Science Fiction’s Progress to Nihilism

The following essays counts as the musings of a novice better versed in history than science fiction.  To illustrate the point, my list of most read science fictions authors consists of Jules Verne, C. S. Lewis, and Gene Wolfe.  I lean far more towards fantasy.  Nevertheless, I like to ponder some ideas about the historical context behind the waxing and waning of science fiction as a genre.  For, one cannot help but notice that science fiction has lost popularity vis-à-vis fantasy.  Once again, my reading in science fiction is but slight, and the comments posted after the article may be far more illuminating; but, let me get our dear readers’ gears turning.

Jules-Verne-007If we look at the birth and death years of the Father of Science Fiction, Jules Verne (1828 – 1905), we see that they extend through most of the 19th century into the Progressive Era and cease nine years before the outbreak of WWI.  As 18th century thought was marked by individualism and liberty, the 19th century is marked by the rise of nationalism and collectivism.  Jules Verse was born thirteen years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which unleashed the forces of nationalism and democracy across Europe.  The greatest conflict of nationalism vs. localism counts as the American Civil War, pitting the nationalist Northerners against their sectional Southern brethren.  Jules Verne’s novels feature a great affection for Americans–more specifically Northerners and Yankees, who count as the main characters in The Mysterious Island and From Earth to the Moon.  The zeitgeist of the North was more in line with the spirit which Jules Verne inherited from the French Revolution and which Verne imbued his novels.Union Soldier with Repeater

The two chief means of bettering international prestige in the 19th century counted as military prowess and scientific progress.  The interplay of these two things appear in From Earth to the Moon, where The Gun Club constantly worked at bettering Union cannon but with the end of the Civil War must turn to peacetime goals for this technology.  And, indeed, the North showed more technological innovations in their armaments during the war, including things like repeating rifles and brass cartridges.  (Though, the South did develop the first successful attack submarine–the C.S.S. Hunley, which was unfortunately a one shot deal.)  The importance of technology tied into the theories of evolution and Social Darwinism prevalent at the time.  Societies with the most advanced technology were considered to be at the pinnacle of human evolution.

Chicago World's Fair

By all this, I mean to say that science fiction had its birth in nationalism and owes its original raison d’etre to that zeitgeist.  At the same time, let me say that Jules Verne himself was far from being a jingoist.  He delighted to learn about other cultures and places and often wrote novels were the main characters were not French.  It is more exact to describe Verne as a patriot rather than a nationalist.

The nationalistic spirit into which science fiction was born gradually shifted to a more universal human perspective.  The shift is best observed in the writings of H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946).  The year of his death corresponds with the closing of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1938 – 1946).  (Though, some place the end at 1960.)  H. G. Wells was a socialist in his worldview.  Marx’s Das Kapital came into publication the year after Wells’s birth, and greatly influenced the rest of the 19th century and 20th century.

Workers of the World

To a large extent, the works of H. G. Wells exist in tension with Verne’s.  The socialist worldview is internationalist in scope rather than nation-based.  When Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895, most of the Western world was firmly in Verne’s camp.  By the time Wells wrote Men Like Gods in 1923, most men were longing for the kind of Utopia he describes in that novel with its end of politics and exaltation of science.  Such was the crisis of faith brought about by the First World War.

The blame for the World Wars was laid largely upon Western Civilization itself, especially the ideology of nationalism.  The science fiction of the mid-20th century rather denigrated the idea of nationalism.  In discarding nationalism completely, a new tension developed within the genre.  It passed from nationalism vs. universal human progress to collectivism vs. nihilism.  These two are not necessarily perfect opposites.  The nihilists of the 19th century, rejecting traditional Western Civilization, fueled the rise of socialism and communism.  Refer to the hero of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or the villains of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Devils for examples of this type.

We Can Build You

Yet, there is a different sort of nihilism opposed to communism though sharing the common soil of materialism.  This deeper sort of nihilism finds its expression in the writings of Philip K. Dick.  All the effects of scientific progress and devotion to the scientific worldview have deprived people of a metaphysical framework to the world.  People have replaced the true, the good, and the beautiful with material comfort, which does not satisfy in the long run.

Isaac Asimov and other collectivists counter the nihilistic school with the ideas of class struggle and revolution leading to a better state for humanity.  These two things give a metaphysical shape to reality and are much more appealing than the existential angst of the true nihilist.  However, we saw the bloody horrors communism accomplished in the 20th century, still enacts in communist countries, and the scars it left on formerly communist countries.  Who wants that?  People who study communist history realize that the material paradise offered by Marx is but an illusion and that pure capitalism or a combination of capitalism and welfare do much more to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.  Nihilism and living comfortably turns out to appeal to the masses much more than bearing la Croix sans Christ offered by communism.

City of Future

This emphasis on the intrinsic meaninglessness of existence took much of the driving force from scientific progress and hence science fiction.  With nihilism infecting science fiction, people now turn much more towards the universals provided by fantasy.  Fantasy has always provided people with the moral conflict of good vs. evil, the importance of individual action, and wonder at the world.  Much of the reason Star Wars stands as the most popular science fiction franchise lies in its borrowing these elements from epic fantasy.

So, my questions to the readers are: if Dick killed the raison d’etre of science fiction, what new raison d’etre can be found for the genre?  Also, how badly have I understood the general progress of science fiction and its current state of affairs?  I’m eager to hear your thoughts on these questions!

 

Advertisements

Sophocles and the Human Tendency towards Destruction

I’ve recently re-read the plays of Sophocles.  Paul Roche translated the Signet version.  This translator has also ably translated Ten Plays of Euripedes and The Complete Plays of Aristophanes.  (Euripedes counts as my favorite of the three Athenian Tragedians, by the way–which puts me in the minority for sure!)  The Ancient Greek proverbs and ideals come across in an authentic manner even though the prose is written in good, modern English.  While reading the play this time, I was impressed with the notion of hubris leading to a fall and how hubris is punished by the gods.  But, my interpretation of how Sophocles understanding of hubris evolves over the course of his plays would not have occurred to me if not for a particular conversation with a friend of mine.

In that conversation, I opined that people have forgotten that God punishes people for pride.  My friend responded that if God really punished people for pride, we would all be dead.  This struck me as a profound insight.  Indeed, is God under any especial necessity to punish people for pride?  Pride, like the other capital sins, carries its own punishment with it.  Pride distorts our view of ourselves, which in turn hinders us in our interactions with the real world.  Socrates made the foundation of philosophy, the love of wisdom, to know oneself.  If we don’t know ourselves, we fail countless times, wound ourselves, and vex the people around us such that we drive them away.  What is more offensive than arrogance?  What could be a worse affliction in and of itself?

Continue reading

Sword and Serpent Review

I can’t remember the last Young Adult work of Christian fiction I’ve read, but Sword and Serpent by Taylor Marshal has to count as one of the greatest.  It ranked as the #1 novel in the highly specific category of “Young Adult Christian Historical Fiction.  Of the 349 reviews currently on Amazon, no one has rated it with one or two stars, and I must say that it deserves this praise.  Set in the days of Diocletian’s persecutions, it follows the young St. George, called Jurian in the text, and his sister as they flee persecution in their hometown.  The two of them are assisted by Saints Christopher, St. Blaise, and St. Nicolaus on the way.  (The first two are members of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, among whose number also falls St. George.)  St. Christopher is present most of the difficult journey to Rome.  Taylor Marshall does an excellent job of making all these saints human and relatable while endowed with miraculous powers.

Carpaccio-St-George-and-the-Dragon-1516

 

Meanwhile, a pagan priestess named Sabra on Cyrene begins to question the legitimacy of offering human sacrifices to her demonic god.  At the same time, she cannot wrest herself from what she thinks is her duty to her people.  When she herself is chosen by lot, the king, her father, conceals this from the people and compels her to flee to Rome.  But, she feels obligated to return to face her doom.  Jurian and Sabra meet in Rome and agree to sail together to Cyrene.  But, will Jurian’s prophecy or Sabra’s fate be fulfilled on the island?

Continue reading

The Children of Hurin’s Tragic Appeal

Yours truly finds it hard to review a book like this.  The Children of Hurin unrolls a beautifully tragic story.  Yet, tragic beauty is not something I  typically appreciate in literature–especially not as much as this blog’s co-author, Thomp D. James.  (That Euripides sometimes gives the audience a happy ending makes him my favorite of the Three Athenian Tragedians.)  With The Children of Hurin, like in your classic Greek tragedy, our hero, Turin, has many noble qualities twisted by tragic flaws–melancholy and pride in this case.  These two faults drag him down from every happy circumstance he finds and lead to his demise.

Continue reading

An Element of Tolkien’s Work Missing in The Children of Hurin

I’ve gotten halfway through The Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.  So far it exudes a style and mood at variance with other works of Tolkien.  It feels more like a Greek tragedy or Viking saga: it has the style of the latter and the tragic flaws of the former.  None of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe is present therein, unless we count the happy death of Androg, who died a better man than he lived.  If it were not for this happy death, I should doubt that the famous Tolkien really wrote the story.  Little else relieves one from the heavy sense of sorrow hanging over the action.

coh

Joy or even humor is missing from the work.  Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings, can get pretty dark at times, but its characters defy their desperate circumstances with joy, humor, or even glory.  Boromir’s death lost some of its sting by the exuberant courage of his last stand.  Homely humor from Samwise Gamgee brightened up Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor.  How about the orc slaying game played between Legolas and Gimli at the desperate Battle of Helm’s Deep?

Continue reading

Meekness: the Hardest Part of Chivalry

I was happy to have the pleasure of reading Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand (Pyle’s first work of fiction) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel during the same time.  Doyle wrote Sir Nigel to be the prequel to his The White Company.  The White Company held as great a readership as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes until the Second World War, yet it still retains enough popularity to have been published continually since 1891.  That book’s superiority over Sir Nigel is plain from the former’s variety of action, variety of characters, and better weaving of religion within the martial code of chivalry.  Pyle’s novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, also better excels at weaving together the religious origins of chivalry into the knight’s code.

sir-nigel

The reason behind this lies in the manner of the protagonists: Otto and Allen Edricson are both cloister bred, while Nigel Loring, whom we see as a squire in Sir Nigel, was raised within a knightly household and taught to value the manly virtues more than the decent–the loud virtues more than the quiet.  It is like comparing Robert E. Lee to Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Both were valiant men, but the heavily Christian upbringing of Lee better tempered his irascible nature than the more worldly education of Forrest tempered the Wizard of the Saddle’s hot blood.  And so, his peers called Lee “the marble man” for his peaceable and orderly character, while Forrest struggled to control his temper almost until the very end.  Even so, Nigel Loring takes about as long as Forrest to fully assimilate the gentle virtues, while Allen Edricson and Otto start from the decent and work to the manly–although, Allen is described by his friend Hordle John as already having a stalwart heart despite his meek exterior.

Continue reading

Review of The White Company

Many people neglect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s military and medieval fiction.  Prior to this, I have reviewed The Adventures of Gerard, which follows the sometimes grave and sometimes comedic adventures of a French dragoon during the Napoleonic Wars.  Now, I turn my attention to Doyle’s romance of the Hundred Years’ War: The White Company.  One senses that Doyle immersed himself in the period, both its history and its literature.  (In the preface to Sir Nigel, the prequel to this book, he lists some excellent resources on the medieval age.)  As far as this medievalist can tell, Doyle makes no factual errors on the equipment, weapons, clothing, economy, or habits of the people.

white-company

One does wonder whether he lets some of his ideas about the French Revolution get mixed into his description of the impoverished people of France and their wealthy overlords.  However, there can be no doubt that interminable war had reduced the people of France to a sorry state, even if not entirely reminiscent of late 18th century France.  One finds the character of the longbow men well delineated.  The chivalric attitudes of the nobles drop easily from the mouths of the characters, just as they would have from the knights of old.  At the same time, their chivalry adjusts to the real world situations in which they find themselves.

Continue reading