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Category Archives: Science Fiction

A Canticle for Walter Miller

Sometimes it’s best not to know what a book is about until you open it. I’ve spoiled plenty of stories for myself by reading up on them too much. (And then there’s my most recent Youtube crime, which is accidentally finding out which Harry Potter characters die before reading through the series because those videos keep showing up in the sidebar.)

I had heard the title A Canticle for Leibowitz before. Then I saw a blurb for it, saying it was written against nuclear warfare. Okay, I thought. I wonder why the word “canticle” is in the title? That sounds like a churchy type of thing. This is science fiction.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2005-0004,_Italien,_Monte_Cassino

The Monte Cassino monastery after the bombing (German Federal Archive).

I guess I had assumed that C. S. Lewis was the only important science fiction writer to pay much attention to Christianity. I now stand corrected. Walter M. Miller Jr. was a World War II veteran who had seen the horrors of war first hand. A gunner in the Army Air Corps, he took part in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy. Intelligence from the ground had led his commanders to believe that German troops were camped in the monastery–the monastery from which the Benedictine Order sprang. So the Air Corps bombed the monastery. Only rubble was left. 230 Italian civilians were killed. But no Germans died that day. They had not been staying there, and only after they decided the rubble would make excellent cover did they take refuge at the monastery. Miller never forgot the bombing. He probably had post-traumatic stress disorder, but in those days no such disorder existed on the books. After the war ended, Miller converted to Catholicism and developed strong anti-war inclinations.

Miller was primarily a short story writer. But in 1960 he published A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel he completed during his lifetime. The backstory to the novel goes like this. The human race is stupid and sets off enough nuclear bombs to destroy life as we know it. People blame scientists and other well-educated individuals for the problem. They destroy books. They stop learning to read. Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a scientist who had been involved in nuclear research, repented for his role in the disaster and converted to Catholicism. But he saw how quickly the culture was being dismantled, and he started a religious order devoted to preserving the few books that were not burned. Until Leibowitz himself is burned by an angry mob. The novel chronicles the struggles of the Leibowitzian Order–first to survive amid the ruins of civilization, and then as civilization becomes advanced enough to destroy itself.

While opposition to nuclear war is the background, the novel offers many other questions. What is the value of preserving knowledge you do not understand? Can science limit itself, even when the safety of millions may be at stake? How should Christians respond when no one respects their point of view?

The novel includes some profound passages on suicide and euthanasia, which make Miller’s own death more tragic. Clearly, he believed–at least at the time he wrote the novel–that suicide is a sin. But in January 1996 he shot himself in the head. His wife had recently died. He was depressed. He had never really recovered from seeing the Monte Cassino bombed into the ground. And so Miller, whose passages on suicide are some of the most profound fictional meditations on the subject that I have read, died by his own hand.

I wonder, though, whether Miller could have written what he did had he not understood why someone might commit suicide. He understood. He fought. He failed. As we all do, at different times and in different ways.

A Canticle for Leibowitz ends on a grim note. Nuclear war has destroyed the earth for a second time. Yet Miller suggests that there is still hope. Out of ugliness, God brings redemption. And no bomb, however powerful, can change that.

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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Science Fiction

 

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When an Anti-War Novel Isn’t

I never thought about how postmodernism would affect an anti-war novel before I read Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve read a few other pieces of anti-war fiction–Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Mark Twain’s short story “The War Prayer”–but this was an entirely different experience.

All Quiet on the Western Front and “The War Prayer” have disparities beyond the fact that one is long and the other is short. Remarque wrote a bloody novel about the horrors of war. Twain’s story was a satirical look at how Christians, supposedly serving the Prince of Peace, can glorify the destruction of their enemies, ignoring Christ’s command to love them. Yet both stories share a common theme–people often hold unrealistic and even evil attitudes toward armed conflict, but they shouldn’t. They certainly don’t have to.

It’s hard to write a novel where the characters do not have free will. Flannery O’Connor, in fact, considered it nearly impossible: “I don’t think any genuine novelist is interested in writing about a world of people who are mostly determined. Even if he writes about characters who are mostly unfree, it is the sudden free action, the open possibility, which he knows is the only thing capable of illuminating the picture and giving it life.”

O’Connor died five years before Kurt Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five. I wonder what she would have thought of it—an anti-war novel, now considered a sci-fi classic, in which none of the characters really have free will. For those who haven’t read the book, an American prisoner of war named Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time and jumps back and forth from Nazi Germany to a planet called Tralfamadore (where he is put in the zoo) to his post-war days as an optometrist. In fact, he hops through time all the way to his murder as an old man, and then back to Nazi Germany, where he is imprisoned with the man who is going to kill him.

The Tralfamadorians, Billy discovers, see a fourth dimension—time. They see their own lives, and others’ lives, all at once. To a Tralfamadorian, death is an unfortunate moment in a person’s life, not a linear end. It isn’t a tragedy. The Tralfamadorian response to death is the phrase, “So it goes.” They also try to focus on the happy spots in their lives. But, to them, all time exists at once, so free will isn’t even something that they understand. Billy Pilgrim adopts their peculiar blend of apathetic happiness and applies it to everything, from his own death to the American firebombing of Dresden, the city where he was held prisoner.

After reading the book, George Will evidently accused Vonnegut of trivializing the Holocaust. Vonnegut returned the favor by calling Will an “owlish nitwit.” Vonnegut said he had intended no such thing; rather, he was expressing shock at the aftermath of the Dresden bombing, which he had witnessed. The Holocaust, contended Vonnegut, was about man’s inhumanity to man. Dresden was about the inhumanity of man’s inventions to man.

Thus the accusations by others that Vonnegut advocates quietism–simple resigned acceptance to the status quo. “So it goes.” Does Vonnagut himself take the same position as the one held by the Tralfamadorians and by Billy? I doubt it, given Vonnegut’s strident opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Postmodern works are, by their very nature, difficult to pin down. But maybe that is the problem.

Slaughterhouse-Five stands apart from earlier anti-war writings. It succeeded in bringing attention to the injustice of the Dresden firebombing. In that sense, it was successfully anti-war. But another thing is clear. Where the characters do not have–or apparently do not have–free will, there can be no ringing condemnation of anything. To Billy Pilgrim, if not to Vonnegut himself, Dresden was regrettable, but unavoidable. It was horrible and unnecessary, but no one was to blame. I have begun to ask myself, Is it possible to write a postmodern novel that actually condemns unjust warfare?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that if “So it goes” is what people mean when they say that good and evil are not black and white, then I want no part of it. We are responsible for our actions. We are even responsible for our machines.

 

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2014 in Science Fiction

 

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Running from Zombies

mjM8uvcV5kG4T__npuOzVFgI remember reading, perhaps a year ago, an article questioning the popularity of zombies. The author contended that watching zombie movies fed people’s feeling of superiority, gratifying the impulses that used to be fulfilled by Indians and other groups now protected by political correctness. We like to dehumanize our enemies, and zombie stories are a perfect example.

I’m not into zombies. My mother used to say I liked blood and guts (I was a Civil War buff as a teen), but that isn’t actually true. Add that to my avoidance of anything in the horror genre, and you have someone who will never make a zombie fan. But since I read that article, I have come to actually know a few zombie lovers, and I have come to a few conclusions.

  1. The people who love zombie stories the most often aren’t the ones who are most likely to dehumanize their real-life enemies.
  2.  Most cultures have folklore including dehumanized monsters. And must a dehumanized monster be interpreted as symbolic of a human enemy? What about nonhuman foes—nature, old age, death?
  3.  Zombies are horrifying less because they are monsters and more because they used to be humans—sometimes very well loved humans. I remember shelving one zombie novel that opens by the main character’s newly zombified husband trying to eat their infant son. Nasty stuff, but it’s only dehumanizing in a very literal sense of the word.
  4.  Zombie stories are classified as apocalyptic for a reason.

It’s to the last point that I’d like to turn. Apocalyptic stories are extremely popular right now—and not only those with zombies. Need I mention The Hunger Games or Divergent? Dystopian fiction and apocalyptic fiction are closely allied. And both communicate something about our society. We’re reading books about communities that are ruined, in some form or other. Doesn’t that reflect feelings of people in both parties (and everywhere in between, underneath, wedged in the cracks, etc.) have about America today?

Environmentalists are waiting for humans to destroy the world. Neoconservatives seem to be unsure whether terrorists or noninterventionists are going to ruin America. Religious traditionalists wait for the defenders of equal-rights-for-all-except-the-unborn to throw them in jail. Political moderates, lest they feel secure, can go study world economic stats. (Hint: they’re not good.)

There’s no way to tell, minus a palantir, whose version of the apocalypse is right. The telling thing is that most of us have a version. We don’t have confidence that our society can hold together (or, for the environmentalists, that our society can hold the world together).

The solution to this problem is not to do what the ultra-American types try every so often—manipulating everyone into yelling “America is great!” That is a symptom of the problem, not the solution.

In his apocalyptic novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy offers, if not a solution, then something similar. Some people will keep goodness alive while everyone else dies/is enslaved/turns into a cannibal. The trick is to not to let yourself join everyone else. Preserve what’s good—somehow.

That’s a part of the truth. The Christian answer, of course, is more complicated. Many Christians believe that there will be an apocalypse of some sort before Christ’s return, although that apocalypse has been conceived in different ways. But in another sense, the apocalypse has been going on for thousands of years. Sin happened. We are all zombies now. There are no survivors.

But, unlike in most zombie stories, there is also a cure. It’s a very long-term one. It may not be dramatic. It certainly isn’t a solution for society’s lack of confidence in itself. In fact, it is likely to undermine that confidence even further.

But it is a cure. Someday the apocalypse will end. The virus will be destroyed forever.

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth….”

 

Please note that I am not recommending you run off to get a copy of the latest zombie story. You could be reading Beowulf. Or A Wrinkle in Time. Or Curious George and the High Voltage Fence. And if you even think about picking up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I will inject you with zombie virus myself.

 

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2014 in Science Fiction

 

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Looking Backward (at Socialism)

Some years after Edward Bellamy published his utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward, G. K. Chesterton made a comment that might summarize that book. “A good novel,” Chesterton argued, “tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” I have read no other utopian novels and have no idea how Looking Backward compares in terms of literary merit. That being said, the only reason I can think of to read the novel is to understand the mind of Edward Bellamy—and, more than that, of his age.

Edward Bellamy was a 19th century Christian Socialist. He and his book have been mostly forgotten, although his cousin Francis Bellamy has been better remembered (sort of).  Francis wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. What people don’t remember about Francis was that he, like Edward, was a Christian Socialist. Once a Baptist minister, Francis was defrocked for preaching socialism from the pulpit. That detail didn’t keep Francis’s Pledge of Allegiance from becoming popular, however, which goes to show just how mainstream socialism (then indistinguishable from communism) was becoming. We often think of socialism in relation to 20th century totalitarian governments, but its roots go far deeper into the American past.

Some of Bellamy’s ideas come off as decidedly grim to modern readers. One of the characters in Looking Backward remarks, “The demand for ‘panem et circenses’ preferred by the Roman populace is recognized nowadays as a wholly reasonable one. If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second, and the nation caters for both.” Hunger Games readers, please stand up.

Bellamy’s all-powerful “nation” was mere speculation in the 1870s. Since that time, we have seen totalitarian states rise and fall, while other governments borrow aspects of socialism and find that it creates as many problems as it solves. Typically, Bellamy believed that the evil side of man’s nature was a product of his circumstances:

Soon [it] was fully revealed…that human nature in its essential qualities is good, not bad…[that humans are] images of God indeed, not the travesties upon Him they had seemed. The constant pressure, through numberless generations, of conditions of life which might have perverted angels, had not been able to essentially alter the natural nobility of the stock, and these conditions once removed, like a bent tree, it had sprung back to its normal uprightness.

Human history is ugly, asserts Bellamy—and so far we agree with him. But he argues that improved living conditions will fix humanity’s problems. A character casually observes, “All this merely shows, my dear fellow, how much easier it is to do things the right way than the wrong.” Christianity—of the sort that doesn’t preach socialism from the pulpit—holds to the opposite position. If recent history shows us nothing else, it is much easier to do things the wrong way than the right.

Bellamy also suggests the belief in eternal progress common to progressives both of his era and our own. The one sermon in Looking Backward consists mostly of self-congratulation on how much more enlightened the utopians were compared to their ancestors:  “The betterment of mankind from generation to generation, physically, mentally, morally, is recognized as the one great object supremely worthy of effort and of sacrifice. We believe the race for the first time to have entered on the realization of God’s ideal of it, and each generation must now be a step upward.”

Upward to what? demanded Chesterton. Heaven, suggests Bellamy. He doesn’t argue that humans can create heaven, but he seems to believe that they can create a prelude to it. Bellamy’s society is nominally Christian, but it is not mass religious conversion that so drastically improves it. Rather, efficient economic systems and a benevolent government are the source of the solution. Interestingly, in Bellamy’s utopian world, the huge companies of the 19th century paved the way for the omnipotent government of the 20th. I’ve heard arguments that big business and big government go hand in hand; but I didn’t expect them to be accidentally corroborated by a 19th century socialist.

Although incredibly popular in its own time, Looking Backward won’t win any prizes for plot or characterization. Still, it offers an intimate look at the innocence that once characterized socialism. Edward Bellamy thought it was high time to build a society around men’s better impulses, rather than their worse ones. With a few safeguards in place, the perfect society could be achieved. Now—for good or ill—we know better.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Science Fiction

 

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Spark: A Good Surprise

321988First disclaimer. If you haven’t read Evan Angler’s third novel, Storm, don’t read this review of Spark. Since the Swipe books build upon one another, a few spoilers about the previous book are unavoidable.

Second disclaimer. I know that young adult dystopian fiction is different from what I usually write about. It’s my secret vice, except that it isn’t secret, and it’s not exactly a vice. I take C. S. Lewis as my authority on this one. If he could champion the sci-fi novel Voyage to Arcturus for its imaginative vision, than I can do the same with the Swipe series. Complaints may be directed to the Department of Defiance.

Now for the book.

I expected a lot out of Spark. I thought I’d find out Lily’s real plans. And learn how she contrived to get Logan out of Acheron. And figure out why Peck left the Global Union. Spark does eventually reveal why Peck left the Global Union. Lily does not appear in the book, however, and Logan remains in prison for the duration.

Yet I was not disappointed. Spark is perhaps the most ambitious book in the Swipe series to date. Introducing an artificial intelligence as one of the characters in the story was a risk. So was inserting computer code into the narrative. So was allowing the AI character to speak in quotes bracketed with computer arrows. I could go on. Young adult fiction is taking more risks in regards to narrative style, but typical YA books, like most adult books, don’t venture there. It isn’t safe. When risks don’t pay off, they tend to backfire.

Fortunately, Angler’s risks pay off, giving authenticity to this technology-focused story. Ali, a nine-year-old beggar in the Middle Eastern Dark Lands, has no interest in the Global Union, except when it comes to begging trinkets from GU travellers. Yet the Global Union becomes intensely interested in Ali, who seems to have an intuitive connection with advanced pre-Unity technology. Ali soon finds herself unsure of who to trust. She is torn between the real and virtual worlds, between the man who shelters her and the artificial intelligence that warns of coming danger. Confused and lonely, Ali falls victim to doubt. How can she prevent the Global Union from manipulating her when she cannot tell friend from foe?

In some ways this story is like a reverse of Storm—a comparison Logan Langly himself makes while talking with Ali in virtual space. Cylis used Logan’s bravery and trust in his sister to entrap him. Ali is manipulated through her timidity and doubt of those around her. Ali’s failures, like Logan’s, force her to pay a high price. Yet Cylis’s maneuvering against Ali miscarries in a way he never expected. Logan, still physically imprisoned, finds hope through Ali’s experience. If Ali’s mistakes could lead to victory against Cylis, then maybe even Logan’s can somehow be redeemed.

One of my major concerns about the last two books, Sneak and Storm, was related to the number of characters. Not only could the large number of viewpoint characters could be difficult to keep track of, but sometimes there seemed to be no viewpoint character at all—particularly in scenes involving the Dust. Spark seems to have reversed the trend, having only three viewpoint characters. Ali is the main viewpoint character, and Daniel Peck’s viewpoint is used a few times throughout the book. Surprisingly, the other viewpoint character is not Logan Langly. It is Chancellor Cylis. Spark tells the story of how Cylis got into power, and these extensive flashbacks play a critical role in the plot of the book. Sometimes flashbacks seem to drag a story down. These add unexpected energy. Storm showed us Cylis’s public face. Spark shows us who he truly is.

All said, Spark may be the strongest Swipe book so far, tackling some very difficult themes with imagination and audacity. If Storm depressed you, don’t swear off the series. Spark is definitely worth the read.

 

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The World of Ray Bradbury | The Imaginative Conservative

485px-Ray_Bradbury_1959Aside from a sadly short excerpt from his Martian Chronicles in one of my high school literature textbooks, the only work of Ray Bradbury’s that I’ve read is Fahrenheit 451. I loved that book in many ways, not least because of the love for good literature that pours through its pages. And by “good literature,” I do not mean literature that is merely technically good. Bradbury’s novel reveals a desire to share literature that matters. Not the emotional scrawlings of some disturbed person who wants to “express himself.” Not the “high literature” that alienates normal people. Dissenting literature, yes–but literature that dissents because it is makes people think about truth, goodness, and beauty. Montag gives up everything for literature that points to realities beyond the thoughtless existence that so many people around him live. Perhaps one of the biggest themes of the book is that what you read matters. It isn’t enough to read anything, so long as you are reading something. There is a vast difference between a mind formed by books and one formed by magazines.

“The World of Ray Bradbury” offers a longer and better discussion of that aspect of Bradbury’s writing than I can (yet). But it definitely makes me want to read more of his work.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Guest, Science Fiction

 

Relativism and 1984

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

I recently finished George Orwell’s 1984, and, having read Brave New World earlier this year, couldn’t help comparing them. Orwell shows a government who manages to preserve absolute rule by torturing its enemies until they come to “love” it. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, seems to suggest the opposite—that the “brave new world” will last because it is so convenient. Orwell’s book is more of a reflection on the Soviet Union; Huxley’s, on the capitalistic West.

But one element of 1984 seemed strangely pertinent. The difference between the views of Big Brother and those of protagonist Winston Smith, before his torture at least, is this—to Big Brother, truth is whatever is convenient. Winston believes that truth does not change, that history is fact, that falsely claiming his country has always been at war with another is wrong.

George Orwell's press photo.

George Orwell’s press photo.

George Orwell, though he never left the Anglican Church, was in his personal life a religious skeptic. A socialist himself, he was frustrated that Russian socialists had so warped the democratic socialism he supported into totalitarianism. But, despite Orwell’s lack of belief in many parts of Christianity, he retained belief in many of the moral values taught by the church. In fact, 1984 might in one sense be viewed as an argument in favor of absolute truth. Of course, today’s relativists hold that position for reasons quite opposite to Big Brother’s. G. K. Chesterton attributed relativism to a sort of misguided humility.

Still, the coincidence is striking. And it begs the question—where is the line between well-intentioned relativism and self-serving relativism? And doesn’t the Party believe itself to be well-intentioned?

I remember a recent discussion on education in which relativism came up. “Students go to college without knowing basic math,” someone said. Another person mentioned seeing an education seminar in which the speaker said that if a student got a basic multiplication fact wrong, but could explain his reasoning, his answer should be treated as correct.

Should students be encouraged to reason? Of course. But reason is a means, not an end. Chesterton held that the hallmark of a lunatic is the inability to make decisions based on anything but reason. In other words, if you try arguing with a paranoiac, you’ll lose. You can say the rest of the world isn’t conspiring against him, but he’ll argue that of course you would say that, since you’re a part of the conspiracy. In other words, reason is important, but truth is vital.

Simply saying that everyone has is own truth is an attempt to respond to the unfortunate fact that people view truth differently. But to say that they are all right—to themselves—merely sidesteps the real question. Which of these views on truth ought society to be built on? They may all be “equal,” but if a devout Muslim wants his children to be taught in their public school that Allah created man from clots of blood, atheists are bound to object. Someone’s viewpoint is going to be the one to influence government, whatever nice sentiments relativists may have about the other views in the meantime.

Winston becomes a committed relativist after his torture. (Not a completely consistent one—everything must be according to Big Brother’s wishes—though there is no such thing as a consistent relativist, because a relativistic attitude toward relativism would be fatal.) In Orwell’s words:

He accepted everything. The past was alterable…. Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in the mind, truly happens.

Or does it? Is the most important thing what we think inwardly, or what is real outside us? Are we really prepared to sentence ourselves to a moral solipsism?

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Science Fiction

 

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