How Valid are Science Fiction’s Political Insights? – Classics of Science Fiction


How Valid are Science Fiction’s Political Insights? – Classics of Science Fiction

We can often find political opinions in science fiction, but in terms of political philosophers, how useful are science fiction writers? I just read “The Last of the Deliverers” by Poul Anderson from the February 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can read it here. Or find it in these anthologies. It was revised in 1976, but I don’t have a copy to evaluate.

“The Last of the Deliverers” is set after the collapse of the United States and the Soviet Union, in a small village in Ohio. It’s told from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy. The boy describes an old man of one hundred, who the village kids call Uncle Jim, and the day a stranger shows up, another old man named Harry Miller. The two men take an instant dislike to each other because Jim is a capitalist and Harry is a communist. Both men hate the way the village is run and criticize it.

Poul Anderson is well known for believing that feudalism was about the most complex form of government humanity could handle. In this 1958 tale, written in the middle of the cold war between America and Russia, Anderson predicts that both systems would fail. The residents of the small town are quite happy getting by with what they can grow and make themselves, and they share the use of land and some technology. Jim thinks these Americans have become degenerate because they don’t want to get ahead and want more. But the village is happy. Harry thinks there should be more collectivism, but the villagers don’t see the point. These two longest paragraphs by the mayor explain their community.

Anderson isn’t promoting a utopia. His ending is rather cynical and bleak. He knows humans can’t find happiness. Of course, Poul Anderson is no political scientist. He’s using his own individual opinions about how he thinks things should work. Robert A. Heinlein ruined a lot of his fiction by doing this.

On one hand, I admire Anderson’s speculation and extrapolation. On the other hand, why should I trust his insights? I don’t imagine many readers get their individual opinions from science fiction writers, but I do imagine they enjoy stories and writers whose opinions resonate with their own. I do think “The Last of the Deliverers” resonates with 2024.

We do know that George Orwell had brilliant insights about politics in his science fiction novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. They are very respected. However, do they have objective validity? I don’t know. I’m impressed with the many ideas Orwell presented in his novel, and I can use them to reference real world events, but how useful is that? Many people have trouble today recognizing fascism even when endless experts with all kinds of degrees and political experience lecture about it constantly. Anderson doubted people could maintain a complex society. I doubt whether we can understand any kind of complexity.

I think the average person wants to believe they understand the world around them. That their opinions are valid. And some of those people, including some science fiction writers, want to promote their beliefs in their stories. But should we listen to them?

I feel that both conservatives and liberals get their beliefs from other believers. That all concepts are memes that spread through society. Are there any ways to validate these memes? Science can study certain aspects of reality by experimentation. They get no 100% sure answers, but they do find answers with statistical weight. I’ve not sure political theories can be disproved by the scientific method.

I do agree with a lot of what Poul Anderson says in this story. And I think he knows his wishes for creating a harmonious society are just wishes, because of the ending. World building is easy for science fiction writers, futurists, and political theorists but are their ideas ever more than just sand castles?

Sometime in the recent past I read a story very much like “The Last of the Deliverers.” However, it was set in a village in Russia. They had an American scientist studying collective farming when WWIII happened. He had to stay on. The village got by and found a similar kind of simple harmony that Anderson’s story describes. But then a communist party official finds his way to the village and wants to take over. Like the Anderson story, it allowed capitalism and communism to duke it out in a fictional setting. I wish I could remember that story. I may have even reviewed it. I used to believe my blogs were a form of external memory, but not anymore. Like my regular memory, access is poor, and getting poorer.

James Wallace Harris, 6/8/24

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