Traditionalist and libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy: Part Thirteen – Olaf Stapledon; 1968 cinema; and four women’s main speculative worlds
By Mark Wegierski
Another author who should have been mentioned in origins of SF and fantasy (two installments ago) is Olaf Stapledon. Last and First Men (1930) is set over a two-billion year time span, with the rise and fall of eighteen distinct races of humanity. Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) is a tale of a spiritual and intellectual “superman”. Star Maker (1937) is au audacious cosmological speculation that ranges over 100 billion years. Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944) is a thoughtful tale about a dog with enhanced intelligence, consciousness, and sensibility. Working far away from so-called “pulp SF” Stapledon’s works have been acclaimed as perhaps the most outstanding examples of weighty, highly philosophical SF. His carefully worked out philosophical system defies easy classification.
The Year 1968
The year 1968 was extremely fruitful in regard to science fiction films. There appeared such variegated films in the genre as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella, and Planet of the Apes.
2001: A Space Odyssey (based partially on some earlier stories of Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most prominent of the older science fiction writers) remains to this day one of greatest science fiction movies ever made. Its concepts, special effects, and nearly everything connected to it, was incredibly pioneering, groundbreaking. It was a highly intellectual movie, which required the intelligent engagement of the viewer.
The beginning of the movie, set in deep prehistory, among the “ape-men”, who are on verge of human consciousness, may bring forth different reactions. At the beginning, the life of the “ape-men” is portrayed as difficult, but with an element of love. At one moment, we see a sort of Nativity scene, with father, mother, and child. Love therefore exists before the arrival of “the monolith” – which may be variously interpreted. “The monolith” brings increased intelligence to the “ape-men” – but also hatred. It may be noted that the “ape-men” who begin to use tools (that is, pick up large bones of animals in their hands), block the way of another group of thirsty “ape-men” who wish to drink from the stream, and the first murder or even “genocide” is carried out by the “ape-men” of increased intelligence. The famous music of Nietzsche’s and Wagner’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, may confirm the idea (somewhat related to that of Nietzsche’s) of the link between reason, “evil”, and technology – all of which represent the Nietzschean “will to power”. Representing the leap of millions of years, the large bone thrown into the air is transformed into a spaceship, taking us immediately to 2001!
The idea suggested by the prologue would seem rather problematic for a traditionalist outlook. First of all, it suggests the inevitability of corrosive technological progress. Secondly, it moves the period of so-called “organic life in love” to such an early, virtually prehuman time. Should one really accept the idea that homo sapiens is a creature of prey – and nothing more?
The actual world of 2001 is shown in incredible detail. There still exist “Cold War” tensions between America and Russia, which have now also been transferred to the Moon, where there are already large bases. The ability to portray and represent in great detail, how life in space or on the moonbase might look, is a very strong aspect of the film.
The fourth part of the movie is a phantasmagoria of surrealism, which allows for very varied interpretations. Some interpret it as essentially the union of the human being with God, which ends with God coming to Earth, in the form of the Star Child. However, it doesn’t seem like the vision of God seen in most human religions.
Barbarella is an open parody of various “space-opera” stereotypes, while extending, at the same time, some of the erotic elements of the subgenre, which were usually just subtexts in more serious works. The movie made explicit some of the more prosaic reasons for the attractiveness of the subgenre to teenage male adolescents. The great 1980s British pop-group, Duran Duran, took the name of the mad scientist figure in the movie.
In the breakthrough year 1968, there also appeared the film The Planet of the Apes, whose great success inspired a long series of films. It represented the arrival of astronauts from Earth on an unknown planet, ruled by intelligent apes, where human beings lived like animals without the capability of speech. The film doubtless raised many kinds of “taboo” topics.
Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern
This long series of novels and stories by Anne McCaffrey is an example of a blending of fantasy and science fiction, although as the series develops, the author has endeavored to work out a solid science-fictional basis for the setting. A human-settled planet remote from Earth, has developed a feudal-like social structure, centered around “dragons” that are telepathically guided by human riders, in order to deal with the fall of the Thread (destructive devouring insentient organisms), that occurs every two hundred years. It is eventually discovered that the dragons were created as part of a genetic engineering project of the earliest human colonists in order to deal with Threadfall, but in the interval, the humans’ technological level has mostly reverted to the medieval.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover
Darkover is also an example of a blending of fantasy and science fiction, positing a human-settled world remote from Earth, where a form of magic exists which is explained as heightened psionic powers.
Andre Norton’s Witch World
Andre Norton was one of the most prominent of the relatively few women working very early and over many decades in the science fiction and fantasy genres. She is probably best known for her long Witch World series – which shows a parallel-Earth where magic works – especially as wielded by women.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea
Ursula K. Le Guin, renowned for her feminist and sociological SF novels, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, also wrote a charming fantasy series, showing a world called Earthsea. Nevertheless, her chief influence has been mainly to give rise to a vast subgenre of feminist/anthropological/ sociological SF.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.