A Double Shadow, Part III
Posted by turmarion
To recap briefly, the novel describes a terraformed Mars over a millennium and a quarter in the future, in which human technology has made practically anything possible. Death is strictly optional, and reversible, practically infinite resources are available, travel across space, time, and dimensions is instantly and easily possible, and no desires need go unfulfilled. The result is a society in which there is no concept of morality. Instead, the main values are aesthetic. Individuals are judged not as “good” or “bad” people, but in terms of how artistic their lives are and how fully they follow their own individual aesthetic choices in living their lives. The choices themselves are arbitrary, since there is no transcendent standard involved.
I would submit that such an ethos is not fictional, and that it has in fact been actualized (to a much lesser degree, of course) many times right here on Earth, and still is in places and degrees. Any class of any society that has sufficient power and resources tends to live by such values as described of the Martians in A Double Shadow. That is, wealth and power make anything possible, within the limitations of a society’s technology, and they also shield one to a large extent from undesired consequences of one’s actions. Members of such a class may not be able to teleport to the Andromeda Galaxy or to cheat death, but they can live their lives pretty much as they see fit. If problems occur in the process, money and power can sweep the pieces under the rug, and life goes on.
Historical examples could be provided in abundance: Heian-era Japan (on which many aspects of Martian culture as portrayed are based), Versailles in pre-Revolutionary France, later Imperial Rome, and so on. P. J. O’Rourke put it well in his essay “Hollywood Etiquette”:
The real Hollywood is the reductio ad absurdum of personal liberty. It is ordinary men and women freed by money and social mobility to do anything they want unencumbered by family pressure, community mores, social responsibility, civic duty, or good sense. There’s a little streak of it in us all.
The entertainment business is a venue for Hollywood because heaps of money can be made entertaining and because the public is famously tolerant of entertainers. Los Angeles is a site for Hollywood because, if all the freedom and money go blooey, it’s warm enough to sleep on the beach. Other places and professions have had this distinction in former times. During the eighteenth century it was the pirate nests of the Caribbean. When the Medici popes were in office, it was the College of Cardinals.
Humorous, but accurate. Even the relatively low regard for one’s own life shown in the novel is often seen in such real-life situations. Heian Japanese nobility often planned elaborate suicides, complete with “death poems”, as seen in the novel; and slow suicide by drug abuse and wild living are commonly enough seen in Hollywood, among other places.
Another relevant area in which this is noteworthy is the current economic and political climate. In discussions about the economy of late, there has been much made of what many describe as the whining of the super-wealthy, who loudly complain of the calls for higher taxes for their class while seemingly ignorant of, or in sheer disregard of, the plight of the lower and middle classes. Wall Street booms or busts, but it is questioned whether the booms are helping anyone else, and there is a perception that Wall Street has no concern at all for Main Street. Many, on hearing the ultra-rich decry regulations, taxes, and anything that would seem to resemble responsibility for anything other than getting as much as possible while the getting is good, might wonder what planet the wealthy are from. That question is easily answered: Mars.
That is to say, the ethics of the ruling class are essentially Martian. They have the wealth and power to do whatever they like, and to get away with it. Unlike the Martians, they do have limitations; and thus when they hear of calls for economic justice it is natural that they should loudly defend what they see as their birthright: money and power. Insulated as they are from hoi polloi, they have no concept of what life for an average American is like; but even if they did, the majority don’t care. In a Martian ethical system, it’s what you’re doing with your life (given your resources and power) that counts—morality, and thus the needs of others, are irrelevant. Why expect any different behavior?
In the interest of being even-handed, though, it’s not just the rich who are Martians—all, or nearly all, of us in the so-called First World are, at least to some extent. Even many of us who are un- or underemployed command more resources than many kings of the past. Those who can read this, and I who write it, are using technology that would have seemed godlike in some eras. We lead our lives all-too oblivious to moral issues, the environment, the plight of the poor, the starving, the massacred, in places like Sudan, as long as our comfortable middle-class (or faux middle-class) lives continue as scheduled. We become enraged when plutocrats clean up when the tanking economy puts us in dire straights, never thinking of the results of rapacious business practices on the environment and economies of poor countries. We inveigh against outsourcing—and I’m not here to defend it—but we never consider that sweatshop workers don’t have a great deal going on, either. We justify seemingly endless wars in the name of justice and liberty in order to secure oil and resources, blithely killing untold civilians (how many, we don’t know—collateral damage, y’know), and then wondering why we’re not the most popular kid on the international block. In short, we are far more Martian that we realize, or would like to admit.
I don’t know how our society can become more Terran and less Martian—how we can use our plenty to banish poverty and improve the human lot while not falling victim to the moral nihilism that plenty, unwisely used, seems to entail. It is at least salutary to be aware of the problem; and in helping make us aware of such a problem, A Double Shadow shows how literature, at its best, can make us more aware of our own condition.
Next, I’ll look at another issue that comes up from reading this novel—postmodernism.
Posted on 19/08/2011, in book reviews, books, ethics, philosophy, politics, social commentary and tagged A Double Shadow, book reviews, culture, ethics, literature, novels, politics, science fiction, social commentary, society. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.