[Note: the title means what it says. These are a few random thoughts that occurred to me while I was reading yesterday, because there seemed to be a congruence between what I was reading and thoughts about science fiction that have been troubling me for some time. I have not attempted to turn this into a coherent essay, nor do I know whether I will try to do so in future.]
I have been troubled for some time by science fictions that involve god as an active participant in the events of the story. This occurs in books as varied as Forever Free by Joe Haldeman and Mainspring by Jay Lake. In this, I am making no complaint about the appearance of religion in a science fiction novel, since religion is part of the experience of being human. But the idea that a god, a supernatural being, might play a direct and practical role in human affairs seems to me to run counter to something intrinsic in science fiction.
I have the same troubled feeling when I encounter stories that feature a timeless war between the forces of good and evil. It feels out of place in something that presents itself as science fiction.
And yet I have never been able to put my finger on precisely what it is that makes me uneasy about this.
I have, for a little while now, been reading The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt. It is the story of how the Latin poem, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, was rediscovered in 1417 by a former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, and the effect this one work had upon the shaping and course of the Renaissance.
Lucretius’ poem was an expression of the philosophical position first laid out by Epicurus. In the first century BC it described the constitution of the world as being made up of atoms, and from this drew out a consequent moral philosophy that the greatest duty of humankind was the pursuit of pleasure.
These ideas seem to have been fairly marginal in the Roman world, but with the rise of Christianity they were seen as anathema and were deliberately and systematically suppressed. The rediscovery of On the Nature of Things in the fifteenth century came at a time when papal power was being challenged, politically, philosophically and scientifically. Lucretius’ ideas, therefore, fed directly into the scientific thinking that was developing at that point. Greenblatt cites Machiavelli, Bruno and Galileo among those directly influenced by Lucretius, and it is clear that Epicurean atomism lay behind the thinking that would eventually develop atomic theory.
On the Nature of Things can therefore be seen as one of the ancestors of our modern scientific world view.
In the chapter I was reading yesterday, Greenblatt itemises some, though by no means all, of the ideas expressed by Lucretius that would have been a direct challenge to the Catholic church of Poggio’s time (and indeed, I suspect many of them would still challenge the teachings of the church today). According to this list:
- Everything is made of invisible particles (atoms)
- The elementary particles of matter – ‘the seeds of the things’ – are eternal
- The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size
- All particles are in motion in an infinite void
- The universe has no creator or designer
- Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve (by which we might understand some force like magnetism or gravity)
- The swerve is the source of free will
- Nature ceaselessly experiments
- The universe was not created for or about humans
- Humans are not unique
- Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival
- The soul dies
- There is no afterlife
- Death is nothing to us
- All organized religions are superstitious delusions
- Religions are invariably cruel
- There are no angels, demons or ghosts
- The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
- The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
- Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder
Is it just me, or does this list not scream science fiction? Clearly there are ideas here that underlie scientific thinking from Bacon to Darwin, and philosophical thought from Descartes to Wittgenstein. (Greenblatt must surely have had Wittgenstein’s ‘Death is not an event in life’ in mind when he characterised one aspect of Lucretian thought as ‘Death is nothing to us’.) But surely, this world view is also the world view of science fiction?
I am not sure yet how to develop this vague perception.
One thought that occurs to me, for instance, is that the Lucretian world view suggests that morality is a human invention. But works that present an eternal, extra-human war between good and evil suggest that there is an absolute morality, an understanding of what constitutes good and evil that is inherent in the structure of the universe, and is outside of the moral understanding of humankind. Therefore the moral universe is not a human invention, and so is not a part of the Lucretian world.
If the science fiction world view is congruent with the Lucretian world view, then perhaps we are beginning to find a way of distinguishing science fiction from fantasy?
I’m not sure of this, I’m not sure I want to take these thoughts in that direction, but it does hang there temptingly.
One intriguing aside. Epicurian atomism was quickly established as a part of European intellectual life, but British thinkers and writers seem to have first encountered it when Royalists were in exile during the interregnum of 1649-60. This circle of British amateurs of science included Thomas Hobbes, John Evelyn and Margaret Cavendish. Indeed it seems that Margaret Cavendish was the first writer to introduce Epicurian atomist ideas into England in her Poems and Fancies of 1653, which appeared a year before the pioneering work of William Charleton in 1654.
Atomism would, of course, constitute a core element in Margaret Cavendish’s rather eccentric scientific thinking, and clearly forms part of her science fiction, The Blazing World of 1666. So this is another way in which Lucretian thought frames the development of science fiction.