The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

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Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.

The Boot Camp Planet

Training Worlds

Science fiction postulates lots of types of planets—although, for the convenience of humanoid characters, most of the ones shown end up being pretty Earthlike.  (It sometimes seemed that original-series Star Trek planets could be divided into “piles of rocks” and “places exactly like Earth.”  Much easier on the special-effects budget.)  Here I’d like to look at one particular variety—the worlds that serve as training locales for tough guys.

If you want to develop an inhumanly formidable army, you can do it by administering a “super soldier serum,” as in the Marvel comics.  You can do it by postulating a lifetime of intense training, as with Batman.  Or you can do it by throwing your candidates into an environment so fierce that those who survive have to become impossibly “badass” just to live through it.

Dune

Dune, coverWhat TV Tropes calls the “Death World” plays a key role in the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).  One of the things that allows the galactic Emperor in Dune to stay on top in the civilization’s complex politics is his legion of crack troops.  The “Sardaukar” are so formidable that even the highly-trained private armies of the feudal Houses are reluctant to face them.

It turns out that the Sardaukar are recruited from the Emperor’s prison planet, Salusa Secundus—a planet so hostile that only the strongest can live.  “A man who survives Salusa Secundus starts out being tougher than most others.  When you add the very best of military training—”  (Thufir Hawat, p. 370).

But Arrakis, the planet called Dune, is harsher still.  The “Fremen,” the Dune population, appear to be simple barbarian nomads.  But the exigencies of survival in the Dune environment are so demanding that, as one character realizes, the Fremen are actually “an entire culture trained to military order” (283)—an invaluable resource for the main character, Paul Atreides, who needs such a cadre to recapture the holdings and status that the Emperor and Paul’s Harkonnen enemies have illegally taken away.  The Fremen are so tough that even their civilians, “women and children and old men,” can beat full-fledged Sardaukar (454).

It’s suggested at one point that the Fremen come from the same stock as the original inhabitants of Salusa Secundus—transported there at a time when they had “grown soft with an easy planet” elsewhere (352).  That stock may have been hardy to begin with, but it’s clear that the harsh environment is what made the difference.  Part of Paul’s eventual plan to take over the Imperium himself is to neutralize the Emperor’s forces by making Salusa Secundus “a garden world, full of gentle things” (481)—a much pleasanter place for the former Emperor to retire in peace, but no longer a source of formidable warriors.

Arrakis, like Salusa Secundus, tests its people rigorously, winnowing out the weak, toughening up the strong.

Prison Planets and More

We wouldn’t choose to live in so taxing an environment—which is why the population is generally conceived as being there not entirely by their own choice.

Jerry Pournelle’s “CoDominium” future history postulates a future in which a number of worlds are settled by political prisoners and other riffraff who are sent there by the combined U.S.-Russian world government.  Some of the toughest fighters come from Tanith, a demanding jungle planet that is, as Wikipedia puts it, an “infamous dumping ground for transportees.”

Tom Godwin, The Survivors, coverAs a kid, I was fascinated by a Tom Godwin SF novel called The Survivors (1958; also known by the cheesier title Space Prison; reprinted in the 2003 collection The Cold Equations & Other Stories).  A Terran colony ship is waylaid by the Nazi-like Gerns; the useful emigrants are taken as slaves, while the remainder (“Rejects”) are marooned on what the Gerns mockingly describe as an “Earth-type” planet—Ragnarok, with extreme climates, 1.5 times Earth’s gravity, and fantastically dangerous wildlife.  Driven by the goal of avenging themselves and their people, the abandoned colony of “rejects” survives across the generations despite its hardships.  When they finally encounter their nemeses again, the colonists’ descendants have become so formidable that they succeed in overrunning and capturing a Gern battleship.

In a smaller way, the colony planet of Grayson in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series reflects a similar situation.  Grayson started out as a group of settlers seeking a far-off home for religious reasons.  But their ideal planet turned out to have so high a concentration of heavy metals in the environment that indigenous life was poisonous and it was impossible even to live in the open air.  The realities of interstellar travel in that period made it impractical for the settlers to simply abandon the colony; in effect they were stranded by their own incautious choice.  While the Grayson people start out in the second Honor book as a cliché of religious intolerance, Weber’s perspective gradually shifts until they are regarded as tough, honest allies.

James H. Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub future history hints at the notion of an entire approach to human civilization based on a similar principle—especially in the 1968 novel The Demon Breed.  But that’s a more involved topic for another day.

Herbert’s and Pournelle’s notion of “transportation” to inhospitable climes as a punishment, archaic as it may seem, harks back to actual British practices in the 17th through 19th centuries.  The British colony of Australia, the destination of many a transportee, still retains (at least in American mythology) the air of a land where hardship breeds self-reliance & sturdy independence (“Where women glow and men plunder”), as both expressed and satirized in Crocodile Dundee.  TV Tropes’ Death World page actually has a separate section for “Real Life:  Australia.”

Real-Life Analogues

In the real world, we intentionally create harsh environments to toughen up specific groups.

Military “boot camp” is the most obvious example.  I’ve never gone through armed forces training myself, so I can’t speak from personal experience.  But it seems clear that basic training is made intentionally demanding so that the recruit becomes accustomed to hardship and hostility, able to function despite adverse conditions.  We may not have a separate planet to host those conditions, but we can create a closed, artificial environment for the purpose.

Harvard Law School classroomLaw school provides a much less intense case.  The first-year “acclimatization” to law school involves legendary stresses and challenges.  Of course first-year law students are far better off than military recruits, and even the famous pressures of old-time curricula (as described in the 1971 novel and 1973 film The Paper Chase, or Scott Turow’s 1977 One L) had probably diminished by the mid-1980s, when I attended.  But classroom interrogation by the “Socratic method” certainly seems to be designed, in some respects, to intimidate and unsettle the student.

There’s a reason for this.  Most lawyers will find themselves in practices where they face strenuous and unfriendly opposition, whether in court or at the negotiating table.  If you’re not used to that kind of situation, you’ll have a hard time holding your own.  A lawyer has to learn to perform in the give and take of argument, without losing his cool.  The classroom experience is simply the first step in learning how to do this:  beginning to build up the calluses, so to speak, so we don’t crumple at the first sign of opposition.

I have a notion (again, without personal experience) that a doctor’s residency period may serve a somewhat similar purpose.  Doctors in this stage of practice work traditionally long and stressful hours.  It’s possible that this experience is itself a form of training for the emergency situations in which a physician may find herself, taking life-or-death steps under pressure.

Conclusion

In a much broader theological context, it’s sometimes been suggested—in what might be called a “forge of souls” theodicy—that evil in the world has the function of building character in a way that could not be otherwise achieved.  In some sense, the universe as a whole may be a training camp of sorts.

While the “boot camp world” idea isn’t likely to deal with the problem of evil all by itself, it does provide science fiction writers with a way to push human beings to their maximum potential—creating the larger-than-life characters and institutions that make our fantastic stories so striking, even more than gee-whiz technology and exotic settings.

Science and Swordplay

Bringing a Sword to a Blaster Fight

Since advanced weapons are available in much science fiction—the famous “ray gun” is iconic—it’s surprising how often a fight comes down to the humble, and archaic, sword.

You’d think this would be a classic case of “brings a knife to a gunfight.”  Why doesn’t the blade-wielding attacker get wiped out immediately by an opponent with, say, advanced automatic weapons?  How does a science fiction setting justify the continued usefulness of swords—and why?

Let’s look at some examples.

Swordsmen of Mars

A Princess of Mars coverEdgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories are full of noble heroes engaging in swashbuckling swordfights with the foul villains.  (Those who haven’t read the books may have seen the flawed, but underrated, movie adaptation “John Carter [of Mars]” a few years ago.)  This is despite the fact that most of these warriors are also equipped with guns firing explosive radium bullets.  Why don’t they use their guns?

As the Wikipedia article points out, on Barsoom (Mars) “it is considered unchivalrous to defend with any weapon but the one used in an attack (or a lesser one).”  This allows the good guys to stick to their swords, and also let the bad guys show their unchivalrous villainy by trying to use more advanced weapons.  Since Burroughs’ characters do tend to behave in ways that reflect what we think of as an archaic code of honor, there’s some plausibility to this explanation.  (The first book was published in 1912; there’s been a lot of cultural water under the bridge since then.)

Glory Road

Glory Road coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s tongue-in-cheek Glory Road (1963), a recently-discharged veteran, whose expertise happens to include fencing, is recruited by “the most beautiful woman in any world” for a mission in one of the “Twenty Universes.”  In that particular universe, the laws of nature are different:  firearms and explosives don’t work.  But blades do.  This gives us a traditional sword-swinging hero (whom Heinlein can then merrily deconstruct throughout the story).

Heinlein also makes the point that a blade can be useful, no matter how advanced your technology, in close-quarters combat; which is (I assume) why today’s soldiers still occasionally use bayonets.

A similar gunpowder-won’t-work-in-this-universe situation is set up by Roger Zelazny in his Chronicles of Amber, where Zelazny’s immortal hero, Corwin, is among other things a master swordsman.  However, in The Guns of Avalon, Corwin solves the problem by finding a universe where there’s a gunpowder analogue that does work where regular firearms do not.  Both Glory Road and Amber make it hard to decide whether we’re reading science fiction or fantasy—which is par for the course where SF swordplay is involved.

Dune

Dune coverThe climax of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune (1965)—after atomic explosions, an attack by immense sandworms, and a clash of unbeatable armies—comes down to, you guessed it, a one-on-one fight with blades.  Herbert gives us a combination of reasons to work with.  His characters learn fencing because their personal force shields stop fast-moving projectiles, such as bullets, but are less effective against relatively slower attacks, such as a sword thrust.  This is a clever science-fictional reason to preserve the swordfighting trope.  Cultural factors also enter in.  The final duel specifically occurs because, as in Burroughs, there are formal rules of vendetta or kanly that allow for such single combat.

You can see the Dune swordfights in video adaptations:  the 1984 movie by David Lynch, or a 2000 mini-series on the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel.

Star Wars

Luke and Vader, lightsabers crossedOf course the case with which most of us are familiar is the famous Jedi Knight “lightsaber” in the Star Wars stories.  Knights, of course, have to carry swords, and Lucas has made the lightsaber an iconic emblem of his universe.  What makes a sword-like weapon useful here is that the Jedi Knights can actually use them to deflect, or even redirect, gunfire (“blaster” bolts).  Personally, I’ve always felt that the only way this could possibly work is that precognition allows the Jedi a moment’s unconscious awareness of where and when the next bolt will come.  No one’s reflexes or muscles could possibly be fast enough to intercept something that fast without foreknowledge.

The Attractions of Swordplay

We’ve seen several ways to justify the use of swords in a high-tech science fiction environment.  It’s a separate question why authors and readers enjoy such scenes.

I think one reason is that sword-to-sword combat allows for a personal engagement more effectively than a gun duel.  Much has been said about the depersonalization inherent in the use of long-distance weapons.  In a genuine battle, we may pragmatically seek the most effective means to prevail, whether personal or impersonal.  But in a story, individual characters, and the drama of their interactions, are at the fore.  A person-to-person duel between hero and villain is more viscerally satisfying than wiping out the opponent at a distance.

The sword also has a long history of symbolic and evocative significance.  We noted above, for example, that the use of sword can call up in a reader’s or viewer’s mind a whole chivalric or feudal milieu.  This is merely one of the deliberately archaic tropes Lucas brought back in the original “Star Wars.”

Using a sword also requires more physical skill, strength, and endurance than using a gun. It’s been pointed out that one of the ways the development of firearms changed the nature of war was by enabling lightly-trained recruits to fight competently, without the lifetime’s training needed to make a good swordsman.  If a story wants to show off the physical excellence and expertise of the combatants, a swordfight will do this better than a gunfight.

Of course, pure bare-handed martial-arts combat, or fighting with other melee weapons like staves or maces, can accomplish the same things—which is why we frequently see these, too, making their appearance incongruously in SF contexts.

Flag in Exile swordfight sceneFinally, a swordfight may be more prolonged than a gunfight, because blades can do more gradual damage than bullets and thus allow for longer duels, intensifying the drama.  This isn’t always the case.  In the page on Single-Stroke Battle, TV Tropes observes that “[r]eal sword fights often take only a few seconds or even a fraction of a second, with one solid hit generally being enough to take a man out of the fight (contrast this with Flynning).”  One thinks of the powerful scene toward the end of David Weber’s Flag in Exile where Honor Harrington does in fact cut short a lengthy duel with one blow.  But this is precisely where an author can set up the desired situation to best advantage.

No matter how much futuristic SF may pervade our storytelling, then, we’re not likely to see the humble sword retired any time soon.

The Internet Strikes Back

Occasionally, science fiction can’t avoid being shaped by actual facts.  Usually these are scientific facts, but sometimes economic, social, and even legal factors play a role.  It’s illuminating to look at the recent court decision on “network neutrality,” or “Internet open access,” from a science fictioneer’s point of view.

The question of “net neutrality,” or whether Internet service providers (ISPs) such as telecommunications and cable companies can control what people send and receive over the Internet, has been in play since at least 1998.  The Internet first became accessible to the general public by dial-up service over the public switched telephone network in the mid-1990s (who can remember the once-familiar sound of a dial-up modem connecting?).  Since the telephone system was a common carrier like a railroad or the Postal Service, required to carry anyone’s traffic as long as it didn’t harm the network, there was initially no question of the carriers’ controlling anyone’s Internet communications.  But when people began shifting to “broadband” Internet service over cable systems, which had not traditionally been treated as common carriers, new questions arose.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried three times to establish some kind of rules of the road that would prevent ISPs from blocking or altering people’s Internet communications.  Third time lucky:  on June 14, 2016, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. upheld the FCC’s 2015 “Open Internet Order.”  The decision was published as United States Telecom Association v. FCC, __ F. 3d ___ (D.C. Cir. June 14, 2016) (USTA).

 

The ISPs like to frame the dispute in terms of the FCC’s “regulating the Internet.”  Actually, it’s almost the reverse.  All the FCC rules do is prevent the ISPs from regulating the Internet—from controlling what individual users can see on the Web and what they say in messages.  It would be more accurate to say that FCC is setting up rules that foster a free market.  This is why the technology industry, except for carriers and their proxies, is generally in favor of net neutrality.

Like many other tech-driven changes explored in science fiction, our ability to use the Internet has far-reaching consequences.  The court observed:  “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”  (p. 26)

This particular change wasn’t often investigated by SF.  You can find early depictions of something like the Internet.  Characters in James H. Schmitz’s 1960s-1970s Federation of the Hub stories use a network presciently dubbed the “ComWeb,” both to communicate and to access information, as one commentator remarked, “on ‘Internet time.’”  The cyberpunk genre deals with world-wide networks—but I don’t recall a story where the neutrality issue played a role.  (On the other hand, I haven’t read all that much cyberpunk.)  Some stories show the Internet “waking up”—Internet as artificial intelligence:  for instance, Spider Robinson’s “Solace” in Callahan’s Legacy, “Webmind” in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake.  But that’s another matter entirely.  In most of these stories, the network is just there; control over it by the ISPs isn’t an issue.

But, like a science fiction thought-experiment, the net neutrality controversy shows some of the qualities a modern society needs in a communications system.  For example—

  • Transmission integrity—trustworthiness.  If the system arbitrarily changes the information passing through it, it won’t be very useful either for trade or for speech.  As the USTA court said:  “the Commission explained that ‘[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit “information of the user’s choosing,” “between or among points specified by the user,”’ without changing the form or content of that information.  2015 Open Internet Order, 30 FCC Rcd. at 5761 ¶ 361 (quoting 47 U.S.C. § 153(50)).”
  • Universality (which implies affordability).  This was a key feature of the original telephone monopoly—the “social contract” under which the Bell System was allowed a legislative monopoly in return for providing universal service at regulated rates.

Much of the battle over net neutrality revolves around visions of the kind of alternate futures that might result from different legal regimes.  The FCC’s rules, which act to clear a space for free action and competition, are designed to ward off certain kinds of problems that could develop in such alternate futures.

First among those problems is the economic dominance that can be gained through gatekeeper control of communications.  A cabal of ISPs that controlled all communications could prevent entry by competitors; “pick winners and losers,” deciding which new companies and products would succeed; and siphon off the profits from such new and innovative enterprises, right down to the level where a company that relies on communications can barely break even.  Thus, although the ISPs fully recover the network’s costs from end users’ payments (Americans pay more for lower speeds than in many developed countries), they also seek to be paid by the “edge providers” whose Web sites we visit, not only for those companies’ own Internet connections but also for the pure privilege of reaching the ISPs’ subscribers—in other words, to be paid three times for the same network.

In a free market, it’s essential to have a common medium in which trade can take place.  We analogize the Internet to the streets and roads of our transportation system; but if someone owned the only road leading to your home, and could bar certain traffic at will (including mail delivery), they’d have you over a barrel.

We do see examples of this kind of economic dominance by a few organizations in SF stories, though not usually in the communications realm.  In Dune, when the Spacing Guild joins the alliance against the Atreides family, the game is up—the Guild has a monopoly on interstellar travel.  In Heinlein’s Friday, the Shipstone company controls (stored) energy—and in Heinlein’s much more concise short story “Let There Be Light,” we see how entrenched interests can prevent disruptive innovation.  In a similar way, a cartel that controlled communications—without neutrality requirements—in our information-centric society could establish an economic oligarchy.  There are some fascinating stories to be written there . . .

It’s an illusion to think that in the absence of all regulation, we would have free independent individuals trading with each other on an equal basis.  What we’d have is warlords fighting over slices of a steadily shrinking pie.  One of the functions of the rule of law is to create a space in which a free market can exist—to establish the preconditions for free interaction by all economic players.  This is true of enforceable contract law in trade (just as similar principles require enforceable traffic laws on the roads).  A novel example of how legal protections create reliable conditions for trade is the notion of setting up well-policed areas where people who buy and sell online can meet to exchange their goods, without having to fear being robbed—an “Exchange Zone for Online Purchases.”

To gain the advantages of the Internet’s “flat distribution model,” in which even a small business can buy and sell worldwide without having to make major capital investments, one must be able to communicate freely and inexpensively.  The USTA court noted that “[a]ccording to the Commission [FCC], such rules encourage broadband deployment because they ‘preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet.’”  (p. 17, citing Verizon, 740 F.3d at 628)

But we also use the Internet to create pathways for speech—a central First Amendment interest.

Some ISPs—Verizon in an earlier case, Alamo Broadband in the USTA proceeding—have argued that their own First Amendment rights forbid any imposition of net neutrality rules.  Their position is that on the networks they control, they are the “speakers”—and they cannot be compelled (as a common carrier) to transmit any speech they don’t want to carry.  In other words, when you use your Verizon Internet account to read the latest article by your favorite columnist, it isn’t the columnist whose speech is protected by law:  it’s Verizon’s.  And when you e-mail your best friend your opinions on the upcoming election, it isn’t you speaking—it’s Verizon who can exercise “editorial control” over how your message comes out at the other end.  According to this argument, if you wrote “I love Obama” (or Trump, or Sanders, or Hitler), the ISP could substitute “I hate . . .”  It’s their speech.

Fortunately, the USTA court declined to accept this argument.  If the ISPs had prevailed, the results would have been ironic.  It would have been imperative to build a government-owned network at once, one that people could use to communicate without interference—because governments are forbidden by the First Amendment from controlling people’s speech.  And by the same token, the ISPs would have been forced to police every Web site they delivered to subscribers, from pornography to political opinions—since they would be the speakers.

This scenario sounds as absurd as some science-fictional extrapolations.  But in a world where tyrannies around the globe are doing their best to exercise exactly such speech control by acting as Internet gatekeepers, it’s not hard to imagine ISPs doing the same thing.  And it’s hard to say which would be worse.

 

In sum, the FCC and the court have taken the right path in this case.  The alternatives could make extremely interesting ideas for stories.  But unlike the thought-experiments of SF, this is a real-life experiment, with actual consequences.  It’s important that we get it right.