Civilization and Chaos

Last time, we talked about Star Trek and Star Wars—but especially Star Trek—as expressing the ideal of a certain type of civilization.  Now we can broaden the range of examples.  Science fiction and fantasy make an excellent laboratory for thought-experiments here, as in so many things.

Staving Off the Fall

The threat that civilization will fail and collapse is a classic way to create a dramatic situation for a SF story.  The most common historical analogue, of course, is the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Foundation's Edge cover artIsaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series (1942-1953) deliberately drew on that model; Asimov had been reading Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  In the Foundation universe, Hari Seldon has developed a science of “psychohistory” that predicts the Galactic Empire’s inevitable decline.  There’s no chance of preventing the fall.  But Seldon’s psychohistory offers a way to cut short the ensuing dark age from thirty thousand years to a single thousand.  The emotional charge of the original Foundation stories centers on the Seldon Plan’s bid to minimize the period of barbarism, with its chaos, violence, tyranny and suffering.  (Later developments of the series, too involved to discuss here, go off in somewhat different directions.)

I’ve mentioned H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, which includes at least one such decline-and-fall.  The novel Space Viking (1963) gives us a whole culture of space-traveling barbarians, raiding the decadent worlds of the old Federation.  The events of the story suggest the hope of a return to lawfulness in the formation of a “League of Civilized Worlds.”  But given Piper’s cyclical theory of history, this initiative will yield no permanent resolution; the story has a happy ending, but the history does not.

Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about Sir Dominic Flandry, a dashing secret agent of the Terran Empire reminiscent of a far-future James Bond (though Flandry first appeared in 1951, Bond in 1953).  When he can spare a moment from chasing women and loose living, Flandry devotes his efforts to shoring up the decaying Empire, though he realizes that in the end the “Long Night” is inevitable.

There’s a certain kind of romance, a mood of grandeur and doom, about these falling empires.  Naturally, they tend toward the somber and the tragic.

Defending Civilization

A more upbeat tone characterizes stories in which the fight to preserve civilization has a chance of succeeding.

Lensman imageIn the Lensman series, E.E. Smith actually refers to the heroes’ multispecies galactic community simply as “Civilization.”  That polity reflects the cooperative, yet freedom-loving, nature of the beneficent Arisians, who have nurtured it in secret over millions of years.  The Lensmen’s opponent is “Boskone,” which originally appears to be a mere conspiracy of space pirates or drug dealers.  When Boskone eventually turns out to be a whole independent culture of its own, based in another galaxy, the conflict becomes one of diametrically opposed cultures, rather than simply of order vs. disorder.

But the Boskonian culture is one of thoroughgoing tyranny, from top to bottom.  At every level, those in power scheme against each other.  Lacking any honor or ethical code, they engage in assassination and undermine each other’s plans.  Those at the bottom are essentially slaves.  The Civilization led by humans, on the contrary, respects human dignity and freedom—although the fact that these cultures have been essentially on a war footing throughout their entire history renders that freedom a little less far-ranging than we might imagine.

The Lensman example reminds us that the defenders of civilization are not always fighting against barbarians.  Autocracy and regimentation bring their own kind of chaos, as lawless warlords battle among themselves, not caring what common folk are trampled in the process.  It’s a particular kind of civilization that’s worth preserving.

This is true whether we’re in the future or the past.  We’ve seen that the power of the Arthurian legend stems partly from the theme of defending order and decency against the chaos that lies in wait.  (We may also mention Arthur’s more historically-based successor, King Alfred, who defended England against the real (not Space) Vikings.)

The embattled Arthurian Camelot is frequently connected with Rome itself, the ur-example.  The Last Legion (book and movie) provides a good example.  The waning Roman presence in Britain, as the Dark Ages set in, is a natural setting for the ideal of the lonely, valiant defender.  One example is brought up indirectly by a character’s name.  As Wikipedia puts it,  “Legio XX Valeria Victrix lends its name to the character Valeria Matuchek in Poul Anderson‘s Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna; her mother is said to describe this legion as the last to leave Britain—‘the last that stood against Chaos.’”

To Valeria’s mother Virginia, “the last that stood against Chaos” is a phrase to conjure with.  That’s true for me, too.

The Right Kind of Order

If civilization represents a certain kind of order—that of the Lensmen, not Boskone—what kind are we talking about?  It’s not always easy to explain.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly around at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.”  The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.  It has done so many things.  But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY:  Image Books, 1959), ch. 6, p. 83)

Chesterton’s random examples do cast some light on the question.  A community that has bookcases has books—implying a continuity of knowledge and literature, as well as the leisure to read them.  Coals to keep one warm in winter suggest both the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the whole machinery of society and technology that brings the fuel from the mine to the fireside.  Pianos reflect art and a developed culture.  And policemen indicate a society in which there is at least some attempt to defend the ordinary citizen against the depredations of the powerful and unscrupulous—the rule of law, of which more anon.

In the particular culture to which I belong, when we hold up a certain sort of civilization as an ideal worth defending, what we have in mind is a good order in which spontaneity and creativity can flourish, and people can live their lives without constant fear or privation.  There’s an order that protects the weak against the strong, but there is also enough looseness for individual variation, experiment, and adaptation.  In the “alignment” terms we discussed last time, you might say the position I’m taking is neutral good, tending to lawful.

Greco-Roman sceneThe classical roots of this ideal are found in the Greek notion of the polis and the Roman notion of civitas.  But it’s been shaped by the whole history of Western thought into what’s sometimes called the “liberal” ideal of a free society—“liberal” not in the political sense, but the root sense of “free.”

There’s one particular aspect of this ideal, though, that science fiction is peculiarly suited to address.  We’ll talk next time about civilization and science.

Fuzzy Future History

Histories of the Future

A science fiction writer can link diverse stories by setting them in a common “history of the future”—an imagined future that might run anywhere from a dozen years to geological eras.  A new tale may not be a direct sequel or prequel, but it can appeal to us in somewhat the same way when it shares a background with a story we’ve enjoyed already.

Using a common future history has great advantages for the writer, as well.  It’s easier to continue developing an established background than to invent something entirely new.   But this approach also has pitfalls.  We may find that later stories evolve to conflict with the background we’ve already set up.  We saw off the branch we were sitting on.

SF author H. Beam Piper‘s “Fuzzy” series gives us a particularly interesting example of the perils of success.

Little Fuzzy

Piper’s intense interest in history led him to outline a vast scheme of human progress and space exploration, now referred to as his “Terro-Human Future History,” in that it deals mostly with human beings of Terran descent.

Piper believed in a cyclical theory of history, in which similar patterns of events recur in different ways.  His Terro-Human Future History is thus full of analogues to actual events:  the Sepoy Mutiny (Uller Uprising), the barbarian invasions of the European Middle Ages (Space Viking).  Piper’s historical scheme covered 6,000 years’ worth of rises and falls, empires and interregnums.

Little Fuzzy book coverLate in his career, Piper won a permanent place in the hearts of SF readers with the novel Little Fuzzy (1962).  Crusty old prospector Jack Holloway on the colony planet Zarathustra discovers a species of small, golden-furred beings, the first of whom he dubs “Little Fuzzy.”  The Fuzzies are primitive hunter-gatherers, perfectly capable of tracking down and killing their food.  But they are also smart, fun-loving, lovable, and an endangered species.

The Chartered Zarathustra Corporation, which runs most of the planet (an analogue of the historical East India Company), takes an intense interest in these little creatures—because its charter depends on the assumption that Zarathustra was an uninhabited world.  When a CZC employee kills one of the Fuzzies, and a company gunman is in turn killed by Jack, it becomes crucial in the subsequent murder trials to decide whether the Fuzzies are truly intelligent persons, or just animals.  The resolution of that issue forms the climax of the story.

Equal parts adventure story, courtroom drama, speculation on the nature of intelligence, and heartwarmer, Little Fuzzy was a hit with readers.  (And it seems likely, I’ve always figured, that the Fuzzies are one of the literary ancestors of the Ewoks.)

Fuzzies Everywhere

Golden Dream book coverThe subsequent literary history of the Fuzzies is exceedingly complex.  Piper published a sequel, Fuzzy Sapiens (or The Other Human Race), two years later.  A third Fuzzy novel had been sent to a publisher when, in November 1964, Piper committed suicide.  The manuscript of the third book was lost.  But reader interest in the Fuzzies led publishers to commission a new Fuzzy sequel by William Tuning, issued in 1981 as Fuzzy Bones.  An overlapping prequel taking off from Tuning’s development of the story, Golden Dream, was written by Ardath Mayhar and appeared the following year.

Ironically, no sooner had these continuations come out than the lost manuscript of the third Piper book was found after all.  Piper’s Fuzzies and Other People (“F&OP”) appeared in 1984.  Unsurprisingly, Piper’s continuation was not consistent with Tuning’s and Mayhar’s, leaving us with two inconsistent, but equally interesting, versions of the Fuzzy mythology.

It’s even worse than that.  At least two different reboots or reimaginings of the Fuzzy mythology have been subsequently published.  A detailed explanation of the whole mess can be found in a 2007 article by Fred Patten, with further information in a Goodreads review of Fuzzy Bones.

Irresistible Cuteness

The great charm of the Fuzzy stories lies in their mixture of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness.  “Pappy Jack” and a whole series of other tough, no-nonsense characters develop unexpected softer sides as they succumb to the irresistible cuteness of the Fuzzies.  In Tuning’s words, “Like many men who were extremely tough, he turned to goo at the sight of those wide, appealing eyes.”

But the Fuzzies aren’t just cute.  Arguably, they are better people than humans.  Fuzzies share without hesitation.  They help each other.  They tell the truth (though this particular trait gets complicated in F&OP).  They’re not competitive, but they do aspire to excellence.  This inherent virtue has its tough side too:  Fuzzies applaud the deserved punishment of evildoers.

More important, for purposes of their long-term effect on human affairs, they aren’t simply an enclave of niceness:  they influence people.  Almost every human who comes in contact with them becomes a better person as a result.  Villains in one story are converted to good guys in the next, once they acquire Fuzzy companions.

Fuzzies and Other People book coverOne character observes in chapter 12 of F&OP:  “we’re hooked.  Hooked on Fuzzies.”  The Fuzzies are making a permanent difference in the quality of human behavior on Zarathustra—not by force, not by persuasion, but simply by being lovable.  It’s not at all the kind of development one would expect from a hardheaded rationalist of Piper’s type.

It’s not what one would have expected of his future history, either.  And that’s the twist I want to point out here.

Can Piper’s Future History Survive the Fuzzies?

When the Fuzzies entered Piper’s future history, it was already well under way.  Four novels and a number of short stories were already in print, and Piper had plans for more.  Many of these stories were set later in time than the events of Little Fuzzy.  And the events of this hypothetical future, as noted above, were built on Piper’s view of cyclical history.  A fundamental change in human behavior would have thrown the whole sequence into disarray.

But the advent of the Fuzzies represented just such a change.  At the end of F&OP, there are plans to take Fuzzies off Zarathustra.  “[E]verybody on Terra will be crazy about them.”  Indeed.  One visualizes Fuzzies spreading throughout the Terran Federation, disseminating goodness and improving human beings wherever they go.

A good thing for those fortunate humans?  Undoubtedly.  But Piper hadn’t set out to write a Utopia.  His later stories depended on the assumption that humans would continue to be the same difficult, ornery creatures they always have been. The innocent-seeming Fuzzies had endangered the whole basis of the Terro-Human Future History.

Piper’s suicide has always been attributed to a certain moodiness combined with financial and personal difficulties.  But I’ve sometimes wondered whether the Fuzzy conundrum might have had something to do with it.  Piper had built a carefully planned future history.  But the more he worked out the implications of the Fuzzy stories, the harder it must have seemed to keep their influence contained in such a way as not to disrupt that careful plan.  With all those stories in print, there was no easy way to resolve the internal contradictions.

We’ll never know about Piper’s personal views.  But we can take the peculiar saga of the Fuzzies as a reminder of how tricky it can be when different types of stories—even good and well-beloved stories—inhabit the same imagined history.