Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Multi-Generational Thingie: Some Final Thoughts

It's early morning, on the last day of 2008. But it is not merely morning; it's one of those wonderfully clear, cold, and crisp winter mornings we get up here in the north country. The sun is still well below the horizon: at this time of year it doesn't rise until nearly 8 a.m. The sky is one flawless and unbroken wash of color, cross-fading from rosy false dawn in the southeast to deep blue and starry in the northwest. The plume of steam from my neighbor's chimney is rising nearly straight up, slowly and gently, meaning there's little or no wind — which is good, because at -5° F it's already cold enough out there. Down in the garden a cottontail is gnawing on a piece of bark in the firewood pile. With six inches of fresh global warming on the ground since yesterday, there's nothing else left for it to eat except buckthorn, and even starving rabbits won't touch buckthorn.

It is said that Nature abhors a vacuum. Looking out my backyard window, day after day, month after month, year after year, it seems clear to me that Nature also abhors stasis.

And yet that's what we're talking about, isn't it, when we talk about building a generation ship: about building a giant, perfect, static, habitat for humanity; a veritable terrarium in space? The sort of hubris required to believe that you can build a perfect world in a bottle is, on the face of it, staggering.

But then the literature of science fiction, the world of political science, and the realms of the social engineers have never lacked for microcosmic gods.

In the foregoing discussion, WaterBoy asked how I define a closed society. I would have to define it as one with no pressure-relief valve; no mechanism to disrupt the stasis; no opportunity to rebel without courting utter disaster. A perfectly closed society is one from which there is no escape, except by dying.

We Americans have always had a strangely romantic of rebellion, and especially failed rebellions. Perhaps it's because for most of the past 500 years this entire continent has been nothing but one giant pressure-relief valve. I don't know about you, but at least one set of my ancestors came to America after ending up on the wrong side of a failed rebellion in Europe.

Everywhere else on Earth and in history, rebellions, successful or otherwise, have always been followed by the traditional mass slaughter of the losers. For a terribly brief period — a mere five centuries — this pattern was changed by the existence of a giant, continent-sized pressure relief valve they called the New World. These Americas were settled largely by the losers of Europe, who emigrated, fled, or otherwise escaped here. (And also by the losers of Africa, who were shipped over and sold here, but that is a different story.) Two hundred and forty years ago the losers in the American Revolution — in our history books we call them "Tories" and never mention them again — fled either north to Canada, south to the Bahamas, or deeper into the continent. One hundred and sixty years ago the losers in the Civil War fled again, some to South America, but most even deeper into the West. (For an excellent explication of this latter theme, I recommend reading, And Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks.)

Yes, I know, I'm playing fast and loose with dates. There is a reason for this. Stay with me.

Slightly over a century ago, in 1890, the pressure-relief valve began to close. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this was the year that the frontier officially ceased to exist. There was no longer any boundary between settled and unsettled lands, or explored and unexplored territory; now all that was left was to fill in the blanks. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 1896 the frontier of the imagination can be said to have officially opened, with the founding of the first pulp fiction magazine, Argosy.

A decade after that, and the Progressive movement was in flower, exploring the frontier of the terrarium and calling it Utopia. If there can be said to be one grand unifying idea underlying all the different flavors of Progressivism, it is this: that instead of Man creating Society, it was now time for Society to begin creating a new and better form of Man.

I for one deeply distrust people who truly believe Utopia is attainable. They always start out talking about the joys of living in their perfect world in a bottle, but sooner or later get around to talking about the unpleasant necessity of weeding out those who are not fit to live there. Whenever someone starts talking about the need to change Man to better suit Society, be afraid; be very afraid.

The creative synergism is always difficult to explain. I was thinking about the Civil War — which, the more I consider it, closely resembles its contemporaries, Bismarck's wars of German unification and Garibaldi's wars of Italian unification, and therefore should properly be termed Lincoln's War of American Unification —

Anyway I was thinking about the war, and the giant pressure-relief valve that was the Wild West, and concurrently ruminating over my theory that no closed society survives more than from three to five generations after its founding. Okay, let's split the difference and call it four generations. Just how long is four generations?

Well, from a purely biological standpoint it can be as short as 50 years or as long as 160, but let's accept the conventional definition and say that one generation is 20 years, and therefore four generations is eighty years. Expressed another way, that's four-score years.
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure..."
It doesn't line up with mathematical pseudo-scientific psycho-historical precision, of course. This is an organic system we're talking about, after all, and in an organic system there is always a fair amount of slop. But the pattern seems to hold true with disquieting accuracy.

In 1695, Americans were for the most part the loyal subjects of the King of England. By 1775 rebellion was at a furious boil, and the lid was about to blow off the kettle. The nation that emerged from the smoke and fire of Yorktown a decade later would have been unrecognizable to the Americans of even two generations before. A land without a king, where even Jews and Catholics were allowed to practice their religions freely? Unthinkable!

Four generations later, the pattern repeats. By 1855 the Republic was coming apart at the seams, and the idea that America was composed of a voluntary union of separate but equal states died in Mr. Lincoln's war. The nation that emerged from the smoke and fire of Gettysburg would have been unrecognizable to the Americans of an earlier generation — which many of them proved, by fleeing into the Wild West. A land where even n*ggers were allowed to vote and own property? Unthinkable!

Four more generations? That puts us in or around 1935, and while the popular image of that decade now is of soup lines, Oakies, bank robbers and depression glass, the nation was much closer to the brink of disintegration than people now like to admit. There were authentic Fascist plots to overthrow the government. There were Communist plots. In the end FDR somehow held the country together, with considerable unintentional assistance from the Japanese and Germans, but as my parents never got tired of pointing out, the nation that emerged from the Great Depression and World War II was one that would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s. There is ample evidence to support this assertion. If we accept that science fiction is collective secular prophecy packaged in commercially marketable form, then the science fiction of the 1920s proves that the world of 1950 was unthinkable to the people of only twenty years earlier.

What about now? Today? I'm a science fiction writer, and having observed the failures of many others before me makes me reluctant to prognosticate. However, I can't help but notice that we are approaching the 80th anniversary of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, and that every 80 years or so we seem to spew up a truly transformational leader who for better or worse rewrites the terms of the social contract.

Do the times make the man or does the man define his time? I don't know. All I know for certain is this: Nature abhors stasis. And this leads me to wonder whether this four-generations principle has nothing to do with whether a society is closed or open, but is only more readily visible in a closed society.

Or perhaps our society is not so open after all...

Conclusion? I have no conclusion. I've held off clicking the [Publish Post] button for hours now, in hopes of coming up with a stirring and inspirational conclusion, but the best I've been able to come up with is an observation. Like it or not, we are all here together on this giant multi-generational spaceship we call the Earth, traveling into the future at Time Factor 1X. The only thing we can be certain of now is that things will change, and what matters most to and your posterity is how you react and adapt to this change.

And with that thought, I wish you all a happy, safe, and successful New Year.

Nil desperandum,