Iconoclasm

Tagged: Theme

An essential part of sf is change; indeed it may be said that the belief that the circumstances of human life were bound to keep on changing provided the most powerful stimulus for the creation of the genre. Nevertheless, it is obvious from experience that all changes, technical or social, encounter resistance ranging from the perfunctory to the desperate, as a result of human inertia. Much sf, then, is concerned with the nature of that resistance, its unexpected force, the most efficacious methods of breaking it. and of course with the whole question of whether anyone has any right to break it.

One of the oldest expressions of this theme is the conflict between scientific advance and religious orthodoxy, seen very evidently in the post-Darwinian furore, and reacted to at second hand, if not at first, by H G Wells, perhaps most bitterly in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). In that story the "Iconoclasm" or breach of faith does not become general, for Moreau's experiment, with its proof through surgical Uplift that men are not distinct from animals, is accidentally destroyed. But its implications are obvious to the reader: Religion is a myth, morality a swindle, society a convenience. Few later authors have gone as far as Wells, but exposés of missionaries are not uncommon, e.g. Harry Harrison's "The Streets of Ashkelon" (September 1962 New Worlds).

Yet assaults on religious faith are only a small part of the corrosive scepticism projected by much mid-twentieth-century sf. It has not escaped notice, for instance, that some people "believe" in science in exactly the same way as others "believe" in Christ; and in so far as the former are committed to non-acceptance of new knowledge they too become targets of "iconoclastic" fiction. A series of stories by Mark Clifton (and his collaborators) in Astounding 1953-1957 dealt with the discovery of Antigravity, Telepathy, Immortality, etc. by methods part-scientific, part-occult (see Psi Powers). One of the basic assumptions of the series was that such discoveries would be opposed first by trained Scientists, that there could be other kinds of Inquisition than religious. This attack on what must be the most deeply entrenched of modern beliefs was characteristically daring, but also at times simplistic, in that the stories conveyed no sense of doubt as to where Truth lay. Sensible people, the authors felt, would always be on the side of change. While this might be true in merely technical matters, one wonders how far continuous cultural instability could be borne by normal people. A telling scene in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952) comes after the anti-authoritarian revolution, when one of the first acts of the revolutionaries is to start tinkering with and reassembling the hated Machines. If you have no faith in an ultimate Utopia and are committed to ceaseless change, are you not likely to find yourself bound on the wheel of cyclic history (see History in SF)? As with many other genres, sf has found it easier to destroy current orthodoxy than to portray positive values convincingly: particularly in American Genre SF before 1960 or so, a sense of vague aspiration often pervades stories of iconoclasm.

Thus, in the highly characteristic series The Shrouded Planet (stories June-December 1956 Astounding; fixup 1957) and The Dawning Light (March-May 1957 Astounding; 1959), Robert Randall (Randall Garrett and Robert Silverberg) presents in great detail the destruction of the stable Alien theocracy of Nidor by the controlled release of human techniques and ideas, the consequences of which are never appreciated by the Nidorians who adopt them. The stories are neat and powerful in their opposition of good intentions and disastrous short-term results. But what is the long-term motivation? To bring Nidorians, apparently, up to technical parity with Earthmen. Will this make them happier? The question is not ignored in the book, but it is shelved. Evidently the interest in iconoclastic method outweighs concern for iconoclastic purpose. One of many similar stories from the John W Campbell Jr era is Poul Anderson's "The Three Cornered Wheel" (October 1963 Analog), once more anti-theocratic but made more complex by the fact that one of its protagonists is a Jew, and so in a sense respectful of ancient tradition even while engaged in destroying it. But too many stories dramatizing the destruction of cultures keep up their interest solely by making the problem of Cultural Engineering technically and even arbitrarily difficult. Thus Lloyd Biggle's novel The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets (1968) centres on the so-called "Rule of One" (a derisory gesture in response to a non-interventionist policy) which stipulates that Earthmen can introduce only one technical innovation to alien cultures, and that this must be destructive all by itself; as with the more extreme form of Thought Experiment, concern for "elegance" of solution has become dominant. The moral problems involved in cultural manipulation were seen altogether more sharply on the other side of the world by the Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatski, whose Trudno byt' bogom (1964; trans as Hard To Be A God 1973) relates a story about the paternalist direction of backward societies which also raises many questions directly relevant to fascism and Stalinism. Iconoclasm of this sort may adopt an sf shape, but its conclusions link painfully enough, whether the authors are American or Russian, to problems of the real world.

It is not impossible to argue, however, as Hal Clement often did, that the benefits of Technology are such that they will be grasped by any intelligent being who is free to choose. At the end of Clement's Mission of Gravity (1954), the hitherto compliant Alien Barlennan "goes on strike" for more technical knowledge – a gesture of opposition of which his human mentors, of course, thoroughly approve. Clement's aliens, then, cooperate in the destruction of their own way of life, and the problem is solved. Sociologically this may appear naive. At the other extreme Ursula K Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976) portrays a conflict avowedly based on the Vietnam war, with Earthmen trying to impose their cultural standards on aliens quite properly satisfied with their own. It should be noted, though, that Le Guin's non-interventionism was common in sf long before Vietnam (and indeed was early applied to Vietnam): consider for instance Katharine MacLean's "Unhuman Sacrifice" (November 1958 Astounding) or indeed Randall Garrett's "The Destroyers" (December 1959 Astounding). The latter gains an added twist by continuous internal reference to the American Civil War. Should one refuse to intervene in any circumstances? Even to free slaves (see Slavery)? And what if the slaves appear happy? The morality of Iconoclasm versus non-interventionism is not simple.

Most of the stories discussed above project the problems of cultural change outwards, on to the hypothetical conflicts of Aliens and Earthmen. It is not, indeed, easy to see how ordinary human beings could emerge from their own societies sufficiently to diagnose the necessity for, or engineer the achievement of, destruction of established beliefs; Darwin, the great model of innovation in sf, was notably indirect in his effects. The standard iconoclastic mode of stories without aliens is, accordingly, to trace the unexpected social effects of technical change. Universal Matter Transmission alters attitudes to privacy, sexuality and social hierarchy in Harry Harrison's One Step from Earth (coll of linked stories 1970), as in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996); artificially cultured human organs destroy the basis of social control in Larry Niven's A Gift from Earth (February-April 1968 If as "Slowboat Cargo"; 1968); Slow Glass insidiously changes justice in Bob Shaw's Other Days, Other Eyes (fixup 1972); privacy is not merely altered but abolished by Time Viewers in Damon Knight's "I See You" (November 1976 F&SF).

In a moral rather than technological shift, Arthur C Clarke's undersea farming tale The Deep Range (April 1954 Argosy UK; exp 1957) surprised many sf readers by ultimately arguing for vegetarianism (and thus an end to the exploitation of whales). Almost any Utopia is likely to be subjected to the iconoclastic assault of a Dystopian storyline. And wherever an Icon is found in an sf story, its despoiling or destruction – literally so with statues of conquering heroes, or memorials of past greatness (see Statue of Liberty) – is likely to occur. Though tacitly condemned by the author, the destruction of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa in Ray Bradbury's story "The Smile" (Summer 1952 Fantastic) is a memorable example.

Underlying all the material discussed is an intense distrust, not of reason, but of the human capacity for rationalizing whatever happens to be the present state – very noticeable in twenty-first century debates over Climate Change. A gut-based conviction of their own demonstrable rightness did not save many "defenders" of cultural consensus from being proved wrong over aeroplanes, Evolution or Space Flight; the same is true of many Scientists. Can any knowledge, then, be universally true, any ethical system be always right? Ingeniously or perversely, sf authors tend to answer "No" to both questions, and to demonstrate this ultimate belief by writing stories of ideological change and social manipulation. [TS]

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