Looking Backward/Looking Forward

One of the things that distinguishes science fiction and fantasy is the direction they look to for greatness.  In SF, we expect things will be better and greater in the future than they are now.  In fantasy, the great days are behind us.

Change

Both F&SF recognize that things change over time.  Empires rise and fall; discoveries are made and lost; human ability to control the environment expands or contracts.  Both of them help counterbalance our mental inertia and remind us that things will not always be as they are now.

Our present era is particularly alert to changeability.  “Disruption” is the watchword of today’s businesses, and Moore’s Law reminds us that technology can be expected to improve.  But the two kinds of literature tend to look in opposite directions.

The Bright Future

Modern science fiction started out by anticipating scientific and technological advances.  New inventions like the railroad and the telegraph suggested further developments like flight and advanced weaponry.  This is so obvious that we might overlook the key assumption—that we will know more, and be able to do more, as time goes on.

Brad Paisley, "Welcome to the Future"

Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”

The trend has a familiar resonance, after all, in our own experience.  As individuals grow up, they learn more and become more able.  Shouldn’t we expect society to do the same?  Stories of wonderful inventions and daring discoveries were the meat and drink of early modern SF.

Of course, “more powerful” does not automatically mean “better.”  But a future dystopia presented an extraordinary menace precisely because advanced technology or social change could allow a tyranny to expand its oppression.  The two-way television sets of Nineteen Eighty-Four made it possible for a government to observe its citizens’ private lives at any time.  Now that such surveillance is actually practical, we are grappling with the issues of privacy and security that Orwell’s novel raised hypothetically.

The notion of technological progress in SF was reinforced by the parallel of biological evolution.  Primitive forms of life, from one-celled microorganisms to dinosaurs, develop into today’s dominant humans; the future may see further evolution into some superhuman being.  While the idea of evolution by natural selection does not actually imply that later creatures are “better” than earlier ones—they are simply better adapted to recent conditions—it has been almost irresistible, in SF and elsewhere, to assume that later species are improvements on their predecessors.  (The traditional way of fudging this issue is to refer to the later creatures as “higher” forms of life, which suggests “better” without quite saying so.)

The Past Glories

In classic high fantasy, on the other hand, the present day tends to be presented as a come-down from the great days of old.  The Golden Age is in the past; we understand less, and can do less, than our predecessors.

The Silmarillion, coverThe archetypal example, of course, is The Lord of the Rings.  The War of the Ring (taking place in the “Third Age” of the world) is small potatoes by comparison to the immense conflicts of the First Age (depicted in The Silmarillion), no matter how cataclysmic it appears to those involved.  The heroes of the First Age are of legendary stature; Aragorn modestly points out that he is not a hero on the same scale as his ancestors Elendil and Isildur.  The most powerful weapons, such as Gandalf’s sword Glamdring, are handed down from an earlier era.  No one in the Third Age, we gather, could craft such weapons.  The downward trend even continues forward from the time of the story.  The Elves are leaving Middle-earth, the Age of Men is coming, and we’re led to expect a gradually more mundane (if perhaps safer) world from which the colorful magic and variety of LotR are absent.

Robert Jordan’s immense fantasy series The Wheel of Time operates on the same pattern.  The story is set in a world where the vast powers and knowledge of the Age of Legends, three thousand years before, are largely lost.  The magic that remains is far less capable and much less well-understood than in ancient days.  Relics left over from the Age of Legends, if one can discover how to use them, have powers vastly greater than anything contemporary characters can exercise on their own.

Camber of Culdi cover

From the Deryni series

The earliest books in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series take place in a world where the magic-wielding Deryni have been largely pushed into hiding, and even those still active hardly understand their own powers.  Later on, Kurtz wrote prequel stories set in that earlier era when Deryni magic was in common use.  Seeing for the first time that earlier, more civilized era produced a fascinating effect—as did the publication of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, decades after LotR.

In a similar way, when Lucasfilms released Episode I of Star Wars—the first of the prequels—we had a chance to see for ourselves what Episode IV had called “a more civilized age.”  The appearance of this fantasy trope reminds us that Star Wars has a good deal in common with high fantasy, despite its spaceships and droids.

There’s a psychological basis or resonance for fantasy’s backward gaze.  As children, we are wards of larger people whose knowledge and power far exceed our own.  We grow into adulthood ourselves eventually—but it’s still hard to feel equal to our parents’ generation, because we don’t feel all-powerful and all-knowing when we get there.  We’re too aware of our own limitations.  So as our parents move offstage and we take over the reins, there’s a vague sense that the Great Ones of the past are gone and the world has devolved upon our more modest powers.  Remember when you were a high-school freshman, and the seniors who ran clubs and activities seemed larger than life?  When you yourself were a senior, you weren’t larger than life; it was hard to feel equal to the older leaders you remember.

Mixing Things Up

Having noted this very broad general tendency—SF looks forward, fantasy looks back—we can say a word or two about the numerous exceptions and nuances.

You can get interesting results when you mix things up.  Another classic SF trope is the discovery that some great vanished civilization or species preceded our own.  They may seem godlike to us; our own people may even have considered them gods, if there was an overlap in time (see the first Thor movie).  Here we get some of the high-fantasy ambiance mixed in with regular futuristic SF tropes, for a distinctive overall feel—as, for example, in many of Andre Norton’s later novels.  We may learn from the Forerunners’ technology, or we may make use of it without understanding it, as in Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series or Poul Anderson’s The Avatar.

If there’s a collapse of civilization, we ourselves may be the fabled precursors, whose lost technology must now be rediscovered.  Any number of post-apocalyptic stories take this tack.  In A.E. van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom, a far-future priesthood uses power sources and spacecraft it barely understands—until the genius Clane Linn appears on the scene.  SF can also show us decline from a lost golden age.  It’s significant, though, that the SF story tends to be set at a point where we’re going back onto an upward trend after the collapse, beginning to reinvent or recover lost arts and abilities.

Dragonflight coverAnne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern stories throw us a sort of double-reverse.  The opening story Dragonflight feels like a fantasy, with its dragons, its medieval-style technology, and its feudal society.  But the introduction makes clear that this is a human colony on another planet that has lost (or given up) its technology—the story is really science fiction.  When the characters begin reinventing devices like the telegraph, there’s a fascinating sense of acceleration and change that plays simultaneously against the fantasy atmosphere and the SF basis of the story.

Conclusion

Reading both fantasy and science fiction helps us gain a balanced perspective.  Great days may be behind us, in the Age of Legends.  They may be ahead of us, in the Age of Tomorrow.  Or even today may be a moment of greatness, by contrast to where we’ve come from or where we’re going.  As Carly Simon once put it, “these are the good old days.”

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Useful Simple Things

Inventing the Everyday

What are the best inventions of the 20th century?  I’m sometimes inclined to nominate the Ziploc bag.  (The generic name, apparently, is “zipper storage bag.”)  An inexpensive airtight, watertight, reusable bag—it has a thousand uses.

Ziploc bagRunner-ups (at least for geeky types who dote on office supplies) include the Post-It note, which allows removable annotation of papers and other objects.  I use them for bookmarks in magazines, with the added bonus that you can write on them to list pages for later reference.  And then there’s Velcro (all right, “hook and loop fasteners”), popularized in the space program, and beloved of small children who haven’t learned to tie their shoes.

Computers?  Atomic energy?  Spaceflight?  Sure.  But while no one has yet (alas) offered to put me on a spaceship, I use Ziploc bags every day.  Sometimes it’s the small everyday innovations that do the most to make our lives easier.

When we’re developing the setting for a science fiction or fantasy story, we may focus on big showy stuff, like the Ringworld or light-sabers.  But whether we’re dealing with technology or with magic, we also need to think through how the principles embodied in those big inventions may affect more mundane activities.

Making Bathrooms Unnecessary

Sherwood Smith, Inda, coverIn Sherwood Smith’s world of Sartorias-deles, magic has been known for thousands of years, and is used in some form by practically everybody.  For example, as soon as possible, at about four years of age, a child is taught the Waste Spell.  As the entry in the glossary explains:  “these few syllables, whispered when a human being lets go of waste, gets rid of it.  Waste includes vomit, and with a syllable attached, menses.”  Babies have to have diapers changed, as usual.  But once the child learns the Waste Spell, it’s no longer an issue.

Imagine the implications.  No latrines, no chamberpots.  No scenes in which women go off to the bathroom together to compare notes on their dates.  No sewer systems.  Less disease.  That single innovation could make significant changes in the story mechanics.

Smith’s simple magics also include enspelled water buckets that clean and sanitize anything dipped in them, and “cleaning frames” through which clothing and such can be passed to cleanse them instantly.  The work of medieval-style drudges who might otherwise spend hours rinsing clothes in rivers and beating them dry on rocks just became vastly easier.

Then there’s the other end of the alimentary canal.

Larry Niven, Neutron Star, coverLarry Niven’s Known Space stories include teleportation in the form of “stepping discs.”  Step on one of these sidewalk spots and you’re instantly transferred a block down the street, or to the vestibule of a friend’s home.  That’s the snazzy futuristic effect.

But in one story (“Flatlander,” in the collection Neutron Star) Niven’s character Beowulf “Bey” Shaeffer visits the home of a new buddy, “Elephant,” who happens to be one of the richest men on Earth.  Elephant hands Bey a drink—in “a glass which would not empty.  Somewhere in the crystal was a tiny transfer motor connected to the bar.”  The motor teleports more beer into the glass as the original supply is consumed.  Bey dryly observes that the gizmo “must have tricked good men into acute alcoholism.”  The same trick appears courtesy of Dr. Strange, using magic rather than technology, in Thor:  Ragnarok.

Missing the Implications

On the other hand, if a writer fails to recognize that some invented technology can be used in ordinary but life-changing ways, we may end up with a plot hole—what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic,” the kind of problem you think of half an hour after the show is over, while you’re getting something from the fridge.  “Why didn’t they just—”

We might wonder, for instance, why they don’t have personal-sized force shields in Star Wars, to protect individuals the way the ships are protected.  They had them in Dune.  A nice personal force shield would not only change the whole nature of blaster and light-saber combat; it would also make umbrellas unnecessary.  (Not that umbrellas are much needed on Tatooine, to be sure.)

Actually, I haven’t come up with a lot of examples of this kind.  That might be a testament to the thoroughness of writers, but it’s probably also got a lot to do with the vagaries of my memory.  Anybody have a good case study where there’s a technology or magic that ought to make a major difference in how people live, but that difference is missed in the story?

Limitations

There can also be good explanations as to why an innovation doesn’t affect daily life.  If a magic or technology is rare, difficult, costly, or dangerous, it won’t be used casually for everyday things.  In the Niven story, the fabulously wealthy Elephant has these self-refilling glasses, but the well-traveled Beowulf Shaeffer has never seen one before; we can infer that they’re hideously expensive.

Similarly, if the necessary equipment is bulky or consumes a great deal of power, it may not be feasible to use the technique in small-scale applications.  That might explain the absence of personal force shields in Star Wars:  perhaps the generators, like steam engines, can’t readily be scaled down to belt-buckle size.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverThis is actually a plot point in Asimov’s Foundation series.  The grandiose Empire had massive force-shields, but only the Foundation’s emissaries have personal versions.  “We have force-shields—huge, lumbering powerhouses that will protect a city, or even a ship, but not one, single man.”  (Foundation, part V, “The Merchant Princes,” ch. 10)  The nascent Foundation, working with severely limited resources, had to invent smaller shields—just as American satellites in the early days of the space program developed miniaturization techniques that the Soviets, with their larger boosters, didn’t need.

Real Life

There are plenty of real-life cases where mundane innovations make possible noteworthy changes in lifestyle.  Modern business life, with its exact schedules and appointments, would not have been possible before the invention of the wrist- or pocket-watch—and in a form that was not only portable, but inexpensive enough for the average person to own.  Only the invention of the elevator, and its nearly fail-safe operation, made skyscrapers practical.

Consider the smartphone.  All of a sudden, almost everyone in many sectors of society has with them at all times not just instant voice communication, but also a flashlight, a calculator, an up-to-date map with position location—and access to a world-spanning library of information.  If these were separate devices, they’d require Batman’s utility belt to carry.  As it is, one simply slips this electronic Swiss army knife into a pocket.

We’re still getting used to the consequences.  But one thing that’s clear is that the ubiquitous smartphone makes for changes in how stories have to be written.  For example, when I wrote a story in which a teenage girl runs away from home, I had to establish that while she had her phone with her, she’d accidentally left the charger at home—so that by the time people thought to locate her by her phone, its battery was dead.  In another ten years, ubiquitous facial recognition might make it even harder to go on the run.

Grand-scale innovations, whether magical or technical, are the meat and drink of F&SF.  Everyday innovations are the humble bread and water.  But the plausibility of a story may depend on the minor as much as on the major applications.

Rings and Death Stars

Death StarWhy is Star Wars so fond of Death Stars?  What’s the mysterious attraction of this plot device?  (And no, it isn’t a tractor beam.)

Vast Plots and Concentrated Resolutions

The trouble with galaxy-spanning conflicts is that their resolution tends to be spread across years of time and vast regions of space, with armies of characters involved.  No single battle won World War II, though one can while away enjoyable hours debating the importance of this or that engagement.  No single hero won the American Revolution.

But in a story, we focus on certain characters, and a limited series of events.  We can’t cover every fight and everyone’s contributions (though some authors seem determined to  try).  This is so even in a series of doorstopper novels; it’s even more true of a two-hour movie.  How, then, can we give readers or viewers the satisfaction of seeing the overall conflict resolved?

One answer is to give up telling the whole story of the war or conflict, and just trace the tale of a few characters through the tapestry of events.  This is the technique of Gone With the Wind or Titanic, and it works very well.  We gain an appreciation of the whole through the experiences of a few people.  But we don’t get the additional satisfaction of seeing the entire campaign come to a climax.

To show the audience that climax, we need to focus the storyline so that the campaign can get resolved in a single concentrated set of actions, ideally carried out by a few individuals.  If we can rig things so that everything turns on a single crucial event, we can enjoy the overall resolution and enhance the achievements of Our Heroes.

Turning Points

Black hole wireframe, converging linesI don’t know what the best term is for this kind of crux or turning point.  I keep thinking of it as a “bottleneck,” or a gate that all the plot lines have to pass through—but “bottleneck” suggests a blockage, which isn’t the idea at all.  The military notion of a “choke point”—a narrow passage through which an armed force must pass—is closer.  Science fiction sometimes uses the term “Jonbar hinge” (named after an old SF story) for a crucial point at which the past can be changed—but that’s in a time travel context, rather than in the story’s present.

Whatever we call it, this is the action, almost always constituting the story’s climax, that solves the key conflict and lets everything wrap up neatly.  Concentrating the whole burden of the plot into one critical event has an effect similar to that of Aristotle’s dramatic unities of time, place, and action.

Let’s look at some examples.

Star Wars

In three of the Star Wars movies (IV, VI, and VII), blowing up one Big Object forms the climax.  We’re given to believe that if the original Death Star is operational, the Rebellion is doomed; destroying the Death Star doesn’t give the Rebellion a permanent victory, but at least the good guys can continue fighting.  The second Death Star’s destruction (Return of the Jedi) has more far-reaching effects, because the Emperor is on board and dies as part of the same action.  Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens is a similarly crucial danger.

There’s another “single point of failure” in the first prequel, The Phantom Menace.  The irresistible invading army of droids is run from a single control ship in orbit.  Once Our Heroes destroy the control ship, the droids all go dead.  In one stroke, the invasion is ended.  And we can still get home from the theatre before bedtime.

Geography and Control

Guns of Navarone, cannon & seascapeThis kind of blow-it-up plot isn’t restricted to F&SF.  Terrestrial geography makes it even easier to position a crucial fortress or facility in a key spot.  The World War II classic The Guns of Navarone turns on just such an installation.  The whole story is about destroying that one fortress.  (Well, and about the characters involved—but that’s true of most good fiction.)

In fact, it’s much harder to create a spatial choke point in featureless three-dimensional space—which is why the original Battlestar Galactica’s rip-off of Navarone (the double episode “Gun on Ice Planet Zero”) is so implausible.  The Wikipedia summary begins:  “Herded into a confined area of space by the Cylons” —but confined by what?  This is why space adventures typically turn on something other than geography.

Independence Day, crashed city destroyerA more mobile fortress can be a plot bottleneck if it serves a critical function—say, power or control.  We saw that in The Phantom Menace.  The same device is used in Independence Day, where everything depends on the immense mother ship.  You can use its computer system to lower the force shields on the city-destroyers thousands of miles away; and when Our Heroes deliver a single A-bomb to blow it up, all the other invader craft fail as well.  Convenient.

Hive Minds

If we’re dealing with an imaginary science fiction or fantasy opponent, we can also fall back on the classic trope of the hive mind—a culture centered around a single queen or other crucial individual, as in an ant colony.  Kill the queen, and the other ants are no longer a problem.  As TV Tropes observes:  “This plot device is handy as it allows a handful of heroes to win the war without having to depict them fighting off the entire enemy force.”

Star Trek’s Borg fall into this category—at least, as depicted in the film First Contact.  The Borg Collective has a Queen; destroying the Queen apparently disposes of the Borg menace as a whole.

One can see the intrusion of the hive-queen idea in the 1994 movie version of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters.  In the novel, Earth is invaded by “slugs” from space, which attach themselves to humans and take over their minds.  To defeat the slugs, the defenders use a disease that kills the slugs without immediately killing their human hosts.  But since this is a specific infection, not the generalized bacteria of The War of the Worlds, a massive operation involving thousands of people is required to distribute the disease to the whole slug-ridden population.  Heinlein specifically notes that even after the victory, “there is no way to be sure that the slugs are all gone” (ch. 35)—adding a sobering note of realism.

The movie, along with numerous other changes, introduces the entirely un-Heinleinian notion of a hive and a “mother slug.”  The whole slug invasion is kept so confined and centralized that a single quick operation can get them all.  The resolution seems too facile, too easy, especially if you’re familiar with the book.  (A fascinating article by screenwriter Terry Rossio details how the original story for the film, which stuck close to the novel, was hijacked by the Hollywood movie-making process and turned into something quite different.)

One Ring to Rule It All

Fall of Sauron (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien illustration by Ted Nasmith

The classic example of the crucial plot hinge is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien handles it well:  he builds up the Ring throughout the story to make it the one thing on which victory or defeat turns.  We learn that Sauron has placed much of his power in the Ring, which means that if it’s destroyed, much of his power will vanish.  The Tower of Barad-Dûr and other structures were made with the One Ring’s power, and fall with its destruction.  The Ringwraiths were given their power by Sauron’s control of the nine human rings through the One (“One Ring to rule them all”).  Sauron’s armies of orcs and humans are evidently held to a single purpose by Sauron’s will.  Sauron himself, and all his works, are destroyed with the Ring.  The groundwork for this crux has been laid so thoroughly that we accept the completeness of the destruction, and the victory, as the proper consummation of the epic narrative.

Tolkien, like Heinlein, adds a note of realism.  There will be orcs hiding in remote places long after the end of the War of the Ring, though they will never be the threat they were under Sauron.  And the end of Sauron is by no means the end of all evil, as depicted especially in the chapter titled “The Scouring of the Shire.”  The heroes’ victory is satisfying, but it’s not absolute.

The LotR climax is only one example of the trope in which killing the final enemy causes his works to fail as well.  This is the assumption TV Tropes calls “No Ontological Inertia”:  the villain’s creations depend on the villain for their existence.  Kill the Big Bad, and his lair collapses, his minions flee, and his deeds may be undone.

Conclusion

We see the Death Star-like plot bottleneck especially in fantasy and science fiction, where the author can design species and mechanisms to create the dependencies that make the plot solvable in a single event.  But it can also appear in mainstream works, as The Guns of Navarone demonstrates.

The choke point is a great plot convenience.  Real life tends to be messier.  For that reason, the author has to take care to make the bottleneck believable, so the result is a concentrated climax and not an artificial, deus ex machina solution.

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.