Published November 11, 2009

Doug Casey on Speculator’s Fiction

(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)


Doug: You're in Chile, I'm in Argentina, and we're talking through our computers for free. The next step might be the "communicators" of Star Trek. Actually, we're almost there with smart phones. Life increasingly resembles science fiction, and we often refer to sci-fi. So let's talk about it.

L: I'm an avid sci-fi fan too, but don't you think that a lot of our readers are busy professionals with little time on their hands for reading space fantasies?

Doug: If they are, they are neglecting their own education as speculators. That's because SF is not really "science fiction" but, as Robert Heinlein used to say, it's speculative fiction.

You know, there are all these think tanks that try to predict the future, but in my view, authors of speculative fiction have done a much better job predicting the future. It's much more entertaining to read their work than some dry theoretical paper, and the authors have to draw a broader picture of social implications and express the consequences of future developments in human terms, in order to write good stories. If you're subscribing to futurology magazines and reports, throw them all away and buy some good science fiction books instead.

L: Can you give us some examples of such predictions, ones that matter? I remember that Heinlein invented the waterbed in Stranger in a Strange Land, but I'm not sure that changed the course of history.

Doug: That's true, he did, but he didn't file a patent on the idea and didn't profit from his idea. The most famous example is probably that of Arthur C. Clarke, who invented the idea of communication satellites – an idea that mattered a great deal, but sadly he, too, didn't patent it.

L: Wow, that's major. I didn't know that.

Doug: Totally true. I was in what we now call snail-mail communication with Clarke. A relative was visiting Sri Lanka, where he lived, I mentioned that, and he was gracious enough to spend a day with her. I also spoke with Robert Heinlein on the phone once.

L: Lucky you! The closest I got was a letter from Virginia Heinlein.

Doug: Well, I wish I'd really gotten to know them, since they're among the top SF writers of all time – though the genre really only came into its own in the 1950s. A third one, I'd say, was Isaac Asimov. But I feel very close to them, especially Heinlein. His Rocket Ship Galileo was the first SF book I ever read, when I was ten years old. Coincidentally, that happens to be the first SF book Heinlein published.

L: There are several SF authors I think of as being like fathers to my mind. It seems to me that a large part of the values I hold, and the way I think, not just about the universe, but m an's and my own place in it, was deeply influenced by them. Especially Heinlein.

Doug: I would put Heinlein first as well. He was very prolific, and I haven't read all of his books, but he has written three that are among my all-time favorite works of fiction. Just fantastic books – no pun intended.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a book about a future revolution – it's absolutely required reading. There are many interesting political themes in the book, as well as historical allegory, as a small and poor colony (the Moon) breaks away from a wealthy and much larger power (the Earth). There are also interesting technological points Heinlein was absolutely right about, as, from a military view, you always want the high ground, and the Moon is the high ground over all of the Earth. It also has a thoughtful and unique take on the emergence of artificial intelligence.

L: It's also the only book in which Heinlein mentions Ayn Rand by name… at least as far as I can recall.

Doug: Indeed. Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who's sort of the intellectual leader of the revolution on the Moon, mentioned being able to find common ground with Randites, as they're called. The book is really a work of genius. It's inspiring. Required reading.

L: And number two?

Doug: Stranger in a Strange Land. It's rather new-age for a writer with a military background, and a lot of military themes, but it's the same hard-thinking Heinlein, simply being more overtly philosophical. In the story, Michael Valentine Smith, the first human born on Mars (as a result of a mixed-gender expedition that gets marooned on the red planet), comes back to Earth, with his mind full of Martian philosophy – and some seemingly supernatural powers that arise from that philosophy. The book was very popular in the 1960s, but it has stood the test of time.

L: It actually sparked something of a religion for a time. People were adopting Heinlein's Martian philosophy and starting "crèches" around the country. Do you know if it's true that L. Ron Hubbard, another SF author, founded the church of Scientology as a result of Heinlein betting him he couldn't do it and make it stick?

Doug: There's no way to know the actual facts, of course, other than Hubbard started researching Dianetics just after World War II. But they were friends, after all, and both SF writers. The model for the character of Michael Valentine Smith was supposed to have been Hubbard – there were supposed to be a lot of similarities between the two. The religion racket can be an easy way to make a million dollars, but I don't think that was on Hubbard's mind when he founded Scientology. A surprisingly large percentage of the human potential movement was a direct result of his work. He was sincere in promoting it, notwithstanding a lot of negative PR surrounding the subject.

L: We'd need a time machine to find out. Okay, so what was your third favorite Heinlein book?

Doug: Glory Road , which is a fantasy. But I just really like the flavor of the book. I don't like all of his later books so much, but he was at his peak when he wrote this one, and it shows. There's another Heinlein book I've been told is superb, but which I haven't read. It's called The Number of the Beast. Have you read it?

L: Yes, I have. I think I've read all his novels. That one was written when Heinlein started experimenting with the idea of multiple universes as a way to bring characters from different universes he'd written up together. Many Heinlein fans loved it, but I'm not sure anyone who chose that as a first Heinlein novel to read would find it to be more than a strange adventure. By the time Heinlein died in 1988, he'd written his most beloved characters into one happy family, which I enjoyed, but you're not alone in finding him past his prime in his later years.

Speaking of his prime, that's when Heinlein his "juveniles" – which are great reads for adults as well – are among his best. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; Podkayne of Mars, Red Planet, and Star Beast, among others, are books with great ideas, strong ethics, and fun stories.

Doug: Yes. Possibly in that class is Farnham's Freehold. Moving on to the other top SF writers, my favorite book by Arthur C. Clarke, by far, is Childhood's End. It's actually been quite predictive. He wrote that a long time ago – 1953 – and it seems to me that the way he described the social psychology of the world evolving was pretty much right on target. It's a great read, and cosmic in its significance – a book about the end of the world.

L: Or the beginning, depending on how you look at it.

Doug: If you wish. Asimov was great too. It's said that Clarke and Asimov decided between themselves that Clarke was the better SF writer, but that Asimov was the better science writer, and I think that's true – although Asimov's Foundation Trilogy is also something everyone should have on their lifetime reading list.

L: I read somewhere that Asimov's one regret about that story was the name he came up with for his super-science of the future that actually explained and predicted aggregate human behavior. It was basically economics – Ludwig Von Mises' "praxeology" writ large, but he called it "psycho-history."

Doug: Yes, and in some ways, you might say that what Strauss and Howe have done with their generation cycle theory is the same. Great minds think alike.

L: Right. Back to Clarke – you mentioned Childhood's End , but most folks who've heard of Clarke would think of him as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. What did you think of that book?

Doug: I thought it was excellent. The movie was great too, but as good as it was, the book was better. I recommend it, even to people who've seen the movie, as it was not quite the same.

L: Well, the book had an ending that made sense.

Doug: Yeah [laughs], that's right.

L: My friend James P. Hogan tells a story of getting to ask Clarke about the end of the movie after years of wondering what it meant. Actually, his complaining about that ending making no sense is what got Jim into writing SF and got him invited to a science fiction convention where he met Clarke. But when he asked Clarke what it meant, Clarke leaned over and whispered: "I have no idea!"

Doug: [Laughs] I was told by another SF writer, a past Eris Society attendee, that most of Clarke's ideas were actually mined from Olaf Stapleton's Last and First Men and Star Maker. I've got to say that in terms of pure scope, Last and First Men and Star Maker may be two of the most cosmic books ever written. Last and First Men traces mankind over about two billion years into the future. The species devolves into rabbit-like creatures, then re-evolves into intelligent beings, and radically changes about two dozen times – and he wrote about this in the late ‘20s. Among other things, he predicted the atom bomb. It's not terribly well written from a literary point of view, I'm sad to say, but don't let that stand in your way if you haven't read it. It's just brilliant.

Back to Clarke, I also liked Rendezvous with Rama.

L: I did, too, but the sequels were not as amazing.

Doug: For some reason that's true of almost all sequels. But we can talk about that when we talk about movies some day.

L: Okay, what about Asimov? What else do you recommend, besides his Foundation Trilogy?

[Ed. Note: The Foundation Trilogy is composed of: Foundation , Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Late in his life, Asimov added more books to the series, and connected it to his I Robot stories, but these three books are the story that influenced huge numbers of readers and writers for decades.]

Doug: No, not in SF. Though he did write that totally brilliant short story, The Last Question. Literally cosmic.

L: Here's a link to it for those who haven't read it: The Last Question.

Doug: Reaching back further, I'd recommend reading Jules Verne. It's all dated now, but remember that when he published his first two novels, the Civil War was still raging in the (now forcibly) United States. I just love all his stuff. The guy was a genius – he'd be on top of the heap if he were alive and writing today.

L: How about H. G. Wells? The War of the Worlds? The Time Machine?

Doug: I like both of those books. But Wells was an anomaly among SF writers.

L: He was a socialist.

Doug: He was a complete statist. And one of the great things about SF is that most writers in the genre are libertarian – some explicitly so.

L: I've wondered about that – why do you suppose that is? I know plenty of scientists and speculators who aren't libertarian at all. What is it about being the kind of thinker who can write good speculative fiction that makes such minds tend toward libertarian values?

Doug: I think that if you're drawn to science – or speculative fiction – you're drawn to the idea that people can maximize their personal opportunities, in every way possible. That naturally gives you a libertarian outlook.

L: Hmmm. That's a new theory to me – food for thought. What about newer writers – the ones still writing today? You've mentioned Neal Stephenson many times in our newsletters. The concept of the Casey Phyles (groups of people around the world who see things the way we do) comes from his book, The Diamond Age.

Doug: Yup – I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson's. He's very sound and libertarian-oriented. I've also long been a big fan of David Brin, whose Uplift series about humanity's lifting other species of animals to human intelligence will prove extremely predictive. His book Earth accurately foresaw, among other things, what's now happening with everyone having web-linked video cameras, recording everything.

Two overtly libertarian SF writers today are L. Neil Smith, with his libertarian manifesto adventure novel called The Probability Broach and J. Neil Schulman, in his now seemingly prophetic book about economic collapse in the U.S. caused by too much government, called Alongside Night.

L: Yes, both Neils are strongly libertarian. L. Neil's books are particularly fun for folks who like guns. Other libertarian writers today include Jim Hogan, whom I mentioned before – his The Mirror Maze is basically about libertarians winning a U.S. presidential election. (Talk about fantasy!) F. Paul Wilson wrote the classic economic freedom fighter of the future story, Enemy of the State. Vernor Vinge is a fantastic writer who helped popularize the technology singularity concept we spoke of in our CWC on technology in his meta-novel, Across Realtime. And Ken McLeod, the Scottish libertarian SF writer whose books like The Stone Canal might be more carnal than cosmic, but they sure do stretch your mind.

What about non-libertarians?

Doug: A non-libertarian I like is Orson Scott Card, who wrote Ender's Game and some follow-up books. I also like Greg Bear and Greg Benford – I'd read anything by those two guys. One of my favorite books of all time is called Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward. It's a work of genius, about a civilization discovered on a neutron star. Very hard science, quite mind-expanding. Have you read it?

L: No… but… as you were talking just now, I ordered it from Amazon.

Doug: I'd recommend putting that high on the list to anyone. One more hard-science story is Ringworld, by Larry Niven – another mind-expanding "must read." More on the fantasy end of the spectrum, I have to say that I enjoyed C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy.

[Ed. Note: The Space Trilogy consists of: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.]

Another brilliant must-read book I reviewed in Strategic Investing years ago is A. E. van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

And I guess you'd have to classify Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged as SF.

L: Not much on the science, but yes, there was some, and it proposed a future world undergoing great changes.

Doug: And like a lot of SF, it's becoming reality.

You know, maybe it shouldn't, but it astounds me that SF has not really broken into the realm of honored literature, at least not in the eyes of the powers that be. This is just more evidence of how intellectually constipated most literary types are.

L: As we discussed in our CWC on education.

Doug: Yes. I have little use for English professors. Their standard complaint is that SF isn't "great literature" – which is nothing more than a foolish and unsubstantiated opinion. The relevant fact of this matter is that a variation of Pareto's law applies: 80% of everything is crap. And of the 20% that's left, 80% of that is just mediocre. So, of course 80% of SF is crap – but so is 80% of everything else. And the best speculative fiction, the top 4%, is world-class literature. And it has much greater ideational content – by an order of magnitude – than any other genre of literature. That more than makes up for the lack of poetry in some of the prose.

L: What matters more; a book that challenges your mind to think in new directions, or onomatopoeia?

Doug: Exactly. No question. Anyone who wants to claim to be a well-read person has to read speculative fiction. In fact, my two favorite areas for reading have long been ancient literature and speculative fiction – bracketing the two ends of the spectrum of time, if you will.

L: Perhaps so, chronologically. But I suspect the ancients would have been looking around at a world that was new to them and full of mysteries and unexplained frontiers – just the sort of things SF authors tend to write about.

Doug: Yes, it's very interesting. Paradoxical, in some ways. The Greek and Nordic myths are actually a form of SF.

L: Okay, so, you've given us a long list of books to stretch our minds. Are there any investment implications to this, other than the general encouragement to embrace the kind of forward-thinking every speculator needs? Do you actually think about this stuff when you're considering new areas to speculate in, or writing for The Casey Report or one of our other newsletters?

Doug: I would say this: you improve your skill in the markets by knowing more than your competitors about the world, in depth and in breadth and in all its aspects. Speculative fiction is one of the best ways to expand your knowledge level quickly and enjoyably. Since that gives you a leg up on your competitors, I don't think of this as mere recreational reading. Don't just think about things that are; think about things that could be. If someone does not explore this huge, undervalued form of education, they have a blind spot.

L: Makes sense to me. Thanks!

Doug: Remember: if you have a blind spot, you're much easier to blindside. Until next week.

When you read the content of The Casey Report, you'll know why Doug says it takes a visionary to succeed in the markets. Spotting big trends ahead of the crowd and finding opportunities to profit from them is a skill that the TCR editors have down to a T – making subscribers double- and triple-digit returns in the process. To learn more about how you can invest alongside these trend hunters, click here.

[Editor's Note: Several readers wrote to say that Louis James confused Donald Trump and Ted Turner in his conversation with Doug about charity last week. Apparently so, and our apologies to Mr. Trump.]