Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Science Fiction as a Guide to Life

It may seem paradoxical at first, because science fiction normally deals with things that haven't happened, and frequently imaginary facts about science and everything else, but for a comparatively small subset of literature, SF can teach you a lot about things, often more clearly and efficiently than mainstream fiction, or even non-fiction. Partly it's the nature of the genre, which gives a writer great scope to deal with ideas in a creative manner, and partly it's the nature of science fiction writers (and readers), who are often teachers at heart, with a passion to spread their knowledge and thoughts around as much as possible.

Whatever the reasons, you can learn a lot about how to be a decent, productive human being from Robert A. Heinlein, a lot about anthropology and culture from Jack Vance, a lot about liberty and government from L. Neil Smith, and a lot about the nature of history from Isaac Asimov. C. S. Lewis can teach you about religion and chivalry, Poul Anderson about the forces of history, and Hal Clement about astronomy and physics.

And that's just scratching the surface. One guy who, like me, has learned a great deal from science fiction is Bob Wallace, who has written extensively about what writers have taught him. A while ago, I reprinted his piece on Edgar Rice Burroughs, and there's a lot more like that on his blog HERE.

And this week he's reminded me of the importance of an old-time writer nobody talks about any more, A. E. van Vogt.  He writes:

"The Right to Own Weapons is the Right to be Free"

"Both the oligarch and Tyrant mistrust the people, and therefore deprive them of arms." - Aristotle

The first novel I read that impressed upon me the necessity of an armed populace as a bulwark against the depredations of the State was A.E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher, published in 1951. I even remember where I read it: in Anthony Boucher's two-volume A Treasury of Great Science Fiction. Last story in the set, book two. I still have my copies.

It was an eye-opener to my 12-year-old self, who had never given any thought to civil government and the State, and the distinction between the two. At the time, I didn't know there was a distinction. It certainly wasn't taught in school, a bore-me-to-distraction quasi-prison which thought the best way to teach me to read was with Dick and Jane and Spot and Pony, and not Rudyard Kipling and Mowgli and Shere Khan and the Bandar-Log, the Monkey Tribe that put democracy into action by periodically getting together, shaking the tree branches and screeching, "We all say so, it must be true!"

It had never occurred to me that the State was inherently cruel and unjust and capricious, and ultimately would always abuse the citizenry, which it considered, more than anything else, as childish, annoying and expendable. If you had asked me, I probably would have said it was supposed to be our friend. You know, Social Security, the Best and Brightest from Harvard and Yale running the show . . . things like that.

Van Vogt saw straight into the nature of the State, just as he saw through the adults blind enough to believe it was their friend, at least until its fist crashed down on their skulls and knocked the pointy right off of their pinheads. These people, van Vogt informed his readers, always consider themselves patriots, and anyone who disagrees with the policies of the State as a traitor. Until the truth woke them up, a waking up that generally involved their property being stolen by that disorganized gang of criminals that pose as politicians.

The novel, set in the year 4784, is about the eternal conflict between those who want to be free, and those who wish to enslave them. The first believe in armed citizens; the second, who wish everyone disarmed, believe only in the State. Ominously, van Vogt refers to the State in that far off year as "the Empire." Art imitates life, and now life is imitating art.

> Thousands of years in the future, and nothing has changed except for technology. Still the eternal conflict between liberty and slavery still rages. Looks like there's no quick fix to the imperfections in human nature, a nature that if it wasn't imperfect, wouldn't create States in the first place. That certainly puts the kabosh on the leftists who believe if society and civil government were destroyed, the essential goodness of human nature will shine forth.

In van Vogt's future, the only place citizens can buy weapons is the Weapon Shops, the motto of which is "The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free." The Weapon Shops have weapons and defenses that are superior to the Empire's. Because of this, the Empire can only not defeat the Weapon Shops, it can't even touch them. Even though it keeps trying, over and over.

(Incidentally, that phrase "The Right to Own Weapons is the Right to be Free" has made it into other fiction. In F. Paul Wilson's "Repair Jack" novels one of Jack's friends own "Isher Sporting Goods" - which sells weapons in the basement - and has the phrase upstairs on a plaque behind the counter.)

There is a lesson in all of this: Ideally, the citizen's weapons would always be equal or superior to the government's. That's the sole purpose of the Second Amendment: to make sure the people are as well-armed as the potential jackboots. That way, the wanna-be Gestapo will always think twice before trying to make inroads into people's rights. "An armed society is a polite society," wrote Robert Heinlein.

States always try to disarm citizens. "[T]o disarm the people (is) the best and most effective way to enslave them . . . ." wrote Founding Father George Mason.

Things have changed since then, for the worse. Now we've got Demo-Commies like Diane Feinstein stating, "If I could've gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them . . . 'Mr. and Mrs. America , turn 'em all in,' I would have done it."

In-between Mason and Feinstein we had Heinrich Himmler: "Germans who wish to use firearms should join the SS or the SA. Ordinary citizens don't need guns, as their having guns doesn't serve the State." Replace "State" with "Empire" and you've pretty much got the essence of van Vogt's plot in one sentence.

Into this mess thousands of years hence, we find one Fara Clark, who thinks of the Empress as "the glorious, the divine, the serenely gracious and lovely Inneda Isher, the one hundred eightieth of her line." This is a mere human being he is speaking about, one he considers almost god-like, the way the Japanese considered the Emperor a god, or the way the retarded in our own time idealize whoever is currently President .

Fara is a pinheaded "patriot." He waxes very wroth when a Weapon Shop shows up in his little village. The fact the weapons are so technologically advanced they are tuned only for defense, but not offense, doesn't even penetrate. His mind is as closed as a clam. To him, it's "my Empress, right or wrong" (about that comment, G.K. Chesterton wrote, "'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'").

Fara's son Cayle is a different story. He says of his father, "He thinks we're living in heaven, and the Empress is the divine power." Father and son do not get along. Fara is the stand-in for the "conservative" who is blind to the true nature of the State and thinks it deals in fairness and justice, and that the people who run it are the Good Guys; his son, much more clear-headed, instead casts his lot with the anti-State, pro-liberty Weapon Shops.

There is no need to go into the plot in any detail, except to say one of the themes is that of Innocence to Experience, far more for the stubborn father than for the son. To advance the plot Van Vogt assumes the Weapon Shops are so technologically ahead of the Empire that the Empire is helpless against them, and that the Shop's weapons are tuned to the owner's mind, so they cannot be used for aggression. It's a neat little trick that makes liberty invulnerable against the State. Unfortunately, we're not even close to the point. It's nice to imagine it could be true, though.

The novel had a profound effect on me. It made me realize States always deal in force and fraud, whereas the pro-liberty Weapon Shops used only persuasion, non-aggression, and self-defense. It's the difference between what Albert Jay Nock, in his classic, Our Enemy, the State, referred to as the Political Means and the Economic Means. It's the difference between slavery and freedom.

Every dictator and would-be dictator would not only despise this novel, but ban it. We need look no further than what Adolph Hitler wrote: "The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjected people to carry arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjected peoples to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing."

Why do the Weapon Shops not overthrow the Empire? Because they believe people will always have the government they deserve. And that, unfortunately, is as true now...as it will be thousands of years in the future.

"Every nation gets the government it deserves" - Joseph de Maistre

"Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.” - Étienne de La Boétie
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