Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Thomas M. Disch on Newt Gingrich's sci-fi politics

Reading the fiction and non-fiction of Thomas M. Disch was one of the great pleasures of my life.  He did not suffer fools and sentimentalists and reactionaries gladly.  His ferocious novels were balanced perfectly by the deadly ease of his essays.

When Jon Stewart and MSNBC were in a lather over Newt Gingrich's Florida primary stump speech about creating a moon colony, I wondered why this came as such a revelation.  Futurism [of the Toffler, not the Marinetti, variety] and "hard" SF [note well that verb!], having been the happy hunting grounds of rightists and libertarians since the Great Depression.  Doesn't every contrarian with an anti-social personality disorder sees themselves as a space-faring superman?

I am posting Thomas M. Disch's 1996 article on Gingrich and his sci-fi glee club which originally appeared in The Nation, and which can also be found in the excellent Disch collection On SF

Speaker Hoonbeam: Newt's Futurist Brain Trust

At some point in his presidency Richard Nixon posed for a photograph in

which he can be seen holding a copy of the Modern Library edition of The
Sound and the Fury. The moment I saw it, I thought: "Nixon? Faulkner? Not
very likely."

But Newt Gingrich might just get away with striking such a pose. Here

is a politician who actually does read books; who has said "ideas matter";
who even draws up lists of required reading for his fellow legislators. OK,
The Federalist Papers is on the list, which is a bit like including the Holy
Bible. More significant is the presence on Gingrich's list of two popular
futurologists, Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt, writers who had not till
now been identified with a particular political agenda.

More significant still—though not included on the reading list or

much noted—has been Gingrich's connection with another, less celebrated
school of futurology, the writers of sci-fi and high-tech, gung-ho
military romance, who have been and continue to be his collaborators on
both nonfiction and fiction projects. Of them, anon.

Gingrich's most noticed and commendable co-optation has been his

enlistment of Toffler, the author of Future Shock and now a spokesman for
the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Gingrich franchise. Future Shock
was published in 1970 and established Toffler's bona fides as a "futurist."
In that book and its successors, The Third Wave (1980) and Power Shift
(1990), Toffler managed to look beyond the polarizing us-or-them antinomies
of the cold war imagination to descry, with remarkable foresight,
the postmodern future we postmoderns now inhabit. He observed the
ways that advances in cybernetics and media technology had already
transformed daily life and power politics and extrapolated from there.
His books are informed, judicious, and thought-provoking.

Toffler's major competitor in the futurology business has been John

Naisbitt, author of Megatrends (1982). His work differs from Toffler's
more in style than content. Toffler is discursive and sequential; the print
in his books is smaller, the footnotes more abundant, and he assumes a
goodly attention span. Naisbitt writes in info-bites for a later, more
impatient breed of reader. His pages have the disjunctive inputs of USA
Today, with paragraphs regularly interspersed with explanatory headlines
and bulleted lines, as though to say, "Skim me, I'm an easy read."

Both Toffler and Naisbitt have worthwhile points to make. The world

is changing in ever-exfoliating ways, thanks to computers and satellite
technology and the simple yens, of people and of corporations, to do
whatever they want. These changes cannot be withstood or gainsaid, if
only because they are, so often, faits accompli. In their way, Toffler and
Naisbitt represent the chilly common sense of cyberspace: the future will
be the exclusive domain of computer-literate managers of multinational
corporations; the rest of us will be consigned to the Rust Belt.

As so often with common sense, appetite dictates what is perceived.

Toffler, and Naisbitt even more, accentuate the welling-up of nutrients in
the churning waters of history, heedless of (or indifferent to) whole flotillas
liable to sink. Thus in Global Paradox (1994) Naisbitt, who believes that
"travel is and will continue to be the world's largest industry," only once
makes significant reference to AIDS, noting how it has reduced tourism
in Kenya and Gambia. Warfare rates almost as little attention: "Escalation
of armed conflict in certain regions around the globe can have a negative
impact on worldwide tourism. The Gulf War demonstrated just how
much of an impact armed conflict can have." Naisbitt is a resident of the
ski resort and mountain fastness of Telluride, Colorado, and boasts that
he can interface with current events without ever stirring from his monitor.
Those who access information electronically have a privileged perspective
but not necessarily a clearer one. Gingrich's attitude of "Let
them eat laptops" and Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" are both
memorable for their delicate positioning between naivete and irony.
From the perspective of the trailer park and the inner city, a free ticket to
cyberspace has all the allure of a half-off coupon for a Berlitz course in
Japanese conversation.

Toffler's take on the problem of evil isn't so blithely New Age as Naisbitt's.

His role model is Machiavelli and not Marie Antoinette, but even so
he has a penchant for finding ponies at the bottom of every dungheap.
Thus the "personal political views" of a media baron like Rupert Murdoch
are inconsequential because such giants are necessarily committed
to an "ideology of globalism... or at least supranationalism which must
operate across national boundaries, and it is in the self-interest of the
new media moguls to spread this ideology." Such a McLuhanite focus on
the medium as against the message accommodates the needs of power.
It is not surprising, then, that Toffler and Naisbitt should now be
advanced by Gingrich to the rank of official government-accredited
gurus. Their works had already been garlanded with blurbs from the
international press and U.S. senators and CEOs. Recruiting them was a
respectable sort of recent acquisition, on the order of a Monet or a
Cézanne. What is much more revealing is Gingrich's alliance with
another kind of futurist in the persons of Jerry Pournelle, Janet Morris,
David Drake, and William Forstchen. In the work of these four once-and-future
Gingrich collaborators one confronts the unnerving and sinister
shadows implicit in Toffler and Naisbitt's sunshiny scenarios.

Do their names ring bells? Probably not, unless you are a science

fiction fan. All four follow in the bootprints of Robert A. Heinlein, both
as partisans of sending Man (and Woman) into Space as the priority for a
viable future (Heinlein's first book, in 1950, was The Man Who Sold the
Moon) and as scenarists of high-tech warfare. In Starship Troopers (1959),
his seminal work, Heinlein uses the gosh-wow conventions of pulp-era
space opera to advance a political agenda that celebrates America's future
as the Rome of the space age. With the skill of Leni Riefenstahl, the
author glamorizes the trappings of military power—the uniforms and
macho rituals—while lecturing the reader, as if he were a raw recruit, on
the need to obey one's officers and to exterminate the enemy (the Bugs, in
this novel) utterly. After Heinlein, Buck Rogers and other guys with
blasters would never look the same. Space opera = NASA = a blank check
for high-tech research.

Pournelle, Heinlein's heir apparent, was an early advocate of Star Wars

technology. His inspirational tract of 1984, Mutual Assured Suruiual: A
Space-Age Solution to Nuclear Annihilation, earned him a pat on the back, and
a blurb, from no less than Ronald Reagan. That book did not elevate him
to the dignity of being an official policy guru, but it was published in the
same year, by the same entrepreneur, Jim Baen—long the principal
patron of these and other Heinleinite sf writers—as a much less noticed
book, Window of Opportunity : A Blueprint jbr the Future, which identifies its
authors as "the Honorable Newt Gingrich, with David Drake and Marianne
Gingrich." The preface is written by Pournelle, who salutes Gingrich's
(and Drake and Gingrich's) work as "a remarkable book, almost
unique in that, without the slightest compromise with the principles that
made this nation great, Gingrich presents a detailed blueprint, a practical
program that not only proves that we can all get rich, but shows how."

Gingrich, on his acknowledgments page, thanks Pournelle for introducing

him to his publisher. Baen, in turn, is complimented for "matching"
the Gingriches with "our co-author, David Drake, and Janet Morris.
Money alone could not buy the creativity, skill, and effort that Janet contributed
to the final draft. David's contribution, of course, cannot be

Needless to say, politician-authors usually do little more than talk into

a tape recorder and let their ghosts take it from there. But they are
expected to stand by what they've signed their names to. And what Newt
Gingrich signed his name to back in 1984 is a document worth pondering.
For it shows much more vividly than transcripts of his recent
speeches, which are necessarily more circumspect, more "politic," his
sense of his constituency—who they are and what they can be sold.

Right-wing politicians traditionally offer a mix of two flavors: ressentiment

and hope. And while the Republican resurgence of 1994 employed
vitriolic attacks on the entire liberal spectrum, hope is Gingrich's special
note, as it was Ronald ("Morning in America") Reagan's. The difference
is that Reagan's optimism looked back to the idyllic past of the mythical
frontier in which he'd acted as a Hollywood cowboy, while Gingrich
places his hope in a sci-fi future. Gingrich sounds that motif at full diapason
in the introduction to Window of Opportunity: "Breakthroughs in
computers, biology, and space make possible new jobs, new opportunities,
and new hope on a scale unimagined since Christopher Columbus
discovered a new world.. . . There is hope for a continuing revolution in
biology which will allow us to feed the entire planet; hope for jobs,
opportunities, and adventures in space."

Adventures in space turn out to be a major component of what we are

to hope for. One can't help but sense the influence of Gingrich's sci-fi
collaborators, especially at such moments as this: "Congressman Bob
Walker of Pennsylvania [now Chairman of the House Committee on Science,
Space, and Technology] has been exploring the possible benefits of
weightlessness to people currently restricted to wheelchairs. In speeches
to handicapped Americans, he makes the point that in a zero-gravity
environment, a paraplegic can float as easily as anyone else. Walker
reports that wheelchair-bound adults begin asking questions in an
enthusiastic tone when exposed to the possibility of floating free,
released from their wheelchairs. Several have volunteered to be the first

This "Arise and float!" is evangelism with a canny subtext, not unfamiliar

to sci-fi professionals. Space is envisioned as that New Frontier
where the indignities of ordinary life—onerous no-future jobs and low
status—are to be remedied, as they were by an earlier expansion into the
American West. Space is Texas, only larger. In the twenty-first century,
Gingrich (or his ghosts) declares, a third-generation space shuttle "will
be the DC-3 of space. From that point on, people will flow out to the
Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system, and mankind will have perma-
nently broken free of the planet." In short, vote for me and someday your
children will inhabit the Star Trek of their video dreams.

As hopes go, that might seem to be on a par with the Rapture awaited

by fundamentalist Christians, and indeed, the demographics are not
mutually exclusive. The same audience/electorate that polls tell us
expects the Third Coming sometime soon might well settle for a visit to
the Venus Hilton as a good second-best. It's only a fantasy, after all.

But people buy fantasy, as Gingrich's ghosts well know. And the fantasies

they can be sold are by no means limited to space as the last frontier.
All four of the Gingrich ghosts have specialized in military fantasies
that skillfully meld high-tech weaponry with the kind of gung-ho glamour
one associates with recruiting posters. Indeed, the cover of Star Voyager
Academy, by William Forstchen (the contracted collaborator on Gingrich's
much-tsked-over forthcoming novel, set in 1945 and featuring a
"pouting sex kitten"), takes the literal form of a recruiting poster, including
the pointed finger and "We Want YOU!" Aa its title suggests,
Forstchen's novel is a lineal descendant of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, a
young-adult-level paean to the joys of military life. The enemy now is not
hive-dwelling "aliens" (Heinlein's shorthand for the Communist menace)
but the United Nations of Earth (shorthand for government bureaucracies
other than NASA). In this, Forstchen reflects the dilemma faced
by the right wing as it searches the landscape for an internal enemy to
replace the Communist menace.

David Drake, a co-author of Window of Opportunity, had his first notable

success with the Hammer's Slammers series, begun in 1979, which is a
hybrid of TV's Star Trek and Soldier of Fortune magazine.
Janet Morris, likewise, has specialized in future war scenarios from
the perspective of a female guerrilla. If women are not suited to foxholes,
as Gingrich recently suggested, they may still wreak havoc from behind a
computer monitor. With her husband, Chris, sometime co-author and
once-upon-a-time partner in a jazz-fusion band, Morris also works as a
consultant in weapons development, specializing in "weapons of mass
protection"—like the sticky foam that can be sprayed on demonstrators
in lieu of bullets.

The bibliographies of Forstchen, Drake, and Morris are as impressive

as that of Balzac, but Pournelle, their senior by a generation, has outdone
them all in his ability to cater to their target audience. He is, quite simply,
the best writer of the lot, and if not the most prolific (only a computer
could crunch those numbers), surely the most successful.
Characteristically, Pournelle's best books are collaborations. Drake,
Forstchen, and Morris have collaborated not only with Gingrich but with
one another, and others still, in a manner as complex as a cable-knit
sweater. They have not as yet had the good fortune to collaborate with
Pournelle's regular partner, Larry Niven, with whom Pournelle has produced
some classic sci-fi titles, including Inferno (1976), a modern recension
of Dante's book of the same name; the best-selling Lucifer's Hammer
(1977), a futuristic disaster novel; and Oath of Fealty (1981), the tale of a
right-wing Utopia that seer Gingrich himself would be proud to set his
name to.

Oath of Fealty is unique in the annals of Utopian literature in offering a

plausible depiction of the Orwellian nightmare from the point of view of
Big Brother. In its blueprint of a privileged Fortress America—called
Todos Santos, a self-sufficient "arcology" plunked down in the middle of
a feral Los Angeles, where the wealthy can live protected from the
promiscuous mob of undesirable anarchists, terrorists, and other paupers—
Oath of Fealty echoes Jack London's The Iron Heel of 1907 and foreshadows
the "custodial state" commended in The Bell Curve.

The plot pits the arcology's security chief against ecoterrorists who

will go to any lengths to monkey-wrench Todos Santos. As one terrorist
explains in her confession to the TS police, "Todos Santos is beautiful,
Tony, but it uses too many resources to support too few people. The more
successful Todos Santos is, the worse it will be for everyone else. . . .
Don't you understand that technology is not the answer, that using technology
to fix problems created by technology only puts you in an endless
chain?" Tony, the security chief, has a clearer view of what is at stake: "If
Todos Santos goes broke then it can't run any longer, expenses,
expenses, expenses, it's property rights against human rights, money
against lives and I'm defending the money. I'm defending my city!"
Pournelle regularly uses the medium of his fiction to take revenge on
his ideological enemies. That is, after all, a novelist's prerogative. In
Inferno, he and Niven have a field day in devising suitable Dantean torments
for such enemies of the corporate state as the woman responsible
for banning cyclamates (an early alternative to saccharine); another
woman who, for reasons like those of the "ecoterrorist" quoted above,
prevented the building of power plants and oil wells; and a man whose
sins were vegetarianism and jogging. Pournelle's enemies list, like Rush
Limbaugh's, includes anyone who would keep the rich from getting
richer as fast as they can. But he understands that more is required than a
loser's vindictiveness. One must offer hope, and what can that be in a
future in which, as even he is willing to admit in his darker fictions, Third
World immiseration must be imported to America by the rigors of corporate

It must be Outer Space, the final Utopia, where the Rapture is to be

achieved by the wonders of modern technology. Whether the promise is
a conscious or unconscious scam on Pournelle's part, or on Gingrich's,
can be known only to their confessors. It is probably intended as a benign
deception, as when a faith healer promises to cure afflictions of all kinds.
He knows that for a certain percentage the placebo effect will kick in. As
for the rest, well, it's their own fault if they still need crutches. They
didn't believe hard enough.

Whatever happens to the cripple, the faith healer's coffers will be

filled. In that regard it is interesting to learn that there is a new collaborative
novel on Pournelle's hard disk, and this time his collaborator is none
other than Newt Gingrich. This new collaboration is to be a Tom Clancy
Yellow Peril adventure, an account of a future war between a perfidious
Japan and a guileless USA.

When the book does appear, it is guaranteed a large-scale commercial

success. Window of Opportunity flopped eleven years ago because Gingrich
wasn't yet a media star and because it's basically no more than a very
long-winded speech. But a sensational premise and the professional polish
that Pournelle can supply could make the novel a bestseller such as
even popes might envy. The recent film Bob Roberts hypothesized a fin de
siècle demagogue who uses folk-rock music as his entrée to high office.
But for an electorate with sufficient reading skills and attention spans,
the novel is probably still, as it was for Disraeli, the art form best adapted
for political propaganda, if only because it has built-in deniability. A
politician will get in trouble by calling Barney Frank a fag; a novelist
always has the excuse that it is his characters who say all those terrible
things. A collaborative novel offers a further margin of deniability.
After the Yellow Peril has been dealt with and we've all seen the movie
version, what then? In an era of franchised fiction there is really no limit
except what the market will bear. There must be dozens of other authors
as eager as Pournelle to join their craft with Gingrich's marketability.
But why stop there? Andy Warhol was a master franchiser. He solicited
ideas for pictures from people with a knack for ideas and had them silkscreened
by people with a knack for that. Gingrich could do the same. He
could merchandise, under his own trademark, sandwich spreads, skateboards,
mousepads, bullets, aftershave.

Marketers, this is your Window of Opportunity. Offer him millions

and promise the Moon.

"Speaker Moonbeam: Newt's Futurist Brain Trust"  The Nation (260, no. 8) [04/05/1996]

Collected in On SF, 2005.

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