It's surprising you don't hear more about Mack Reynolds. By all accounts he injected his stories with radical politics and anti-imperialist utopianism, and he was certainly a precursor of the New Wave. He was well-regarded in his day, and a Galaxy poll in the early '60s named him the magazine's most popular author. His interests were not technological but sociological—he cared about what makes societies tick, not what ticks within them. But while other SF revolutionaries of his era have found their way to the heart of the SF canon, Reynolds, it seems, has been forgotten, and his books have fallen out of print. In fact, the two Reynolds novels I have thus far read—Blackman's Burden and Border, Breed Nor Birth—have been out of print since their 1972 publication as an Ace Double (both reprinted from serializations in Analog in 1962-63).
Given the growing attention to postcolonial SF in recent years, it's a surprising oversight. Reynolds' novels describe a near-future Africa that has been abandoned by the developed world. With the exception of a few unfunded, below-the-radar humanitarian teams from the Reunited Nations, the people of Africa are on their own—until one of those teams decides to take the reigns of the struggling continent and give it a united government that works. Homer Crawford, an African-American aid worker, rechristens himself "El Hassan" and becomes Africa's benevolent tyrant. There's more than a little paternalism in the concept, but you get the sense that Reynolds is aware of the irony of this postcolonial intrusiveness. Ultimately, the idea comes across as a kind of philosopher-king utopianism: it asks, why can't we just make things work?
The first book in the series, Blackman's Burden, depicts Islam as part of the problem rather than the solution. Crawford sees Islam as an overly-rigid barrier to progress:
[Judaism and Christianity] adapted to changing times, with considerable success. Islam has remained the same and in all the world there is not one example of a highly developed socio-economic system in a Moslem country. The reason is that in your country, and mine, and in the other advanced countries of the West, we pay lip service to our religions, but we don't let them interfere with our day-to-day life. But the Moslem, like the rapidly-disappearing ultra-orthodox Jew, lives his religion every day and by the rules set down by the Prophet fifteen centuries ago. Everything the Moslem does from the moment he gets up in the morning is all mapped out in the Koran... North Africa cannot be united under the banner of Islam if she is going to progress rapidly. If it ever unites, it will be in spite of local religions—Islam and pagan as well; they hold up the wheels of progress.
It's a bit of a simplistic attitude. Fundamentalist Muslims are like fundamentalist Christians—they want you to think that they're doing everything exactly as it's always been done, that the practice of their religion remains, and will remain, unchanged and untainted. Which is ridiculous, of course; in the case of both religious traditions what we now call fundamentalism didn't really start until the 19th century. Simplistic or not, the idea that Islam is incompatible with the concept of progress is a pretty popular one these days. Behind Reynolds' argument is the idea that Islam depends on the ecological and socio-economic background of the desert, but this begs the question: what about Indonesia? (Of course, Frank Herbert extrapolated from this idea that Islam, or at least religions flavored with Islam, could do quite well on alien desert worlds.) And one wonders if Reynolds would make the same statements about Islamic economies after the oil boom of the '70s. Attitude to Islam aside, Reynolds' African novels are fascinating reads, well ahead of their time and quite unjustly forgotten. I will definitely be seeking out more of his books soon, and I hope they offer some similarly pleasant surprises.