Monday, August 24, 2015

The answer, clearly, is a new defense contract

If Science Fiction still remembered its glory days, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men would be listed next to the likes of The Foundation, The Martian Chronicles, 1984, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Frankenstein. Struggling out of the darkest, slimiest depths of SF pulp in 1930, it prognosticated the rise and fall of sentience through willful destruction and degeneration, gleaming enlightened civilizations and their decay, the struggles of post-humanity along its lengthy retreat across the solar system through the aeons. Species after species from gentle yeti-like giants to giant brains to small nimble artificers and aquatic primitives succeed each other in the most grandiose of the great speculative works.

However, the story starts with a fairly detailed outline of the end of the First Men. That'd be you and me, gentle reader, unless some Neptunian post-human is reading over my shoulder from the year 2,000,000,000... in which case, ummm... sorry about wrecking the old homestead there buddy, no hard feelings? In any case, of Stapledon's many predictions about the nature of the coming Sino-American World State and its collapse, I'd like to focus on one rather poignant idiosyncrasy.

"For the all-pervading idea which tyrannized over the race was the fanatical worship of movement. Gordelpus, the Prime Mover, demanded of his human embodiments swift and intricate activity, and the individual's prospect of eternal life depended on the fulfillment of this obligation. Curiously, though science had long ago destroyed the belief in personal immortality as an intrinsic attribute of man, a complementary belief had grown up to the effect that those who justified themselves in action were preserved eternally, by special miracle, in the swift spirit of Gordelpus. Thus from childhood to death the individual's conduct was determined by the obligation to produce as much motion as possible, whether by his own muscular activity or by the control of natural forces.
Several causes had raised flying to a position of unique honour. As a means of communication it was of extreme practical importance; and as the swiftest locomotion it constituted the supreme act of worship. The accident that the form of the aeroplane was reminiscent of the main symbol of the ancient Christian religion lent flying an additional mystical significance. For though the spirit of Christianity was lost, many of its symbols had been preserved in the new faith. A more important source of the dominance of flying was that, since warfare had long ceased to exist, aviation of a gratuitously dangerous kind was the main outlet for the innate adventurousness of the human animal. Young men and women risked their lives fervently for the glory of Gordelpus and their own salvation, while their seniors took vicarious satisfaction in this endless festival of youthful prowess. Indeed apart from the thrills of devotional aerial acrobats, it is unlikely that the race would so long have preserved its peace and its unity. On each of the frequent Days of Sacred Flight special rituals of communal and solo aviation were performed at every religious centre. On these occasions the whole sky would be intricately patterned with thousands of planes, wheeling, tumbling, soaring, plunging, in perfect order and at various altitudes, the dance at one level being subtly complementary to the dance at others.
The collapse of this first world-civilization was due to the sudden failure of the supplies of coal. All the original fields had been sapped centuries earlier, and it should have been obvious that those more recently discovered could not last for ever. For some thousands of years the main supply had come from Antarctica. So prolific was this continent that latterly a superstition had arisen in the clouded minds of the world-citizens that it was in some mysterious manner inexhaustible. Thus when at last, in spite of strict censorship, the news began to leak out that even the deepest possible borings had failed to reveal further vegetable deposits of any kind, the world was at first incredulous.
The sane policy would have been to abolish the huge expense of power on ritual flying, which used more of the community's resources than the whole of productive industry. But to believers in Gordelpus such a course was almost unthinkable. Moreover it would have undermined the flying aristocracy. This powerful class now declared that the time had come for the release of the secret of divine power, and called on the [scientists] to inaugurate the new era. Vociferous agitation in all lands put the scientists in an awkward plight. They gained time by declaring that, though the moment of revelation was approaching, it had not yet arrived; for they had received a divine intimation that this failure of coal was imposed as a supreme test of man's faith. The service of Gordelpus in ritual flight must be rather increased than reduced. Spending a bare minimum of its power on secular matters, the race must concentrate upon religion. When Gordelpus had evidence of their devotion and trust, he would permit the scientists to save them.
For the race was now entering upon an unprecedented psychological crisis, brought about by the impact of the economic disaster upon a permanently unwholesome mentality. Each individual, it must be remembered, had once been a questioning child, but had been taught to shun curiosity as the breath of Satan. Consequently the whole race was suffering from a kind of inverted repression, a repression of the intellective impulses. The sudden economic change, which affected all classes throughout the planet, thrust into the focus of attention a shocking curiosity, an obsessive scepticism, which had hitherto been buried in the deepest recesses of the mind.
It is not easy to conceive the strange mental disorder that now afflicted the whole race, symbolizing itself in some cases by fits of actual physical vertigo. After centuries of prosperity, of routine, of orthodoxy, men were suddenly possessed by a doubt which they regarded as diabolical. No one said a word of it; but in each man's own mind the fiend raised a whispering head, and each was haunted by the troubled eyes of his fellows. Indeed the whole changed circumstances of his life jibed at his credulity.
Earlier in the career of the race, this world crisis might have served to wake men into sanity. Under the first pressure of distress they might have abandoned the extravagances of their culture. But by now the ancient way of life was too deeply rooted. Consequently, we observe the fantastic spectacle of a world engaged, devotedly and even heroically, on squandering its resources in vast aeronautical displays, not through single-minded faith in their rightness and efficacy, but solely in a kind of desperate automatism. Like those little rodents whose migration became barred by an encroachment of the sea, so that annually they drowned themselves in thousands, the First Men helplessly continued in their ritualistic behaviour; but unlike the lemmings, they were human enough to be at the same time oppressed by unbelief, an unbelief which, moreover, they dared not recognize."

It's easy to find commentary on the British air show crash from two days ago. Media figures feign their most plasticized expressions of commiseration with those unfortunates who paid the price for mass hysteria and everyone is asking why? Why, Gordelphus, why? What could have happened? Do we blame the pilot, blame the mechanics, blame goose migrations, where's a goat when you really need something scapeable? 
You know what I think the investigation will reveal? That an entire population was indulging in a hideous sublimation of their repressed impulses, in a ridiculously wasteful and senseless display of tribal dominance, attempting to ignore their vapid, institutionalized, purposeless wage-slavery by identifying with the tools of murder and oppression of the upper classes - and they will continue to do so until we are all scraped off the face of the planet by you apes' ritualistic, instinctive, murderous trumpeting of social power.

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