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Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Twelve – Grandmasters of SF

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 2, 2019

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series

The best-known achievement of the highly prolific writer of science-fiction (and of many works of popular science) Isaac Asimov, is probably the Foundation series "future-history."

The Foundation series begins in a rather benevolent Galactic Empire, where the knowledge of the origins of humankind on Earth has been completely lost. The capital planet of the Empire is near the center of (our) Galaxy. A planet almost entirely covered by urban structures, this is Trantor, with a population of 40 billion. A humble scientist, Hari Seldon, develops a field called "psycho-history", according to whose predictions the Empire must finally fall. So he develops a plan of establishing the "Galactic Encyclopedia Foundation", at a planet at the periphery of the Galaxy.

History develops according to Seldon's predictions. When the process of the disintegration of the Empire begins, the Foundation moves through a series of "world-historical" crises, which in every case leave it stronger. It also transpires that Seldon also established a "Second Foundation", in some unknown part of the Galaxy, to keep watch over the actions of the First. The First Foundation excels in technology; the Second, in psychology, or rather, psychological manipulation.

One could doubtless see in these mechanisms certain analogies to today's socio-technical manipulation of society through the so-called managerial-therapeutic regime. History is apparently "happening by itself", but, despite this, society seems to be in the process of moving in a predetermined direction. Asimov was, of course, in many aspects, a "man of the Enlightenment", and this vision of an intellectual caste, based especially on the social sciences (which are said to virtually reach the hard certainty of the paradigm of the physical sciences) has a long tradition. The concepts of Asimov’s fiction greatly flattered scientists and social scientists, rather openly devalorizing religion.

The fourth book in this series (written many years later) Foundation's Edge, to a certain extent represented a return of long-suppressed mysticism in the thought of Asimov. He portrayed a planet of so-called “super-telepaths” which resembled, to some extent, Plato’s “ideal World of the Forms” – as everything on the planet found an “appropriate place” in an “organic order”. This looked like a major departure from the “strictly scientific”. It does appear, that among many persons working in the physical sciences, who often, for many, many years, profess strong atheism, there is often, a return, near the end of their lives, to some kind of mystical ideas, sometimes of a rather absurd nature. Indeed, it could be argued that the distance from the exaltation of the strictest science, to the transition to some kind of pseudo-science, is sometimes not that great. People who are willing to recognize from the start the role of mysticism, religion, and of a transrational element in their psyche, while at the same time retaining a certain degree of respect for reason, are usually less likely to embrace some of the wildly imaginative ideas, which are sometimes found among physical scientists toward the end of their lives.           

Nevertheless, the Foundation series, although it may appear today somewhat old-fashioned (as today, even strong Enlightenment optimism can be perceived as old-fashioned) represented, at the time it was written (that is, the 1940s), a breakthrough work.

Two SF Classics with a Religious Theme

James Blish's, A Case of Conscience (1958) is a classic work, which presents the trip of Jesuit priest to a planet, inhabited by a species of intelligent dinosaurs, which appears to be existing – without religion of any kind -- in a state “before original sin.” The priest perceives the planet as a diabolical trap, but the ending of the book is ambivalent.

Walter M. Miller's, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is another classic tale. It is also the sort of work that virtually exhausts the creativity of the author. The pessimism expressed in the book transferred itself to a certain extent to Miller’s life, and after this book, he never really never wrote anything outstanding. The main thought of the book is that, after the destruction of current day civilization in a nuclear war, only the Catholic Church will endure as an institution of continuity. Civilization is slowly reborn, and technological progress begins. The Church senses that the result will be as before. However, the Church resolves to work on the possibility of space travel, in order to preserve something, when nuclear war breaks out again.

Certain elements of Miller’s vision found their way into the television series of the 1990s, Babylon 5.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet (1956) is one of the classic science fiction movies. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, the action of the film moves slowly, but the fantastic landscapes are impressive (at least for the 1950s). The central idea of the film, the destruction of a scientist by uncontrolled impulses from the unconscious, set free by the technology of an alien planet, may be variously interpreted.

Two Arthurian Movies

There was a prominent 1950s Arthurian movie, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which was a somewhat unusual interpretation of the Arthurian legend.  The main premise was of a sorceress in the High Middle Ages with a son who has to prove himself as a hero – and has as his retainers the Knights of the Round Table, who have been preserved in a spell of sleep for centuries.

In 1977, there appeared the British Arthurian movie, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (with Sean Connery playing the role of the Green Knight). There was prominent in it the princess who was cursed with a pig’s face, and had to be redeemed by a knight willing to marry her for love, not looks – which then broke the evil spell, and restored her beauty.

John Brunner

One should mention two further books by this author, The Sheep Look Up (1972), a critique of extreme pollution problems and public apathy in regard to these; and The Shockwave Rider (1974), a warning of the dangers of a computerized world, a work often considered to be proto-cyberpunk.

Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth

Jack Vance had largely originated a subgenre of far-future stories set on “a dying Earth” -- which are characterized by mysticism and allegory and weird mixtures of premodern and advanced technology.

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun

These series of works by Gene Wolfe are a brilliant achievement of the imagination. This is the tale of Severian, a professional torturer 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 describing the world of Severian.

Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber

This is another highly imaginative series of tales, which could be termed as fantasy. The premise is the intrigues of a superhuman royal family, who exist in Amber, which is said to be the only true world, of which all other worlds are only “Shadows”.

Philip Jose Farmer

Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber is somewhat similar to Philip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers. Another creation of Philip Jose Farmer is Riverworld – which is based on an audacious premise that all humans who have ever existed are mysteriously resurrected by the banks of an extremely long river. (Those who died in older years are resurrected having the age of 33.) Various historical figures such as Richard Burton (the British explorer) and Hermann Goering interact with each other and seek to solve the riddle of their strange circumstances.

The Year 1968

The year 1968 was extremely fruitful in regard to science fiction films. There appeared such variegated films in the genre as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella, and Planet of the Apes.

2001: A Space Odyssey (based partially on some earlier stories of Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most prominent of the older science fiction writers) remains to this day one of greatest science fiction movies ever made. Its concepts, special effects, and nearly everything connected to it, was incredibly pioneering, groundbreaking. It was a highly intellectual movie, which required the intelligent engagement of the viewer.

The beginning of the movie, set in deep prehistory, among the “ape-men”, who are on verge of human consciousness, may bring forth different reactions. At the beginning, the life of the “ape-men” is portrayed as difficult, but with an element of love. At one moment, we see a sort of Nativity scene, with father, mother, and child. Love therefore exists before the arrival of “the monolith” – which may be variously interpreted. “The monolith” brings increased intelligence to the “ape-men” – but also hatred. It may be noted that the “ape-men” who begin to use tools (that is, pick up large bones of animals in their hands), block the way of another group of thirsty “ape-men” who wish to drink from the stream, and the first murder or even “genocide” is carried out by the “ape-men” of increased intelligence. The famous music of Nietzsche’s and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, may confirm the idea (somewhat related to that of Nietzsche’s) of the link between reason, “evil”, and technology – all of which represent the Nietzschean “will to power”. Representing the leap of millions of years, the large bone thrown into the air is transformed into a spaceship, taking us immediately to 2001!

The idea suggested by the prologue would seem rather problematic for a traditionalist outlook. First of all, it suggests the inevitability of corrosive technological progress. Secondly, it moves the period of so-called “organic life in love” to such an early, virtually prehuman time. Should one really accept the idea that homo sapiens is a creature of prey – and nothing more?      

The actual world of 2001 is shown in incredible detail. There still exist “Cold War” tensions between America and Russia, which have now also been transferred to the Moon, where there are already large bases. The ability to portray and represent in great detail, how life in space or on the moonbase might look, is a very strong aspect of the film.

The third part of the movie shows the trip of the spaceship (very realistically portrayed) in the direction of Jupiter. There begin problems with the Artificial Intelligence computer, which (or who) is guiding the ship…

The fourth part of the movie is a phantasmagoria of surrealism, which allows for very varied interpretations. Some interpret it as essentially the union of the human being with God, which ends with God coming to Earth, in the form of the Star Child. However, it doesn’t seem like the vision of God seen in most human religions.

Barbarella is an open parody of various “space-opera” stereotypes, while extending, at the same time, some of the erotic elements of the subgenre, which were usually just subtexts in more serious works. The movie made explicit some of the more prosaic reasons for the attractiveness of the subgenre to teenage male adolescents. The great 1980s British pop-group, Duran Duran, took the name of the mad scientist figure in the movie.

In the breakthrough year 1968, there also appeared the film The Planet of the Apes, whose great success inspired a long series of films. It represented the arrival of astronauts from Earth on an unknown planet, ruled by intelligent apes, where human beings lived like animals without the capability of speech. The film doubtless raised many kinds of “taboo” topics.

Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern

This long series of novels and stories by Anne McCaffrey is an example of a blending of fantasy and science fiction, although as the series develops, the author has endeavored to work out a solid science-fictional basis for the setting. A human-settled planet remote from Earth, has developed a feudal-like social structure, centered around “dragons” that are telepathically guided by human riders, in order to deal with the fall of the Thread (destructive devouring insentient organisms), that occurs every two hundred years. It is eventually discovered that the dragons were created as part of a genetic engineering project of the earliest human colonists in order to deal with Threadfall, but in the interval, the humans’ technological level has mostly reverted to the medieval.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover

Darkover is also an example of a blending of fantasy and science fiction, positing a human-settled world remote from Earth, where a form of magic exists which is explained as heightened psionic powers.

Andre Norton’s Witch World

Andre Norton was one of the most prominent of the relatively few women working very early and over many decades in the science fiction and fantasy genres. She is probably best known for her long Witch World series – which shows a parallel-Earth where magic works – especially as wielded by women.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin, renowned for her feminist and sociological SF novels, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, also wrote a charming fantasy series, showing a world called Earthsea. Nevertheless, her chief influence has been mainly to give rise to a vast subgenre of feminist/anthropological/ sociological SF.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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