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.


Only a kind of obsessive monoculture

Ms. Tippett: … I want to take a slight diversion, which I don’t think is completely a diversion, which is your love of science fiction and the way science fiction is in your fiction. And I also love science fiction, and my story is not your story, but I grew up in a very small town and went to Brown, which was like going to a different planet. And you came from Santo Domingo to central New Jersey; it was like a different planet. And for the very first time, when I was reading you, and the science fiction references keep jumping out at me, including “Fear is the mind-killer,” it occurred to me that science fiction is there for people who change worlds. What did you say a little while ago? You were talking, also, about that numinous world that — the sense that there are many worlds within the world. I just kind of wanted to note that. I mean — and it’s not an escape. It’s actually revealing or kind of opening your imagination to vast cosmic possibilities that aren’t immediately reflected in the world around you.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, it could be an escape, but I do find science fiction to be — for me has been an excellent literary technology for understanding our many worlds, for understanding what’s been disavowed about our societies, for understanding our political unconscious. It’s really — science fiction is really good to think, man. And for some folks, the aliens and all the stuff about otherness is just surface titillation. For others of us, it becomes a source for theorizing about real-world alterity and alternate possibilities. And that’s the way I reacted to science fiction, in some ways. For me, science fiction offered the possibility of different ways of being and of ways of possibly overcoming the cage that surrounded us.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and another reference that I feel is kind of in the ether right now is this Whitman line of “I contain multitudes.” It’s come up a lot, lately, and you invoke that in the context of a question about what is America — that there are these multiple Americas. I wonder how your long view of time, your rootedness in the whole sweep of history, of your ancestors, of your people as the ground on which you stand in the present, how that speaks to you about multiple Americas and how to live with this, generatively.

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean shoot. It’s a question that has bedeviled the New World and bedeviled societies for a long time. I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes. I just — when I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing. We’re going to have to practice a democracy that we’ve yet to define or even lay down the first four bricks of. There’s nothing about our impoverished political systems, our imagined communities, that is going to be able to hold us together in the face of the coming storm of climate change. We need a lot more than we have. And the fact that so many of us are scared by our multiplicity shows you how much work we have to do.

Our multiplicity is our damn strength. There is no getting around it. People want to make it the danger. People want to make it the problem. No, it’s only going to be the problem if we don’t make it our strength. And you don’t want to be so fantastically reductive, but really, at an operational level, it’s really what it comes down to — either we’re going to embrace humanity and figure out how we can all live together and work together to overcome the damage that certain sectors of us have inflicted on the planet, or we’re not. And I, for one, think eventually there’s — I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people. But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

Junot Díaz in conversation with Krista Tippett

This is a fascinating, somewhat confusing exchange. Díaz and Tippett link sf to alterity, and they link alterity to the plurality inherent in systems of democracy. So far, so good. But Díaz alludes to the Babel story to illustrate the notion that humanity has struggled with multiculturalism for millennia. “God struck down humans by making them more diverse.” Hm, okay. If language is a metonym for all diversity, sure. And if scattering people to diverse areas around the globe equals “striking down,” I guess. But then he says, “Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing.” This is the confusing part. To which “obsessive monoculture” is he referring? Who sees what part of that as a terrible thing?

I suppose that Babel often serves as a kind of metaphor for irreconcilable breakdowns in communication. Fair enough. And we do, I further suppose, generally think of communication breakdowns as bad things. But that’s us: the generations raised to believe in the rightness of democratic politics. Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t take exception to Díaz labeling we 21st-century moderns as a kind of obsessive monoculture. But I don’t think that he’s doing that.

God’s reason for scattering the people is that if they succeed in building their city and its tower to heaven, then “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” There’s not much elaboration there. I’m confident that theologians over the centuries have spilled much ink and hot air over why God really confused humanity’s languages or the myriad things the story signifies. On the most basic level, it simply seems that God did not think it good that humans find nothing to be impossible, and it’s worth meditating on why God would place barriers in front of people reaching for radical possibilities of self-definition and agency.

This kind of meditation is something sf is really good at. And one might even generalize that stories modeled on the story of Babel tend to emphasize the hubris, avarice, and cowardice of leaders who want to place themselves on the same plane as God at the expense of common people and the natural world.

That still doesn’t help me understand which “obsessive monoculture” Díaz refers to or precisely why invoking the Babel story helps us understand why it would view multiplicity as such a terrible thing. Perhaps he meant nothing more than to imply some sort of intrinsic correlation between the Bible and fear of the Other. But, you know, so it goes.


Not alone in the universe

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

–Clay Routledge, Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s

Routledge ends with this: “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?”

Science fiction capabilities, not scientific capabilities

Many of Rid’s tales unfold in the Defense Department and in the General Electric factory in Schenectady, New York, where Vietnam-driven businessmen, engineers, and government men created (unsuccessful) prototypes of robot weapons, and where Kurt Vonnegut sets his first novel, the cybernetics-inspired Player Piano. It turns out, although Rid does not say this in so many words, that science fiction has been as instrumental in the rise of the digital as any set of switches. Consider, for example, the creation of the Agile Eye helmet for Air Force pilots who need to integrate “cyberspace” (their term) with meatspace. The officer in charge reports, according to Rid, “We actually used the same industrial designers that had designed Darth Vader’s helmet.” This fluid movement between futuristic Hollywood design, science fiction, and the DOD is a recurring feature of Rise of the Machines. Take the NSA’s internal warning that “[l]aymen are beginning to expect science fiction capabilities and not scientific capabilities” in virtual reality. Or Rid’s account of the so-called “cypherpunks” around Timothy May. Their name was cribbed from the “cyberpunk” science fiction genre (“cypher” refers to public-key encryption), and they were inspired by novels like Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981), one on a list of recommended books for the movement on which not a single nonfiction text figures.

–Leif Weatherby, The Cybernetic Humanities

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.

It can happen here.

By Andy Marlette.
By Andy Marlette.

Clinton was always going to have a tough time governing. Yes, the 2016 election gave her a narrow three-seat Democratic majority in the Senate, but the GOP held the House — and once Paul Ryan was deposed as speaker in a post-election coup and replaced by pro-Trump firebrand Dana Rohrabacher, there was no chance the incoming president would get anything done. Still, few predicted that people would look back at the inside-the-beltway dysfunction of the Obama years as a golden age of governing.

With three federal government shutdowns and a (failed) presidential impeachment trial in the last two and a half years, there has been no time to address the nation’s problems — above all the slow-motion collapse of the Affordable Care Act. With Trump and his on-air talent railing nightly against President Clinton and her Republican “lap dogs” for trying to fix HillaryCare (nee ObamaCare) rather than letting it die, Congress did nothing as hundreds of thousands and then millions were dropped from health insurance or faced a choice of devastating rate hikes or tax penalties for failing to maintain coverage.

It’s been appalling but also unsurprising. Republicans first experienced this kind of thing back in the 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh began to use his radio show to motivate thousands of listeners to barrage their representatives in Congress with phone calls and faxes, keeping them in line and ensuring they never compromised with Democrats. With Trump TV leading the charge every night of the week (with ratings double what the now-flagging Fox News once brought in), congressional Republicans have felt their feet held to a white-hot roaring fire. No wonder no one has dared to break from the lockstep march to bring down Crooked Hillary.
–Damon Linker, After Trump loses: An ominous American future imagined

On Filiarchy

Let me state, by the bye, that though I’ve criticized it at great (even excessive) length, The Dispossessed is a rich and wondrous tale. It’s a boy’s book: a book to make boys begin to think and think seriously about a whole range of questions, from the structure of society to the workings of their own sexuality. Our society is often described as patriarchal— a society ruled by aging fathers concerned first and foremost with passing on the patrimony. At the risk of being glib, however, I’d suggest that it might be more accurate to say that we have a filiarchal society— a society ruled almost entirely by sons— by very young men. Certainly boys— especially white heterosexual boys— are the most privileged creatures in the Western social hierarchy. They are forgiven almost everything in life— and are forgiven everything in art. Indeed, if the society were a bit more patriarchal instead of being so overwhelmingly filiarchal, it might function just a bit more sanely. But since it doesn’t, there’s still a great deal to be said for a good boy’s book. And for a woman’s writing it. And nothing stops women and girls from reading boys’ books and learning from them. I mean The Dispossessed is a boy’s book the way Huckleberry Finn is a boy’s book; and, unlike Huckleberry Finn, the boy in The Dispossessed is held up to the man he will become again and again, chapter by chapter, beginning to end. (The real tragedy of Huckleberry is that the best he can hope to grow up into, personally and historically, is the sociopathic narrator of Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”)

—Samuel R. Delany, “The Second Science-Fiction Studies Interview: Of Trouble with Triton and Other Matters” (1986)

Throwing stones

“The estrangement of Verne’s early voyages is limited to a transient pleasure in adventure, and the cognition to adding one technical innovation or bit of locomotive know-how (as the Moon projectile) to an unchanged world. His ‘novel of science’ can be compared to a pool after a stone has been thrown into it: there is a ripple of excitement on the surface, the waves go to the periphery and back to their point of origin, and everything settles down as it was, with the addition of one discrete fact — the stone at the bottom of the pool.” — Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction