Another old Sci-Phi Journal column.
Science-fiction and fantasy tend toward the epic. In science-fiction, the sheer scale of the visible universe inspires the heroic, and in the fantastic myths tend to reward the heroes who single-handedly (or in the company of a band of brothers) take on the gods in the face of certain doom. And thus it is that the heroic virtues are the ones that our genres celebrate. Heroic valor, enduring faithfulness, unstained honor, even chivalric mercy cross our pages and screens.
Whether virtues exist, in any real sense, is one of our oldest debates. Very early on in human – and doubtless in prehuman – existence, we held to the idea that virtues were real. The idea that virtues and virtuous behavior do not exist, because they are a scam to trick the weak and the stupid away from grasping the power that could be theirs, is not very much younger, as anyone who is passingly familiar with Plato knows. From that time to this, the virtues that civilization has been built on have been periodically under assault, often in alternating pairs: thus, near the time of World War I and World War II, mercy and charity were regarded as spinelessness and treason by the great mass of the population. During the height of the Vietnam War, physical courage was often decried as brutality. And as a result of both of those times, one virtue has been beaten so low as to scarcely resemble a virtue at all: obedience.
Obedience receives little admiration from any side of the Western political spectrum, because of the aforementioned recent history, because of the Enlightenment’s valorization of liberty and freethought, but perhaps also because the study of politics concerns the acquisition and use of power to compel the obedience of other people. But that very fact, of course, compels us to take a hard look at the virtue of obedience. After all, what is the purpose of wielding, in Monty Python’s beloved phrase, “supreme executive (or legislative) power” if no one will obey it? Political power is predicated upon the idea that people will obey, and democratic republics are predicated upon the idea that they will obey, at least in the main, willingly. But obeying is not glorious or sexy, and it isn’t a virtue we generally see held up as an example in our heroic science-fictional or fantastic epics.
Of course, obedience features heavily in religious and non-religious myth, the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box being archetypal. Perhaps the first epic fantasist to play explicitly with the virtue of obedience near our own time was Milton. And he, writing on the very eve of the Enlightenment, makes of Satan a kind of epic hero that was embraced unreservedly by later Romantic poets. Shelley said that, “Milton’s Devil, as a moral being, is far superior to his God.” What Milton had meant as a tale of lost virtue, they turned into the embrace of a new one: the virtue of defiance. Not defiance for anything, but defiance in sich was taken to be a good.
After the Holocaust and Holodomor of the 20th century showed us the disastrous consequences of unthinking obedience to totalitarian ideologies, we should expect to see a celebration of heroic rebellion spring up. Surely it is no accident that the heroes of the most iconic SF film series of all time are part of “the Rebellion” against an evil and destructive Empire. But the recent crop of Young Adult fiction has developed pure rebellion to new heights. I have already in previous columns addressed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman is the heir of Shelley and Keats, preaching defiance against the Authority, and I think the generic nature of his epithet for God is telling. His heroes are not merely rebelling against a bad god, but against the very concept of legitimate obedience. This is taken even further with the more-popular The Hunger Games. Collins first throws Katniss Everdeen against the evil President Snow, who is determined to crush the Districts beneath his heel, even though he already enjoys almost limitless power. But when Katniss discovers the fabled District Thirteen, thought to have been lost in a war almost a century before, its leader, Alma Coin, is almost as cruel and absolutist as Snow himself, enforcing a starkly ascetic military regime. Katniss ends up executing her on the basis of her own suspicion that Coin will seek to assume the powers of the overthrown President Snow. In Katniss’s world, political power and authority quite literally are not allowed to be good, or to act as a moral force. Katniss’s own moral force comes from her willingness and compulsion to disobey (and destroy) every power that would seek her compliance, or even her allegiance. She, and she alone, has the power to determine what is right.
If we look back in the history of SF, however, we find a more nuanced approach from the antecedents of Star Wars, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. In that now almost-forgotten epic, the Lensman series, the Lensmen are cast as the agents of law and order, an outgrowth of the Triplanetary law-enforcement branch, not its military arm. The Lensmen believe themselves to be fighting against “Boskonian pirates,” that is, the agents of lawlessness. Nevertheless it is plain even from the outset that “Boskone” is actually a dictatorial and totalitarian state. The tension between the two is instructive and clear: obedience is an unavoidable virtue. You may not defy the Boskonian terror without obeying the laws of the Galactic Patrol. There is no way to defy one without obeying the other.
Tolkien develops the same theme, although he seemed reluctant to confront it fully. Frodo’s struggle against the Ring is almost always cast as a rebellion and a defiance against The Lord Of All The Rings, and the Ring itself. But in so doing, of course, Frodo is declaring his allegiance and obedience to Gandalf and the rest of the Council of the Wise. To obey them when the way is hard.
It is perhaps unsurprisingly C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle that come closest to a true celebration of obedience in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, where the fate of Narnia hangs on Diggory’s obedience to Aslan’s command, although that very obedience involves defying the Empress (and later White Witch) Jadis in the garden. Perelandra is clearest of all, being an allegory of the Biblical story of the Fall as it might have been. But L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door comes to its climax in an act of obedience, a counterrebellion, when the farandola Sporos dares to obey in the midst of his people’s rebellion, heeding the wisdom of the elder fara, Senex, and trusting the authority that says that he must Deepen and undergo metamorphosis to be truly free.
Even in Star Wars itself, of course, this paradox plays out. In order to effectively defy Darth Vader and the Emperor, Luke must obey Yoda. And when he fails to do this, he finds himself effectively obeying his enemies. Our heroes cannot defy without obeying, but they cannot obey without defying.
Heroes who insist on defying without obedience end up where Pullman’s and Collins’s stories leave us, and in each case, the place is not one that any sane person would envy. The protagonists are forever shattered by their victories: Lyra is separated forever from both the boy she loves and any prospect of eternal life, and Katniss, while she is together with Peeta, refuses to lead. And perhaps she must refuse this: becoming a leader would place her in a role of authority, which is evil. It would also entail her allegiance and obedience to law. She cannot truly be a hero because heroes are, almost by definition, those who give of themselves for that which is greater, that which they feel it is worthy to obey.