Last time, we talked about Star Trek and Star Wars—but especially Star Trek—as expressing the ideal of a certain type of civilization. Now we can broaden the range of examples. Science fiction and fantasy make an excellent laboratory for thought-experiments here, as in so many things.
Staving Off the Fall
The threat that civilization will fail and collapse is a classic way to create a dramatic situation for a SF story. The most common historical analogue, of course, is the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.
Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series (1942-1953) deliberately drew on that model; Asimov had been reading Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the Foundation universe, Hari Seldon has developed a science of “psychohistory” that predicts the Galactic Empire’s inevitable decline. There’s no chance of preventing the fall. But Seldon’s psychohistory offers a way to cut short the ensuing dark age from thirty thousand years to a single thousand. The emotional charge of the original Foundation stories centers on the Seldon Plan’s bid to minimize the period of barbarism, with its chaos, violence, tyranny and suffering. (Later developments of the series, too involved to discuss here, go off in somewhat different directions.)
I’ve mentioned H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, which includes at least one such decline-and-fall. The novel Space Viking (1963) gives us a whole culture of space-traveling barbarians, raiding the decadent worlds of the old Federation. The events of the story suggest the hope of a return to lawfulness in the formation of a “League of Civilized Worlds.” But given Piper’s cyclical theory of history, this initiative will yield no permanent resolution; the story has a happy ending, but the history does not.
Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about Sir Dominic Flandry, a dashing secret agent of the Terran Empire reminiscent of a far-future James Bond (though Flandry first appeared in 1951, Bond in 1953). When he can spare a moment from chasing women and loose living, Flandry devotes his efforts to shoring up the decaying Empire, though he realizes that in the end the “Long Night” is inevitable.
There’s a certain kind of romance, a mood of grandeur and doom, about these falling empires. Naturally, they tend toward the somber and the tragic.
A more upbeat tone characterizes stories in which the fight to preserve civilization has a chance of succeeding.
In the Lensman series, E.E. Smith actually refers to the heroes’ multispecies galactic community simply as “Civilization.” That polity reflects the cooperative, yet freedom-loving, nature of the beneficent Arisians, who have nurtured it in secret over millions of years. The Lensmen’s opponent is “Boskone,” which originally appears to be a mere conspiracy of space pirates or drug dealers. When Boskone eventually turns out to be a whole independent culture of its own, based in another galaxy, the conflict becomes one of diametrically opposed cultures, rather than simply of order vs. disorder.
But the Boskonian culture is one of thoroughgoing tyranny, from top to bottom. At every level, those in power scheme against each other. Lacking any honor or ethical code, they engage in assassination and undermine each other’s plans. Those at the bottom are essentially slaves. The Civilization led by humans, on the contrary, respects human dignity and freedom—although the fact that these cultures have been essentially on a war footing throughout their entire history renders that freedom a little less far-ranging than we might imagine.
The Lensman example reminds us that the defenders of civilization are not always fighting against barbarians. Autocracy and regimentation bring their own kind of chaos, as lawless warlords battle among themselves, not caring what common folk are trampled in the process. It’s a particular kind of civilization that’s worth preserving.
This is true whether we’re in the future or the past. We’ve seen that the power of the Arthurian legend stems partly from the theme of defending order and decency against the chaos that lies in wait. (We may also mention Arthur’s more historically-based successor, King Alfred, who defended England against the real (not Space) Vikings.)
The embattled Arthurian Camelot is frequently connected with Rome itself, the ur-example. The Last Legion (book and movie) provides a good example. The waning Roman presence in Britain, as the Dark Ages set in, is a natural setting for the ideal of the lonely, valiant defender. One example is brought up indirectly by a character’s name. As Wikipedia puts it, “Legio XX Valeria Victrix lends its name to the character Valeria Matuchek in Poul Anderson‘s Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna; her mother is said to describe this legion as the last to leave Britain—‘the last that stood against Chaos.’”
To Valeria’s mother Virginia, “the last that stood against Chaos” is a phrase to conjure with. That’s true for me, too.
The Right Kind of Order
If civilization represents a certain kind of order—that of the Lensmen, not Boskone—what kind are we talking about? It’s not always easy to explain.
Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly around at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible. (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1959), ch. 6, p. 83)
Chesterton’s random examples do cast some light on the question. A community that has bookcases has books—implying a continuity of knowledge and literature, as well as the leisure to read them. Coals to keep one warm in winter suggest both the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the whole machinery of society and technology that brings the fuel from the mine to the fireside. Pianos reflect art and a developed culture. And policemen indicate a society in which there is at least some attempt to defend the ordinary citizen against the depredations of the powerful and unscrupulous—the rule of law, of which more anon.
In the particular culture to which I belong, when we hold up a certain sort of civilization as an ideal worth defending, what we have in mind is a good order in which spontaneity and creativity can flourish, and people can live their lives without constant fear or privation. There’s an order that protects the weak against the strong, but there is also enough looseness for individual variation, experiment, and adaptation. In the “alignment” terms we discussed last time, you might say the position I’m taking is neutral good, tending to lawful.
The classical roots of this ideal are found in the Greek notion of the polis and the Roman notion of civitas. But it’s been shaped by the whole history of Western thought into what’s sometimes called the “liberal” ideal of a free society—“liberal” not in the political sense, but the root sense of “free.”
There’s one particular aspect of this ideal, though, that science fiction is peculiarly suited to address. We’ll talk next time about civilization and science.