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The Sound of Trees, the Softness of the Wind…

Quoth Gollum,

And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound  of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.

The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.

Are we the wolf, or are we the child?

Are we the wolf, or are we the child?

At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.

This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.

But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.

Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.

Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.

Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?

The Box With No Latch

New rule for human nature, folks: As soon as we figure out how to do something, somebody, somewhere, is going to do it.

This, to my knowledge, is inevitable. It’s as constant as the sunrise. Can anybody think of a discovery that, once made, wasn’t used? Some of them, granted, were only used for a short time or didn’t catch on or whatever, but some guy tried it out, guaranteed. If it turns out it was crap or nobody found it useful or something ‘better’ came along, we switched. Perhaps we forgot about the old thing. But somebody, somewhere was guaranteed to give it a whirl at least once.

So, here we are with this article from the Activist Post wringing its hands over genetically constructed/modified children. Two things I have to say about that:

(1) This was bound to happen. It will keep happening until such time as we find something better to do with our energy or, for whatever reason, genetically ‘constructed’ children become unpopular as the ‘results’ of this activity become somehow negative. No amount of saying ‘don’t do this’ before the fact is going to stop it. Delay it, maybe, but not stop. We only stop doing things afterwe’ve tried them out and melted our faces. 

(2) The article contains a phrase I find massively worrying. Here it is (emphasis mine):

In other words, these genetically modified babies — if allowed to mate with non-GM humans— could potentially alter the very genetic coding of generations to come.

Whoah, whoah, whoah! “If allowed to mate?” What the fuck is that supposed to mean? These are people, right? Granted, born in an unconventional fashion, but still people. They can mate with whomever they want. I don’t care how much you hate the idea of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), these individuals are alive. They are (or will be, hopefully) living, breathing, thinking human beings. No Chicken-Little, Luddite, jackhole gets to say who they sleep with or whether they have children. Unless their children are going to be bursting out of people’s chests a-la Alien and running about eating space-bound shipping personnel, nobody gets to dehumanize them by dictating their reproductive rights.

Somebody kept Khan from having little Khans and look what it got us.

Science fiction has been down this road before, folks. It frequently ends with the super-intelligent genetically modified humans kicking our asses all over the planet, or the intelligent apes wiping us out, or we wind up building GMO ghettos somewhere and start setting up sterilization clinics and all kinds of other monstrous shit. Ugh! No.

GMOs are coming, folks. They’ll be here soon. They are going to be the next generation of pets. They are going to allow us to keep eating stuff when the rest of the planet dies and the oceans are empty of everything but plankton and jellyfish. They are going to become our friends and our neighbors and our soldiers and our leaders. It’s gonna happen, or at least science is going to give it a try.

If you’re scared, that’s normal – big technological changes are always scary. It isn’t going to be all roses and buttercups, either – I don’t intend to say that it will. What is most important about it, however, is that we do our best to utilize this new technology in a positive way. We should embrace it and figure it out and try to wrestle it into something that won’t be monstrous or dangerous or terrible. The best way to make sure that can’t happen is to freak out, marginalize, and rail against it. Then, the only people who want to work on it are the fringe scientists, the rogue states, the irresponsible corporations, and the criminals. That, my friends, doesn’t work out well for anybody.

Where’s Our New World Order?

Science Fiction, by and large, deals in monolithic political organizations. The Federation of Planets, the Galactic Federation, the Terran Empire, the Global Hegemony, and so on and so forth. Here’s my question, though: where the hell do these writers get off thinking this is going to happen? This may become a bit of a rant, so here we go:

Do you know how many times all of humanity has been untied under a single, monolithic ruling entity?

The answer is zero. Zero times, as in never. Not once, even for a minute.

I mean, I understand the authorial motivation for creating a single world government – the world government in those scenarios is simply an analog for the author’s own national government and culture that, for the sake of convenience, has eradicated or supplanted all other indigenous world governments. It makes things easier, certainly – everybody speaks the same language, politics becomes notably easier to understand, and you can spend most of your authorial energies on writing about the stuff everybody actually cares about (that being ray guns, spaceships, and bloodthirsty aliens).

The thing is, though, that it is enormously unlikely to happen as imagined by so many authors. At the very least, humanity would have to change significantly in order for it to occur. In the fullness of time, perhaps, this will happen, but right now it is practically impossible. Can you imagine the UN actually passing laws? Laws that the rest of the world actively obeys? I can’t. Why listen to the UN? What do I care if some guy in Central Africa thinks Europe has too much money? Who is he and his people to badger me about my use of incandescent light bulbs? Screw him. I say, with full realization that this is a heartless and selfish position, that I couldn’t care less about the opinions or problems of a group of foreigners I barely know anything about.

Scoff at me as you like, enlightened ones, but consider this: I am by no means alone. There is some science behind this, too. It’s called Dunbar’s Number, and it basically dictates the human brain is incapable of maintaining social relationships (i.e. ‘caring’) with more than a finite number of people. Now, this can be made abstract to some extent (I can care about my country or my state or my city, for instance), but the relationship is necessarily different. In any case, this simple concept demonstrates a severe limitation to the establishment of a World State.

This idea is only exacerbated by the fact that there are such profound cultural differences across the world. These differences cause major diplomatic disconnects, misunderstandings, and are great barriers to these peoples making common cause with one another. Do you think the women of the West are likely to embrace Saudi Arabia? Are the Turks ever likely to see eye-to-eye with Greece to the point where they’d merge states? Do you think the Taiwanese are going to be re-absorbed into China without a fight? Not likely. I’d be less surprised if all of Mexico applied for US statehood.

Our future, assuming we have one (and I keep hoping), is going to have disparate political factions and nation-states for

The God Emperor isn’t interested in your vote.

a very long time. Should a galaxy-wide empire be established, it isn’t going to be some kind of Galactic Republic. We are more likely to see the pan-galactic feudal states of Dune or Warhammer 40,000. These governments are not made up of a people unified, but rather by a collection of disparate people subjected to the will of a greater external force that, by hook or by crook, binds the galaxy together to one will.

Sound dark? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I’m afraid I don’t see the alternative, however, unless people cease being people and become something else. Granted, this might just happen, but I’m skeptical. Interestingly enough, if it is to happen, it may come from the places we least expect it. Take the Internet, for instance – if there is any place where human divisions are made less prominent, it is there. Then again, there are also those corners of the internet that make you despair for the future of our race more than anything else (I’m looking at you, comments section on YouTube and Yahoo Answers).

As I’ve said before, predicting the future is ultimately a fool’s game. All I can do is look backwards and see what’s happened before. The evidence, I feel, is pretty clear: No Federation of Planets for us. We are more likely to wind up with the Baroque Machinery of the Golden Throne.