John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Follow Up Thought

I notice a lot of Science Fiction is Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE set in space. The fall of the Empire for some reason is seared deeply into the psyche of science fiction writers.

Let me just list an example or fifteen:

  • WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. The central image, the shock-value, of that movie (and the book that inspired it) is the image of cosmic destruction, the downfall of civilization. You might think I would see a parallel between the Apocalypse of St. John and the destruction of the Earth, but no: the new world to which the Space Ark flies is not the new heaven and the new earth of St. John. The people aboard are more like the manuscripts monks tirelessly copied in their (mostly successful) attempt to keep alive the ghost of the ancient world. Speaking of which:
  • A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Miller. Routinely on best-SF-of-all-time lists, it is little more than a futurization (if I may coin that awkward term) of the Fall of the Empire and the role of the Dark Ages Church as a preserver of knowledge.
  • FOUNDATION by Asimov. Gibbon's Decline and Fall in SPAAAAACE!
  • ROAD WARRIOR. Or list any book or movie about the New Dark Ages. (I list Mel Gibson's contribution to post-Fall fiction because it is a favorite of mine.)
  • TO CRUSH THE MOON by Wil McCarthy. This is an incredible tour-de-force of a fall from a posthuman, atomic-engineering-level supercivilization. It deserves more publicity. Go out and read it, please.
  • SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. Has some of the look and feel of Middle-Ages Byzantium, mingled with a Vancean "DYING EARTH" flavor.
  • FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD by Heinlein. Paynim bad guys take over after American civilization falls.
  •  DUNE. Paynim good guys take over after Imperial civilization falls. This is the fall of Byzantium (complete with Byzantine intrigue) to the forces from the desert, motivated by a new religion.
  • LEST DARKNESS FALL by de Camp . Time traveler tries to halt the fall of Roman civilization through double-entry bookkeeping.
  • WIZARD OF LINN by A.E. van Vogt. "I , Caludius" in SPAAAAACE!
  • THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells. The far future holds, not utopia, but a mankind forced by evolution into helpless Eloi and maneating Morlocks.
  • THINGS TO COME by H.G. Wells. After the Dark Ages, we will all dress like Romans in togas, and shoot our married astronaut couple to the moon in a giant space gun.
I could go on and on. Some of these books listed above rank among the most famous of SF.

Why is the Decline and Fall of civilization is a central theme that crops up again and again in Science Fiction?

My guess: Science Fiction deals, among other themes, with the role of technology in shaping society.  A civilization toppling into a dark age, loosing its technology, or climbing out of a dark age, regaining its technology, is an adroit setting in which to explore the interconnectedness of social and legal (and personal) factors and the level of technology a society can maintain. Technology becomes more precious when it is about to slip away.

The whole point of science fiction is that things change and history is without mercy. Science Fiction is all about the disorientation the reader fells when he realized Things to Come are not to be as Things Are Now. We look back at the Romans and we hope that It Can't Happen Now. People whose history retains no memory of such a huge shock and setback, a collapse and rebirth of civilization, might tend to think their societies are immortal, that the Son of Heaven will always be on the throne of the Forbidden City.
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The Last Planet by Andre Norton has been one of my favorite "decline and fall" sci-fi stories since I was 12 years old. The Galactic Empire is falling apart, and the Patrol and the gallant, faithful Rangers reach their last landfall (or planetfall) in their beat-up old ship. The twist to the story is a Chestertonian element that I would never spoil for someone who hasn't read the book. I don't know if it's even in print; I own a battered old Ace books copy.
....Is that what that book is called? I read that book when I was twelve, and I can not, for the life of me, remember what the title was.

I loved that novel.
Yes, that was it! I was a big fan of Norton as a teenager and read everything of hers that I could get my hands on. I also liked the Time Traders books (though I only read the first one a couple of years ago) and quite a few others, but The Last Planet remains my favorite. It has interesting aliens, the sense of the wonder of other worlds, telepathy, and the great Sergeant Kartr of the Galactic Rangers. What more could I want?
The Fall of Empire is a powerful cultural meme. It ties into the idea of "The Good Old Days", a looking backward to a better time.

When SF takes up the mantle of this meme, it uses the future to tell this very old story. It's no wonder that its a powerful story to build a novel on.

I would call it a coincidence, since I've been reading Gibbon recently, save that The Decline and Fall has been part of my constant bedside pile of books for two or three decades. There is a slight filament of coincidence, though--I was somewhere in the Sixth Century, & thought, as I frequently do in my Eighteenth Century reading, "John should be plundering this."

I keep meaning to ask you if you've tried reading Samuel Johnson, for the sake of the sentences & the sentiment.
Why is the Decline and Fall of civilization is a central theme that crops up again and again in Science Fiction?

Because Westerners, including SF authors, tend to not know non-European history, and take what they know (Europe) as a universal model?

You also see this in fantasy, often set in quasi-medieval pseudo-feudal settings (perhaps sans Church, as I think you've griped about before.) I'm not actually sure how common fallen empires and dark ages are in fantasy novels -- my reading is selective and skewed -- but they seem common enough in fantasy RPGs. It's not just picking that time period as a model; from discussions I often get a sense that people's idea of The Past *is* the Middle Ages, with history having linear growth of bureaucracy and roads and literacy... vs. a model of ancient Rome where commoners use graffiti to leave notes for each other, live in multi-story apartment buildings, and buy food from street vendors while their betters go to restaurants and take tourist trips to the ancient (even then) pyramids of Egypt (and leave more graffiti).

Or the fantasy gods who usually see like cleaned up versions of the Greek-Norse pantheons, vs. China which has apparently been civilized so long that there's bureaucracy in its religion and fairy tales. Or the sense that there's a natural progression from polytheism to monotheism, to be celebrated or castigated... which sense might seem less natural to someone from China or Japan.

The flipside of having collapse in our past is thinking that collapse and rebirth is normal, without a sense of long-term continuity... or of outright collapse. (Who can read Minoan or Etruscan?)
Because Westerners, including SF authors, tend to not know non-European history, and take what they know (Europe) as a universal model?

I think it's more an issue of preference than ignorance. Western mythologies and histories simply, and not unnaturally, have a resonance with the Western mind that Eastern ones do not.
Surely you're not suggesting Westerners tend to have a good knowledge of Asian history and mythology and merely prefer their own?
Agreed. We aren't in the position of impartial consumers picking off a menu. Do I prefer my parents' style to that of other parents' partly because I'm ignorant about those other parents? Partly, no doubt. But its also because they're my parents.
Up A Canticle for Liebowitz!

That is all.
Anyone recall the longish short-story about a declining civilization that is losing its technical knowhow and beset by constant coups and purges and things, until a sector chief or somebody like that discovers a lost garrison of Imperial Space Marines who are living like savages (specifically, Red Indians) but have kept alive all the old Imperial technical knowledge as a kind of religion. I think it was called something like Inspector General.
"The Spectre General," Theodore Cogswell. I read it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology years ago.
That's it! Thanks.
Hmm... To Crush the Moon - a "tour-de-force," eh? Well, now I'm going to have to read it. Mr. Wright, you introduced me to Vance and Wolfe, for which I am forever grateful, so I don't see how I have a choice here.