What’s wrong with relative obscurity?

Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradise languishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development. […]

The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.

–Will Collins, The Secret History of Dune

Though it’s probably beyond the scope of this kind of review, I wish Collins had dug further into the comparative stylistic cues of these two books. At least half of the review traces the direct influences on Herbert’s lexical and structural borrowings, while the latter half never really explicates what makes Lesley Blanch’s prose so masterful. On the one hand, I feel like Collins wants to recommend The Sabres of Paradise on its own merits as a literary historical work. On the other hand, the entire structure of his review suggests that, without considering its influence on a much more canonical work, Blanch’s minor masterpiece is more minor than masterpiece — and thus more or less justly overlooked. Collins’s description of the climax, for instance, gives me no sense of how Blanch depicts it or why it’s so successful in transforming a minor historical moment into a narrative climax of transcendent significance.

In writing about literary history, it seems to me that there’s no shame in simply acknowledging that a minor or mostly-forgotten work is made more interesting by its influence on a major, more canonical work. Such minor masterpieces are often fascinating and well-written in their own right, but I don’t see the need to pretend that, by themselves, they’re more than that. At the end of the review, Collins analogizes the influence of Blanch on Herbert to the influence of Edward Gibbon on Isaac Asimov. I get the point, and it’s fair to a certain extent, except for this: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was and remains fairly widely-read, and was certainly close to canonical among intellectuals for more than a century. Anyone interested in the history of civilization qua “civilization” has heard of it or read at least a part of it. And it’s supposed to be damn good. It didn’t just influence the Foundation series; it influenced the entire field of historiography, and as a popular account of the collapse of the Roman Empire, it has had an incalcuable impact.

Collins can only claim for Blanch a sizeable impact upon a single science fiction series. Based upon his review, I’m persuaded that said impact was, indeed, sizeable. But Lesley Blanch is not Edward Gibbon, and it is no sleight to acknowledge that she’s not. Guiding the mind that conjured Arrakis is actually pretty cool. Given the sheer volume of written material that is forgotten by literary history, making into the footnotes is not unimpressive. Perhaps we should value the footnotes more instead of trying to give every minor masterpiece its own chapter heading, which is flatly impractical. After all, being relatively obscure is better than being totally forgotten.

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Politics of ruin

Every dystopia is a history of the future. What are the consequences of a literature, even a pulp literature, of political desperation? “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties. “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.” But what was really happening then was that the genre and its readers were sorting themselves out by political preference, following the same path—to the same ideological bunkers—as families, friends, neighborhoods, and the news. In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the first month of the Administration of Donald (“American carnage”) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, “1984” jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. (Steve Bannon is a particular fan of a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which Europe is overrun by dark-skinned immigrants.) The duel of dystopias is nothing so much as yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

–Jill Lepore, A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction

Chronological snobbery.

Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility. The eight-year-old despises the six-year-old and rejoices to be getting such a big boy; the schoolboy is very determined not to be a child, and the freshman not to be a schoolboy. If we are resolved to eradicate, without examining them on their merits, all the traits of our youth, we might begin with this–with youth’s characteristic chronological snobbery. And what then would become of the criticism which attaches so mch importance to being adult and instils a fear and shame of any enjoyment we can share with the very young?

–C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), p. 73

“At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.”

The Vatican is an imposing enough place to speak, especially for a Southern Baptist, so I guess I can plead that my mind was distracted with nervousness. I waited in line with several friends and colleagues of various communions and denominations to enter the center of the Church of Rome to attend a gathering, called by Pope Francis, of religious leaders from around the world to talk about marriage and family. Going through security, I fished in my coat pocket for my passport. The problem was that I had worn the same suit the week before, lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at an Evangelical seminary. Without thinking, I pulled out what I took to be my passport, only to find that I was handing the Swiss Guard a pocket-size copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

As I made a fumbling attempt to put the little booklet away and find the right documentation, I wondered which of my grandparents would be more ashamed of me: my Roman Catholic grandmother, for my ushering the tumult of the 16th century right there to the pope’s door; my Baptist-preacher grandfather, for entering the Vatican at all; or all of my grandparents together — Evangelicals and Catholics alike — for my violation of southern manners. My awkwardness was all my own, though. The Swiss Guards didn’t recognize the 95 theses, and my American Catholic colleagues roared with laughter. At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.

–Russell Moore, The Reformation at 500

Politics as fandom.

Fandom is an especially fertile lens through which to view such questions, because fandom is premised on shared passion, and that shared passion creates tribal affinities and emotional attachments that obliterate rational thought. (If you want to analyze digging-in-your-heels, against-all-evidence self-justification, look at fan behavior.) We can see the real-world consequences of fandom when we turn to politics. Much of the vomitorious 2016 U.S. election was a clash of fandoms: Bernie fans versus Hillary fans versus Donnie fans. The U.S. is so besotted with celebrity culture that we’ve handed our fate over to perceptions of politics that are the intellectual equivalent of liking or disliking a Kardashian. Fascism doesn’t need the leader principle anymore; it thrives much better in the politics of style and image.

–Matthew Cheney, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Enigma and apocalypse

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

–Alan Jacobs, Tolkein’s riddles

A place where aggression and consensus go together

Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today’s corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired. He fancies himself as an intellectual boot-boy, the scourge of wimpish pluralists and Nancy-boy liberals, and that ominous bulge in his jacket is not to be mistaken for a volume of Milton. […]

In the teeth of all such soppy consensus, Fish is a Hobbesian and Machiavellian who enjoys conflict, believes only in what he can taste and handle, and likes to win. He sees his dislike of universal essences as anti-Platonic, though much of the time this is just a high-toned way of saying that he has the outlook on life of an estate agent. It is unclear how winning and intolerance go together, since you cannot be said to have beaten a rival whom you have tethered to the starting blocks; but it is clear enough how this philosophy, which Fish implicitly recommends as universally valid, fits rather better with being the dean of a US university at the turn of the millennium than it does with being a sixth-century Scottish hermit.

To refer to Fish the Dean, however, is to reveal the fact that there are two Fishes, Little and Big. Little Fish is a sabre-rattling polemicist given to scandalously provocative pronouncements: truth is rhetoric, free speech is an illusion, unprincipled behaviour is best. Big Fish is the respectable academic who will instantly undercut the force of these utterances by insisting that they are descriptive rather than normative. Far from being radical recommendations, they simply describe what we do anyway without always knowing it, and ‘theory’, the Trumps of this world will be relieved to learn, thus has no effect whatsoever on practice. Anti-foundationalism is therefore unlikely to alienate the New York foundations, and Fish can buy his reputation as an iconoclast on the cheap.

Little Fish is in hot pursuit of a case which will succeed in alienating absolutely everyone; he is the cross-grained outsider who speaks up for minorities, and himself Jewish, comes from one such cultural margin. Big Fish, by contrast, has a consensual, good-boy disdain for rebels, whose behaviour is in his eyes just as convention-bound as those they lambast. It is fortunate for this schizoid character that there is a place where aggression and consensus go together. It is known as the US corporation, of which the campus is a microcosm. In academia, you can hammer your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that, since you all subscribe to the same professional rules, it doesn’t really mean a thing.

–Terry Eagleton, The Estate Agent, a review of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle (1999)

The only viable platforms for resisting globalism?

Though her tale is one of disillusionment, Smith never completely renounces the ideal of multiculturalism, even if the version she now espouses is less naïve, even jaded. Being a bobo needn’t be something to be ashamed of: for Smith, it means embracing a certain idea of community, what the French call le vivre-ensemble (“living together”) — the conviction that individuality is only fully realized in complex communal settings. Yet her nuanced portrait of her family’s decade in Belleville shows just how difficult it can be to adopt a coherent worldview in the face of changes brought on by globalization. Has multiculturalism become the worldview of an educated, mobile, and globalized elite? Do identity politics and a kind of ethnic separatism offer the only viable platform for resisting globalization’s most destructive tendencies? The merit of Smith’s book is that it forces us to grapple with these questions, which are likely to define our historical moment for years to come.

–Michael C. Behrent, Bobos in Paris: The Rise and Fall of a Multicultural Fantasy (review of Geraldine Smith’s Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud: Une vie de famille entre barbus et bobos)

Deep thoughts from the political science chair of Handwavia University

Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs. George Orwell’s 1984, inspired in part by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, imagined a world divided among three totalitarian blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction.

Typically, as noted above, science fiction authors posit a united world under benign or tyrannical world government. How our present divided world came to be united in the future is seldom explained. Science fiction authors are notorious for getting out of plot holes by inventing new technologies like “handwavium.” The political equivalent of handwavium is the World Federation of Handwavia.

Global political unification is becoming less, not more, likely.

Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.

—Michael Lind, The Future of the Future

It’s fair enough, I suppose, to say that a great deal of futuristic sf assumes a one-world government of some sort. But to say, “I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” seems to beg two questions. 1.) Do you know nothing about sf? 2.) What do you mean by “well-known”?

I mean, 1984 is commonly taught in high schools here in the U.S., and I suspect it’s taught in other English-speaking countries, too. So if by “well-known,” Lind means “part of compulsory education” or “absorbed into common parlance by cultural osmosis,” he still stands on shaky ground.

Let’s consider some counter-examples.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887, probably the preeminent American utopian novel, catapulted its protagonist from the late 19th c. to the end of the 20th., into a Boston that exemplified a nation run somewhere halfway between socialist and fascist principles. Even in that future, where everything was hunky-dory in the U.S., Bellamy is careful to point out that not every nation had reached that height of development, and that America was trying to make inroads through trade and diplomacy. Not many people read Bellamy today outside of academic circles or sf fandom, but Looking Backward was huge in its day. And by “huge,” I mean that it directly impact the shape of domestic politics and served as a touchstone for two generations of political activists and reformers.

Authors who relied often upon the one-world trope still imagined futures where the world was not united. Robert Heinlein’s Moon Is a Harsh Mistress presents an Earth vs. Moon political scenario in order to distill his anarcho-libertarian politics into the pure essence of TANSTAAFL. However, the human-Martian protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land receives help from a cranky old lawyer in leveraging the various governments of the world against each other in order to preserve his own political freedom. It’s probably true that people outside sf fandom have read a ton of Heinlein, but he is unquestionably one of the most significant artists of the genre, and Stranger in a Strange Land was notable for being the first sf novel to hit the NYT Bestseller list.

Another subset of science fiction, one more overtly interested in historiography, presents the sweep of history on such a scale that one-world utopia (or dystopia) is but one part of humanity’s evolution. A particularly trenchant example is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which never once assumes that humanity got over nationalism (or other forms of tribalism). Instead, it presumes that we managed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust not once but twice in the course of millennia. The only visions of the future presented there are of varying shades of provincialism. With this novel, though, we are drifting further and further from the realm of popular literature and more into the depths of sf fandom. Despite its nearly-uncontested status as a canonical work of sf, it is admittedly primarily of interest to academics and genre fans. Yet it seems to me that if Lind is going to contend that the elites have been heavily influenced by sf, doesn’t it follow that he expects them to be somewhat familiar with its classics? No?

Contemporary film and television are probably closer to what Lind means. (Maybe?) While Star Trek is likely the most famous future to feature a utopian one-world government at the seat of a galactic federation, other shows and films are not so sanguine. Defiant depicts a near-future after Earth has been through an alien invasion, and new national governments are in the process of attempting to hegemonize the city-states that have thrived since the fall of the world governments. The time travel series Continuum’s future is (as I recall, though it’s been a while since I watched the pilot) a quasi-corporate police state.

Then again, I wouldn’t categorize Defiant or Continuum as “well-known.” Neither enjoys canonical status. Neither is common cultural currency. I would even argue that the most popular science fiction titles tend not to be futuristic. The most well-known are almost all set in a parallel present. Disney’s partnership with Marvel has yielded a juggernaut money-making machine, and films and shows like Agents of SHIELD and the Captain America films are explicitly in touch with the changes superhumans would wreak upon geopolitics. Lind writes elsewhere in his article, “Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness.” That’s simply untrue. Those themes are absolutely part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Other well-known film and TV examples abound. What about District 9? Or Stargate SG-1? Oh, that’s right. They have interplanetary wars with aliens, and those don’t count.

(Almost forgot that part, didn’t you?)

Why don’t interplanetary wars count? Why not wars with robots or zombies? Why does Lind dispense with half the bedrock tropes of science fiction before staking his major claim? What is the point of chastising science fiction as a whole when he’s really only talking about a tiny fraction of it?

Most science-fiction readers would recognize the contours of today’s geopolitics in everything from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s not even taking into account the complicated political worlds of cyberpunk, ranging from William Gibson’s Sprawl stories to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to take-your-pick of anime. All of these are totally typical representatives of sf. Some of them even have cachet beyond sf circles. An argument so contingent upon the particularities of sf ought not, in good faith, frame an argument so as to exclude the vast majority of available evidence.

Yet the only way Lind’s argument makes any sense at all is if he defines his parameters so narrowly that the only science fiction that fits them is not sufficiently “well-known.” That just seems like the essayistic equivalent of reversing the polarity of handwavium. If Lind “can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” perhaps he’s suffering from handwavium poisoning.

 

UPDATE (19 Oct 2016): After publishing this, I realized that I should acknowledge Lind’s larger point, which is to critique the elitist notion that history will culminate in a universal liberal-democratic government. I understand that, for him, the sf stuff is a means to that end. But it’s a really, really bad choice as a means to that particular end, and just as Lind undervalues the variety and complexity of sf, I suspect he overlooks the variety and complexity of the ways that the elite understand the trajectory of history.