St. Riva

I find it fascinating that Riva, data pirate and anarchist revolutionary extraordinare, is the one character in Piercy's book who is referred to as a "saint." Yes, it's Nili who make that reference, so it's not like the author (either actual or implied) is designating Riva with that title. But it's fascinating to me nonetheless. "Saint," so far as I am aware, is not really a Jewish concept; it's more closely associated with th Christian tradition of sanctification, wherein a particularly holy person whose will is thought to be aligned with the will of God becomes in some sense a focal-point for divine energy. There's quite an elaborate tradition in both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches of particular saintly individuals acting as intercessors with God on behalf of faithful congregants, and although scholars speak of "Hindu saints" and "Buddhist saints" this looks more like an analogy to me than anything else.

My point is that calling Riva a saint takes her out of the Jewish tradition that animates much of the novel. This is appropriate for Riva, since she seems to have absented herself from all of that some point in her past -- she's gone out on her own, existing in some sense outside of all of the various traditions that have survived on the planet. She's outside of all of the multis, outside of the freetowns, outside of Nili's Radioactive Amazonian Utopia, even outside of the Glop and the various movements within it. She interacts with all of these, but seems beholden to none. In that way she's marvelously existential: I, the individual, exist and am a higher value than these communities, so I remove myself from them in order to be authentically true to myself.

Of course, the difference between a saint and a rugged individualist is that the saint's orientation is towards God. In Nili's designation of Riva as a saint, I think we see just the awe of someone deeply rooted in a string communal tradition for someone else seemingly able to survive all on her own. But saints are not just striking individuals; they're somehow exemplars or messengers or avatars of the divine will. If Riva's a saint, what is her God? To what is her life a testimony? Does she, in some sense, have special divine dispensation to violate the ordinary laws and constraints binding most people, in order to bring about some transformative goal?


sufficiently advanced technology

Presumably we're all familiar with Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." (If you weren't familiar with it before this class, the facts that a) it's on the syllabus and b) we discussed it at least twice in class already should at least make it recognizable.) To see what's ogin on there, we have to first recognize that "technology" is a name that we give to those practices that are, so to speak, "disenchanted" -- even if we don't understand them at present, we are pretty certain that given the correct preparation and training we could understand them. Technology is in principle rationally comprehensible; no faith required, just something wholly mundane and worldly. Magic, on the other hand, implies something extra-rational, supernatural, not capable of being understood by everyone. The Force is magic, in that only special individuals can do anything with it; warp drive is technological, in that anyone with the proper mathematical and physics and engineering training can build a warp core.

Clarke's Third Law, however, disturbs that sharp demarcation. Once technology gets sufficiently far ahead of our experiences and our contemporary science, Clarke seems to suggest, it might as well be mystical. We have as little hope of understanding it rationally as the ancient Sumerians or Egyptians might have had of understanding extraterrestrial aliens (this is the basic idea of, say, Stargate). What is the practical difference between the alchemical transformation of lead into gold, and the replicators on Star Trek producing food and drink out of thin air? Not much, except that the replicator occasionally breaks down and is fixed not through incantations and faith, but with cool-looking luminescent tools. Hence, what makes something "technology" is not what it does, but how we understand what it does -- and beyond a certain point, the distinction becomes meaningless.

Piercy plays with that, I think. Among other striking things about the novel is her juxtaposition of the story of Joseph the Golem with the story of Yod the Cyborg. one is "magic" and one is "technology," but as she is at great pains to point out, both are in a sense created through the power of words. And both pose similar ethical dilemmas for their compatriots and companions.

Here's what I wonder: does it matter that Yod is a technological creature? Would it make a difference if Arvam were a gifted rabbi who prayed Yod into existence? Would the story really be any different if it were, in many ways, no longer science fiction?


substantive #4: training the faithful

Several times throughout Dune we encounter some variant of the phrase "Arrakis was created to train the faithful." It's an intriguing phrase, and not just because it appears to provide a catch-all explanation for the hardships of life on Dune. What intrigues me most about this phrase is the fact that it neatly encapsulates a basic gesture common to almost all religious systems and more than a few non-religious systems: an teleological gesture whereby the meaning of a present event (in this case, a hardship) is given with reference to some future end. Such a motif is at the heart of many traditional religious (especially Christian) strategies for dealing with the problem of evil in the world: yes, this situation is bad, but God has a plan that we cannot yet see, and this plan in some sense justifies or at least explains the evil that we presently experience. "Arrakis was created to train the faithful" is a claim of the same species.

Setting aside for the moment the question of how well the phrase actually works to make the hardship of life on Dune bearable -- and I wonder how much of what we see of the Fremen's commitment is due to this kind of religious resignation, how much is due to the terraforming dream of Liet-Keyes, and how much is just the grim necessity of surving while being hunted by all manner of offworlders -- one thing I want to linger on for a moment is the phrase's odd temporality. Who would speak such a phrase? Obviously someone who wasn't one of "the faithful" wouldn't say it, or if they did they would be saying it in the company of "the faithful" as a way of trying to influence them or appeal to them or something similar. Either way, "the faithful" are centrally involved. And if the faithful are saying this, then presumably they've been trained by Arrakis already, because they are already "the faithful." So here's the odd temporality: when, precisely, was Arrakis a training-ground for the faithful? I'd posit that it only becomes a training-ground in retrospect, when "the faithful" are looking back on their experiences and integrating them into their contemporary awareness. At the time, prospectively, it's just a hell of a place to live.

Of course, the audience for a phrase like that is also important. Perhaps one of the faithful is saying it to a younger person, someone being raised in the faith, someone wondering why she or he has to do the things that she or he has been taught -- and wonders why life can't be easier. "Arrakis was created to train the faithful" might provide such a person some inner strength to get through hardship. Placing local events in context, especially cosmic context, is a time-honored strategy for transmitting tradition -- especially since providing a context also means providing a vantage-point from which to view events as fitting into that context. Ironically, saying "Arrakis was created to train the faithful" might be a significant part of a strategy of training the faithful in the first place.


reflective #3: insight

One of the most intriguing things about our conversation on Tuesday was, I thought, the fact that no group actually challenged Stephanson's thesis entirely. Yes, we raised objections to specific claims, and yes, we had some disagreement about the precise scope of Stephanson's argument. But no one tried to prove that the US was not a country animated by a sense of its own election, especially when acting on the world stage. I wonder about that. Is it just that Stephanson is somehow right? Or is it that his thesis conforms to the way that we Americans think of ourselves? There is something ironic about a book on manifest destiny, I think, in that anyone already convinced that the country actually is specially chosen will read such a book, even if the book itself is gently critical of the notion, as an affirmation of what they already know to be true. Under such circumstances, it's tough to determine whether our reaction to the book is really a reaction to the author's argument, or to the claims of chosenness themselves. It's difficult to keep the claim of chosenness separate from the claims about claims of chosenness.


substantive #3: view from outside

I often wonder whether Stephanson could have written his remarkable little book if he were an American. There are aspects of the book -- aspects of America -- that, I think, could only have been created or even perceived by someone who hadn't grown up with or in it. Heinlein's appreciation of the religious and specifically Christian character of American society, as comes through in several of his novels and stories, is I think deeply insightful, but is shall we say bounded by his own American-ness. That's not a knock on Heinlein; for a fish to see the water through which it is swimming is always complicated, and one of my sneaking suspicions is that many artists and authors have a better handle on this than most social scientists do. The social scientists who do, I think, are those who are outsiders to what they are studying -- as Stephanson is to America (and, in fact, to social science -- he's a historian, and he has zippo invested in the putatively "scientific" character of his analysis).

What Stephanson sees, I think, is that the United States of America is so deeply a Christian country (and I mean that typologically, not normatively -- see below) that even and perhaps especially our supposedly "secular" debates and discussions are firmly surrounded by a set of images, themes, ideas, and principles that come more or less directly from Christian sources. Our most cherished images of America are entwined with Christian images; our distinctive sense of national pride is in many ways inseparable from the notion of the nation having been chosen by God to fulfill some kind of trans-historical mission; our tendency to equate "the American way" with "the way things ought to be" is wrapped up with ideas of universal salvation and progress. Our politicians speak in these terms even when they aren't making explicit references to God or salvation -- how else are we to make sense of notions like "the indispensable nation" or "the evil empire"?

I think that we Americans are sometimes blinded to this because of our justly-celebrated but often misunderstood separation of church and state. We sometimes think that that separation means that the state operates in a non-religious manner, but that's not what that clause of the Constitution is about -- it simply declares that there should be no established national church or religion. As observers back to Tocqueville have noted, the disestablishment of religion in the US simply permits religion to thrive in the private sphere -- and from this basis, religion continues to influence politics and policy in a profound way. Think for a moment of the controversies surrounding Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, featuring questions about whether Mormons are Christians. Think back to John F. Kennedy's campaign and the issues surrounding Catholicism. Imagine, if you can -- and I don't think that you can! -- a declared atheist making a serious run for the presidency. Religion, and Christianity in particular, marks our society -- it's a Christian country, by which I don't mean that it's officially Christian or that it's officially intolerant towards other faiths (let aone that it should be). But our social and intellectual heritage is firmly marked with Christianity, and marked in ways that perhaps someone not raised within it and not fixated on the disestablishment clause (and the separation of church and state) might be.

The parallel here might be with "industrial policy." The US proudly maintains that it has no industrial policy, that there's no centralized planning of economic development, that the marketplace reigns supreme and the government doesn't tell anyone what to produce -- or choose "winners" in conflicts between industries. No, the market gets to do all of that. But to foreign observers, the US very much appears to have an industrial policy; it's just that we call it "military procurement" and "tax incentives" and "regulatory oversight." The effect is similar: state action affects the direction of industrial development. To Americans the important thing is the absence of a formal, centralized policy; to others, the important thing is the effect and the broad outline. [Discussions about "empire" often follow this pattern too, I'd say.]

Is this something unique to the United States? Or is every country relatively blind to the cultural preconditions of its politics?

reflective #2: testing

Family illnesses this past week, so this reflective post is late. Apologies.

One of the issues that we touched on in class involved the feasibility or plausibility of Heinlein's lunar society. It seemed important to us to ask whether some of the social conventions and norms that Heinlein explicates would, "in fact", obtain -- whether, in particular, the differential freedoms of action accorded to men and women would evolve and remain. [Interestingly, we didn't talk much about Heinlein's physics, particularly his elaborate discussion of escape velocities and the "cannon" technique of orbital delivery -- that's curious to me, since Heinlein goes into at least as much detail about that as he goes into about lunar social norms. Maybe it's because this is a class about social science and science fiction? Hmm.]

Scott made a claim in class that a differential male/female population ratio would, over time, naturally self-correct to something like 50-50. Subsequently he sought to substantiate that claim through some research and a simple iterated computer model. ["Simple" is not a knock on Scott here; "complex" models get very complex indeed, so the term is descriptive here and in no way pejorative. Indeed, my hat is off to Scott for his efforts.] Scott's model demonstrates that an imbalanced population will, in fact, self-correct back towards 50-50 over time. Of course, like any model, there is some sensitivity to parameters and assumptions, such as Scott's assumption of two healthy births per woman and an equal chance of male and female births; there is research out there that suggests that the actual percentage is not quite equal, although it's pretty close (but over time, those small deviations from 50-50 can add up). So in that way, it looks like the imbalance that Heinlein describes on Luna might not last too long.

This suggests another issue, however, which is the implied assumption that the physical male-female ratio at a given point in time will necessarily generate a certain set of social norms. This kind of naturalism is, as I've said, is a feature of Heinlein's position in this novel (and in other novels), so it's perfectly understandable that we might simply rest on it. But I'm not completely sure that we should, especially given the vast amount of scholarship on social norms and their "stickiness" -- their persistence after the conditions within which they arose alter. If that's the case, then the changing male-female might not have an impact on social norms. This is an idea that Heinlein plays with in some of his later novels, in which the incest taboo is treated as something that arose in a context where inbreeding might result, but which the availability of modern techniques of birth-control renders antiquated. But the norm remains, regardless -- his characters play around with it in various ways, and he is obviously playing on the reader's sensibilities about such things, but the fact remains that the norm is treated as sticky.

All of this poses a wider question about evaluation. Clearly a good work of science fiction has to display some degree of verisimilitude, literally, a resemblance to truth -- otherwise the reader doesn't buy it. The precise limits of this verisimilitude are, shall we say, open to negotiation, since a skilled author can often get a reader to suspend disbelief more broadly than a weaker author can. But the question remains: how should we deal with the evaluation of the verisimilitude of a science fiction novel, since by definition such a novel has some elements that are not realized in our present situation? What constitutes a "fair test" for a novel?

This gives me an idea for class tomorrow -- and that's the only hint you're going to get :-)