Monday, November 07, 2016

Milestones in Sci-Fi Writing

Anyone’s list of the “best” or “greatest” or “most noteworthy” books is, obviously, subjective, and ultimately, mere opinion. The reader must view such lists, as entertaining as they may be, critically.

In August 2011, NPR published its list of “Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books” on its website. Despite NPR’s many crimes, which prevent any naive acceptance of its reporting, the list is at least thought-provoking.

Like many books on the list, The Forever War is dystopian, depicting a future in which much has gone wrong and little has gone right. The protagonists, a man and a woman named Mandella and Marygay, see what’s wrong and represent the reader’s and narrator’s perspective. Written by Joe Haldeman, the novel conforms to a common sci-fi paradigm.

The Sword of Shannara belongs to the ‘quest’ category of fantasy novels, quite similar to Tolkien’s fiction.

One of the earliest novels about space travel, Out of the Silent Planet is an effort by C.S. Lewis to work with the hypothesis of intelligent life on other planets, as scientists from earth travel first to Mars and then (in a sequel novel) to Venus.

This pattern is reversed in Rendezvous with Rama, when a mysterious spacecraft enters our solar system.

In a variation on the dystopian theme, A Canticle for Leibowitz is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which monks study to recover lost science.

In some plots, the dystopian phase is overcome, and the storyline points to a hopeful future. In Magician, there’s a rift between two worlds and an army from one world invades the other. Peace is only achieved when the main character obtains powers of wizardry and manages to force the end of the war through magic.

Another common device is the “save the world” narrative, e.g., in Dragonflight, where a blight from space will wipe out everything on the planet unless the heroes manage to defeat it. Of course, in sci-fi and fantasy, “save the world” doesn’t necessarily mean our world; often it’s a different planet.

Using artistic liberty, writers often blend elements of the medieval past with a high-tech future. This is the case in Mistborn: The Final Empire. In this book, society has been rigidly stratified into two classes, creating a plot device of political oppression.

In Lord’s Foul Bane, a leper is transported to another world (which he doesn’t believe is real) and is no longer a leper. The people in this world think he’s there to save it from the oncoming evil.

Class structures and political scenarios likewise shape the narrative in The Diamond Age, in which the protagonist, a girl named Nell, aspires to raise herself from the bottommost class.

Exile and expulsion also shape plots. In A Spell for Chameleon, the protagonist has no magical talent and unless he gets one, he will be kicked out of his magical kingdom.

Naturally, Isaac Asimov has to be on a such a list, but in addition to I, Robot, NPR also chose Caves of Steel.

Other obvious inclusions were Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Herbert’s Dune, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Huxley’s Brave New World, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and other titles by Heinlein, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is an interesting choice for the list, as it’s categorization among the “sci-fi and fantasy” titles is somewhat arguable. The list also includes Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

While not definitive, the NPR is at least an introduction to the genres. The plural noun is justified when the reader surveys the diversity of the list.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Education and Peace: The Complexities of the Medieval World

To say anything at all about the Middle Ages is risky, inasmuch as one cannot clearly define the ‘Middle Ages’ in either time or space.

Roughly, it began around 476 A.D. with the fall of the Roman Empire. But arguably it began earlier, with the great migrations of the Völkerwanderungen, and it began later, inasmuch as the afterglow of Roman society lingered after the political leadership was surrendered.

The Middle Ages might be said to end in 1453 with the emergence of mechanical print, or in 1517 with the Reformation, or in 1215 with the Magna Charta, or in the mid-1300s with Petrarch’s writing, or at any other arbitrary but plausible point in time.

In terms of geography, the Middle Ages are often conceptualized as a European phenomenon. But the northernmost regions of Scandinavia and the Slavic regions on the easternmost edges of Europe seem to have taken a separate cultural path, despite being on the continent of Europe. And some Mediterranean islands, North African cities, and parts of Asia Minor engaged in medieval patterns, despite not being on the continent.

Despite this ambiguity, scholars continually explore and reflect on medieval society. Clearly, this era holds an attraction and a fascination. Victor Davis Hanson writes:

The medieval world was a nearly 1,000-year period of spectacular, if haphazard, human achievement.

The medievals laid the foundations for modern mathematics and physics with their ruminations on the structural roles which geometry and algebra play in the universe. Thomas Bradwardine, e.g., worked as one of the ‘Oxford Calculators’ and formulated rules for using exponents in calculating the velocities and accelerations of moving bodies. He died in 1349.

Bradwardine’s work was representative of medieval scholarship, as Hanson notes:

The great medieval universities - at Bologna, Paris and Oxford - continued to make strides in science. They were not unlike the medical and engineering schools at Harvard and Stanford.

It is easy to overlook the common humanity of the medievals. Like most people they generally prefered peace to war, and like most people, they often had to endure wars which they did not want. As historian Irma Simonton Black writes,

The serfs went to the little village churches and prayed, “Oh Lord, let us have peace.”

The medievals, in fact, worked to stop warfare, introducing notions which foreshadowed the modern concept of a ‘ceasefire.’

Medieval society was built on relations of mutual obligation. The nobles were obliged to provide for their serfs, exactly as the serfs were obliged to work for the nobles. This legal bivalency was intended to have equal and reciprocal force.

This represented a departure from the “top down” rule of the Roman Empire. A serf actually had a legal claim upon his lord, while a Roman slave did not.

Concerning these nobles, Irma Simonton Black writes,

Many were kind and generous. They gave their serfs good homes, and if there was a shortage of food, fed their serfs as much as they dared from their own supplies in the castle granary or storehouse.

The political structure of the Middle Ages - mutual obligation - facilitated a climate of intellectual creativity. Roman absolutism had a ‘chilling effect’ on intellectual activity.

The emergence of the university played a key role in medieval thought. Because debate was considered an essential form of instruction, the universities of the Middle Ages, by their very structure, fostered intellectual freedom.

Students at these institutions were required to debate both side of any subject. A thesis was presented, and students worked to produce argumentation, both in support of, and in opposition to, this thesis.

In this way, the medieval European university was a departure from the narrow dogmatism of schools like the Al-Azhar Madrasa in Egypt, where Saladin and other Muslim leaders burned over 100,000 books in the twelfth century.

Likewise, the earliest universities - Bologna is often cited, having been founded around 1088 A.D. - were a departure from the doctrinaire rigidity of institutions like the Al Quaraouiyine Madrasa in Morocco.

The Middle Ages, then, laid the foundations not only for modern science, but also for modern political liberty.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sowing the Seeds of Future Misery: The French Revolution Causes Pain for Centuries

The history of the French Revolution is a complex, shocking, and ultimately depressing narrative of a movement which began by seeking freedom, and ended by destroying freedom to an extent rarely seen in human history.

It started in 1789 with demands for freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, and of belief; with demands for the right “peaceably to assemble;” with demands for fewer taxes and less taxation; with a demand that the government reduce its flagrant spending and avoid national debt; and with demands for the economic opportunities offered by a free and unregulated market.

It ended in 1799, having murdered thousands of men, women, and children because they were merely suspected of harboring affection for the king, because they were merely suspected of engaging in a personal faith in Jesus, or because they merely expressed a political opinion. Censorship was total.

Viewing the ten years of the French Revolution, historian Jonah Goldberg writes, “it is no longer controversial to say that the French Revolution was disastrous and cruel.”

Although many people in various countries applauded it when it began, the vicious public executions of innocent civilians, by means of the guillotine, led the world eventually to decide that “it was fascist.”

Goldberg goes on to note that “the French Revolution is the fons et origo of the” fascist movement, and of other political trends: totalitarianism and statism. The French Revolution is the very antithesis of liberty.

The failure of the French Revolution caused thinkers in Europe and around the world to “look fondly on the American Revolution.” While the French Revolution proclaimed ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ as its slogan, the American Revolution actually achieved those things.

The French Revolution was evil disguising itself in noble words.

To compare the French to the American situations, consider that American women began voting in 1869, fifty years before the 19th amendment; women in France did not vote until 1945.

Consider that the abolition of slavery in the United States was already a stated goal, toward which concrete progress had been made by 1800, while the French Revolution actually imposed a form of slavery on ordinary French citizens.

For a decade, the civilized world was “shuddering at the horrors and follies of Jacobinism. But if the French Revolution was fascist, then its heirs would have to be seen as the fruit of this poisoned tree, and fascism itself would finally and correctly be placed where it belongs in the story of the” development of political movements.

The French Revolution was not only a homicidal rampage inflicted on the French people, but it the source of political misery for the next two centuries: fascism, totalitarianism, statism and dictatorships of various stripes.

It gave birth to Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, Tojo, Lenin, Kim Il-sung, and other murderous tyrants.

The French Revolution is a tragic example of flawed human nature attempting to effectuate a utopia by any means necessary.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Greek Colonization – Searching for a New Home

In the last third of the sixth century B.C., many hundreds of “Samiers”, residents of the Greek island Samos, left their home. Among them was Pythagoras, a well-traveled man, experienced in many areas of knowledge, who, with his wife, his mother, and a servant, emigrated because he found no opportunities in the city to develop himself and make use of his knowledge, because of the rule of a tyrant.

The boat took him to Kroton (today’s Crotone), a Greek city in southern Italy. Like many who sought advice, he had previously turned to the Oracle at Delphi, and took from the utterances of the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, that this would be a good place for him. In fact, Pythagoras founded a school in Kroton, which became very famous. Later, he moved again to Metapont, and continued his teaching and research.

The other Samiers planned a completely new beginning: they wanted to found a town, in which justice would rule, in contrast to the rule of the tyrant on Samos. Therefore, they named their new city in southern Italy “Dikaiarchia” (“the city in which justice rules”). Today it is Pozzuoli near Napoli (Naples).

The history of the people from Samos took place at the end of an era which we call the era of Greek colonization. This was part of Greece's “archaic” era.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Vienna Wanes

Austria is a German-speaking country, and Vienna is its capital. But while most of Austria is culturally Germanic, Vienna's atmosphere is not exclusively Germanic. As the social and political center of a multi-ethnic civilization, Vienna bears the imprint of Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovenes, Bosnians, and others.

This diversity gives the city a certain entertaining variation in cuisine, in music, in literature, in dress, and in language. But there is also a sinister nihilism which emerges among some of the Viennese who find that they identify with nearly nothing.

This is as true of Vienna in the early twenty-first century as it was a hundred years earlier. Historians Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin write:

In the popular imagination, the name "Vienna" is synonymous with Strauss waltzes, charming cafes, tantalizing pastries, and a certain carefree, all-embracing hedonism. To anyone who has scratched this surface even slightly, a very different picture emerges. For all those things that went to make up the myth of Vienna, the City of Dreams, were simultaneously facets of another, darker side of Viennese life.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the military defeat of the Habsburg empire at the hands of Bismarck's Prussia; this was the battle of Sadowa. The economic erosion of the empire's strength was manifest in the crash of the Viennese stock market in 1873.

Austria-Hungary was known as the 'Dual Monarchy' because it was both 'royal' and 'imperial' and the House of Habsburg had been its ruling dynasty for centuries. Until the mid-1800s, the empire and its capital city were a focal point for civilization.

The virtue of Vienna was its blend of strength, creativity, and intellectual liberty. The natural and observational sciences flourished alongside the arts. The aristocracy channeled its traditionalism and authoritarianism into a patronage of the arts, not the control of them.

When Napoleon had dismembered the Holy Roman Empire in 1807, he seemed to permanently threaten the health of culture. But Metternich rescued society from the jaws of destruction at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. The new Habsburg Empire would continue the imperial tradition in Central Europe.

But Metternich's resuscitated dynasty would succumb, not to Napoleon's artillery, but rather to loss of identity which Napoleon inflicted.

The empire's self-concept, and its image among the other nations of the world, lacked some clarity.

Vienna's artistic and scientific achievements lost some meaning and value when they were stripped of the context of a world-class superpower. Vienna's cultural diversity lost sense when it ceased to symbolize unifying influence of the Habsburg dynasty in Central Europe.

The city's ethnic potpourri had been a symbol of the monarchy's political and military domination. When the empire lost its vigor, cultural diversity became merely a lack of orientation.

Scientific and artistic achievement had been the badge of diplomatic and economic supremacy. In the absence of imperial vitality, these accomplishments lost some of their global significance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Failure of the French Revolution: Setting a Pattern

Although the French Revolution ended in 1799, its influence on political and social movements continues today. Although triggered by human impulses which were understandable and perhaps even noble, it was shaped and directed by intellectual frameworks which ultimately caused it not only to fail, but to self-destruct.

Begun with a demand for freedom of speech, it ended with the harshest censorship known at the time. Begun with a demand for freedom of religion, it ended by killing people merely because they were followers of Jesus.

Begun with a demand for people’s participation in governance, it ended with a dictatorship more tyrannical that the monarchy it replaced. Begun with a demand for an end to hereditary rule, it ended by paving the way for a self-proclaimed emperor who would, in turn, give way to the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty.

What was the built-in flaw of the French Revolution? In part, it confused society with government.

The French Revolution sought to change not only the government, but also society. Political problems need political solutions, while social problems need social solutions. As historian Jonah Goldberg writes,

Whatever else it may have been, however, one thing is clear: the French Revolution was the first totalitarian revolution, the mother of modern totalitarianism, and the spiritual model for the Italian Fascist, German Nazi, and Russian Communist revolutions. A nationalist-populist uprising, it was led and manipulated by an intellectual vanguard determined to replace Christianity with a political religion that glorified “the people,” anointed the revolutionary vanguard as their priests, and abridged the rights of individuals. A Robespierre put it, “The people is always worth more than individuals … The people is sublime, but individuals are weak” — or, at any rate, expendable.

Because the French Revolution sought to control both society and government, it was a totalitarian movement. It wanted to control and redesign every aspect of culture and civilization - which meant that the ordinary individual had almost no liberty.

As the leadership of the French Revolution became more and more paranoid, the few executions which began the Revolution increased and became indiscriminate. Historian estimate deaths from the ‘Reign of Terror’ total between 20,000 and 75,000.

Further casualties were the result of the war declared by the French Revolutionary government on April 20, 1792 against Austria. Even more fatalities arose when the Revolutionary government imposed price controls on food in September 1793, causing a collapse of the agricultural production, and causing thousands of deaths from famine.

Although the French Revolution was, itself, a failure, it created a pattern which shaped many later revolutionary movements.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Modern European Anti-Semitism Emerges

Europe has seen anti-Semitism in various forms over the centuries: in 1290 A.D., King Edward I issued an edict of expulsion, designed to remove all Jews from England. There had already been a partial expulsion of Jews from France in 1182.

After the Reformation, Lutherans and Roman Catholics, having had to learn to live with each other, also extended more tolerance toward the Jews. This is seen, e.g., in the 1555 treaty signed at Augsburg.

Eventually, Jews returned to both England and France. The good times didn’t last, however.

When Louis XIV annexed, in 1648, the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine - called ‘Elsass’ and ‘Lothringen’ - he at first was prepared to eliminate all Jews in those territories, and relented only when he saw economic advantages in keeping them. He did, however, expel all Jews from Martinique and the French West Indies in 1683.

Frederick the Great, however, welcomed Jews in Prussia.

Technological developments brought about the industrialization of western Europe. Socialist movements arose as a reaction against the capitalism which fueled, and was fueled by, this industrialization.

Socialism was not kind to the Jews. It contained within itself two different types of anti-Semitism, as Lucy Dawidowicz writes:

Hostility to the Jews began to emerge from the newly developing socialist movement. That anti-Jewish outlook had two sources: first, the atheist, anti-Christian bias condemning Judaism as the antecedent of Christianity, and second, the anticapitalist ideology that depicted the Jew as the embodiment of capitalism, the banker, the middleman, the parasitic profiteer.

Examining the terminology, it is to be noted that ‘anti-Jewish’ is more accurate than ‘anti-Semitic’ - the word ‘Semitic’ includes many ethnic groups which are not Jewish.

As the concept of a republic formed by freely-elected representatives became widespread in parts of Europe, the question arose as to suffrage for the Jews. Would the Jews have full citizenship?

Jews were, in fact, full citizens with voting rights across much of central Europe in the mid to late nineteenth century, but the voices against civil rights for Jews grew louder:

First to articulate this leftist anti-Semitism was Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who in 1842 published an article on the Jewish question, which he supplemented and issued the following year as a separate book, Die Judenfrage. In this work he argued against political equality for the Jews.

Among the Jews, there were those who remained orthodox, and those who adopted the attitude of assimilationism. Both groups were able to find their ways to professional success in the business world, but neither group was exempt from anti-Jewish rhetoric.

Bruno Bauer rejected Christianity, and hoped to rid the world of it. He understood Judaism as a foundation of Christianity, and in order to destroy either, he sought to destroy both.

Orthodox Judaism was, in his view, an anachronistic phenomenon, whereas Reform Judaism was worthless; the Jews had never contributed to the civilization of the world.

In contrast to Bauer, Karl Marx used his materialistic understanding of society to interpret Judaism, not primarily as a religion, but as an economic problem. Like Bauer, Marx rejected both Christianity and Judaism.

Marx quickly embraced militant atheism. Bauer came only later to the same cause. Initially, therefore, Marx and Bauer were in disagreement over this question.

As a materialistic atheist, then, Marx’s disagreement with Judaism was not that it represented a falsehood or an untruth. In Marx’s mind, Judaism was false, but no more so than any other religion.

Marx’s chief attack on Judaism was based on its economic effects. In Marx’s brand of materialism, social questions of culture and religion are ultimately reduced to economics. Lucy Dawidowicz notes:

Marx disputed Bauer’s ideas on the ground that his view of the Jews as a religious group was distorted. The true Jewish religion, Marx argued, was Schacher (haggling, huckstering) and their god was money.

Bauer eventually joined Marx in this line of thought. This harmony between the two thinkers formed a basis for a renewed and more dangerous anti-Jewish trend in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Societal Analyses: the Atoms of Civilization

Philosophers have considered the enormous complexity of human society and sought the basic building-blocks of that structure. With surprising uniformity, separated by thousands of miles and several centuries, thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and Confucius reach similar conclusions.

Both of them see several basic human relationships as foundational to society. Recursively combining and rearranging these relationships leads to the complexity.

For Aristotle, there were three primary relationships: parent-child, husband-wife, and employer-employee. To those, Confucius adds two more: friend-friend and sibling-sibling.

These three or five simple valences still form a powerful conceptual framework in sociology.

Dietrich von Horn, however, proposes a different lens through which to view human civilization. Rather than asking about the primary relationships, he asks about the primary occupations.

What are the foundational core tasks which humans perform? These vocations - the tasks to which people are ‘called’ - will yield, again by recursive combinations and arrangements, the many other roles and functions which people have in society.

Just as atoms constitute molecules and physical objects, so these essential trades are ‘atomic’ vis-a-vis society.

Identifying four atomic callings - clergy, farmer, physician, teacher - Dietrich von Horn writes:

Eigentlich gibt es doch nur vier richtige Berufe auf der Welt: Das sind der Pastor, der Bauer, der Arzt und der Lehrer. Nur sie müssen sich mit den wirklichen Dingen des Lebens auseinandersetzen: Wie finde ich mein Seelenheil, wer versorgt mich mit Nahrung, wer heilt mich und wer gibt mir die Bildung, die ich brauche, um im späteren Leben zurechtzukommen? Im Idealfall sollte das funktionieren, aber leider kommt einem immer das Leben dazwischen, also die Unvollkommenheit der Menschen.

Dietrich von Horn’s insight lies in his anticipation of the effects of fallenness in the world. Ideally, these four foundational callings, together with the universe of other callings which arise from them, would lead to a smoothly-functioning society.

But no analysis, and no corresponding plan, for society achieves that utopian result, because people are imperfect. Whether we follow Aristotle, Confucius, or Dietrich von Horn, we are confronted by the inescapable conclusion that every human being is flawed, which entails that every society will be flawed.

This does not mean that we should give up hope for the human race. Rather, a sober realism reveals the importance of forgiveness.

If perfection is expected, disappointment will result. If imperfection is anticipated, forgiveness is easier to extend, and constructive activity more quickly resumed.