Robert M. D. Minto: Systematic Ideology and Science Fiction

Winner, 2014 George Walford International Essay Prize.

1. Introduction

“Perhaps,” begins an essay by George Walford, “we should pay more attention to science fiction.” [1] He proceeds to analyze the novel Soldier, Ask Not by Phillip K. Dick. In Dick’s novel, the evolution of the human race causes it to split onto different planets, the culture of each specializing in one mental ability, and the novel calls for the reunion of these splits to form “a new, richer version of full humanity.” [2] In this, Dick mirrors the objective of Walford’s own theory of society, Systematic Ideology. Walford was excited to find, in Dick, a fictionalized instantiation of the theory he had been elaborating for years.

Heeding Walford’s suggestion, I propose to pay some attention to science fiction. As a genre it has had a rich history since its first real burgeoning at the beginning of the 20th Century. Often it deals with the underlying dynamics of human societies and offers imaginary futures for them – in this way its area of specialty overlaps with that of systematic ideology. What might a history of science fiction in terms of the major ideological groups look like? I will construct such a narrative of congruence in this essay.

But first, I will introduce Systematic Ideology itself, and the stages of ideology it describes, because, “without leaving earth [,] the human race has [already] divided itself into a number of sections, each of them mentally specialised for particular functions, which co- operate together, each contributing its specialised abilities to the common enterprise. These are the major ideological groups.”[3]

2. An Outline of Systematic Ideology

The historical origin of Systematic Ideology was strikingly similar to that of Frankfurt School Critical Theory. Both theoretical positions were initially elaborated as ways of explaining the disappointment of early 20th Century radical political aspirations. Or, as Walford put it, “as the years and the decades go by, and now the centuries begin to pass, it becomes increasingly evident that neither socialism, communism nor anarchism embodies the first restless movements of an oppressed majority about to grasp its freedom.” [4] World War I was particularly instrumental in squashing the hope of radical political movements, when the Second International dissolved because the separate national parties refused to maintain a common front against the war. The triumphalism of naive Marxism was replaced by disillusionment. The response of a movement like Adorno and Horkheimer’s Frankfurt School was to initiate a major psychological study into the “authoritarian personality,” [5] attempting to explain why the great mass of people would support large-scale political decisions that went against their best interests. [6] Harold Walsby – the founder of systematic ideology – was responding to a similar phenomenon, in disappointment at the British socialist party. But his response was more comprehensive than that of the Frankfurt School. He hypothesized a whole dynamic system of ideologies, in which the lower tiers retained the largest allegiance among the working classes, and the higher tiers were progressively less well supported until one arrives at the sparse pinnacle, the meta-position of Systematic Ideology. From this simple, practical early objective – to explain why the masses resisted the political movements that were most highly developed in the cause of freedom – grew the whole edifice of systematic ideology. It became much more than a simple explanation of that phenomenon. I will attempt to at least sketch the full scope of the theory by elaborating what I take to be its three basic theses.

2.a. Thesis one: Ideology is the central motivator in human affairs.

There are two subsidiary theses that must be true if this overarching thesis is true: (2.a.i.) ideology must be autonomously determined, (2.a.ii) ideology must determine everything else.

The obvious figure to compare to Walford and Walsby is Karl Marx. But it would be wrong to conflate Marx’s conception of ideology with that of Systematic Ideology. In society, “the significant difference between movements lies not in the class position of the members but in their ideas, beliefs, values, assumptions.” [7] For Marx, ideology was a mask for what was truly real and determinative of social relations: the ownership of the means of production. Systematic Ideology, however, does not deflate the concept of ideology in this way. George Walford addressed this question in an essay entitled “Ideology: Autonomous or Epiphenomenal?” There, he attacks the Marxist idea that we must change material conditions to alter people’s ideologies. On the contrary we can only change people’s ideologies by ideological means. “And when we turn our attention from the theory of Marxism to the practice of Marxists we find they themselves accept this. […] They act on the assumption that, immediately if not ultimately, ideology is not epiphenomenal but an autonomous sphere of activity.” [8] Otherwise, they wouldn’t busy themselves with propoganda and debate. What it means for something to be an autonomous sphere of activity is that any changes to it must take place within its own sphere: ideologies, in other words, possess within themselves the dynamism which causes them to shift. I will explain what this means in more detail when I discuss the third thesis below.

But in addition, Walford must show that ideology has a one way connection of determination to everything else. It may be autonomous, but it must also be determinative if it is to be the central motivator in human affairs. Is it determinative?

“The behavior which is influenced by ideology,” Walford indicates in An Outline Sketch of Systematic Ideology, “is volitional or intentional behaviour, those actions we perform upon consideration or with purpose.” [9] In other words, whenever we choose to do something, our ideologies – our action-guiding assumptions – determine what we choose to do. In this way, what Systematic Ideology means by “ideology” is much like what Kant means by “practical reason”: the judgments implicit in conscious acts. Ideology, on this account, is certainly inescapably central to all human affairs.

Before moving on to the second thesis, it should be noted that the truth of ideological assumptions is a negligible value with respect to their effectiveness:

So far as their effect upon behaviour is concerned it does not matter whether they can be proven correct or not. The assumption that the sun circled the earth was accepted for a very long time, and affected a great deal of behaviour, despite the fact that it was a false assumption. The crucial point is that people accept these assumptions as part of themselves, as qualities by which they are defined, that they come to feel essentially different if they abandon them. The assumptions with which people identify can be positive (this is the way things should be) or negative (things should not, or must not, be like this).” [10]

All that matters, with respect to the determinative role of ideology, is that people believe in one, not that it be true.

2.b. Thesis two: The major ideologies form a system.

Supposing that ideologies are autonomous and determinative of all other conscious human acts, what good does that do us? The insight seems almost trivial, when understood in the sense that makes it true. But this second thesis of Systematic Ideology is where the real insight of the theory comes into play. Having figured out that the usual suspects for social explanation – class, most prominently – were incapable of explaining the actual political choices of the masses, Walsby went on to analyze the possible permutations of what did explain society – ideology – by a seven-part taxonomy. These major ideological stages can be found in history, but that doesn’t mean the first ones cease to exist as the latter ones come to be: in a highly developed society, all seven stages can be at work at the same time. But there does seem to be a strong tendency for the lower stages to secure by far the widest commitment among people in general.

The first stage of ideology is called the protostatic (and, elsewhere more clearly, the “expediency” stage). With respect to society it is resistant to change (and hence the “static” part of its technical name). Adherents to the protostatic ideology cling to the existing form of society as their sole defense against the horrors of the world, and they are commonly linked (though not necessarily) with fascism. [11] Furthermore, adherents to a protostatic ideology have a particular anti-intellectualism. But “intellectualism should not be identified with intelligence.” [12] So this doesn’t mean they are necessarily unintelligent. Rather, it means that they use rationality like a tool, without allowing for rational reflection on the uses to which they are putting it. To put it in the terms of contemporary social theory, protostatics are committed to exclusively instrumental reason. “The world is uniform in its alien nature.” [13] That is, it presents itself to the protostatic individual as essentially tool-like, a morally indifferent object to be turned to whatever goals possess the subject.

The second stage of ideology is called the epistatic (or “domination” stage). “… in certain situations the adherent of the epistatic ideology is prepared to approve of change.” [14] As a consequence, conservatism, rather than fascism, is its political correlate, [15] because “if the main function of the previous ideology was survival, the basic assurance of existence, the function of this ideology is the maintenance of society.” [16]

The third stage of ideology is called the parastatic (or “precision” stage). And this ideology does approve of a certain kind of change – but still not fundamental social change. Rather, it approves of the changes that come from the precise application of human reason to instrumental ends. “The sciences, and particularly the physical sciences, now come to the fore in the struggle for survival and also as a means of removing restrictions on freedom.” [17] It’s political correlate is liberalism. [18]

The fourth stage of ideology is called the protodynamic (or “reform” stage). This stage marks the juncture between “static” and “dynamic” ideologies – basically, between ideologies that wish society to remain unchanged and those that which it to be changed. The transition is not accidental, but grows directly out of the driving mechanism of ideological development – the human drive toward freedom. But I will discuss that mechanism under the heading of the next thesis. For now it is enough to note the importance of the shift marked by the transition from the parastatic to the protodynamic.“[R]eality [to an adherent of the protodynamic ideology] exhibits internal relatedness, that is, it is a complex whole whose many and various parts are connected to one another, while the whole is constantly changing. This is the assumption which gave rise to the principle of evolution, which underlies this ideology.” [19] It’s political correlate is socialism. [20]

The fifth stage of ideology is called the epidynamic (or “revolution” stage). Here the willingness to change society hardens into an imperative. Men cannot be free unless society is fundamentally altered, thus “in this ideology, revolution is no longer regarded as a disaster or a necessary evil, but as the inevitable fulfillment of history as it advances towards its aims.” [21] The political counterpart is typically communism. [22] Moreover, just as in the second major ideology great and stark contrasts structured the mental landscape, “in this ideology society is depicted as the arena of conflict between hostile classes between which there are unbridgeable contradictions regarding matters of principle. The same applies to all other aspects of reality; they all consists of contradictions and exist to develop in their own right.” [23]

The sixth stage of ideology is called the paradynamic (or “repudiation” stage). In this stage, society itself, and not merely the form it takes, becomes objectionable. It must be done away with: all the coercive institutions of human society must be not simply reformed or even revolutionized, but outright repudiated. “The principle underlying the new organization of society which is necessary to ensure man’s freedom is the removal of all coercive institutions and the replacement of rule by administration.” [24] It’s political correlate is anarchism. [25]

Finally, the seventh stage of ideology is called the metadynamic (or “Systematic Ideology” stage). Again, it is important to note the shift in prefix, which marks another major transition according to the human striving for freedom. Rather than attempting to change society, the adherent to a metadynamic ideology is concerned with the nature of ideology itself and the system that the major ideologies form. “… the ideology of ideologies identifies not with any one level but with the whole system.” [26] Moreover, “the last ideology seeks to overcome the limitations which ideology per se imposes on man. It does this by recognizing the fact that all the assumptions of all the previous ideologies are problems which have to be dealt with ad hoc and are not articles of faith.” [27]

This whole seven-part taxonomy could be summed up as variations with respect to three factors: (1) the aspect of the world which is said to oppose human freedom, whether the cosmos outside society, society itself, or ideology itself, (2) the nature of the prescribed reaction to that menace, whether to ameliorate it, adjust it, reject it, or study it, and (3) the complexity of the kind of thinking involved in fighting for human freedom, whether unified, dichotomous, dialectical, or systematic.

This taxonomic system represents a feat of precise observation and rational reconstruction. But it is still incomplete, which is why a third thesis still remains. “The model needs to be used with caution; it presents no more than a bare outline, showing none of the complex internal relationships.” [28] The final basic thesis that I explain in this outline of Systematic Ideology addresses precisely the nature of the internal relationships between the major ideologies.

2.c. Thesis three: The system of major ideologies has an internal dynamism.

If 2.b., the taxonomic system of the major ideologies, grows directly out of the 2.a.ii, the thesis that ideologies determine all other human affairs, then thesis 2.c, that the major ideologies are related to each other because they all emerge from the same dynamic process, grows directly out of 2.a.i, the thesis that ideologies are autonomous. Otherwise, one would have to revert to non-ideological factors to explain why more than one ideology exists in the world. The explanation of ideology’s internal dynamism grounds its autonomy.

“The factor which gives rise to ideological development […] is the impulse toward freedom.” [29] We use all the resources of our intelligence and social cooperation to increase our power and choices in life. Our ideology according to Systematic Ideology is comprised of, at the very least, the set of beliefs that includes (1) what we blame for obstructing our freedom, (2) how we think we should deal with that obstruction, (3) and the complexion the first two beliefs put upon the nature of our reasoning. At the lowest level, the protostatic – the fundamental level, one might say, that animals awakened to consciousness would achieve (and do in the person of every newborn) – an adherent blames the external, non- human world for obstructing freedom, proposes to cling to the existing institutions of society for safety, and thinks in a very simple, undifferentiated way. But of course this is too simple to satisfy a sophisticated human for long, because the threats evinced by the external world change, and so the human response must change – and thus, the next major ideology, the epistatic, is willing to alter the form of human society in small ways so long as its kernel is preserved, like a conservative who is willing to pursue “family values” in a way that superficially upsets the status quo (like, for example, making a new law about the definition of family).

This process, the increasing sophistication of the human striving to be free in light of greater and more complex perceptions of what constitutes human bondage, continues step by step through the major ideologies. There are two key transition points: the transition from parastatic to protodynamic, which marks a sea-change in what gets blamed for obstructing freedom – from the external world to society itself – and also the transition from paradynamic to metadynamic, which marks another sea-change in what gets blamed – from society to ideology itself.

Why does the series end with the metadynamic position, with Systematic Ideology?

Because that stage marks a complete reflexivity, a turning upon itself, of the very tools by the use of which humans have sought freedom. At the metadynamic stage, the truth is recognized that the assumptions we have used in guiding our struggles to be free have themselves bound us. Lamm explains this well, calling it the paradox of anarchism (the paradynamic ideology):

Anyone living in a society where anarchist freedom reigns must be an anarchist. If he is not and, for example, upholds the principle of private property, his very existence makes anarchist society untenable. If this society recognizes his right to own private property it will cease being anarchist and will betray its own principles; and if it forbids him to own private property it will no longer be anarchist because it will exert authority and force to limit the freedom of one of its members. Some anarchists ignore this paradox in their ideology, because it undermines the foundations of their beliefs. Some of them, though a very small number, according to Walford, will continue along the path to freedom, attempting to cope with the dilemma posed by the ideology they accept. The people who recognize this dilemma and seek the solution for it move on to the metadynamic ideology, which turns against the last limitation on man’s road to freedom. This limitation is inherent in ideology itself. The eidostatics found the cosmos, the ediodynamics attacked society and the metadynamics seek to escape from beliefs and opinions restricting them.” [30]

So, in the end, we see that Systematic Ideology is both the result of the process it studies and the study of that process.

2.d How to test the theses of Systematic Ideology

On the one hand, systematic ideology is one among many competing theories of the social world. Other theories take other things to be the central motivator in human affairs. In his lectures on social theory since WWII, Jeffrey Alexander notes that various social theories take as determinative any of the following: general presuppositions, ideological orientations, models, concepts, definitions, classifications, laws, correlations, methodologies, observations. [31] Systematic Ideology is – obviously – a social theory with ideological orientations at its core, though it means more by “ideology” than standard (Marxist- inflected) usage implies. But, on the other hand, if the premises of systematic ideology are correct – that ideology centrally motivates human affairs, and that all possible ideologies can be studied as a systematic, internally dynamic set – then systematic ideology is not just one theory of the social world, but a whole new area of study: the study of what kind of internally progressive system ideologies form, and the study of how this knowledge can be applied to the empirical environment and used to improve the human world.

Like any grand social theory with universal human scope, it’s impossible to prove or disprove systematic ideology a priori, without reference to its success as an explanatory model, as a philosophical theory, or as a set of methodological assumptions. Instead, its polemical fortune depends upon the application of the theory to real life. Does it help to explain the world around us, illuminating new aspects of empirical phenomena and suggesting new forms of praxis? Or do we, in attempting to explain that world in terms of this theory, run into insuperable difficulties?

This essay is such a test of systematic ideology. I will apply it to the history of a literary genre, science fiction, to see if George Walford’s conception of ideology is a useful interpretive framework for understanding the development of the genre.

3. An Ideological History of Science Fiction

3.a. Can a genre have an ideology?

A preliminary problem confronts any attempt to fit science fiction into the framework of the seven major ideologies. It is this: by its very nature, science fiction has to do with the social consequences of applied science. This being the case, it might seem as if science fiction ought to begin at least at the level of the parastatic ideology, where the hard sciences are called upon as the chief ally of humanity in the fight against a hostile world. But I will argue that science fiction actually does have representatives in its history of each of the seven stages.

To make this work, I must clarify what, precisely, I am writing the ideological history of. By “science fiction” I actually mean a spatially and temporally connected “society” beginning in the early Twentieth Century and still alive today. I am in deep agreement with those who identify science fiction narratives as far back as the Ancient Greeks, and who trace the development of science fictional tropes through the whole of recorded human history (certainly including myths, folktales, the history of science itself as narrated by its practitioners and observers, and the many intrusions of the fantastic, the weird, the prophetic, and the alien upon pre-20th Century literatures). But it is precisely this pre-history which allows science fiction to burst onto the scene in the 20th Century as a self-contained genre, with pre-existing themes and stock characters, with an immediately hungry audience and a strong sense of tradition.

The work and ideas of early 20th Century science fiction writers, editors, and fans is, therefore, similar to the consciousness of society to be found in a primitive culture just awakening to reflexive thinking – they already possess “society,” a set of institutions (in the broadest sense) that successfully mark them as a distinct group, and within which they must seek their freedom. Therefore, by beginning at this point in the story, we can ignore the basically parastatic relation which the subject-matter of science fiction has to the larger society in which it is written and read, and instead focus upon the science fiction community as itself the society in which ideologies appear.

So, to answer the question of this sub-section: yes, genres can have ideologies, insofar as the members of those genres’ communities must have a relation to whether they want to conserve, reform, revolutionize, or reject the established norms of the genre itself. Speaking of the way in which highly technical, “scientific” systems can still lend themselves to protostatic ideological behavior and beliefs, Walford wrote something that could very well apply to my own attempt to seek an ideological history within a literary genre. He wrote:

“…the development of productive systems needs precise, sophisticated, scientific thinking. For this purpose a belief in magic is quite out of place. But after the system has been developed it has to be operated, and here it is scientific thinking that is out of place. If the operators spend their time studying how the system works, the scientific laws, the principles, equations and mathematics that are involved in it, they will not get much producing done. The most effective way of operating a productive system is to regard it as the primitive regards magic: as something that works, no need to know how or why.” [32]

Walford is talking about systems in general, but what he says can also apply to the special “system” of the tropes and and institutions of a genre. Despite the parastatic origins of the basic science fictional idea – imagining the social consequences of technological change – those who “operate” the genre – writers, editors, fans – are perfectly capable of treating it “magically,” in a protostatic way. And so, appropriately, we will begin our narrative history of the ideology of science fiction back in its primitive protostatic stage – the pulp era.

3.b. Protostatic: The Pulps

Science fiction was constituted as a genre when it acquired a mass audience in the early 20th Century, via the pulp magazine market. “The point [of the pulp magazines] was to keep costs low, sell cheaply and widely, and thereby make money.” [33] It was mass-produced not simply in terms of the reproduction of stories, but in terms of their composition as well. Major pulp writers like E.E. “Doc” Smith and E.R. Burroughs wrote literally hundreds of stories.

Pulp stories throve on a simple aesthetic. Indeed, all they were was the almost mechanical reconfiguration of certain basic tropes, crystalized from the disparate pre-history of science fictional narratives. The protagonist was a scientist-hero. He saved big-bosomed helpless heroines, fighting bug-eyed aliens, wearing a space-suit, carrying a laser, riding in a spaceship. Though science, in the figure of the hero-scientist, was nominally at the heart of the new genre, actual scientific plausibility was mostly ignored by pulp-writers. They were simply writing pot-boilers with certain recognizable scenery, stock characters, and interchangeable plots. The public gobbled it up as fast as it could be written and printed. “… it was, by and large, a puerile and aesthetically limited literature, aimed at the lowest denominator, often ideologically reactionary, rarely more than a […] literature of distraction.” [34]

Pulp science fiction unquestionably counts as conforming to the protostatic stage of science fiction ideology. The conventions of the genre were taken for granted and looked to for entertainment – a fundamental way of dealing with the human situation in the world, where boredom as much as deprivation and danger threaten human survival. The politics associated with pulp fiction were crude, reactionary, indeed quasi-fascistic. For example, one of the major series of the pulp era was Burroughs’s series about John Carter of Mars. The appeal of John Carter is “partly […] the single-minded vision of John Carter as a cartoon-like but charismatic Ubermensch: the reinvention of the Will-to-power as action hero.” [35] Nietzsche could not have said it better.

For all its deficiencies, however, pulp fiction remains hugely influential and popular to this day. As Systematic Ideology would predict, the mass appeal of a protostatically motivated form of the genre remains its biggest claim to public attention.

3.c. Epistatic: The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Science fiction was elevated from the pulps largely by the efforts of a single, phenomenally influential editor, John W. Campbell. He found and groomed a stable of science fiction short story writers who together created a literature that has come to be known as the “Golden Age” of science fiction. “The sorts of stories that Campbell liked were idea-fictions rooted in recognisable science (and later in his long career, in pseudo-sciences such as telepathy); can-do stories about heroes solving problems or overcoming enemies, expansionist humano-centric (and often phallo-centric) narratives, extrapolations of possible technologies and their social and human impacts.” [36] These stories differed from the pulps in that they took the nominal role of science fiction – represented in the pulps only by atmosphere – and made it central. The science fiction idea – the technological extrapolation, the hypothetical discovery, etc. – dominated the form of golden age stories.

But at the same time, Campbell’s generation of writers greatly improved the purely literary quality of the genre. In particular, they discovered a method for dealing with the fundamental literary awkwardness of the new genre: exposition. It is a cliché of science fiction writing manuals that the worst thing a writer can do is to ruin the artistry of their story by loading it with awkwardly inserted and boringly handled exposition. Robert Heinlein, Campbell’s greatest discovery and probably the single most central figure in the history of the genre, theorized a method for handling exposition that he called incluing. “Heinlein […] introduced into SF the technique of description by indirection — the art of describing his future worlds not through lumps of exposition but by presenting it through the eyes of his characters, subtly leading the reader to fill in by deduction large swathes of background that a lesser author would have drawn in detail.” [37]

While both the form and content of science fiction was improved during the so-called “golden age,” its ideological core remained reactionary. Heinlein’s influential novel Starship Troopers is often attacked as a quas-fascistic, militarist fantasy. The published correspondence between Heinlein and Campbell reveals two men of a very reactionary cast of mind. [38]

Golden Age science fiction was not only literarily superior, it was also more difficult. “While space operas and easy adventure stories continued to be written, the center of the Campbellian revolution was ‘hard SF’, a form that made particularly stringent demands on both author and reader. Hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both internally and with known science about the real world, permitting only a bare minimum of McGuffins like faster-than-light star drives.” [39] Thus, the mass appeal of pulp fiction was somewhat lessened in the case of Golden Age fiction. The pyramid structure hypothesized by Systematic Ideology is born out yet again.

Golden Age science fiction counts as the epistatic stage in the ideological history of science fiction because it embraces certain superficial changes without fundamentally challenging the social structure of the genre. The personality of J. Campbell himself could be a case study of domination – he ruthlessly steered his stable of writers in the direction of his preconceived notions of what science fiction should be like. This was an improvement over pulp fiction, but also served to squash the innovative potential of some of his disciples. In achieving greater artistic freedom over the protostatic stage of science fiction, Campbell set up new barriers to freedom. Systematic Ideology allows us to see this development as by no means accidental, but the expression of a systematic pattern, the pattern of the major ideologies.

3.d. Parastatic: Radical Hard Science Fiction

Having extolled the predictive power of Systematic Ideology, I must now lodge a slight reservation. According to the system-pattern of the major ideologies, the next big development should be the the parastatic one, a stage of ideology in which technical innovation is depended upon, and the world is viewed as more complex, even while the basic values of society are still condoned. And there is such a movement in science fiction – but it occurs quite late in its history, in reaction against what I would identify as the protodynamic and epidynamic stages. I am not sure, however, that this slight diversion in empirical reality from the abstract predictions of the Systematic Ideology model proves anything of significance. Walford was clear on the fact that the model was only a model: something used to explain and predict, but not intended to reproduce the full complexity of empirical reality. [40]

Still, for the purposes of an ideological history, I will jump ahead to what is known as Radical Hard Science Fiction.

The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also reverted to the anti-political/individualist values traditional in the field. This time around, with explicit libertarianism a feature of the political landscape, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the individualist impulse was more marked. At one extreme, some SF (such as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged, notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake. [41]

Libertarianism and techno-utopianism seize the day in this genre development. At present there is an ongoing debate among writers and fans of science fiction about what counts as the true mainstream of the genre. Eric Raymond, one of many science fans who believe the genre’s true and only heart is Golden Age style hard science fiction, and who praise movements like Radical Hard Science Fiction as a return to that heart, believe that “at bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir.” [42] As a student of Systematic Ideology might have predicted, this belief treats science fiction as a fundamentally eidostatic phenomenon: it is a literature about human attempts to protect the species against a hostile external reality, by harnessing nature as a tool. The pyramid structure of the major ideologies is born out in the way that only a sophisticated elite, the intelligentsia of the science fiction community if you will, recognize not the Hartwellian “sense of wonder” [43] but the freedom to imagine human society as otherwise (which is a dynamic rather than static vision of the genre) as the genre’s mission and appeal. As Systematic Ideology would predict, science fiction like every other human realm is governed by the battle of ideologies.

In science fiction one of the major loci for that ideological battle is the question of whether the manipulation of nature in new ways or the self-transformation of the species is the more basic imaginative goal of the genre. This debate – unsurprisingly – maps on almost exactly to the distinction between the eidostatic (the first three) and the eidodynamic (the second three) of the major ideologies. There, the key question is whether the major hindrance to human freedom is external nature or human society itself; and likewise, in this debate the key question is whether humanity’s technological future holds more promise to harness nature or to alter the society that produces it.

3.e. Protodynamic: The Futurians

If, as I have just argued, the first key turning point in the ideological history of science fiction has to do with whether manipulating nature or altering society is more essential to the genre, then the eidodynamic ideologies find their 20th Century origin in a fan club in New York. “The first revolt against hard [or “Golden Age”] SF came in the early 1950s from a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club […] The Futurians invented a kind of SF in which science was not at the center, and the transformative change motivating the story was not technological but political or social.” [44]

That summary – taken from an essay by the Eric Raymond name-checked in the last section – puts a slightly negative spin on the work of the Futurians, implying (as he will later explicitly state) that it didn’t really count as science fiction. This is of course ridiculous, depending on a narrow conception of science and an even narrower conception of technology. Among the Futurians one can count Isaac Asimov, who along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark is considered one of the founding fathers of the genre. His famous Foundation [45] series is probably the best known series in the science fiction, and it depends upon the idea of an imaginary discipline called “psychohistory,” – a social science – which can accurately predict the disposition and dynamism of human culture based on a statistical study of its past. It is an optimistic work, gripping despite seriously literary demerits, and the root idea that is worked out in its narratives is this: the rational management of society itself is both possible and desirable. Thus the Futurians, and their “revolt against hard SF” is by no means peripheral to the mainstream development of the genre.

An anecdote illustrative of the break between the Futurians and standard Golden Age science fiction goes like this: Isaac Asimov was discovered by Campbell, despite his role in the Futurians. One of Campbell’s firm strictures was that a science fiction story was only a science fiction story and could not be – for example – a mystery as well. Asimov, ever up for a dare, proceeded to write the Robot Series of short stories, each of which is a science fiction mystery. [46] The spirit of the Futurians was rebellious against the tropes and assumptions of the genre, and often expressed itself as contrarianism or satire. Perhaps the epitome of the Futurian aesthetic is the satire Space Merchants. [47] (The faux-revolutionary ’80s subgenre known as cyberpunk actually takes many of its basic tropes from this novel.)

The Futurians mark the transition from the eidostatic to the eidodynamic because they turn their writers’ eyes from the technology of hard-science to the technology of social science, and, inevitably, this turn away from the inert obstacle of nature to the living violence of human society caused them to focus upon socially transformative political messages. Once again, Systematic Ideology shows its value as a lens for the analysis of ideological history because it offers an explanation for why the transition to social science should go hand in hand with a transition to more leftist politics: according to Walsby and Walford, right political positions typically identify external nature as the obstacle to human freedom while left political positions identify society itself. The history of science fiction bears out this insight.

3.f. Epidynamic: The New Wave

The Futurians were little more than a flash in the pan compared to the so-called New Wave. (The Futurians were reformist where the New Wave was revolutionary.) “Critics use the term ‘New Wave’ to describe a loose affiliation of writers from the 1960s and 1970s who, one way or another, reacted against the conventions of traditional SF to produce avant-garde, radical or fractured science fictions.” [48] In this, of course, science fiction was hardly pursuing a course isolated from the general movement of society. “The New Wave’s inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop.” [49] Little needs to be said to identify this movement with the epidynamic stage of the major ideologies.

This is the stage identified with Revolution. And of course, by now the mass appeal of the ideologies in question is drastically declining. The New Wave is polarizing. It is reviled by many, adored by some. Numerous are the pronouncements that it is “over,” even as one of the magazines it spawned, Interzone, remains a potent influence on the genre, its greatest works become canon, and its prominent figures enthrall the rising generation of writers. All of this is consistent with what Systematic Ideology would predict. The polarization it entails (a feature of both the epi- stages, epistatic and epidynamic), both in its own rhetoric and in the rhetoric used against it, is a key feature of its revolutionary nature.

3.g. Paradynamic: The New Weird

Before discussing the final, and climactic, point in the history of the ideologies of science fiction, we must pass through the penultimate, anarchic, repudiating stage. Again the seeds of it lie in an unexpected earlier time – just as the seeds of the New Wave lay in the Golden Age splinter group of the Futurians, the seed of the New Weird lies in the racist horror-science fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Despite the fact that the Cthulhu mythos he invented was developed out of his own racial fears (acquired during a stint looking for work in New York City), it was something new, the expression of a peculiarly naturalist and post-Darwinian sense of the weird (or alien) which, being non-anthropomorphic, amounted to a repudiation both of natural human fears for extermination and fears about the problems of human society itself. Lovecraft’s peculiar form of horror involves the possibility that the human race is neither central to the purpose of the universe, nor its own monster, but rather a dispensable part of the history of some other consciousness. By adopting this conception of the “weird” the New Weird movement adopts an ideology of repudiation – a post-human rather than revolutionary or reformist ideology.

In the ’00s, a group of self-consciously interrelated authors – most notably Jeff VanderMeer and China Mieville – inspired by the work of Lovecraft, began to write a brand of science fiction with an unmistakably unique aesthetic and a tendency to blur the hardest lines of the genre’s history. One of the big debates that runs through the whole 20th Century history of science fiction is the difference between science fiction and fantasy. Though the Golden Age writer Arthur C. Clarke famously pointed out that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” [50] still devotees of Hard Science Fiction (eidostatic ideologues, mostly) insist upon unmistakable boundary lines between the two. One of the key features of the New Weird, however, is its repudiation of such arbitrary boundaries. The stories could be classified as fantasy or horror just as easily as science fiction. Some of the writers prefer the term “speculative fiction,” which encompasses the whole set. China Mieville’s book The City and the City [51] is not science fiction at all, in the traditional plastic and rivets sense. It tells the story of a murder mystery investigated in a strange city where, depending upon the gate you enter, you are legally obligated to notice only one half the populace, the citizens of the “city” you have entered; coming in the other gate, you are legally obligated to notice only the other half. It is a profound exploration both of the reality of space-sharing yet ideologically separate cities – like Jerusalem – but also, symbolically, a rejection of the genre boundaries that, paradoxically, permit it to exist and provide the audience for it.

Style as well as content sets apart the New Weird. Seminal books like Perdido Street Station [52] adopt a baroque rhetoric consciously rejecting the minimalist and glass-pane-prose aesthetic traditional to science fiction. The perspective evinced by the key books in the genre are neither pro- nor anti- technology, but rather present it as the increase of power and radical change, while focusing their moral attention on the human interactions the technology facilitates.

The New Weird is a movement peculiarly appropriate to the ideological stage at which science fiction finds itself in this late stage in its development. Appropriately – as Systematic Ideology would predict – it’s fan base in select, yet its influence is enormous. It’s almost the top of the ideological pyramid.

3.h. Metadynamic: The Study of Ideology Within Science Fiction

But is there a real pinnacle to the ideological pyramid in the history of science fiction so far? I don’t think we have gotten there yet. Nonetheless, as the Futurians and Lovecraft were seeds for a future epidynamic and paradynamic ideology within the genre, I believe I can point out seeds for a future metadynamic ideology.

A comparative impulse runs like a thin vein of gold through the geological sediment of the science fiction tradition. Its pre-history is undoubtedly the utopian and dystopian traditions. Starting perhaps as early as Plato’s Republic, writers of fiction of a certain type have found it philosophically interesting to perform the thought experiment of imagining societies organized around different ideologies. (The Republic already contains a proto-systematic ideology in Plato’s comparison of “the city of pigs” and “the feverish city,” and in his theory of the connection between the seven personality types and the five regimes of aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.) Walford’s comments on Philip K. Dick, noted at the very beginning of this essay, perceptively picked up on an entry in this sub-genre. The sub-genre has no self-consciousness and could hardly be described as a movement. (Perhaps the smallness of the pinnacle of the pyramid of ideologies accounts for this? The devotees of Systematic Ideology itself are few and far between.) Yet it is an unmistakable thread for anyone pursuing the construction of an ideological history of the genre, as I am.

I will just mention three prominent novelists who seem, to me, to have nurtured this seed of a future science fictional form of the ideology of ideologies.

First, there is Ursula K. LeGuin. She is the author, among other things, of the Hainish series. A loosely connected set of books about a humanity scattered around the galaxy, in the future history of which there is no faster than light travel although there is faster than light communication. (She invented the idea of the “ansible.”) This series becomes a vehicle for LeGuin’s work in comparative ideology. The novels typically explore an “ideological divide” [53] such as that between the capitalist planet Urras and its anarchist moon Anarres in The Dispossessed. [54] This is a method of narrating the comparative study of ideology very similar to that of Dick as noted by Walford. LeGuin is often assigned in sociology and philosophy courses as a particularly interesting method of teaching about the differences between key ideologies, useful for provoking powerful discussions among students.

Other authors in the same vein – each of whom use the idea of a future galactic diaspora as the occasion for a depiction of fragmented and separately evolved ideological societies – are the writers Iain M. Banks (author of the Culture novels) and Lois McMaster Bujold (author of the Vorkosigan novels). In both cases, many of their plots are driven by the interaction of wildly ideologically diverse cultures and offer profound case studies in the uses of ideologies working together which, from the internal perspective of any one of them, seem like diametrical opposites. The vision of wholeness and human freedom offered in these works strongly resembles that of Systematic Ideology. The authors have moved beyond the merely eidodynamic stages of ideology, beyond blaming society for hindering human freedom, and recognized, as did Walsby and Walford, that it is ideology itself, its fractured and contradictory system, which most constrains that freedom. One only wishes Walford had been able to enjoy their rise to prominence in the ’90s.

The hope for a proponent of Systematic Ideology within the community of 21st Century science fiction would surely be for a group of writers to gather up these isolated threads of comparative ideological writing and learn to be a self-conscious movement. Such self-consciousness would extend the beneficent influence of the ideology of ideologies into a field peculiarly ready, almost tailor-made, for it.

4. Conclusions

The attempt to outline an ideological history of science fiction according to the schematic of Systematic Ideology has proved surprisingly easy. For the most part, the major ideologies have almost exact analogues among the major movements in the history of the genre. The Pulps, the Golden Age, The New Wave, Radical Hard SF, and the Comparative Ideologists were all easy to identify as, respectively, the protostatic, epistatic, protodynamic, parastatic, and metadynamic stages of the genre’s ideological history. Perhaps the Futurians and the New Weird connect with the schema in a more tenuous fashion – they fit the Systematic Ideology pattern well, but are rarely treated as major stages in the history of the genre by formal histories of it. – But I hold this to be a benefit of using Systematic Ideology as a lens, not a demerit. The systematic form of analysis suggested by the theory may bring to light key turning points in the history of its object which are not evident to people attempting to write that history without its help.

If the test of a social theory like Systematic Ideology is its use in explaining and predicting the course of actual empirical human phenomena, then in the case of science fiction it admirably succeeds. Moreover, it sheds light on – and provides new arguments for – the debate about the basic nature of science fiction, whether that core is the technological mastery of the environment or the self-improvement of the species.

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5 Adorno, T., et al. 1983 [1950]. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: WW Norton & Co.

6 Interestingly, Walford commented on the study of the authoritatrian personality in Frankfurt School critical theory, writing: “It is sometimes suggested that people take the political positions they do because of their personalities. Thus Adorno and his colleagues have suggested that fascism is particularly linked with “the authoritarian personality” and Eysenck has suggested that adoption of this or that position is connected with one’s “tough-” or “tender-mindedness.” One way of testing an explanation of behaviour is to apply it to the behaviour of those who offer it. If that is done with this one then it follows that Adorno, Eysenck et al hold the positions they hold, and offer the explanations they offer, because they have the personalities they have, and not because of any intellectual, or scientific validity those positions or explanations may possess.” – Here Walford asserts the superiority of treating ideology rather than psychology as the chief motivator of human affairs, because psychologism is a double-edged sword with implications for the validity of its proponent’s own theories.

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