What will the future look like? Not much like our stupid present, certainly, but complaining about the present is easy, while offering a coherent positive vision of the future is hard—especially given the degradation of our present. Yes, the Age of Ideology is over, though its zombie corpse may stumble through the brambles of reality for a few more years, until someone shoots it in the head. But what will replace it will be an organic thing, its exact form hard to predict. In Retrotopia, John Michael Greer narrates an optimistic vision of a renewed America, or part of America. It’s fiction, but it inspires a variety of thoughts, among them a topic of great importance to both Greer and me: is technological progress the enemy of tomorrow’s human flourishing, or its ground?
When I first read Neuromancer, a science fiction classic of the modern age, twenty-some years ago, serious people believed that our certain technological future was one of accelerating, boundless plenty. The Singularity was near. Aging and death would soon be conquered; the removal of all limitation would be, within a decade or two, the lot of mankind. Few asked if this would be good. But no matter, since none of this arrived, and it is long since clear none of it will ever arrive, at least in our world as it is now constituted and ruled. Yet, this book, published in 1983, is a fun ride and shows us visions of many things. So let us talk about what is now our present, and what that says about our actual future.
Starship Troopers, sixty years old, is a famous work of science fiction. As with most Robert Heinlein novels, the point is more the ideas than plot or character. Heinlein therefore often swerves dangerously close to message fiction, but it never becomes intolerable. This book is Heinlein’s vehicle to explain who he thinks should rule a society and what principles should inform that ruling class’s actions. His main goal is to attack universal suffrage as stupid, which is true enough, although his proposed alternative is too artificial. While I’m interested in the franchise today, and its relationship to aristocracy and hierarchy, I’m equally interested in secondary aspects of the book, in particular what the role of women should be, if any, in the military.
Do any American children learn about William Tell today? Do any Swiss children learn about him? Very few, if any, I suspect. My children do, but only because last year I was reminded of William Tell by Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage, and so I went and bought what few children’s books are still in print about the Swiss hero. Among those was The Apple and the Arrow, winner of the Newberry Medal in 1952, which I have just finished reading to my children, to their great delight.
The Japanese author Shūsaku Endō is known primarily for his 1966 masterwork, Silence, about the persecution of Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan. The backdrop of Silence is the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, a peasant rebellion crushed in 1638, which erupted in reaction to the vicious suppression of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate, part of the turn of Japan inward. The Samurai focuses on events two decades prior, when Christianity was only partially suppressed, and the Shogunate still somewhat open to contacts with Europe. As with many of Endō’s works, The Samurai focuses on the internal struggles of its protagonists to live a Christian life in circumstances of extreme external and internal pressure and conflict.
I have always loathed the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Bleak, unhappy, and cold, they depressed me as a child, and I’m not a depressive person. True, that is painting with a broad brush, but you read “The Little Match Girl” and tell me I’m wrong. Even Andersen’s stories that are not overtly melancholy are full of the chill of the North; there is no brightness there. Much the same spirit permeates these short stories by Hannu Rajaniemi, a Finnish science fiction author. As with Anderson, the stories are clever and original, but they dampen, rather than uplift, the spirit of Man.
Ernst Jünger’s Eumeswil, one of the famous German’s last works, published when he was eighty-two years old, is often regarded as an exposition of libertarian thought. This is understandable, but completely wrong. Such a reading attempts to shoehorn concepts in which Jünger had little interest, or toward which he was actively hostile, into an exploration of unrelated themes. Moreover, it ignores that in this book, though somewhat masked, Jünger has more contempt for so-called liberal democracy than dislike for what some call tyranny. Thus, this book is not a call to rework society, or individual thought, along libertarian lines. It is instead a call for human excellence, and a criticism of the modern West for failure to achieve it, or to even try.
I’ve read all of William Fortschen’s books. They’re among the best of apocalypse fiction, a genre dominated by potboilers, so naturally, I preordered this book. My big question was if the author could write something new, especially since at first glance it appears the apocalypse in 48 Hours is very similar to the EMP found in Fortschen’s most famous book, One Second After. Without giving the story away, I can tell you this book is quite original. And to me, the most interesting matter that Fortschen covers, indeed the plot driver of the entire book, relates to a long-running apocalypse concern of mine. Namely, that the government, at any level, is not our friend, and would be our enemy in any real crisis where someone has to lose.
For some time now, I have been telling my children, none of whom have ever lived through any event that significantly harmed America, that sooner or later, history will return. The older ones roll their eyes; the younger ones have no idea what I mean. This book shows what I mean, through a fictionalized look at a 2020 nuclear attack by North Korea on South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
As can be seen from a casual glance at my book reviews, while I read little fiction, I am keenly interested in science fiction. Sadly, almost all contemporary science fiction is mere social justice agitprop. But there is some quite good relatively modern science fiction, and in particular, I am fond of (no surprise, I suppose) what is commonly called the “Dying Earth” genre, after the name used by Jack Vance in the 1950s. This book, The Pastel City, published in 1971, fits squarely into this genre, but is distinguished by the gem-like quality of its writing, elevating it above the average pulp of late twentieth-century science fiction.