Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Edgers, Thinkers and Grubbers

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." ~ Margaret Mead

"Look at these people, these human beings; consider their potential! From the day they arrive on the planet, blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than- no, hold on. Sorry, that's The Lion King." ~ Doctor Who

I'm reading a collection of sf stories by Charles Sheffield, about his characters McAndrew and Captain Jeanie Roker.(1) McAndrew is an Einstein level physicist whose mind is only happy when he's solving abstract problems; Roker is a spaceship captain who gets involved in his adventures, usually handling the action and the human viewpoint. The stories are set about a century from now, mostly in the Solar system and its outskirts. Space habitats, controlled black hole spaceship drives, asteroid mining and off-planet food production are commonplace. In one sense, the stories are what used to be popular in the 50s and 60s as "sf problem stories," today known as "hard sf" ... where the resolution of the story hinges on solving a scientific problem. Such stories can be fun as well as an excellent way to explain a complex scientific idea in simple words. Hard sf is one subgenre of science fiction, while space fantasy like STAR WARS is the opposite.

One of Roker's observations struck me as a pretty simple explanation for the state of the world. In "The Invariants of Nature," she says "Go back fifty thousand years, to a time when most of us were just grubbing along, looking for a decent bush of ripe berries or a fresher lump of meat. A few, like McAndrew, were busy inventing langauge or numbers, or painting the walls of the cave. And some, just a handful, were seeking an edge over the rest of us: Water access, or mating rules, or restricted entry to heaven."

Extrapolating from there, the handful took their edge by creating classes, governments, militaries and religions and now they rule the world. As I've said in previous posts, I still beleive that most of us want just to get along peacefully and enjoy life; hence my love of the Middle Eastern comic books that show that people everywhere have the same values.(2) Wars and race, class, sexuality, and religious hatreds are all lies hyped by the Edgers. Lies like, that religion is Satan, we should exterminate that people because they're plotting against us, we have to invade them before they get us, on and on.

How the heck did this happen? The Edgers should have been put in their place early, like unruly children - but they took over by threats, scare tactics, lies and just plain strongarming. The Thinkers were too involved in abstract ideas to notice. The Grubbers partly fell for the lies, but mostly they wanted peace and quiet too dearly to take arms against the Edgers. From time to time Mead's small committed groups have forced change (the Magna Carta, the US Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights), but the world is still lorded over by kings and generals and reverends and ayatollahs and executives who use the Thinkers to craft weapons and Grubbers to do their dirty work.

Bit of a rant there, but I will admit that I'm a 60s hippie at heart (even though I'm also a grubber who joined the Air Force because it was safer than the Army). I like to ask silly questions, like why can't we accept that all religions are true at heart? Why should corporate heads make more money than the people who do the real work? Why aren't the people who talk about race hatred, nuclear war and "the coming resource wars," and what God tells them to do, in treatment instead of ruling the rest of us?

That must be why we like stories about characters who are beyond the reach of society so well.(3) Robin Hood, Tarzan, Superman, The Saint, The Spirit, Doctor Who, SERENITY ... Notice how these heroes operate. They tend to go about their business, but do good, help others and fight evil when its needed. None of them is interested in getting an "edge" on anybody. They wouldn't rule the world if they could, not even to force their version of rightness on it. Superman and his like could cure all the ills of the world in a day, but that would make them too much like the villains they fight. Dictators and religious fanatics and bigots think they're right too.

In a way it comes down to the Golden Rule, or the Wiccan Rede:

" ... Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give ... These Eight words the Rede fulfill: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will"

(1) THE COMPLEAT MCANDREW, Baen Books, 2000.(2) In the City of All Faiths, Dec 11 2007.(3) The Nature of Freedom, Nov 6, 2007