Wednesday, June 28, 2017


As I write and think about the alternative futures of Dystopia and Apocalypse, it occurs to me that the picture isn't complete. It occurs to me also that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of Apocalypse. I'll go at this by first writing about Utopia and Dystopia.

Utopia came first, before Dystopia. The first Utopia to bear that name was in Sir Thomas More's work of 1516. Stories of Utopia have been a mainstay of literature since then. It was only in the nineteenth century--a century of utopian theorizing and attempts at utopian living--that Utopia met its opposite, the anti-utopia or Dystopia, which describes a perfectly awful society. In the twentieth century, stories of Dystopia overshadowed those of Utopia. That is to be expected, as people who had encountered utopian/totalitarian regimes woke up to the reality that Utopia is an impossibility and that every attempt at establishing Utopia on Earth ends in disaster.

So the dream is of Utopia and the reality is of Dystopia. Again, I don't think that any serious writer of the last fifty to one hundred years is or was foolish or naïve enough to have attempted a utopian story. (Stories of Lost Worlds may be the closest thing to it, but they are within the less serious pulp genres of science fiction, fantasy, etc.) Many, though, have written dystopian stories. Those stories have often succeeded as utopian stories once did, that is, as satires. Others have come as critiques, warnings, descriptions, or predictions. The point is that, given the fallen nature of humanity, Dystopia is a possibility, while Utopia will forever remain a pipe dream.

I wrote recently that Utopia and Apocalypse may well be impossible without the Christian notion of progress. Apocalypse, after all, is a book of the Bible and a synonym for revelation. We think of Apocalypse as a negative--a world-ending disaster. But that's our convention. In its original meaning, Apocalypse is positive, a revelation about the end of our current world and the ushering in of something better. In that sense, the word and idea of Apocalypse is more nearly analogous to Utopia than it is to Dystopia. What's missing is the Anti-Apocalypse, a thing for which there isn't any word as far as I know. Put another way, Utopia and Apocalypse are positive fantasies, while Dystopia and Anti-Apocalypse (i.e., a world-ending disaster) are closer to what could really happen on Earth, should events go a certain way. But to switch the meaning of the word apocalypse to its opposite would be confusing to say the least, and probably needless, too.

So should we then make a distinction between Apocalypse of the Christian variety, or at least as a positive story of end times (in which good finally triumphs over evil), and Anti-Apocalypse, which is what we now call Apocalypse? And if so, should we have a word for it? One of the reasons I ask is that we could make of all this a nice symmetry: Utopia and Apocalypse as positive, progressive genres (progressive in the sense that earthly progress is a possibility, at least in literature), and Dystopia and Anti-Apocalypse as negative, more nearly conservative genres (conservative in that they recognize man's fallen nature). In the positive genres, what is good in humanity would be put on display. In the negative genres, the opposite would be the case. One point to consider here is that the positive Apocalypse would be an explicitly Christian genre; the other three genres would not necessarily be so. (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is an example--actually a critique--of a Christian Dystopia. It suffers from the same problem utopian/dystopian literature does in general, i.e., a lack of plausibility.) Another question: Has there been any positive apocalyptic literature? I guess the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins might qualify, but I have never read any of these books. From what I know, a lot of really terrible things happen in them, but all in fulfillment of the prophecy of end times.

Anyway, I'll say it again, to make a distinction between the positive (Christian) Apocalypse and the negative (more nearly secular) Anti-Apocalypse is probably unnecessary. It would only confuse things. We're already having enough trouble trying to differentiate between Apocalypse (a world of extreme chaos) and Dystopia (a world of extreme order). I'm not sure why the distinction is so hard to understand, but people keep making the mistake. Let's keep reminding them of the difference.

Copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Marx, Holmes, and Lovecraft

It's the start of a new week and time to be done with old things and begin with new. (I write this on Monday for posting on Tuesday.) This will be the last in my series referencing To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (Doubleday Anchor, 1953). Quotes from the book from Marx himself:
The writer must earn money in order to be able to live and write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money . . . .
I must follow my goal through thick and thin and I shall not allow bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine. (p. 209)
When I read those words, I thought immediately of H.P. Lovecraft, who I believe thought of himself as an amateur (in the good sense) and who failed to do the things that a professional writer does, who wrote slowly and carefully rather than being a hack (a label placed on him by Edmund Wilson by the way), and who, like Marx, declined to work and as a consequence lived very often in dire poverty. It was this poverty in fact that killed Lovecraft. If only he had lived as long as Marx . . .

Like Marx, H.P. Lovecraft was an unsentimental materialist. Lovecraft, who came from a cold northern European culture and who left his wife and died childless, may in fact have been less sentimental than the Jewish Marx, who loved his wife and children, even if he subjected them to poverty, disease, and starvation. (Strange love.) Unlike Marx, Lovecraft was conservative, a twentieth-century Tory. His view was not that History would be crowned by the advent of worldwide socialism--in other words, a supreme human society--but that humanity matters not and will be crushed under the big, green, slimy foot of Cthulhu. (It seems to me that atheists and materialists of today have more in common with Lovecraft than with Marx.) That is at least the conventional view--that Marx was progressive rather than conservative. I have a different view, for I believe that Marx and all of his acolytes right down to the present day were and are in fact hardened conservatives of the reactionary type in that they wish to restore the élite--of which they see themselves a part--to a position they lost with the end of feudalism. The usurpers of course were the middle class, Marx's bourgeoisie, who, in their exercise of their economic rights, reduced the power, prestige, and position of their supposed superiors to nothing, hence all the envy, hatred, and vitriol directed at them even today. Here is an illustrative quote from To the Finland Station:
From time to time, with telling effect, Marx will light up for a moment the memory of other societies which have been fired by other ideals. The disgrace of the institution of slavery on which the Greek system had been founded had at least, in debasing one set of persons, made possible the development of an aristocracy of marvelous taste and many-sided accomplishment, whereas the masses of the people in the industrial world had been enslaved to no more impressive purpose than "to transform a few vulgar and half-educated upstarts into 'eminent cotton spinners,' 'extensive sausage makers' and 'influential blacking dealers.'" (pp. 293-294; emphasis added)
Note the arrogance, the condescension, the contempt for the middle class. Note also the bitter resentment at the loss of position among the aristocracy. (Lovecraft also came from a fallen society and fancied himself an aristocrat.) Finally, note the phrase "a few vulgar and half-educated upstarts." Now we're at the heart of the complaint made by Marx and men like him against the middle class. It's the same complaint made against our current president, and it explains the extreme hatred of him by so many leftists, who seem to have lost their minds in contemplating his ascendancy: How did he get to where he is when he is so obviously inferior to us? What kind of unjust world are we living in? And how can we set it aright? (2)

I'll just add two things: One, in the end, the leftist/socialist/statist program is conservative in the extreme, a kind of reactionary belief system that wishes to restore feudal relationships among men. The real innovation, one of the most radical ideas in history and one enshrined in our founding documents, is that human beings are and by rights free. Two, Lovecraft, a lowly American pulp writer, out-Marxed Marx in his materialism and in his consequent placement of human beings at the bottom of the ladder of history instead of at the top. Although there are way too many Marxists in the world, especially among academia, the masses have made their judgment: they prefer Lovecraft--Edmund Wilson's hack--to Marx--Edmund Wilson's hero.

* * *

A few months ago, I went to a Sherlock Holmes event at the local library. It has been awhile since I read the Sherlock Holmes stories, so when the presenter started to talk about Holmes, his career, and his lifestyle, a lightbulb came on over my head. Again, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, who, like Holmes (and Marx): was an avowed and enthusiastic amateur; lived by simple means, alone or in the household of a woman (or women) but who more or less eschewed the company of women (unlike Marx); entertained visitors to his apartment but seems to have been more or less a loner and one who lived mostly within his own thoughts and imagination; pursued his amateur studies in the extreme; and had specialized knowledge of obscure or esoteric subjects. (1) My next question was this: Did Lovecraft read the Sherlock Holmes stories? The answer appears to be yes. My final question was this: Did Lovecraft model himself at all on Sherlock Holmes? That's one for people who know more about Lovecraft than I do.

(1) The one woman in Holmes' life is Irene Adler. The one woman in Lovecraft's life was Sonia Greene. Both disappeared in a hurry. Sonia was a Russian-born Jew. Irene Adler is a native of New Jersey and not obviously Jewish. But what of her surname? We have already had one Adler in this series, the Austrian--and Jewish--socialist Victor Adler. There was also a famous Jewish psychologist named Alfred Adler, who, significantly in a discussion of Lovecraft and leftists, postulated the existence of an inferiority complex among us. Anyway, I'm not the first person to ask the question, Is Irene Adler Jewish? Look for it on the Internet.
(2) A last quote from To the Finland Station:
But with his [Lenin's] hard sense of social realities, he is quite clear about the intellectual inequalities between the intelligentsia and the masses. He quotes in What Is to Be Done? as "profoundly true and important" a statement by Karl Kautsky to the effect that the proletariat, left to itself, can never arrive at socialism; socialism must be brought to them from above: "the vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia." (pp. 393-394)
Hence the arrogance and condescension of our current leftist ruling class, all of whom have come from the middle class, all of whom enjoy a middle class lifestyle, all of whom fancy themselves intellectually superior not only to the masses but also to the vulgar, moneymaking middle class, and all of whom wish to impose from above a program in which they will attain and hold power, all, they claim, for the sake of "the people."

Original text copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, June 26, 2017

Beyond the Finland Station

I finished reading To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson last night. I'm glad to be out from under the shadow of this book, not only because of its excessive length--484 pages in the Doubleday Anchor edition of 1953--and not only for the author's less than engaging prose style. More than anything, I'm glad to have the book behind me because of its subject matter and for Wilson's apparent admiration for the ideas and historical figures--Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and so on--described therein. Socialism is, as we now know, the ideology of mass murder. It's sickening to read a chronicle of its development, moreover, to follow an otherwise intelligent man in his appreciation of it. Maybe I'm being too sensitive. Maybe Edmund Wilson was not as appreciative as I imagine. But I'm glad to have it behind me. Still, the centennial year of the Russian Revolution of 1917 continues. Still, an awareness of what that has meant is with us: 100 years and as many as 100 million dead at the hands of socialists the world over.

I wrote in yesterday's entry about the Listeners, the men and women who have dedicated themselves to the search for intelligent life in the universe. They listen and listen, certain that we will, at any moment, finally hear from our space brethren. That certainty is, it seems to me, religious in origin and intensity. It carries through many fields of endeavor, though. Even squatchers believe that we are on the verge of discovering definitive proof of the existence of Bigfoot, if not finding the hairy beast himself. As Robert Crumb might say, Keep on Squatchin'.

Anyway, following is a quote to that point from To the Finland Station. The speaker is Lenin himself. The occasion is the beginning of the first Russian Revolution, from the spring of 1917:
Not today, but tomorrow, any day, may see the general collapse of European capitalism. The Russian revolution you have accomplished has dealt it the first blow and has opened a new epoch. . . . (p. 469)
Note the similarity in expression between the breathless Marxist revolutionary and any number of fervent believers of the last century and more as they await the coming of their most hoped-for event.

A century of political murder and mass starvation, imprisonment, and torture has intervened since Lenin spoke those words. Thank God--our God, not his--that "new epoch" is reaching its end, although leftists in the West have invented and put into practice new and far more subtle and insidious permutations in the form of political correctness, critical theory, cultural Marxism, etc. A second point, though: when and if we hear messages from outer space, they are not likely to be anything we hope for, expect, or predict. Imagine, for example, this bur under the blanket of the atheistic Listener: What if the people from the stars tell us that they believe in God? Better yet, what if they tell us they believe God sent to their planet a representative of himself who died for their sins? Imagine a real-life Mr. Spock who wants us to know that everything he does is washed in the green blood of the Vulcan Jesus. The Listeners in that case are likely to become Non-Listeners and to begin asking themselves, Where can we find a cotton ball big enough to plug the Arecibo telescope?

We should know by now that predictions based on a priori reasoning and abstruse theorizing about history and human nature are practically useless. The best predictions continue to be those made by conservatives who have some understanding of these things. To that point, another quote from To the Finland Station:
Victor Adler [an Austrian socialist, though apparently more moderate than his Russian counterpart] had once shocked Trotsky by declaring that, as for him, he preferred political predictions based on the Apocalypse to those based on Dialectical Materialism. (p. 429)
Dialectical Materialism, at least in later interpretations, can be taken as an a priori system and is seemingly used by some science fiction writers either as a backdrop for their work or as a means of making predictions in their work. Contrast that with the idea of the Apocalypse, especially as applied in genre fiction. The idea of a leftist or Marxist Apocalypse would seem an affront, a self-contradiction, an impossibility. Although Utopia is his prediction, Dystopia is the Leftist's preferred future. Apocalypse, it seems to me, is more nearly a conservative idea. But, as Robert Frost wrote:

Some say the world will end in fire, 
Some say in ice. 
From what I’ve tasted of desire 
I hold with those who favor fire. 
But if it had to perish twice, 
I think I know enough of hate 
To say that for destruction ice 
Is also great 
And would suffice.

Yes, ice--a freezing of history in the form of Dystopia--would suffice.

Alien Crucifixion (one version) by Frank Frazetta.

Original text copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Listeners

I wrote the other day that materialists and atheists are unlikely to reach out into the vast universe. That isn't entirely true. There is in fact a class of people who claim to believe in nothing and who are reaching out, if only with their minds and their ears. They are the Listeners, the people who believe with all of their hearts and with a religious intensity that we are not alone in the universe and that tomorrow . . . or the next day . . . or the day after that . . . we will hear from our space brethren. The Listeners speak of this possibility like a Muslim waiting for his Mahdi or a Christian for his Jesus. And despite all non-results--decades of non-results--they promise that it will happen soon, that we will finally hear from the stars . . . tomorrow . . . or the next day . . . or . . . They sound like the early UFO enthusiasts, men like Major Donald E. Keyhoe (a contributor to Weird Tales) who longed for, expected, and predicted that "[a]t any time, there could be a sudden development for which we are totally unprepared," namely, the arrival on earth of aliens from space. (1)

This isn't to say that all Listeners are materialists and atheists. But I suspect many are. I have called them the Listeners after the novelette "The Listeners" by James E. Gunn, originally published in Galaxy Magazine in September 1968. Mr. Gunn's story is about the crew of a radio telescope, seemingly based on the real-life facilities at Green Bank, West Virginia, or Arecibo, Puerto Rico. There is even mention of Iosif Shklovskii (sic), Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and other figures from the early search for intelligent life in the universe. I have a couple of quotes from "The Listeners" (from Breaking Point by James Gunn, DAW Books, 1973):
And then maybe Adams was right. Maybe nobody was there. Maybe nobody was sending signals because there was nobody to send signals. Maybe man was all alone in the universe. Alone with God. Or alone with himself, whichever was worse. (p. 148)
What kind of mad dedication could sustain such perseverance? . . . Religion could. At least it once did, during the era of cathedral building in Europe, the cathedrals that took centuries to build. . . . They [the listeners of the title] were building cathedrals, most of them. Most of them had that religious mania about their mission that would sustain them through a lifetime of labors in which no progress could be seen. (pp. 164-165)
Here, then, is the religious angle, identified by a science fiction author nearly half a century ago, and a bit of evidence that science in modern times has taken the place of conventional religion, that it is more or less a new kind of religion, with radio telescopes as its cathedrals, both of which structures are designed to reach towards the heavens.

More to the point, though, is the idea expressed in the first quote, specifically the idea that man may be "alone in the universe. Alone with God. Or alone with himself, whichever [is] worse." I suspect, as I have written before, that the person who fails in his belief in God is likely to loathe himself, and if not that, to loathe humanity. To be alone with ourselves would be intolerable to the man who has turned away from the reality of the non-material. But to be alone with God, it seems to me, would be infuriating to him who claims to believe in nothing. And so he looks for someone out there as evidence that man is nothing special, really only one of countless intelligent species spread across the universe, risen by a currently unexplained process of spontaneous generation and carried forward by a slightly more explanatory and supposedly random process of evolution.

So he keeps looking . . . and listening . . . and listening . . .

(1) From Aliens from Space . . . The Real Story of Unidentified Flying Objects (Doubleday, 1973), Major Keyhoe's last book, published near the end of his career as an author and UFOlogist.

Major Donald E. Keyhoe, a trading card from my series UFOlogists and Cryptozoologists. Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley.

Original text and art copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Happy Flying Saucer Day!

Seventy years ago today, on June 24, 1947, the first flying saucers were seen near Mount Rainier in Washington State by private pilot Kenneth Arnold. That first sighting kicked off a worldwide phenomenon that continues to this day, even if it has diminished in recent decades. The flying saucer phenomenon is only one demonstration of how science fictional ideas have passed into the real world--and be assured, flying saucers come from science fiction and not from outer space. Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures and an associate of Kenneth Arnold before the summer of 1947 was out, had a hand in that. In any case, I would like, on this seventieth anniversary, to wish everyone a Happy Flying Saucer Day! (And I would like to observe the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Frank Edwards, who died on June 23, 1967, in my native city of Indianapolis.)

A colorized picture from my coloring book Mothman, Aliens, & Flying Saucers. Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley.

Text and art copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Supernatural in Science

I don't want to overstate the idea that science fiction writers are progressives of the materialistic or atheistic type. To believe in earnest that human beings are nothing more than a soup of chemicals or bags of animated meat would seem to make art almost impossible, and any attempt at art by a person holding such a belief could hardly be received with any sympathy by readers. There has to be a ghost in the machine. Love, sadness, and all other human feelings must be treated as more than mere material forces if you expect anyone to read and like what you write. (It seems to me that atheists must postulate the existence of a chemical soul: everything human beings feel might be real and valid at a chemical level; it simply lacks spirit.) I also don't want to give the impression that writers of fantasy, weird fiction, etc., are deaf to the siren song of materialism, atheism, or Scientism. They obviously are not. But, again, how much heart can there be in the work of an author who believes in nothing? And who would read such a thing with any pleasure or hope of being uplifted or carried away, at least for a moment, from our troubling, mundane, quotidian existence?

Like I said, I'm reading To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson (Doubleday Anchor, 1953). The book is an exploration of "the revolutionary tradition in Europe and the rise of socialism" (the blurb on the cover). Wilson expresses some admiration for Marx, specifically for the workings of his mind and Marx's written expression of his ideas. However, Wilson also points out weaknesses and flaws found therein. Here are long excerpts from a longer passage beginning on page 194:
The Dialectic then is a religious myth, disencumbered of divine personality and tied up with the history of mankind. "I hate all the gods," Marx had said in his youth; but he had also projected himself into the character of the resolute seaman who carried the authority of the gods in his breast and in one of his early Rheinische Zeitung articles on the freedom of the press, he declares that the writer must "in his way adopt the principles of the preacher of religion, adopt the principle, 'Obey God rather than man,' in relation to those human beings among whom he himself is confined by his human desires and needs." (1)
Karl Marx had identified his own will with the antithesis of the dialectical process. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world," he had written in his Theses on Feuerbach. "Our business is to change it." The will had always tended in German philosophy to play the role of a superhuman force; and this will had been salvaged by Marx and incorporated in Dialectical Materialism . . . .
For an active and purposeful man like Lenin it may be an added source of strength to have the conviction that history is with him, that he is certain of achieving his goal. The Dialectic so simplifies the whole picture: it seems to concentrate the complexities of society into an obvious protagonist and antagonist; it gives the confidence not only that the upshot of the struggle will certainly be successful, but that it will resolve all such struggles forever. . . . (2)
But conversion to the belief in a divine power does not have always an energizing effect. It was in vain that Marx tried to bar out Providence: "History does nothing," he had insisted in The Holy Family . . . . "History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends." But as long as he keeps talking as if the proletariat were the chosen instrument of the Dialectic, as if victory were predetermined, (3) he does assume an extra-human power. . . . "History is the judge; its executioner, the proletarian" [Marx wrote]. There is then a higher tribunal for which the working class is only the hangman. There is a non-personal entity called "History" which accomplishes things on its own hook and which will make the human story come out right, no matter what you or your opponent may do. The doctrine of salvation by works, as the history of Christianity shows, is liable to pass all too readily into the doctrine of salvation by grace. All too naturally, by identifying himself with the antithesis of the Dialectic, that is, by professing a religious faith, the Marxist puts himself into the state of mind of a man going upstairs on an escalator. The Marxist Will, which once resolved to change the world, has been transformed into the invisible power which supplies the motive force to run the escalator . . . .
Karl Marx, with his rigorous morality and his international point of view, had tried to harness the primitive German Will to a movement which should lead all humanity to prosperity, happiness and freedom. But insofar as this movement involves, under the disguise of the Dialectic, a semi-divine principle of History, to which it is possible to shift the human responsibility for thinking, for deciding, for acting--and we are living at the present time [ca. 1940] in a period of decadence of Marxism--it lends itself to the repressions of the tyrant. The parent stream of the old German Will, which stayed at home and remained patriotic, became canalized as the philosophy of German imperialism and ultimately of the Nazi movement. Both the Russian and the German branches threw out all that had been good in Christianity along with all that had been bad. The demiurge of German idealism was never a God of love, nor did it recognize human imperfection: it did not recommend humility for oneself or charity towards one's fellows. Karl Marx, with his Old Testament sternness, did nothing to humanize its workings. He desired that humanity should be united and happy; but he put that off till the achievement of the synthesis, and for the present he did not believe in human brotherhood. He was closer than he could ever have imagined to that imperialistic Germany he detested. After all, the German Nazis, too--also, the agents of an historical mission--believe that humanity will be happy and united when it is all Aryan and all submissive to Hitler.
That's a lot to read, I know. The point is that even Karl Marx, a giant of materialism and a fierce atheist--"I hate all the gods," he wrote--seems to have believed in a non-material force, even a god, called "History" which guides human affairs. (We can all be readily forgiven if we profess our non-belief in this Marxist god.) And if Marx the materialist and atheist believed with a paradoxically religious intensity in a non-material force, what science fiction writer of the past or present can stand against him? I will restate my point: anyone who writes from the point of view of the strict materialist, atheist, or believer in Scientism will run up against limits. He will, in that case, have two options: first, to adhere to his faith and come away baffled by the non-material nature of human beings and human existence, or second, to give in and admit, however silently or implicitly, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. The first choice is likely to result in the author's failure as an artist. The results of the second are less sure, but they may lead that author to some success as a human being.

(1) Note the arrogance: the writer--presumably Marx himself--does not live on earth as a human being. He is in fact "confined" here among human beings and is presumably a superior being of some kind or other. Wilson acknowledges as much a few pages later: "Instinctively Marx thinks of himself as being set above their [men's] world." (p. 209)
(2) This is the same language used by our most recent former president, the assertion that certain people and ideas are "on the wrong side of history"--that history is a force that cannot be directed away from inevitable and irreversible outcomes. I should point out here that Bill Maher, an outspoken atheist, recognizes that former president as one of his co-religionists. I'll trust Mr. Maher's judgment. If there's such a thing as gaydar among atheists--call it atheär--he is likely to possess it. I should also point out that the goal of Marxism is an ultimate and unchanging society: complete stasis where there can be no further revolution, just as in the assertion made by one of the characters in Zamyatin's We.
(3) We should remember here that Friedrich Engels, Marx's close associate and collaborator, was the son of a staunch Calvinist.

Original text copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Shoals of Reality

I'm back after having been gone for four weeks. I would like to pick up again on some of what I previously wrote about in "Skilled Destroyers," from May 20, 2017. In that entry, I wrote about how the conservative genres of fantasy, weird fiction, etc., are likely to continue easily enough as time goes by, whereas the more progressive genre of science fiction may run into problems, if it hasn't already. My supposition is that conservatism--not contemporary political conservatism but an older, non-political or anti-political conservatism--is more in tune with reality than is the fantasy of progressivism. More plainly, conservatism apprehends that we are fallen in our nature, whereas progressivism holds to human perfectibility as not only a possibility but as a natural and inevitable outcome of the irresistible force of history.

As I have thought more about all of that, it occurs to me that science fiction, because of its progressivism, inevitably runs into its own limits. In the 1930s, as science fiction emerged from the primordial soup of the scientific romance, things looked bright. Fans and authors of science fiction had faith in what Donald A. Wollheim called "the Infinite Future." There may have been good reason for that kind of faith in the 1930s, but by the 1980s or so, it seems to have soured. There was no longer an infinite future. Instead the future had shrunk. It had seemingly become delimited.

One of the things that has always bothered me about science fiction is its lack of human characterization--the sense that these are real human beings represented as characters and not mere mechanical parts of a plot. That lack of humanness may not be a bug of the genre, though. It may be a feature, for if science fiction is a progressive genre, and progressivism is essentially materialistic, seeing the individual as merely fodder for history and the unstoppable march of society or the State towards perfection, then the characters in a science fiction story are not especially important. They certainly don't have souls, as the human soul is an absurdity in a universe--and a genre--strictly governed by science and reason. Science and reason are among the limits about which I write today.

No science fiction author of any recent decade is foolish or naïve enough to attempt a nakedly progressive and utopian work as Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888), but it seems to me that every progressivist science fiction story is likely to wreck itself upon the shoals of reality as utopianism has wherever it has been attempted, in literature or in life. Utopia is an impossibility. It is literally nowhere. The idea of progress is delusional at best (except perhaps in the Christian sense). A belief in materialism, atheism, or Scientism is, I think, extremely unlikely to lead anyone to any far frontier. Each is a dead end--a narrowing gyre leading inescapably into the bottomless black hole of the self, the despairing, self-loathing, humanity-loathing self. I think that a mind bound by science and reason is also likely to be bound in its abilities to explore questions of human nature, the human soul, and the nature of the universe. The science fiction author who subscribes to materialism, atheism, and Scientism is far more likely to come away baffled by his encounter with important questions. It seems far more likely to me that only those who believe in something outside themselves--something infinite, eternal, and non-material--will reach out of themselves and into the universe. I am reminded of a poem:

High Flight
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds,--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of--wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . . . 

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew--
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

To continue, any science fiction story with progressivism at its core seems likely to me to run into the more conservative genres if it is to have any satisfying conclusion. And I mean that in both senses of the word, meaning, to run into as in a collision and as colors run, one into another. Instead of materialism and atheism, instead of science and reason, all of which are inadequate to the task, I think, there will be, in any successful genre story, an arrival at the non-material and the supernatural, the magical, the mystical, and the irrational. I think of Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977), a great work of the science fiction imagination (by a left-leaning author, no less) that turns on its conclusion to an implicit longing by the robot psychiatrist (literally, a materialist physician--see below) for a human soul. I think also of Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984), a science fiction novel--far less satisfying in my opinion than Gateway--best described I think as Gothic in its themes, mood, and imagery. (Neuromancer New Romancer, hence a return to the romantic origins of science fiction).

So is it the fate of every successful science fiction story to confront the reality of the human soul, of the persistence of mystery, and of the ultimate non-material nature of human existence? Does every successful science fiction story ultimately enter the realm of the more conservative form of the romance and the more conservative genres of fantasy, weird fiction, etc.? I guess that's what I'm saying. But does the evidence bear it out? Or has there been any successful and satisfying strictly materialist science fiction?

* * *

As a background to some what I have written here, I have some quotes from the book To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson (Doubleday Anchor, 1953). I have this book from my aunt's house, from her estate which we have finally settled. The book sat on the floor of an upstairs bedroom of that Gothic house--Gothic in its atmosphere and in its decay--for years after thieves plundered it for everything of monetary value. (Thieves don't steal books.) I began reading it this week after returning here.

Early in his life, Karl Marx, that prize numbskull of the nineteenth century, wrote poetry. Edmund Wilson wrote about the subjects of some of these poems:
There are doctors, damned Philistines, who think the world is a bag of bones, whose psychology is confined to the notion that our dreams are due to noodles and dumplings, whose metaphysics consists of the belief that if it were possible to locate the soul, a pill would quite easily expel it. (p. 114)
Marx's poems are a critique of medical doctors, but if doctors are materialists who believe they can treat the diseases and afflictions of the human soul with their potions, was not Marx equally a materialist? We can see the descent of the materialist physician in literature and life, from Marx's time to our own: the nihilist Bazarov in Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1862); the technicians in We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924) who excise human "fancy," hence unhappiness, by performing an operation on men's brains; Doctor Stravinsky from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967), who reduces everything to a material explanation and joyfully goes about his work; Doctor George Hill Hodel, Jr., almost certainly a psychopath and possibly the Black Dahlia Murderer; and on and on. We are now in what is called a crisis of opioid addiction in this country. What else is the use of opioids--or any other drug for that matter--but a searching for a material solution to a non-material, i.e., spiritual, problem? Is not every person with an addiction merely a materialist physician prescribing for himself drugs in an attempt to treat his spiritual disquiet? Wouldn't it be easier to accept the non-material nature of our existence as a fact? I suppose not.

Next, in discussing Hegel, Wilson wrote:
Hegel had held that society, "the State," was the realization of absolute reason, to which the individual must subordinate himself. He afterwards said that what he had meant was the perfect state . . . . (p. 120)
The emphasis is in the original, but if it hadn't been, I would have put it there, for what else is the perfect state but Utopia, the dream of progressivism in all of its forms, even today? Again, if you're looking for perfection, look for where it is rather than where it cannot be. (Is Hegel, then, the systematizer and theorizer of the leftist/socialist/statist program that has resulted in so much poverty, misery, and murder?)

Finally, Wilson mentioned the French socialist Alexandre Théodore Dézamy (1808-1850) who "projected a somewhat new kind of community, based on materialism, atheism and science." (p. 145) Does that sound familiar? It does to me. We have the desire for the same kind of "community" today, perhaps in our science fiction, certainly in one of our major political parties. Subscribers to that party say conservative ideas are of no use because of their formulation (actually, discovery rather than formulation) by a bunch of dead white European men. Where do progressives think their ideas came from? A bunch of dead white European men wrote them down in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but don't they actually date from the first fall of man?

Copyright 2017, 2023 Terence E. Hanley