This short piece from real life rocket scientist is a straight-ahead “Men With Screwdrivers” story. (Note: read it here!) And yes, the details about the challenges his characters face in the harsh environment of the moon ring true. The most striking thing about that to me is that Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke still define “hard” science fiction to such an extent in my mind, that I actually struggle to accept the invocation of nanites as part of this story’s setting. It’s frustrating. Every time I peek into what my kids are learning about science, I get another indication that everything I think I know about science is at least twenty years out of date. Reading this sort of thing, I am forced to grapple with the fact that the future I’m nostalgic for cannot even be plausible under its own terms.
And honestly, this stuff is scary now. There was a time when we were just so sure were were going to solve everything. David Hilbert’s program in mathematics epitomized this mentality. And it turns out we don’t even have solutions to the “easy” problems of mathematics. Physics? We could almost appreciate the implications of an Einstein and the incremental improvements he made to Newton’s model of reality. But everything we’ve learned about what goes on at the subatomic level is simply wrong. It’s so counter-intuitive, we rebel against it. Anyone of a sufficiently scientific bent should, really. After all, the sort of mythology that allowed the concept of science to cohere in the first place is at odds with the one that emerges from the new understanding of how the world actually works.
The uneasiness we have with these sorts of issues is a big reason why the dominant science fiction franchise of today consists of what are basically dressed up versions World War II era concepts of technology and the future. People that are watching the jobs disappear in the face of increasing automation…? They aren’t looking forward to the future Walt Disney promised them at Epcot center decades ago. No, they’re being warned about the next ecological catastrophe while they watch thrillers about high tech low-lifes in a dystopian future that is eerily reflective of the present.
What does this mean for people writing Campbellian style “hard” science fiction right now…? Today’s cultural context is just too different. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter has more to do with the writing of science fiction right now than anything that could be rightly considered a classic of the field. It’s all there. Scientists have gone out beyond the fields we know and returned with things that can have drastic impacts on every level of society. Everything is now in flux. Chaos threatens to break in and rearrange everything we take for granted. So the future is now weird, not wonderful. Uncanny, not thrilling. Frightening, not exciting.
Karl Gallagher’s solution to this problem will be familiar to anyone familiar with the old pulp adventure tales that predate the Campbellian revolution. The more weird and more frightening the setting was in those stories, the more normal and ordinary the protagonist would be. Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz and Alice of Through the Looking Glass both sprint to mind as well, but Kenton from A. Merrit’s Ship of Ishtar would be a case in point as well.
In “Samaritan” we get an extraordinarily mundane protagonist. He’s Amish! And this is an excellent choice not least because we end up getting a walk-through of a high tech future from a more relatable vantage point. This character’s honesty, diligence, and naivete make him inherently likable.
Besides, people just flat out like Amish people. And I’m not talking about the grocery store romance novels featuring Amish heroines or the exploitative reality television, either. I mean that people respect them because they collectively made some really tough choices and seem to have benefited greatly from it. Considering that at the height of the Campbellian Revolution, sociologists would have brazenly declared that the Amish were some sort of evolutionary dead end set to go extinct any day now… it really is humbling for us “English” to have had to stand by and watch them prosper and grow in numbers with each passing decade.
I think on a subconscious level, people understand that their existence is significant. They are after all a living testament to the fact that its possible to limit the damage that rapid technological change can have on families and communities. They are a reminder that advances in science don’t necessarily lead to advances in virtue.
Does Karl get everything about them just right in his depiction of them? The shortage of women in the community doesn’t quite ring true. Young men tend to be the ones that have the sort of spunk and earning power necessary for someone to “jump the fence,” making a shortage of guys more likely. Plus… there would likely be other communities out there that would meet up during weddings or funerals, giving the young folks a chance to pull in marginally greater genetic diversity into their enclave. And the drama surrounding a young man being unable win the hand of a particular girl, always losing out to another fella…? That’s more in line with Robert E. Howard’s Breckinridge Elkins stories than the Old Order where it’s the unwed schoolteacher that will be looked upon with veiled pity, and not the eligible bachelor.
And then there’s little things like the invocation of penance, an inherently Catholic concept that is largely foreign to Anabaptist thinking. On the other hand, the overall thrust of the “simple but not stupid” presentation of a young Amish boy is well in line with reality. As is his parents quietly submitting to an edict that prevents them from visiting with their own son. The competence this character displays in spite of his lack of formal schooling is something I’ve witnessed first hand, as is the success his patience and hard work brings him out in “the world.”
So even if his characterization of a separated and “plain” people is not spot on across the board, it is definitely a step up from the usual depictions we tend to get of them in the media. By including them in a realistic near future science fiction story, Karl Gallagher not only makes his tale more accessible, he also makes the point that culture is at least as important as technology– something the exemplars of the Campbellian Revolution tended not to grasp!