Saturday, 22 August 2009

Out of the Silence

Speaking of socially tinged science fiction, I picked up another book at the same Lifeline sale. It’s called Out of the Silence be Erle Cox. It was published in 1925, and what I said about the advance of science fiction writing since 1977 goes double. It’s a clumsy book, but fascinating.

After a very obviously SF prologue, the story proper starts like something from Miles Franklin or Frank Dalby Davison. A young vineyard owner, Alan Dundas, works on digging his dam, is visited by his friend from town, and gets lined up for a romance with a nice local girl. The difference, however, is that he is prevented from getting very far with the dam because a huge solid construction is in his way just beneath the surface. Intrigued, he digs on and finds the door.

There follows a rather laboured rewriting of Sleeping Beauty as he is forced to overcome various life-threatening traps on his way to the centre of the structure, where he finds an extraordinarily beautiful woman in suspended animation. On a table nearby are instructions for her revival.

Once he revives her, with the aid of his doctor friend Dick Barry, the story shifts gear once again – and this is where the social bit comes in. It turns out the woman, whose name is Earani, is from a human civilization destroyed millions of years before by some cataclysm. She has been placed in suspended animation against the time when humanity would re-evolve to a level of sophistication where it could benefit from her knowledge.

Some of the things she has to share are undoubtedly useful – she has the ability to control other peoples’ minds, she can fly, she has amazing technologies stored with her as well as a vast library. All this, and her incredible beauty, place Alan completely under her spell, his previous romance forgotten. Dick, on the other hand, is less sure. Some of her ideas seem terrifying. She reveals, without the slightest tinge of shame, that the pinnacle of humanity was attained through a completely ruthless program of eugenics, including elimination of all coloured races. Her mission is to repeat this process, and she is completely ruthless in eliminating opposition.

Two things are quite stunning about this book. One is that it was written in the early 1920s – Fascism was certainly on the rise, and eugenic ideas were popular throughout the Western world, but the holocaust was still twenty years away. Cox, however, leaves no doubt about the connection between eugenics and genocide.

The second stunning thing is that through Earani he makes genocide sound plausible, even desirable. Alan, a humane and intelligent man, is convinced, and even tries to convince Dick. While Dick remains unconverted, Earani is the clear winner of the intellectual argument. The opposition is more visceral even than Alan’s support – he can’t quite explain why, but Dick finds her ideas horrific and sets out to thwart her. In the end Earani is defeated (in a manner appropriate to a piece of early 20th century romantic fiction – read it and find out!) and I assume this means Cox himself doesn’t endorse her views.

This is as it should be, but it’s a concern that Cox can’t explain why. This is because he fails to challenge the premise of racial inferiority. When they discuss the “problem of the coloured races” they are on common ground – it’s only on the solution that they differ.

Yet it’s the analysis of the problem which is at fault. The idea of eugenics is that some humans are inferior. “Humane” eugenicists advocate that these inferior people should be treated kindly but, for the sake of the overall improvement of the species, prevented from reproducing. In more extreme forms, like the Nazis by the end of World War 2 (or Earani), inferior humans should simply be eliminated to allow the superior to thrive.

Yet who gets to decide who is superior? The usual criteria is fitness for survival, but if you interpret this in evolutionary terms it is self evident that “coloured” people are superior, given there are so many more of them. This in itself, though, is misleading. Evolutionary thinking has no place for superiority or inferiority. Species survive or fail because of chance relationships between inherited characteristics and environmental factors. Survival is a matter of luck.

The reality of eugenics is a long way from either way of arguing from evolution. Every eugenicist sees the superior person as the one most like them, or at least most like the ideal figures of their culture. Hitler thought the Germans were superior and other races more or less so depending on how “Aryan” they were. Edgar Rice Burroughs made Tarzan the son of a British Lord. No doubt an African eugenicist could demonstrate the superiority of African heritage.

On the other hand, the standards of right or wrong we learn from any of our major religions stress that superiority is not hereditary at all. We all have the capacity to attain the heights of humanity, with God’s help, despite our inherited characteristics – whether we do or not depends on our choices, not our genes. Nor is this superiority obvious to the causal observer. Paul says “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise…the weak things of the world to shame the strong…so that no-one may boast before him.” So despite losing the argument, Dick Barry attained superiority by risking his life for what he knew in his heart to be right. May we all do the same when our time comes.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Strong Individuals

Well, I finally got to the top of the holds list for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a bit of a hoot – Jane Austen’s original with inserted zombie killings. It provides a kind of twist to left-field on the original story – it’s main characters have studied martial arts in the East, have dojos attached to their houses, and in Lady Catherine’s case are attended by ninja bodyguards. It has some quite funny moments, like when Charlotte Lucas gets infected shortly before her marriage to Mr Collins and slowly turns into a zombie, unnoticed by all but Elizabeth. Other bits are more predictable, like Elizabeth’s interview with Lady Catherine ending with a sword fight – no prizes for guessing the winner. Overall it’s a bit flat – I certainly won’t be lining up for any of the further Austen rip-offs leaping onto the gravy train.

More to my taste was a little book I picked up from the Lifeline book sale in January and finally got to reading. It’s a science fiction novel by Kate Wilhelm called Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. I’d never heard of Wilhelm but I can never resist a post-apocalyptic story and besides, it won the Hugo for best novel in 1977. I’ve since looked her up on the web and found she’s still active in her 80s and with a long list of science fiction and mystery publications.

The first thing that struck me on reading it is how much science fiction writing has advanced since 1977. The prose style is merely adequate, the characters mainly stereotypes and the plot a little sketchy. That shouldn’t stop you reading it, though, because it’s a fascinating example of how science fiction responds to the world in which it is written.

A quick summary for you. Humanity’s destruction of the environment leads to a rapid ecological collapse, combined with a plague that renders humans infertile. Most of humanity is wiped out, but a group of forward looking people establish a refuge for themselves in a remote US location and set up a cloning operation to ensure the continuation of the race until fertility recovers.

Things don’t exactly go to plan, because the clones aren’t entirely like other human beings. Each group of clones is not only genetically identical, but has a close telepathic bond which means they feel each others’ emotions and risk insanity when parted from one another. They develop their own collectivist ethos based on this bond – the group is more important than the individual, those who upset the group must be banished, natural birth is only of value in maintaining genetic diversity and providing new individuals to clone. Those few people who show individual traits, through accidents of birth or through separation from their “brothers” or “sisters”, are persecuted and in most cases eliminated.

Yep, you got it! This is a cold war story in which individualism and collectivism struggle for supremacy. Guess which one wins? Hint – the writer is an American. The community becomes more and more repressive – people are cloned in greater numbers, they are driven to work harder and explore further despite the damage this does to them. Yet with each generation the quality declines – they become less intelligent, less creative, less able to adapt to new situations. Meanwhile the hero of the latter part of the book, a boy accidentally born as a single individual and barely tolerated by the community, runs rings around the rest of them, finally breaking away with a few others to form his own community based on natural childbirth and individual initiative. 20 years later he returns to the original community and finds no-one has survived.

It’s an interesting idea but it skates over a few things – like was the environmental destruction that begins the book caused by collectivism, or by individualism? And how do the strong individuals survive without some sort of collective effort?

Wanting to explore a bit further, I decided to finally have a go at reading the copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I picked up off a library throw-out table years ago. Rand is way more famous than Kate Wilhelm - not because she’s a better writer so much as a prominent philosopher, a key promoter of “objectivism” and radical individualism. She even has an institute dedicated solely to promoting her work.

I won’t bore you with her philosophy but let me tell you about The Fountainhead. It’s all about architects, used and abused as a symbol for the kind of world humans build. The architecture profession as a whole is portrayed as in thrall to the past, thrusting on the public a pastiche of historical European styles, while the architects themselves lie and cheat their way to the top. By contrast her hero, Howard Roark, is a brilliant architect who can’t get work because he insists on designing buildings solely on the basis of their function and their location.

Sadly none of her characters are appealing, and Roark least of all. While the rest plan, scheme and betray their way to the top he remains an arrogantly aloof monomaniac, a man who has no friends, no sense of humour, no joy, no life except for the buildings he longs to design. I struggled on for a while with these unpleasant people and checked out at the scene a third of the way through where Roark rapes the key female character in the story and she enjoys it. If individualism is about people who have no life, refuse to compromise with anyone else and show their mastery by committing rape then Ms Rand can keep it.

At least Kate Wilhelm’s hero has some ethics – not only is he a great practical joker in a community with no humour, he does his best to save the community, only sleeps with women by consent and finally takes as many people with him as he can. But still, it only goes to show that, great individual though he is, he can’t survive on his own. We need each other. We are social creatures, we reproduce sexually, and our genetic and social diversity make us strong.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Subversive Songs

On the cover of Mermaid Avenue there’s a great picture of Woody Guthrie playing a guitar painted with the words “this machine kills fascists”. It’s a good introduction to the idea of music as a subversive activity, which was taken up so enthusiastically by the next generation of American folk musicians, led by Pete Seeger and later Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary.

These men and women were subversive in a very overt political way. However, I was led to think about some more subtle forms of subversion recently while listening to one of my son’s favourites, Blackfield. A collaboration between the Israeli Aviv Geffen, and Englishman Steven Wilson (prolific songwriter and muso in a number of different guises), Blackfield are not political at all. They sing melodic rock songs of lost love and general depression. I was struck by one song in particular, called “End of the World”, which illustrates exactly what I mean.

It has a killer piano hook which sucks you into a familiar landscape of despair.

Don't you forget what I've told you
So many years
We are hopeless and slaves to our fears
We're an accident called human beings

Don't be angry for loving me baby
And say it's unreal
So many lives turned to salt
Like roses who're hiding their thorns

It's the end of the world
The end of the world
It's a prison for dreams and for hopes
And still we believe there is God
It's the end of the world
The end of the world
We're dead but pretend we're alive
Full of ignorance, fools in disguise
What is this? If indeed our humanity is a mere accident, what is the point of our lives?

In your room doing nothing
But staring at flickering screens
Streets are empty, but still you can hear
Joy of children turning to tears.
So of course in the end there’s not much else to do but

Take this pill, it will make you feel dizzy
And then give you wings
Soon, boy, you'll fall into sleep
Without nightmares, without any fears

If you wake up in hell or in heaven
Tell the angels we're here
Waiting below for a dream
Here in the garden of sin.
So, it’s a pretty song about suicide – how is that subversive? Well it’s like this. When you listen to someone like Richard Dawkins talking about “The God Delusion” and the way we’re now freed from this delusion by the advances of modern science, it all sounds very reasonable. If you listen to someone like Ayn Rand or even Friedrich Neitzsche talking about the amazing possibilities of humanity in the absence of God, it can even sound exciting.

Music, on the other hand, is not the language science, or reason, or philosophy. It’s the language of the heart, the emotions. How does it feel to be “an accident called human beings”? How does it feel to be alone in the universe? The answer, at least for Aviv Geffen, is that it feels desperate. We want to cling on to God because without that all you can hear is the sound of children’s joy turning to tears.

I don’t know anything about Aviv Geffen’s religious views, or about Steven Wilson’s. It’s pretty safe to assume they’re not conventionally Christian or Jewish. Yet by putting that despair into song, they challenge us to look again, to see if we really are willing to accept the consequences of advocating a universe without meaning.