Posts Tagged ‘George Turner’


(Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow. Macmillan, 2017, 379 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow takes on one of the most vexing matters of our time: Automation (more broadly, technological advances) is, at an accelerating rate, making human labor ever less necessary.

But what will it lead to?

A post-scarcity, egalitarian, “to each according to their wants” economy of abundance in which working is a matter of choice? Or to a version of the present artificial-scarcity economy in which there are an army of the poor and oppressed, and a few super-rich individuals who will resort to anything to retain their positions of power and privilege?

In Walkaway, the answer is both. In Doctorow’s medium-near future, there’s both a drastically more repressive version of current society — to alter the famous quotation from Lincoln Steffens, “I have seen the future, and it’s worse” — and a (small “l”) libertarian and egalitarian alternative built by those who “walk away” from the dominant “default” society, a “post-scarcity” alternative made possible by sweeping technological/productivity advances.

Therein lies the main virtue of Walkaway: Doctorow’s convincing, detailed, and attractive portrayal of that post-scarcity society and its workings.

To get a bit politically wonkish, what Doctorow describes, though he never uses the term, is an anarcho-communist society (in contrast to the other flavors of anarchism: individualist, mutualist, and syndicalist).

Other virtues include Doctorow’s insightful treatment of technological advances, notably in the liberatory and repressive possibilities they entail, and in the book’s humor, which mostly appears in its first 150 pages.

One of the main points Doctorow makes in support of a post-scarcity, egalitarian societal set-up is that meritocracy, in both authoritarian capitalist society and in libertarian alternatives, is a very bad idea, as the following dialogue between two of Doctorow’s characters, Gretyl and Iceweasel, illustrates:

“Your people are all fighting self-serving bullshit, the root of all evil. There’s no bullshit more self-serving than the idea that you’re a precious snowflake, irreplaceable and deserving . . .”

“I’ve heard all this. My dad used it to explain paying his workers as little as he could get away with, while taking as much pay as he could get away with. . . .”

“You’re assuming that because [the rich] talk about meritocracy, and because they’re full of shit, merit must be full of shit. It’s like astrology and astronomy: astrology talks about orbital mechanics and so does astronomy. But astronomers talk about orbital mechanics because they’ve systematically observed the sky, built falsifiable hypotheses from observations, and proceeded from there. Astrologers talk about orbital mechanics because it sounds sciencey and helps them kid the suckers.”

“You’re calling my dad an astrologer then?”

“That would be an insult to astrologers.”

Two other notable aspects of Walkaway are the full-spectrum sexual diversity of the characters, and that Doctorow includes two explicit, well written sex scenes. (This is in stark contrast to the usual, annoying avoidance of such scenes in the vast majority of science fiction novels, where disgustingly graphic depiction of violence is perfectly acceptable, but — horrors! — not graphic depiction of sex; the only other sci-fi authors I can think of who include explicit, fitting sex scenes in their work are Richard K. Morgan and Walter Mosley.)

As for the plot, it would give away too much to say more than that it revolves around the brutal repression of the walkaways, and their use of nonviolent resistance in response, after they develop a technology that the ultra-rich of “default” society find threatening.

The description of this conflict takes up more than two-thirds of the book, which is likely too much of it. In too many places, the latter portions of Walkaway drag. After reading the first 225 or so pages, I found myself wondering when it would ever end; I kept reading only because I wanted to see how Doctorow would resolve the conflict between the walkaways and “default.”

Anther problem with the book is that it seems disjointed at times. This is in part due to Doctorow’s using five p.o.v. characters. This isn’t necessarily a problem (see George Turner’s effective use of multiple [five] p.o.v.s in Drowning Towers), but it is here. Doctorow switches from one to another purely to advance the story, with the amount of time devoted to the different p.o.v.s varying considerably; and, as Walkaway progresses, it all but abandons the p.o.v. of what I originally thought was the primary p.o.v. character.

It doesn’t help that there’s little if any overlap — no differing views of the same things, a la Rashomon — in the events described from the different p.o.v.s, which aggravates the disjointedness problem.

Still, Walkaway‘s virtues — especially it’s detailed, attractive portrayal of a libertarian post-scarcity society — outweigh its faults.

Walkaway is quite probably the best fictional description of a post-scarcity society ever written.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, and on an unrelated sci-fi novel, in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


Sharp and Pointed has been around for just over three years, and we’ve put up just over 1,000 posts —  this  is number 1,001 — in 37 categories. Coincidentally, we reached 30,000 hits yesterday.

Science fiction is probably our most popular category, and we’ve put up nearly 100 sci-fi posts. Here, in no particular order, are those we consider the best.

This is the first of our first-1,000 “best of” posts. We’ll shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Addictions, Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Interviews, Music, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.


We started this blog in July 2013. Since then, we’ve been posting almost daily.

When considering the popularity of the posts, one thing stands out:  in all but a few cases, popularity declines over time.

As well, the readership of this blog has expanded gradually over time, so most readers have never seen what we consider many of our best posts.

Over the next week or two we’ll put up lists of our best posts from 2015 in the categories of atheism, religion, anarchism, humor, politics, music,  book and movie reviews, writing, language use, and economics.

Because there were considerably more posts in 2014 and 2015 than in 2013, we put up several lists for 2014 and will be putting up a similar number of lists for 2015. We’ve already put up the following:

Here’s the first of the 2015 lists:

Science

Skepticism

Science Fiction

(The George Turner series is included here, because it concluded in 2015.)


 

Australian science fiction writer George TurnerThe Science  in George Turner‘s Science Fiction Novels

by Zeke Teflon

Beloved Son (1978): Turner’s apprehensions about genetic alteration of food crops are, unfortunately, still very relevant. There are already problems because of it, one example being that the only really effective natural “insecticide,” bacillus thuringensis, has in great part lost its effectiveness because its genes have been introduced into a host of cash crops, and so insects have been afforded opportunity to develop resistance to it. With monomaniacally profit-driven seed and pesticide companies engaging in wholesale genetic manipulation of food crops, Turner’s Beloved Son is an apt forerunner of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl (2009).

Vaneglory (1981)/Yesterday’s Men (1983): Turner’s positing of a small minority of near-immortals already among us is implausible for a number of reasons, such as radiation damage and consequent cell-reproduction errors. Another is that vastly increased lifespan and perpetual youth would be a huge reproductive advantage, and one would expect the genes responsible to spread, not be restricted to a tiny minority. This concept belongs in vampire fantasies, not science fiction.

Drowning Towers by George Turner, coverDrowning Towers (1987): Turner did his homework on climate change, and some of the predictions in Drowning Towers are already being borne out. He did, though, rather dramatically overstate the amount of sea level rise that will take place by the middle of this century, according to current climate models. Other than that, he was right on.

Brain Child (1991): Turner’s speculation about the possible results of genetic manipulation of human embryos is still relevant. A friend who’s a retired geneticist, and who worked for decades at a major research institution, read the book recently and says that, overall, Turner’s speculations are still plausible.

Brain Child by George Turner, coverThe Destiny Makers (1993): Turner’s speculations about genetically modified disease organisms are all too plausible. If there’s an apocalypse any time soon, such organisms will quite possibly be the cause.

Genetic Soldier (1994)/Down There in Darkness (1999): The type of human genome manipulation described in both books is plausible. It’s so crazy, though, that it would have been considered hare brained by eugenics enthusiasts in the heyday of phrenology. (Of course, as Turner describes it, it’s the product of a religious cult, which makes it plausible–nothing is too insane for religious fanatics.)

The “morphogenetic fields” conjecture that underlies Genetic Soldier is another matter. Rupert Sheldrake, a former PhD biochemist at Cambridge Universtiy, came up with the idea in the 1970s/early 1980s, and published his first book on the matter, A New Science of Life, in 1981. The basic concept is that ideas and consciousness exist independently of brains, be they human or animal; instead they exist in “morphogenetic fields”–whatever they are–and that information can be shared because of those “fields.” This is more than a bit like insisting that the information in a computer’s random access memory (volatilve memory, not its hard disk) continues to exist in a “cybergenetic field”–whatever that is–after you turn off the computer, and that it can be shared via those “fields” with other computers without physical transmission.

The other problems with this idea (which Sheldrake is still flogging on the lecture circuit) are that Sheldrake relies upon uncontrolled studies in his books, that when other scientists have replicated his experiments they’ve failed to replicate his results, and that Sheldrake’s theory is “unfalsifiable.” Followers have argued that skeptics get negative results because they “dampen” “morphogenetic fields”; thus both positive and negative experimental results can be (and are) cited as being in alignment with the “theory,” making it “unfalsifiable.”

It’s also worth noting that Sheldrake cites that old New Age talisman, quantum physics, as justification for his conjecture. Biochemists are not known for their fine grasp of quantum mechanics, and it’s very probable that Sheldrake and, especially, his New Age followers have as little understanding of quantum physics as I do–approximately the understanding that a chicken has of algebra. (The difference is that I’m honest about it. They’re not. And they make claims citing as justification an extremely complicated theory they don’t even remotely understand.)

All this was already common knowledge in scientific/skeptical circles when Turner wrote Genetic Soldier, yet he chose to base the book upon this already debunked pseudo-scientific “theory.”

There are also a few bits of scientific inaccuracy that surface occasionally in Turner’s novels, including our old friend from 1950s sci-fi, food pills, which make two brief appearances in Genetic Soldier, and, in the same book, a starship orbiting the Earth, well above the atmosphere, leaving a trail visible to those on the ground.

But Turner shouldn’t be judged too harshly for his scientific inaccuracies. He obviously took the time to inform himself about the most important scientific matters (climate change and genetic manipulation), and his books still serve as timely warnings about human meddling with nature.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of  Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover

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Australian science fiction writer George Turner

by Zeke Teflon

George Turner (1916-1997) was already in his 60s, a well established, award-winning Australian novelist, when he wrote his first science fiction novel, Beloved Son (1978). He wrote seven other science fiction novels prior to his death. All deal with ecological (especially climate-change) disasters, ill-advised attempts to deal with them, and the results of both the disasters and the attempts to cope. Most of the novels are set in Melbourne and its surrounding area. Almost all of them have deeply flawed protagonists (“heroes,” would be overstating it) who are often members of the police or military. And all the novels are decidedly downbeat, leavened by very occasional, always mordant humor.

George Turner’s Science Fiction Novels

Turner’s first three science fiction novels, Beloved Son (1978), Vaneglory (1981), and Yesterday’s Men (1983), are all set in the same “universe,” but are a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word. The background for all of them is “The Collapse of 2012,” which “The Background” section of Yesterday’s Men describes as being caused by “genetic tampering with staple crops, followed by a wave of mutated-disease epidemics and the Five Days of hysterical, random nuclear bombing. [This] left the world reduced by starvation and disease to a tenth of its former population.”

Beloved Son-1The first book set in this “universe,” Beloved Son, describes the social breakdown that follows the catastrophes, the rebuilding over the next four decades under the guidance of the World Council, “a super-UN, but with teeth,” and the rise of cult religions.

The second book, Vaneglory, revolves around the discovery of “mutant humans … with lifespans of thousands of years,” the secret attempts to discover their genetic secrets, and the corrupting influence on the power structure of the lure of immortality. One noteworthy aspect of Vaneglory is that it first reveals Turner’s terror of, and absolute rejection of, the scientific pursuit of immortality, which he considered a road to disaster.

The third book, Yesterday’s Men, has to do with socially rigid, caste-based orbital colonies and the tension between them and the decaying “Ethical Culture” that produced the “super-UN” World Council. The book is primarily notable for its extensive, gut-wrenching passages describing combat in the jungles of New Guinea, where Turner served during World War II.

These first three novels are all fairly short and are worth reading for their entertainment value alone. They’re also noteworthy for introducing several recurring features in Turner’s later novels: preoccupation with ecological catastrophe and its consequences; horror at the prospect of immortality; policemen or military men as protagonists or strong secondary characters; clear portrayal of the corrupting influence of power and secrecy, and clear portrayals of corrupted officials; and lack of constructive, practical solutions for any of the problems Turner so vividly outlines
Drowning Towers by George Turner, cover

Turner’s fourth science fiction novel, Drowning Towers (1987–published outside the U.S. as The Sea and Summer), is his most famous. It’s the first, or at least the first major, novel to deal head on with climate change. Previous sci-fi novels, notably John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972), had tackled ecological catastrophe, but none had dealt with climate change as the primary ecological problem. Drowning Towers also introduced three of Turner’s other preoccupations: massive unemployment resulting from automation; overpopulation; and a possible “cull” of excess population.

Drowning Towers is remarkable for its complex structure. It’s a story within a story, with the “frame” set approximately a thousand years in the future. (Joseph Conrad provided what are probably the most familiar examples of this device in his “Marlow” stories, such as Heart of Darkness.) The “frame” is written in a mix of close third-person and first-person points of view alternating between two p.o.v. characters, while the story that constitutes the body of the book is a first-person narrative by five secondary characters–but not the primary character!–with the various narratives divided into chapters. Structurally, Drowning Towers is a tour de force.

The main story is set in the Melbourne of the 2040s-2060s, already severely afflicted by climate-change-caused flooding, with the social backdrop of massive unemployment and a class system divided into the “sweet” (the rich and the small middle class who have jobs) and the “swill” (the uneducated, unemployed masses living in nightmare, overcrowded public-housing skyscrapers holding 70,000 people each–hence the title of the novel).

The story’s primary character is a “tower boss,” Billy Kovacs, and the story revolves around the conflicting desires and efforts to survive (not “get ahead”) of Kovacs and five major secondary characters (two of them policemen) in the brutal world Turner describes. It’s a mark of Turner’s writing skill that only one of the very well drawn secondary characters (Nick, one of the policemen) is especially admirable, but they’re all sympathetic–struggling against almost hopeless odds.

Perhaps because he realized the bleakness of Drowning Towers, at its end (right before the closing of the frame) Turner tried to introduce a ray of hope through what is essentially an epilogue describing a few mild reformist measures that would surely have been tried–and would have failed–well before their place in Drowning Towers‘ chronology. This is the most obvious flaw in the book, though it’s minor. There are other more serious flaws, but they have to do with Turner’s underlying political, social, and economic assumptions (more on that tomorrow in Part II).

Brain Child by George Turner, coverTurner’s next novel, Brain Child (1991), is a very tightly plotted thriller. It’s structurally simpler than Drowning Towers, but it’s nearly flawless. The closest it comes to having a real flaw is that it’s written from a first-person p.o.v., with the bulk of the narration provided by David Chance, the protagonist, with the rest supplied by the primary secondary character, Jonesy, a high-ranking police official. What makes this a flaw is that Jonesy’s narrative comprises only two of the book’s thirteen chapters. There’s no structural reason for this; Turner did it simply because it was convenient. In less skilled hands, this could have been a major problem. But here, it’s almost unnoticeable.

Brain Child is set in 2047 in an impoverished and severely overpopulated world, with the novel’s events taking place in and around Melbourne. It’s primarily concerned with the results of genetic experiments which produced three distinct groups of superior children, one reclusive, coldly logical and analytical (A group), one artistically gifted and supremely arrogant (B group), and one ultra intelligent and unfathomable–and hence very frightening–(C group), who committed collective suicide 25 years prior to the events of the narrative.

The novel’s protagonist, 25-year-old, naive, and rather full-of-himself David, grew up in an orphanage. At the beginning of the book, much to his surprise, he’s contacted by his father, Arthur Hazard, a member of A group, who quickly recruits him to uncover “Young Feller’s legacy,” “Young Feller” being a member of the mysterious, super-intelligent C group. It soon develops that David’s task is much more dangerous than he imagined, and he quickly finds himself playing a double game with a powerful politician, Samuel (“Piggy”) Armstrong, who is desperate to find the “legacy.”

Armstrong is one of the most loathsome characters ever portrayed in science fiction, and one of the best portrayals of a bullying, selfish, power-grubbing politician in, probably, all of fiction. The other standout characters are David’s father, Arthur, the ultimate cold fish who still comes off as sympathetic because of his faithfulness to his own, strange moral code, and David himself, who throughout the novel is on a voyage of very unpleasant self-discovery. (With Turner, there’s no other kind.)

The Destiny Makers, by George Turner, coverTurner’s next sci-fi novel, The Destiny Makers (1993), is a thriller that’s set in the same universe as the two novels which follow it, Genetic Soldier (1994) and Turner’s final novel, Down There in Darkness (1999). It’s concerned almost entirely with the problem of overpopulation, and a possible draconian solution to it. The plot revolves around the question of a “cull” by the anglophone nations, and the resistance against it by Australia’s weak but relatively moral premier, Beltane.

As is Brain Child, The Destiny Makers is written from a first-person point of view, and there’s one primary narrator (Harry Ostrov, a policeman); there are also three chapters (out of twelve) narrated in first person by secondary characters. Again, there’s no structural reason for this; Turner did it only because it was convenient. Here, however, the seams show because the plot is less gripping and the characters less compelling than those in Brain Child. (This is not to say that The Destiny Makers is a bad book. It isn’t. It’s a good one. But Brain Child is a masterpiece, and The Destiny Makers isn’t.)

The Destiny Makers sets up Turner’s next book, Genetic Soldier, by having two sub-light-speed interstellar survey/colonization ships leave Earth during the book’s course. At the beginning of Genetic Soldier, one of these ships returns to Earth to find a primitive planet depopulated because of a religious cult’s cull/hare-brained genetic experiment seven centuries earlier. The book centers on the determination of the returnees to remain on Earth, and the determination of the primitives to drive them off it.

In Genetic Soldier, Turner returns for the most part to close third-person narration (as in Yesterday’s Men) with occasional snatches of first-person narration thrown in. It works–it’s almost unnoticeable.

The strength of Genetic Soldier is in its characters, Thomas, the duty-bound primitive “genetic solider,” and two women from the starship, middle-aged Nugan and her 18-year-old daughter, Anne. It’s a testament to Turner’s characterization abilities that all three are equally plausible.

Unfortunately, Genetic Soldier is as much fantasy as it is science fiction. The reason is that the central underlying “scientific” conjecture, Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphogenetic fields,” is pseudo-science, and that “theory” was already busted when Turner wrote Genetic Soldier (more on this tomorrow in Part II). It’s one thing to base science fiction on scientific conjecture, no matter how speculative. It’s entirely another to base it on already debunked pseudo-science. Turner is well over this line in this book, and it robs Genetic Soldier of much of its enjoyment for readers who want even remotely plausible science in their science fiction.

Another problem is that Genetic Soldier‘s plot is as straight as Highway 95 through Nevada. Once Turner hammers home, about a quarter of the way in, that the book’s central underlying concept  is “morphogenetic fields” (which he shortens to “morphic fields”), it’s all too easy  to guess, if you understand that “theory,”  how the book will unfold. (When Turner telegraphed that fact, my  reaction was, “Oh no! You’re not going there?!”–and sure enough he did.) That predictability robs the reader of much enjoyment, for it’s much more pleasurable to be surprised occasionally, to sometimes not know what’s coming next, than to see a book unfold in almost exactly the way you’d guessed it would. In other words, Genetic Soldier‘s predictability robs it of drama.

Turner’s final book, Down There in Darkness, which was published posthumously, is a sequel to The Destiny Makers.  Its two primary characters are from that book, and it fills in some of the gaps between The Destiny Makers and Genetic Soldier. Unfortunately, Down There In Darkness simply doesn’t satisfy. It’s disjointed, the central characters have no real goals in the latter half of the book, and as a result there’s almost no dramatic tension.  (While plowing through it, my reaction at one point was, “Oh lord! Not another hundred pages before this thing ends!”)

All this leads one to suspect that Turner’s publisher, Tor, took an unfinished manuscript badly in need of revision, edited it to the point where they thought it could pass, and published it–either that or they slapped the book together from fragments. It’s quality is so inferior to that of Turner’s other novels that one or the other of these possibilities seems quite likely. Turner’s publisher did neither him nor his readers a favor by publishing this shoddy piece of work.

But the best of Turner’s novels, Drowning Towers and Brain Child, are enough to establish him as one of the great science fiction writers of the twentieth century, and three others are lesser books but still much better than average sci-fi novels: Beloved Son, Yesterday’s Men, and The Destiny Makers.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of  Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

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Yesterday's Men

“What has slum discomfort to do with organized murder?”

“Everything.” [Dunbar] held a piece of abominable bacon on his fork and said, “The authorities think as you probably think, that the psychology of the soldier pivots on a terrorist instinct. The army knows better.” He put the bacon in his mouth while his eyes mocked Corrigan’s revulsion.

“What does it pivot on?”

“Degradation … From the moment of enlistment, personal degradation began in simple separation from his womenfolk and the conventions of civilization. You’ll never have seen a group of young males forced to live together, all strangers and all released from the restraints of women and family and friends. The skin peels back from their minds; cultural safety is dissolved; they’re out of the burrow with no way back. The sense of territoriality, of the group, is destroyed, each must assert himself or go under–and both things happen. Braggart alliances assert themselves in aggression and numbers,the weak take on passive protective color. The male animal thrashes about in proof of his maleness, in noisy language and physical provocation and aimless quarrelling. Sexual repression exhibits its brassy stridency or goes silently underground to break out in squalls of violence and stupidity. The observers says, so that’s what they’re really like, but it isn’t so; it’s what they’re like under disorienting conditions. As simply as that, men in the mass are laid open to manipulation, and manipulation is what the army supplies. It’s called discipline–twenty-four hours a day discipline, remorseless and nakedly oppressive, with even the so-called off-duty time supervised and open to cancellation without warning or explanation. That’s where the degradation grips. The army takes away the tetherstones and signposts of normal life, turns a man into a creature of confusion and then imposes its own version of order upon him. Civilized man is born to order; disordered, he takes to discipline like a saint to to salvation. He hates it but he clings to it, lost without it.

“In the name of holy discipline he become a machine. He lives on food fit for scavengers because he’ll eat it or starve; he lives cold and sodden because he’s taught it’s no hardship to a proud soldier; he crawls on his guts in mud, takes pride in senseless ceremonial drills, jumps at the command of brainless nits, takes public cursing from foul-mouthed instructors; works till he’s ready to drop and then carries on working–why? Because from the moment the barrier drops between him and his culture he becomes less than a man and knows it and has no self-respect other than as the thing he is told to be. That there may be killing at the end of the road, or being killed, is neither here nor there; obedience and discipline alone can carry him through to the blessed goal of discharge. That’s the soldier, the final product of a deliberate process of degradation: a Pavlovian dog. He can be shocked out of it–he sometimes is when the killing starts–but in general he behaves as a faithful hound. The joke–if there is a joke–is that the masters are as response-conditioned as the dogs. It’s a vicious circle of command and react. Only a powerful mind can remain his own man in the army.”

Corrigan pushed his mess tin away, his stomach sickened by grease as surely as his mind by [Dunbar’s] explanation. He ate the bread; it was stale. “A calculated process of debasement.”

“In the strictest sense, no. It evolved across millennia of warfare, refining itself with use and habit. … They often called it, Making A Man Of Him.”

George Turner, Yesterday’s Men

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Thanks to Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, for this quote. Zeke is currently re-reading nearly all of the late Australian science fiction writer (and World War II vet) George Turner’s sci-fi novels, and we’ll post Zeke’s analysis and review of Turner’s works later this month.

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What exactly does  “anarchist science fiction” mean? Stories written by anarchists? Stories with anarchist characters? Stories with anarchist settings? Stories that make anarchist political and social points? Stories with an “anarchist sensibility” (whatever that is)? Stories that anarchists will simply enjoy? All of the above? Who knows…..

We coverBecause of this, I’ve taken a somewhat expansive approach and have included a number of non-anarchist political sci-fi novels in this list simply because I think anarchists would enjoy them. They comprise maybe a third of the total. I’ve added brief comments about books I’ve read recently and those that particularly stand out in memory. I’m still adding to the list, which is far from complete – it’s simply a list of books I’ve read and that I recommend. (I’ve included a couple that I don’t particularly like, but included anyway because they are specifically anarchist or part of a series;  in the comments preceding or following the titles, I’ve noted them.)

If you notice that any of your anarchist sci-fi favorites are missing from this list, please leave a comment mentioning them.

Here’s the list — the links go to reviews on this site.

Anarchy symbol

Margaret Atwood

  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). More speculative social fiction than science fiction,  The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s horrifying vision of what would happen to America, and especially American women, if fundamentalists seized power. Antiauthoritarian, but not specifically anarchist.
  • Oryx and Crake (2003). The first book in the Maddaddam trilogy. An all too plausible, very well written look at the possible horrors of genetic engineering warped by profit-at-any-price corporate capitalism in a class-stratified, repressive sociopolitical system. It’s impressive in that it projects how current political, social, and technological trends in the U.S. and Canada (Atwood is Canadian) could develop and interact in coming decades; this is in sharp contrast to most sci-fi novels which will consider at most one such trend, and more often none.
  • The Year of the Flood (2009). The second book of the trilogy. Just as entertaining as Oryx and Crake, it deals with the same political, social, and technological issues, but also features an in-depth depiction of life inside a religious/ecological cult.
  • Maddaddam (2013). The final book in the trilogy. Just as engrossing as the previous two books, it adds a fair bit of material on the sleaziness and hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion, and much more on the extreme measures necessary to avoiding detection in a nearly all-seeing surveillance society.

Paolo BacigalupiWindup Girl cover

  • The Windup Girl (2009). Beautifully written. Probably the best cautionary tale about corporate-controlled genetic modification and control of food sources. Antiauthoritarian and anti-corporatist, but not specifically anarchist.

(Note: friends in the life sciences tell me that Bacigalupi is quite inaccurate in some biological specifics, that he’s every bit as inaccurate here as he is in portraying climate change in the Southwest in his otherwise very good The Water Knife. Yes, these are cautionary tales, but gross inaccuracy is gross inaccuracy, and it tends to undercut the cautionary message. Still, these are both so well written and entertaining that I highly recommend them.)

Iain M. Banks

The following are Banks’ “Culture” novels–space opera on a grand scale. While set in the same universe, all work as stand-alone novels. All are set in a galaxy-spanning, far-future anarchist and atheist society, and all feature strong, believable characters (including AIs), complicated ethical dilemmas, and frequent dark humor. Of them, the two best are probably Player of Games and Surface Detail, and the weakest is probably The Hydrogen Sonata.

  • Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • The Player of Games (1988)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Excession (1996)
  • Inversions (1998)
  • Look to Windward (2000)
  • Matter (2008)
  • Surface Detail (2010)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)Transition by Iain M. Banks

Another of Banks’ sci-fi novels worth your time is

  • Transition (2009). It’s a parallel-worlds tale which deals with a wide range of social and political problems, ranging from the character deformation endemic to capitalism, to power-grubbing within hierarchies, to the question of whether the ends ever justify the means. The first half of the book is hard to follow, made up of disparate, apparently unrelated strands from the p.o.v. of different characters, but the tale eventually coalesces and concludes quite satisfactorily.

Christopher Brown

  • Tropic of Kansas (2017). A gritty alternative-timeline story, with distinct anarchist overtones, of survival and resistance in an even more brutal and authoritarian present-day USA.

John Brunner

  • The Sheep Look Up. (1972) Probably the best early science fiction novel about the environmental crisis; antiauthoritarian, but not anarchist.

Several of Brunner’s other sci-fi novels are also enjoyable, particularly Shockwave Rider (1975) and The Crucible of Time (1983)(But don’t pick up one of Brunner’s novels at random and expect a good read — his output was very uneven.)

The Fourth World by Dennis Danvers front coverDennis Danvers

  • The Fourth World (2000). An intermediate-future novel set in the southern Mexico of the Zapatistas, and a very good — borderline great — book that deserves to have sold much better than it did.

Danvers has also written another anarchist sci-fi novel, The Watch (2003), a time travel novel set in Richmond, Virginia, featuring Peter Kropotkin as the primary character. It provides an accurate portrayal of Kropotkin and his ideas, but isn’t particularly engaging, in part because Danvers presents Kropotkin (in line with his actual character) as quite saintly and unconflicted, which isn’t a great prescription for the primary character in a novel.

Cory Doctorow

  • Walkaway (2017).  An intelligent, in places funny, near-future novel about the emergence of a post-scarcity anarchist society in the shadow of the “default reality” corporatist surveillance state.
  • Radicalized (2019). Not a novel, but rather a collection of four novellas (rather three novellas and a longish short story) dealing with the near future and such things as the treatment of refugees, the “Internet of Things,” healthcare, systemic racism through the lens of (yes) a superhero, and a fortified bunker for the super-rich in times of chaos. The tales are uniformly well written and emotionally affecting. This is probably Doctorow’s best book to date.

Many of Doctorow’s other sci-fi works are also enjoyable reads. One I’d recommend is The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (2011).

Greg Egan

  • Distress  (1995). A hard sci-fi novel with pointed political and social commentary, largely set on an artificial island called “Stateless.” If you’re looking for a detailed description of how an anarchist society might operate, this isn’t it, but Distress is worth reading nonetheless.
  • The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred (2016). An all too timely cautionary tale about xenophobia, demagoguery, scapegoating, and persecution of minorities. Not explicitly anarchist, but antiauthoritarian.

Omar El Akkad

  • American War (2017). Not anarchist, and only implicitly antiauthoritarian, American War is almost certainly the best fictional depiction of the psychological and physical devastation caused by America’s interventionist wars, and the hatred and terrorism they engender.

Mick Farren

  • cover of "The Armageddon Crazy" by Mick FarrenTheir Master’s War (1987). Antiauthoritarian but not anarchist. A page-turner concerning militarism, imperialism, and religious manipulation.
  • The Armageddon Crazy (1989). An antiautoritarian, at times very funny, and all-too-relevant novel about a fundamentalist takeover of the U.S. government.

(These are Farren’s two best sci-fi novels, and the only two I’d unreservedly recommend.)

Harry Harrison

  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965). An astute, acidic, and oft-times amusing takedown of the military and militarism.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987). On the surface, this book seems to be escapist sci-fi, but it’s actually a well thought out political novel that perceptively treats mutualist anarchism and nonviolent resistance. Almost certainly the best book in the Stainless Steel Rat series.

Robert Heinlein

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Deals with an anarcho-capitalist society on the moon at odds with an authoritarian Earth. This is likely Heinlein’s most libertarian work (in the laissez-faire capitalist sense of the word), and it’s much at odds with Heinlein’s overall authoritarian tendencies, notably expressed in Starship Troopers, which provoked a much-deserved take-down in Michael Moorcock’s famous essay, “Starship Stormtroopers.”

James P. HoganCode of the Lifemaker cover

  • Voyage from Yesteryear (1982). Features a setting directly derived from  Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Not Hogan’s best book — it pales in comparison with Code of the Lifemaker — but worth reading nonetheless.
  • Code of the Lifemaker (1983). Hogan’s very funny tale of science versus religious fanaticism is a nearly forgotten gem; not anarchist, but antiauthoritarian.
  • The Immortality Option (1995). The sequel to Code of the Lifemaker; it’s also worth reading, but be sure to read Code of the Lifemaker first.

Ursula Le Guin

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Leguin’s classic novel on gender relations.
  • The Dispossessed (1974). Considered by many the classic anarchist sci-fi novel, its backdrop, for half of the book, is an anarchist society set on the planet Anarres. That society is well drawn, though dryly and unflatteringly (at least in my opinion; others would disagree).

Of Le Guin’s many other novels, the one I’d most recommend is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), which holds up well nearly half a century after it appeared.


Ken Macleod

The first four novels are set in the same universe, but are not parts of a series. The next three are a loose trilogy.

  • The Stone Canal by Ken Macleod front coverThe Star Fraction (1995)
  • The Stone Canal (1996). The setting is an anarcho-capitalist society.
  • The Cassini Division (1998). The setting is an anarcho-communist society.
  • The Sky Road (1999)
  • Cosmonaut Keep (2000)
  • Dark Light (2001)
  • Engine City (2002)
  • The Night Sessions (2008). A cautionary tale of religious fanaticism
  • Intrusion (2012). A frighteningly plausible dystopian novel of an all-pervasive surveillance state. A modern 1984.
  • Corporation Wars: Dissidence (2016)
  • Corporation Wars: Insurgence (2016)
  • Corporation Wars: Emergence (2017)

Paul J. McAuley

  • The Quiet War (2008)Quiet War Omnibus
  • Gardens of the Sun (2009)

Antiauthoritarian but not anarchist, these two  novels comprise McAuley’s “Quiet War” series. They’re set in the medium-distant future following ecological collapse on Earth, and concern the brutal aggression of the authoritarian empires that emerged from the chaos against the in-some-ways anarchistic “Outers” who have colonized the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are two later novels set in the same universe, In the Mouth of the Whale (2012) and Evening’s Empires (2013).  These are largely stand-alone novels. In the Mouth of the Whale is best avoided (very slow reading), but Evening’s Empires is a pretty decent apolitical quest/revenge tale.

Many of McAuley’s other science fiction novels are worth reading. Two that come to mind are Pasquale’s Angel and White Devils.

Richard K. MorganAltered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan front cover

  • Altered Carbon (2002). The first of a brutal, noirish trilogy with distinct anarchist undertones. This is one of the many examples of the book being better than the admittedly good online series.
  • Broken Angels (2003). The second in the series.
  • Woken Furies (2005). The third book in the series.
  • Market Forces (2004). An overtly political projection of the future of corporate capitalism.
  • Thirteen (2007). A very dystopian look at a future theofascist USA.

Morgan’s most recent sci-fi novel, Thin Air (2018), is worth a read. It’s less political than the Altered Carbon series, though its tone is similar.

Annalee NewitzAutonomous, by Annalee Newitz front cover

  • Autonomous (2017). Deals with the underestimated dangers of the corporate stranglehold on “intellectual property,” the horrors it could lead to, and possible forms of resistance to it.

Newitz’s recent feminist time-travel novel, The Future of Another Timeline (2019), is also worth a read.

Claire North

  • 84K (2018). A well written, brutal dystopian tale about capitalism taken to its logical extreme (slavery — maximizing profits by minimizing labor costs). 84K is definitely not anarchist and is very short on solutions, but it does provide a gut-wrenching depiction of the emotional and physical carnage that seems all too possible should authoritarian capitalism continue careening downhill into the neoliberal chasm.

Nicholas P. Oakley

  • The Watcher (2014). Explores primitivism, the role of technology in society, and consensus decision making. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

George Orwell

  • Animal Farm (1945). Orwell’s satirical critique of stalinism.
  • 1984 (1949). Dreary and depressing – as it’s intended to be – but essential. Orwell’s projection of the logical progression of stalinism.

Eliot Peper

  • Bandwidth (2018). A thought-provoking near-future thriller about online manipulation (basically Facebook on steroids), the climate change crisis, and whether the ends, no matter how noble, ever justify the means.

Marge Piercy

  • Woman on the Edge of Time  (1976)

Mike Resnick

  • A Hunger in the Soul (1998). Set in a barely disguised Africa, this is probably the best sci-fi treatment of the psychology of colonialism. Not anarchist, but well worth a read. If you haven’t read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898) or his perhaps even better short story, “An Outpost of Progress” (1897), reading them would be good preparation before plunging into A Hunger in the Soul.

Alastair ReynoldsChasm City cover

  • Revelation Space (2000)
  • Chasm City (2001).

The “Revelation Space” novels comprise a fairly loose series set on and around a far future world featuring direct electronic democracy, human-machine integration, uplifted animals, class stratification, and orbiting habitats with a vast array of social structures.  All of the books in the series work as stand-alone novels.

One of the sequels, The Prefect (2007), is worth reading sheerly for its entertainment value, as is the recent Elysium Fire (2018). It features the same cast of characters as The Prefect, and is a tightly written tale of murder, mystery, and revenge.

Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Lucky Strike (2009). A fine if short parallel-universes novella on the morality of “just following orders.” This is Robinson at his best.

A number of readers have suggested including Robinson’s Mars Trilogy novels here (Red Mars [1992]; Green Mars [1993]; Blue Mars [1996]). I haven’t done so simply because this is a list of anarchist and anarchist-related novels that I would recommend, and I’m not a fan of Robinson’s Mars novels or most of his other works. The two Robinson novels I would recommend (neither related to anarchism) are Galileo’s Dream  (2009) and Aurora (2015). Those interested in possible political developments in China might also want to check out his Red Moon (2018).

Rudy RuckerSoftware by Rudy Rucker

The “ware” books comprise a very funny short tetralogy (written before the average sci-fi novel bloated to 700 pages) set in part against the backdrop of a sympathetically portrayed anarchist mechanoid society on the moon. The first two books in particular are gems.

  • Software (1982)
  • Wetware (1988)
  • Freeware (1997)
  • Realware (2000)

Rucker is also a great short story writer: many of his tales are both mind-bogglingly strange and brimming with laugh-out-loud, sometimes-crude humor. His Complete Stories (2012) runs to over a thousand pages, and perhaps his two best non-“ware” humorous novels (it’s hard to pick) are The Sex Sphere (1983) and Master of Space and Time (1984).

John Shirley

  • Bioshock Rapture (2012). This novel is a prequel to the popular Bioshock video game. It’s of interest because it concerns the development of a cloistered Objectivist (Ayn Randist) society. Shirley does a good job of outlining some of the horrors that such a society would produce, but the worst horrors he describes are produced by the cloistering, which undercuts the critique of Objectivism as such.  As well, because he was essentially in a straitjacket when he wrote this, Shirley incorporates fantastical elements from the game that are unnecessary from a fictional standpoint and that detract from the novel’s power. But it’s worth reading anyway.

Norman Spinrad

  • The Iron Dream coverThe Iron Dream (1972). Alternately chilling and darkly funny, The Iron Dream’s premise is that Hitler emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, became a science fiction illustrator, and wrote a single sci-fi novel: The Iron Dream. The bulk of Spinrad’s book is comprised of the “manuscript” of that “novel,” and is an excellent illustration of the ugliness of the authoritarian psyche.

Many of Spinrad’s other antiauthoritarian sci-fi novels, such as Greenhouse Summer (1999) and He Walked Among Us (2009), both of which concern the ecological crisis, are also worth reading, as is his recent oft-times humorous political genre bender (sci-fi/fantasy) The People’s Police (2017). Getting somewhat away from sci-fi, Mind Game (1980) is Spinrad’s insightful treatment of a barely disguised Church of Scientology, and probably the best novel about cults ever written.

Charles Stross

  • The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross, cover imageSingularity Sky (2003). A military sci-fi/time-travel tale that features anarchist characters in an authoritarian setting.
  • Iron Sunrise (2004). The sequel to Singularity Sky.
  • Glass House (2006). A suspenseful, brutal tale about gender roles and conformity.
  • The Apocalypse Codex (2012). One of Stross’s genre-bending, amusing Laundry Files series, The Apocalypse Codex deals with a televangelist, his literally brain dead followers, and tentacled Lovecraftian horrors. Its treatment of both the absurdity and deadly menace of Christian fundamentalism is spot on. (A note on the Laundry Files books: While they can be read as stand-alone novels, they’re a lot more fun to read if you read them in order, starting with The Atrocity Archives [2004]).
  • Neptune’s Brood (2013). A strange, sometimes funny story about the structure of interstellar finances and financial fraud. Part of the book is set in a sympathetically portrayed deep sea anarchist society of genetically modified humans.
  • The Rhesus Chart (2014). Another entertaining Laundry Files novel. The Rhesus Chart deals with the big banks, and has a clear, concise explanation of exactly how they’re screwing us.
  • The Delirium Brief (2017). This latest Laundry Files novel has privatization schemes as its backdrop, and contains an admirably concise explanation of how such schemes rob the public to the benefit of the rich and the corporations they control.
  • Empire Games (2017). The first book in the new “Merchant Princes” trilogy, Empire Games deals in large part with an even-more-overtly repressive, surveillance-state USA than our current pseudo-democratic nightmare.  Stross provides enough background information that Empire Games works as a stand-alone novel, but for the inconclusive ending.
  • Dark State (2018). The same comments apply to Dark State, the second book in the new trilogy. The third and final book, Invisible Sun, was originally scheduled for January 2019, has been delayed several times, and is now scheduled for March 2020.

Stross’s work is antiauthoritarian, though anarchism is treated overtly only in Neptune’s Brood. Almost all of his other books, particularly Halting State (2007), Rule 34 (2011), and nearly all of the Laundry Files novels are excellent reads.

Arkady and Boris StrugatskyDoomed City front cover

  • The Doomed City (2016). A bleak, brutal, indirect dissection of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced its horrors. Written in 1972, the brothers Strugatsky kept this novel under wraps for over 15 years until it was finally published in Russian in 1989 during perestroika; at long last it’s now available in English. Unfortunately, the English-language version reads very poorly, as it’s quite probably an overly literal translation.
  • The Snail on the Slope (2018). A new translation of another Strugatsky classic dealing in large part with the insanity and inanity of Soviet-style bureaucracy. Much shorter than The Doomed City, with shallower criticism of the Soviet system, but an easier read. Again, the translation reads quite roughly.

Of the Strugatskys’ many other sci-fi novels, the two I’d most recommend are their two most popular: Roadside Picnic (1971) and Hard To Be a God (1964). Both are more coherent and much more entertaining than the two novels listed above, which are primarily of political interest. (I’d recommend the older translations of both books: the recent translations read poorly due almost certainly to excessive literalism. The older versions of the Strugatsky’s works read much more smoothly than the newer, too literal translations, and are much more enjoyable.)

George TurnerDrowning Towers front cover

  • Drowning Towers (UK title: The Sea and Summer) (1987). Drowning Towers was the first major novel about climate change and is still one of the best, if not the best. It’s not anarchist and barely antiauthoritarian, but it is acutely class conscious and a literary masterpiece.
  • Brain Child (1991). A chilling and plausible look at a possible result of the use of genetic engineering to produce a race (actually three races) of ubermenschen. It still holds up.

The quality of Turner’s science fiction novels (he was also a literary novelist) was uneven, but mostly good and sometimes great. Drowning Towers and Brain Child are by far his best books. His final two sci-fi novels, Genetic Soldier (1994) and Down There in Darkness (1999) are decidedly subpar, with the latter being downright awful. (I suspect Turner’s publisher patched together fragments of an incomplete novel.) All of Turner’s other sci-fi novels (plus one short story collection, A Pursuit of Miracles [1990]) are well worth a read.

T.C. Weber

  • Sleep State Interrupt (2016). A near-future noirish techno-thriller about combatting the surveillance state, and the first book in the BetterWorld trilogy. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)
  • The Wrath of Leviathan (2018). The second book in the trilogy. The concluding volume, Zero-Day Rising, is scheduled for release in March 2020.

Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea

  • The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975). More fantasy than science fiction, this hallucinogenic, sprawling mess of a trilogy veers wildly from the unreadable to the unparalleled, featuring sex, drugs, multiple first-person narrators, shifting chronology, stream-of-consciousness narrative, conspiracies on steroids, self-mockery, zombie Nazis, one of the funniest parodies of Ayn Rand’s capitalist-fantasy/romance novels ever written (“Telemacchus Sneezed,” featuring “John Guilt”), and occasional insightful comments on anarchism.

For those who’ve read and enjoyed The Illuminatus Trilogy, we’d also recommend Wilson’s Schroedinger’s Cat Trilogy (1979).

Yevgeny Zamyatin

  • We  (1924). Written by one of the first Soviet dissidents (within the Communist Party), this dreamy, nightmarish, poetic novel of an all-controlling police state is the direct forerunner of 1984.

 

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Zeke Teflon, who compiled this list, is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, which takes place in part in an anarchist community. He’s currently working on the sequel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals front cover

 

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