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:
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 writes 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 writes:
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 mentions 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 Terence E. Hanley