Controversial Science Fiction


Here I’d like to talk about controversial science fiction. My focus is on the works of deceased authors but I also have some newer examples, the overall aim being to present Science Fiction literature with some bearing on the rightist, ”controversial” topics of today. I have no textbook definition of ”controversial” but let’s say that I here discuss some Sci-Fi works that are somehow considered as contested and disputed, some more, some less so. It’s about books in a certain grey area, books sometimes written by established figures and sometimes written by disputed authors, however they all share that anti-politically correct nature. The disposition of the article is: 1. Orwell – – – 2. Zamyatin, Boye, von Harbou – – – 3. Essén and Others – – – 4. Heinlein – – – 5. Anarchism – – – 6. Jünger: Eumeswil – – – 7. Modern Rightwing Sci-Fi. — The embedded links go to blog posts in Swedish. Finally, this is a revised and enlarged version of an article I’ve previously posted on my other blog, Svenssongalaxen.


1. Orwell

The number one controversial, politically oriented SF-novel of all times is George Orwell’s ”1984” (1948). It’s got this towering, iconic quality to it. They say: if your author name becomes a label, like Lovecraftian, Dickensian or Dantesque, then you’ve succeed, and we all know what ”Orwellian” is.

Not least our times, the 2010’s, are truly Orwellian. We live in an Empire with perpetual, peripheral wars and we have our equivalents to Newspeak and Two Minutes Hate. ”Freedom is Slavery” (since eating, watching TV and fornicating is the ”true” freedom) and ”Ignorance is Strength” (since castigating opposing voices in the media is the highest form of good).

Orwell’s book has been read as an assault against both Communist Russia and Capitalist America. But in the changing times the novel has metamorphosed once again, now becoming useful in decoding the governing techniques of the current nihilistic, ”liberal”, anti-white establishment. For instance, take Tim Wise’s outpouring after the right’s self-proclaimed triumph in the 2010 congressional elections. Lambasting white people Wise said things like: ”The clock… reminds you how little time you and yours have left. Not much more now. – – – [I]n about forty years, half the country will be black or brown. And there is nothing you can do about it. Nothing.” To that, and substituting ”white man” for ”man”, compare Orwell’s O’Brien:

”If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are non-existent.”

In other words, both Wise and O’Brien are dyed-in-the-wool nihilists. Orwell for his part wasn’t the first to write about nihilism, about totalitarian states crushing the sensitive individual. More about this below.


2. Zamyatin, Boye, von Harbou

Orwell is an all-time classic in the dystopian genre but he had a predecessor: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ”We” (1921). Regardless of whether the Englisman had read Zamyatin’s novel or not it’s all there: a man in a future dictatorship caught between the official demands of power and the longing for love. The protagonist starts to doubt the propaganda and gets caught up in the state’s repressive apparatus, in the end emerging as a brainwashed robot. These are the superficial similarities between ”We” and ”1984” and they’re interesting to note. An interesting trait of Zamyatin’s book proper is the constructivist style and playful language, his inventiveness in creating his future city landscape with its Accumulator Towerthe Music Factory and the spaceship Integral made out of copper and glass, ”about to integrate the endless equation of the universe”… Artistically this is on another level than ”1984”. It rewards the reader with clever observations and off the cuff-reflections about this and that. Orwell (God bless him) is less of an artist and more of a reporter, a common man driven by indignation and fear. A nihilist if you will, like O’Brien, his chief villain…! Zamyatin on the other hand has a different, more diversified outlook on life.

Another leftist intellectual who may have read Zamyatin is Sweden’s Karin Boye. Her ”Kallocain” (1941) deals with the issue of mind control in a future totalitarian state engaged in a war with an equally titanic enemy. It was written in the times of Nazism versus Communism, of Hitler versus Stalin.  Ms. Boye herself was part of the commie camp. But here’s an interesting biographical detail: while visiting Berlin in the mid 1930’s she once halted in front of a Hitler poster, being captured by the features of the man, ”the ascteic, gathered, initiated, dedicated and at the same time high-strung to the very limits of tension”… In other words, she had some psychological honesty below her, shall we say, saintly leftist surface. [The quote from the Boye letter stating this is translated from Olof Lagercrantz, ”Tretton lyriker och fågeltruppen”, 1973, p 82]

Beyond political predilections Ms. Boye was a stern amazon type, a sombre, dark haired valkyrie. Just think of the revolutionary cell described in ”Kallocain”: to prove their honesty and open minds towards each other the members sleep with drawn knives between them. Now of course you have to trust each other if you are an urban guerilla sleeping in common quarters – but why the drawn blade…? That signals a disturbed mind, or shall we say an amazon mindset. A stern warrior woman she was. And an epitaph written about her actually had the title ”Dead Amazon”, envisioning her escorted to Hades by Spartan warriors.

– – –

Boye was obsessed with death and suicide, writing some chilling poems on the theme and finally suceeding in killing herself at the time of the German invasion of Greece, 1941. I don’t hold the death obsession against her but in all fairness, she was a bit manic. And some of that is mirrored in ”Kallocain”, perhaps the most famous Swedish SF-novel of all times. It’s earnest and authentic. ”It’s got the beauty of ice” like Yukio Mishima said about the samurai code ”Hagakure”.

In the old school, former part of the 20th century dystopian genre we also have Thea von Harbou’s ”Metropolis” (1926), immortalized in the 1927 Fritz Lang movie that recently have been restored to its former glory. The scenes and images of the movie are classical and the plot itself is emblematic, relating a revolution in a future city-state ending in reconciliation between the elites and the working masses: ”The mediator between head and hand should be heart.” That’s a fair deal since no society can exist without some inherent harmony between its parts. The quoted pay-off also hints at the need for spiritual values and the novel (and the restored version of the film) actually has a scene in a church where the effigies of saints seemingly come to life. True, this isn’t a central part of the story, but to add such images of religion into a modernist narrative is more than quaint, it’s imperative as I see it. Look at Orwell, Zamyatin and Boye, they ignored religion altogether. My guess is that future writers, SF and other, won’t be able to do that but I may be wrong.

Thea von Harbou isn’t a profound thinker; she’s first and foremost an effective story-teller. The ”Metropolis” novel has a lot of action including a car chase; imagine that, 40 years before ”Bullitt”… As for being controversial she scored high by becoming a member of the Nazi party in 1932. After the war she got rehabilitated and continued in the movie industry.


3. Essén and Others

Nazism and SF is a goldmine of controversy. To begin with there was an SF story that Adolf Hitler personally liked: ”The Tunnel” (”Der Tunnel”, 1915) by Bernhard Kellermann. To be fair Mr. Hitler hadn’t, as far as I know, read this book about a transatlantic railway tunnel but he was indeed aroused by a 1920’s airing of the film based on this work. The biographer Alan Bullock relates how Hitler specifically reacted to a scene with an agitator firing the minds of a gathering of workers; Hitler was said to have been highly inspired by this. Speculative minds can ponder what this SF story meant for the creation of the Nazi movement, of Hitler speaking at rallies and beer halls and public squares, building a mass movement that subsequently controlled all of Europe.

Berharnd Kellerman wasn’t a Nazi. And I’d say that ”Nazi SF” for its part is mostly a construction. Personally I haven’t found any ideologically pure SF stories of the Nazi kind, not any dyed-in-the-wool, un-ironic examples at least. Then again, I haven’t read that much German 30’s SF. – I’ll begin this part of the survey by saying: there was a Swedish Nazi who wrote an infamous novel, and not even he was overly Nazi in that work. I’m talking about Rütger Essén’s ”The Darkened Metropolises” (De släckta metropolerna, 1937). This book hasn’t got any expressly Nazi ideas – no racial ideas at least, only some thoughts on how an able-bodied white man after a catastrophe can start civilization anew with a working class woman and a female doctor, the trio eventually engendering lots of kids, with the man planning the farming and building of houses for them, the schooling of the kids etc. True, there is a conflicit in this post-catastrophe world between the cunning, knowing heroes and some working class people in another part of town, that is, Stockholm. And this may be seen as a pale reflection of H. G. Wells’ ”The Time Machine” (1897) with its future conflict between ethereal upperclass people and troglodyte workers. It also reminds you of Thea von Harbou’s ”Metropolis”, of which I’ve already spoken. ”De släckta metropolerna” is like a 1930’s robinsonade, hands-on and pragmatical, but not Nazi either in style or content as far as I can see. Rightist, yea, radical conservative, yes, but not a school example of ”Nazi SF”.

– – –

So then, to get an archetypal Nazi SF story we have to move on to post-war days and look at a pastische, a work pretending to be a future story written by a National Socialist.

The book in question is Norman Spinrad’s ”The Iron Dream” (1970) which stirred up some controversy at the time. For example the book was prohibited in Germany. It’s supposed to be a book that Adolf Hitler could have written had he not become the leader of Germany but instead emigrated to the USA, subsequently drawn into the Science Fiction subculture as an illustrator and a writer. The novel relates how a certain Feric Jaggar (= Adolf Hitler) rises to power in Heldon (= Germany) along with his cronies Waffing, Bogel and Best (= Goering, Goebbels and Hess). The final challenge comes in facing up to the Zind (= Soviet) empire.

Spinrad had the noblest motives for writing this novel, showing Nazism ”as it really is”. However, things didn’t quite work out as he had planned. Some real Nazis, The American Nazi Party, took the novel to their heart, including it on some website’s To Read-list. And some ordinary reader, too unsophisticated to get the metafictional approach, the Spinrad-writing-how-Hitler-could-have-written thing, actually liked the book: ”This is a rousing adventure story and I really enjoyed it. Why did Spinrad have to spoil the fun with all this muck about Hitler?” (Source: Wikipedia/”The Iron Dream”)

Also, an customer review of the novel said this: ”Perhaps Mr. Spinrad nailed the Nazi ethos a little too well.” — So who got the last laugh? In writing like Hitler you have to pay the price. Nothing comes for free.

– – –

In treating ”SF and Nazism” I guess you have to mention Philip K. Dick’s ”The Man in the High Castle” (1962). Here the Axis powers have won the war and split America between them, Japan taking the western part and Germany the eastern. Other than the parallell world theme the novel is fairly mainstream in its depicting Germans as brute animals and Japanese as art-loving stoics: this goes down well with any liberal critic. And the idea as such of the Axis powers physically occupying USA after winning the war is unrealistic as they in reality would have been satisfied with cutting down the American army and navy, leaving it as a harmless regional power. However, on the whole this Dick novel is well crafted and alluring. Take for instance the never-never-land feeling achieved in the scene where a Japanese occupant for a moment finds himself in a parallell world where the Axis didn’t win the war; that’s some tour de force, having an alternate future in an alternate future. The same feeling can grab you while reading Norman Spinrad’s ”The Iron Dream” and thinking, well, chauvinist dreams with racist overtones, military parades and all-out war is just a fancy in our world – or is it…? Hey wait a minute, World War Two actually happened…! The political connotations apart you have to admit that the world is a strange place and stories like Spinrad’s and Dick’s can help you see that.


4. Heinlein

From Phil Dick the step isn’t far to Robert A. Heinlein, another American putting his stamp on post war SF. In 1959 Heinlein for instance wrote ”Starship Troopers”, commonly regarded as a controversial work of politically oriented SF, with its totalitarian form of government, with only the military given the right to vote as man in this future is involved in a fight to the death with evil aliens. But in essence this isn’t so controversial, so far-flung. We have to remember that total war equals totalitarianism, that war has a tendency to marginalize constitutional rights, so Heinlein isn’t completely wrong in coupling war with limitations of franchise. His proposed system can also be seen as a defence for the idea that rights come with obligations, a truly alien idea in today’s liberal mindset. In ”Starship Troopers” the right to vote is linked to the duty to serve in the armed forces. Alien war or not the idea has a nice symmetry to it: quid pro quo, you don’t get something for nothing.

Heinlein had more controversial stuff up his sleeve. In ”Sixth Column” (1941) America is invaded by PanAsians, a combination of Chinese and Japanese. They are finally defeated with a racially selective weapon, only killing mongoloid people.

Such a story couldn’t have been written and published today; indeed, it was issued in 1941 and thus part of those days’ anti-Japanese sentiments. So it probably wasn’t so controversial then: the consensus backed it up, with concentration camps for Japanese Americans and the like. But Heinlein nevertheless returned to race issues in the 60’s. In those days Heinlein was a popular author selling well so he seems to have been given green light to write anything he wanted.

– – –

Heinlein was a big name in those days, being free to write whatever. So he maybe, to himself, put it the other way around – what can a white American author not write about? Blacks of course, so that’s how Heinlein might have gotten the idea for ”Farnham’s Freehold” (1966), about a future America governed by African Americans. Not exactly kosher in those civil rights days and not kosher now either.

Anyhow, that’s how the idea for this novel might have come about, with a Heinlein testing how far he could go. And he could go far indeed but in the end no one seems to have cared. I’ll return to that. Until then let’s take a closer look at this ”Science fiction’s most controversial novel”, which is the current Baen book issue blurb on ”Farnham’s Freehold”. It’s a story of a time trip to a future America ruled by blacks with a taste for cannibalism and polygyny. To be sure, along the way Heinlein offers some balancing aspects as to the nature of black people. Among other things there’s a black man among the central time-traveling characters, Joseph, a decent, reliable fellow and the best bridge player of the group. And in the tedious discussions in this mostly average novel Heinlein mentions some place in the West Indies ”where the blacks are cultured and sophisticated, and whites are feckless and shiftless” (Source: Wikipedia/”Farnham’s Freehold”).

But is it enough to simply sugar-coat such an overall harsh message of racialism, of a future black tyranny, and then sell it to the American public? How did Heinlein get away with it? The answer seems to be that literary critics in those days didn’t give a damn about Science Fiction. Anything labeled ”SF” they could safely ignore. That said and seen within the realms of the SF field, how could such a book be published in the first place? What SF publisher would like such a hot potato on his desk? The answer is: many would…! In those days Heinlein’s books wasn’t exactly national bestseller material but as intimated they sold well, so any product labelled ”Robert A. Heinlein” in 1966 would find its buyers. He could write what he wanted, editor interference with his texts being close to nil at the time. Further on, in the 1980’s, Heinlein apporached the national bestseller list in earnest. But by then he more or less consciously steered away from controversial issues like race.

”Farnham’s Freehold” can still be bought off the shelf in pristine condition. And still nobody cares. Why doesn’t someone call NAACP? It would be intreresting to see Heinlein lambasted on this even though he’s dead since long. In the 1980’s Heinlein-bashing was the thing to do for every right-minded SF fan and I kind of miss those days.


5. Anarchism

Now let’s talk about anarchism.  Anarchism seems to keep its allure through thick and thin, being the Gordian Knot answer to all political questions: how about no government and no laws, just citizens making mutual agreements? Eric Frank Russell seems to think that this could work. But his ”And Then There Were None” (1951) depends entirely on its other-worldly setting, the action taking place on a future space colony. Russell stages his anarchist utopia without common limitations such as ethnicity, traditions and scarcity of resources so it gets rather artificial. That said the story is rather witty and elegant, being somewhat of a ideological experiment, like More’s ”Utopia”, von Harbou’s ”Metropolis” or Zamyatin’s ”We”, which didn’t pose any questions about ethnicity etc either but were the settings for intreresting duscussions nontheless.

Another work of short fiction dealing with anarchy is Larry Niven’s ”Cloak of Anarchy” (1972). Here we have a future Los Angeles with the freeways turned into parks – free parks – since cars as we know them have been replaced by soaring vessels, hovering craft of the today generic SF type. These enclosed parks with entry fees are a social experiment with some hippie connotations, their only prevailing rule being ”no violence”. The parks are supervised by soaring cameras called copseyes; at the sight of any violence the police can arrive and uphold the law. The park’s visitors practise micro-level anarchy like preaching for dumbass religions, wearing outrageous costumes or just hanging out, an anarchy that can exist as long as there’s macro-level, state-executed violence to safeguard it.

So this small-scale utopia is rather silly and harmless but let’s go with it for the sake of the narrative. Because, some day at L. A.:s King’s Free Park some genius takes down all the copseyes, as if on cue: they all drop to the ground thanks to the clever guy’s hacking abilities. So what does that turn the park into? A small-scale hell. With no restraint, no threat of public interference the fabric of civility cracks. Among other things some heavies post guard around the drinking water fountain, only letting selected people come for a drink. The queues line up. And this is a perfect picture of what a collapsing society would mean: scarcity of necessities, violence, unsecurity. In time the copseyes come up again and everything reverts to normal, but the central charachters have a scary night behind them, depriving them of what delusions of anarchy they might have had. ”Anarchy isn’t stable” is Niven’s terse conclusion and I can go with that.


6. Jünger: Eumeswil

Like Larry Niven Ernst Jünger is sceptical about the common view of anarchism, giving eternal bliss to everybody as soon as it’s installed, but Jünger doesn’t discard anarchism altogether. In ”Eumeswil” (1977) he redefines it in the role of the Anarch, being an antipole to the ruler but not (as an anarchist) bent on destroying him, just content with watching him. The anarch wants to be free, not by changing society but by mentally seceeding from it.

The narrator in this novel alternates his duties between the university and the casbah, the seat of power. Here he tends the nightbar listening in on the governing clique’s discussions in this post-war, post-debacle future. ”Eumeswil” is a rich novel, echoing Jünger’s other utopian/dystopian works like ”Heliopolis” (1949) and ”On the Marble Cliffs” (1939). Here however here we’ll have to focus on subjects in ”Eumeswil” relevant for current debates:

Precious metals: ”The powers that be always rob the common man of his gold.” All throughout history those in power have robbed the people of their gold, either by diminishing the gold content of coins or by issuing paper money. The standard investing advice of 2014 seems to be buying gold as a hedge against a crashing dollar and there’s a rebellious trait to this, in the common man exchanging dollars for gold and storing it in his private cache. In discussing the role of gold in the economy Jünger was ahead of his times, stressing the everlasting quality of that yellow metal.

Survivalism: what to do if there’s an upheaval, an interregnum? The narrator concludes that the best is to furnish a dug-out in the woods to use as a safe heaven. This is like a miniature of the mega-crisis we face today. ”Stock up on food, water, ammunition…”: we all read that on the internet today but Jünger was way ahead of these preppers too.

Spiritual values: We can’t do without myths, legends, dreams. Having food on the table isn’t enough. Many prophets have said that throughout history, so having Jünger propagating the same isn’t original in itself. However, since no one listened last time it has to be said again and again.


7. Modern Rightwing Sci-Fi

I’ve taken you through a survey of the more controversial sides of SF. We’ve seen some old and early modern books, so how about the new ones? – Looking at more contemporary controversial SF you could mention titles like Randolph D. Calverhall’s ”Serpent’s Walk” (1991, with post-1945 underground Nazis coming to the fore again with economic and metapolitical means) and William Pierce’s ”The Turner Diaries” (1978, about WN guerilla warfare). To be fair I don’t endorse these books, they’re kind of heavy even to me. Too extreme, to be frank. But they have their value in showing that Sci-Fi can be the means of expression for oppressed political ideas.

As for modern dystopias we for instance have Scott Wilson’s ”Utopia X” (2004), where America in 2048 is ruled by a totalitarian goverment disguised as a tolerant, anti-racist democracy. With mind control and the outlawing of ”insensitivity” and freedom of speech the stage is set for a modern ”1984”, only here there’s a ray of hope in the form of a guerilla movement that begins to take shape, intent to defend liberty and freedom for all. More complex is Alex Kurtagic’s ”Mister” (2009) with a sombre future characterized by political correctness, corruption, crime and globalism; the book has been lauded for its avant-garde style, erudition and humour. This is modern rightwing Sci-Fi for the educated man, Kurtagic being something of America’s answer to Lars Holger Holm.

To make this survey complete I can mention two American race oriented dystopias, Kyle Bristow’s ”White Apocalypse” (2010), on the modern implications of the idea of whites having colonized America 17.000 years ago, and Ward Kendall’s ”Hold Back This Day” (2003), about the last white people on earth. A final dystopia, perhaps more easliy digestible, is Jean Raspail’s ”The Camp of the Saints” (1973), extrapolating on the theme of European mass immigration. By some critics it’s said that third world immigrants are treated with silk golves, hence the ”saint” element of the title.

In other words, it’s clear that Sci-Fi lends itself to hot topics and non-PC narratives, to more or less controversial political discussions. So artistically and philosophically speaking the future looks bright; there are still stories to be told and issues to be debated in future fictional settings, whether utopian or dystopian.


Related (in Swedish)

Philip K. Dick: Vad är verkligt?

Robert Heinlein

Jünger: Eumeswil

Spinrad: The Iron Dream

von Harbou: Metropolis


The picture is of the Swedish 1990 issue of the ”Metropolis” novel, sporting a facsimile of the original German 1926 edition.