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Examining the four main foci for traditionalist impulses in fantasy and science fiction (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 28, 2013

(This article is based on a draft of a presentation read at the Fantastic Literature Conference (The Basic Categories of Fantastic Literature Revisited) (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz) October 21-23, 2012.)

The third focus for traditionalism is what has been called "feudal values plus high-technology". This term was first prominently used by noted left-wing science fiction writer Judith Merril in 1985, when she ruefully complained that this was the most common typology of most of the more popular science fiction. This typology is present in most types of space-opera, as well as military science fiction.

One of the most archetypal works here is Frank Herbert's Dune (1965), which, among other issues, examines the question of whether it is possible for some forms of traditional ethos to persist in societies of very high technology. In his future-history, Herbert posited the so-called Butlerian Jihad (named after its leader, Jehanne Butler), a smashing-up of advanced robots and sentient computers. The Jihad took place in what was already a civilization of numerous star systems and worlds, existing beyond our own age about ten thousand years into the future. As Herbert recounted it (in the Dune Encyclopedia, 1984) the spark for the Jihad arose out of a supervisory AI ordering an abortion for Jehanne of a child that she knew was healthy. In this scenario, a more advanced planet had been dominating a more quote primitive planet and arbitrarily interfering in its customs. The abortions were being ordered for rather arbitrary reasons. The upshot was that humans recoiled against some forms of advanced technology and embarked on a neo-traditionalist trajectory for at least the next ten thousand years. In the wake of the destruction of the thinking computers and robots, a neo-feudal society emerged, characterized by the maxim: "A place for every man, and every man in his place."

A major subgenre in science fiction is so-called military SF. Although, on the one hand, it portrays a very technologized world of war machines and various military gadgets, on the other, it allows for a portrayal of the rebirth of a very quote masculine ethos, encompassing soldiers' honor, courage in battle, loyalty, and zealous engagement in national-type political-military conflicts. The paradigmatic example of this subgenre is probably Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. (Incidentally, the 1997 movie, largely a parody, was highly unfaithful to the original text of the book.) Another very prominent author of military SF is Jerry Pournelle. An interesting subgenre of military SF is that focussed on mercenary units, who fight courageously but with cynicism towards the state entities they serve. This allows various writers to voice libertarian-type sentiments about the decency of individual soldiers and their quote regimental family, while commenting on the typically corrupt nature of the state entities that they serve.

The subgenre of space opera shares definite crossover elements with fantasy. The early paradigmatic example of space-opera within science fiction writing is E. E. (Doc) Smith's Lensmen series. Meanwhile, the paradigmatic example of space opera in film is, of course, George Lucas' Star Wars series. George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy can be interpreted as a cheering, heroic series of movies which played no small part in the renewal of American willingness to resist the quote Soviet empire in the 1980s.

Lois McMaster Bujold has written one of the most successful space opera sagas, featuring the diminutive and partially-disabled Myles Vorkosigan, who nevertheless drives himself to succeed in a rather socially harsh cultural and political setting.

John Maddox Roberts' Cestus Dei (1983) features an interstellar empire based explicitly on religious principles and an alliance of Earth religions. It portrays the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and other religious leaders as cooperating and yet at the same time competing galactic administrators with the Earth as their center. The novel concerns a Jesuit who intrigues his way up to the highest circles of a human society on another Earth-like planet, described as quote the Rome of the Caesars with atomic weapons.

The two-volume Galactic Empires anthology edited by Brian Aldiss (1976) is a particularly good example of various space opera stories. One should note especially, "The Rebel of Valkyr" (originally published in 1950) by Alfred Coppel, which has been characterized as quote Horses in the Starship Hold. The premise is that a galactic imperial civilization attacks the Andromeda galaxy. The even more-advanced Andromedan counter-attack destroys all sophisticated technology, except for star-ships. Advanced technology is therefore considered cursed, and its exploration is confined to quote warlocks and quote witches, that is to say, scientists working in secret. Society is thus almost entirely medieval, the only exception being that interstellar travel is possible on the hulk-type star-ships, which are manned by a highly prestigious guild of navigators, i.e. quasi-priests. Through established rituals and memorization, they are somehow able to guide the star-ships to their destinations.

A highly regarded example of this typology that must be mentioned is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series (original tetralogy, 1980-1983). This is the tale of Severian, a professional torturer troubled by his conscience who eventually becomes ruler of a planet called Urth. The setting is Gothic, Baroque, and filled with archaic language. In fact, Gene Wolfe took enormous care in using only pre-existent, archaic or rare words rather than inventing any new words in his description of the world of Severian.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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