Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Island of Unreason by Edmond Hamilton

Yep, that's the sort of thing I mean.
First published in Wonder Stories, May 1933.

Left and right, right and left: what do these things mean, really? SF fans generally pride themselves on being a pretty progressive lot – being champions of new technology and new ways of living surely inclines one to progressive views. And in fairness, the large majority of SF fans I’ve met over the years have been socially liberal, at least.

But there are very strong and enduring elements of SF that I have always found distinctly right wing. The elitist ‘fans are slans’ tendency, the hedge-fund venture capital view of life of the cyberpunks and the racist implications of a lot of planetary romance all stick out as distinctly conservative view-points. It’s a range of views that sees Ayn Rand still held up as a paragon by many and feeds the ‘libertarian’ view of life that runs so powerfully through the work of Robert Heinlein.

Not surprisingly, it’s something that’s in evidence from early on, and this story is pretty good example.

This is essentially a dystopia of a sort we’re all familiar with. Allan Mann – serial number2473R6 – is accused of an act of unreason by the totalitarian world government that runs things in the future. His crime is taking pride in his work: he refuses to hand his project over to a worker more competent to finish it, wanting to to do so himself. It’s typical of these types of dystopia that basic human inclinations are criminalised – so, falling in love, wanting to keep a child, wanting to live over 21 etc etc.

The best dystopias either focus on understandable human inclinations out of control – such as Brave New World or The Space Merchants (both left-leaning books, curiously) – or the much harder job of creating a society designed specifically to destory natural human feeling. 1984 is the only example of the latter I can think of, although some of Jack Vance’s mad cults or weird societies might fit the bill.

For daring to act like a normal person, Allan Mann is sent to the titular island, a place where all those accused of unreason are sent for a period of exile. He’s not told the exact length of his sentence because... well, I’m not certain actually. In fact, it’s because the story wouldn’t work if he knew his sentence was only one day (oh, the irony!). He’d do things completely differently and most likely never have the change of heart that is the story’s punchline. On top of the 'why would anyone do that?' dystopia this fatally flaws this story.

To cut a not all that long story even shorter, Allan discovers he quite likes life on the Island of Unreason. He finds he’s quite a handy fighter, and an erotic life led by passion rather than be paired up by a computer suits him quite well. When he’s collected at the end of his sentence he punches the stuffy old Director of City 72, North American Division 16 on the nose to be sent back so he can marry his gal and live the amazing life of a real hairy-chested free man.

So essentially, planning and organisation are wrong and the right way to live is by your wits, red in tooth and claw. Not for me, thanks! I don’t know if I want to live in a militarist socialist utopia like the Star Trek Federation – although James T Kirk is one of these red blooded sci fi men – but at least there'll be a comfortable place where fumble fingered cowards like me can be safe from the bullies.

Themes: left-wing dystopia, manliness, libertarianism.


  1. I'm not sure about the "hedge-fund venture capital view of life of the cyberpunks": doesn't that very much depend on which author you're reading?

  2. I'm thinking in particular of Bruce Sterling and the kind of 2nd wave Mondo 2000 silicon valley gang. There's another part of what we associate with cyberpunk - or more broadly 'the Movement' - which was more of an extension of the New Wave, where one might detect a more leftist stance (John Shirley or Pat Cadigan, say). I think those writers drifted away or - in modern parlance - weren't supported by the market. By and large, I think the cyberpunks continued with the libertarian worldview that was set in SF early on. Even William Gibson, for example, is far more ambiguous about his capitalist futures than a more relentlessly dystopic approach might be.

    Also, this is a kind of aphoristic summary in a short review that doesn't allow for a lot of nuance, so be patient! I may well explore the issue at more length later in the series. Although these three books stop in 1956, so I'm not certain just yet how I'm going to extend it.

  3. Yes, that's fair enough - Sterling was the first person I thought of when I read your piece: I can imagine Steve Jobs seeing himself as a Sterling protagonist. It's certainly true to say that there is a libertarian strain of sorts to most cyberpunk fiction. Ambiguity about capitalism might be as good as it gets, these days, and it probably shouldn't be classed as necessarily right wing. Gibson said somewhere (probably his twitter account) that his futures are only as dystopian as the contemporary world, which is ambiguous enough to be taken any way.


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