The Old Iron Dream

A 20-page science-fiction article
an article inspired by the need for a no-bullshit, critical look at the history of science fiction's far-right and its long-lasting influence.
David Forbes is a writer focused on our fractured era's politics and culture. His work has appeared in NSFWCorp, Coilhouse and more.
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About The Old Iron Dream

Last year, the sci-fi world was roiled by a fight over virulently racist and sexist remarks made by author Ted Beale, including calling an African-American writer a “half-savage.” After a months-long battle, Beale was expelled from the Science Fiction Writers of America, a watershed in a cultural and generational conflict brewing for some time.

But Beale had his defenders, including some of the genre's influential elders, who slung out similar slurs as the fights continued. Around the same time, Orson Scott Card, of “Ender's Game” fame, attracted attention for his ongoing homophobia and paranoid racist fantasias about the President recruiting street gangs. For kickers, North Carolina's government appointed Card to a powerful board overseeing public broadcasting.

These public battles attracted no shortage of press coverage, much of it surprised at the depth of far-right extremism and bigotry in the world of possible tomorrows. For a genre supposedly focused on the future, it seemed like a major of part of the subculture had yet to even join the 20th century.

What the public was seeing, however, was just the tip of a very old, very influential iceberg. From its inception, American sci-fi has harbored a powerful far-right faction. These authors, usually men, include some of the genre's most famous figures, their uglier sentiments and negative influences often glossed over.

Sci-fi's popular history doesn't mention John Campbell's belief that race riots were caused by “genetic barbarians” or Robert Heinlein's fondness for robber barons and military rule. It remembers Larry Niven's creative alien worlds, not his advocacy of lying to immigrants to deny them healthcare. Jerry Pournelle is widely hailed as the dean of military sci-fi, his sympathies for fascists like Franco and Pinochet forgotten.

Rather than harmless eccentrics, the doyennes of the sci-fi far right advise the federal government, occupy important posts, head think-tanks and shape policy to this day. They've played a major role in creating an environment that, as shown in the case of Beale, can still make sci-fi hostile territory for women and people of color. Despite decades of courageous critical backlash within the genre, much of this impact and history remains unexposed.

The Old Iron Dream will drag this history out of the shadows, showing how sci-fi's far-right has shaped not just its genre, but the larger culture and politics of America. It's a turbulent, often horrifying story, ranging from coup plots and smear campaigns to shilling for Reagan's weapons boondoggles and denying climate change.

This will be an in-depth piece of long-form journalism, a no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled look at the sci-fi far-right -- its major figures, its influence, and how the modern world has finally come calling for these would-be people of the future.

Discuss The Old Iron Dream with the Author.

Hi Old Iron Dream Backers – We have a bug in our system that is preventing some of you from downloading the ebook.  We should have this fixed soon. Stand by..

Hello, everyone. Above is my venerable laptop, surrounded by some of the materials for the Old Iron Dream (I'm currently knee-deep in a section on Robert Heinlein's far-right activism) and a cup of tea. The picture was taken this morning, just before I sat down to work on the piece.

The power adapter you see plugged in is also brand-new, as my old one gave up the ghost last weekend, leaving me out of commission for a few days while I put together the resources to replace it. Unfortunately, this threw a wrench in my whole schedule, and meant that I had to scramble to complete some local journalism projects before the end of the month so I could pay my bills. Now, I'm back on track, and the Old Iron Dream is in the homestretch. Thanks for your patience and support.

Best,

David Forbes

P.S. Sorry for the fact that when I tried to send this update out earlier today, it appeared empty of text. Thanks to the Inkshares crew for promptly responding to this glitch and fixing it.

Orangeme David Forbes · added 8 months ago

When I wrote to thank my supporters for their generosity a few months ago, I announced that barring something "truly unexpected" intervening I would finish the project by mid-May.

Well, the unexpected happened.

In mid-April, I was fired from my longtime day job as a news reporter for local Asheville paper Mountain Xpress after trying to form a union and going public about unethical behavior.

Needless to say, this changed things. I've had to scramble to make ends meet and expand my freelance work to something that can pay my bills and put food on the table. I've also had to spend considerable time working with union attorneys to file labor charges and assist them with several other labor cases the company was already facing.

Sadly, in the process I've not had the time to complete the Old Iron Dream on the schedule I originally envisioned.

But there's good news too, as I've managed to find freelance work and have even launched a new, reader-supported news site that's helping make ends meet. Things are finally settling into a more stable pattern.

Without the funds you so generously donated for me to write the Old Iron Dream, an already tough situation would have been nearly impossible. For that, and your continued support and understanding, you all have my thanks.

Now, fortunately, I'm able to proceed forward on the Old Iron Dream again. The vast majority of the research and interviews are completed and I've received considerable help and insight from some wonderful people. A good portion of July will be dedicated to completing the writing portion of the project and getting it ready for your eyes and minds.

I regret the delay — sometimes life, not always pleasantly, is its own strange adventure — and thank you all for your patience. The Old Iron Dream will be something worth reading, and I can't wait to show it to you all.

Best,

David Forbes

Userphoto7 original Richard Ryan · added 10 months ago
Fascinating. I wonder if there was any connection to Joe Haldeman's anti-war collection "Study War No More"?
Orangeme David Forbes · added 11 months ago

(Work and research proceed apace. To whet your appetites, here's a bit on one of the major linchpins of the sci-fi far-right, an anthology series that kept the Old Iron Dream going throughout the '80s)

Above is "There Will Be War," the 1983 sci-fi anthology now largely found in the bins of used bookstores.

But this book marked a major moment in the history of the sci-fi far-right, tying together a number of writers and causes in a way that would influence the years to come. "There Will Be War" was the brainchild of Jerry Pournelle, a prolific military sci-fi writer, one-time president of the Science Fiction Writers of America and John Campbell's final acolyte. 

From its inception, "War" wasn't just about telling rollicking military sci-fi tales. Pournelle's project was political, meant specifically to support expensive missile defense systems and a hawk's hawk approach to the Cold War. Pournelle had extensive connections in the military and defense industries and was no stranger to politics, including a stint as an adviser to right-wing Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty and a member of the Sigma group that advises the federal government to this day. If that wasn't enough, Pournelle also wrote a number of military tech nonfiction works and even edited a survivalist magazine. While Pournelle's sci-fi rarely racked up major critical accolades, he was a formidable networker with considerable influence outside of the genre.

The number of people "War" brought together is downright eerie. In just the first volume Robert Heinlein wrote an essay boosting High Frontier, a high-powered private lobbying effort for Reagan's "Star Wars" system, highlighting a fondness for defense industry spending that had endured all the way from his Patrick Henry League days of blasting Eisenhower for being too soft on Communism.

It didn't end there. The first volume of "War" also reprinted the original novella of Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" (years before it became a novel in 1985). Later volumes read like a who's who of military sci-fi lights: frequent Pournelle collaborator Larry Niven, David Drake, Gordon R. Dickson and Newt Gingrich-collaborator William Forstchen, just to name a few.

"Everyone desires peace; but there have been few generations free of war. Paradoxically, the few eras of peace were times when men of war had high influence," Pournelle begins in the preface.

That ideology comes through in many of the stories too. Pournelle's story "His Truth Goes Marching On," draws straight from far-right mythology about the Spanish Civil War, transplanting the conflict to a different planet where the Falangists are the good guys and Guernica was the fault of the fascists' enemies.

"War" proved wildly successful, lasting nine volumes, volleying back against sci-fi authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke's campaign against Star Wars and the arms race. Anthologies have always played a major role in defining sci-fi eras, and in one sense "War" was a backlash to the more leftist inclinations of many in the New Wave that began with "Dangerous Visions."

"War" spawned a spin-off series, "Imperial Stars," where Pournelle grew even more blunt about his political views, advocating a poll tax, theorizing that some races might just be more intelligent than others (based on IQ tests, of course) and reviving some of Campbell's more noxious articles, including the "Constitution for Utopia" arguing that only the wealthy should get to vote.

The ideologies in these series aren't uniform. Anti-war sci-fi writer Joe Haldeman shows up with a piece in the first volume, as does Phillip K. Dick. From his long career, Pournelle has personal friends in sci-fi across the political spectrum. "Iron Dream" author Norman Spinrad (who had a piece reprinted in one of the Imperial Stars volumes) is among them, despite their sharply different political perspectives. Pournelle's "a complicated guy," Spinrad says, adding with a chuckle that the military sci-fi dean once described himself as "a 14th-century liberal."

But what the books push as a whole is crystal-clear: a far-right ideology that disdains democracy and idealizes military force while viewing dissenters as unintentional traitors or leeches, at best. There are some older military sci-fi gems in here, but many of the stories use an apocalypse or future war to reassert the power of military men against the spectres of increasingly diverse democratic societies. 

In Edward P. Hughes' "Masters of the Fist" series, which runs throughout the "War" anthologies, a British Army Officer rolls a tank into a post-apocalyptic village. As the last fertile man around, he makes himself absolute lord and starts breeding with every woman he wants. In David McDaniel's "Quiet Village," from the first volume, the Boy Scouts keep order in the scattered communities of the dystopian future by killing vaguely-hippiesh vagrants for cash.

I'm not making this up.

The writers are overwhelmingly white guys. The nonfiction is full of calls to pour cash into the arms race and scornful of those who expressed any doubts about the sharper edges of Reaganite conservatism. By the final volume, "After Armageddon," Pournelle's editorials get nearly bewildered, because history offered the mentality of "War" a pretty huge rebuke.

Still, over its nearly decade-long run, "War" and its sister series help keep the sci-fi far-right rallied in the face of cultural changes, revived out-of-print works for a new generation of conservative readers and continued to cement a mythology hostile to social change. Furthermore, Pournelle's many introductions removed little doubt to the point of most of the stories. These weren't just tropes or themes one might draw from a more complicated narrative: they were advocacy, pure and simple. Even in more nuanced works, Pournelle pounded home the point he wanted the reader to take.

When Pournelle revived his "CoDominium" series (which "Truth" and many other stories in the "War" anthologies are part of) in the early 2000s, he had to retcon history so the Soviets came back after their collapse. Humanity in that series is steadily heading towards collapse in part because of universal suffrage and mooches in "Welfare Islands." Hope is found in a private military legion led by a colonel named John Christian Falkenberg, who eventually teams up with an interstellar revival of Sparta.

Its fitting then that Pournelle closes the series first intro with a yearning that "it will not be long before we in the United States, like the Israelis and Afghans, must turn again to the warriors for protection, for that is the oldest tradition of all."

Orangeme David Forbes · added 11 months ago

Hello, everyone!

My sincere regrets for not sending an update earlier, but life has proven to be its own pulp adventure lately. Fortunately, work on the Old Iron Dream has progressed steadily. Thanks to your generous support, I've ordered the last wave of research material and books are arriving every day. My coffee table and shelves are currently full of sci-fi works both wonderful and not-so-wonderful-but-important-to-the-story.

The sci-fi far-right has deep roots, going all the way back to some of the genre's founders,  and delving into these works is vital to unravelling that history and tying it into the events of the present. On that front, I've already conducted a number of fascinating interviews and can't wait to share more about those with all of you.

Right now, I'm well on track to get the first draft before your waiting eyes mid-May, unless something truly unexpected intervenes.

In the meantime, as I can I will update y'all with bits of research, interesting pieces of history and perhaps even some pieces of the first draft that might escape from my lab. ;-)

Thank you all again for your generous support. Because of you, I have enough resources to tell this story the way it deserves to be told.

Onwards,

David Forbes