Ben Burgis is the author of more than a dozen fantasy and science fiction stories. In “Smokestacks Like the Arms of Gods,” workers at a magical factory lay down their tools to fight for better working conditions.
“The title comes from Bruce Springsteen‘s song ‘Youngstown,’ where there’s a line in there about ‘smokestacks rising up like the arms of God,’” Burgis says in Episode 510 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The story is essentially a fantasy world remix of something roughly along the lines of the big sit-down strikes that built the CIO unions in the 1930s.”
The story draws on Burgis’ family history. His mother grew up in Youngstown, and his great-grandfather Morris Field was a union organizer. The story “was originally published at PodCastle, which is a fantasy short story podcast, then it was actually reprinted at Jenny, which is the literary journal at Youngstown State, so they obviously liked it because of that connection,” he says.
In addition to writing fantasy fiction, Burgis is also the author of several nonfiction books, including Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left and Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left. “I’ve had leftist politics since before I started writing, and those have always been strong interests of mine,” he says. “Most of the writing I do now is for Jacobin magazine, so the politics have stayed pretty consistent.”
Burgis would like to see more fantasy authors explore the idea of organized labor. “A lot of fantasy fiction is either about high politics within feudal systems or essentially upward mobility stories—about somebody from a humble background rising through the social ranks of their society,” he says. “Collective struggle, I think, is something you don’t get a lot in that medium. Or for that matter really in science fiction, although you see it more there. But even still, not that much.”
Listen to the complete interview with Ben Burgis in Episode 510 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ben Burgis on Valis:
It was always one of my favorite books, and I read it the first time before I was studying philosophy, but the fact that I was so drawn to it probably has a little to do with that, because in addition to the usual Philip K. Dick stuff about playfulness and ambiguity about what’s really going on, and reality and our knowledge of reality and all that good stuff, there’s also a lot of very direct “characters sitting around arguing about philosophy”—about the problem of evil and stuff like that. And combined with the dark humor of the book and everything else, that was something that always spoke to me.
Ben Burgis on Canceling Comedians While the World Burns:
That title itself is sort of an effort to grab people by the collar and be like, “No seriously, stop doing this stuff.” There were a whole series of incidents which convinced me that a lot of people who shared my political commitments—who had basically the same goals as I did, who want society to change in the same ways that I do—had fallen into this strange unhelpful moralistic way of seeing politics that is, in practice, I think much too much about policing individual virtue or signaling individual commitment in ways that I think make it unnecessarily hard for us to appeal to a lot of ordinary people who might otherwise be drawn to a left-wing program.
Ben Burgis on free speech:
I certainly have nothing positive to say about Elon Musk, and I don’t think that a good long-term solution to problems with the free speech norms in this weird privatized public square is hoping that the right billionaire is running it, who will make wise and benevolent decisions, but I do think it is incredibly revealing, the reactions to the Musk thing from people who, the second they suspect that somebody won’t make the decisions they like, it’s not just that “Twitter is a private company. What are you talking about?” … Suddenly I think people are showing that they do see the point about how [social media] is not just something like a newspaper, not just like the company bulletin board, that it has a wider importance for society.
Ben Burgis on artificial intelligence:
I just wrote for Current Affairs a review of a novel by Francis Spufford called Red Plenty. It’s not a science fiction novel, it’s just sort of a literary historical novel, but it’s about an attempt that was really made by certain Soviet computer scientists in the Khrushchev era—the ’60s—to think about how an [AI-managed economy] would work, and try to implement some version of it. … In the novel I think he hints at some reasons why at least the version they had in mind might not have worked as well as they thought it would, but I don’t see any reason to rule that out. I think the only honest answer about how far technological progress could take us in that regard is that we don’t know.