Of Amazons and New Gods

Spoiler Alert!

Wonder Woman is now out on DVD.  Still a great movie.  It’s pleasing to see that the DC Extended Universe (“DCEU”), or “Justice League Universe,” can produce a film on a par with the best of the Marvel movies.  I’m cautiously looking forward to Justice League, which opens just over a month from now (Nov. 17).  Among other things, I’m eager to see whether the group movie will be dominated by its immediate Wonder Woman predecessor, or by its less promising BatmanSuperman heritage.

On re-watching, I found myself thinking more about the theology of Wonder Woman, which enmeshes us in some complicated assumptions about the shared world of the DCEU and may give us some clues about JL.

Here Be Spoilers!Fallen Pantheon

Wonder Woman holds lightningAccording to the Amazons of Themyscira, the Greek war god Ares took umbrage when Zeus created human beings.  When Ares turned humans against each other, the other Olympian gods tried to stop him.  Ares killed the other gods, last of all Zeus, whose dying blow put Ares out of action for ages.  Diana kills Ares in the conclusion of WW.  That appears to eliminate all the Olympian gods.

As moviegoers, we readily accept this Greek-myth theology for purposes of the story.  It’s familiar territory, as mythology goes.  While we’re watching the movie, we don’t worry about reconciling Zeus’s creation of humanity with, say, Christian or Hindu or Muslim accounts, or even with the scientific account of human evolutionary origins.

One thing that makes the Greek gods (I keep typing “Geek gods,” which is peculiarly appropriate) easier to swallow is the fact that in WW the pantheon seems to have liquidated itself, unless you count the demigoddess Diana.  By the end of the movie, they’re gone.  We don’t need to worry about whether Athena or Poseidon will turn up in some other superhero story as a deus ex machina, or why DC universe inhabitants can’t call on Zeus to aid the victims of floods or hurricanes.

On the other hand, Justice League takes place in the same universe, which means the premises of WW are built in.  How literally are we to take them?  Do we have to assume that the Greek gods are (or were) the divinities of the DCEU?

Divinity and Technology

Sue Storm and the Watcher, comic panelComics have drawn from all sorts of Western mythologies, but they generally skirt the issue of whether any of these gods are God.  None of the deities of Greek/Roman or Norse myths have the classic characteristics attributed to God in the Western tradition:  omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence.  The issue is directly addressed so rarely that the occasional occurrence is rather startling.  In Fantastic Four #72 (March 1967, p. 13), for example, Sue Storm refers to “the all-powerful Silver Surfer,” and the Watcher responds:  “All-powerful?  There is only one who deserves that name!  And his only weapon . . . is love!”

Marvel dodged the theological question neatly when it brought Thor into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  He brings with him the Norse gods of Asgard, just as in the comics.  But Thor expressly tells us in his first movie that the magic or “divine” powers of the Norse gods are indistinguishable from advanced science (Clarke’s Third Law rides again).  This allows us to regard the Asgardians as just highly advanced creatures, using knowledge so far beyond us that it seems like magic, and bypass theological conundrums.

It’s certainly open to DC to take the same approach, if we don’t take the “Zeus created humanity” claim seriously.  Since the Olympians are (as far as we know) now absent, we can probably skate around that issue without trouble.

In fact, the absence of the Olympians may actually lead into the Justice League scenario, in an unexpected way.  The clue is that the full cast list for JL on IMDB shows “Steppenwolf” as the villain.  Surely the heroes are not clashing with the 1960s heavy-metal band by that name.  Who’s this mystery supervillain?

The Fourth World

Jack Kirby, famous for inventing many classic Marvel characters during his long partnership with Stan Lee, left Marvel for rival DC in 1970.  There he created, wrote and drew a new epic series, sweeping across at least five different lines of comic magazines, known as the “Fourth World.”  In this saga, loosely connected to the rest of DC’s continuity, Earth becomes a battleground for two groups of supernal beings:  the benevolent “New Gods” of “New Genesis,” and the corrupt denizens of its dark sister world “Apokolips.”  New Genesis and Apokolips exist in a parallel universe or “other dimension” reached via temporary portals called “Boom Tubes,” not unlike the Rainbow Bridge in the Thor movies.

Like Marvel’s Asgardians or DC’s version of Greek mythology, these beings are “gods” only in a limited sense.  They have powers beyond those of mere humans, but are far short of all-powerful.

What’s interesting for our purposes here is that Kirby conceived of the dualistic Apokolips-New Genesis regimes as arising after a kind of Ragnarok—the cataclysmic end of the world in Norse myth.  In fact, as Wikipedia’s discussion points out, Kirby’s New Gods grew out of an idea that he originated for Thor comics.  For purposes of this new DC-sponsored saga, it was disconnected from the mythology of Thor.  But the same basic trope remained:  a final battle in which both good and evil forces are destroyed, succeeded by some kind of post-apocalypse revival.  Here’s how Kirby presented it in Orion and the New Gods #2 (April-May 1971, p. 1):  “the holocaust which destroyed the old gods split their ancient world asunder — and created in its place two separate and distinct homes for the new forces . . .”

New Genesis and Apokolips

Apokolips and New Genesis

Steppenwolf and dog cavalry

Steppenwolf

The master-villain of the Fourth World saga is Darkseid, one of the best bad guys of all time.  Marvel’s character Thanos, who happens to be the master-villain of the MCU (appearing briefly in Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers movies), was based on Darkseid.  Darkseid’s uncle, and lieutenant, is one Steppenwolf, who in the Fourth World comics rekindles the conflict between Apokolips and the New Gods by killing the New Genesis leader’s wife (Orion and the New Gods #7, March 1972).  The opponents seen in this Justice League trailer are Apokolips parademons.

DC still owns the New Gods characters and plotlines.  It seems likely that Steppenwolf will be the main antagonist in JL with the still greater menace of Darkseid looming behind him, available to up the ante for sequels (as with Darth Vader and the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, or Ronan and Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy).

The New Twilight of the Gods

At this point, the fall of the Olympian gods in Wonder Woman begins to line up rather neatly with the Kirbyesque background that Justice League will draw upon.  Kirby thought of the Fourth World as following on a Norse-style Ragnarok.  But, as noted above, the Wonder Woman cosmogony provides the DCEU with a Ragnarok of its own.  Perhaps in the movie version of the mythology, the New Gods (and their opponents) arise from the twilight of the Olympian gods, not the Norse.

Darkseid, holding Earth

Darkseid

It’ll be intriguing to see how this background influences  the JL movie—if at all.  DC may decide to duck the whole matter and introduce Steppenwolf as a menace with an entirely different origin.  But my money is on a significant Fourth World influence on the upcoming film.  If the DCEU makes good use of Darkseid and the Kirby mythos, that ups the chance that we may see some seriously epic developments, after a rocky start, in the DC shared universe.

We’ll see shortly!

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The Hidden Right Stuff

Astronomy Ascendant

Cassini over Saturn's southern hemisphereIt isn’t surprising that I got a lump in my throat at space probe Cassini’s Grand Finale plunge into Saturn.  What’s striking is that so many other people seem to have felt the same way, as described in the aforelinked article and a Sept. 16 Washington Post editorial titled “The Cassini mission embodies the best of humanity.”  No immediately profitable results, no earthly use—and yet quite a range of people seem to have been moved by the end of this long-running mission.

People watch the solar eclipse from the observation deck of The Empire State Building in New YorkThe Cassini Grand Finale followed immediately upon another widely popular sky event, the eclipse of August 21, 2017.  A total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States is rare enough that dedicated eclipse watchers were naturally excited.  But the level of interest in the general public was quite remarkable.  Libraries, giving away eclipse-watching glasses to the public, ran out of them well before the big day.

Why this sudden upsurge in astronomical interest?  My guess is that at a time when other news is so depressing, and human inhumanity to humans is so prevalent, we long to hear about something that’s both bigger than ourselves, and wonderful rather than terrible.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures book coverI recently read Hidden Figures (2016), by Margot Lee Shetterly.  This historical-biographical work tells the story of the African-American women who worked with NASA during the “space race,” at a time when neither women, nor African-Americans, were typically considered candidates for science positions.  Their mathematical expertise was crucial in making possible the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

Hidden Figures movie posterAn excellent movie based on the book—I’ve seen it twice so far—came out in December 2016, which must set some kind of record for speedy translation of a book to the big screen.  The film, as is usual with historical movies, alters the facts somewhat to dramatize the changes taking place.  But it effectively conveys how the intrepid characters overcame prejudices and organizational impediments to make great contributions.

Part of the lump-in-the-throat uplift I felt in this story comes from the chance, for once, to see people doing the right thing in terms of justice and respect for everyone.  But another part comes from the fact that the achievements of the women depicted in the book and movie weren’t just any successes.  They were specifically in the area of spaceflight, appealing to the science- and science-fiction enthusiast in me as well as the admirer of virtue.  In that respect, I was reminded of an older favorite film, The Right Stuff.

The Right Stuff

A generation ago, Tom Wolfe’s idiosyncratic history of Project Mercury and the test-pilot culture out of which it grew, The Right Stuff (1979), became a 1983 movie by Philip Kaufman.  From the slapstick humor of the medical testing, to the cheerfully cynical depiction of the public-relations machine that went to work on the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff took a decidedly down-to-earth look at the space program.  But as the story develops, those mundane aspects merely serve to underline the genuine courage and daring of the Mercury pioneers.

The Right Stuff movie posterThe movie has long been a favorite in my household.  Aided by a soaring score from Bill Conti, The Right Stuff awakens the same sense of wonder we feel from Hidden Figures—with the earthier aspects to remind us that, inspiring as the story may be, this isn’t a fairy tale or even solid SF; it really happened.

Common Ground

These two space race movies obviously have a lot in common.  They share a historical setting, though they approach it from quite different angles, and they cover some of the same events.  Each features an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character.  Some of the characters even overlap; John Glenn plays an important role in both.

Each is a fictionalized movie made from a nonfiction book.  To present their stories, screenwriters and directors have to invent actual dialogue and scenes that aren’t part of the historical record.  Conversely, the books cover more ground than the movies can possibly handle.  The book Hidden Figures, for example, starts its narrative in World War II, while the movie opens around 1960.

More important, I think, is the mood evoked by the two films.  The distinctiveness of that emotion arises from the fact that the U.S. space program is one of the few enterprises in recent history that joins heroic dedication to an aspirational goal, with a visually impressive record that can be readily appreciated by all of us.  (One might point to medical successes, for example, as equally noble—say, the development of the polio vaccine.  But rockets are easier to see and appreciate than bacteria.)

So many of the great heroic efforts we can point to are wars.  The perennial appeal of stories about World War II, the American Civil War, Star Wars, the War of the Ring, show how these exemplars of courage and perseverance continue to move us.  But even when such wars are justified, they are essentially negative efforts.  The participants strive to prevent something—to avert or amend some great evil—and the means for doing so unavoidably involve harm and destruction.

New Horizons launches to PlutoThese stories about the space program, on the other hand, remind us that equally great and heroic efforts can be made for affirmative purposes.  They arouse that heart-lifting sense of people striving mightily together for goals that are not destructive, but wholly aspirational.  To the wonder of discovery and exploration are added the glory of humans exercising their best qualities—intelligence, diligence, boldness, cooperation.  These true stories give us a sense of unity in a good cause, like the “band of brothers” forged in wartime, but without the corresponding division and opposition of a human enemy.

This isn’t Pollyanna territory.  The Right Stuff pays plenty of attention to human foibles and pettiness; but they become trivial in the great achievements of the movie’s second half.  Hidden Figures specifically addresses human vices—and sweeps them aside in the name of something greater.  As with Cassini and the eclipse, we have a chance to focus, for a while, on something that extends beyond ourselves and calls out the best in us.  We don’t ignore human weakness, but we are given examples of how, from time to time, we can transcend it.

These are stories worth telling.

The Master Contriver

Some stories—especially comedies—include a character who seems to have the job of making sure everything comes out right in the end.  Let’s call them the Master Contrivers.

“I manage things a little”

The Contriver doesn’t force things into place.  Rather, she pulls strings.  A good deal of finagling, a certain amount of chicanery, and a talent for talking people into things are generally involved.

Dolly Levi dances with waitersDolly Levi of Hello, Dolly! is a familiar example.  The show starts with an array of dissatisfied characters.  Horace Vandergelder wants a wife.  His niece Ermengarde wants to marry impecunious artist Ambrose Kemper.  Horace’s clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, want to escape their humble jobs for a day—and maybe fall in love.  Their opposite numbers, Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay, are also eager for a spree and a romance.  Dolly herself, a self-proclaimed meddlesome widow, is ready to settle down with a new husband.

With magnificent confidence, the ebullient Dolly takes on the task of resolving all these plotlines.  She suggests, cajoles, misdirects, confuses, and manipulates until everything works out.  We enjoy how all this frivolity and chaos converges magically to a neatly satisfying outcome, like a sleight-of-hand trick.

Hardly anyone else knows quite what they’re doing at any given time, but Dolly has everything under control.  Even where she lacks a specific plan, she is an expert improviser.  The other characters can safely rely on her to solve all problems.

Wodehouse’s Maestros

Stephen Fry as JeevesThe Master Contriver frequently pops up in P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies.  The best-known example is the imperturbable gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves.  No matter what sort of absurd scrape Bertie Wooster gets into, Jeeves can always find a way to get him out again.  Half the fun is watching to see exactly how Jeeves will pull it off this time.  (The other half is simply listening to Bertie narrate, which is a joy in itself.)

But Jeeves is far from the only Wodehouse example.  At Blandings Castle, the fiftyish but dapper Galahad Threepwood lives up to his name by spreading sweetness and light in the form of good fun, lovers united, and overbearing aunts thwarted.  The lively and irreverent Uncle Fred (Earl of Ickenham) plays a similar role in other tales, to the alarm and embarrassment of his nephew Pongo Twistleton; sometimes these adventures also take place at Blandings.  (It’s too bad Wodehouse never brought Gally and Uncle Fred onstage at the same time—ideally with Bertie and Jeeves as well.  The mind boggles at what wackiness might develop with three Master Contrivers simultaneously at work.)

All the above examples are middle-aged men or women.  The sublime Rupert Psmith (“The p . . . is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) represents a rare younger version of the merry manipulator.  He actually becomes a protagonist, with his own romantic plotline, in Leave It To Psmith (1923)—at Blandings, naturally.

SF Contrivers

Science fiction abounds in exceedingly clever manipulators, but most of them fit the mold of the trickster-hero rather than the master contriver:  they are frequently the protagonists, and their stories tend to be more serious.  Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, Salvor Hardin, Gandalf the Grey (in The Hobbit), and Seth Dickinson’s Baru Cormorant are good examples.

But the comic contriver is not unknown.  In Heinlein’s rollicking family yarn The Rolling Stones (1952), Hazel Stone, the superficially crusty grandmother figure, is often the one who “arranges things”—including appearing in court to get her grandsons off the hook in a tax case on Mars.

Masters and Matchmakers

The Grand Sophy, coverThe Master Contriver is perhaps most at home in romantic comedies.  Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances feature a few such characters.  Sometimes they’re the romantic interests of female protagonists, since genre romances are fond of dominant “alpha male” heroes.  But one of the most enjoyable is the titular female lead in The Grand Sophy (1950).  Like Psmith and Dolly, young Sophy cheerfully arranges a romance for herself at the same time as she resolves other characters’ star-crossed affairs.

In the musical Oklahoma! we have Aunt Eller, the spiritual counterpart of Uncle Fred.  She’s perfectly capable of pulling a gun to halt a burgeoning brawl (see this clip at about 3:05), but her main job is to guide her niece Laurey to a happy resolution of her uneven romance with the expansive cowboy Curly.

The Warrior's Apprentice, coverAs the third-party plot manager for a romantic comedy, the Master Contriver often functions as a matchmaker.  Hello Dolly! was based on a Thornton Wilder play literally titled The Matchmaker.  Even Miles Vorkosigan, in a gently comic scene in The Warrior’s Apprentice, briefly burlesques the role of a traditional Barrayaran matchmaker for his own lifelong crush Elena and the man she’s fallen in love with.  (Miles’ own romance does not develop until several novels later.)

The Character of the Contriver

A third-party Master Contriver naturally falls into the niche of the benevolent uncle or aunt—a kindly older person who isn’t typically a player himself, but an enabler of other characters’ fulfillment (though we’ve seen some counter-examples above).  In fact, this position is not unlike the role of the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

The role resembles that of a mentor, although, unlike the Missing Mentor of whom we’ve spoken before, this mentor-manager is generally very much present, in the thick of the action.  Yet the Contriver is a little detached, not as directly involved as the principals; she can take things a little lightly.  She can thus be more jolly, less earnest.

Since the Contriver is generally working toward other characters’ happy endings, not her own, she lends the story a sense of generosity.  This is why we don’t mind a character who might otherwise seem manipulative.  We typically think of “maniuplative” as a troublesome trait, not an appealing one.  But an avuncular figure who can be trusted to manipulate people only for their own good becomes an asset rather than a problem.

The Atmosphere of the Story

It helps make a comedy pleasant when there are people disinterestedly spreading sweetness and light.  This is why the Contrivers play so well in comedies of manners and romantic comedies, where the plots have to be intricate, but light-hearted.

Since we’re typically dealing with interpersonal relations, not slam-bang action plots, Master Contrivers achieve much of their effectiveness by influencing other people.  For this reason, they generally possess considerable personal magnetism or “charisma.”  This, again, adds to the general air of genial good-fellowship in a comedy.

But the greatest effect on the atmosphere of the story, I think, is that it’s reassuring to have someone around who can be trusted to untangle all plotlines to a happy ending:  “till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”  We come into a comedy expecting things to turn out well.  The more the happy ending is in question, the more the story begins to look like a thriller rather than a comedy.  If Dolly or Gally is on the scene, we can rest easy on that score, and enjoy the ride.

Civilization and the Rule of Law

We’ve talked about how the Star Trek-Star Wars divide reflects preferences for a more lawful or more chaotic world; how F&SF stories often show us a defense of civilization against chaos; and how civilization makes science possible and rests in turn on human technology.  But both order and technology can be oppressive.  The missing element is the rule of law.

Universal Laws

It’s a crucial element of right governance that there are rules applying to everyone, as opposed to the arbitrary wishes of a dictator, who can make decisions based on favoritism, political preferences, or personal relationships.  The Wikipedia article describes rule of law as “the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by decisions of individual government officials.”

Rule of Law pyramid

(Rule of Law Institute of Australia)

As we saw in The Good King, the concept of the rule of law goes back at least to Aristotle.  It became a central principle of the American founders via the English tradition of John Locke.  “Rule of law implies that every citizen is subject to the law, including lawmakers themselves” (Wikipedia again).  It is thus in tension with kingship, where rule is almost by definition arbitrary and personal.  But one can have mixed cases—kings who are bound by certain laws, as in the British constitutional monarchy.

Without the rule of law, we depend on the good behavior of those who have power of some sort—physical, military, economic.  We slide toward the “war of each against all,” where might makes right and the vulnerable are the pawns of the strong.  Autocracy soon follows, as people look for any means to find safety from those who are powerful but unscrupulous.  Hence the quotation from John Christian Falkenberg, which I’ve used before:  “The rule of law is the essence of freedom.”  (Jerry Pournelle, Prince of Mercenaries (New York:  Baen 1989), ch. 21, p. 254.)  Strength itself, a good thing, is only safe under laws.

Test Cases

It’s easy to miss the importance of the rule of law.  We’re typically born into a society with better or worse laws, and criticize them from the inside.  It’s less common to find ourselves in straits where lawfulness as such has collapsed.  Regrettably, sizable numbers of people are exposed to such conditions in the world today.  But many of us are fortunate enough not to see them ourselves.  As always, fantasy and science fiction provide useful “virtual laboratories” for examining the possibilities.

Tunnel in the Sky (audiobook) coverA classic SF case is where a group thrown into a “state of nature” attempts to set up a lawful society.  For example, in Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955), students from a high-school class on survival techniques are given a final exam in which they are dropped onto an unspecified planet to survive for up to ten days.  When an astronomical accident leaves them stranded, they need to organize for the long term.  Rod Walker, the hero, becomes the leader-by-default of a growing group of young people.  The tension between this informal leadership and the question of forming an actual constitution—complete with committees, regulations, and power politics—makes up a central theme of the story.

David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman (1985), later made into a 1997 movie with Kevin Costner, illustrates the power of civil order, the unstated practices of a culture, as recalling—and perhaps fostering—the rule of law.  The hero, a wanderer who happens to have appropriated a dead postman’s uniform and mail sack, presents himself as a mail carrier for the “Restored United States of America” to gain shelter in one of the isolated fortress-towns, ruled by petty tyrants, that remain.  His desperate imposture snowballs into a spreading movement in which people begin to believe in this fiction, and this belief puts them on the road toward rebuilding civilization.  The result is a sort of field-test not only of civil order and government, but of what Plato famously imagined as the “noble lie.”The Postman movie poster

Last time, I cited Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), where a small community headed by a United States Senator hopes to serve as a nucleus for reconstructing civilization after a comet strike.  We see at the end the strong pull of personal rule or kingship:  as the Senator lies dying, the future of the community will be determined by which of the competing characters gains the personal trust and endorsement of the people—and the hand of the Senator’s daughter, a situation in which she herself recognizes the resurfacing of an atavistic criterion for rule.  Unstated, but perhaps implicit, is the nebulous idea that deciding in favor of scientific progress may also mean an eventual movement back toward an ideal of rule by laws, not by inherited power.

Seeking a Balance

The “laboratory” of F&SF is full of subversions, variations, and elaborations on the rule of law.  In particular, we should note the counter-trend previously discussed as “chaotic good.”  Laws can be stifling as well as liberating.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress coverHeinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966) imagines how the “rational anarchy” of a lunar prison colony is mobilized to throw off autocratic rule.  The healthy chaos of the libertarian Loonies is hardly utopian, but the story does make it seem appealing.  Interestingly, Heinlein returned to this setting with a kind of critique twenty years later in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985), where the post-revolution lunar anarchy seems much less benign, seen from an outsider’s perspective.

While fantasy seems to concern itself with this issue much less than science fiction, consider the region called the “Free Commots” in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.  When protagonist Taran visits this area in the fourth book (Taran Wanderer), he finds a society of independent villages, where the most prominent citizens are master-craftspeople.  They neither have nor need a lord to organize them.  The Commots contrast favorably to the feudal or wilderness regions through which Taran travels.  A kind of anarchic democracy, as an ideal, thus sneaks into what otherwise seems to be a traditional aristocratic high fantasy.Taran Wanderer book cover

One way of managing the tension between a government of laws and a culture of liberty is the principle of subsidiarity:  the notion that matters should be governed or controlled at the lowest possible organizational level where they can be properly handled.  It’s frequently illustrated in G.K. Chesterton’s ardent defenses of localism.  In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), extreme localism is played for laughs—“half fun and full earnest,” to borrow Andrew Greeley’s phrase.  The more mature Tales of the Long Bow (1924), which might qualify as a sort of proto-steampunk story, treats the idea more seriously, in the form of an oddly high-tech (for 1924) revolt of local liberty against overweening and arbitrary national rule.

The Fragility of Civilization

When we grow up taking for granted the rule of law, we can fail to see how vulnerable it is—along with the civilization that it reflects and makes possible.

“The Establishment,” as they used to say in the 1960s, seems vast and invulnerable.  When we’re trying to make a change, it seems insuperable, so rigid that nothing can be done about it.  But this is an illusion.  The structure of civilization, good and bad, is fragile.  It’s easier than we think to throw away the rule of law, so painfully constructed (as Rod Walker found), in favor of shortcuts or easy answers to our problems.

One thing F&SF have brought us is a better sense of this vulnerability.  The spate of post-apocalyptic tales in recent years—zombie apocalypses, worldwide disasters, future dystopias like The Hunger Games, going all the way back to the nuclear-war stories of the 1950s—do help us appreciate that our civilization can go away.

But that collapse doesn’t require a disaster.  Civilization, and the rule of law, can erode gradually, insidiously, as in the “Long Night” stories we talked about earlier.

Historically, the Sixties counterculture fostered anarchists who felt “the Establishment” was invulnerable.  Often with the best of intentions, they did more to undermine civil order than they expected.  Those who now see no better aim than breaking up the structures of democratic government and civil life—whether from the side of government, or from the grass roots—also fray the fabric of civilization.  The extrapolations of science fiction and fantasy illustrate why eroding the rule of law should not be taken lightly.

Near the bottom of David Brin’s Web home page, he places the following:

I am a member of a civilization

It’s good that we have a rambunctious society, filled with opinionated individualists. Serenity is nice, but serenity alone never brought progress. Hermits don’t solve problems. The adversarial process helps us to improve as individuals and as a culture. Criticism is the only known antidote to error — elites shunned it and spread ruin across history. We do each other a favor (though not always appreciated) by helping find each others’ mistakes.

And yet — we’d all be happier, better off and more resilient if each of us were to now and then say:

“I am a member of a civilization.” (IAAMOAC)

Step back from anger. Study how awful our ancestors had it, yet they struggled to get you here. Repay them by appreciating the civilization you inherited.

It’s incumbent on all of us to cherish and defend the rule of law.  Give up civilization lightly, and we may not have the choice again.

Civilization and Science

The Stars Are Ours!

Andre Norton’s The Stars Are Ours! (1954) was one of my favorite books in early childhood.  Dard Nordis, his young niece Dessie, and her crippled father Lars eke out a living on an impoverished farm under the tyranny of the ironically named “Company of Pax.”  Pax came to power after nationalist forces seized the space stations built by independent-minded Free Scientists and used them to devastate much of the Earth.  Turning people against scientists in a bloody purge, Pax imposed a worldwide dictatorship.  Lars is a former scientist, and the family is suspected by neighbors and “Peacemen” alike.

The Stars Are Ours! coverDard discovers that Lars has been secretly developing a form of suspended animation as the final step in a project carried out by renegade Free Scientists.  Under the current world order, their only hope is to escape Earth altogether.  When Lars is killed, Dard and Dessie make the perilous journey to the Cleft, bringing the secret of Lars’ discovery to the hidden Scientists.  Dard helps fight a desperate rearguard action to hold off attackers while the star ship is prepared.  He is bundled aboard at the last moment and the refugee Scientists take off into the unknown.

And that’s just Part One.

The Defense of Reason

What makes this tale so gripping, for me, is seeing characters with their backs against the wall, defending freedom, human decency, and rationality:  civilization.  The ideal of civilization in this story specifically includes the freedom of inquiry that makes science possible.  That underlying alliance between reason and virtue is all the more powerful because the characters’ means of escape itself involves dramatic scientific advances.

The motif of scientific civilization is, of course, a natural fit for science fiction.  But it’s well-grounded in basic humanity.  Science and technology are what humans do:  not the only thing, but a key element.  Hannah Arendt, among others, spoke of Homo faber, humanity the maker.

The idea of humans as makers and builders is not limited to what we think of advanced technology.  Blacksmithing is technology.  Agriculture is technology.  Using spears against mammoths is technology.  It’s a matter of degree.

As noted above, science is not everything.  We are not only homo faber but also organic beings, the animal laborans, as well as acting persons who relate to each other in uniquely personal ways.  (Not to mention philosophers.)  But in building a civilization, the scientific and technical mind is of great importance.

Science on the Run

Stories that play out the relationship between science and civilization can be tremendously moving.

Fallen Angels book coverLarry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn collaborated on a novel called Fallen Angels (1991), in which the few humans living and working in space stations like the ISS become exiles from an Earth controlled by an essentially anti-scientific government, like Norton’s Pax.  In Chapter Sixteen, “The Last Shuttle,” a character tells the story of the final group of refugee scientists and engineers that made it into orbit.  As in The Stars Are Ours!, they make their escape under attack:

“. . . Mission Control kept feeding corrections to the main computer.  They’re the real heroes, the NASA ground crew.  I never knew their names.”

“Why them?” asked one of the young fans.

“Because they stayed at their posts.”

“But—”

“The mob broke through.”

“Oh.”

“The fighting in Mission Control was hand to hand . . . The crew held on, nobody left, nobody left a console until Enterprise Two was up.”  (pp. 291-92)

Niven and Pournelle called on a similar idea in Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), where isolated groups struggle to hold onto civilization after a disastrous comet impact.  Part of the climax involves the fight to sustain a nuclear power plant, the only remaining source for electricity—and all that electricity makes possible, from hot showers to antibiotics.  Many of the survivors are reluctant to risk their precarious security for this “luxury”—until one of the remaining astronauts shames them into it.

“So.  We’ll live. . . . As peasants! . . . But . . . don’t we want to hope for something better?

“And we’re going to keep slaves,” Delanty said.  “Not because we want to.  Because we need them.  And we used to control the lightning!”  (p. 636)

The Appeal of the Primitive

Of course this high regard for scientific civilization is not the only side of science fiction.  It isn’t even the most prevalent.  All sorts of SF stories preach the dangers of technology instead.  Many of them show a common yearning for a simpler, pre-technological age.

I’ve mentioned that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars—Barsoom—has a peculiarly archaic flavor, as exemplified in the stories’ fondness for swordfighting even when more effective combat technologies are available.  Burroughs’ idealization of the primitive is even more prominent in his more famous creation, Tarzan.  Tarzan is a paradigm of the “natural man,” with an instinctive decency and even chivalry that belies his savage habits.  The Tarzan tales play into a widespread fascination—I’ve got it too, right alongside the enthusiasm for technology—with the ideal of living close to nature and putting aside artificiality.

The Word for World is Forest coverBack-to-nature paradises are endemic in SF, especially when ecological advocacy gets mixed in.  Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972) is a classic example of such a story, as the title alone makes clear.  The movie Avatar (2009) hews to a similar plotline.  Even Norton’s sequel to The Stars Are Ours!, published three years later as Star Born (1957), pits the Terran colonists, now reverted to a more natural lifestyle, against the suspect technology of “Those Others,” in a contrast more characteristic of Norton’s later work.

Sometimes a group seeks to colonize another planet in order to “get away from it all” and return to a more natural lifestyle.  Anne McCaffrey’s Pern was settled in exactly that way.  In Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series, the original colonists of the quasi-fantasy world of Gramarye actually belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism and aimed to set up a society modeled on an idealized Middle Ages.

The subgenre of desert island or castaway stories such as The Swiss Family Robinson frequently showcases an opportunity to live a more primitive life in an island paradise—though “Robinsonades” as a whole include a variety of attitudes toward the primitive.

The Mysterious Island coverYet such desert-island excursions can also provide an opportunity to build your own civilization from scratch, technology and all.  In Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (the 1874 novel, not the maladapted movies), a band of energetic American castaways, headed by a capable engineer, construct a remarkably sophisticated settlement, with such modern conveniences as telegraph lines.  Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955) shows a group of young people stranded on a far planet creating a new society that includes such technology as they can muster—together with close attention to the structure of society and form of government, of which more anon.

Science and Civilization

These latter examples, in contrast to the pull of the primitive, remind us that humans are by nature makers and builders.  For us, technology is natural.  And science, which underlies technology, helps satisfy the fundamental human drive to understand the universe.

In a civilization, science ranges itself on the side of order.  It involves rigorous thought and discovery as a method, and gives rise to reliable technology and innovation as results.  It’s not opposed to a modest degree of chaos—which fuels innovation—but it relies on cultural features like free communication and freedom of speech that are enabled by good organization.

Lest we think of science and reason in terms of Mr. Spock, we need to keep in mind that science and technology do not exclude passion, freedom, or nature.  When rightly carried out, science and reason deliberately provide a place for these goods.  (When wrongly carried out, they can lead to the kinds of cautionary dystopias regularly featured in the back-to-nature subgenres—and all these types, pro and con, are good science fiction.)

When we consider the preconditions of doing science, or of beneficial technologies, we begin to see the connections between scientific civilization and certain kinds of social arrangements.  This leads naturally to our topic for next time—civilization and the rule of law.