Man vs. Machine: John Henry, Science Fiction, and the March of Progress

February 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

There are only two kinds of plots in true science fiction:  Science is a Hero, and Science is a Villain.

250px-John_Henry-27527In Science is a Hero, there is some problem or other — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, the Galactic Empire is falling, there’s a Plague IN SPACE!! — and the heroic characters unabashedly use Science to deflect the asteroid, restore Galactic civilization, cure the plague, and, not infrequently, have sex in zero-G.  Ain’t Science great?

In Science is a Villain, Science itself is the problem.  Science unleashes dinosaurs, Frankenstein monsters, unstoppable robot armies, murderous computers, super-soldiers, atomic horror, etc., and humanity has to fight them off.  Sometimes humanity barely wins, at great cost.  Other times we lose.  Science makes a nasty Villain.  Moral:  Science sure can be dangerous, kids!

These two kinds of stories echo our ambivalent attitude towards technology, of course.  Real life science has cured countless social ills and brought previously-unimaginable wonders, but it has also caused social upheaval and brought previously-unimaginable horrors. It’s no surprise that the stories that are most famous, the ones that keep us up at night, are the villain ones:  HAL 9000, velociraptors, Terminator, the Matrix…  The villains, the nightmares,  echo most closely the demons we’re wrestling.

Man and Machine

John Henry isn’t usually considered a science fiction story, but in fact it’s one of the first. It’s a classic Science as Villain plot:  the newfangled steam-driven hammer appears on the scene, threatening the jobs and livelihoods of the steel-driving men.  Actually, it threatens not only their livelihoods, but their whole way of life.  When it’s recalled that, just a few years before, most of those steel-driving men had been slaves, you can sense the undercurrent:  the Rich White Fathers are going to replace their black slaves with machines, rather than pay them an honest wage and recognize their common humanity.

John Henry won’t stand for it:  he’s going to beat that steam-driven hammer.  And he does!  But, of course, his heart bursts in the effort.  The drill is broken, too, but it can be rebuilt.  John Henry can’t be.

What’s the moral here?  Perhaps it’s the same simple moral you find in a lot of Science is a Villain stories:  it’s a cautionary tale.  Watch out, folks!  Turn your back on Science, turn your back on Knowledge, Meddle Not in Wot Man Was Not Meant to Know, etc.

But John Henry puts some fascinating twists on this simple Luddite message. « Read the rest of this entry »

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Fiction and the Shamanic Journey

February 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

In a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and what’s more, it’s lies that everyone knows are false. In that article I argued that fiction’s primary purpose was to change beliefs about how the world works. Even though it describes false events, the skillful author writes in such a way that the reader believes they could happen; and in doing so, can change the reader’s beliefs about what is possible, or the way the world works, or human nature. The readers of Tolkien may not end up believing in hobbits, but they may be more likely to believe in things like this:

  • There is a guiding force to events, which works indirectly through seeming ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’ (e.g. Bilbo’s finding the Ring; the manner of the Ring’s destruction).
  • Despite this, people have free will, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
  • Loyalty to one’s king and country is a great virtue, as is military service when necessary.
  • Greed for power (and knowledge!) corrupts.
  • The world was once much more beautiful and pure than it is now.
  • Not all wrongs can be righted, but even tragedy can be beautiful.

Since then I’ve been thinking more about this, and I think I’ve found a perhaps more direct function of fiction. It’s a shamanistic technique, similar to meditation or trance, which actually operates directly on the reader’s subconscious or spiritual connections. « Read the rest of this entry »

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