SUPERVERSIVE: All of This Has Happened Before

Tuesday , 25, October 2016 6 Comments

There ought to be term for it: that sense of elation and astonishment when you stumble across something in an old book that is surprisingly applicable to contemporary events. Of course even if there was such a thing, you’d need another one for when it keeps happening and you keep being surprised by it anyway.

A case in point for me would be the signature metaphor from the opening chapter of Atlas Shrugged:

The Great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot on the Taggart estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.

One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into the trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside– just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.

And yes, it’s clear before you get to the end of the chapter that this is a picture of what institutions become when they are controlled by people that are unable to pursue their original purpose. But there’s actually more than one reason that this chapter drew my thoughts to science fiction publishing. All the descriptions of companies being unable to make steel deliveries on time, repair typewriters, or even replace typewriters sounds like something straight out of the opening chapter of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

That signature element of one of the most iconic works of the Campbellian Revolution is inescapable. But there is something else here that calls back to older style of pulp adventure:

Eddie Willers smiled. He had said, “Whatever is right,” twenty-two years ago. He had kept that statement unchallenged ever since; the other questions had faded in his mind; he had been too busy to ask them. But he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren’t. He knew that they weren’t.

Looking back over my correspondence, I see that Misha Burnett has actually even tried to tell me that Ayn Rand had articulated one of the cornerstone elements of pulp science fiction. Nevertheless, seeing it laid on this plainly in the first chapter of her magnum opus could still cause me to nearly fall out of my chair. It’s so stark… so clear!

Now… I’m not sure I’m going to like what happens to this Eddie Willers guy as the book progresses. There’s just enough condescension in his handling that I can’t help but steel myself for the moment where he comes to a bad end. (I fear Sam Gamgee is probably more heroic.) Honestly, I’d rather see him punch evil in the face and then walk off with his girlfriend. And that is the key to the most thrilling and well-loved science fiction of the past hundred years: the unironic embrace of a romantic view of the universe.

Yes, Eddie Willers is established from the get-go as a sort of hopeless romantic. It may be quaint. It may be naive. But the fact is, there are a whole lot of people out there that are like that. And just like the cool kids in mainstream publishing keep telling us, people want to read about characters that are like them. They are in fact right about that. This is why John Carter, Luke Skywalker, and Malcolm Reynolds are so universally revered. This is why I identify with the protagonist of Nick Cole’s Ctrl Alt Revolt even though I don’t have anything else in common with her.

Most importantly, this is the key to the Star Wars franchise’s explosive popularity. Oh, the chemistry between Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill is a critical element. (“What do you think, a princess and a guy like me…?”) But it is Han Solo’s transition from a worldly-wise cynic to a true romantic that is the key to why the film’s eucatastrophe is so thrilling. Consider these emotional beats:

  • “Take care of yourself Han. I guess that’s what you’re best at isn’t it?”
  • “He’s got to follow his own path. No one can choose it for him.”
  • “You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home!”

When you cheer at the end of this movie, you’re not just happy for the triumph of the scrappy rebellion over the evil empire. You’re not just happy for the short farm boy that just scored a slam dunk at a critical moment in order to impress a cute girl, either. The thing that thrills the soul is the fact that Han Solo has transitioned to being someone like you. Every time people breathlessly invoke the “scoundrel with a heart of gold” trope as a good thing, this is what they’re talking about.

See, they don’t just want their heroes to succeed. They want them to be saved.

6 Comments
  • PCBushi says:

    For sure, Jeffro. I hadn’t really thought about it, but there is an elation, as you say, in discovering such. I suppose it’s related to the joy of learning that many of us experience – when you not only pick up some new knowledge but are then actually able to either apply it to some concrete task or incorporate it into an evolving idea.

    I hope you share some more thoughts as you read Atlas Shrugged. That’s another big one I’ve never read but should probably check out someday.

  • Dan H. says:

    Forgiveness and redemption are both acts of compassion which flows from The Creator Of All Things and which we are meant to emulate, for we also hope to receive these things ourselves.
    It is no wonder then that as an element of characterization that these themes resonate so strongly with us.

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