Thursday, November 4, 2021

Jill Lepore Tries to School Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos on the History of Science Fiction

Jill Lepore has an interesting essay in the NY Times about billionaires, space travel, and Elon Musk's fantasies. But I think she misunderstands what people, or at least men of my generation, found exciting about science fiction. Like this:

Weirdly, Muskism, an extravagant form of capitalism, is inspired by stories that indict … capitalism. At Amazon Studios, Mr. Bezos tried to make a TV adaptation of the Culture space opera series, by the Scottish writer Iain Banks (“a huge personal favorite”); Mr. Zuckerberg put a volume of it on a list of books he thinks everyone should read; and Mr. Musk once tweeted, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks.”

But Banks was an avowed socialist. And, in an interview in 2010, three years before his death, he described the protagonists of the Culture series as “hippy commies with hyper-weapons and a deep distrust of both Marketolatry and Greedism.” He also expressed astonishment that anyone could read his books as promoting free-market libertarianism, asking, “Which bit of not having private property and the absence of money in the Culture novels have these people missed?”

I think that what Musk and millions of others find appealing about science fiction is not the details of the social arrangements, but the absence of limits. From what I remember of the Culture series, the characters do pretty much whatever they want. That is the fantasy, not the absence of stock markets. I would say the same about avowedly libertarian sci-fi like Neal Stephenson's; the characters are too smart to be controlled by bureaucrats and the police, so they find ways to do whatever they want despite the evils of statism. 

The economics of the Star Trek universe are not very well worked out, but I always thought that one of the main points was that money simply didn't matter. If you want something, you ask the replicator to make it for you. The main obstacle seems to be finding something interesting to do with your life.

The fantasy is the freedom. The dream is that science and cleverness will one day make us truly free. The nightmare is that science and cleverness will one day make us utter slaves.

Lepore finds ten different ways to point out that these libertarian capitalist dudebros were inspired by socialist books, but so what? None of the books she cites is remotely realistic about communism; the closest thing in a famous sci-fi book is probably Le Guin's Dispossessed, which I thought was awful preachy nonsense –although even she realized that many of the residents of her communist utopia would be pining to escape to the roaring capitalist planet nearby.

And how, do you suppose, could a resident of our world best approximate the total freedom of sci-fi heroes? Why, by getting obscenely rich. By heading a giant company that will respond to their wishes. By building their own rockets and flying themselves to Mars.

It makes perfect sense to me.


szopen said...

Good points. Freedom, adventure and cool toys :D

I have the same opinion about Disposessed: I absolutely adore the old Master Le Guin, but I found this book way below her average... despite it being recommended to me as one of her best. It's not her weakest, though. She got more preachy in Eye of the heron, for example.

As for Iain Banks, I admit I was quite surprised when I find out what his views were. I've read only one his book, but I got the impression that Culture was not there presented as the Good Guys.

G. Verloren said...

It does make perfect sense. It's missing the point, but it's understandable that (and how) people will miss the point.

Shadow said...

Le Guin was criticizing anarchist utopias and democratic capitalist societies. Each had different methods of policing their societies, but the results were the same: conform or pay the price. Is that what you found preachy about it? Any fiction book worth reading is going to have a point of view. What did you not like about it? -- an open question to anyone.

szopen said...

The criticism of anarchism society in Dispossesed seams to me rather weak. The problems with Anarres seems to be everyone forgot the original ideas AND they got shitty planet, so they are poor, and Szevek is getting the LOOK, and people are not nice to him. OTOH, on Urras, despite having abundance of resources a lot of people are poor and demonstrants are shot at from the helicopters.

Shadow said...

Thx for your response, szopen. Working from memory . . .

The shitty planet, I think, is intentional. Let's see how anarchy works under rough conditions, which is pretty much what a group of anarchists (or any group) would have who went off on their own to start their own society. And I don't think original ideas of anarchy were lost. What they end up with is the natural evolution of an idea as it is forced to deal with reality.

I think Le Guin's point is a society of anarchists is an oxymoron, because society is the antithesis of anarchy. In the absence of formal power structures, informal ones take their place. A society cannot long exist without some form of power structure to run things.

In the absence of laws that guide people and that moderate and limit excesses, peer pressure takes on an unconstrained and ominous and forbidding role. Armed with the ability to exile threats to the common good, dissidents are exiled, and exile on Anarres is a death sentence. n other words, there are certain taboos, and an authority exists to punish vilators. And, of course, peer pressure enforces all kinds of cultural 'norms.'

Then there are the innumerable informal bureaucratic power structures, like pecking orders at universities, that keep people lower in the pecking order in line. Szevek's mentor and rival hindering Szevek's career is an example.