Saturday, June 1, 2013

Space Travel vs. Perceval, Knight of the Grail

If you've spoken to me recently, you might know that I've been writing daily now for a couple of years, mostly science fiction novels and short stories.  This month, I'd like to explain why I've become so interested in science fiction.

All too often, I'll be talking to someone about space travel or overpopulation and that someone will conclude:

"And that's why we need to start colonizing space, because you know, it's just getting too crowded down here."

I love science fiction, and I think it's important, but this is a great example of where it confuses people.

Okay, so what you're trying to tell me is, we can't afford to feed these 75 million new people every year, but maybe we can afford to dress each one in a million-dollar space suit, strap them to a giant billion-dollar missile, and send them to eke out their existence on a planet where you can't grow food unless you've built yourself a air-proof, radiation-blocking biodome?  If that's your plan, I've got a better idea:  Antarctica is cheaper to get to, more hospitable, and easier to farm than any alien world we know how to get to.

To be fair, most science fiction starts with the premise that humans are restless creatures who need adventure, and that's why we will bother to  develop faster-than-light travel, and why our politicians will fork over the trillions necessary to terraform Mars.  Because it would be fun, or maybe profitable.

But the most compelling science fiction starts from a very different sort of mood, a deep-seated doubt or worry about the future of humankind.  This kind of science fiction includes 1984, Brave New World, Samuel Butler's "The Machine Stops," and countless other "dystopian" works.  Such science fiction is not called science fiction at all -- not when it's good -- but rather "literature," since it is the sort of thing your teachers and professors like to make you read.

To give you an idea, in case you somehow avoided reading any of these, George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1948) is based on the premise that the governments of the world have become so bloated and powerful that they have installed cameras in every room of your home and continually monitor each citizen for "thoughtcrime," which is when you've got the inkling that something might be wrong with the government.  Citizens are encouraged to use "doublethink," which refers to the practice of believing what is not true, such as that you are a free citizen of a just country.  To give away the ending, the protagonist attempts to avoid these cameras on occasion to live a secret life where he can think as he pleases but is eventually captured, tortured, and brainwashed until he has recovered the ability to doublethink.

It's compelling because it reminds us of how governments sometimes seem to work.

To be honest, I don't find 1984 to be any more realistic than Star Trek, though it might be more edifying.  Total surveillence is no more possible than travelling faster than light.  The former implies a government as large as its population, and the latter implies time travel.

Thanks to science fiction most Americans picture our future as a happy one in space.  I guess it's a credit to the optimism of our society that Star Trek has had a bigger influence on our vision of the future than 1984


But are we going to settle space or not?  Is it even plausible?  What's going to be the end result of overpopulation?  Will the American government eventually collapse into a 1984-ish dictatorship, like most powerful empires before it?

These are all important questions, questions that I've worried about myself since high school.  In fact -- and here's why my interest in science fiction has grown -- in worrying about them I've been compelled to imagine my own histories of the future, histories that in the last few years I've tried to express as fictional stories.

Back in 2008 I took a two-year leave of absence from my Ph.D. program.  I had gotten a little tired of being told what to think about and read, and I needed some freedom to develop my ideas.  The central worry for me was our society's notion of progress.

I came to feel that progress must be a myth.  (A few reasons for this can be found in last month's post, and still more reasons in my 2011 posts.)  There are countless factors that continually act to wear a society down:  loss of tradition, genetic decay, pollution, resource depletion.  I began trying to imagine what our society would look like when these forces had finally caused it to collapse.

Around the same time I had been reading some "medieval romances" that is, tales written down centuries ago about King Arthur and his knights (I can't say I'm a big fan of anything Arthurian written post-1500 A.D.), and I came across the story of Perceval, as written down by the French poet Chr├ętien de Troyes in the late 12th century. 

De Troyes's Perceval has been an obsession of mine now for five years -- I own it in three translations as well as the original French.

The story of Perceval is something primal.  I discovered it at just the right time, when I was thinking about how evolutionary forces work on a collapsing society.  Part of the reason societies collapse is that since survival is no longer a problem in them, random cultural and biological change starts to take over.  Governments become corrupt and no longer do what they're supposed to.  University professors stop worrying about truth and start caring about fame.  All of the notions of civility, chivalry, and ethics that were forged in the previous Dark Ages are lost to entropy.  If you compare (for example) the early Roman society with the late, you will see exactly these kinds of decay.

It occurred to me that what happens during the so-called Dark Ages is that without any empire or government to take care of them, people are basically left to fend for themselves.  There are no soldiers to put down bandits; you've got to make your own sword and get them yourself.  And thus knighthood and chivalry -- that is, feudalism -- is born.

(If you think any of this irrelevent or special to European society, just remember tha the middle east has been, several times, the most civilized part of the world but is, currently, composed of feudal tribes and monarchies.  Such cycles are ongoing in most parts of the world.)

In this frame of mind I read Perceval, the story of a ferocious backwoods Welsh boy who was ignorant but pure of heart.  Here you've got post-collapse Roman territory, everyone's illiterate, everyone's a bandit, there's no sense of decency or shame . . . somehow, somewhere, someone's got to set example of what it means to be a hero.  Because heroes are what drive evolution -- they fight for the survival of themselves and others.  They fight to put a stop to fighting and death, and societies that follow their example begin back on the path towards being civilized.  Call it memetic evolution if you wish, and that's surely at least half the story, but don't forget that almost every feudal society (medieval Europe, tribal Arabs, etc.) has a very strong notion of "bloodline."  I would be surprised if this did not have an evolutionary origin -- the noble bloodlines are usually considered to be those which show truth, honesty, courage, and charity. 

In case you're thinking I'm making this up, here's a quote from a book written by an anthropologist who was Arabian herself and lived among the feudal/tribal Bedouin in the Egyptian desert.  It's the first sentence in Chapter 3: "Honor and the Virtues of Autonomy."

"Blood," the central concept in the definition of both Bedouin cultural identity and individual identity is . . . seen as closely tied to moral nature.  (Veiled Sentiments, Lila Abu-Lughod, 1986, p. 78.)

She goes on to describe Bedouin morality as consisting of autonomy, strength, self-control, chastity, honesty, and modesty.

This is where the notion of nobility comes from, I would argue.  People start consciously breeding good people together to get more good people.  In some societies it leads to an equilibrium state, as with the centuries-old Bedouin.  In Europe it was probably taken too far, leading to inbreeding and often times worse vices than before (Versailles, for example?).

But let's ask the question of how all of this starts from a chaotic post-collapse society.  Okay, so you've got Perceval, the idiot backwoods boy who's strong and good in a fight, but knows nothing of manners or honor.  As de Troyes's tale begins, Perceval callously abandons his widowed, impoverished mother to find adventure, forces himself on another man's lover (he only manages to kiss her since he knows nothing else about sex), insults the knights at Arthur's court, but manages to impress when he kills the thieving Red Knight by throwing a spear through his eye.  He was your prototypical post-apocalyptic barbarian.

By trial and error, the boy had to learn what honor was.  He had to discover himself (because society has collapsed!) why it's important to respect both men and women, why you shouldn't start every sentence with "my mother says," and how much there is to gain by protecting the weak.  By the end of the poem (which was actually unfinished) it is revealed that only Perceval's heart was pure enough to behold the Holy Grail.  The Holy Grail, which caught the blood of the dying Christ, is a symbol, I take it, of exactly the sort of virtue of blood that is rare in the so-called Dark Ages and which Chretien de Troyes, consciously or unconsciously, saw as the source of the high-middle-age chivalry that had resulted in his age, several centuries after the supposed King Arther reigned, who perhaps was nothing more than a beautiful "meme" that helped spread these notions of virtue that had been lost after Rome collapsed.

When all of this struck my imagination, back in 2008, I experienced a sudden desire, stronger than any creative urge that had hit me before, to write a post-apocalyptic story based on the Perceval myth.  Instead of armored knights on horseback, I'd have knights inside of huge, spider-like, semi-intelligent warmachines, which I've come to call in my stories "steeds."

Kind of an absurd idea, I realize, but that's how my future history started, more or less, and most of my stories have developed in an outward spiral from this central hero, a Perceval who lived 5200's A.D. in the wildmachine jungle between the Rockies and the Luganian Sea that had flooded what is currently central California.

To be continued, next month.

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