Historical echoes indeed

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2010

The ever-ludicrous home of the British “decent left”, _Harry’s Place_ , carries the motto on its banner “Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” No surprise then that they’ve devoted much of their recent coverage to increasingly hysterical guilt-by-association denunciations of Wikileaks. One of their marginally saner bloggers, “Gene”, has now posted “a long comparison”:http://hurryupharry.org/2010/12/10/historical-echoes/ between Chinese Nobel-prizewinner Liu Xiaobo and his German predecessor Carl von Ossietzky. Von Ossietzky was convicted of high treason and espionage in 1931 for publishing details of German rearmament in contravention of the Versailles treaty, a verdict that was upheld in 1992 by Germany’s Federal Court of Justice. The 1992 ruling, “according to Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Ossietzky , reads:

bq. According to the case law of the Supreme Court of the German Reich, the illegality of covertly conducted actions did not cancel out the principle of secrecy. According to the opinion of the Supreme Court of the German Reich, every citizen owes his Fatherland a duty of allegiance regarding information, and endeavours towards the enforcement of existing laws may be implemented only through the utilization of responsible domestic state organs, and never by appealing to foreign governments.

Carl von Ossietzky, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange ….?

The day after the day after ….

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2010

So, the vote to triple university tuition fees in the UK was won by the government, albeit with a reduced majority (21), thousands of young people demonstrated outside Parliament, and the Prince of Wales’s car got bricked as people chanted “off with their heads!” What now? People seem to be anticipating three things: more disorder on the streets as the coalition pushes though its cuts programme; the destruction of the Liberal Democrats; and a massive slump in popularity for the Coalition. Good news for the left then? I’m not so sure.
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Science Fiction: The Limit Case

by John Holbo on December 11, 2010

Thanks, Cosma, for posting the Haldane and Russell pieces. Let me now offer an elegant proof of Henry’s thesis – “The ancestry of modern SF lies as much in the 19th century ‘condition of England’ novel as it does in more obvious ancestors like Frankenstein” – with reference to the G.K. Chesterton novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which Haldane mocks for its bad prophecy. (Haldane himself confidently predicts that, in the future, people will sensibly acknowledge the tonic, healthful effects of tobacco. Glass houses, stones.) Anyway, the neat thing about Napoleon is that it is imagines, from the point of view of 1904, what the world will look like, 80 years hence. Will 1984 be some sort of utopia, or some sort of dystopia, one asks?

Then the wise men grew like wild things, and swayed hither and thither, crying, “What can it be? What can it be? What will London be like a century hence? Is there anything we have not thought of? Houses upside down—more hygienic, perhaps? Men walking on hands—make feet flexible, don’t you know? Moon … motor-cars … no heads….” And so they swayed and wondered until they died and were buried nicely.

Then the people went and did what they liked. Let me no longer conceal the painful truth. The people had cheated the prophets of the twentieth century. When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

We arrive at the limit case of sf. We tend to assume science fiction is about portraying technological change – or potential technological differences from how things are now. But, logically, one of the possibilities is that things could be pretty much the same. Of course, this is rather silly because it turns every work of fiction into science fiction (because every work of fiction either imagines things to be different from how they are, scientifically, or more or less the same.) Which induces us to pluck the string of motive. What makes something sf is either its foregrounding of technological difference/change or its impulse to indulge the sociological imagination, more generally. Getting back to Chesterton, his world of 1984 is more changed than “almost exactly like what it is now” would suggest:

Very few words are needed to explain why London, a hundred years hence, will be very like it is now, or rather, since I must slip into a prophetic past, why London, when my story opens, was very like it was in those enviable days when I was still alive.

The reason can be stated in one sentence. The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions. All revolutions are doctrinal—such as the French one, or the one that introduced Christianity. For it stands to common sense that you cannot upset all existing things, customs, and compromises, unless you believe in something outside them, something positive and divine. Now, England, during this century, lost all belief in this. It believed in a thing called Evolution. And it said, “All theoretic changes have ended in blood and ennui. If we change, we must change slowly and safely, as the animals do. Nature’s revolutions are the only successful ones. There has been no conservative reaction in favour of tails.”

And some things did change. Things that were not much thought of dropped out of sight. Things that had not often happened did not happen at all. Thus, for instance, the actual physical force ruling the country, the soldiers and police, grew smaller and smaller, and at last vanished almost to a point. The people combined could have swept the few policemen away in ten minutes: they did not, because they did not believe it would do them the least good. They had lost faith in revolutions.

Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely an universal secretary.

In this manner it happened that everything in London was very quiet. That vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition. There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before.

Then: everything erupts in glorious medievalism!

Now, let’s run through it again. Logically, it should be allowable for any imaginative treatment of the future of science, or the possibilities of science (up to and including fairly flagrant impossibilities) to count as sf. But that means, potentially: things stay the same. But that’s a silly sort of sf. So we expand our definition to include works of sociological imagination, as it were. But now it’s a bit tail-wags-the-dog. The fact that Chesterton’s novel, framed as it is, is plainly sf, goes to show that sf is a subset of a broader set of works of sociologically imaginative fiction. In much sf, the machinery functions not as a fictional end but a means of getting the sociological ball rolling. Instead of deus ex machina, to end the thing, you have populus ex machina, to get it started. On the other hand, there are problems with doing it this way. But that’s why we have comment boxes.