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!

 

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A Little Review of Star Readers from out of the East

After reading fifty or so pages of Star Readers from out of the East by Daniel Nygaard, the reader discerns that it conveys a very similar mood to Dune.  The Parthian Empire, where the majority of the novel takes place, is rife with political intrigue, and the prophecy of a new king stands as the chief motivation for the main characters’ actions.  However, the heroes of Star Readers are really heroes–not power-hungry nobles having an aggrieved status.  I know that I am comparing someone’s first novel to a genre classic, but Nygaard’s book, though suffering from a lack of suspense prior to the climax and a somewhat ponderous writing style, strikes me as the better work.  One expects that Nygaard’s style of writing will improve, and it is admittedly difficult to add suspense when the reader knows the ending.  For the rest of the article, I’d like compare Star Readers to Dune, as I expect that people who liked the latter will also enjoy the former.

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Star Readers includes a desert world only slightly more forgiving than Arrakis as its setting.  Not many novels have been set in the Parthian Empire in the First Year of Our Lord, and kudos to Nygaard for the extensive research he accomplished in order to describe this world with such vivid accuracy.  The reader will find that the power struggles within and without the Parthian Empire just as interesting as those of the Fremen and the Padishah Empire.  I could only detect a few historical inaccuracies myself, such as when Nygaard remarks that certain Cataphracts armored their horses in bronze chainmail–this never existed as bronze is not ductile enough to make good ring mail–and when three Roman auxiliaries suddenly come before a city gate.  Now, a standard auxiliary (quinquaganeria) consisted of 500 soldiers–meaning that, if the units were at full strength, a force of 1,500 soldiers were standing before this gate.  Overkill!  But, I would like to emphasize that inaccuracies like this are few and far between: one needs to read Bernard Cornwell in order to find historical novels which are more accurate.

Cataphract

As a final point of comparison, both novels feature a major religious leader.  However, while Paul Atreides becomes a kind of Muhammad setting up a religious and political kingdom by force, the heroes of Star Readers, the Magi, seek someone who wishes to establish a kingdom of the Spirit rather than one of arms.  The focus on the goods of the soul over those of absolute power give Nygaard’s novel no slight edge in my mind–as much of an edge as the soul has over the body.

tres reges

So, do I recommend Star Readers?  Absolutely, though be prepared to read through a very dense book.  But, one is rewarded in taking up this struggle by becoming immersed in a rich and interesting world.  Certain characters stand out as very well rounded, and some of the action is quite fun.  I’m looking forward to more novels from this author in order to see how his style evolves.

Review of Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700

Having recently finished Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700, I cannot be more pleased by all the details of Renaissance warfare provided by Lauro Martines.  Martines augments our understanding our the everyday realities of war for the common soldier and civilian as well as the logistical and financial problems posed by the great armies and numerous conflicts of this time.  On one hand, this history is a poor choice for those who wish to learn the political motivations behind these wars and about the actual battles.  But, no other work likely covers as well the dark side of warfare during this era.

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A friend of mine tells me that the officer class was created as a means to restrain the soldiers after victory.  Rulers and generals began to fear the atrocities soldiers may commit against the civilian populace of cities taken by siege or the massacre of defeated soldiers.  Martines’s description of the outrages committed against civilians both by foraging parties of troops and soldiers who had taken a city by storm corroborate my friend’s assertion.  The order to sack a city almost seemed like blanket permission to pillage, muder, torture, and rape.  Of course, not every soldier would be inclined to do the last three; but, by the rules of war, the property of the losing side was forfeit.  Also, the soldiers, likely maddened by starvation, might be driven to the extremes of ferocity for a bite to eat.

Landsknechts

Martines expends perhaps most of the book explaining the logistical difficulties of war.  Soldiers commonly went unpaid and unfed.  These and other hardships lead to mass desertions.  It was a common thing for countries to default because of the expenses of war: Spain did so five time over the course of a century, and France was about equally guilty.  (Interestingly, this gives me hope for my own country should America ever default.)  The best country in terms of paying its soldiers was the Netherlands, which fact no doubt helped in its struggle for independence from the Hapsburg monarchy.

Musketeers on the March

Yet, the most striking thing about this history, outside of the cases of singular barbarity and savagery, is how mean a position the Renaissance soldier held.  The understanding of the soldier as a hero who risked his life for his country was lost during this period.  Romantic literature like The Three Musketeers presents too rosy of a picture by far–even if that makes for a great novel!  Obviously, war did offer the possibility of fame for the nobility, but most people avoided soldiering like the plague.  (The Scots and the Swiss seem to be the sole exceptions.)  Many of my readers are familiar with the practice of impressment.  The idle poor and vagrants were particular targets of captains recruiting for their units, and condemned men might have their sentence commuted to military service.  Yes, military service was equated to a death sentence.  Some families even adopted children so that their natural born sons could escape the draft!

Highland Soldier

Can it be any wonder that the common soldiers of this time were especially vicious when not only were the worst criminals included in the ranks but even the outcasts of society?  Both of whom civilians society expected war to cleanse from its ranks?  How easily might these factors destroy the least shred of empathy in a human heart?

So, though this examination of the dark side of history is not my favorite kind of work, I appreciated how well Martines covered these details.  The effect was to create a much more complete picture of the period.  This work is a must read for those who wish to understand the grim side of early modern Europe.  The Renaissance was not all art and belles-lettres!

The Perspicacious Michel de Montaigne

For a long time now, I have been acquainted with the essays of Michel de Montaigne.  In college, one of my professors, the learned and affable Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale College, included a few of this man’s essays in the second semester of the Great Books prerequisite.  Professor Jackson considered him to be the first truly modern author–if memory serves me right.  (If memory has played me false, I tender my apologies to the astute professor.)  The reason was Montaigne’s preoccupation with the self or rather himself, which created essays of a highly personal nature.  Rather than establish himself as an authority, he writes these essays merely to put forth his subjective opinion.

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Yet, Montaigne’s ability to adduce an unlimited amount of examples upon the subject of the essay astounds the reader.  He has a mastery of the writers of Classical antiquity and a thorough knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance history in particular.  In this regard, reading him is very similar to reading the works of St. Francis de Sales, who can allude to many anecdotes and scenes in history to explain spiritual truths better.  Both men have the effect of making me wish that I had spent more time reading and less playing video games.  It must have been a great help to Montaigne to have had his father teach him Latin as his first language rather than French!  I rather wonder what effect it might have on a child to have Cicero, Virgil, and Julius Caesar as more accessible than the Berenstain Bears or similar children’s literature!

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