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KRONOS Vol VIII, No. 1
SCIENCE-FICTION AND COLLECTIVE AMNESIA: "DRAGON'S EGG"
RICHARD J. JAARSMA
In Mankind in Amnesia, Immanuel Velikovsky suggests that writers of drama, fiction, and poetry sometimes unconsciously make explicit reference to the great natural catastrophes that, Velikovsky claims, have swept our planet in ancient historical times. He cites, as some examples, passages from Shakespeare, Byron, and Poe which describe not only the events themselves but the unbearable terror such events caused in those who were subjected to them.(1) Fiction, Velikovsky asserts, gives us a way of "handling", "tolerating", and "reliving" such catastrophes - safely, comfortably without mental or emotional chaos.
Yet, one can go further than Velikovsky does by noting that, even where literature does not necessarily recall specific catastrophic events, much of literature has an inherent catastrophic structure. A look at plot in fiction, for instance, reveals that plot is itself an unconscious expression of terror and fear about the catastrophic events in life which we make bearable by giving them order.(2)
Plot, curiously, presents a very special kind of order indeed. For in every plot, whether its action is external to the characters or internal to them, there occurs what the Elizabethans deliberately used to call the "catastrophe" - a coming together of physical or psychic events which radically alter characters' lives and perceptions and which, in one way or another, resolve the conflict between or within them. We like to call such a resolution - note the catastrophic term - the "climax ".
Good fiction is, by its very nature, catastrophic. Uneventful lives drifting on wide, placid streams into forgetful oblivion - bore readers. Instead, we want to see those lives shattered by unusual events, sudden failures of character, or long-hidden psychological quirks which some deus ex machina dredges to the surface with cataclysmic results.
Catastrophism inheres even in definitions of comedy. In The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, Lucentio - at the end of the play sums up the comic action he has just experienced in purely catastrophic terms:
In popular forms of fiction such as the mystery story and the science fiction tale, we are confronted by two essentially different kinds of plot, based on two diametrically opposed views of how the universe actually works. Mystery stories begin, interestingly, with the terror of catastrophe which is a "mysterium" - a secret, a "something that has not been or cannot be explained, that is unknown to all or concealed from some and therefore exciting curiosity or wonder, or that is incomprehensible or uncomprehended". In the religious sense, the "mysterion" is a "religious truth revealed by God that man cannot know by reason alone and that once it has been revealed cannot be completely understood " .(4)
In a mystery story, the mysterium induces terror and fear precisely because it is not first understood. But notice: the mysterium, through the unravelling of the plot by the central character - the detective - is made knowable and "safe" purely through rational and empirical methods. The plot of the mystery story finally assures us that the world and the universe are rational, explicable, and safe places. In mystery stories, moreover, the catastrophic event is viewed consistently as an anomaly.
The science-fiction story, on the other hand, says that the universe is inherently catastrophic and that anomaly rules. It seems to take as a motto for its plot the words of the Johnsonian Arab in Rasselas who announces that "misfortunes . . . should always be expected". Science fiction without fail presents a reality alternate from the world of common-sense reality, but, instead of denying its inherent chaos, urges the reader to accept that alternate reality as "normal". The reader of science-fiction undergoes what Dark Suvin (in a famous formulation) has called a process of "cognitive estrangement" - a willing abandonment of the norms of common-sense reality and an acceptance of new norms suggested by the world the science-fiction writer creates.(5)
It is no accident that at the heart of all science-fiction stories lies a journey which takes the characters out of a comfortable, predictive environment into what is strange, unknown, and often chaotic. On such a journey, only the mentally agile survive.
Like all fiction, science-fiction, though its subject matter is the empirically-observable universe, is bound to the catastrophic demands of fiction. Lyell's aeons of gradual geological development, Darwin's almost infinitesimal biological changes over millions of years, or Wegener's continents drifting mere centimeters apart each year, whether or not they describe an actual state of affairs, cannot be the stuff of science-fiction. Rather, sudden mutations, drastic and swift changes in the contour of the Earth, and violent perturbations in the orbits of planets or the matter of suns are more likely to be its substance. Of course, in "hard" science-fiction, such anomalistic events are always carefully rationalized in terms of the "laws" of the universe. Yet the fact remains that the anomalistic, not the predictive, event is the central subject of science-fiction.
Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy is a case in point. There is assuredly nothing very exciting about three novels that concern themselves with the more-or-less gradual decay of an interstellar Empire and the efforts of a group of historians-mathematicians-psychologists, under the leadership of Hari Seldon, to fine-tune the collapse in order to minimize its effects and duration. Once you have established the foregoing, where do you go from there?
Well, where Asimov, the champion of uniformitarianism in science, goes is toward anomalies. A significant section of the Foundation trilogy, for instance, reveals that Hari Seldon's plan is posited on the probability of anomalies occurring, a discovery that causes great consternation among his followers. In fact, the greatest anomaly is a character called "the Mule", a mutation who, Alexander-like, conquers the known universe, and whose appearance on the historical scene has not even been predicted by Hari Seldon himself.
Ironic, isn't it, that the current enemy of catastrophism in the sciences should, in his own fictional masterpiece, exhibit such anomalistic leanings?(6)
In a novel called Dragon's Egg (1980), Robert L. Forward goes Asimov and other science-fiction writers one better by graphically illustrating not only that catastrophism holds the high ground in science-fiction, but that Velikovsky's notion of fiction specifically recapitulating actual catastrophic events has invaded the world of contemporary science-fiction.(7) The novel, by the way, is being praised to the skies as no-nonsense science-fiction by such éminences grises from the world of science as Charles Sheffield, President of the American Astronautical Society, Frank Drake, Director of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, and, of course, Isaac Asimov, now one of the chief anti-proponents of Velikovskian and catastrophic explanations of the recent past. They all love it.
Dragon's Egg recounts the formation of a supernova from a binary system approximately fifty light-years from the solar system, in 500,000 B.C., with resulting catastrophic effects on the planet Earth. The new star in Earth's skies is so bright that, for a period of about a year, no night falls on the northern hemisphere, explaining - among other phenomena - the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
Very quickly, the supernova becomes a neutron star; its light dies as it is trapped by the star's immense gravitational fields, and, at a speed of thirty kilometers per second, the star begins to move toward the solar system. Further catastrophic results for life ensue when the cloud of gas from the original explosion of the star reaches our planet. The ozone layer collapses, and after millennia of being buffeted by naked radiation, life on Earth produces Homo sapiens through a series of rapid mutations.
By 3000 B.C. life itself forms on the neutron star through nuclear rather than through molecular forces as on Earth. Soon intelligent life exists on the cooling surface of the star - a life whose existence is lived a million times faster than that on Earth, because it operates at the speed of nuclear reactions.
Just at the point where intelligent life develops on the neutron star, it is discovered (around 2,000 A.D.) by human beings, who now have the technology to orbit a satellite around the star by utilizing two condensed asteroids (into ultra-dense masses of one kilometer diameter each) and six tidal compensator masses in a ring around the orbiter, to offset the gravitational tides of the neutron star.
To this point, Forward, who is a Senior Scientist at the Hughes Research labs in California and a pioneer in gravitational astronomy, has hewn to a more or less "conventional" catastrophic line in explaining the effects of the neutron star on the evolution of life on Earth - a mere half a millennium ago - in that he seems to accept the current theory of "punctuated" evolution. But he becomes positively Velikovskian, however, as he describes what is occurring on the star itself.(8)
It seems, you see, that a tribe of cheelah, the intelligent life form on the neutron star, is forced to leave its habitat in the northern hemisphere of Dragon's Egg (as human beings have come to call the star) because of a volcano that sends blasts of fire, rivers of lava, and dense smoke their way. After leaving Mount Exodus (yes, yes, Forward actually calls it that!), they wander in a wilderness of dense smoke until they break out into the "promised land" of the southern hemisphere. There they see a light over the southern pole which is our Sun. They see the Sun as their heavenly deliverer, call it "Bright", and worship it.
Having come to their promised land, the cheelah settle down to recapitulate a Bronowskian march from primitivism to the cheelah equivalent of human civilization. There is even a cheelah version of Christianity, a religious phenomenon inspired once again by catastrophic events.
When the humans succeed in orbiting their observation satellite, the cheelah see its light as "Bright's Messenger" and worship it. One of the cheelah, a predictably neurotic runt (for such types seem to be the founders of religions, in Forward's simplistic view), proclaims himself the "son" of Bright's Messenger; and as proof of his divinity recounts and demonstrates ecstatic experiences which occur when radar-laser beams, used by the humans to map the neutron star, touch his body and those of his followers. Since only he can see the beams (he is an albino and has abnormal eyesight), and since they sweep the surface in predictable patterns, the "savior" gains currency among the cheelah by being able to give them transcendental experiences on schedule - until, of course, the humans complete their mapping. Then the savior is killed as a false prophet when a scheduled mystical experience fails to occur.
Since the cheelah live at a rate of biological development a million times greater than that of human beings, it does not take long before they achieve a level of civilization high enough to enable them to communicate with the humans observing them - the same humans who have given them a catastrophic leg up on civilization through the mere presence of their observer satellite. The cheelah soon surpass man's civilization and technology, are able to leave the surface of their neutron star, visit (briefly and at a distance) the satellite, cure one of the crew members of breast cancer, shower technological blessings on a grateful mankind, and so on and so on.
Dragon's Egg is an irritating book. Though its gadgetry is fascinating and its science rigorous, Dragon's Egg founders on the rocks of effecting a compromise between catastrophism and uniformitarianism. Through the simple and simple-minded trick of speeding the Darwinian evolutionary process, one million times that of what the uniformitarian code holds occurred on Earth, Forward is saying that yes, we can have our cake and eat it too.(9) But only, of course, if we accept a uniformitarian approach to the nature of the universe first. Then, by simple sleight-of-hand, we can have catastrophism too.
Yet, inconsistencies abound. The sudden appearance of the neutron star in the vicinity of the solar system in 500,000 B.C. is a purely catastrophic event - an event which, Forward imagines, produces Homo sapiens through catastrophic mutations. The "exodus" of the intelligent inhabitants of the star, because of an erupting volcano and the subsequent "wandering in the desert", is also the result of pure catastrophism, as is the founding of a new religion because of the sudden appearance of a human-observer satellite in neutron skies.
It is obvious, too, that Forward has simply appropriated some of Velikovsky's speculations about the history of the ancient Hebrews and the development of Hebrew monotheism in the wake of postulated catastrophic near-approaches by the planets. Though the novel has an extensive appendix full of detailed information about the structure of the neutron star and the observer satellite, Immanuel Velikovsky's name or works are, predictably, not mentioned as sources for some of Forward's ideas.
At first, one is simply inclined to lay Forward's failure to mention his debt to Velikovsky at the door of the continuing hostility in the sciences to Velikovsky's ideas. Yet, it is curious and startling that people like Forward should so glibly use those same ideas in a work of "scientific" fiction. Velikovsky's hypotheses, it seems, make great stuff for the fiction of physicists; and books like Dragon's Egg are a clever way of trivializing them.
It seems more likely, however, that Dragon's Egg is simply another splendid example of the inherent catastrophism of all science-fiction. It is mankind's way of attempting to break through the veil of its collective amnesia resulting from the events that traumatized it in historical time.(10) In such a view, it is entirely possible that Dr. Forward had no conscious intention whatever of appropriating the catastrophic hypotheses that Dr. Velikovsky set forth, but in his fiction he unconsciously recapitulated - in a strikingly accurate form - some of the cataclysms which purportedly struck our own solar system.
REFERENCES1. I. Velikovsky, Mankind in Amnesia (N. Y., 1982), pp. 117-129. See also my "Nor Heaven Nor Earth Have Been at Peace: The Contemporary Foundations of Shakespeare's Cataclysmic Imagery, " KRONOS V:4, pp. 3-18 and KRONOS VI:1, pp. 12-24. Additionally, the reader is referred to the articles by Irving Wolfe in KRONOS I:3, I:4, III:4, IV: 1, VI:1, and VI:3.
2. See Irving Wolfe's "Collective Amnesia and the Catastrophic Basis of Soap Opera, " KRONOS VII:2, pp. 69-85 and KRONOS VII:3, pp. 46-60; see also Lynn E. Rose, "Aristotle's Tragedy: An Example of Collective Amnesia, " KRONOS VII:2, pp. 54-68.
3. The Taming of the Shrew, ed. George L. Kittredge and revised by Riving Ribner (Waltham, Mass., 1966), V, ii, 1-3, p. 97. See also 1. Wolfe, " 'The Seasons Alter': Catastrophism in a Midsummer Night's Dream," KRONOS VI:1, pp. 25-47 and KRONOS VI:3, pp. 71-92.
4. Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
5. In teaching science-fiction to college students, I often find a stubborn resistance to the process of estrangement on the part of some students. In probing the causes of that resistance, I have found it to be based on a fear of what science-fiction asks the reader to do: involve himself imaginatively in the chaotic. "It scares me," one student told me, "because it puts me out of control."
6. Re Asimov, cf. Lewis M. Greenberg, "Phobia, Amnesia, and the Psyche, " KRONOS I:1, pp. 27-32.
7. Cf. Malcolm Lowery, "Asimov, Velikovsky, Science-Fiction, and 'Worlds in Collision', " KRONOS V:1, pp. 89-92.
8. Cf. the remarks by Roger W. Wescott in "Introducing Anomalistics: A New Field of Interdisciplinary Study, " KRONOS V:3, pp. 46-47.
9. See the various articles in KRONOS VII:4, pp. 1-39.
10. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (N. Y., 1950), passim and pp. 298-300. See also L. M. Greenberg and W. B. Sizemore, "Cosmology and Psychology, " KRONOS I:1, pp. 33-50; and the articles by T. Ferté, D. Griffard, and J. Kroth in KRONOS VII:1, pp. 3-30.