galaxy_science_fiction_magazineAs a lad I read science fiction magazines: NEW WORLDS SF, plus imports of the American SF mags GALAXY and ANALOG. I vaguely remembered seeing a petition signed by numerous science fiction writers, back in the 1960s, either opposing or supporting the Vietnam War. But truth to tell – though Bill, The Galactic Hero is infused with the outrage and the energy of those times – I had forgotten about the petition until I read this, in Isaac Asimov’s introduction to a Poul Anderson story in The Hugo Winners, Vol. 2.

“The Vietnam war has divided the microcosm of the science fiction writer as it has the United States as a whole. I, myself, for instance, am a liberal and, in connection with Vietnam, I am a dove. I always have been. Practically everyone thinks now [1971] that getting into an Asian land-war was a mistake, but I thought so even when we were in the process of getting into it, and said so loudly.

“Naturally, then, when a statement was handed around at a science fiction convention urging immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, I signed it at once. That statement with a number of names of science fiction personalities attached, was published in a science fiction magazine. But there are conservatives among us, too, and prominent on that list is Poul Anderson. When he heard of the dove statement, he prepared a hawk statement in which signers urged the government to remain in Vietnam until its aims were achieved. The competing statement was also published.

“Fears were expressed at the time that this would create storms and divisions among science fiction writers and would break up our camaraderie in a tempest of controversy. Well, if the statements have done so, I haven’t noticed it. Our mutual identification as fellow science fiction writers persists above and beyond lesser divisions.”

It was nice that Asimov was able to remain collegial with fellow authors who supported the massacre of the Vietnamese peasantry and the environmental degradation of their country. I’m less forgiving of fools who believe that war is a good thing, or that using violence solves problems. And like Asimov I’m distrustful of “liberals” who always back the latest bombing sortie, whether it’s on Vietnam / Serbia / Afghanistan / Iraq / Syria / Libya / Yemen / Iran, or wherever, and then belatedly recant it. It’s more rigorous to oppose war on principle, whether the grounds are religious, intellectual, or environmental.

Feeling this way, I conclude that those who advocate for wicked things are deficient in imagination. If you could conceive of what it feels like to be “carpet bombed”, or force-fed, or waterboarded, or to see your children and family members and the first responders who try to save them killed by drones, you might not be so keen to promote such things in the public sphere. Most would agree that Tony Blair is a money-hungry war criminal; yet he was given the finest education a young English person can receive, at St. Johns College, Oxford, and his tutor tells me he received a decent degree. Since Blair cannot be considered stupid, and since greed alone surely cannot account for such monomaniacal wickedness, I can only assume he is a sociopath: entirely lacking in empathy for those who suffer from his follies, he is an individual without imagination.

Are not all science fiction writers imaginative souls – at least in theory? I sought out the statements about which Asimov wrote: the “petitions” I had seen. As you know, everything is on the internet. And there they were – courtesy of the late geophysician/composer/writer Nat Tilander. Tilander ran across the paid ad in Galaxy, June 1968, scanned it and posted it. His fascinating site was for a while its only repository.

72 science fiction writers wrote, “We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of that country.” Among those whose names I recognise are Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, John W. Campbell, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry E. Pournelle, R.A. Lafferty, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, and Jack Williamson.

On the anti-war side, 82 signers wrote, “We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam.” Names I know are Forrest J. Ackerman, Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Samuel R. Delaney, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Daniel Keyes, Damon Knight, Ursula K. LeGuin, Fritz Leiber, Judith Merril, Gene Roddenberry, T.L. Sherred, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm, Donald A. Wollheim … and Harry Harrison.

It would be wrong, and pointless, to attempt some facile comparison of the two groups… So let’s do it!   Not all signers were contemporary science fiction authors: John W. Campbell and Donald A. Wollheim were editor/publishers; Gene Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek; Forest J. Ackerman was the illustrious editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland. But they were all science fiction insiders – Campbell most of all. The distinction I would draw between the two groups is that while both contain very good storytellers, the focus of the “pro-war” group is technocratic. They wrote (not in every case, but often) about the tough mechanics of space exploration and colonization, and encounters with alien species tend to the apocalyptic. The “anti-war” group is – dare I say it – less technically-focused. Ray Bradbury’s and Philip K. Dick’s characters travel through space and time, but neither writer cares how the machinery works. They care what the result is.

The wording of the petitions tells us something about those who formulated them. The “anti-war” group has one message only: opposition to US participation in the war in Vietnam. Its words are squiggly – as if the “war” could exist independently of the United States’ pursuit of it. But its meaning is clear. Whereas the “pro-war” group’s statement is simultaneously complex and incomplete. The authors believe “the United States” (presumably they mean the United States military) should remain in Vietnam, with no specified time frame, in order to fulfill responsibilities (unspecified) to the (unspecified) people of that nation. Much is hinted at, but not addressed. It feels cobbled-together, as if the words “to defeat communism”  weren’t quite enough, and had been papered over with a vaguer veneer of responsibilities, one day to be fulfilled.

Space exploration in science fiction is often treated like war. Men are loaded aboard giant spacecraft which blast with crushing G-forces through the atmosphere. There are casualties on takeoff and on landing; some of the ships don’t make it, breaking up in the thin atmosphere of Mars… A very good story in this vein is What’s It Like Out There? by Gordon R. Dickson, about a returning astronaut with PTS. (Dickson, a Canadian, didn’t sign either petition.) And a lot of science fiction stories of the Clement/Saberhagen school tend to dwell on the mechanics and technology which runs in the background of their stories. Campbell, the editor, encouraged this.  So it may be that the technocrat camp saw Vietnam as McNamara did: a technocratic challenge, which could be mastered by logistics, money and technology, rather than a human one. Focused on fixes, they ignored the problem.

As far as talent goes… come on! Comparisons may be invidious, but the “anti-war” group is by far the better group of writers. Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Merril, Harlan Ellison, Harry Harrison! What unites them? They do not believe that technology will save us. And they believe that we are all human (or aliens or replicants), and that that counts.

This doesn’t mean that the humanists can be bested in the horrors-of-space-exploration stakes, either. In this area, Ray Bradbury’s Mars is Heaven! – written in 1948 – is not to be missed.

Some names stand out by their absence: Clifford Simak, for instance. The poet laureate of rural and small-town America, and robots, and dogs: where did he stand on this issue? And were is Frederik Pohl? His stories suggest he’d see the War as money-making empire-building, a Bilko-esque scam-machine such as he and C.M. Kornbluth might have invented. But did he?

[Updated February 2021 — H. Bruce Franklin, in an essay entitled The Vietnam War as American SF and Fantasy, reminds us that Pohl was the editor of Galaxy at the time (he was also married to Judith Merril, the guiding light behind the anti-war statement). Franklin writes: The June 1968 issue of Galaxy showcased the two ads on facing pages, followed by pages of anguish by editor Frederik Pohl, who chastised both groups for turning what he called “a choice of tactics” into a “polarized debate,” thus making “opponents of people who should be friends” and threatening to “endlessly” protract the national debate, and hence the war. Pohl pleads for a unified vision that he expects readers to find in SF:

Look down the list of signers to the two divergent ads.…from their stories, you have an opportunity to judge of the kinds of worlds they would like for the future.…[T]here’s not a pennyworth of difference between them.… [I]f these two groups were each constituted a committee for the construction of a World of Twenty-Sixty-Eight, and their optimum worlds were compared, they would be essentially the same world.

Looking backward at the rival camps, we may be puzzled by Pohl’s inability to distinguish between either their ideologies or their conflicting roles in modern SF. For the pro-war list reads like a roll call of champions of super-science and supermen, of manly and military virtue, while the anti-war list includes almost the entire vanguard of “New Wave” SF, profoundly hostile to technocracy, militarism, and imperialism. Yet Pohl’s yearning for the vanished if not mythical community of SF also represented a wider national nostalgia. For the apparently unified, content, smiling-faced nation of the late 1950s, product of the post-war repression that had stifled almost all dissent, seemed in the process of being torn asunder by America’s war in Vietnam.

[Updated January 2020 to reflect an increased number of ongoing wars.]