Some who play a part in changing the world are hardly recognized. Jim Baen, who has died following a stroke at the age of 62, science-fiction editor and founder of the U.S. science-fiction publisher Baen Books, was one such.
His role as a cultural warrior was a proud one. He contributed very significantly, below the radar of sociological and cultural commentators, to the strengthening of Western culture.
He also did something not many cultural warriors, and not many publishers, can claim: he may have contributed directly and significantly to the West winning the Cold War.
Not bad for an ex-hippie who left home at 17, lived on the streets for several months and finally enlisted in the U.S. Army to avoid starving.
SF author David Drake said that the two books Jim Baen most remembered as formative influences were Fire-Hunter, by Jim Kjelgaard, and Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke: “The theme of both short novels is that of a youth from a decaying culture who escapes the trap of accepted wisdom and saves his people despite themselves. This is a fair description of Jim Baen’s life.”
After the Army (where he spent some time in Bavaria intercepting Soviet radio signals) he became a hippie managing a coffee shop in Greenwich Village.
He entered publishing as an assistant in the Complaints Department of Ace books, the beginning of what was to be a lifetime career in science-fiction publishing. Baen books was founded in 1983. Military SF author David Drake wrote:
“He never stopped developing new writers. The week before he died, Jim bought a first novel from a writer whom Baen Books had been grooming through short stories over the past year.”
BAEN BOOKS OFFERED AN ANTIDOTE to leftism generally in science fiction. It helped rescue science-fiction publishing from the leftist, nihilistic “New Wave” science fiction that had arisen in the 1960s and was concerned, in parallel with postmodernism and deconstructionism in other literature and art, with denigrating Western traditions and values. The “New Wave” was never really popular (New Worlds, the major New Wave magazine in Britain, was bailed out by public money after the buyers and readers stayed away in droves), but it might well have had the purely negative achievement of driving traditional science-fiction writers out of publishing. Baen Books gave — and still gives — a voice to stories of traditional Western values like honor, patriotism, chivalry, duty and military valor.
It was probably Jim Baen, more than any other, who rescued the “military science-fiction novel,” carrying on into the future and to other worlds the highly honorable tradition associated with the likes of Hornblower and C. S. Forester, and offering a voice against the anti-Western adversary culture so common in modern literature. In its way, and without beating up any obvious political message, Baen Books has played its part in the Culture War, on the right side.
Baen Books also gave me my own break into professional science-fiction writing. Multiple award-winner Larry Niven, working with Baen, looked to expand his “Known Space” stories (“Ringworld,” “The Ringworld Engineers,” etc.) with stories of the wars, referred to off-stage in his books, between the peaceful humans of several centuries hence, and the alien, tigerish Kzin. Larry Niven felt he could not write about the wars close-up, and it was decided to open the series to other writers.
Several SF Greats such as Steve Stirling, Dean Ing, Donald Kingsbury and the late Poul Anderson contributed. I also, with some temerity, and a complete unknown, sent Larry Niven a story (he remained editor of the series).
My story was accepted and so far ten more stories totaling 400,000 words have followed. Baen Books’s dealings with me have always been prompt, courteous and professional. Also compassionate. I once asked Jim if I could have an advance on a story: he sent me twice the amount I asked for.
The distinguished science-fiction and fantasy artist and illustrator Stephen Hickman told me: “It was Jim Baen who lent me $15,000 towards buying our new home when we moved out of the awful Washington, D.C. Metro area, and further helped secure the home loan by guaranteeing a certain amount of work to me in writing — I ask you to try and imagine any other publisher in the lenticular galaxy doing to same …
“And I remember being surprised and very touched at finding that I was by no means alone in being so indebted to this man for his support and friendship.”
Many authors have paid tribute to his generosity. Also among Baen Books’s charities were large donations of books to U.S. servicemen overseas and in the Navy.
But before that, Jim Baen, Larry Niven and others had been responsible for something else.
In November, 1980, with President Reagan in the White House, a group of science-fiction writers including Poul Anderson, Greg Bear and Robert Heinlein (they coincide to some extent with the Man-Kzin writers), astronauts including Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad and Philip K. Chapman, space scientists and engineers, aerospace industry executives, computer scientists, military officers and others, met, initially at Larry Niven’s California house, hosted by his wife Marilyn, to form the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy. Jim Baen was a major formative influence on the council.
It was to be, in terms of its effect and outcomes, one of the most extraordinary private initiatives of modern times. The caliber of some of the members meant that, with the coming of the Reagan Administration, it had direct input into government at the highest level.
The Council held regular meetings and reported to the National Security Advisor until 1988, after which there was electronic conferencing. Jim Baen attended all meetings from the council’s inception and was an important part of the council and its work and direction.
A POSITION PAPER BY THE COUNCIL was instrumental in convincing President Reagan that it was technically feasible to intercept ballistic missiles in flight. With General Daniel O. Graham’s High Frontier organization it prepared much of the Strategic Defense Initiative materials that led to President Reagan’s speech announcing the development of the SDI as policy in March, 1983.
Leftish science-fiction writer Norman Spinrad, not invited to the council meetings, later claimed the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy was a sort of Trojan Horse devised to get the U.S. government to spend more money on space. Dr. Jerry Pournelle, a major member of the council, replied roundly:
“Although the Council wrote parts of Reagan’s 1983 SDI speech, and provided much of the background for the policy, we certainly did not write the speech. Mr. Reagan was a better speechwriter than any of those working for him. By far.
“Norman’s open and publicly expressed dislike of Reagan was certainly reason enough not to invite him to a meeting of a group that was first called into existence to write the Space and high-tech Defense portions of the transition team papers…many of those at the Council meeting had not voted for Reagan (some Democrats, some Libertarians) but all of them had sufficient respect for him to be able to work with the group…
“We were not trying to boost space, we were trying to win the Cold War, and we were all agreed that the West ought to win the Cold War. NASA exists now primarily to pay the NASA bureaucracy and keep it busy ($100 billion for a couple of cans they call a space station that won’t do what SKYLAB did a long time ago?). Giving NASA more money would not have build a space program.
“But then we always thought winning the Seventy Years War was a good idea …”
Many presidents would not have had the genius and imagination Reagan showed in accepting so utterly crucial and radical a policy from such outre sources, but as a result, and in the face of all manner of criticism and attack from every left-wing pressure-group including the World Council of Churches, the Strategic Defense Initiative was born.
The Soviet Union tried to match SDI and couldn’t, either technically or economically. Gorbachev recognized there was no way out. That was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It would be simplistic to claim too much. When the end actually came it had many causes, and was due to many people. But the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy with its science-fiction writers and publishers as well as others played its part and more. It was a story worthy of a science-fiction plot itself, but real, and Jim Baen was there on St. Crispin’s Day.