Decadence

Tagged: Theme

Although the concept of "decadence", meaning the state of decay to which an institution has fallen after a long period of prosperity, can be dated to the early 1500s, the more modern sense, of an entire culture succumbing to an enervating lack of vitality (or an indulgence in sloth or sensual pleasures), began to emerge only in the nineteenth century. The belief that cultures eventually fall into a debilitating (and usually irreversible) sickness owes much to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788 6vols) by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). While Gibbon (who did not use the term) blamed the Empire's fall on no single cause, "indolence" and the "licentious" behavior of various authorities are cited repeatedly in his six volumes. Although Richard Gilman, in Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (1979), and others have argued that the concept of decadence has no validity as a historical phenomenon (and modern historians have in fact long since discarded it), the theme of civilization falling into decay owing to sensual self-indulgence became important to Victorian sf, especially for the Scientific Romance and tales of the Far Future. As early as H G Wells's The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), an equation was drawn between the development of a stable peaceful civilization enjoying high-tech Leisure and a consequent encroaching enfeeblement and inability to resist barbarism. In C J Cutcliffe Hyne's The Lost Continent (July-December 1899 Pearson's; 1900), the civilization of Atlantis is destroyed as a result of its leaders' moral laxity.

Gilman notes that Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) seems to be the first individual to be identified as "decadent", but by the final decades of the nineteenth century a number of (primarily French) poets and painters embraced the title, and the "Decadent Movement" included such figures as Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), J K Huysmans (1848-1907), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and Oscar Wilde, whose work was characterized by a rejection of bourgeois values, the cultivation of aesthetic refinement, and the elaboration of artifice and ornament. What Arthur Symons denounced in 1887 as "that learned corruption of language by which style ceases to be organic, and becomes, in the pursuit of some new expressiveness or beauty, deliberately abnormal", the Decadents variously pursued in a programme that remained in the decided minority (and which in its day went unremarked by sf writers).

The Victorians saw moral failure behind the fall of civilizations (see also Battle of Dorking); the years following World War One unsurprisingly witnessed the appearance of novels (often published outside Genre SF) that predicted that failure and intimately linked Near Future ruination as consequent to abandonment of conservative political principles. This was the era in which Rudyard Kipling wrote darkly of civilization descending into "flux and disintegration" and W B Yeats famously declared that "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" in "The Second Coming" (November 1920 The Dial); Edward Shanks's The People of the Ruins: A Story of the English Revolution and After (1920), L MacAulay's The Decadence: An Excerpt from "A History of the Triumph and Decay of England": Dateable 1949 (1929) and S Fowler Wright's Deluge (1928) and Dawn (1929) – which, with his short fiction of the same period, delivers a stern comeuppance to modern civilization and its attachment to creature comforts – all evoke an England that follows a fast track to decay and collapse as the result of missteps taken in the author's present day.

The distinction between the decadence whereby a long period of luxuriant lassitude leads slowly into degeneracy and that whereby countenancing political folly leads swiftly into chaos was soon followed by a third, essentially fault-free mode of civil decline. In Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; trans as The Decline of the West 1926-1928) Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) wrote that "We cannot help it if we were born as men of the early winter of full Civilization, instead of on the golden summit of a ripe Culture, in a Phidias or a Mozart time." Cultures in this view have natural and inescapable life cycles, whose final stage, "Civilization", possesses features that cannot be altered or evaded, as explicated at great length by Arnold J Toynbee (1889-1976) in A Study of History (1933-1961 11vols) (see History in SF). In They Shall Have Stars (1956), the earliest volume (in internal chronology) of James Blish's Cities in Flight sequence (1950-1962 var mags; omni 1970), we see Western civilization falling into a chiliastic social disorder that earlier writers would have characterized as decadent, but which Blish's knowing protagonists make no futile attempt to rectify.

All three modes of decadence are evident in the Genre SF that appeared in American Pulp magazines in the following decades. Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon (June 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "Sea-Kings of Mars"; 1953 dos) vividly evokes a Martian civilization so old that it can do little but pine nostalgically for eras lost in its own deep antiquity, while the Galactic Empire of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series employs Gibbon as a template for the inevitable decay that will fall into what Poul Anderson memorably termed the Long Night of a star-spanning empire's dissolution. Whether the decadence that overtakes these civilizations is a result of moral turpitude, civil mismanagement, or mere senescence is not in every case clear, although tales that lingered upon the languorous excess of entrenched ruling classes seemed by this time to be more popular in Fantasy (as in the magazine stories of Zothique [written 1930s coll 1970] and other venues by Clark Ashton Smith) than in sf. With few exceptions (such as those of Olaf Stapledon, who did not publish Genre SF), it seemed to be the nature of Galactic Empires to fall, and most experienced an extended period of decadence before the final crash.

It is notable that decadence is not much dwelt upon in more recent sf, and exceptions tend to be localized rather than interstellar. The Afternoon Cultures of M John Harrison's Viriconium sequence (1971-1991) signal by their cognomen their status as pre-decadent civilizations, and the city of Viriconium (which comes in full "Evening") embraces the full flower of artistic decadence that Symons described. The decaying New York of Thomas M Disch's On Wings of Song (1979) similarly enjoys a flowering of the more "refined" arts (including, significantly, a "bel canto revival") even as its municipal services disintegrate. The topoi of Elizabeth Hand's Aestival Tide (1992) and related novels are largely restricted to Washington, District of Columbia, while that of J G Ballard's Vermilion Sands (coll 1971; with 1 story added rev 1973) is confined to a single decaying resort.

The interstellar empires of what has been called the New Space Opera tend to be young and expanding, and cultures that get into trouble are consumed quickly. The galactic venues of Iain M Banks, David Brin, Alastair Reynolds, Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge and John C Wright (among others) are simply too busy for any culture to enjoy an unmolested period of decline. It seems that Gibbon's model of the decay and decadence of empires has lost much of its utility for modern sf.

It is important to note that Decadence should not be associated with either Dying Earth stories – such as William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land: A Love Story (1912) – or Thinning [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. In Dying Earth stories, the world has worn out and societies have fallen or disappeared through simple exhaustion of resources, while Thinning entails a malady or threat to a Land, not to any culture that may reside within it. [GF]

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