The Four Last Things in Science Fiction

This is a reprint, in part, of an essay of mine from AD 2011. I wanted to introduce it to any new readers of mine since that year, and to use it as a way of saying Happy New Year:

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Most futures in most SF stories are monocultures, much in the same way, and for the same reason, most worlds visited by the starship Enterprise have but one culture. There is not enough room in a single novel, or a single movie, to do more than hint at complexity.

Indeed, complexity would destroy the mood and theme of the story. Imagine someone writing a realistic version of Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD. In both cases, the totalitarian dystopia cannot project an air of suffocating omnipotence if it is hinted anywhere that they will pass away in less than sixty years. The absurdly over-regulated world state in Huxley, realistically, would last even less time. Imagine if every baby born had to be decanted and birthed by the same bureaucracy that runs the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office. The idea that they would produce the correct number of the different intellectual castes, Alpha to Epsilon, as conditions changed from year to year is absurd. Recall that one of the Epsilons is an elevator operator. When the book was written, every elevator had an operator the same way, now, every automobile has a driver. Science fiction writers have been predicting in vain for years now cars that would drive themselves, or fly, but Huxley did not anticipate elevators operated by a pushbutton. Realistically, the world-bureaucracy of the Ford world-state would have no more ability to predict the actions of the market place, or the needs of its wards, than Huxley himself. In the real world, the utter incompetence even of public servants who are not venal is legendary.

Obviously, the police state in Orwell would go broke the same way the Soviet Union did and communist China is (despite our heroic efforts to prop them up) going to. Perhaps it could last one hundred years, or two. But the whole theme of Orwell was that the state was like a boot that would trample a human face forever. The hopelessness is the core of the book’s message. Even Goldstein, the rebel against the system, is manufactured by Big Brother as part of the totalitarian control process.

As with Orwell and Huxley, most science fiction writers do not have the space on the page to invent a future as complex as the future will be. To introduce the reader to more than one idea takes more than one story.

This is one reason the Future History stories of Robert Heinlein were monumental in science fiction history: aside from Olaf Stapledon, no writer before had worked out over a number of tales placed in a number of eras the complexity realism requires.

Like his mentor Olaf Stapledon, Heinlein anticipated a future that was fairly complex, with ups and downs, its advances and its setbacks. After the theocracy of Nehemiah Scudder, a libertarian style Covenant government would become supreme in the world, ushering in the golden age called ‘The Maturity of Man.’

In TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, we catch a glimpse of this utopia, where mankind is spreading rapidly across the galaxy, war is unknown, disease and aging are unknown, fathers are good to their children, and everyone has sex with everyone, male or female, human or machine.

Plus, space is a frontier without end, so the rugged frontiersmanship so beloved of Heinlein, and, in the days before PC, beloved of all Americans, finds infinite scope for its exercise. Heinlein’s future contains all the freedom of the wilderness and all the comforts of civilization wrapped up in one.

There is one oddity in the Future History of Heinlein, which I also perceive in Isaac Asimov, or, at least, in his FOUNDATION series. They do not have a satisfactory endpoint.

Let me explain specifically what I mean: there is a scene on METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN where Lazarus Long and the Howard Families confront godlike superbeings on a distant world, beings who have domesticated and indeed neutered their merely mortal beings on their world. The gods, whether in gentleness, or indifference, or contempt, simply fling the Earthman back aboard their ship and away into space. This scene is revisited in an aside in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, where Lazarus Long claims to have merely walked into the stronghold of the gods and slain them all with a handweapon.

Whether he is kidding or serious is not clear. But the clear point is that Lazarus Long, and perhaps all of Heinlein all-competent characters, cannot tolerate the idea of gods, not even the idea, first popularized by Nietzsche, that man would evolve into gods.

In TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, it is stated blandly that all alien species mankind has encountered have been swept aside, perhaps regrettably, but inevitably. Man has not met his match, nor his superior.

A similar sentiment is expressed in STARSHIP TROOPERS. Rico announces a somewhat Darwinian doctrine that mankind is the toughest, roughest mongrel in the universe, and will continue to overspread the stars until we encounter someone tougher—and if we do, presumably they will treat homo sapiens with the same harshness the Colonists and Conquistadors  treated the Red Indians.

And yet the final step of evolution into Nietzschean gods is one where Heinlein, to his credit, recoils, fearing that such superior beings would not be human. I do not have a quote ready at hand, nor a specific scene in mind, but I draw your attention to the general direction of Heinlein’s writings. His future history does not end with the Singularity of Verner Vinge, nor the absorption of all the children of men into the Cosmic Overmind as in Arthur C Clarke’s CHILDHOOD END. Heinlein’s Future History does not have an end: Heinlein’s future reaches a frontier, and civilization simply continues to expand. Our heroes ride off into the sunset like cowboys and the sun never sets: there are always more worlds to pioneer.

In Asimov’s FOUNDATION, there is a similar unsatisfactory end state. The Seldon Plan works, and the Second Empire arises. The Dark Ages is staved off, and peace and prosperity return. The numberless quadrillions of the Milky Way are ruled by psionic Psychohistorians, a cabal of supermen whose reign no one can escape, because only the Psychohistorians control the secret knowledge of history. They also, at the insistence of John W Campbell Jr, have Way Cool mind powers. It is amazing what the study of statistics can do for one.

Now, I have not read the more recent sequels to Foundation, so I don’t know how the Second Empire actually turns out. I do know that Donald Kingsbury has the last word in this particular discussion, since he explored the question of what happens if the secret of Psychohistorical mathematics is released to the general public in his novel PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS: the centralized power of the Empire crumbles. The future is one perhaps of endless freedom but also of endless civil war.

The theme of Asimov’s Foundation was how to prevent the downfall of civilization. As men who lived through World War Two, and saw the Cold War unfolding, the memory of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was more pressing than it otherwise would have been on the imagination of futurists in those decades. Books as disparate as DUNE and A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ and AGAINST THE FALL OF NIGHT all touch on the theme of the fall of empires and civilizations. So while I will not fault Isaac Asimov for not departing from his theme—the story is about the unfolding of Seldon’s Plan to restore the Galactic Empire—I do note that if Robert Heinlein had written FOUNDATION, some character, if only one, would have expressed a preference, if only once, for the restoration of the Republic, or mentioned a discontent with being ruled by a godlike elite of scholarly intellectuals with Way Cool Mind Powers. No doubt Lazarus Long would have entered their secret chambers with a hand weapon and done them all in.

But then what? Unlike the unclaimed galaxy of Heinlein, the Asimov galaxy is colonized and civilized out to its farthest star, Terminus.

Before Heinlein or Asimov, Olaf Stapledon in his majestic LAST AND FIRST MEN spun out a future history where he predicted not one world war and collapse of civilization, but ten or more, and the destruction of at least three planets, before the rise of the final glorious communally-minded communism among the Last Men of Neptune (in this book, Neptune has a solid surface and a breathable atmosphere, albeit a higher gravity). But the Neptunians perish when the solar system is overcome by a cosmic disaster.  They salute the disaster overcoming them with a joy beyond mere stoic resignation, in awe of the cosmos and its blind cruelty of Darwinian extinction, even as they themselves go extinct.

In the not-quite-sequel, Stapledon explores the future history of all the mankinds of all worlds, both in this galaxy and beyond, to the ultimate end of time, and even partway into eternity. The ending is one of the most cosmically unsatisfying that can be imagined: all minds in the universe link in telepathic communion during the last hours of the universe, and make contact with the omnipotent Star-Maker, the creator of universes. The Star-Maker swats the intelligences he has created aside with contempt, having already used them and learned from them what little the experiment of their petty lives could teach him, and he plans to create more universes on more complex themes, and, as here, inflicting pain and death on his subjects, with no more concern for their wellbeing than Shakespeare has for the happiness of Hamlet. But the narrator urges the reader to feel good about his, and all, life in the cosmos being sadistically cruel and meaningless and short. I am not kidding: that is the theme of the book.

In his (in my opinion, deservedly) little known and little read DARKNESS AND LIGHT, Olaf Stapledon spins out not one but two future histories, one ending in a transcendence from mankind to a second and higher species beyond our comprehension, or ending in a collapse of civilization so entire that the final degraded survivors of the once-human race are overwhelmed by rats.

If I may wax philosophical, I propose the theory that all future histories as anticipated by secular men must generally fall into one of four camps, since there are only four basic philosophical postures, and only four, available to the modern man.

I restrict my comments to the modern man, because the concept of the eternal return, although it has been touched on once or twice by science fiction writers, the idea that all time is a cycle, and that all things which happened before will happen again, without change, throughout eternity, is an ancient idea that offends the basic appeal of science fiction, which is to explore what might differ between our time and the times of our progeny, or what might be different between the world as we see it and the world as science might portray it. Several authors have written stories where, after the heat death of the universe, the universe begins again and is the same universe, including the memorable TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson.

Many writers, to be sure, have written stories about the collapse of our civilization, so much so that it forms its own sub genre with its own name, and even comic books and popular movies reflect these themes, from MAD MAX to WATERWORLD to PLANET OF THE APES to THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN to KAMANDI LAST BOY ON EARTH.

But as far as I know, none have written a story where technical civilization passes away, and we return to the agrarian lifestyles of our ancestors forever, and any industrial revolutions of the future are followed by industrial collapses, so we always stay at a Bronze Age or Iron Age level of technology. I have yet to read a science fiction book where the predicted fate of mankind is not to change, but that the ancient world, with its tyrants and serfs and slaves, and most of the population devoted to growing crops or herding cattle, will be the sum of what all futures holds. Even this could not be fitted into a science fiction background, unless time travelers deracinated the futurians back into the Paleolithic, because a science fiction reader will expect either the extinction of man or of his earth.  The idea of an eternal return cannot fit within the modern model of the world.

So, leaving the ancient idea behind, the four ideas exerting the most pressure on the Western mind at this point in history, and therefore on our popular entertainments, I would list as

(1) Classical liberalism, also called individualism, which is the optimistic glorification of worldly and bourgeoisie values of self-reliance and self-rule. The individualist above all things insists that individual rights are sacred.

(2)  Socialism, also called collectivism, which rebels against the complacency of individualism, and glorifies anything totalitarian, collective, or futuristic. Unlike classical liberalism, the collectivist has an vision of a utopian future, an end-state. Unlike classical liberalism, the collectivist dismisses the idea of a marketplace of ideas, where each man can settle for himself the unimportant question of right and wrong and absolute truth. The collectivist believes in absolute truth, and believes truth should be imposed by coercive force by the elite onto the weak and foolish. The collectivist above all things insists on uniformity of thought.

(3) Mysticism, also called New Age, which rejects the rigidity and inhumanity of socialism, but also rejects the selfishness of classical liberalism and the loneliness of individualism. The mystic seeks union with the cosmos.

(4) Nihilism, also called postmodernism. The Nihilist rejects the woozy thinking of the mystic, and regards with contempt the folly of the classical liberal, whose promises he sees as frauds, and regards with hatred the simplistic binary world-view of the collectivist. The nihilist insists that some nameless force, perhaps evolution, perhaps some life-force, will alter mankind as if by alchemy to new forms and new identities, leaving human nature and human morality behind (for, ultimately, there is really no such thing as nature, or morality).  The nihilist, whether he knows it or not, seeks the abolition of man and the annihilation of the cosmos. (That his goal is both self destructive and logically absurd, not to mention silly, adds rather than detracts from the appeal to the nihilist psychology.)

The science fiction futures discussed above fall roughly into one of these categories, or, at least, bear a thematic or emotional similarity to them.

Heinlein is a classical liberal par excellence. The ‘Maturity of Man’ foretold at the end of his future history is the daydream of Victorian optimism: that one day, due to good education and the progress of the sciences, the universal commonwealth of man will abolish war, along with insanity, sin, disease, and death. The oddness in this vision is that it has no sequel it can imagine: evolution into the nonhuman superman of Nietzsche is abhorrent to the classical liberal mind. For Heinlein, to encounter the superior beings of higher evolution is merely to throw down a gauntlet: either the gods must be destroyed or we must. Even the most benevolent of advanced aliens in the Heinlein background, the Mother Thing’s superiors in HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL, a combination of human and machine, regard man in stark Darwinistic terms, as possible competitors i.e. threats to galactic peace, and determine whether to extinguish mankind or spare us based on purely realpolitick considerations, not as if we are worth anything in and of ourselves. Of course, for the secular man, no one is worth anything in and of himself.

So there is something of a flat uneasiness, a missing last step, in the far futures of Heinlein, and, to a degree, of Asimov. They are great believers in progress, in Man’s ability to solve man’s problems, but the progress cannot be envisioned as taking the race beyond the human. Heinlein’s rather rococo solution to this metaphysical conundrum is to retreat into self-worship. In STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, it is postulated that all rational creatures are gods. He is following in the footsteps of Kirillov, a  character in the Dostoevsky novel THE POSSESSED who announces “‘if there is no God, then I am God.”

In NUMBER OF THE BEAST, this logical absurdity is carried to its absurd extreme, but apparently meant by the author as being something desirable, when the characters discover that the multiverse is created by mankind out of its own imagination, so that every story told is true, and all worlds are real (or unreal, or both or neither). You can simply have a big party outside of time with all your favorite characters and friends, and condemn your critics to hell. This conceit has the stupid simplicity of solipsism without the loneliness, because your friends exist as well, and can share their solipsistic universes with you. This poly-solipsism is the result of individualism and liberal insistence on self-reliance taken to a comical if not diabolic extreme: there is no god but you, but you also are free of the responsibilities of god, and need not suffer for your creations, or redeem them. There is no holiness in the Heinlein universe, and no sin. There are rational, self-made men who are blessed, and there are yammerheads who are damned.

The discontent with the worldly utopia is its worldliness. The worldly man cares nothing for ultimate truth: he cares for his rights, which he regards as sacred, and for his property, and the more elevated among them care for imponderables like honor, decency and a sense of humanity. They achieve Eden, but they are still the same old slobs they were here on earth, so what have they gained?

Collectivists ceased to imagine their utopias in any detail about when Ralph Bellamy wrote LOOKING BACKWARD. They are not good at building things, but they are good at criticizing the present state of things, emphasizing the discontents and even absurdities, and calling for the downfall of capitalism. They rarely admit they are totalitarians or collectivists, and many may be unaware of it, or unwilling to be aware of it. A sterling example of this is the FOUNDATION series mentioned above. Not a single character even seems aware of the idea that the rule by a galactic empire governed by mind-reading and mind-altering supermen who have mathematical control of the nuances of history is not a desirable thing. No one says a word in favor of it, nor against it. It is just a given that civilization is one and the same with Imperium. Hail Caesar!

The discontent with collectivism is that the absolute truth is backed by an absolute state. (In the case of FOUNDATION the truth is a scientific one, that is, the predictive science of history.) To be sure, all variations of collectivist seek the abolition of the state and the return to the anarchy of Eden, when brother love shall take the place of court of law, policemen, armies, treaties, as the mechanism to settle disputes between men: and the more elevated collectivists think of the spirit of man as a real being who will rule the Millennium, the absolute truth made flesh. As a Christian, I give the collectivist credit for at least believing in an absolute truth; but since their absolute truth is merely a material dialectic after all, a sum of laws of nature, a description of matter in motion, it is an absolute void rather than an absolute truth.

I mention Mr Kingsbury above. The question he asks, along the lines of ‘who watches the watchman’ is ‘who psychohistorically sets the future of the psyhohistorians?’ C.S. Lewis asks a similar and more poignant question in THE ABOLITION OF MAN, his nonfiction version of the ideas explored in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. His question is, once science has discovered how to control and condition man to have whatever reactions are deemed good, who conditions the conditioners? How can any being for whom the good is contingent reality based on neuropsychology follow an absolute good? Answer: he cannot.

Nowhere have I read the description of what the galactic emperor would be like, if he controlled a cadre of psychohistorians to establish, before they happen, the events of his reign, not to mention read and control the minds of his subjects, or, rather, his patients and raw materials. I am assuming that the galactic emperor in Warhammer 40K would turn out to be more human and humane.

As I say, I have not read the later Foundation books beyond the original trilogy. I read the fourth book up to a point where the characters are contemplating the idea of the galaxy as a single living organism, and man as absorbed into it as part if it’s intricate ecological machinery, and tossed the book away in disgust.

That scene is a segue between collectivism and its next step, mysticism, which proposes not just a collective state, but to extinguish the selfish ego into the mass consciousness of the inanimate universe, always portrayed as being possessed of a consciousness of its own.

The best example of this mysticism comes, oddly enough, from Arthur C Clarke, regarded as the hardest of hard SF writers after Jules Verne. In his CHILDHOOD’S END, in an almost picture-perfect portrayal of the Gnostic world view, Clarke proposes that the next stage of human evolution, his version of the Maturity of Man, is transmogrification to the non-material state, and an absorption of all the children of men into a cosmic oversoul or overmind.

The Gnostics, for those of you unfamiliar with them, reject the entire world system very much as Christians do, except that they consider the world evil from the start, and God to be the devil. Of persons to oppose the vision of a galactic collectivist totalitarian Imperium that controls each nuance of history and every thought of men, none is more appropriate than these ancient heretics.

(I do not think that Mr Clarke when he wrote this was a Gnostic, or even had the least idea of this theories: I submit that thoughts, like all natural things, follow certain laws, and that if you accept the Gnostic axiom, you get a Gnostic conclusion.)

Something of this same aura of Gnosticism overhangs stories of technological transcendentalism or singularity, where human beings download themselves into computer mainframes, or imprint their brain engrams on the fabric of timespace itself,  and so achieve expanded consciousness, supreme intelligence, and endless life, becoming as angels are. Gnostics hate the physical body, regard the doctrine of the Incarnation as a scandal, and abhor the idea of the resurrection in the flesh, glorified or no. It is their trademark. The idea that you can become god by your own effort is the trademark of that serpent who first promised the mother of all living that selfsame snake oil back in the garden of Eden.

So the worldly utopia of NUMBER OF THE BEAST is merely a party. You are still you, and if you have no desire to discover ultimate truths, you can get along and do your business well enough, and let your neighbor mind his. The shallowness of this vision is jaw-dropping. One is reminded of how a starving man dreams and speaks of nothing but food, and if you ask him, “yes, but what will you do with your time after the feast, once your belly is full?” he cannot either imagine the condition nor answer the question. What does the classical liberal do once liberty is his to enjoy? Uh. Enjoy himself?

The worldly utopia of the Second Empire is merely a nightmare. Collectivists, no matter how accomplished they are in other fields, are intellectually incoherent when it comes to identifying their desires and their goals. They seem to assume Caesar will be able to be all wise once he is all powerful, but that he will also be so benevolent that he will never once be tempted to use his omnipotent power to secure his reign, rather than serve the public good. Now, no one can make such a bone headed error unintentionally. There are certain topics the collectivist, by a practiced method of suspending thought, has learned to avoid addressing, simply by never thinking about them.

The otherworldly utopia of the Overmind in CHILDHOOD’S END, or the trans-human states of being imagined by other authors, simply don’t come on stage, as being inexplicable to the human minds of the readers. This is no flaw, this is a feature: mystics aver that there is a reality that cannot be put into words. If they are right, and there is such a reality (and I, for one, say they are right) then of the ineffable, nothing can be said. But I will mention the discontent of worldly men like Heinlein with such a vision. To worldly men, the ineffability of the ineffable is a confession of it mental incoherence. It seems less than a dream to him: it is a nightmare. What profits it a man to gain the whole of the otherworld, if he loses his soul?

Is there and other logically possible option, aside from the endless freedom of a classical liberal utopia, the endless peace of a collectivist utopia, or the abolition of the limitations of self in the endlessness of mystical transmogrification into something more than human?

Well, yes. Yes of course there is another option. Obliteration. The other option aside from infinite life as a man, or mystical communion with the infinite, is death.

Nihilist visions of the future are more common in horror stories than in science fiction, but they are still to be found. Olaf Stapledon is perhaps the clearest preacher, in SF, of pure nihilism. His books explicitly state that life is meaningless, but that men of advanced mind, by a pure effort of will, can perceive and enjoy the beauty inherent even in pain and suffering, and so be aloof from their own demises, or even rejoice in them.

A similar theme, in the fantasy genre, is explored in Philip Pullman’s achingly empty-hearted ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. When God Almighty is killed by mistake by a little boy, falling out of bed or something, he looks momentarily overjoyed before he dissolves into dust, because he contemplates reunion with the universe, albeit dead. The ghosts on whom Lyra commits a particularly pointless euthanasia have the same reaction for the same reason, if I read these books aright.

And that is it. The visions of the future are either one of endless liberty, endless law, self-transcendence or self-destruction.

The advent anticipated by the Christians is none of these, albeit it incorporates elements of each.

For the damned, the endless torment of isolation from the source of all good, God, is the oblivion the atheist expects and the suicide craves, except that it is an oblivion which, paradoxically, the suffer experiences: all the emptiness of the abyss is his. The nihilist, who wishes to destroy himself and destroy the universe, is granted his wish insofar as it is logically possible to grant it, and the powers of his immortal soul are bent to his own eternal self-destruction, fittliest called hell.  This is a nothingness more profound than the nihilist can envision, and nowhere near as gentle.

For the saved, we expect the pleasures imagined by the paradises of Mohammad, and the Elysium of the pagans, in such glory as can only be described by metaphors of golden crowns, of rulership, of praise, of nuptial intimacy with a bridegroom, or of a feast. This is luxury beyond the tepid daydreams of hedonists, in the same way the true love is beyond lust. The bridal feast is something more solemn and solid and exquisite in joy than the party-time of folk at liberty to enjoy themselves.

The benevolent rulership we expect from Him who earned it by his self-sacrifice, and our salvation. No benevolent dictator, but an indwelling spirit of infinite love and wisdom will rule all things, and lay his golden scepter by, becoming all in all.

We also expect the communion of saints, a unity that does not abolish human nature but fulfills and completes it. This is not the self-extinction of the Gnostic, but rather it is something they, in their fastidious disgust for creation, cannot anticipate: a new heaven and a new earth, and everything made new, and man at last at one with the creation he was created to rule.

There is not a single science fiction story I mention here which I would not recommend. I am not mocking them. I am saying that they appeal to our imaginations precisely because in our souls we know, even if we know not how we know, that something more wonderful and more awe-striking, something of which no tongue can speak and no man has seen, awaits in the real future that comes before us.

If you had told the ancient Jews of the coming of their messiah, that he would be born in a stable, amid animals and filth, witnessed not by priests and kings but by humble shepherds, they either would have been awed with the paradox or angered by the scandal of it. It would have been unbelievable for the wonder of it, or, for the skeptic, unbelievable for the silliness of it. God in a stable? The faithful Mohammedan is to this day repulsed by the idea.

The second Advent, when the messiah comes again, this time in glory rather than in humility, no doubt will be accompanied by similar disbelief or disbelieving wonder.

It does no harm if, while we linger in our pilgrim journey here on Earth, we read some yarns of science fiction to train our imaginations to accept that wonders do indeed come to pass, and wonders mightier than these.

Even the worst of these SF tales (and believe you me, I have read some of the worst) contains some echo of that wonder of hope which shall ring from the trumpet of Gabriel, when all the dead are risen again, and called before the Last Judgment. Even the humblest science fiction keeps its eyes on Things to Come, even if the secular world cannot say what those four last things shall be.