By Tom Lombardo
The First and Second Scientific Revolutions, with discoveries and theoretical advances in astronomy, physics, mechanics, optics, chemistry, geology, steam power, electricity, magnetism, biology, and the study of the brain and nervous system, provided modern science fiction with a host of inspirational ideas and principles in the creation of its fantastical and futurist narratives. Jules Verne, for one, incorporated into his stories a wealth of information and concepts from many of the above scientific disciplines. He may have invented and speculated, and at times even challenged the scientific consensus of his time, but he established a benchmark for later science fiction writers who conscientiously constructed their scenarios and narratives using the ever-growing wealth of new scientific ideas and discoveries.
Yet moving beyond the Second Scientific Revolution and the bulk of the writings of Jules Verne, in the second half of the nineteenth century, two new scientific theories would coalesce that would have a profound effect on subsequent thinking―both factual and fictional―regarding the direction of time within the universe, inclusive of life, the earth, and the history and future of humanity. These two theories, which would greatly inform and inspire science fiction in the later nineteenth century and thereafter, were evolution and the laws of thermodynamics.
On the surface, evolution and, particularly, the second law of thermodynamics (the law of increasing entropy or disorder in nature), appear to lead to opposite visions of natural change: In the former case the flow of time moves toward new creation and increasing order and complexity; in the latter case, the flow of time moves toward the reduction of order and complexity, and decline, decay, and death. Particularly regarding the anticipated future, we have two highly disparate theoretically based visions: The future is advancement; the future is disintegration. These two visions of the shape of things to come respectively provoke the opposite human emotions of hope and despair and lead to antithetical dramatic tones in narratives about the imagined future.
Although creations of the nineteenth century, these two theoretical ideas—of evolution and increasing entropy—have a long developmental history, running back to ancient times. In early Babylonia, for example, we find the idea that order and chaos compete with each other in nature, the creation of the former leading to the advancement of civilization, whereas the latter works against civilized order. In the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, we find the theory that love (creation) and hate (destruction) oscillate in dominance, producing a cyclic, up and down pattern to time. Even earlier, in Hindu philosophy, we find Shiva, the lord of creation and destruction, and the idea that temporal existence, as expressed in “the dance of Shiva,” involves the oscillatory creation and destruction of one universe after another.
These ancient views on the coupling of creation and destruction, and order and chaos, were often connected with the cyclic theory of time, which in early human history was the dominant vision of time. Time was a circle, a Yin and Yang, of birth and death, and birth again.
In considering the mythic origins and archetypes in science fiction, this fundamental oppositional theme of creation and destruction, of becoming and passing away, and of order and chaos—with all its metaphorical and emotional associations— has significantly influenced modern narratives in science fiction. The coupling, the conflict, and the oscillation of these primordial forces, embedded within the narrative, brings dramatic energy and tension (with the necessary element of uncertainty) into science fiction stories. Part of the evolution of the mythology of science fiction has been the ongoing development of this fundamental archetypal theme.
Kipple is useless objects ... When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself ... the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kippleization. Philip K. Dick
Just as in human history there have been countless narratives revolving around creation, birth, and becoming, there have also been myriad stories and images that focus on death, destruction, and passing away (Clute, 1999; Newman, 2010). But in the midnineteenth century, a connected set of ideas and experimental observations came together in the scientific study of energy and heat that coalesced into a quantitative and mathematically articulated argument that everything must eventually run down and fall apart. Death and dissipation is our ultimate destiny; through scientific reasoning we can demonstrate that it is the destiny of the universe. Within this scientifically inspired cosmic narrative, we have an all-encompassing and unavoidable tragedy, a bleak and depressing conclusion of the story of the universe.
Yet, with the emergence of a grand scientific theory articulating and explaining the physics of death, we have a new, modern, scientifically grounded version of the ideas of chaos and the abyss to scientifically inform and inspire fictional writings. As Clute (1995) points out, especially after 1960, entropy and the death of the universe became increasingly popular themes in science fiction. But even before that we can see the idea taking form in Wells’ dark and mesmerizing description of the far future earth and sun in the concluding sections of The Time Machine.
Evolution and entropy are the modern, scientific versions of the ancient themes of order and chaos, but now set in dynamic or temporal form, by which evolution is directionality toward increasing order and complexity, and the law of entropy is directionality toward increasing chaos and simplicity. As such, evolution and entropy and the relationship between the two forces provide one of the most fundamental narrative themes in modern science fiction literature. We can conceive of the relationship as a conflicting struggle; we can conceive of the relationship as some type of interdependent or reciprocal dance, life feeding off death and vice versa. The future becomes an arena in which the dual and oppositional forces of evolution and entropy work out their struggle and antagonism. Again, Clute (1995) notes that this modern conflictive/dialectical narrative framework, of evolution versus entropy, informs a great deal of modern science fiction. The belief in inevitable secular progress—sparked during the Enlightenment but counteracted by the apprehensive visions of Romantic-Gothic thinking on the future of technology and human civilization―evolved in the late nineteenth century into futurist narratives on the ongoing dramatic struggle of evolution versus entropy: of the hope for the continued growth of life, consciousness, and civilization versus the fear of death, decay, and destruction of all things, including humankind. Insofar as contemporary science fiction addresses this deep archetypal and cosmic theme it possesses a mythic quality, creating narratives that both inspire and frighten us at primordial levels of our consciousness, for indeed what is more existentially fundamental than the issue of life versus death in the future? We have created world religions—perhaps all world religions—around this conscious confrontation with the stark and unnerving reality of the end of our existence (Becker, 1973). And regarding the dimension of transcendence realized in the mythology of science fiction, no issue is more viscerally impactive and epistemically important than whether we will survive and indeed advance, or whether we will dissipate into the dust in journeying “beyond the hill.” When we peer outward from “the village” and from where we stand today, this is the most critical and frightful question we can ask. Is what is transcendent, something or nothing?
Thomas Lombardo, Ph.D. is the Director of the and The Wisdom Page, the Managing Editor of the online journal Wisdom and the Future, and Professor Emeritus and retired Faculty Chair of Psychology, Philosophy, and the Future at Rio Salado College, Tempe, Arizona. He is an awarded Fellow and Executive Board Member of the World Futures Studies Federation.
A transformative exploration of the development of science fiction as a central driving force of humanity’s evolution.
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