Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Land of Let's Pretend

The pleasant thing about good fiction is that it does all the intellectual and imaginative heavy lifting for me. I can take advantage of someone else's work and thoughts, for just several dollars. They can spend a year or more creating a novel, and I get all of it for a few bucks. It almost seems unfair to them, since most don't end up like Stephen King, who once bought a radio station so it would play the music he likes, and the purchases didn't put a dent in his wealth.

That's the funny thing about ideas: if someone has some, and shares them with me, it's an increase, because then we both have them. It's not a zero-sum game, or a pie when if I take one piece there is one less for the person who gave it to me. It's more like they give me a huge pie, one they've baked for years, and not only do I have it, they still have it for themselves.

A good writer can create an entire world, one I can move into and take advantage of. He does the creating and all the work; I do the enjoying. All I need is a little imagination and knowledge to discern whether his world makes sense or not. Imagine how slow and cumbersome the world would be if all of us couldn't share ideas and inventions, and had to do everything on our own. We wouldn't have progressed far beyond drawing bison on cave walls.

Not all fiction is good, unfortunately. The good stuff is based on what the world would be like if human nature is taken into account. Writers engage in a "what if" scenario and try to predict what would happen if their ideas were implemented in reality. Sometimes we get Karl Marx, who was a fiction writer, and an incredibly bad one at that. He took all the bad in human nature -- which he thought was the good stuff -- and thought its expression would make a Utopia.

Other times, we get Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors.

Stephenson writes massive, lovingly detailed novels such as The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. Both are fine science-fiction novels in which he deals with extrapolations of what the world would be like, among other things, if all governments collapsed. Do I think the future would be exactly as Stephenson imagines? No, I don't. Predicting the future exactly is impossible. But in general outline, I believe Stephenson is right.

The Diamond Age, published in 1995, won the Hugo Award, science-fiction's highest award, in 1996. It deals with many of the same themes as Snow Crash -- ubitiquous nanotechnology, encryption, and the collapse of governments and nations and their replacement by racial and cultural tribes (which he calls "phyles").

He correctly zeroes in on really the only way to permanently collapse all governments -- starve them of their lifeblood, money. Not revolution, not taking over governments and shrinking them -- just starving them to death. He doesn't engage in libertarian fantasies of "somehow" the State just disappearing, or it "somehow" being reformed through legislation and then everyone living in a libertarian Utopia. He just kills them off by starving them of the main thing they are interested in -- Other People's Money.

In both novels, this collapse happens because of advanced technology, specifically encryption. Everyone, and every business, is is able to hide their finances from the prying eyes and fingers of the tax collectors, which cannot break the codes because they are complex beyond the ability of the most powerful computers. Without taxes, without money, all governments collapse. That's one of the main reasons today all governments are so terrified of encryption: maybe if they had a computer the size of the universe they might break one encrypted message.

To make things more interesting, he also throws in the collapse of nations. For the very large ones, those with many different tribes, I suspect this would happen. In fact, there is a great diaspora of tribes throughout the world, briefly alluded to, not because of the collapse of large governments, but because of the collapse of countries.

What takes the place of all these collapsed governments and countries? Do people suddenly turn into what I call "disconnected libertarian atoms" and move around the world in a Utopia of No More Borders, the way open borders crowd thinks? Not on your life.

Instead, they do what they've always done in the past, do now, and will do in the future -- they form cultural and racial tribes. Some of the tribes are large and powerful because they are intelligent and work hard; others are small and weak because they are lazy. Some tribes are "artificial," that is, they are composed of people who got together because they share common interests. There is even sort of a Nerd/Trickster phyle, of which most of the world is terrified because the members move around the world as individuals, and no one can tell who they are. Most, however, are tribes that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years.

All tribes have sentries to guard their borders from intrusions by other tribes. These sentries aren't people -- they're nanotechnological guards, literally curtains of floating microscopic nanobots which guard against the incursions of other, dangerous nanobots sent from other tribes.

Stephenson is taking old ideas of tribes and sentries, projecting them into the future, and dressing them up with a lot of fancy (and so far non-existent) technology. He's taking some very old stories and imagines how they would be told in the future. He's taking human nature into account.

People will always form racial and cultural tribes; there is no way around it. And these tribes get along very well as long as each stays on its own territory and engages in trade with the others. The ending of the novel is about the violence that happens when one huge phyle attempts to move smaller phyles off of its traditional territory.

Curiously, in his societies those who do not belong to tribes are invariably criminals, an illustration of Aristotle's comment, "He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god." In Stephenson's mind, such people are beasts, and even though he does not come out and say so, he obviously does not believe in the leftist/leftist-libertarian fantasy of everyone in the world holding hands and living in a Barney the Dinosaur episode.

Stephenson is not explicit about the distinction between the Political Means of States (theft, murder, etc) and the Economic Means of Society (liberty, free trade). But he clearly does know the difference, and it shows in his novel.

Each phyle is self-governing; there is no State, per se. But those who do not conform to the customs of the tribe suffer the fate of being expelled. And they are given a lot of leeway before this happens. Those who are murderers, muggers and thieves are executed. There are no prisons mentioned in The Diamond Age, although jail is. Expulsion or execution -- there appears to be little in between except an occasional caning as a warning to change your ways. The worst, violent criminals -- those who belong to no tribe -- end up executed. In fact, the book starts off with the execution of a tribeless armed robber who badly injures one of his many victims.

Like most (if not all) good writers -- and especially science-fiction writers -- Stephenson is rather anarchist/libertarian. Yet, because he takes human nature into account far more than leftists do (who I doubt take it into account at all), he's somewhat conservative. I can't remember who said it (it might have been T.S. Elliot, but I can't find the quote), but whoever said it, made the comment that all the greatest writers have been conservative, in the sense of understanding what Russell Kirk called "the permanent things."

Stephenson understands that people will always form themselves into tribes. It's human nature. It's one of those "permanent things." In that sense, he is "conservative." J.R.R. Tolkien was the same way: he's best known for creating the tribes of Men, Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, all of whom stayed on their own territory, and because of this, got along just fine with their neighbors...with the exception of the Orcs, who didn't respect anyone's territory.

I suppose you can say that Stephenson is a conservative libertarian. At least he appears to be one from his novels. He understands there are bad people --tribeless Orcs, if you will -- who will trespass on others. He clearly does not believe in the borderless Utopian fantasies of some libertarians. He understands that as important as the individual is, we are group beings, and will always form ourselves into tribes who will always occupy a certain territory. It's perhaps the main reason the Iraqi tribes are trying to throw the American tribes off of their land.

This tribal characteristic of human nature is something the open borders crowd will have to come to terms with, contra their borderless, tribeless fantasies of disconnected individuals united by nothing but the free market. Those who do deny it are idealists courting tragedy.

1 comment:

Kent McManigal said...

I do not "believe in" (the legitimacy of) State borders. Other types are different because they can be real. Property lines are legitimate borders. Even the borders you seem to be talking of- the borders between tribes- can be real. I feel I am ordered to pretend that artificial borders that follow no logic or reality, but are simply drawn up between governments, are "real". They are not.