MacLeod takes a brief tour through Anarchy in Science Fiction

Bill Humphries
Sat, 13 Apr 2002 00:42:49 -0700

Fresh bits. I'm looking for the URL this article was posted, but for now, 
enjoy the bits forwarded from my anarchist pal Freddie.

Begin forwarded message:

> Total Liberty
> Anarchism and Science Fiction
> by Ken Macleod
> It was science fiction that got me interested in Anarchism
> in the first place. Poul Anderson*s short story *The Last of
> the Deliverers* turns on a confrontation between the last
> communist and the last enthusiast for capitalism - two very
> old men, who end up dead in the river with their hands
> locked around each other's throats: a microcosm of a world
> in which the US and the SU and their contending ideologies
> have long since collapsed. (One down, one to go.)  Cheap,
> small fusion-power plants have made possible  a radical
> decentralisation of population and power into small and in
> many ways self-sufficient communities, who can nevertheless
> co-operate on a continental scale to build spaceships. As a
> late-sixties space age schoolboy I found this vision
> exciting, and when I talked about it to a friend he said,
> *That sounds like Anarchism.*
> So off I went and read all I could find about Anarchism,
> starting with Giovanni Baldelli*s _Social Anarchism_, April
> Carter*s _The Political Theory of Anarchism_, and the
> Cohn-Bendits* _Obsolete Communism_. They didn*t make me an
> Anarchist, but they changed my life.  By way of retaliation,
> I*d like to get more Anarchists interested in science
> fiction, and change theirs.
> What I*d like to see is not just more SF informed by
> Anarchism, butan Anarchist movement and climate of opinion
> much more informed by SF than it currently is. Cloning,
> genetic engineering, life-extension, nanotechnology, space
> exploration and industrialisation, artificial intelligence
> and so on are moving from science fiction through the
> science journals to the headlines. If Anarchists refuse to
> think about such things, others who aren*t so reluctant will
> shape their use, and with it the future.
> Too much Anarchist rhetoric has a nineteenth-century feel -
> not surprisingly, because that*s when a lot of it was
> written. It doesn*t have to be like this. One of the most
> inspiring books I read as a teenager, _Breaking In The
> Future_ (Zenith Books, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1965) was
> written by an Anarchist, Tony Gibson. Cannily, it didn*t
> talk about Anarchism. Its front cover posed the question:
> *Outer space, new nations, automation, population ... How
> can we use a million years* experience in the revolutions
> just ahead?* If any Anarchist has given an answer half as
> lively and on the ball since, I*d love to hear about it. The
> same kind of question is still being asked, and variously
> answered, in SF.
> Science fiction is relevant to Anarchist concerns because,
> as Peter Neville correctly says (TL, Spring 2001) it *allows
> the examination of alternative worlds, alternative systems,
> alternative societies and the interplay of new ideas*. But
> as Richard Alexander, also correctly, points out (TL, Autumn
> 2001) Neville*s article misses much recent SF of potential
> interest to Anarchists. So does this one - there*s a lot of
> it out there.
> Academic discussions of Anarchism and SF tend to begin and
> end with Ursula Le Guin*s _The Dispossessed_, a book which
> has probably put more people off Anarchism than any other.
> It presents a dour vision of Anarchist Communism: something
> like a particularly fanatical kibbutz or Spanish Civil War
> collective. Computers are hand-waved into economic planning,
> children are discouraged from *egoising* - getting
> possessive about their toys, or their ideas. The conflicts
> this induces in Shevek, a brilliant physicist with a few too
> many ideas of his own, are well presented. In the absence of
> public debate and in the relentless presence of morality,
> Shevek has no forum in which to express his dissent, no way
> to find like-minded individuals with whom he might find
> common ground; instead, his conflicts become conflicts with
> other individuals. He is as isolated as any dissident in a
> totalitarian State.
> A much more cheerful vision of a stateless, classless, and
> moneyless society is presented in Iain Banks*s Culture
> novels, set in a Galactic society of abundance premised on
> benevolent artificial intelligences - machines like gods, in
> which humans live like mice in gliders, or bats in belfries.
> Life in a Culture Orbital is like a Caribbean cruise, except
> that the ship contains its own ocean. Those discontented
> with this lazy life-style are free to depart or - if they*re
> smart - join in the Machiavellian machinations of Contact
> Section, which artfully nudges backward planets in the right
> - or left - direction. Even in their interventions the
> Culture keeps its scientific cool, selecting certain planets
> to be left untouched: properly conducted social experiments
> need control samples. Earth, in case we hadn*t guessed, is
> one of them.
> An equally Communist Anarchy has been imagined by the
> hard-headed American free-marketeer and engineer James P.
> Hogan in his _Voyage From Yesteryear_. His utopia runs on a
> more immediately feasible technology than the
> indistinguishable-from-magic machinery of the Culture.  It
> has robots to do the dirty work, but they aren*t conscious
> robots so we*re not relying on their benevolence, just their
> tolerances. One has the distinct feeling that Hogan has
> their blueprints, if not (yet) their programmes, in a big
> drawer in his desk. What makes the story, however, is the
> fun Hogan*s heroes have running rings around the
> State-Capitalist Earthpersons who attempt to repossess them.
> *Take me to your leaderless* doesn*t quite cut it when you
> want to re-establish top-down authority.
> In this respect Hogan follows Eric Frank Russell*s
> superficially light-hearted, but fundamentally serious,
> anti-authoritarian tales in _The Great Explosion_, in which
> scores of scattered colonies are being corralled back into
> Earth*s bureaucratic empire, with mixed success. In the
> collection*s culminating story, *And Then There Were None*,
> one particular shipload of bureaucrats and their
> increasingly mutinous crew confront a highly individualistic
> anarchy whose *secret weapon* of Gandhian disobedience is
> both operating principle (if co-operation is voluntary, its
> withdrawal is an effective means of enforcement) and
> revolutionary strategy.
> In the advanced countries an everyday experience of an
> anarchy which works by co-operation and non-cooperation is
> the Internet. Neal Stephenson*s _Snow Crash_ reflects
> vividly the freewheeling spirit of the Internet*s pioneering
> years, when mutually hostile *online communities* of
> researchers, libertarians, Anarchists, labour and
> human-rights activists, Holocaust revisionists and
> pornographers found common cause as *netizens* in end runs
> around all attempts at censorship or regulation. A cynical
> saying in the geek culture of programming is *If you
> document a bug, it*s a feature* and Stephenson gleefully
> takes this attitude to some obvious objections to anarchy:
> unstable individuals with personal nuclear weapons are dealt
> with by ... extreme politeness. With Greater Hong Kong as a
> chain of motorway service areas, the Mafia as pizza delivery
> franchise, *You have a friend in the Family*, and the
> whites-only enclaves of New South Africa brandishing their
> bazookas, the anarchy of cyberspace has been mapped onto the
> dismembered body of the State.
> Vernor Vinge*s _A Fire Upon the Deep_ uses the Internet not
> only as the model for his galactic communications web, aptly
> called *The Net of a Million Lies*, but also for the
> galactic society of societies, some of which are anarchies
> and all of which exist in one. For Vinge, an
> Anarcho-Capitalist with genuinely Anarchist views, anarchy
> is not so much a programme as a description of the existing
> state of affairs. We never emerge from the state of nature,
> and never can. There are in his world lots of statists, but
> no States, in the sense of authorities whose claim to
> legitimacy can be upheld or attacked. It*s turtles, all the
> way down - or pretenders, all the way up.
> The suspicion that the State is no more public-spirited than
> the average corporation or criminal gang has seeped into US
> culture since the first Kennedy assassination, and spawned
> numerous conspiracy theories. Robert Shea*s and Robert Anton
> Wilson*s _Illuminatus!_ trilogy works its way through a
> succession of them, each of which explodes the previous one
> by revealing, behind the secret masters, other masters more
> secret still. Behind the Bilderbergers, Trilateralists and
> other usual suspects we find the Freemasons, behind them the
> Illuminati, behind them the Templars, the Cathars, the
> Gnostics ... by the time the ultimate manipulator of events
> is exposed as a Lovecraftian monster in the pre-Cambrian
> epoch, the reader has long since got the point. As Chomsky
> says, if you want to know the names of the world*s real
> owners, look at the brand-names all around you.
> My own books have been inspired by all of the above, as well
> as by Anarchist and libertarian literature from *left* and
> *right*. Without Nozick's _Anarchy, State and Utopia_ I
> couldn't have written _The Star Fraction_; without the
> SPGB*s _Socialism as a Practical Alternative_ and William
> Morris*s _News From Nowhere_ I couldn*t have written _The
> Cassini Division_; without Larry Gambone*s _Proudhon and
> Anarchism_ I couldn't have written _The Sky Road_. This
> diversity of inspiration is as typical of SF as it will, I
> hope, become of the new and broad libertarian movement we*d
> all like to see, and indeed of the society it creates. A
> future without coercion will be the work of many hands, and
> many minds, and begins now.
> Total Liberty website:
Bill Humphries <>