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Traditionalist and libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy: Part Twelve – Grandmasters of SF

By Mark Wegierski
web posted November 9, 2009

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward

In the earlier installment on the origins of SF and fantasy, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) should have been mentioned. Looking Backward is an extremely influential portrayal of a utopian socialist society. It illustrates what looks like the strangeness to our current-day society of early socialist ideas. Ironically, Bellamy's socialist utopia of the future is in some ways far more socially conservative than today's society.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series

The best-known achievement of the highly prolific writer of science-fiction (and of many works of popular science) Isaac Asimov, is probably the Foundation series "future-history."

The Foundation series begins in a rather benevolent Galactic Empire, where the knowledge of the origins of humankind on Earth has been completely lost. The capital planet of the Empire is near the center of (our) Galaxy. A planet almost entirely covered by urban structures, this is Trantor, with a population of 40 billion. A humble scientist, Hari Seldon, develops a field called "psycho-history", according to whose predictions the Empire must finally fall. So he develops a plan of establishing the "Galactic Encyclopedia Foundation", at a planet at the periphery of the Galaxy.

History develops according to Seldon's predictions. When the process of the disintegration of the Empire begins, the Foundation moves through a series of "world-historical" crises, which in every case leave it stronger. It also transpires that Seldon also established a "Second Foundation", in some unknown part of the Galaxy, to keep watch over the actions of the First. The First Foundation excels in technology; the Second, in psychology, or rather, psychological manipulation.

One could doubtless see in these mechanisms certain analogies to today's socio-technical manipulation of society through the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime. History is apparently "happening by itself", but, despite this, society seems to be in the process of moving in a predetermined direction. Asimov was, of course, in many aspects, a "man of the Enlightenment", and this vision of an intellectual caste, based especially on the social sciences (which are said to virtually reach the hard certainty of the paradigm of the physical sciences) has a long tradition. The concepts of Asimov's fiction greatly flattered scientists and social scientists, rather openly devalorizing religion.

The fourth book in this series (written many years later) Foundation's Edge, to a certain extent represented a return of long-suppressed mysticism in the thought of Asimov. He portrayed a planet of so-called "super-telepaths" which resembled, to some extent, Plato's "ideal World of the Forms" – as everything on the planet found an "appropriate place" in an "organic order". This looked like a major departure from the "strictly scientific". It does appear, that among many persons working in the physical sciences, who often, for many, many years, profess strong atheism, there is often, a return, near the end of their lives, to some kind of mystical ideas, sometimes of a rather absurd nature. Indeed, it could be argued that the distance from the exaltation of the strictest science, to the transition to some kind of pseudo-science, is sometimes not that great. People who are willing to recognize from the start the role of mysticism, religion, and of a transrational element in their psyche, while at the same time retaining a certain degree of respect for reason, are usually less likely to embrace some of the wildly imaginative ideas, which are sometimes found among physical scientists toward the end of their lives.     

Nevertheless, the Foundation series, although it may appear today somewhat old-fashioned (as today, even strong Enlightenment optimism can be perceived as old-fashioned) represented, at the time it was written (that is, the 1940s), a breakthrough work.

Two SF Classics with a Religious Theme

James Blish's, A Case of Conscience (1958) is a classic work, which presents the trip of Jesuit priest to a planet, inhabited by a species of intelligent dinosaurs, which appears to be existing – without religion of any kind -- in a state "before original sin." The priest perceives the planet as a diabolical trap, but the ending of the book is ambivalent.

Walter M. Miller's, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is another classic tale. It is also the sort of work that virtually exhausts the creativity of the author. The pessimism expressed in the book transferred itself to a certain extent to Miller's life, and after this book, he never really never wrote anything outstanding. The main thought of the book is that, after the destruction of current day civilization in a nuclear war, only the Catholic Church will endure as an institution of continuity. Civilization is slowly reborn, and technological progress begins. The Church senses that the result will be as before. However, the Church resolves to work on the possibility of space travel, in order to preserve something, when nuclear war breaks out again.

Certain elements of Miller's vision found their way into the television series of the 1990s, Babylon 5.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet (1956) is one of the classic science fiction movies. Loosely based on Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, the action of the film moves slowly, but the fantastic landscapes are impressive (at least for the 1950s). The central idea of the film, the destruction of a scientist by uncontrolled impulses from the unconscious, set free by the technology of an alien planet, may be variously interpreted.

Two Arthurian Movies

There was a prominent 1950s Arthurian movie, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which was a somewhat unusual interpretation of the Arthurian legend.  The main premise was of a sorceress in the High Middle Ages with a son who has to prove himself as a hero – and has as his retainers the Knights of the Round Table, who have been preserved in a spell of sleep for centuries.

In 1977, there appeared the British Arthurian movie, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (with Sean Connery playing the role of the Green Knight). There was prominent in it the princess who was cursed with a pig's face, and had to be redeemed by a knight willing to marry her for love, not looks – which then broke the evil spell, and restored her beauty.

John Brunner

One should mention two further books by this author, The Sheep Look Up (1972), a critique of extreme pollution problems and public apathy in regard to these; and The Shockwave Rider (1974), a warning of the dangers of a computerized world, a work often considered to be proto-cyberpunk.

Jack Vance's The Dying Earth

Jack Vance had largely originated a subgenre of far-future stories set on "a dying Earth"  -- which are characterized by mysticism and allegory and weird mixtures of premodern and advanced technology.

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

These series of works by Gene Wolfe are a brilliant achievement of the imagination. This is the tale of Severian, a professional torturer who eventually becomes ruler of a planet called "Urth". The setting is Gothic, Baroque, and filled with archaic language. In fact, Gene Wolfe took enormous care in using only pre-existent, archaic or rare words, rather than inventing any new words, in describing the world of Severian.

Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber

This is another highly imaginative series of tales, which could be termed as fantasy. The premise is the intrigues of a superhuman royal family, who exist in Amber, which is said to be the only true world, of which all other worlds are only "Shadows".

Philip Jose Farmer

Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber is somewhat similar to Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers. Another creation of Philip Jose Farmer is Riverworld – which is based on an audacious premise that all humans who have ever existed are mysteriously resurrected by the banks of an extremely long river. (Those who died in older years are resurrected having the age of 33.) Various historical figures such as Richard Burton (the British explorer) and Hermann Goering interact with each other and seek to solve the riddle of their strange circumstances.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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