Friday, August 10, 2007

The true image

Comes with the Calculus to aim his rockets
Accurately at the orphanage across the ocean
Comes, having aimed, with incense to impetrate
Our Lady devoutly for a direct hit.

(Aldous Huxley - Ape and Essence)

I want to discuss a pervasive theme which is deeply ingrained in the modern psyche: the imagination of a post-nuclear world. A large part of the science fiction literature is in one way or another related to this motive and its presence certainly transcends the boundaries of science fiction and projects onto the wider stage of both literary and visual arts. I will not attempt any systematic treatment of the subject: that would require far too much work in collecting an anthology of significant contribution and different elaborations of the theme. I will discuss a few examples, with which I am most familiar.

In 1948 Aldous Huxley wrote his darkest and most pessimistic book, "Ape and Essence". Presented with grotesque humor as a movie script rescued from the garbage bin by two Hollywood directors, the text (written in the form of a play script) describes a post-apocalyptic world where civilization has been wiped out by a nuclear war and primitive humans group in bands, animated by a fanatic religion fueled by the fear of genetic mutations induced by the high levels of radiation, but attributed by the now regressed and superstitious humans to some inner fault or sin of the women that procreate the mutants. The surrealistic beginning of the script portrays apes gaining control of the science and technology generated by the human mind and forcing it to the purpose of aggression and war. The poem quoted above describes the actions of Reason, enslaved at the service of the Monkey King. If the human is the bridge stretched between the beast and the super-human, as Nietzsche would have it, then the picture of humanity that is given in this story makes humans all very much crammed near the beast end of the pathway.

Surely it is obvious.
Doesn't a schoolboy know it?
Ends are ape-chosen; only the means are man's


Huxley's gloomiest look upon mankind: the nuclear holocaust is inevitable in his view, because the magnificent prodigy of our science is nothing but a thin layer covering our true bestial essence, driven by aggression, territoriality, brutality. (The Faraday and Einstein on a leash, in the first scene of Huxley's script, herded by the true masters, the baboons.) It is written for us, scientists, it makes us pause. "Comes with the Calculus to aim his rockets/Accurately at the orphanage across the ocean." How many times have we witnessed this use of science, from nuclear weapons to supposedly intelligent bombs? As a close friend of mine once put it: "Applied mathematics is the art of doing with great skills and intelligence what shouldn't be done at all". Many would object that a view this pessimistic is not justified, since after all there are many applications of our science that are not aimed at destruction. I will not defend Huxley's view nor will I try to counteract it with anything more optimistic. We have great capacity as a species for both creation and destruction. Science coexists with our basest instincts. What will come of such an unlikely marriage might well determine the destiny of our world.

But man, proud man,
drest in a little brief authority -
most ignorant of what he is most assur'd.
His glassy essence - like an angry ape
plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
as make the angels weep.


In Huxley's "Ape and Essence" as in the other stories I am going to recall, the mutant is an essential ingredient of the description of the post-nuclear scenario. The mutant is a central mythological figure of the twentieth century. Mutants occupy a liminal state suspended between the scientific modern world of nuclear warfare that brings them into existence and an archaic fear of genetic aberration which is ingrained by natural selection in the deepest recesses of our id. Like the mythological figures of the ancients, it is human while at the same time not being fully human, a characteristic shared by other important mythological figures of our time, such as the human-machine hybrids. However, while cyborgs and androids are often imagined as a step further ahead of the human, a Nietzschean super-human of sorts, the mutant is almost invariably regarded as a regression from the human, a defective and for that reason fearful deviation from the path of evolution's winners.

There are exceptions to this view. The Strugatskys' novel "The ugly swans" (I discussed it in a previous posting, under the title of its French traslation "Mutants in the fog") presents the mutants taking over the town, amidst incessant rain and runaway children, as a step forward from humanity and as the promise of a new civilization and perhaps a new world order that comes with them. In another such twist of the mutants image, the telepathic mutants described in John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids" end up playing a similar role of defining the next step in human evolution and its way out of the dark age that follows the nuclear holocaust.

It is of Wyndham's "Chrysalids" that I am going to talk next. Not quite as lyrical and direct as Huxley, it is a more traditional narration based on the idea of remnants of human civilization regressed to a primitive form of society and technology, following an all out nuclear exchange between the two superpowers of the Cold War. Written in 1955, it is clearly already more Cold War than Hiroshima inspired, unlike Huxley's 1948 opus. The society portrayed in the novel, made of sparse settlements in the land of Labrador, is also dominated by an oppressive religious fanaticism, which has the mutant as its main scapegoat. The worshipers of the "true image" (the human body and it was supposed to be before the nuclear catastrophe) are themselves not quite so sure, lacking any surviving evidence from that long gone past, of whether their image of the true image is really quite that true. This does not prevent them from chasing and destroying, or abandoning in the radioactive desert, any deviation they can spot. The story is centered on the appearance, in a group of children, of a new, more subtle and less easily detectable form of deviance from the norm, telepathy. This group of closely linked minds sets out to reclaim the long abandoned world and makes contact with a faraway civilization, from what remains of New Zealand, less directly hit by the war, hence with a surviving technological civilization that finally evolved to a futuristic society of new telepathic human beings. The powerful visions of nuclear desolation (the immense plains of hardened glass stretching endlessly across North America) and of the brutality and violence of the humanity that inhabits them (both the primitive regressed civilization as well as the newly emerged advanced civilization of super-humans who do not hesitate to wipe out their predecessors) make the novel a good sample of the post-apocalyptic visionary imagination.

A much more ambiguous view of a similar scenario is presented in Walter M. Miller Jr.'s "A canticle for Leibowitz". Set somewhere in the South West of the US, presumably near a former military base or center of military nuclear research, the story begins a few centuries after a nuclear war devastated the planet. Only fragmentary memory exists of the previous time, whose culture and science have been obliterated, first by the war and then by the anger of the survivors who started a crusade against science and technology, both held directly responsible for the destruction that befell them. During the time of the "Simplification" books were burnt, scientists were killed and eventually humanity fell back into illiteracy. A small number of former scientists dedicated themselves to saving whatever possible of the knowledge of the prewar time and founded abbeys and monasteries where the knowledge was stored and preserves through the production of manuscripts copying what remained of old scientific textbooks. The image is supposed to evoke the preservation of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome through the European middle ages, via the reproduction of ancient manuscripts. The first part of Miller's novel, with the title "fiat homo", describes this scenario quite beautifully. With all the ancient knowledge lost, the monks at the abbey in the Nevada desert continue to produce copies of old scientific textbooks, decorating them with beautiful illuminated drawings like in the European middle ages, but without any understanding of their content. The portrait it offers of the complete loss of our modern scientific civilization is extremely well devised and tragic, though presented with a good sense of humor. This is the best part of the novel. The text then continues with two other chapters, "fiat lux" and "fiat voluntas tua". The second part, set another few centuries later, marks the beginning of a renaissance of scientific thought and civilization. The authors evidently suggests a parallel to the European Renaissance that followed the Middle Age. The comparison, however, does not hold. If science as it had been known to Hellenistic Greece had not continued to exist and progress in the near east, especially in the Islamic civilization, whose Renaissance came a few centuries before the European one, there would have been no European Renaissance either. The latter was triggered far more by the arrival in Italy of the scholars coming from Byzantium, carrying the Greek and Arabic knowledge with them, than from the mockery of ancient culture transmitted by blind copying with no understanding carried out in the monasteries across Europe. That preservation of ancient texts was extremely fortunate, of course, but only because the key to their understanding was not completely lost: it had survived because of the existence of a scientific civilization which had not succumbed to the Romans first and to the dark age of Christianity afterwards. In a scenario like the one portrayed in "fiat homo", it is unlikely to expect that an understanding of the old scientific texts would ever return, once the key to their deciphering is lost to all of mankind. The author's point in the novel is the "eternal recurrence of the same" (another typical Nietzschean theme), namely the fact that history inevitably repeats itself and that once humanity has reached the point of nuclear annihilation, it will return to that same stage over and over again, no matter how many centuries it might take each time.
So the story goes in the novel and in the final part, "fiat voluntas tua" the world has recovered its full technological capacity and is heading straight for another nuclear holocaust. All along the story a very ambiguous role is played by the church: sole keepers of the remnants of the old civilization, repressive and obscurantist but at the same time safeguard of humanity's greatest treasure. The role becomes more and more ambiguous as the story progresses. In the final part of the novel the church has acquired enormous power in the re-established civilization and casts a dark oppressive shadow on everything. After the author spends a considerable amount of time drawing the horrifying details of how the church denies euthanasia to the survivors of a nuclear explosion dying of their incurable and atrocious wounds, the reader cannot help but giving out a sigh of relief when the flash of the hydrogen bombs comes to terminate the church and its tenure on the earth. Except that, this time, interstellar travel is available and the church already sets off to start other cycles of history elsewhere. Well, I do not quite understand where the author really stood (the euthanasia piece is especially puzzling given that the author himself committed suicide). His vision of this post-nuclear church is so ambiguous that it is almost impossible to unravel whether it was supposed to be a monster or a hero or both. The novel was published in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, when visions of nuclear apocalypse were filling the world's imagination.

A much more recent incarnation of the theme is the "Amnesia Moon" by Jonathan Lethem. Published in 1995, it's a post Cold War story and as such it has a very different flavor from the ones I previously described. The narration begins in a typical post-nuclear scenario, with mutants relegated to live in an abandoned small town in a radioactive desert, with little to eat and dependent on the local warlord for the ever diminishing supplies of canned food. The warlord exerts his control by imposing his dreams on the other people via some kind of telepathic powers. The main character named Chaos decides to escape, together with a young mutant girl, and sets out westward along the highway heading for the mountains and eventually California. Nobody seems to have any memory of the time before the war, but slowly the main character begins to suspect that it wasn't really a nuclear war, but some more subtle and complicated phenomenon that took place in the past and erased people's memory and shattered their civilization. Along the journey, they come across different isolated communities. In each one of them a different history and a different kind of catastrophic event has taken place. In each one of them a leader gives coherence to the local version of history through a texture of common dreams. Somewhere it wasn't nuclear bombs but a dense green fog produced by biochemical warfare that made people blind, somewhere else an alien invasion enslaved people to attend the needs of hive creatures from outer space. Dead people are revived as simulations one accesses through mind altering drugs, while workers trapped in abandoned MacDonalds starve while serving burgers to non-existing customers. Elsewhere, in well ordered suburban communities, people find their goal in life in giving out citations for misconduct to their neighbors on any available occasion (this one sounds like Germany to me). Slowly one starts to get the picture and finally comes to realize that neither the initial picture of the post-nuclear survivors nor the fragmented histories that alternate one another, all with their own very special catastrophe, seem to really make any sense. The only alternative that remains, that slowly clarifies itself while remaining implicit in the narration, is that everything is simply happening inside a single mind. Chaos. This is a post-post-nuclear novel, drawing cleverly on all the expectations of the genre while effectively drawing an entirely different scenario, in line with the shift in the imagination from the Cold War collective vision of the destiny of humanity as a whole to the post-Cold War inner vision of the destiny of our individual minds.