Monday, August 27, 2012

John Christopher's Theory of Government

The current drought in the central part of the United States, and the miles of dying corn I see driving to and from my petite amie's place in Illinois, have made me slightly more apprehensive than usual about long-term food security.  "Usual," in the case of an overfed American like myself, means "not at all."  Matters were different for Englishmen in the middle of the last century, who suffered through very severe rationing during the Second World War - with little to eat besides fish, potatoes, and oatmeal - and ongoing food shortages into the 1950s.  No-one starved in wartime Britain, but the thought of famine, and what it might do to an urbanized and strongly-governed country, cannot have been far from the minds of imaginative Britons.  One of these was C.S. Youd (1922-2012), who under the pseudonym John Christopher became a well-known author of young-adult science fiction novels in the 1970s.  Before entering the Y.A. market, Christopher wrote a number of global disaster novels for adults, of which the best, No Blade of Grass, described the swift collapse of civilization in the wake of a global famine.

The novel focuses on a small group of middle-class Britons – engineer John Custance, his wife Ann, his farmer brother David, his friend Roger Buckley (a civil servant) and Roger's wife Olivia – in the very near future.  A rice-killing virus, known as Chung-Li, mutates into a form which kills all grasses and grains, and spreads relentlessly from East Asia to Europe.  At first the novel's protagonists watch apprehensively as eastern and southern Asia collapse into anarchy and mass starvation; when Chung-Li reaches Britain, they begin a dangerous trip to David Custance's farm in northern England.  The characters pass through a countryside controlled now by bandits and faceless murderers, and they themselves gradually shed their sympathy for other refugees and their inhibitions against killing, until nothing is left of their morals but a sort of feudal small-group loyalty.  From this, Christopher concludes, will rise not a revived civilization, but a violent neo-medieval monarchy similar to that in his later children's novel The Prince in Waiting.

No Blade of Grass is not itself a young-adult novel, nor is it a "cozy apocalypse" that kills the world's "bad people" and preserves the good.  It is instead a study of how thinly the "veneer of civilization" (15) is spread on even the most civilized of men and women.  Its story, a fast-paced one written in crisp, clear prose, is replete with barbarism: murder, rape, honor killing, and betrayal.  Behind the action-adventure story, however, lurks a mature question: are modern governments capable of an effective or an ethical response to a real catastrophe?  Christopher's answer to this question is a gloomy one.  His character Roger, a well-connected Ministry of Production functionary, reports early in the story that Britain's government is lying to its people about the danger posed by Chung-Li, but that its bureaucratic structure prevents anyone from proposing radical solutions – like ordering farmers to switch from wheat to less-profitable potatoes – because no-one will get enough credit if the worst happens to offset the risk of being fired if it doesn't.  When the worst does happen, the government converts itself into a temporary dictatorship and adopts a policy at the opposite end of the spectrum: sealing off Britain's cities and killing their inhabitants with nuclear bombs, to ensure there will be sufficient food for the rest of the population.  When this plan leaks out and a group of liberal revolutionaries seizes London, the result is pure chaos: a mass exodus from the panicked cities and a total breakdown of civil order in the countryside.  Britain thus essentially "tries out" several different forms of government in the space of a few months – bureaucracy, dictatorship, revolutionary anarchy – and all fail catastrophically.

Christopher has no illusions, however, about the sort of society and political structure likely to emerge out of Britain's post-famine wasteland.  John and Roger briefly entertain the hope that they can create a freer life for themselves on David's farm, but that quickly falls apart as they realize what happens in the absence of government: power shifts to those who have weapons and the ruthlessness to use them.  John himself becomes a sort of unwitting warlord, loyal to his immediate family, willing to use violence to protect them, and also willing, as it happens, to take other refugees under his protection.  Ultimately, this is what turns John into a sort of proto-king (as Ann observes): his sense of duty to his followers trumps other moral considerations, including family obligations, and constrains his actions.  In a post-apocalyptic society, not even the king is free.  This is a bleak vision, but it is also an effective answer to SF writers who imagine that a global catastrophe like a nuclear war will somehow lead to a better society.

This novel was published in 1956, and while its story holds up pretty well in our century, there are two respects in which it has become dated.  First, Christopher's attitude toward women is old-fashioned, not to say misogynistic.  His female characters are articulate and thoughtful, but they are also victims, reduced, as Ann bitterly remarks, to "chattel" in the post-famine world.  The author probably believed he was being realistic, but he bases his treatment of female characters on the assumption that women are naturally less ruthless and violent than men, and that this will necessarily lead to their subjugation in a post-apocalyptic world.  This may be true, but I doubt it is universally true.  Women certainly have no less innate technical ability to employ violence than men, particularly since the invention of reliable firearms (the primary instruments of violence in Christopher's novel), and hunger tends to erode men's and women's moral faculties equally fast.  An updated version of No Blade of Grass would feature at least one or two women serving as bandit leaders or local militia volunteers, much like Yvonne in Shaun of the Dead.

Second, Christopher wrote his novel in a more Malthusian era, at a time when many Westerners assumed the world was always going to live on the brink of starvation.  As Timothy Snyder observed, the belief that there would never be enough food to go around strongly influenced both the Nazis and Stalin's Communists, who developed policies – collective farms, planned famines, wars of conquest – designed to secure scarce food supplies for favored groups.  Even after World War Two, it was a commonplace among Westerners that the Third World would never be able to feed itself, a view expressed most forcefully in Paul Ehlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb.  Today, however, such neo-Malthusian views have been trumped by technology, specifically the Haber-Bosch nitrogen-fixing process and Norman Borlaug's crop-breeding experiments, both of which have made it possible to feed a global population twice as large as the one in Ehrlich's day.  We also have a much wider variety of staple crops available to us than in the early 20th century; my worries about this year's corn crop aside, the drought I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is not likely to lead to global famine, if only because it is unlikely to have any effect on the global rice, manioc, wheat, potato, or soybean harvests.  We'll see if I'm still as sanguine after twenty more years of global warming.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Is Nineteen Eighty-Four Science Fiction?

Science fiction fans have often been rather expansive in their definition of the genre and in their claiming of marginally scientifictional "mainstream" novels as part of it.  Literary highbrows have, with a few exceptions, been just as tireless in their efforts to protect "classic" or canonical works from the taint of the SF ghetto.  The poem sometimes heard at SF conventions – "'SF's no good'/ they shout 'til we're deaf/ 'But this is good!' / 'Then it's not SF'" – expresses fans' impatience with teachers and critics who enjoy playing No True Scotsman with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.
            What makes a work science-fictional is an implied but unexplored question in these exchanges.  Our anonymous tweedy highbrow defines SF as crap fiction, possibly having something to do with science.  More usefully, the critic and SF author Norman Spinrad has opined that SF is whatever was published as science fiction, which sounds like circular reasoning but does indicate that the genre is to a large extent socially constructed.  Other critics have called SF a ghetto, which, if we redefine it as "restricted community," makes Spinrad's point more broadly and usefully.  Science fiction has always been a community – a "lodge," in Vonnegut's words – with its close, often love-hate relationship between producers of SF and their readers, and the obsessive enthusiasm of the latter for the works of the former. One might even call science fiction a religion, with its devoted fanatics ("fans" for short), its public ceremonies of communion (conventions), and its priesthood of anthologists and editors who define the boundaries of the written genre.  A science fiction writer, then, is one who has communed in some way with this "faith": she has been a fan, given readings at conventions, edited an SF collection, joined SFWA, etc.  Someone like Vonnegut, who generally avoided science fiction fans and conventions even though he wrote several novels about technology and society (and one out-and-out planetary romance), wasn't really an SF writer, at least not in his later career.  Neither is Margaret Atwood, despite the dystopian novels she has written.
            The answer to this essay's title question, regarding George Orwell, would therefore seem to be "no."  Orwell did read and admire H.G. Wells as a boy, but in his adult life he considered himself a journalist and mainstream novelist, not a genre writer.  He had no contact of which I'm aware with American or British SF fandom (which in any case was still quite small when he died), and he expressed contempt for the juvenile adventure stories from which the SF genre sprang in the 1920s and '30s.  Orwell's novel 1984, while set in the future, explained that that future was not a very technologically advanced one.  Its inhabitants lived shabby and impoverished lives, scientific research had largely ground to a halt, and the advanced technologies employed by the military and police either existed in Orwell's day (helicopters, rocket bombs) or were minor modifications of existing technology (Floating Fortresses, telescreens).  Moreover, the novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, is very far from a model sci-fi hero of the Flash Gordon or James Kirk type: he is passive, malnourished, past his prime physically, and prone to taking refuge in an imaginary past.  (This is, of course, a large part of Smith's appeal as a character: he is a realistic type.)
            Orwell was not writing 1984 as an adventure story or a reflection on the interaction between technology and society; rather, it was a speculative study of totalitarianism.  He set his novel in the near future, rather than an existing dictatorship, partly as a warning to English readers of the "it can't happen here" stripe, and partly because he wanted to create a totalitarian state that had perfected its craft: destroying the independent individual.  1984 in some respects is a reflection on individualism, insofar as Orwell's state of Oceania devotes considerable energy and effort to destroying or perverting those relationships and institutions that define the individual: family, friendship, private property, and private pastimes.  Winston Smith believes that only the "few inches inside your own skull" belong to the individual.
            The most sinister feature of Orwell's police state is its determination to penetrate that last private sanctuary, the human mind, and it is in describing its methods of doing so that Orwell wanders toward the boundary between mainstream literature and science fiction.  Like contemporary totalitarian regimes, Oceania used propaganda to manipulate its subject's emotions and censored media to control their intellectual lives – and, Orwell argued, their memories.  (Vide Smith's attempt to recover the "real" memory of the past by interviewing an elderly prole, whose recollections are a hopeless jumble.)  More originally, Oceania developed a new language, Newspeak, whose structure and lexicon made disobedient thought impossible.  "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it," says one of Newspeak's lexicographers.  Finally, and most frighteningly, the jailers and interrogators of Oceania devised a variety of methods to "capture [the] inner mind" of their prisoners.  Some of these were old techniques – pain, fear, coerced betrayal of friends and family – designed to break down the individual's mental resistance to reprogramming.  However, Smith's principal interrogator, O'Brien, also has access to a machine, for which there was no analogue in Orwell's time (or our own), that is capable of controlling and emptying its subject's mind:

"There had been a moment…thirty seconds, perhaps – of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O'Brien's had filled up a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth, and when two and two could have been three as easily as five."

            It is in these interrogation sequences that Orwell's mission in writing 1984 intersects with – indeed, forecasts – the interests of a large part of the SF community in the 1950s and '60s.  What interests Orwell here is the possibility of artificially reading or controlling someone's mind, a goal which Oceania's scientists were assiduously pursuing, "testing the truth-producing effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis, and physical torture," according to "Emmanuel Goldstein's" secret history.  Mind-control and mind-reading, and the development of so-called "psionic" powers, would shortly become obsessions in the science-fiction community, or more precisely obsessions of the influential SF editor John Campbell, who gave psi-oriented stories sympathetic treatment in the 1950s.  (Isaac Asimov later grumbled that it was impossible to publish a story in Amazing magazine in those years unless it was about extrasensory powers.) 
I would argue that this was less because SF writers were following Orwell's lead than because the "real world" was, however unwittingly, following Orwell's lead.  Just a few years after 1984's publication, Americans began to receive disturbing reports of POWs taken during the Korean War who were refusing to come home or who were denouncing the United States.  They had been reprogrammed by their Chinese captors, through sleep-deprivation and relentless propaganda, to sympathize with the Communist cause.  Their interrogators unknowingly adapted a term from 1984, "brainwashing," to describe this process.  Fear of and fascination with "Communist mind control" led the U.S. Army and CIA to experiment with "mind-control" drugs, notoriously including LSD, in the 1950s.  It almost certainly helps explain SF readers' and authors' fascination with "mind powers" in the 1950s and '60s, a fascination reflected in the fiction of Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, and Anne McCaffrey, among others.
SF authors differed from Orwell in that they spent as much time exploring the liberating potential of psi powers, whether innate or mechanically produced, as they did warning of their potential to enslave.  This brings one back to another feature of Orwell's 1984 that sets it apart from the sci-fi of his day: the author's highly ambivalent attitude toward technology.  Orwell was no Luddite – his lifelong Socialism derived in part from his belief that the Industrial Revolution had made poverty unnecessary – but he had little interest in living in the sterile, steel-and-glass future envisioned by early-20th-century technophiles. Moreover, he repeatedly warned, toward the end of his life, that modern technology was as likely to enslave the individual as liberate him.  Print media and the radio, he observed, made modern propaganda possible; the then-new technology of flight made it possible for nation-states to seal their borders (through aerial surveillance); the brand-new nuclear bomb, which was both appallingly powerful and extremely expensive, appeared likely to concentrate global power into the hands of two or three super-states, rather like Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia.  Orwell first raised these points in his 1945 essay "You and the Atom Bomb" (in which he also coined the term "Cold War"), and incorporated them into the essay "Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism" in 1984.  They were not sentiments shared by most of the early practitioners of science fiction, though thanks to the aforementioned atom bomb, healthy skepticism about technology would become a more prominent theme in SF after 1945.


None of this quite answers my title question, so let me close with this: I don't think George Orwell thought he was writing science fiction, and in 1948 most SF writers weren't interested in telling the kind of story Orwell told.  However, Orwell's interests - dystopian futures, skepticism about technology, mind-control techniques - reflected or prefigured obsessions that much of the world, including science fiction writers, would share in the 1950s and '60s.  The boundaries of the genre thus expanded to include novels like 1984; had Orwell published his story twenty years later I suspect he would have been on the final ballot for the Nebula Award.  (Whether he would have deigned to come to the United States to accept the award is another question.)  Sometimes, if you want to know the direction a genre is going to take, it helps to look at the mainstream.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Introduction: Nomenclature

A word or two on this weblog's peculiar name: I have adapted the blog's title from the phrase "Ramshackle Empire," which appears in the science-fiction game Traveller, of which your humble narrator was once an enthusiastic fan.  "Ramshackle Empire" was the derisive name given to the second human interstellar empire by its critics, and the term itself draws attention to one of the more appealing parts of Traveller's future history: there were not only hundreds of institutions and events described in that history, but also multiple historical interpretations of some of those institutions and events.  (Supporters of the "Ramshackle Empire" called it by its official name, the Rule of Man.)  The term also displays the game designers' appreciation for terrestrial history, since it was borrowed from critics of the real-world Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As for using the term "vampire" instead of "empire" - hey, I've got to get in on this vampire craze before it vanishes completely. (Note: it has almost vanished completely.)