A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is about a flinty New Englander who gets conked on the head in the 1880s and wakes up in sixth century Britain. Appalled at how primitive Arthurian society is, both technologically and socially, he quickly establishes himself as The Boss, chief minister to the king, and goes to work trying to turn Camelot into an 1880s version of Hartford.
There are a bunch of dubious personality classification schemes floating around. Probably the most well-known is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which posits sixteen personality types based on four axes: introversion vs. extroversion, intuitive vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving. (I tend to come out as INTJ.) But another popular one is the enneagram, which sets forth nine types and a whole network of relationships amongst them. I don't endorse either of these, but I did find that the part of the enneagram that has historically been where I've ended up has something to say about Twain's project in Connecticut Yankee.
See, according to the enneagram, there is a direct link between spot One (the reformer) and spot Four (the artist). I have tended to test as either one or the other; in high school I was a One, then tested very strongly as a Four from about the ages of 17 to 21, then went back to usually testing as a One. Now, here's the thing. No type is supposed to be intrinsically "better" than any other... except in the case of linked pairs. It's like rock-paper-scissors: no one choice is "best," but between any given distinct pair there's one winner. And according to the enneagram, if you tend to slide between One and Four, One is better.
Here's what this means. A writer who's a Four writes in order to explore inner states, convey emotions, that sort of thing. A writer who's a One writes in order to Make a Statement, which is definitely what's going on in Connecticut Yankee: Twain basically spends 600 pages railing against aristocracy, superstition and organized religion. But in today's culture, such polemics dressed up as fiction are considered inherently second-rate. Yankee has less in common with Huck Finn than it does with something like Ecotopia: a new society is built along certain organizing principles, and it's much better, the end. The book could hardly be more preachy, and nowadays "preachy" is one of the harshest condemnations one can level at a book. But! That's just a cultural preference, and there are other perspectives. According to the enneagram, the move from Four to One is a move away from self-absorbed navel-gazing and into positive action. I'm planning a fair amount of polemical stuff for my second novel, like proposing ways to fix the US educational system... and while some may say that's not Literature, I wonder if it's really a less worthwhile project than the stuff I was turning out in Berkeley, back when I was testing as a Four and writing stories about how depressed I was.
I'm no SF aficionado, so I don't actually know all the history here, but my understanding is that the genre of steampunk was an ironic response to cyberpunk's fusion of near-future technology with a big dose of street attitude: all technology was cutting-edge once, so what happens if you strip out the computers and transplant the tech-is-so-hip aesthetic to the nineteenth century? Well, here's steampunk without the irony. Twain is actually from the nineteenth century, and he makes it manifestly clear throughout Connecticut Yankee that coming from a world full of mind-blowing innovations like telephones and bicycles does in fact make his protagonist too cool for the room. To a great extent the book is a long string of episodes in which the protagonist, chuckling, dazzles the primitives with his superior 19th-century technology and accrues more and more power.
"Neocon" is a term that's been tossed about a lot in the past few years, and different people mean different things by it. Some just mean the new generation of right-wingers — the Goldwater/Reagan wing that gradually supplanted the previous Republican mainstream of people like Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford and GHW Bush. Others mean specifically people formerly involved in left-wing activism whose politics drifted rightward over time (like David Horowitz). But of most relevance here is the stripe of neoconservatism embodied by people like Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is hardly the sort of guy you'd expect to find in Dubya's camp: relatively intellectual, fiercely anti-religion, a guy who argues that the solution to poverty is feminism. Yet he's been one of the most vocal proponents of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, maintaining that the new world conflict in the post-Cold War era is between Civilization and the "clerical barbarism" of the Muslim world and that Civilization must win at all costs. He ends up coming off a lot like Twain's Yankee.
Both start from the premise that some cultures are better than others. It's hard not to be sympathetic to this view, even if you're a leftist. To take the neocons' favorite case, you look at Israel, where a Third World desert backwater was turned into a developed country, where women and men are treated more equally than almost anywhere else on the globe, where people vote and parties hand off power to one another without bloodshed, and you contrast that with the surrounding states where decadent royal families rule over powerless masses living in poverty, where women can't drive, can't vote, can't show their hair, can't interact with men they aren't related to, and it's very hard to argue for any kind of moral equivalence. Closer to home, a lot of the anti-GW-Bush sentiment in the so-called blue states isn't just a matter of policy but because, as Molly Ivins has pointed out, Bush embodies the three dominant strands of Texas culture — fundamentalist Christianity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo — and all three of those things suck. You can say that they don't objectively suck, and that no culture is objectively better than any other, and of course I'd agree with that — values exist only in people's minds. But I have one, so. Relativism doesn't mean that you have to suspend all value judgments. It just means that the judgments you make will depend on your perspective.
The next neocon move is to say that bad cultures need to be forcibly replaced by better ones. This, as noted, is the plot of Connecticut Yankee: the protagonist tries to fix Arthurian England, starting with little things like starting a advertising campaign to get people to bathe with soap and brush their teeth, and working his way up to banning slavery and dissolving the monarchy. His project is a good one. I'm all for replacing fol-de-rol with science and inherited privilege with meritocracy. Similarly, if there was one regime in my lifetime that needed to disappear, it was that of the Taliban, who'd turned women into slaves and dragged the country back to... I can't even say medieval times, because the Muslim world was actually relatively enlightened in the medieval era and the Taliban were most emphatically not.
...Connecticut Yankee also shows where this sort of thing leads. For it turns out that the protagonist's program fails. The moment The Boss takes a vacation, the establishment starts pushing back, and the transplanted 19th-century culture collapses. The Boss decides that to salvage all he's worked for, the establishment must be removed. So he cold-bloodedly kills thirty thousand people.
Zap. Electrocution. Good modern technology. Efficient. Takes only a few minutes and you get thirty thousand dead on their side and none on yours. It's the Highway of Death, 102 years early.
Several hundred pages earlier, Twain has the protagonist narrate that "all gentle cant and philosophizing to the contrary notwithstanding, no people in the world ever did achieve their freedom by goody-goody talk and moral suasion: it being immutable law that all revolutions that will succeed, must begin in blood, whatever may answer afterward." This is the neocon line. This is Hitchens's line: barbarians are trying to destroy civilization, and while civilization dictates that we must respond with reason rather than violence, try it and pretty soon you won't have any civilization left. So civilization must respond with violence and crush the barbarians so it has the luxury of going back to being civilized.
It's hard to argue against that except to point out that that sort of thinking leads to murdering tens of thousands of people with no good result. In Connecticut Yankee, thousands are killed and in the end The Boss is stuffed in a cave and society goes back to the way it had been before he ever arrived. In real life, getting rid of the Taliban and the Husseins was a fabulous idea in the abstract, but in practice it has meant killing thousands of people, and to what end? Afghanistan is controlled by warlords, women outside Kabul are still treated as chattel, and the Taliban are actually coming back. Iraq looks due for a period of civil war followed by the establishment of an Islamist state (or three) in which most people will be no freer and no less fearful than they were under Saddam Hussein. Sneer if you will about "goody-goody talk and moral suasion," but as macho as you might feel as you put it on your agenda, the fact is that mass murder is not very constructive. Gosh, who'd have thought?