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SF For Voters

I've long thought that people who don't read, or haven't read science fiction are much more ill-prepared for the future. Well, in the near future, we have a presidential election coming up. Here are some suggestions for SF to read in preparation from some notable web pundits.


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kert wrote:

Oh there is a bunch of classics too. I immediately remembered Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Lem's Return from the Stars.

Leland wrote:

What about Flash Gordon for Obama? Isn't he the Saviour of the Universe?

"This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Josh Reiter wrote:

Flash! AAAAAAAA Ahhhhhhh! Saviour of the Universe! *wicked guitar solo*

Jay Manifold wrote:

Wow, Amanda Marcotte is still nuts. Who'd'a thunk?

I'll go with Asimov's The Martian Way, dedicated to all those who have a scarcity mentality.

Some guy wrote:

Why not Starship Troopers?

Sigivald wrote:

The comments there make my brain hurt.

"Hey, we're totally on the verge of theocracy! The Constitution has been gutted! It totally has!"

It's like people don't have any idea about the Constitution and what the courts uphold it as protecting; we have more Constitutional protections of rights now than, as far as I know, ever before in the history of the Republic.

But, hey, the President has said that he thinks the Executive branch can, in dire straits, maybe look at some specific person's mail without having a warrant first*. So the Constitution is dead.

(*One of several things a critic could pick, and one of their favourites, in my experience.

But a lousy pick for them - more in postal privacy history here.

The mere fact that the prohibition on reading mail without a warrant was statutory in 1792 suggests that it wasn't seen as Constitutionally protected, by people who had mail as their only significant means of private long-distance communication!

If it's now constitutionally protected that proves only that Constitutional protections have been expanding, and reinforces that they're in continual tension with the rest of Government - rather than in Horrifying Decline Because The Wrong Party Is In Power.

And to think that people who believe the latter accuse anyone who disagrees of being "ignorant" and "not paying attention".)

Some guy wrote:

Sigivald wrote:
It's like people don't have any idea about the Constitution and what the courts uphold it as protecting

But maybe they don't; maybe we are living in the movie "Idiocracy". Maybe we have no redeeming features left.

Bob wrote:

Missile Gap by Charles Stross has good commentary on the important differences between communists, socialists, and left-wing Democrats. And there is a nuclear powered Wing in Ground Effect craft, so what's not to like?

Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke is a favorite among space elevator enthusiasts, but it takes place against a background of enlightened non-repressive big government types overcoming bureaucracy to do big things to make the world a better place.

memomachine wrote:


Anybody remember Asimov's "Lucky Star" series?


While the "Lucky Star" series wasn't high SF by any means it was entertaining. I wonder why these Golden and Silver age books haven't been re-issued as ebooks.

cthulhu wrote:

Oh for Ghod's sake! As if more evidence were needed that io9 is garbage... Maybe I need to write a book called Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Robert Heinlein:

Amanda Marcotte trots out Margaret Atwood's highly overrated The Handmaid's Tale, which is a most inferior reworking of Heinlein's classic novella If This Goes On -, the original version of which was published in (wait for it) ... 1941. PLUS If This Goes On - features the first appearance of Heinlein's immortal line "You can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him." A taut and extremely relevant tale of a theocratic takeover of the US, which will leave you wondering if it can happen here...

The best that Andrew Sullivan can give us is WALL-E? As much as I loved that movie (and I did!), how about Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, about the first interstellar voyage that forgets where it came from. Another warning about totalitarianism and meditations on what it means to be human.

Jonah Goldberg's choice of Angel is lost on me, as I never watched that show. But perhaps a relevant Heinlein parallel is The Puppet Masters, where humanity's surrender to a pack of oozing slugs with mind control powers is tenaciously countered by a small group of triple secret agents. Very '50s, but in a good way. And Heinlein just can't help serving up a healthy and interesting dollop of ruminations on government and what it means to be human.

I can't really argue much with the Asimov or Pohl choices; both are fine, although I might recommend Asimov's The End of Eternity as it shows just what you get when you always take the "safer" path. Jay Manifold had a good pick (that I had forgotten) above with The Martian Way, especially in the face of Gore-Al and his ilk.

The 800-lb gorilla in the room is, of course, Heinlein's 1966 masterpiece The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Whatever you think of the often silly (in hindsight) treatment of computers, or the flatness of some of the dialog, this is THE book when discussing SF and politics. Another one that is just as compelling but often overlooked is one of his "juveniles", 1957's Citizen of the Galaxy. A story about a slave, rescued by a beggar, the climax of which is ... a corporate proxy fight? Yup, and plenty of classic Heinlein individualism, sense of duty, action, and wonder at what is man along the way. Highly recommended.

I'll put my list up against io9's dreck anyday.

Bob wrote:


What lessons does The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress offer for this election? I loved the story, but I think it teaches more about revolution than about government. There is obviously a "governs best when governing least" mentality, but I'm not sure that philosophy really applies to McCain. In the end, when there is governing to be done on the moon, Manny heads off to the Belt...

How about the perennial favorite Mote In Gods Eye - at the risk of starting another discussion of fascism, Mote teaches us to respect hardline warriors who have seen battle and understand that THERE WILL BE WAR, to sympathize with but not agree with bleeding heart softies, and, in the end, to reject both sides, and instead to put our trust in young intelligent perhaps overly-charismatic leaders who are brave enough to pick a middle path that avoids war and keeps the peace. I mean, obviously Rod (what a name!) Blaine represents both Kennedy (blockade!) and Obama.

Here's the SF Political Allegory War I'd like to see:
The Cold Equations (Godwin) vs Breaking Strain (Clarke). Same outcome, different lessons.

Bob wrote:

Two Socialist Utopias:

The Dispossessed by LeGuin ("Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can...") If everyone in the United States read this book before the election, Nader and Obama would split the liberal vote, and McCain would win.


Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson (Riveting drama in city council in a California town where absolutely nothing happens because it already has attained perfection. Funny first man on Mars scene as viewed from hot-tubbing party-goers.) If everyone in the US read this book, everyone would just smile and shrug.

memomachine wrote:


"What lessons does The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress offer for this election?"

It's good to be union and paid by the hour.



Anonymous wrote:


D'oh! I can't believe I forgot that. Good answer.

memomachine wrote:


"How about the perennial favorite Mote In Gods Eye"

Actually I love that book because I got a chance to use the phrase "On the gripping hand ..." in a tech meeting.

Got some stares but I burnished my nerd-cred that day!

Orville wrote:

How about "Blade Runner" where instead of persecuting sentient cyborgs, the fascist/socialist (take your pick) gov't persecutes libertarians.

Or how about Phillip K. Dick's "Minority Report" as a picture of American life in the near future under Obamacaine.

Anonymous wrote:

The Dispossessed by LeGuin ("Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can...") If everyone in the United States read this book before the election, Nader and Obama would split the liberal vote, and McCain would win.

I'd like to think that at least some liberals are smarter than that. Even LeGuin called it "an ambiguous utopia."

Annares is an example of the same principle that makes faculty politics so vicious.

Mike G in Corvallis wrote:

Whoops. The anonymous comment about The Dispossessed was from me.

Carl Pham wrote:

A worthless list. Blech.

I love Heinlein, and he's great for organizing your personal philosophy, but I don't think he has much to say about politics that isn't essentially contemptuous and dismissive. In essence, the less there is of it the better, pretty much always, and since it's as persistent as kudzu, the only solution is to move away to the frontier whenever it gets too dense. Until triumphs, not an option for us, alas.

I'm going to nominate Larry Niven, actually. Unlike Heinlein, he doesn't spend much time on personal philosophy, but instead takes a great deal of effort to explore the sometimes remarkable unforeseen social effects of new technology, and (especially when he works with Jerry Pournelle) takes an unpitying and very illuminating look at the sometimes malign influence of social mythology. The Mote In God's Eye is good, as well as Footfall. They both contain sober reminders that reality is not a consensus illusion: we can't change the way things really are merely by wishing very hard and believing.

He's also very good at conveying the fact that we're not really all the same, under the skin. There are true differences, sometimes unbridgeable. Sometimes we do need to simply kill our enemies.

Bob wrote:


In solo Niven, we all really are the same, just with little individualizing quirks. To defeat an enemy in straight Niven, you need to put yourself in your enemies shoes so that you think like them and figure out their motivations. Trinocs are just paranoid versions of us; Kzinti are just proud warrior versions of us, Puppeteers are just super-smart cautious manipulative version of us, and hell, the Pak ARE us, just super-smart again. Outsiders are the only Niven alien that resists that treatment, and what do you know, they aren't enemies. Although everyone hated it, Ringworld Throne is a great example of having to think like your enemy. It has been awhile, but if I recall correctly, in the end, Louis Wu figures out what the longtime rulers of the Ringworld were thinking and convicts the two Vampire Pak of nothing more than gross incompetence and utter stupidity, because, as we all know, asteroid defense is important, damn it! We're supposed to learn from the way humans interact with aliens, because the aliens are just magnified versions of psychological syndromes -- recall Niven's background in college.

And even in Niven's collaborations with Pournelle, the answer requires the protagonists to think hard about their enemies and get inside their psychology. In the Mote Sequel, it has gotten to the point that the Blaine children are thinking like and identifying with Moties. And even in Footfall, they ended up putting their feet on the enemies bellies -- the differences were bridged, a new alliance will form, we never do have to simply kill our enemies.

Bob wrote:

Sorry, I missed the most obvious point: Mote is often cited as an example of having truly alien aliens, and yet consider the astonishing abilities of the Motie mediators to identify with humans.

Heck, even the Brownies bridge the "unbridgeable" alien gap and make astonishingly useful tools -- look up the cognitive science jargon use of the word "affordance" to see how amazing that would be.

In Niven, the message is hey aliens, kumbaya!

Carl Pham wrote:

Goodness, no, Bob, I don't read Niven or Mote at all that way. The big theme in Mote is the ease with which humans convinced themselves that the Moties were just like them, and failed to consider their radically different biology, which led to radically different social structures and goals -- which, as it turned out, were not fully compatible with human goals. It's a story of how easily we deceive ourselves into thinking others are just like us. One of this themes in Footfall is that some social structures are simply incompatible with ours, that when we meet them it is more or less kill or be killed.

You're certainly correct that many of Niven's aliens are distorted versions of ourselves. But, um, that's like saying giraffes are just like humans, because they're just us with much longer necks, bigger freckles, and an increased taste for leafy green vegetables. Those distortions make them into something else entirely, something much more alien than your typical Star Trek alien who really is just like us, psychologically and socially, only with gills or extra limbs.

You're right that Niven's heroes all succeed because they put themselves in another's shoes, that a Niven hero does not succeed without consciously moving away from what he himself is like, and coming to understand someone distinctly different. But, um, doesn't that support my point? And even my larger point, that a good lesson for modern politics is understanding that there are genuine and large differences between different groups of people? That we are not -- will never be -- just one big happy family where a family meeting where we all talk stuff out will solve any problem whatsoever?

By the way, I think Niven was a math major (not psychology) in his brief stint at Caltech.

cthulhu wrote:

Bob said: What lessons does The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress offer for this election? I loved the story, but I think it teaches more about revolution than about government. And Carl Pham said: I love Heinlein, and he's great for organizing your personal philosophy, but I don't think he has much to say about politics that isn't essentially contemptuous and dismissive.

I think you're both missing the point. One of Heinlein's constant themes is that individuals are important and what individuals do MATTERS. What could be more important in an election, any election, but maybe especially this one? Look at what these candidates, these individuals, have DONE - not what they promise to do - and take their measure. Then go and do something that matters - in this case, VOTE!

I also disagree with Carl's comment that what Heinlein mostly says about government is "the only solution is to move away to the frontier whenever it gets too dense." In one of the books I cited, Citizen of the Galaxy, Thorby digs in, within the system, to fix the wrongs he's encountered. In my all-time-favorite of Heinlein's works, Have Space Suit - Will Travel, a super-UN with seemingly real power is viewed quite favorably. Government action against the slugs in The Puppet Masters is crucial, as is the recognization that government will always be necessary to deal with such threats. The excesses of mercantilism and the need for effective government to protect fundamental rights is explored in Logic of Empire. There are many other examples.

One should also note that very little that Heinlein wrote after about 1968 is any good; I reread parts of Time Enough for Love for the first time in 20 years, and was shocked at how poorly it held up. And it was obvious that everything from The Number of the Beast onward was crap as soon as it was published.

BTW: according to something of Niven's I read a long time ago, he "flunked out of Caltech" after a semester or two, transferred to Washburn College in Kansas, and graduated with a degree in psychology and a math minor. I have not bothered to check Wikipedia to see if my long-term memory is going yet or not :-/

Carl Pham wrote:

Well, great dread oozing ur-Lord of evil, okay, but isn't that mostly the "junior" Heinlein, the stuff he wrote for 13-year-old boys? Not that I'm knocking it, it's generally rollicking stuff, but the themes seem mostly buckle down and work hard, stay in school, don't do drugs. I see it as addressing, as I said, personal philosophy, not saying much about government qua government. Much like the League of Women Voters, telling everyone to go out and vote, but not endorsing any particular point of view.

Now, personally I don't find that especially helpful. I'd rather people lacking a coherent philosophy of government did not vote. Indeed, I would prefer a system that made it unusually difficult to vote. Hide the polling places in unmarked basements, strew dogshit and drug paraphernalia around the entrance, staff it with stone-deaf bad-tempered unionized ex-post-office employees with flatulence issues, light it with strings of 5-watt Christmas tree bulbs, all red, print the ballot in 8pt type, listing only the offices, and require you to spell your candidate's first, middle and last names, plus suffix, correctly, list his birth date and social security number from memory, and recite the Gettysburg Address backwards for your vote to count. That would reduce the number of What Me Worry? frivolous slacker votes. The fact that the vote of someone who conscientiously prepares for his responsibility counts exactly the same as someone who flips a coin while drunk or picks the guy with the best hair is a serious flaw in the system. (A flaw which, of course, is to the distinct advantage of one particular political party.)

Anyway, my impression is that the "adult" Heinlein was where he waxed cynical. I agree he kind of wandered all over the map, from the aggressive libertarianism of Jubal Harshaw to the aristocracy of Lazarus Long and friends. My impression is that his ideal of government was essentially just a military command structure for use in warfighting, with most else left to voluntary association (and at that he despised the draft).

Still, if you want to argue that TANSTAAFL is the single most important concept that ought to be burned into the brains of a hope 'n' change addled fuckwit populace in order that they can mentally process with intelligence greater than a sea snail the cotton-candy promises floating out of The One's smiley face, that 95% of us can have nice homes, steady jobs, free top-quality medical care and college education for the kids, at the sole expense of the other 5%, well, I won't argue.

cthulhu wrote:

Carl, I can't really see anything in your reply that relates to anything I wrote. Please go back and re-read my posts, and you will find that nowhere did I mention TANSTAAFL. I don't know who you're arguing with, but it's not me.

(back to R'lyeh now...)

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on October 7, 2008 7:19 AM.

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