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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
10.3 (Summer 2010)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Traditionalist Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Monitory Response to Mass Media
The following is an extension and enhancement of the pieces about science fiction and fantasy that appeared in Praesidium 6.1-2 (Winter/Spring 2006).
ORIGINS OF SF AND FANTASY
Jules Verne is the best known of the early science fiction writers from outside the Anglo-American sphere. His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a beloved classic. It is interesting that in the sequel, The Mysterious Island, he had originally planned to reveal the identity of Captain Nemo as a Pole–a victim of Russian Tsarist oppression. However, as French-Russian cooperation was increasing at the time, Verne chose to make Nemo a former Hindu prince who had fought against British imperialism. This is a fascinating example of the influence of politics on literature. Another of the best known Verne books is The Begum’s Millions, which portrays an idealistic French professor endeavoring to establish a democratic utopian community on the U.S. Oregon coast; meanwhile, a dictatorial German who has inherited the other half of the fortune creates an industrial war center not too far away. The book is quite remarkable not only for its extrapolations of military technology, but also for pointing to the possibility of the emergence of a German figure quite similar to Hitler.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) is an extremely influential portrayal of a utopian socialist society. It illustrates early socialist ideas in a manner often quite surprising to our current-day society. Ironically, Bellamy’s socialist utopia of the future is in some ways far more socially conservative than today’s society.
G. K. Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a highly prolific Catholic traditionalist writer, is known for The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904). which portrayed an ordinary person rising up against a tyrannical socialist regime in England; and also for The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908), a fabulation which has been seen by some as proto-steampunk. His book The Flying Inn (1914), portraying a Turkish Islamic invasion of Britain, has had a certain revival in the wake of current world events.
R. H. Benson
Robert Hugh Benson, an Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism, is known for his well-rendered Apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World (1907), and its sequel, The Dawn of All (1911)–both of which had considerable science-fictional aspects.
H. P. Lovecraft
Although Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s writing is usually considered to be among the best horror–rather than SF or fantasy–ever written, he should be mentioned as an enormously influential figure. Lovecraft offered a bleak vision where enormously powerful, inhuman, monstrous entities (such as Cthulhu, after which the entire so-called Cthulhu Mythos has been named) are fated to sweep away puny humans “when the stars are right.” It’s possible to interpret Lovecraft’s writing as giving voice to a very eclectic kind of traditionalist pessimism. In his voluminous correspondence, Lovecraft not infrequently expressed racialist viewpoints, although he was personally polite to everyone whom he came into contact with. Lovecraft is an excellent example of how a troubled, highly introverted person was able to achieve truly great art through sheer willpower and creatively building on his various personal obsessions and nightmares (both those of his sleep and waking life).
E. R. Eddison
Eric Rucker Eddison is best known for his heroic high fantasy work, The Worm Ouroboros (1922), set entirely on a completely fictional “Mercury”. It is similar in spirit to the Norse sagas, and crafted with a very ornate, archaic writing style.
Mervyn Peake is known for his series of books collectively called Gormenghast, published in the 1940s to 1960s, which have been described as a fantasy of manners, now sometimes called “mannerpunk”.
Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) is set over a two-billion-year time span, with the rise and fall of eighteen distinct races of humanity. Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935), is a tale of a spiritual and intellectual “superman”. Star Maker (1937) is an audacious cosmological speculation that ranges over 100 billion years. Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944), is a thoughtful tale about a dog with enhanced intelligence, consciousness, and sensibility. Working far away from so-called “pulp SF”, Stapledon’s works have been acclaimed as perhaps the most outstanding examples of weighty, highly philosophical SF. His carefully worked out philosophical system defies easy classification.
NINE GRANDMASTERS OF SF
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
This series of works by Gene Wolfe is 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 and 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.
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), which 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. 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.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga
Lois McMaster Bujold has written one of the most successful space opera sagas, about the diminutive and partially disabled Miles Vorkosigan whos drives himself to succeed in a rather socially harsh cultural and political setting.
Alternative history (popularly called “alternate history”) is sometimes termed “uchronia” or counterfactual history. It is important to remember that alternative history pertains to events that are in the past at the time when the narrative is being written. So, for example, the 1920s projections of Hugo Gernsback about the 1980s cannot be properly termed as being alternative history, even though his vision of the world of the 1980s is much different from what has actually occurred.
The subgenre of alternative history is not especially relevant to traditionalism in its most prominent examples. Among the most common types of alternative history are the “Hitler Victorious” scenario, which obviously portrays a horrific world. The most prominent work of this type is probably Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962). Since virtually everyone today is in agreement with the most vociferous condemnation of Hitler and Nazism, such writing is not deployed politically today.
However, there is not even today total agreement about the unredeemable evil of the Old South. Most treatments of “Dixie Victorious” have also tended to portray a Southern victory in the American Civil War/War Between the States as leading to an awful future. Some exceptions to this trend are seen in Sheldon Vanauken’s The Glittering Illusion, and in Winston Churchill’s famous story, “What if Lee had not won the battle of Gettysburg?” Churchill tended to project the South’s victory as leading to outcomes that would be congenial to both conservatism and old-fashioned liberalism. Such notions that, in the wake of a Southern victory, slavery would actually rapidly disappear in the South, and that the South’s alliance with Britain would assure a quick victory by the Allies in World War One, are not very popular today. The allegedly near-Auschwitzian character of the actual South of the 1950s (let alone of the 1850s!), has been massively stressed in left-liberal rhetoric, especially since the 1960s.
Keith Robert’s Pavane, which portrayed England centuries after the successful landing of the Spanish Armada, was obviously none too cheerful.
One critical turning point was the English Civil War. Had Charles I won that conflict in some fashion, how might have subsequent history turned out differently?
Another obvious possible turning point would be the dethroning of James II in 1688-1689, which might not have happened if the so-called “Protestant wind” had not blown to successfully convey William of Orange’s fleet to England.
Still another possible turning point would be the success or failure of the 1745 Rising (centered in the Scottish Highlands) led by Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Hanoverians in England. The Rising came close to success, had Charles Edward Stuart continued his march to London (on the basis of poor advice) instead of falling back to regroup. Some Tory traditionalists have voiced notions that the failure of the Stuarts has had calamitous effects on the subsequent history of the British Isles, and of world-history as a whole.
One of the more absurd (if somewhat entertaining, though rather gruesome) alternative histories is that of S. M. Stirling’s Draka. The central premise is that–in the aftermath of the American victory in the American Revolutionary War–instead of heading for Canada, the United Empire Loyalists go south-eastward to the Cape Colony. There, they establish an ultra-racist, ultra-white-supremacist society, calling themselves the Draka. The Draka are mostly just plain evil, as well as fanatically in favor of ever more transgressive genetic engineering and manipulation. Expanding rapidly northward, they eventually (by the twentieth century) have conquered most of the world.
The premise of this alternative history appears to be sociologically and historically ridiculous, as the historical Loyalists were clearly mostly whiggish gentlemen and placid farmers, not proto-Nazis. Had the Loyalists gone to the Cape Colony, the society there would have probably emerged as being more similar to Canada in our own timeline. Indeed, the Boers would have had less influence given a larger British population, and the period of an apartheid South Africa might well have been entirely avoided.
Other authors have examined the premise of a British victory in the American Revolutionary War.
One of the most prominent alternative-history subgenres has become so-called “steampunk”, which portrays an alternative Victorian era with esoteric technologies such as “Babbage engines”. The paradigmatic example of this subgenre is The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The term “steampunk” has also been extended to apply to some non-AH fantasy settings where magic and steam-age levels of technology co-exist (such as, for example, the Iron Kingdoms role-playing game). A prominent role-playing game that portrays a steampunk alternative Earth with the presence of magic and fantastical races and creatures is Castle Falkenstein.
It would seem that writing about various scenarios of “Hitler Thwarted Earlier” would be of considerable appeal and interest to conservatives. Had Hitler been thwarted earlier, presumably much more of the older European order would have survived, especially in East-Central Europe. Some authors, however, have voiced the negative conclusion that, had Hitler and Nazism not arisen in Germany, the Soviet Union would have come to dominate most of the world. This seems like a dubious premise.
It is also highly dubious to claim that if only Poland had given Danzig (Gdansk) to Hitler, world-history would have taken a better course, as has been recently argued most prominently by Pat Buchanan. The territorial appetites of Hitler and Nazi Germany were virtually limitless in the East, and Hitler in the diplomacy of the pre-war period could continually be seen making ever newer demands, while solemnly declaring these were his “last” claims. The suggestion that Hitler would have been content with Danzig requires a huge amount of credulity in the supposed good faith of a supremely vicious, amoral, genocidal tyrant.
Nevertheless, it may be possible to argue tactically that giving Danzig to Hitler would have persuaded him to attack France in the Fall of 1939. But whether the French would have prevailed in defending themselves in 1939 or would have been as thoroughly defeated as in 1940 is certainly open to question. In the wake of defeating France, Hitler could then have dealt at leisure with Poland, demanding further territories (such as the entire so-called Corridor, Posen [Poznan], Upper Silesia, etc.). Poland’s situation would have become ever more untenable despite its having made an attempt to accommodate Hitler’s initial demands.
Had France and Britain actually acted more decisively against Hitler earlier in the decade (e.g. in 1936 or 1938), the coming world war and its attendant slaughters could have been averted. The Allies could have also possibly won the war in 1939 had France then struck hard against the almost undefended Rhineland. In fact, virtually the entire German army and air force were deployed to attack Poland in September 1939. The French were paralyzed into a defensive stance mostly by the fear of repeating their colossal casualties of the First World War. This had also persuaded them to invest vast resources in the fixed defences of the Maginot Line (rather than, for example, more up-to-date tanks and aircraft). The Germans managed simply to out-flank the vaunted Maginot Line in 1940! In 1939, the under-equipped and smaller Polish armed forces actually held off the Germans almost as long as the combined armies of France and Britain and the Low Countries later did in the 1940 Battle of France.
It may also be agreed that the huge isolationist influences in U.S. politics and culture at this time played an absolutely pernicious role in keeping America disengaged from Europe at a time when such engagement was, indeed, most profoundly needed. To have become engaged in Europe at this time would not have been imperialist or adventurist: it would have been the salutary defence of a shared and increasingly beleaguered Western civilization.
THE DOCTOR WHO TELEVISION SERIES
This British series is one of the longest-running television series in existence. The central figure is the time-travelling Doctor, who is a bit of an eccentric, and is helped by various young, attractive, intelligent women from throughout the milieus that he visits. The rather low-budget special effects in the series are counterbalanced by the clever story-lines and witty dialogue. Dr. Who is usually shown as a skeptic about the various mysterious milieu that occur throughout the series. Nevertheless, his cheerfulness, good humour, and devotion to reason make him a positive example of a decent humanist. Interestingly enough, Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant admitted to liking this show very much, and said he watched it frequently.
CANADIAN SPECULATIVE FICTION
The term “speculative fiction” is said to be a Canadian invention. The term is intended to cover science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Science fiction is said to be a genre of the mind; fantasy, of the heart; and horror, of the body.
Apart from Margaret Atwood, who tends to eschew the term “science fiction” in regard to her works–such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and (most recently) The Year of the Flood–the most prominent Canadian science fiction writer is probably Robert J. Sawyer. His novels are usually based on some interesting premise from more cutting-edge scientific speculation, although they are also heavily layered with various types of political correctness. The scientific ideas are fascinating but the incidental societal background may be annoying to some.
Rob Sawyer has had an enormous influence on building up the presence of Canadian science fiction on the world-scene, especially in regard to his role (along with prominent horror writer Edo van Belkom) in having a Canadian region of SFWA (Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) established. Prominent science fiction author Karl Schroeder has established an association strictly for Canadian writers of science fiction and fantasy: SF Canada.
Canadian science fiction fandom has been especially prominent, for example, in instituting the Aurora Awards (and more recently, the Sunburst Awards) as well as in running a comparatively high number of World Science Fiction Conventions, most recently in Montreal (2009).
The seminal anthology of Canadian science fiction and fantasy is John Robert Colombo’s Other Canadas (1979). Very prominently noted in it is Judith Merril (herself a well-known author), who helped establish one of the largest public collections of science fiction and fantasy in the world, now held in the Toronto Public Library system (and called for a long time “The Spaced Out Library”–SOL). The prominence of the reference in Colombo’s book suggests that the building up of various distinctive, specifically Canadian infrastructures of science fiction and fantasy has been critical in establishing the notion of a specifically Canadian science fiction and fantasy.
One of the best known writers of Canadian SF is Phyllis Gotlieb. A younger prominent writer is Cory Doctorow.
The most prominent Canadian fantasy writer is probably Guy Gavriel Kay. Some other Canadian fantasy writers include Steven Erickson, Anthony Swithin, Michelle Sagara, Caitlin Sweet, and Tanya Huff. Ed Greenwood is known as the creative originator of Forgotten Realms (one of the leading Dungeons & Dragons role-playing settings).
The most prominent magazine of Canadian speculative fiction is On Spec. Another magazine of some prominence was Parsec. A magazine which has more recently arisen is Neo-opsis.
The most prominent Canadian speculative fiction anthology is Tesseracts. There have been a number of other anthologies published, some arising out of writing contests.
Nevertheless, there has been a longstanding debate about whether there are, in fact, any truly distinctive features to Canadian speculative fiction. Though one can define Canadian speculative fiction as that written by Canadians, one could ask if there are any specific differences in the content of the writing from that found in America.
One obvious difference is the presence of Quebecois and French-language writing in Canadian SF, although this also raises the question of distinctiveness between SF in English-speaking Canada and Quebec, and between those “two solitudes” and America. To what extent do Quebecois writers indeed follow similar content, except that it is written in French? Quebec has been a society that went from ultra-traditionalism to ultra-progressivism within a very short period of time, which would suggest that writing of the type which explores intersections of traditionalism and modern or futuristic technology would be comparatively rare in Quebec. It is widely perceived today (based for example on the recent curriculum innovations in Quebec removing any attempt to give serious instruction in religion) that many people in Quebec (especially in its elites) want to get away as far as possible from Quebec’s Roman Catholic tradition and past history, which earlier generations had seen as virtually definitive of French Quebec identity.
Some have suggested that Canadian science fiction is more sociologically oriented than American SF, this being related to the more problematic nature of Canadian identity, especially in terms of the waves of multiculturalism that are sweeping over Canada’s large cities such as Toronto. So Canadian SF may be described somewhat vaguely as “more open to difference.” Others have suggested that Canadian speculative fiction tends towards such subgenres as “magical realism”, especially as seen in On Spec’s de-emphasis of strictly science-fictional writing.
It may perhaps be suggested that Canadian science fiction could in general be seen as more politically left-wing than American science fiction, insofar as a political message may be discerned in fictional writing. One of the most prominent and highly radical science fiction writers in Canada is Nalo Hopkinson. The most prominent, strictly Canadian publisher of science fiction and fantasy is probably Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, some of whose output has been considerably radical. Doubtless, this fits very well into a Canadian society where most provinces except Alberta have been seen as the equivalents of the most deeply “Blue” (Democratic) states in the U.S.
The corollary of this is that any traditionalist themes in Canadian science fiction and fantasy are rather thin on the ground.
Nevertheless, it may be possible that out of the varied, mostly urban-based ethnic subcultures of Canada, or perhaps out of the residues of some once-robust regional cultures, or even from some Aboriginal communities, there may arise fragments or shards of distinctly more traditionalist visions as part of the over-all society’s “value pluralism”. Whether such fragments may ever be instantiated in the writing of credible fiction that will see professional publication (as opposed to SF criticism or journalistic endeavors or just “fan fiction” alone, centered mostly on the Web) remains to be seen.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto. His special interests include political philosophy, popular culture, and creative works about the future.