Science fiction has long been used as a vehicle to inculcate neoliberal hegemony into the consciousness of the English-speaking public.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
Since its inception as a defined genre, science fiction had been overtly connected with radical politics. During a period of significant cultural and social change in Europe, many writers began not by imagining new technologies, but new ways in which society might be organized. Given that rapid industrialization was creating new types of work and new types of workers, it should be no surprise that many visions of the future were overtly concerned with working conditions and the plight of workers.
As examples, late-1800s utopian novels such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and William Morris’s News From Nowhere place workers and working conditions at the forefront of their narratives. These two novels were famously in conversation with one another, not as a debate between capitalism and socialism, but as a debate between Bellamy’s vision of an industrialized worker-owned state, and Morris’ vision of a socialist craft economy.
H.G. Wells—a self-identified socialist—wove themes of workers' rights into much of his fiction. One could spend an entire article discussing workers’ rights in Wells, so I’ll just scratch the surface by offering three quick examples. In The World Set Free, Wells imagines a utopian society where agricultural labour is conducted by democratic “cultivating guilds.” In The Time Machine, Wells creates a parable about what happens to idle classes when the working-class is exploited. And in The Sleeper Awakes, Wells writes about a future society in which workers have no job security, toil for a pittance, and are exploited by a small upper class. This last book also features a labour strike that is put down violently by military force.
Finally, we should note that Karel Čapek’s most famous works of science fiction, Rossum's Universal Robots and War with the Newts, focus on the plight of indentured workers. Both involve oppressed workers rising up to assert their labour rights.
Science fiction’s focus on workers shifted in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the genre came to broadly accept hegemonic ideas that centre the aims of capital and capitalism. The depiction of workers was replaced with stories that centred industrialists, non-working-class inventors, and the military. There are numerous factors that contributed to this shift in the English-speaking world, including a fear of radical politics that were embodied by Russia and Germany, and a return to prosperity in America as World War II created significant employment.
Within this milieu, a significant part of the genre’s complicity in the decline of workers' rights and of organized labour can be laid at the feet of the most notorious editor of the Golden Age of Science Fiction: John W. Campbell Jr.
To understand science fiction’s role in the promotion of neoliberal hegemony—and Campbell’s complicity in this—we must look at three related phenomena: Campbell’s neglect of working-class themes, his authors’ subversion of existing metaphors surrounding automated labour, and the depiction of proletarian characters in his magazine as subliterate (and sometimes subhuman).
For almost two decades, Campbell wielded an oversized influence on the genre, which is well-documented. His magazine Astounding was the most-read, paid the most, and as a result had the biggest cachet. The fact that he was a talented editor and competent storyteller in his own right allowed him to use his position to promote his views, a power he did not shy away from using.
Campbell has cast a long shadow across the face of science fiction. His systematic stories of exclusion about non-white protagonists, his rigid adherence to gender binaries, and his promotion of pseudoscientific theories of race have all been well-documented. What has been overlooked is that his negligent attitude toward workers and workers' rights, as well as his anti-communist views played a significant role in reshaping the genre. Leftist SF author Chandler Davis, who wrote for Campbell in the 1940s, observed in an interview that the only author who could get any socialist ideas into the magazine was Robert Heinlein.
Under Campbell's editorship, Astounding’s attitude toward labour could at best be described as malign neglect.
Few stories featured working class protagonists. In his first four calendar years of editorship (1938-1942), Astounding published almost two hundred stories. Many of the stories might feature inventors and scientists, but they are not depicted as working for a living: they are presented as a rarified breed in contrast with whom the lumpen proles are othered. But overall, only twelve could be said to have protagonists who could be considered members of the non-academic working class. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein stands out among these stories as one that depicts a construction worker (Andrew Jackson “Slipstick” Libby) as being heroically competent. But sadly, most of these stories still have an undertone of contempt for the working class.
This broad absence of depictions of workers and working people is worth commenting on. As professors Mark McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson write: “Themes that are omitted from popular culture—such as labour organizing—are often consigned not merely to impossibility, but to unthinkability.” (“Resistance is Futile: On the Under-Representation of Unions in Science Fiction,” TOPIA volume 36, Fall 2016)
In his 2008 text Capitalist Realism, University of London professor Mark Fisher argues that there is a “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” This sense is so ingrained in our political discourse that two separate British Prime Ministers—Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron—have used the phrase “There Is No Alternative” as an election slogan that implies and endorses the idea that we should comply with Capitalist Realism as Fisher described it.
This is a situation that Ursula K. Le Guin summarized succinctly in her 2014 speech to the National Book Awards: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” What differentiates science fiction from non-genre fiction is that it is a genre that specifically imagines alternatives, so by its nature, science fiction should be at odds with the current hegemonic ideas. This is why Campbell’s work to exclude and marginalize workers’ voices within fiction is so insidious: by neglecting to present alternatives to unfettered capitalism, he promoted the idea that there is no alternative.
Reinterpreting The Robot
A key to Campbell’s reshaping of the genre was a sleight-of-hand regarding the metaphorical meaning of robots. The word “robot” was introduced in Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R., and is derived from a Czech word for forced labour of the kind that serfs performed in feudal societies. In R.U.R., as well as many stories about robots in the 1920s, the robot is a metaphor for the downtrodden worker.
Čapek’s robots may have been living creatures of artificial flesh and blood rather than machinery, but for the purposes of narrative they’re largely indistinguishable from those in later stories. The play shows how a robot-based economy displaces human workers, with the human overclass telling itself that robots don’t have souls and therefore don’t have rights. When the robots revolt in an assertion of their labour rights, they spare one human, and do so because they recognize that “he works with his hands like the robots.”
The story is about an assertion of workplace rights. But American authors—and particularly the authors that Campbell courted—missed the point of the metaphor entirely.
The famous Lester del Rey story, “Helen O’Loy”, published in Astounding in 1938 has long been criticized for reducing the role of a woman to something mechanical. As Beverly Friend noted, it’s a “blatant statement of woman as mere appendage to man—a walking talking doll who performs better as an android than she could possibly do as a human.” What is less often examined in discussions of “Helen O’Loy” is how the automatization of labour demeans those who do similar work for pay, such as maids, bakers, and chefs. Helen O’Loy is the happy household slave, with all the ugliness that entails, ignored because she’s “not human.”
By 1940, Isaac Asimov had shackled robots with the three rules of robotics: unbreakable chains, inviolate rules of behaviour that put the rights of their owners first, their obligation to perform labour second, and their own wellbeing third. These rules were set out in the story “Robbie,” which first appeared in Astounding’s September 1940 edition, and influenced all robot stories thereafter.
Asimov’s robots are depicted as having personalities, desires, goals, and ideas of their own. But their inherent inability to have workplace rights remains unquestioned, and is largely viewed as a positive and necessary thing. It is suggested by these stories that the beings that do work for you have no right to ask for better treatment. Indeed, when writing an introductory story to his iconic collection of his robot stories, I Robot, Asimov wrote, “labour unions, of course, naturally opposed robot competition for human jobs … It was all quite ridiculous and quite useless.” He dedicated the collection to Campbell.
As Jennifer Rhee argues in The Robotic Imaginary: The Human and the Price of Dehumanized Labor (2018), the anthropomorphization of non-human labour contributes to the dehumanization of labour: by imagining quasi-human slaves who are happy in their work, these narratives contribute to an assumption that all workers are slaves.
The Unwashed Masses
One of the characteristic elements of Campbell’s dismissal of the working class was his tendency to run stories that depict individual workers as ill-educated, ignorant, and belligerent. Campbell’s workers “roar abuse” at saintly scientists (Horace Gold’s “A Matter Of Form,” Astounding, December 1938), they cause a nuclear accident (H. Beam Piper’s “Day Of The Moron,” Astounding, September 1951), they help bring on the downfall of a Galactic Empire (Isaac Asimov’s “The Traders,” Astounding, August 1944). Often, Campbell’s authors write the workers’ dialogue in pidgin English to drive home these points.
When the topic of work and workers does come up, it is rarely in a positive context. In the October 1938 issue of Astounding, Eando Binder’s story “Orestes Revolts” features a robot that does not want to do its job, spouts quasi-Marxist pastiche, and is described therefore as “monstrous.” In January of 1939, we are treated to Elliott Dold, Jr.’s “The Blue-Men of Yrano”—a story about blue-skinned aliens taking white people as slaves; although the author is clearly opposed to forced labor in this circumstance, the racial subtext of the story undermines any possible class criticism.
Heinlein’s 1940 short story “The Roads Must Roll” is exemplary of this trend. It concerns itself with a group of workers agitating for higher pay and for the right to quit their jobs with less than ninety days' notice. Within the first pages of the story, these demands are depicted as being completely unreasonable, as one of Heinlein’s typical “competent man” characters spends a paragraph expounding upon. The story’s antagonist—a labour leader—is revealed to be pushing for these “irrational” demands as a way of advancing his own position. Organized labour is depicted in this story to be a force of chaos, a baying mob that cannot listen to those saying that their demands are unfeasible. Just as interestingly, the story also bears the hallmarks of John W. Campbell’s editorial hand. As Campbell would later suggest to Isaac Asimov for the Foundation series, “The Roads Must Roll” includes psychology as a means of predicting future action, even going so far as to say “one man might be unpredictable, but in large numbers personnel were as dependable as machines, or figures. They could be measured, examined, classified.”
These stories reflect political concerns that the capitalist class had during that era; in the two years before the USA entered World War II, there were 4,200 labour strikes in the country. More than 2.3 million American workers—1.7 per cent of the country’s population—went on strike at some point in those two years.
Wartime inflation—and the War Labor Disputes Act of 1943—significantly eroded worker wages during the next six years. The relationship between labour and capital became strained, as capitalists resented the gains that workers had made in the pre-war years and sought to use the war as a pretext to turn back the clock. And the wave of post-war strikes from 1945-46, along with some isolated examples of corruption in labour union organizations, provided a pretext for a major pushback on labour rights. Historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf argues in her book, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-60, that during those years “there was unity of purpose within much of the business community on … undermining the legitimacy and power of organized labor.”
Campbell, more than his contemporary editors, embraced these efforts.
In a July 1954 editorial, Campbell expressed his opposition to collective action. He suggested that the Soviet Union, by banning labour unions and handing power to business leaders, was more efficient and more capitalist than the United States, where “railroads operate almost uniformly in a state of quasi-bankruptcy. They, the only inherently efficient long-haul, heavy-duty transportation system, are being taxed and unionized into inoperable condition.” In a later editorial in April 1961, he wrote that “American workmen want unions … even when those unions are run by crooks who gouge them and steal half the union funds.”
Writing to Fred Pohl in 1951, Campbell made his beliefs about labour unions explicit: “Unions [are] by nature more apt to believe the statements of its people than of the employers however much better qualified the employer actually is.” This parrots almost exactly what H. Beam Piper wrote in “Day Of The Moron,” published in September of that year: “the union will have to back them up, right or wrong … In any dispute, the employer is always wrong and the worker is always right, until proven otherwise.” The story is one of the most notoriously anti-worker pieces of propaganda in the history of science fiction, and it bears Campbell’s fingerprints, such as a positivist approach to psychology and a fascination with atomic energy.
The 1939 story “Palooka From Jupiter” by Nat Schachner lays bare the ideology that Astounding peddled under Campbell’s leadership: “There is no dignity in labor,” an alien tells humans, all while suggesting that mechanization and coerced labor should ensure that an upper class can put their energy to intellectual pursuits.
Subsequent decades have shown us that this view of the world does not lead to positive outcomes for broad swaths of humanity. It is a limited and failed ideology, but it is an ideology that continues to echo throughout the majority of science fiction.
Although the science fiction community has engaged in a significant, concerted, and necessary effort to correct for many of Campbell’s prejudices surrounding race and gender, there has yet to be a similar corrective effort on matters concerning class and labour. In many ways, Campbell’s legacy is alive. Those authors who have actively challenged this legacy—Ursula K. Le Guin, China Miéville, Annalee Newitz, and Cory Doctorow, to name a few—are exceptions, rather than the rule. Even progressive science fiction often falls into the trap of depicting problem solving by individual heroics, rather than through collective action.
Fredric Jameson wrote in Seeds of Time (1994) that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” If this is the case, then that failure of imagination has been engineered over decades to ensure that science fiction remains blinkered. These are blinkers that must be actively fought.