June 13, 2015
I have read some stupid assertions about Science Fiction and Fantasy over the years. As I have internet access, this is inevitable. People say idiotic things occasionally. Then I read this from the Daily Kos, and watched as the bullshit reached such a density that the article collapsed through it’s own event horizon until the pull of the derp became so strong that not even a coherent thought could escape.
We start with a intro about the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is admittedly difficult on the margins. We already know we’re in troubled waters because the referents used seem to consist entirely of Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings.
This is going to be fun.
There’s an easier way to define the two biggest categories of speculative fiction, and it has nothing to do with which one has pointy-eared people called elves and which one features equally mucronate Vulcans. Instead, it’s all about time. More specifically, it’s about Time’s Arrow.
We then get a slug from this Wikipedia article after an explanation of all the Google hits we’re not referring to.
Ok, Second Law of Thermodynamics, gotca.
It’s like this: fantasy works backward. That’s not to say that fantasy fiction is filled with self-assembling tea cups. In fantasy, what’s reversed is progress.
Progress is simply the idea that the world becomes better at making buildings, better at making gadgets, better at medicine, better at communicating, better at explaining the world, better at providing a decent life for everyone. Better … over time. And surely the future shall be better for thee than the past, etc., etc.
In fantasy worlds, that’s often not the case. In many fantasies, there was once a time of Great Ones, a category including Noble men, Stately Elves, Impressive Giants, Personally Involved Gods, Bearded Wizards, and Interstellar Mollusks of Ill-Defined Colors. In this past time Great Deeds were done. Great Deeds that include raising of Impregnable Castles that stand still on lonely peaks, the digging of Great Mines that delved deep into Unknown Depths, the weaving of Great Spells that worked Mighty Wonders, the construction of Darkly Towering Towers that shielded deeds of unforgivable self-aggrandizement, and the forging of Great Items that no artisan today can match (this paragraph brought to you by Fantasy Capitals. Fantasy Capitals, lending Terrible Significance to ordinary words for a Very Long Time).
And thus begins the spiraling collapse of any intellectual heft this argument might have had. The above assertion is so mindlessly reductive that I doubt the author even read Tolkien, and simply formed an opinion on the genre based on the trailers for the Hobbit movies. But that’s not even the worst of it. We are using the concept of “Time’s Arrow” as a metaphor for the idea of “Progress.” Really? I know quite a few libertarians that would probably equate ideas about historical materialism with societal entropy, but I doubt that was the author’s intent.
Needless to say, the view of science fiction is also insanely reductive.
Science fiction, that is proper science fiction according to this 100 percent not original definition, has its arrow firmly pointed toward progress. Yes, things may be worse than they once were due to war, famine, or alien invasion, but it’s perfectly possible for our spunky audience surrogates to match and exceed previous achievements. You can build that spaceship, plant that flag, go where no one has gone before without regard to pedantic protectors of infinitives. Star Trek is science fiction not only because it imagines a future world where things are better than today, but because that world is firmly anchored in the idea that things can be better still. Transporters will transport over greater distances. Warp drives will be warpier. And both captains and crew expect to end their lives in a world that is measurably better than the one they were born into.
So Science Fiction is defined, pretty explicitly, as “that fiction that buttresses the stupid argument I’m making here.” Forget H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine. Orwell’s 1984. Most of Phillip K. Dick’s oeuvre.
Lord of the Rings is fantasy because everything of import originated Long, Long Ago. Our characters move against a backdrop of awe-inspiring ruins toting swords, armor, and rings embued with power by people that Knew Stuff. Stuff the likes of us are unlikely to ever cipher.
Thus, so is every single space opera that uses the trope of the ancient progenitors.
From that solemnly pronounced idiocy, the author devolves into the real argument he is attempting to make.
But there’s a problem with our politics. Somehow, for reasons that are not at all clear, we doubt the existence of progress.
Too often we treat an 18th century quote as if it’s the final card in an argument. Too often we look at yellowing documents as if they came not from politicians as venal and self-important as anyone on the stage today, but from marble demigods. Too often we weigh the best possible data available today, discover the best possible course of action available today, then say to ourselves, “Now how would a guy in a powdered wig have handled this?”
Oh, progress happens. There’s a sweet relationship between Time’s Arrow and the Arc of the Moral Universe. Greater knowledge has brought not only increased acceptance, but increased freedom. Only the arc isn’t just long, it’s much, much longer than it need be. A big part of that all too often we live in fantasy democracy … Fantocracy.
How do you know you’re in Fantocracy? If you’ve ever cited Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin as an authority in an economic debate, you’ve put a foot in Fantocracy. If you believe no politician today can match the erudition and political brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, you’re in at least knee-deep. If your philosophy of good governance is based on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even a Roosevelt to be named later, you’re fully in Fantocracy. If your argument for the Second Amendment is based on anything said by Noah Webster, James Madison, or anyone else who died before the invention of the rifled slug … well, Mr. Bilbo, let me see if I can rustle up some taters.
And there you go. The inane literary argument exists solely to reach a preordained conclusion. To wit, if you reference prior philosophy in arguments about social policy then you politics wrong.
Not only do you have the arc of the moral universe’s descent into sweet sweet entropy, you have the ahistorical assumption that somehow continuing forward in time inevitably leads to more enlightened political thought. I mean, what the hell happened to the arc of the moral universe in Iran and Afghanistan between 1950 and now? The fact something is old or new has very little bearing on its worth. Especially since the “progressive” thought espoused herein is over a century old itself.
Really, this is just a case of whether you prefer 19th Century German political philosophers to 18th Century English ones.
Our knowledge is steadily increasing. That includes the knowledge in how to form and manage a stable government. That includes the knowledge in how to run an economy. That includes the knowledge of how to regulate business, how to manage the environment, how to provide the greatest freedom to the greatest number.
I got a book for you.
You. You. Yes, you. You can understand economics better than Adam Smith. You can grasp the relationship between church and state better than Washington, fathom the balance between legislative and executive branches better than Jefferson, and wrestle with a thousand, a million, ideas they never knew existed.
So, being able to Google stuff makes everyone smarter than those poor old white dudes that lived before iPhones. And someone who wrote an article as intellectually sloppy as this one understands the balance of powers better than the folks who designed the system.
I think this guy was the one in class who asked why Newton’s theory of motion still worked if Einstein disproved it all.