the contrary.
        3) Despite 2) the ideology of communism always claimed to be the unfolding of natural law, with the inflexible laws being those of Dialectical materialism.

        So, we have a left-wing regime that: 1) is authoritarian 2) claims to adhere rigorously to natural law, 3) but then doesn’t do so. If I’m right that Mr Kinkaid is arguing that rigorous adherence to natural law is an authoritarian stance, and this means a right-wing stance, then this example really shouldn’t exist.

        # None of which, of course, has anything to do with hard sf.
        # I maintain that hard sf is not political – or rather, it
        # displays the politics embedded in the story by the writer.
        # It’s not an attribute of the genre. Paul thinks otherwise.

        I totally agree (I suspect you will not often hear me say that to you). However, I also agree with his deeper argument that saying there are natural laws is an authoritarian stance, and further that the authoritarian stance is uniquely ‘right wing’.

        The whole argument is thoroughly bogus at all levels, and thoroughly bogus to an extent that I do not believe could be accidental. Add to that the various references to learned sources that are included to give the semblance of some kind of intellectual authority behind the argument (a trick often used by HP Lovecraft) and I feel that Mr Kinkaid is assuming the mantle of Socrates, and saying provocative things in order to get some debate going. And if I’m right about that, then I think it’s probably a good thing.

  2. Darn, how did ‘left-leaning’ become ‘level-leaning’ in the above post? Anyways,

    Casting an eye over Mr Kinkaid’s response that you link to here, I find more tricksterism:

    # It is the fact that what I am seeing in stories such as ‘The Cold Equations’ is the rigidity of
    # authoritarian lawmaking over the flexibility of human ingenuity that leads me to identify
    # such stories as right wing.

    Well, a lot of people on the right would claim that this proves these stories are left-wing. After all, we here a lot of talk about ‘human ingenuity’ on the right, mostly with regard to people “Pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”. They would say that the people who chose ‘authoritarian lawmaking’ (big government) over ‘human ingenuity’ (entrepreneurship) are left-wing. Really, these viewpoints are neither inherently ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing, they get used by different people in different contexts. Left and right alike are all over ‘human ingenuity’ when they perceive it’s on their side of the argument, and against it when it isn’t.

    # The competent man is a science fictional variant on the Great Man view of history,
    # a conservative view that dates back to Thomas Carlyle

    ‘Conservative’? What’s conservative about that? Here I’m taking ‘conservative’ to mean ‘Wishes to maintain the existing structures of society’, and I don’t see that this viewpoint is inherently conservative. I may wish to ‘SMASH THE SYSTEM!!!’ and still believe in the ‘great man’ view of history, (and if I were that kind of person, I would probably think the ‘great man’ was me). Whether it’s been expounded or believed by ‘conservative’ people in the past has no more relevance than whether those people believed the world was flat or round. The two things are unconnected systems of belief.

    # which states that the history of the world is shaped by significantly powerful individuals who are
    # thus, themselves, somehow above history. The competent man of Campbellian sf shapes science
    # fiction, and is thus somehow above the laws of nature. The laws, human and physical, apply to
    # everyone with equal rigor, except the hero whose competence or technical know-how or knowledge
    # of scientific arcana allows him to find a way of working around it. In other words, the laws apply
    # equally to everyone, except the good guy. And the good guy in hard sf is a sort of technological
    # equivalent of Dirty Harry, the laws don’t apply to them because they make it come out right at
    # the end. Hard sf is no more liberal than Dirty Harry.

    Or Ghandi. A ‘great man’ theorist would agree that Ghandi was a ‘Great man’ who fought the established order of his day (one of the few people who can declare “I fought the law, and I won”). So one could equally say “Hard sf is no more liberal than Ghandi.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring though, does it?

    There’s a deeper problem with this argument, which is that he’s saying Hard SF is authoritarian, but that the ‘hero’ is the person who is above the law, or can break the rules. Thus, in Hard SF, the person that we are invited to imagine ourselves as (we are normally expected to identify with the hero) is the rule-breaker. All the references to Carlyle and Campbell are there to give perceived evidential weight to an argument that is, at its core, self contradictory (and which Mr Kinkaid knows is contradictory, and intends it to be so, which is why he tries to blind us with historical references).

    Finally, in the ‘Cold Equations’ the ‘Competent man’ fails. Indeed, in the ‘Vector’ article Mr Kinkaid claimed that the girl, typically for ‘golden age hard sf’, lacks agency. The truth is exactly the opposite, she’s the only person in the story that has any agency at all! The ‘Competent man’ in this story is nothing more than a cog in a machine, since the story has locked down all his options and left him no way out. The girl, however, can choose to go quietly, or make a fuss, which is not much of a choice but it’s more choice than the ‘Competent man’ has. I strongly suspect that if we gender-swapped the roles, everyone would then agree that in the revisioned story the ‘Competent woman’ is not allowed any choices, where the ‘stowaway boy’ gets to make a heroic sacrifice.

    If the ‘Cold Equations’ is about anything, it’s not about ‘authoritarianism’, it’s a paen to ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’, it’s a story exhorting us to sacrifice our own interests for the needs of the larger community. This could still be a viewpoint expressed by either the right or the left (it’s expressed by both in times of war) but it’s an argument we more often here from the left, I think.

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