Part 12 on Modernism:
ILLUSTRATING THIS DIVIDE WITHIN THE ARTS:
MODERNITY VS ROMANTICISM IN FICTION
I began examining the harsh divide between modernism and its enemies in a much narrower context.
The field wherein I've made much of my living, Speculative Fiction - or SF - consists largely of novels and stories that are not set in a standard, contemporary setting or time. (Of course that includes historical fiction, but that type is treated separately.) Most people see SF consisting of two main branches - science fiction and fantasy.
A lot of argument roils around defining what either separates or unites these two genres that are lumped together in most book stores. Superficially, one branch features swords and magic spells while the other uses spaceships and lasers. But that kind of superficial dismiaal heeds only pop imagery, ignoring deeper issues.
I don't perceive the division as a matter of tools and furniture at all. It is really all about the author's attitude toward change and the improvability of humankind.
Through a series of controversial essays that ran in Salon Magazine, I tried to show how supposedly high-tech space operas like Star Wars (http://www.davidbrin.com/starwarsarticle1.html) and The Matrix (http://www.davidbrin.com/matrixarticle.html) are in fact deeply anti-science fantasy stories that hew to an ancient storytelling tradition that abhors progress or change, casting doubt upon the whole process of open advancement using tools of science.
It is a tradition made explicit by Joseph Campbell in his series of books and television interviews, e.g. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. While Campbell emphasized some deeply moving aspects to this tradition, he glossed over its darker side -- for example the way that fantasy tales nearly always extoll feudalism, mysticism, mystery cults, secrecy, and inherited social position, even when they are set in "the future" or in outer space.
Above all, they promote the notion of a static social order - the kind that most of our ancestors toiled under for most of the last six thousand years. As if following a long and eerily consistent checklist, fantasy tales nearly always choose sides, preferring:
- tradition over innovation
- the pastoral over the urban
- craftsmanship over production
- apprenticeships over universities
- the subjective over the objective
- incantation over skill in the physical arts
- secret knowledge hoarded by a suitably chosen elite
- heroes who are destined for greatness because of inner qualities rather than relying upon social mobility among diverse and resilient citizens
- villains who are evil by their basic nature as a type, rather than by individual choice
- inherited hierarchies over democratic institutions
- the notion of a lost-lamented golden age, over ambitions to build a new one.
In another Salon article, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age, I extended this appraisal to include a fantasy series that I actually quite admire, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. As nostalgist romantics go, Tolkien was among the most erudite, sincere, deep-thinking and - above all - honest. His characters, images and stories resonate with the romantic in each of us, including myself.
And yet, if I must choose sides (and during this era, I contend that we all must) then the woldview pushed by Tolkien is one that I must respectfully oppose. (http://www.davidbrin.com/tolkienarticle1.html)
Because - like every modernist - I have to believe that it is possible for human beings to improve through science, reason and goodwill, and thereupon to make a better world.
... on to Part 13: Crichton & Atwood...
or return to the beginning of this series