Robert Conquest, one of the greatest and most important historians of the 20th Century, died earlier this week at the age of ninety-nine. His most lasting legacy, of course, was his exposing the fraud of communism to the intelligentsia and the public, although sadly many still remain in denial of his findings regarding Stalin’s body count. I am reasonably certain most readers of this journal are not among those that need to have Conquest’s evidence presented to them; I am in fact quite certain as well that most of them know his name, and even if they have not had the chance to read his monumental works The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, have read other credible sources that have cited them as impeccable sources on the topic.
But how many of you are also aware that he was a science fiction fan?
As mentioned near the end of his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, Conquest was an early member of the British Interplanetary Society, persuaded to join by his friend Arthur C. Clarke. Another close friend was Kingsley Amis, with whom Conquest edited the five-book Spectrum anthology series for Gollancz Publishing; in addition to collecting some of the best science fiction up to then for British readers, Conquest provided some essays published in the anthologies and elsewhere in which he provided some of the earliest-and strongest-arguments for the already-existing literary merit of the genre. And like Amis, he ventured into SF writing himself, publishing at least one genuine science fiction novel, A World of Difference, in which he “Tuckerized” Clarke as “Sir Arthur, President of the Interplanetary Society.” Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the field was this charming ditty, included in the second volume of Spectrum:
“Sf’s no good,”
They bellow till we’re deaf.
“But this looks good.”
“Well then, it’s not sf.”
As revealing as it may be of the attitude towards science fiction by much of the intellectual and literary elites (and is still held by many to this day; try explaining to some people how Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go are full-fledged science fiction, and you’ll get lots of pushback), it is also revealing of the nature of Conquest himself. Like so many other words and terms, “speaking truth to power” has been badly distorted and stretched so that it has nothing to do with its original meaning; nowadays, it simply means giving people what they want to hear, a complete inversion of its original intent. No matter what the subject he addressed, he was never afraid to speak the actual truth, reveal the actual facts, and use them to form a cogent, fully reasoned argument. We can best carry on his legacy not just by ensuring his books are read and remembered, but by continuing his methods and approach to both the real world and imagined ones alike.