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?
Speaker Hoonbeam: Newt's Futurist Brain Trust
At some point in his presidency Richard Nixon posed for a photograph inwhich he can be seen holding a copy of the Modern Library edition of TheSound and the Fury. The moment I saw it, I thought: "Nixon? Faulkner? Notvery likely."
But Newt Gingrich might just get away with striking such a pose. Hereis 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 HolyBible. More significant is the presence on Gingrich's list of two popularfuturologists, Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt, writers who had not tillnow been identified with a particular political agenda.
More significant still—though not included on the reading list ormuch noted—has been Gingrich's connection with another, less celebratedschool of futurology, the writers of sci-fi and high-tech, gung-homilitary romance, who have been and continue to be his collaborators onboth nonfiction and fiction projects. Of them, anon.
Gingrich's most noticed and commendable co-optation has been hisenlistment of Toffler, the author of Future Shock and now a spokesman forthe Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Gingrich franchise. Future Shockwas 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 antinomiesof the cold war imagination to descry, with remarkable foresight,the postmodern future we postmoderns now inhabit. He observed theways that advances in cybernetics and media technology had alreadytransformed 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 JohnNaisbitt, author of Megatrends (1982). His work differs from Toffler'smore in style than content. Toffler is discursive and sequential; the printin his books is smaller, the footnotes more abundant, and he assumes agoodly attention span. Naisbitt writes in info-bites for a later, moreimpatient breed of reader. His pages have the disjunctive inputs of USAToday, with paragraphs regularly interspersed with explanatory headlinesand bulleted lines, as though to say, "Skim me, I'm an easy read."
Both Toffler and Naisbitt have worthwhile points to make. The worldis changing in ever-exfoliating ways, thanks to computers and satellitetechnology and the simple yens, of people and of corporations, to dowhatever they want. These changes cannot be withstood or gainsaid, ifonly because they are, so often, faits accompli. In their way, Toffler andNaisbitt represent the chilly common sense of cyberspace: the future willbe the exclusive domain of computer-literate managers of multinationalcorporations; 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 inthe churning waters of history, heedless of (or indifferent to) whole flotillasliable to sink. Thus in Global Paradox (1994) Naisbitt, who believes that"travel is and will continue to be the world's largest industry," only oncemakes significant reference to AIDS, noting how it has reduced tourismin Kenya and Gambia. Warfare rates almost as little attention: "Escalationof armed conflict in certain regions around the globe can have a negativeimpact on worldwide tourism. The Gulf War demonstrated just howmuch of an impact armed conflict can have." Naisbitt is a resident of theski resort and mountain fastness of Telluride, Colorado, and boasts thathe can interface with current events without ever stirring from his monitor.Those who access information electronically have a privileged perspectivebut not necessarily a clearer one. Gingrich's attitude of "Letthem eat laptops" and Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" are bothmemorable for their delicate positioning between naivete and irony.From the perspective of the trailer park and the inner city, a free ticket tocyberspace has all the allure of a half-off coupon for a Berlitz course inJapanese 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 sohe has a penchant for finding ponies at the bottom of every dungheap.Thus the "personal political views" of a media baron like Rupert Murdochare inconsequential because such giants are necessarily committedto an "ideology of globalism... or at least supranationalism which mustoperate across national boundaries, and it is in the self-interest of thenew media moguls to spread this ideology." Such a McLuhanite focus onthe medium as against the message accommodates the needs of power.It is not surprising, then, that Toffler and Naisbitt should now beadvanced by Gingrich to the rank of official government-accreditedgurus. Their works had already been garlanded with blurbs from theinternational press and U.S. senators and CEOs. Recruiting them was arespectable sort of recent acquisition, on the order of a Monet or aCézanne. What is much more revealing is Gingrich's alliance withanother kind of futurist in the persons of Jerry Pournelle, Janet Morris,David Drake, and William Forstchen. In the work of these four once-and-futureGingrich collaborators one confronts the unnerving and sinistershadows implicit in Toffler and Naisbitt's sunshiny scenarios.
Do their names ring bells? Probably not, unless you are a sciencefiction fan. All four follow in the bootprints of Robert A. Heinlein, bothas partisans of sending Man (and Woman) into Space as the priority for aviable future (Heinlein's first book, in 1950, was The Man Who Sold theMoon) and as scenarists of high-tech warfare. In Starship Troopers (1959),his seminal work, Heinlein uses the gosh-wow conventions of pulp-eraspace opera to advance a political agenda that celebrates America's futureas the Rome of the space age. With the skill of Leni Riefenstahl, theauthor glamorizes the trappings of military power—the uniforms andmacho rituals—while lecturing the reader, as if he were a raw recruit, onthe need to obey one's officers and to exterminate the enemy (the Bugs, inthis novel) utterly. After Heinlein, Buck Rogers and other guys withblasters would never look the same. Space opera = NASA = a blank checkfor high-tech research.
Pournelle, Heinlein's heir apparent, was an early advocate of Star Warstechnology. His inspirational tract of 1984, Mutual Assured Suruiual: ASpace-Age Solution to Nuclear Annihilation, earned him a pat on the back, anda blurb, from no less than Ronald Reagan. That book did not elevate himto the dignity of being an official policy guru, but it was published in thesame year, by the same entrepreneur, Jim Baen—long the principalpatron of these and other Heinleinite sf writers—as a much less noticedbook, Window of Opportunity : A Blueprint jbr the Future, which identifies itsauthors as "the Honorable Newt Gingrich, with David Drake and MarianneGingrich." The preface is written by Pournelle, who salutes Gingrich's(and Drake and Gingrich's) work as "a remarkable book, almostunique in that, without the slightest compromise with the principles thatmade this nation great, Gingrich presents a detailed blueprint, a practicalprogram that not only proves that we can all get rich, but shows how."
Gingrich, on his acknowledgments page, thanks Pournelle for introducinghim 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 contributedto the final draft. David's contribution, of course, cannot beoverstated."
Needless to say, politician-authors usually do little more than talk intoa tape recorder and let their ghosts take it from there. But they areexpected to stand by what they've signed their names to. And what NewtGingrich signed his name to back in 1984 is a document worth pondering.For it shows much more vividly than transcripts of his recentspeeches, which are necessarily more circumspect, more "politic," hissense of his constituency—who they are and what they can be sold.
Right-wing politicians traditionally offer a mix of two flavors: ressentimentand hope. And while the Republican resurgence of 1994 employedvitriolic attacks on the entire liberal spectrum, hope is Gingrich's specialnote, as it was Ronald ("Morning in America") Reagan's. The differenceis that Reagan's optimism looked back to the idyllic past of the mythicalfrontier in which he'd acted as a Hollywood cowboy, while Gingrichplaces his hope in a sci-fi future. Gingrich sounds that motif at full diapasonin the introduction to Window of Opportunity: "Breakthroughs incomputers, biology, and space make possible new jobs, new opportunities,and new hope on a scale unimagined since Christopher Columbusdiscovered a new world.. . . There is hope for a continuing revolution inbiology 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 areto hope for. One can't help but sense the influence of Gingrich's sci-ficollaborators, especially at such moments as this: "Congressman BobWalker of Pennsylvania [now Chairman of the House Committee on Science,Space, and Technology] has been exploring the possible benefits ofweightlessness to people currently restricted to wheelchairs. In speechesto handicapped Americans, he makes the point that in a zero-gravityenvironment, a paraplegic can float as easily as anyone else. Walkerreports that wheelchair-bound adults begin asking questions in anenthusiastic tone when exposed to the possibility of floating free,released from their wheelchairs. Several have volunteered to be the firstpioneers."
This "Arise and float!" is evangelism with a canny subtext, not unfamiliarto sci-fi professionals. Space is envisioned as that New Frontierwhere the indignities of ordinary life—onerous no-future jobs and lowstatus—are to be remedied, as they were by an earlier expansion into theAmerican West. Space is Texas, only larger. In the twenty-first century,Gingrich (or his ghosts) declares, a third-generation space shuttle "willbe the DC-3 of space. From that point on, people will flow out to theHiltons and Marriotts of the solar system, and mankind will have perma-nently broken free of the planet." In short, vote for me and someday yourchildren will inhabit the Star Trek of their video dreams.
As hopes go, that might seem to be on a par with the Rapture awaitedby fundamentalist Christians, and indeed, the demographics are notmutually exclusive. The same audience/electorate that polls tell usexpects the Third Coming sometime soon might well settle for a visit tothe 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 fantasiesthey can be sold are by no means limited to space as the last frontier.All four of the Gingrich ghosts have specialized in military fantasiesthat skillfully meld high-tech weaponry with the kind of gung-ho glamourone associates with recruiting posters. Indeed, the cover of Star VoyagerAcademy, by William Forstchen (the contracted collaborator on Gingrich'smuch-tsked-over forthcoming novel, set in 1945 and featuring a"pouting sex kitten"), takes the literal form of a recruiting poster, includingthe pointed finger and "We Want YOU!" Aa its title suggests,Forstchen's novel is a lineal descendant of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, ayoung-adult-level paean to the joys of military life. The enemy now is nothive-dwelling "aliens" (Heinlein's shorthand for the Communist menace)but the United Nations of Earth (shorthand for government bureaucraciesother than NASA). In this, Forstchen reflects the dilemma facedby the right wing as it searches the landscape for an internal enemy toreplace the Communist menace.
David Drake, a co-author of Window of Opportunity, had his first notablesuccess with the Hammer's Slammers series, begun in 1979, which is ahybrid of TV's Star Trek and Soldier of Fortune magazine.Janet Morris, likewise, has specialized in future war scenarios fromthe perspective of a female guerrilla. If women are not suited to foxholes,as Gingrich recently suggested, they may still wreak havoc from behind acomputer monitor. With her husband, Chris, sometime co-author andonce-upon-a-time partner in a jazz-fusion band, Morris also works as aconsultant in weapons development, specializing in "weapons of massprotection"—like the sticky foam that can be sprayed on demonstratorsin lieu of bullets.
The bibliographies of Forstchen, Drake, and Morris are as impressiveas that of Balzac, but Pournelle, their senior by a generation, has outdonethem 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 computercould 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 withone another, and others still, in a manner as complex as a cable-knitsweater. They have not as yet had the good fortune to collaborate withPournelle's regular partner, Larry Niven, with whom Pournelle has producedsome classic sci-fi titles, including Inferno (1976), a modern recensionof 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 aright-wing Utopia that seer Gingrich himself would be proud to set hisname to.
Oath of Fealty is unique in the annals of Utopian literature in offering aplausible depiction of the Orwellian nightmare from the point of view ofBig Brother. In its blueprint of a privileged Fortress America—calledTodos Santos, a self-sufficient "arcology" plunked down in the middle ofa feral Los Angeles, where the wealthy can live protected from thepromiscuous mob of undesirable anarchists, terrorists, and other paupers—Oath of Fealty echoes Jack London's The Iron Heel of 1907 and foreshadowsthe "custodial state" commended in The Bell Curve.
The plot pits the arcology's security chief against ecoterrorists whowill go to any lengths to monkey-wrench Todos Santos. As one terroristexplains in her confession to the TS police, "Todos Santos is beautiful,Tony, but it uses too many resources to support too few people. The moresuccessful Todos Santos is, the worse it will be for everyone else. . . .Don't you understand that technology is not the answer, that using technologyto fix problems created by technology only puts you in an endlesschain?" Tony, the security chief, has a clearer view of what is at stake: "IfTodos Santos goes broke then it can't run any longer, expenses,expenses, expenses, it's property rights against human rights, moneyagainst lives and I'm defending the money. I'm defending my city!"Pournelle regularly uses the medium of his fiction to take revenge onhis ideological enemies. That is, after all, a novelist's prerogative. InInferno, he and Niven have a field day in devising suitable Dantean tormentsfor such enemies of the corporate state as the woman responsiblefor banning cyclamates (an early alternative to saccharine); anotherwoman who, for reasons like those of the "ecoterrorist" quoted above,prevented the building of power plants and oil wells; and a man whosesins were vegetarianism and jogging. Pournelle's enemies list, like RushLimbaugh's, includes anyone who would keep the rich from gettingricher as fast as they can. But he understands that more is required than aloser's vindictiveness. One must offer hope, and what can that be in afuture in which, as even he is willing to admit in his darker fictions, ThirdWorld immiseration must be imported to America by the rigors of corporatelogic?
It must be Outer Space, the final Utopia, where the Rapture is to beachieved by the wonders of modern technology. Whether the promise isa 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 benigndeception, 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. Asfor the rest, well, it's their own fault if they still need crutches. Theydidn't believe hard enough.
Whatever happens to the cripple, the faith healer's coffers will befilled. In that regard it is interesting to learn that there is a new collaborativenovel on Pournelle's hard disk, and this time his collaborator is noneother than Newt Gingrich. This new collaboration is to be a Tom ClancyYellow Peril adventure, an account of a future war between a perfidiousJapan and a guileless USA.
When the book does appear, it is guaranteed a large-scale commercialsuccess. Window of Opportunity flopped eleven years ago because Gingrichwasn't yet a media star and because it's basically no more than a verylong-winded speech. But a sensational premise and the professional polishthat Pournelle can supply could make the novel a bestseller such aseven popes might envy. The recent film Bob Roberts hypothesized a fin desiècle 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 adaptedfor political propaganda, if only because it has built-in deniability. Apolitician will get in trouble by calling Barney Frank a fag; a novelistalways has the excuse that it is his characters who say all those terriblethings. A collaborative novel offers a further margin of deniability.After the Yellow Peril has been dealt with and we've all seen the movieversion, what then? In an era of franchised fiction there is really no limitexcept what the market will bear. There must be dozens of other authorsas eager as Pournelle to join their craft with Gingrich's marketability.But why stop there? Andy Warhol was a master franchiser. He solicitedideas for pictures from people with a knack for ideas and had them silkscreenedby people with a knack for that. Gingrich could do the same. Hecould merchandise, under his own trademark, sandwich spreads, skateboards,mousepads, bullets, aftershave.
Marketers, this is your Window of Opportunity. Offer him millionsand promise the Moon.
Collected in On SF, 2005.