The Prometheans: Wheels Within Wheels

The 1979 Prometheus Award was originally intended as a one-off event, awarded by the writer L. Neil Smith (who would himself go on to win three of the awards once the Libertarian Futurist Society established itself in 1982 and started awarding them annually). The first award went to Wheels Within Wheels by F. Paul Wilson.

As an opening statement of what the political priorities of the award-givers were, at least at that time, it couldn’t be clearer. The book is essentially a tract about how any attempt at all by government to regulate trade in any way is utterly evil (with a passing bit about how the gold standard is the best basis for an intergalactic currency). There’s a rudimentary conspiracy-mystery plot, but the following is not at all an inaccurate summary:

In the future, the United States Federation is a group of statesplanets which all have independence under a constitution charter which guarantees states’ planets’ rights to make their own rules. However, despite its success, there’s a political party which claims to want to reform it and give the federal government more power. They appear just like a bunch of idealists, but are secretly conspiring for their own nefarious aims.

These socialists Restructurists have a power base in the South an agrarian planet without much of an economy, and there’s a problem there. There are natives living on that planet, who the human colonists refuse to allow to eat at their lunch counters, and the Restructurists are going to use this to pass an equal rights act on that planet, forcing people to allow the natives to eat at the same counter.

However, a white man an Earth man comes to the planet, and is horrified – not by the refusal to serve the natives, which he finds a little distasteful but understandable, but by the possibility that legislation interfering with free trade might be passed! To avert this horror, he explains to the natives the concept of the economic boycott, for which they worship him almost as a god. Their boycott of the restaurant that won’t let them eat indoors forces the restaurant to back down, thus proving that the equalities legislation isn’t necessary, and the white saviour Earth man becomes a hero to all.

However, the evil Restructurists want to ensure that their legislation passes even though they know it’s not necessary and no-one, not even the people it’s meant to help, want it, and so they murder this heroic Libertarian Freedom Rider and use his death as the excuse they need to pass the evil trade-interfering equal rights act.

No, this is not an exaggeration or a mischaracterisation at all. That’s the substance of the plot. And it is made very clear throughout that while segregation is distasteful in Wilson’s eyes, it’s an acceptable kind of distastefulness:

“When you come down to it, most Terrans around here just don’t have any respect for the Vanek because the Vanek don’t care about respect and consequently do nothing to engender it.

“And it’s not racial antagonism as many outsiders might thing.” Again, the sidelong glance at Junior. “The fact that the Vanek are partially alien has nothing to do with it”

“Lip-service equality!” came the angry reply. “A forced equality that might well cause resentment on the part of the Terran locals…No, Mr Finch, if equality’s going to come to Danzer and other places like it, it’s gotta come from the locals, not from the capital!”

This character is someone who the viewpoint character considers to have legitimate concerns, and is meant to be a somewhat, though not wholly, sympathetic character. It’s made very clear throughout that other than a few virulent Klan-type racists, most of the people there just don’t like the Vanek people (who lived on the planet before the humans arrived) because they won’t fit in and they have a weird religion and don’t work as hard as normal people, and if they just showed a bit more respect for themselves they’d get more respect from their neighbours.

And all of this is written in a prose style right out of the 1940s – the same arid passages of undescribed people with no individual characteristics expositing at each other in unidiomatic leaden English that one would find in much of the early work of writers like Asimov.

And there’s a reason for that.

While this book was published in 1978, it’s a fix-up novel, based on a shorter version published in Analog in 1971, one of the last things edited by John W. Campbell. And this has Campbell’s fingerprints all over it, if not in the actual writing (Campbell often suggested plots and themes to writers) then in the style it’s trying to emulate.

You see, John Campbell was both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to science fiction. Campbell was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (which later changed its name to Analog) from 1937 through to his death in 1971, and in the first ten years of that time he was largely responsible for science fiction aspiring to the level of literature at all.

Before Campbell, there was basically a single science fiction plot – a square-jawed hero gets miraculously transported through space or time, and there either gets involved in thrilling pulp adventures involving Martian princesses or encounters a series of metaphors for the writer’s own political views, and then either gets transported back to his home time/planet or remains for more adventures. Think Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, John Carter, Adam Strange. That was, to all intents and purposes, the entirety of science fiction before Campbell.

Campbell insisted on actual plots, and for his stories to be actually about things. He acted as a mentor to writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, and would often suggest ideas to them – Asimov’s Foundation series came from discussions with Campbell, for example, and Campbell was also the real originator of Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and suggested the plot for “Nightfall”, the Asimov story often considered the best science fiction story ever written. Similarly, Heinlein’s Sixth Column was a rewrite of an unpublished Campbell novella. (Campbell had himself been a writer before becoming an editor – the films The Thing and The Thing From Another World are based on his story “Who Goes There?”)

The first ten years of Campbell’s editorship, he was the best editor in the field. But unfortunately, he set a baseline level of quality and left it there, never raising it, while other magazines like Galaxy started insisting on things like competent prose, and characterisation, and other things which Campbell never paid much attention to. Astounding/Analog was still, in 1971, doing the same thing it always had, even as writers like Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, and Ursula LeGuin were all doing things which Campbell would never have approved of, even had he understood them.

Because the other side of Campbell is that he was a reactionary, bigoted, crank, and he made this very clear in his editorials. Take this example, from June 1961:

The essential idealisms of the two sides in 1961 were that of the Abolitionists in the North, demanding that the slaves be freed, and the equally idealistic Southerners, who were defending their peaceful, happy way of life.

Before we get angry cries about the poor, suppressed Negro slaves in their “peaceful, happy way of life”, please remember that the fact of history is that the Negro slaves didn’t revolt against their theoretically-cruel masters during the war period. They worked their fingers to the bone trying to maintain the economy of the home-front while their masters were away fighting for that way of life. This being a fact the theoretical idealists of the time – and later – don’t like to notice, it’s not ordinarily looked at very carefully.

He goes on to say that black people were then (in the 1960s) trying to enslave white people in return.

Campbell’s racist views had a stifling effect on his writers even in the 1940s – Asimov said that one reason his stories never featured aliens was because Campbell would always insist that humans were superior to aliens, because he couldn’t cope with a worldview where white American men weren’t the best, so the left-leaning Asimov just didn’t write stories with aliens in, to avoid the problem.

But here, in Wheels Within Wheels we have the Campbellian view expressed absolutely in fictional form. It’s not racism to say that other races are lazy and have no self-respect so you won’t respect them yourself, it’s just basic sense. And institutionalised discrimination against other races may be impolite, but trying to ameliorate it by legislating against it is the ultimate evil – political correctness gone mad! They don’t even mind it until a white man comes along and tells them they’re being oppressed, and the real fighters against oppression are the libertarians who fight against equalities legislation.

This stuff would have seemed noxious even in the 1940s, but coming in 1978 – after Dhalgren, The Female Man, and the whole New Wave, it commits an even worse crime for a science fiction novel. It’s stuck in the past.

Coming next, a book in which the major villains are fans of Hamilton..

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