A Christian Galactic Empire: St. Louis IX and Star Wars

I’m involved in a discussion on Andrew Willard Jones’ Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. I’ve also had Star Wars on my mind a lot.

The dominant historical narrative is that the Middle Ages is defined by the struggle between the religious sphere, specifically the papacy, and the secular sphere, the kings of Europe, for sovereignty. While the papacy gained some headway from Gregory VII to Innocent III, they ultimately failed to unite all Europe under their headship and thus the various kings were able to centralize in the various nations we know today. Historians can hang, draw, and quarter me for simplifying in the comment box.

Jones’ primary thesis is that the world of St. Louis cannot be understood in the modern terms of “religious” and “secular” because the idea of the two spheres being separate in any fashion, thus how we understand them today, would be unthinkable. Both found their source in the divine and their specific proper ends were fundamentally in accord. Thus it was that a married layman could, in his younger life, serve his king in bringing peace to a country rife with conflict and end his life as a Pope – Clement IV. He may have moved between spheres, but there was no conflict or separation between the two. Both were simply different spheres in the same mission – building the kingdom of Christ on earth.

St. Louis IX

Throne and Altar, Sword and Sacrament. The way it’s meant to be.

I’ll have more to say on the book in the coming weeks as the discussion gets more deeply into it. What does it have to do with Star Wars?

Well, Star Wars is one of those science-fiction films which more-or-less gets religion. Sure, it’s religion may just be warmed over eastern dualism (or is it a modern take on virtue ethics? Or Thomistic Rationality?), but it takes it seriously. The Force is not just a vague set of beliefs founded on some ambiguous “faith”, but a code which seeks to actualize man (divinize man?). Of interest to me is that there is no distinction between “religious” and “secular” for a denizen of the Star Wars world (ignoring Expanded Universe, I know it gets hairy out there!). The Imperials cower before the might it gives Vader and the Emperor. The Rebels invoke it as the raison d’etre of their efforts – May the Force be with you.

Science-Fiction is all about “What if?” questions. I really want to ask “What if we returned to or restored a world where society united the religious and secular?” Or more specifically, “What if we moved from the current liberal order to a Christian society?” What would a Christian Galactic Empire look like? Of course, people want to point to the religious dystopias (e.g. Handmaid’s Tale) as an example, but this isn’t what I’m talking about. What if both the brahmins of the society and the simple folk truly believed and let that inform their life, not just individually but societally?

It’s interesting to me that the greatest popular example in science-fiction comes from Star Wars – Space Opera not connected with our world. I wonder if people even think such a thing is possible. Most of us have allowed liberal secularism to become not only a belief, but the very grounding of our reality. Even the religious folk (myself included – though I’m working on the brainwashing) tend to see our faith as an incredibly important piece of our life that assumes a liberal-secular foundation. If you believe in thick religious freedom – like a disavowal of any and all confessional states – you’re definitely one of these people (I’ll let you intuit what my thoughts are on our “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”).

There are cracks in these assumptions. The Deus Vult stuff is given with some tongue-in-cheek, but I can see a lot of the memelords actually believing their lulz and keks. Perhaps future servants of the restored Holy Roman Emperor are shitposting their way to societal salvation.

So what if we had a Christian Galactic Empire? Guess I need to get to writing.

If anyone has good recommendations on books on this theme – Science Fiction treating religion seriously and constitutive of reality, not an aesthetic overlay to secularism – feel free to point me in that direction.

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Retro-review: Solomon Kane

My latest read into the early 20th century sci-fi and fantasy world was Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane, the stories collected in the Baen edition.

baen-SolomanKane

This isn’t my first exposure to Robert E. Howard, having read a handful of the original Conan tales and two of the Wild Bill Clanton stories. However, it’s definitely my first deep dive, swimming through story after story over the past month.

I’ll admit, it took some work. Howard isn’t a difficult read, but his prose comes close to poetry at times, and the rhythm and alliteration (so much awesome alliteration!) can be jarring for those used to plainer fare. He also eschews a lot of interiority to his character, keeping his characters with simple goals while favoring depths of description for the dark, oppressive settings, horrific nightmarish monsters, and lurid and bloody action. Solomon Kane may be a man of God, but his faith is practiced in destroying evil, not interior reflection.

The whole conceit with the Solomon Kane tales is a dour puritan-cavalier (the paradoxes indulged) who travels about the world seeking out injustices to right. His earliest story, “Red Shadows” reads like an historical adventure with a weird twist at the end. The story contains everything one will find in later Kane stories – a wronged innocent, villains in need of killing, trips to darkly exotic locales, mysterious and frightening magic, and sword-fights to the death.

Gary Giani, Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane by Gary Gianni

The early tales can read very much like ghost stories – “Skulls in the Stars” and “Rattle of Bones” both see Solomon confronting angry spirits which carry out their own sort of vengeance. With “The Moon of Skulls”, where Kane makes his way into a hidden city in Africa in search a kidnapped girl, the stories shift to much more adventurous fare. “The Hills of the Dead” and “Wings in the Night” have him confronting horrific monsters, the second ending on a depressing note as he could give the victims no salvation, but only vengeance. In “The Footfalls Within” we see Howard begin playing with a secret history using old mythology, building off the groundwork in earlier stories. One senses that Howard was beginning to grasp for a large, overarching conceit for Kane that he never got to realize.

The majority of posthumously posted stories are fragments completed by other writers, but “Blades of the Brotherhood”, completed by his hand, stands out as a purely historical adventure without weird elements.

I can’t exactly call the stories fun, but they are gripping. Howard pours on the dark and oppressive description and one is left with a powerful sense of the world’s evils and Solomon’s drive to defeat it. The reader is never bored, though, Kane’s relentless attack becoming awe-inspiring as the reader is swept up watching this avatar of providence at work.

I highly recommend trolling through the tales, especially “Red Shadows”, “The Moon of Skulls”, and “Wings in the Night”. Most can be found online (see wikisource for a goodly number), with only the posthumous publications locked away in various collections.

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Comments on the Ascension: The King takes his Throne

God ascends amid shouts of triumph, alleluia.
And the Lord with the sound of trumpet, alleluia.
-Versicle for Vespers of the Ascension

If Easter is the great day of Victory, the day the Enemy is finally sent to flight, when his towers crumble and the Divine Conqueror stands astride the ruins of his domain, Ascension is his coronation day. On this day he raises himself above the still violent field of battle to take his throne, not to leave us, but to rally us, to remind us ever that our place, always at His side, is not here on earth, but in the heaven that is and is to come.

It’s always of great consolation to me to think of the Ascension of the Lord. Never forgetting He is the Lord, begotten before all ages, He is forever now a man. Thus it is a man, one of us, flesh and blood descendent of Adam, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. Humanity is now present with the Godhead in a unity we can never fully fathom. Man, in Christ, is now, truly, Lord of creation. Humanity is in heaven, and so too shall we be.

It is fitting that this begins the intense time of prayer, modeled by the apostles – the Novena to the Holy spirit culminating in Pentecost. The King’s taking of his throne also mean our investiture with His spirit – peers of the Lord, like the paladins of Charlemagne.

Praise the Lord for this day He has ascended to take his throne!

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Message Fiction: Some Comments

Message Fiction: Some Comments

I’ve had a few people, while agreeing with most of my comments on Message Fiction Done Right, have questioned whether I’m using the term message fiction correctly. I admit I may be using it a bit more broadly than most.

Dominka Lein has proposed to differentiate message from meaning – message being that which the artist intends to express with his work, while meaning is that which the viewer of the work subjectively obtains from it. Nixon Maxy gently critiques my own use of the term and say Burroughs did not intend the message I found there, but was just writing a story that entertained and expressed the mores of his time.

Both points are well-made, but I have some disagreements.

To Lein’s comments, I’m suspect of such a distinction. Admittedly, there’s a lot of reasons why it seems natural to most. In a post-kantian world where the noumena (the-thing-itself) and phenomena (the-experience-of-the-thing) are radically separated, we assume that such a distinction between message and meaning is obvious. Many of us have prior commitments to rather robust interpretations of free speech and the distinction seems to naturally bolster those commitments (meaning becomes something unassailable in the fortress of subjectivity and so enjoys a kind of absolute freedom). It also creates an easy critique of works which try to limit themselves to the artist’s meaning and thus “force” it upon others – the usual critique of SJW literature.

I’m the madman, though, who doesn’t believe in the radical noumena-phenomena divide, is skeptical of free-speech, and actually wants literature which expresses messages. I don’t truck with art for art’s sake. I want art at the service of religion, humanity, and the state (though my thoughts on legitimate states are somewhat nuanced). Apologies if I scare off some of my #PulpRev compatriots with my crazy.

Where I think Lein might agree with me is when that message/meaning (I don’t really see the difference) is at odds with reality. The example she gives in her piece is the importance of diversity to the SJW crowd – the message appears to be that one can only identify with one-like-oneself (an asian man with an asian man, a lesbian with a lesbian, etc.). She rightly points out this is madness – we identify with all sorts of people who are nothing like ourselves. Thus for literature to make this it’s message is just, well, wrong. It’s not that it’s a message, it’s that it’s the wrong message – that which is counter to reality.

Literature and art which limits itself to ideology can also have it’s own weaknesses. In physical arts, especially statuary, there is a world of difference between an allegorical piece versus one based on a human person. Allegorical pieces of the virtues, like Caritas, must rely on abstractions and symbols, desiring more for the idea, the “message” to dominate in the literature. More incarnational pieces, like Michelangelo’s Moses, are in your face, asking you to encounter the person depicted and not the ideas he may or may not embody. It’s far less weak.

In literature, we see this more abstract model of art in things like the old morality plays or the more recent dystopian allegories like Animal Farm. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia veers dangerously close to such kind of allegorical literature. These are works which seek to have the story and characters serve the message, the “moral of the story.” More fully fleshed literature presents the complexity of humanity in trying to attain, fail or deny these values and transcendent realities.

Bad literature seeks to say these eternal values are wrong and newer values should be sought. That’s what’s wrong with SJW literature. To say otherwise smacks of dishonesty to me.

This brings me to my response to Nixon Maxy. I do agree that Burroughs was not sitting down and actively thinking about the message he wanted to express. Rather, he simply wrote a story imbued with the values of his time, values which are eternally important for all men.

But what of those who live in an age where those values are not “of the time”? When SJW values hold a kind of dominance in the culture? Burroughs and many of the pulp writers are incredibly bracing to moderns because they reveal values which we have for the most part jettisoned in our culture – the importance of marriage, the necessary nobility of man, the strength in feminine womanhood, the glory of unabashed heroism. Perhaps this is just me talking, but as much as I consciously embrace and seek to live out these values, I’m a brainwashed modern. To write of Burroughs’ values requires effort on my part. I can’t just write “of the time”.

Thus what may not have been a message in Burroughs’ time is a message in our time. Burroughs acts like a clarion call into our modern world, actually rebuking us. But he not only rebukes, but puts before us models to follow. And these are not abstract models, but, to the extent that fiction allows, fully incarnated persons. Men, be John Carter. Women, be Dejah Thoris.

I’d like to ultimately see the lexicon around these topics expanded. It may very well be that terms like “message fiction” don’t have essential meaning. It appears to be nothing more than a shaming term for literature we think goes against reality (but don’t want to admit to objective morality in the process). If we want to say a work is weak because it’s allegorical – meaning it’s moral or lesson is of greater import than the story itself – then call it that.

But I don’t think most of what we call message fiction (full of “virtue”-signaling, diversity- and equality-affirmations, political snipes) is allegory. And its problem isn’t that it portrays a message, but that it portrays the wrong message. It denies reality in favor of some individuated ideology.

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Comments on Burroughs: Message Fiction Done Right

It’s among the watchwords of the PulpRev community that message fiction is opposed to entertainment. The current holders of the sci-fi citadel promote message fiction and are thus unentertaining and this is why they’re wrong.

I’ve got problems with that paradigm. If “message fiction” as a term is limited to “fiction which promotes ideas contrary to reality”, then I tend to agree, message fiction is a problem. And we do see this type of fiction present across the entertainment landscape, especially around matters of sex, family, religion, nations, history, politics…

But as we see with Burroughs, this isn’t the only sort of message fiction that’s out there. In A Princess of Mars, Burroughs has clear messages to his fiction – heroism in the face of danger, purity of romantic intention, honor and nobility civilizing brutishness, loyalty and love of one’s leaders… The whole story is a kind of handbook on acting like a heroic gentleman. John Carter is not analyzed by Burroughs. Rather, he is given forth as a model for young men to imitate.

Take for instance Carter’s romance with Dejah Thoris. In the chapter “Love-making on Mars”, we see Carter as the consummate gentlemen attempting to woo the object of his desires, not with seduction, but by gracious conversation. Dejah Thoris, for her part, responds with ever growing wonder at the masculine virtues he embodies – both a virile ferocity and a tender heart:

“I presume it is the better part of wisdom that we bow to our fate with as good grace as possible, Dejah Thoris; but I hope, nevertheless, that I may be present the next time that any Martian, green, red, pink, or violet, has the temerity to even so much as frown on you, my princess.”

Dejah Thoris caught her breath at my last words, and gazed upon me with dilated eyes and quickening breath, and then, with an odd little laugh, which brought roguish dimples to the corners of her mouth, she shook her head and cried:

“What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child.”

“What have I done now?” I asked, in sore perplexity.

“Some day you shall know, John Carter, if we live; but I may not tell you. And I, the daughter of Mors Kajak, son of Tardos Mors, have listened without anger,” she soliloquized in conclusion.

Then she broke out again into one of her gay, happy, laughing moods; joking with me on my prowess as a Thark warrior as contrasted with my soft heart and natural kindliness.

“I presume that should you accidentally wound an enemy you would take him home and nurse him back to health,” she laughed.

“That is precisely what we do on Earth,” I answered. “At least among civilized men.”

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 1150-1159). Kindle Edition.

We later find out he had applied a term of great love to Dejah Thoris (My princess), though had ignorantly done so without (gasp!) making clear his intentions to make an honest woman out of her. In fact, this conversation ends with her so shocked at his ignorance that she storms away:

“Do people kiss, then, upon Barsoom?” I asked, when she had explained the word she used, in answer to my inquiry as to its meaning.

“Parents, brothers, and sisters, yes; and,” she added in a low, thoughtful tone, “lovers.”

“And you, Dejah Thoris, have parents and brothers and sisters?”

“Yes.”

“And a—lover?”

She was silent, nor could I venture to repeat the question.

“The man of Barsoom,” she finally ventured, “does not ask personal questions of women, except his mother, and the woman he has fought for and won.”

“But I have fought—” I started, and then I wished my tongue had been cut from my mouth; for she turned even as I caught myself and ceased, and drawing my silks from her shoulder she held them out to me, and without a word, and with head held high, she moved with the carriage of the queen she was toward the plaza and the doorway of her quarters.

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 1182-1189). Kindle Edition.

The handbook is not only for gentlemen. In Dejah Thoris, we find how a woman should react to a man who claims her illicitly – with utter disdain.

This sort of purity of romantic intention is present even in the villains of the tale. Sab Than, once he lays eyes upon Dejah Thoris and falls in love with her, seeks to make her his wife. That any man would treat a woman as a possession to be used as he wills is only among the qualities of Tal Hajus, the degenerate Jeddak of Thark. And his end reveals another aspect of true virtue:

“Chieftains of Thark,” I cried, turning to the assembled council and ignoring Tal Hajus, “I have been a chief among you, and today I have fought for Thark shoulder to shoulder with her greatest warrior. You owe me, at least, a hearing. I have won that much today. You claim to be just people—”

“Silence,” roared Tal Hajus. “Gag the creature and bind him as I command.”

“Justice, Tal Hajus,” exclaimed Lorquas Ptomel. “Who are you to set aside the customs of ages among the Tharks.”

“Yes, justice!” echoed a dozen voices, and so, while Tal Hajus fumed and frothed, I continued.

“You are a brave people and you love bravery, but where was your mighty jeddak during the fighting today? I did not see him in the thick of battle; he was not there. He rends defenseless women and little children in his lair, but how recently has one of you seen him fight with men? Why, even I, a midget beside him, felled him with a single blow of my fist. Is it of such that the Tharks fashion their jeddaks? There stands beside me now a great Thark, a mighty warrior and a noble man. Chieftains, how sounds, Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark?”

A roar of deep-toned applause greeted this suggestion.

“It but remains for this council to command, and Tal Hajus must prove his fitness to rule. Were he a brave man he would invite Tars Tarkas to combat, for he does not love him, but Tal Hajus is afraid; Tal Hajus, your jeddak, is a coward. With my bare hands I could kill him, and he knows it.”

After I ceased there was tense silence, as all eyes were riveted upon Tal Hajus. He did not speak or move, but the blotchy green of his countenance turned livid, and the froth froze upon his lips.

“Tal Hajus,” said Lorquas Ptomel in a cold, hard voice, “never in my long life have I seen a jeddak of the Tharks so humiliated. There could be but one answer to this arraignment. We wait it.” And still Tal Hajus stood as though electrified.

“Chieftains,” continued Lorquas Ptomel, “shall the jeddak, Tal Hajus, prove his fitness to rule over Tars Tarkas?”

There were twenty chieftains about the rostrum, and twenty swords flashed high in assent.

There was no alternative. That decree was final, and so Tal Hajus drew his long-sword and advanced to meet Tars Tarkas.

The combat was soon over, and, with his foot upon the neck of the dead monster, Tars Tarkas became jeddak among the Tharks.

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 2334-2351). Kindle Edition.

Here we see the call to nobility, and honor over the degenerate rule of force exerted by Tal Hajus. The Tharks, for all their faults, have within themselves the possibility of rising above the brutality of their people (unlike the Warhoons who end badly). In Tars Tarkas, we see one inspired by John Carter’s virile virtue and becomes a great leader of his people.

How one could not call this and similar portions of Burroughs’ novel message fiction is beyond me. The difference is that this, for all its fantastical elements, is grounded firmly in reality. Men are men, nobility is nobility, glory is glory, sacrifice is sacrifice (see his protection of Dejah Thoris from the Warhoons).

The elements of fancy, the exotic locale, the foreign practices – all this is there to magnify reality, to make it all the more enchanting. A Princess of Mars is remembered for its setting, yes. But it thrills the heart because of the virtue it inspires. The message is integral to the entertainment.

This is message fiction done right.

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Racialism, Immigration, and America as Parasite

This season’s premiere of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America took a look at immigrants and refugees in the US. In our recent political climate over these persons, Bell definitely stakes out the usual liberal claim. To get the opinions of the “other side”, he attended a conference at the National Policy Institute and the highlight, put off for the end of the episode, was an interview with Richard Spencer, one of the most public faces of the alt-right movement.

You can watch the hole painful thing here: “Watch W Kamau Bell Hold it Together While Richard Spencer Gushes About Bathing in White Privilige (sic)”.

I hate White Nationalist rhetoric. I hate it even more because it claims to be speaking about the same things I hold dear – European identity and culture (which is Catholic culture, but I’ll leave that obvious claim for another day). It makes no sense to me to equate the cultural magnificence that came out of Europe and the peoples influenced by Europe with any racial identity, much less one that has no basis in actual fact. The emphasis on white, at least in the current American discussion, is most probably in reference to the black community’s use of black (Spencer about admits this in defending the term to Bell). However, it should be noted that the American Black community uses the term because, well, they couldn’t really call themselves Africans after hundreds of years of displacement influential on their culture and way of life. Methinks using the term “white” reveals a similar sort of implicit displacement. That it’s used mostly by non-Catholic communities also makes me want to draw some other conclusions…

Europe’s culture is not racially based. Otherwise you have to start playing some weird racial games like explaining how a goodly amount of Spain’s southern provinces have Moorish blood in them. Or the Mongolian in Russia’s very European cultures. Or how the Italians and Germans were mortal enemies during Roman times. Not to mention the way Europe was not only defending the ruins of old Greco-Roman culture that were among them, but having to steal the intellectual insights (and more complete copies of said culture) from the Arabs to restart their own. I’m a Thomist. I thank Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides for their intellectual aid in forming the greatest thinker the world has ever known.

This being said, I also can’t stand the sort of diversity for diversity’s sake talk that Bell and others peddle. Such talk inevitably involves matters of culture and life which more often than not touch dangerously close to relativism on the plain of reality. Bell shows his hand here especially in lauding and praising the work of an LGBT refugee safe house, Casa Ruby. Yes, give refugees aid, but I’m very leery of giving any sort of special privilege to those involved in denying the reality of sexual identity. This smack of relativism.

The matter of immigrants and refugees needs to not be discussed in the context of diversity, but rather in the context of the Common Good – both the good of the nation (Does our current immigration practice contribute to peace and good order?) and of the wider world (does our current immigration practices contribute to global peace and good order?). The former must be answered first because one cannot contribute to another’s peace and good order if one lacks it within oneself.

I’ve always understood an increase of immigrants and refugees to be a sign of a failure. If a nation needs immigrants, this is a sign of something rotten at the heart of that nation (and they are basically acting like parasites on the global community). If other nations are shedding peoples, either by lack of opportunity or by dangerous atmospheres, this is a clear sign that that nation is in need of aid and intervention – one does not flee one’s home because it is vibrant and thriving.

In America, and the west in general, we are experiencing both of these phenomena. There is something rotten at the heart of western nations – it’s revealed in our lack of local involvement in government, our declining replacement rates, our shrinking middle classes, our loss of public spaces, our dearth of sober, refined patriotism, our confusion over sex, our obsession with money… The list goes on. We amassed huge cultural and material wealth, yes, but we no longer know what it’s purpose is and it’s eating us alive with a kind of virulent apathy vis-a-vis reality. So what do we do? Bring in the more vibrant, alive, and virile peoples to try and displace our apathy. Like parasites on the global community we bring them in to keep us propped up in our sickbed but refuse any sort of actual medicine or therapy to restore ourselves.

And this apathy has allowed economic, military, and ideological forces to run rampant and destroy whole societies and cultures in such a way that the peoples are willing to feed into our parasitical desires just for a chance at peace and good order. Of course, they unknowingly and innocently feed into the disorder that is growing at our heart. Or, as in the case of certain Islamist groups, recognize it and are trying their damndest to take advantage of it. And maybe even succeeding.

This may be the first time in history where the major powers of the world exercised their might by drawing people in rather than expanding – not just territorially, but most importantly culturally. Great powers of the past sought to bring their wealth, material and cultural, to others. We screwed it up plenty, sure, but the impulse was still healthy. Today we’re just parasites trying to keep from societal and cultural collapse.

The whole discussion about immigration and refugees needs to be about who we are as a people. Not in whether we’re “big hearted” or “open to diversity” or similar crap. But whether we are a people materially and especially culturally healthy enough to actually aid in these problems, to uphold the Common Good. If we aren’t (and let me tell you, we aren’t), it’s time to remedy that.

I’ll leave the more proximate questions to matters of prudence. However, this more remote and ultimate question needs to be asked and needs to frame those prudential matters.

“But Tomas, that’s not going to happen!”

And now you know why I just read science fiction and think. Cause people are stupid.

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Comments on Burroughs: Hard Sci-fi

I’m rereading Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. For all my love of Burroughs, I actually have little exposure to his canon. I read Tarzan when I was younger and thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally read A Princess of Mars in the past five years and loved it. Among the pulp commentary I’ve read, it’s always Burroughs who most draws me – I love the idea of planetary romance and his is the granddaddy of the genre with the Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar novels (the last is an inner earth novel, but it’s really just planetary romance going in, rather than out, of the planet).

So I’m going to try to read a lot more Burroughs in the coming months, especially the full expanse of his Planetary Romance stuff. I’m starting with the classic, though, so a few comments on A Princess of Mars.

Princess is Hard Science-Fiction. This is an statement of heresy to almost everyone in the camps I run with. One side likes to call Princess the softest of soft SF (see Karl Gallagher’s “The Mohs Scale of SF Hardness”). The other thinks it beneath Princess’s dignity to call it by such a trashy name (See anything by Jeffro Johnson on the topic, but especially “Hard SF Considered Harmful”). If you want to see the discussion, check out the archives of late March 2017 for Castalia House Blog and Superversive SF Blog. I’m personally a fan of Jon Mollison’s disjointed thoughts on the topic (Idle Thoughts on the Hard Question).

But as I reread Princess, I’m struck by how much Burroughs is delighting in his science speculation. He likes his Hard SF. I mean, right in the middle of a romantic walk between John Carter and Dejah Thoris (in a chapter called “Love-Making on Mars” which will be discussed soon) you have the beautiful titular princess offering this piece of scintillating exposition:

They have had me down in the pits below the buildings helping them mix their awful radium powder, and make their terrible projectiles . You know that these have to be manufactured by artificial light, as exposure to sunlight always results in an explosion . You have noticed that their bullets explode when they strike an object? Well, the opaque, outer coating is broken by the impact, exposing a glass cylinder, almost solid, in the forward end of which is a minute particle of radium powder. The moment the sunlight, even though diffused, strikes this powder it explodes with a violence which nothing can withstand. If you ever witness a night battle you will note the absence of these explosions, while the morning following the battle will be filled at sunrise with the sharp detonations of exploding missiles fired the preceding night. As a rule, however, non – exploding projectiles are used at night.” [ I have used the word radium in describing this powder because in the light of recent discoveries on Earth I believe it to be a mixture of which radium is the base. In Captain Carter’s manuscript it is mentioned always by the name used in the written language of Helium and is spelled in hieroglyphics which it would be difficult and useless to reproduce.]

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 1132-1140). Kindle Edition.

Note especially that last aside by the fictional editor. This it Burroughs pointing out that he’s thinking this through and trying to explain things as scientifically as he can. You get this throughout the novel. John Carter’s first challenge on Mars is in walking around in lessened gravity. The whole early experience with the Green Martians, the Tharks, is Burroughs discussing the relation of nature and nurture (he’s far more inclined to the nurture side – see Sola and the ability of the “uncivilized” Tharks to be struck by Carter’s mercy). He likes to explore how Tharkian society is both completely screwed up but also essentially functioning – (here, he’s far more realistic a dystopian than most).

Now yes, his speculation has mostly been debunked (or at least his biggest speculations have, damn you Mars Rover!). But that doesn’t change that he’s fundamentally a Hard SF writer in the vein of, say, Asimov.

But the comparison with Asimov is important. Asimov is a Hard SF writer who reveals all the flaws and weakness in writing Hard SF. Most his work is about the science – his characters and plot, without some imaginative help, are weak and pitiful. Thus if the science gets overtaken, the work will only be remembered as a curio in the history of science-fiction – as Newton has become for the theoretical physicist. Now Asimov is highly regarded because he, like certain Nye’s and Tyson’s of today, pushed himself into the cultural consciousness. We’ll see how well he’s remembered in another 50-100 years.

On the opposite end, Burroughs’ tale is not about the science. His tale is about a man set adrift from his world, finding a woman worth dying for, and achieving glory. The Hard SF is just there to spice things up. Thus when it falls apart (and the science has fallen apart, damn you Mars Rover!), the story still persists in importance. It ages gracefully.

It may be important for defenders of Hard SF to put this in their calculations. Their science will, inevitably, be overtaken and look quaint (Galileo and Newton thought they were the end-all, be-all folks…). Does the story hang on the science? Then the story will will become similarly antiquated. However, if the science is either just window-dressing or an outlet for the more human story, well, it’ll survive. Just like Burroughs has (See the similar comment of Misha Burnett’s on Heinlein – “Expiration Dates”).

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