Science Fiction That Caused Political Change

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Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, and Eugene Debs all had one thing in common: they were fans of science fiction. More than that, they all used scifi at one point or another to shape their political actions and views. From presidents and prime ministers to ordinary citizens looking for change, many people have turned to science fiction as their political guide. We look at some of the ways space operas, utopias, and aliens have shaped our political landscape and given us hope for a more futuristic tomorrow.Edward Bellamy and the Socialist Movement: In 1888, Edward Bellamy, a Massachusetts lawyer, published Looking Backward: 2000-1887, one of the most influential socialist works ever written. A young Bostonian falls asleep and wakes up in the year 2000 to discover that America has transformed into a socialist utopia. In a world without capitalism, the state runs everything, providing for social and technological advances, paving the way for credit cards, the elimination of middlemen for goods and services, the reduction of the work week, and early retirement. By not wasting their energy on market capitalism, he argued, men were able to become rich, productive, and part of a totally integrated society. Looking Backward was by no means the earliest work of socialism, but it reached middle class America in a way no similar text had before. It became an overnight bestseller, rivaling Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur in sales. Bellamy removed the stigma of socialism, which had long been associated with sexual libertines and non-traditional values. "Bellamy Clubs" sprang up around the country to discuss the book and its ideals, and it has been said to have influenced England's garden city movement and the design of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. The book was also a profound influence on many famed American socialists, including Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, and Erich Fromm.

HG Wells and Winston Churchill: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is almost as well known for his oratory skills as for his wartime leadership. But many of his lines and ideas came straight from the Grandaddy of Scifi himself, HG Wells. Churchill was a great fan of science fiction, and of Wells in particular, and Wells' words had a habit of creeping into his speeches. Borrowing a phrase from The War of the Worlds, he referred to the rise of Nazi Germany as "the gathering storm." Shortly after reading A Modern Utopia, Churchill spoke before the Scottish Liberal Council in Glasgow advocating for social reform in a manner that echoed Wells' text. Just days before the speech he wrote to Wells, telling the writer, "I owe you a great debt." Wells' influence on Churchill involved more than apt words and social theory. During the Great War, Wells advised Churchill on the creation of a device for trench warfare, although it was developed too late in the war to be of use. The two maintained a friendly relationship, and corresponded until Wells' death in 1946.


Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein, and the Libertarian Movement: Ayn Rand grew up in communist Russia, and devoted much of her literary career to penning tales like Atlas Shrugged and Anthem, in which boldly self-interested souls would stand up against communist dystopias. Robert Heinlein wrote anarcho-capitalist tales of bold frontiersmen who tame the moon free from government interference. In high school, a young man named David Nolan read these authors, and their work helped mold his ideology. Nolan would go on to found the US Libertarian Party, and to this day the party uses works of science fiction to illustrate its objectives and values.


Robert Heinlein and 1960s Counterculture: Heinlein has influenced a wide range of cultural arenas, and his novels have been found in the classrooms of America's military colleges and in hippie communes in the 1960s. Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein's tale of a mystical man from Mars and his church of communal living and free love matched neatly with the urgings of counterculturalist Timothy Leary and the Eastern philosophy in Hermann Hesse's novels. Heinlein may have meant Stranger as a fictional exploration of social mores (or, if you believe some accounts, part of a bet with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to see which writer could start a religion), but many New Agers used it as a literal manual for daily life, giving it a niche in the counterculture movement.


Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia and the Green Movement: Published in 1975, Ectopia was hardly the first work of environmental speculative fiction. Works like Aldous Huxley's Island and Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants considerably predate it. What makes Ecotopia special, however, is that it provides a roadmap for sustainable living in a high-tech society. It envisions a near future in which a political movement has succeeded in creating harmony between man and nature. Several environmental movements of the 1970s adopted the book as their manifesto, notably the green parties in Europe. And many of its ideas – the focus on localism, the elimination of combustion engines, and production on demand, continue into the modern American green movement as well. The Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy and Ronald Reagan: Ronald Reagan was famously a fan of science fiction, having grown up reading the epic adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And he didn't view science fiction as mere fantasy; he believed that science fiction writers offered an invaluable insight into technology and the future. Science Fiction writer Jerry Pournelle pulled together the Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy from astronauts, engineers, and, most prominently, several other science fiction writers, including Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, Greg Benford, Dean Ing, Steve Barnes, and Jim Baen. Their original function was to help the Reagan transition team adjust to its new role in space policy, but the council eventually became a fixture of the administration, drafting several space policy papers for Reagan's team. One of the council's most famous endeavors was to convince Reagan that it was technically feasible to intercept ballistic missiles in flight. The council even drafted portions of Reagan's first speech regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative, which would become better known as Star Wars.