Thursday, September 1, 2011



"You see I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of me in knowledge, art everything. Then one of them suddenly asked me a question that showed him to be on the intellectual level of one of our five-year-old children....I had happened upon humanity upon the wane...The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility." H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895).

"Be a credit to your race." Old Black American saying.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: Do you have a favorite sci-fi story or movie?

In my case, the stories---literature and movies---I was exposed to in my childhood and teens had a strong impact on me and became indelibly inscribed on the emulsion of my memory. Among the science fiction stories, there are two that have scenes I've thought about for a lifetime. One is a small scene in a film half a century old now (and does not appear in the novel it is adapted from); the other is a major scene and is crucial for the resolution of the conflict in a novel. They lifted my thoughts above and beyond the mundane and pedestrian. Both were written by men who were giants in the field of speculative fiction (or one might say in literature period), founding fathers who defined the genre, and forever stamped their visions upon it: H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury. In both cases these imaginative scenes are about the accumulated knowledge of the human species, its loss and preservation and, in a way, speak to our individual responsibility as the inheritors of culture and civilization. (In the best science fiction the question "What is at stake?" is always large and concerns all of humankind.) They are scenes so provocative (for me) that I can only hope to one day write in my lifetime a single scene that approaches being so powerful as a statement about our humanity.

 I was 12-years-old when I first saw the George Pal film adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. In that film, Wells's Time Traveler journeys to a distant future where he discovers the remnant of humankind, the Eloi. They are young, child-like, have no government, no laws, no civilization. They spend all their time eating, drinking, swimming, dancing and playing. Later, the Time Traveler will realize the Eloi are bovine for a reason---they are cattle kept nurtured as food for a degenerate offspring of humankind called Morlocks. But before that discovery is made, the Time Traveler, eager to learn about this world of the future, fires question after question at the indifferent Eloi. He learns they have books and asks to see them. What they lead him to is the remains of a library where all the books are covered in dust and so rotted by mold they disintegrate at his touch. Naturally, the Time Traveler is enraged by the Eloi's indifference to the thousands of years humankind struggled for knowledge.

A similar theme appears in Ray Bradbury's most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In this future dystopia, critical thinking is considered dangerous and books are burned by "fireman," one of whom is the protagonist Guy Montag. Again, this is a fictional future (present?) world where the populace is hedonistic and anti-intellectual, a dystopia that is also steeped in violence much like the riots we saw this summer in the U.K. It is a place the protagonist eventually escapes from, and away from the city he discovers book-lovers who defy the state (or status quo) by memorizing---like griots---the entire contents of great books, which they preserve and transmit in a new oral tradition. (That recent movie, "The Book of Eli," borrows this idea for its conclusion.) In his interviews and prefaces for later editions of this work, Bradbury says repeatedly that it was television that led in his future world to a lack of interest in books. (As a footnote, I remember reading once that Bradbury wrote this work in two weeks on a typewriter he rented at a library. That may be apocryphal, but I love that story.)

We all have Eloi in our lives. We find them among are our friends and relatives. They are members of the general public, as Andrew Ferguson wrote in 2004, "people whose sensibilities incline towards images and sounds rather than words on paper." They are our colleagues and coworkers who do read but censor texts for reasons of religious or political orthodoxy. And they have been around forever. We find them in the American colonies, in Hitler's book-burning "firemen," in Mao's China, and the Muslim world. The tragedy here, one that sickens me to think about, is that the destruction (or loss) of the knowledge that is our human inheritance is literally the willful destruction of others---the products of their minds and spirits---who preceded us and struggled so hard for that knowledge. To burn a book is criminal; but to have no knowledge of that work's existence, or to be indifferent to it and its importance, is an act of annihilation just as egregious as book burning.

What struck me about the two scenes I saw in these films when I was twelve and later in my teens was the lasting feeling that I, you, each of us, and every citizen, have a responsibility in regard to the culture and civilization that sustained and enriched our lives. Like Bradbury's griots, we---as civilized people---must embody in some way, large or small, the best our predecessors have left us, as the young African boy does in my story "The Transmission" in Soulcatcher and Other Stories. Back in the 1950s, responsible and wise black parents counseled their children to "Be a credit to your race." By the 60s, my artist's tendency to revise things led me to kick that saying up a notch in a new formulation: Be a credit to the human race, i,.e., our entire species. Civilizations can perish in a single generation. They can only be sustained if members of each generation take upon themselves the representation in their lives of the best that civilization has to offer. This is, of course, the labor of a lifetime. It is a daunting, daily responsibility. (To not become an Eloi.) A never-ending duty from childhood to crypt. But as JFK once asked:

         If not us, then who?
         If not now, then when?

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