Future Hell: Nuclear Fiction in Pursuit of History

By Trevor J. Doherty
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 4/6 |

VIII. The Role of Technology

Ironically, the technology that enables nuclear weapons in Miller’s novel, also affords vehicles of transcendence, allowing the characters of Brother Joshua and his coterie to continue onward carrying the dialectic of nuclear culture even further into the future. The starship that carries Miller’s Brother Joshua into the heavens at the conclusion of “Fiat Voluntas Tua” is akin to the crude puppet box that Riddley uses to transcend the social hegemony of the world in which he lives. Hoban does not give us the ultimate conclusion of Riddley’s history, but the promise of transcendence is embodied in Riddley, who will generate a new cultural ideology via his theatre. One has to hope that his own discourse will prevail in the Hegelian synthesis of his own future history. Of course the puppet box is not as sophisticated as an atomic warhead, but Riddley is acutely aware of the mentality that enables the powerful to subvert the weak through manipulation of information and technology. In Riddley Walker, mastery over the Eusa narrative may be helpful in decoding the chemical nature of gunpowder, but it is Riddley who makes it explicitly clear that the human mind in a natural evolution of culture and united effort could eventually rediscover chemistry and physics, like the lesser characters of Esser Shon and Mad Bear in Canticle. Riddley is also quick to point out that it is simultaneously his highly developed mind that decodes the Eusa story and unleashes the dark ambitions of those that would exploit him in search of truth and political gain.

Both survivors, Riddley and Brother Joshua so to speak, utilize the most sophisticated technology of the day to subvert their would-be enemies and transcend the bounds of their respective realities. Riddley uses the discourse of his own puppet box to combat the antithetical ideology of the Eusa play, and the encoded19 science of the “yellow stoans” and “1Big 1.” Patricia Warrick notes that the archetypical concept of the transcendence of characters in the course of their own narratives opens up a never ceasing plethora of universes where the philosophical quandaries of humanity can be infinitely tested in an infinite number of computations, creating the parameters for an unbroken dialectic continually churning forever into the future. The openness of the system in terms of what is promised by these machines is fascinating: be they starships or puppet theatres, the correct tumblers are in place to unlock another cycle of history and possibly many more. The concept that an unbroken strain of dialectic could exist nearly forever, if not eternally, is best known as Hegel’s infinite mind. First introduced in his seminal work Phenomenology of the Spirit, and explored in Stapeldon’s Last and First Men, it is further meditated upon in these two glorious novels.

For Hegel, the dialectic is the process by which all historical currents of thought and debate run together and devour one another, but a curious quandary of logic occurs when this process is extended into the indefinite future. Cyclical science fiction takes this concept of an entire history having run its course, and envisions the survivors of that cyclical overhaul attempting to piece together and understand what forces had created the world in which they live. Artificial intelligence is not just a reflection of cognitive processes; it is often featured as the transcendence of the human mind itself. This never ending cycle leads the reader into the third critical issue developed in these texts.

If some remnant of human consciousness is going to last forever through the infinite phases of time and space, why do the alternating patterns of enlightenment and destruction seem to be the key staples of human history? That is, whether or not Hegel’s concept of an infinite mind or infinite consciousness could really be possible. These fictions create the right circumstances under which the destructive and imaginative potentials of humanity’s.mind stretched to infinity can be tested. As quoted previously, Hegel writes, “The essential requirement for the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also the last and the last is also the first” (Hegel 106). Simply put, the nature of cyclical history is dependant on the development and maintenance of a scientific awareness of the universe, and that humanity is indebted to this faculty for revealing his role in the greater scheme of the universe.

In the scheme of these novels, apprehension of the scientific mindset not only enables the awakening of the literary imagination of the characters, but it also foreshadows that someday all of the achievement and revelation that science can promise will only reveal to humanity his nature as a creature barely surviving in a dim corner of a vast universe. When Joshua leaves earth at the end of the third section of Canticle it signals the final desperate stroke of survival for the human race. Ironically, the passage to the heavens is enabled through the same fruits of scientific and political endeavor that enabled worldwide holocaust. Abbot Zerchi, the head of the monastery in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” asks. “Are we chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork?” (Miller Canticle 267).

The abbot is trying to rationalize why the civilization in which he lives seems programmed like a clock (or a computer for that matter) to repeat the sins of the pre-deluge civilization. He is also looking far into the future of his kind and seeing, as Miller does, that humankind is ultimately doomed. It would be hard to believe Riddley Walker holding such a pessimistic view considering that it is his activist personality that attempts to wean the infant civilization off of the Eusa play and the implications of destruction it promises. It is the natural faculty of humanity to wonder about, investigate, and record what history had begat the present. The deciphering of the mysterious memorabilia is Miller’s way of articulating this process, just as Riddley Walker’s extrapolation of the Eusa play represents an anthropological investigation of the oral history of a future lain to waste by nuclear war. To give weight to this process as an anthropological method Hegel writes:

It would be truer to say that Dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience. Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of the Dialectic. We are aware that everything finite, instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by that Dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other that what it is, is forced beyond its own immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite. (Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit 97)

The Hegelian dialectic at play in the imaginations of Hoban and Miller creates the necessity to present antithetical symbols to humanity in these novels. In both Canticle and Riddley Walker, the knowledge of computer technology enabling the downfall of humanity is profligate in symbol and plot action. Computer technology, like its cousin atomic science, was unknown to Hegel, and it was only in its primordial infancy when Stapledon was penning his major works, but the idea that computers could not only replace man, but also repress, humanity was central to both Hoban and Miller’s visions of the future.

Each foresaw that when humanity came into competition with its machines in the fields of logic, rationality and computing speed, a dialectical process had already begun ensuring a dissolution and synthesis of both competing forces. Like nuclear weaponry, the science of artificial intelligence has had a profound impact on modern science fiction. It is important to note that both authors toy with the concept of artificial intelligence as the ultimate machine: it just so happens that nuclear weapons have been perfected first. The inhabitants of these future worlds are the product of the union between humanity and its technology, the scale of weaponry enabled by computer technology ensuring a worldwide sea change for humanity and the role that machines play in modern society.

Both writers explicitly employ computer terminology to describe the mechanistic nature of humanity, many of the characters unwittingly employing language left over from a technologically superior culture. Riddley Walker often utilizes a language that is a blatant extrapolation and product of a society dependent upon technology. The language utilized by Riddley retains the hallmarks of a language steeped in technological progress, but is unconscious of its origins. Akin to Miller’s character of Brother Francis in Fiat Homo, Riddley Walker unconsciously says to the reader of the text “It wer like I jus ben programmit to go there and get him out” (Hoban 77).

Instead of saying he was fated or unwittingly drawn to the discovery of the imprisoned character of Lissener, Riddley explicitly says he was programmed to find Lissener, just as a machine is programmed to do any other task. Brother Francis is characterized by the same machine like quality, whose mind “machine like” was drawn to the arch stone which had been marked by Benjamin (Miller, Canticle, 12). The linguistic union of human and technological dialogue represents the dialectical synthesis of Hegel’s model of history. Since it turned out that the technology and cultural status of the atomic bomb is what had prevailed to create these new realities, the people who inhabit these post nuclear worlds have been synthesized with the former cultural hegemony of a nuclear society. R.D. Mullen makes note that when some people read Riddley Walker, it is an easy mistake to think that the narrative voice is a robot or a computer (Mullen 383).

Hegel’s writings on the genesis of the dialectic reveal that when a new cultural dialogue is born it is the exhaust of the combustion of two ideas in synthesis. Riddley Walker routinely and unwittingly employs the language leftover from the dialectical fusion of atomic technology and human history. It is no mistake that Riddley says he is programmed to find Lissener, or that “counting clevverness” is the process by which artificial intelligence is enabled, for his history is that of our own drawn to its most violent and destructive conclusion via technology (Hoban 77).

Many recycled shreds of our lost culture are unwittingly employed by both Riddley and the monks of Leibowitz who indicate knowledge that such things as airplanes and televisions could have existed; it is that they simply lack the imagination and technology to realize what had brought about such paradigms of invention. In “Fiat Lux,” Thon Taddeo is flabbergasted by the concept that the same illiterate people who live in hovels are the descendants of our own superior culture. The symbols used in each vision of the future reflect the dynamic nature of symbols, but it is humanity, like the machines they create, who are unable to change from their seemingly innate skill for organizing and exploiting bodies of knowledge for political purposes. For both authors, humanity itself seems to be most static aspect history, enabling the cycles of history. Each cast of characters have no idea what an airplane or a television is, but both know that they signify the unquantifiable imagination of a civilization literally crushed under the weight of its own invention. The union of technological aphorisms and colloquial speech is the synthesis of our culture and the dialectic of the future.

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