Letter from the Editor: Lodestar
By Rob Carroll
First Published in Issue 008 of Dark Matter Magazine, March 2022
William Shakespeare famously wrote that “art is a mirror held up to nature.” Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), best known for her novel, A Wrinkle in Time, went a step further. “Art is not a mirror,” she wrote, “but an icon. It takes the chaos in which we live and shows us the structure and pattern. Not the structure of conformity which imprisons, but the structure which liberates, sets us free to become growing, mature human beings.”
Early twentieth-century German playwright, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), countered Shakespeare with his famous words, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer to shape it.” But Brecht, it’s worth noting, was a complicated man who lived during very tumultuous times. He was conscripted to serve in World War I, fled Nazi Germany prior to World War II, and was surveilled by the FBI and subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee while in the United States. Upon returning to East Berlin in 1949, he sided with the Soviet occupation and even supported in principle the military force used against the Uprising of 1953, which was an East German worker strike that protested Soviet work quotas. He spent his remaining years producing agitprop.
I firmly agree with Shakespeare and L’Engle. In my opinion, art is meant to reflect and examine. Its purpose is to seek out truth, not create it. Creating truth is not art, it’s propaganda. And propaganda doesn’t help us make sense of the chaos by freeing us from the prison of conformity; it advocates for conformity, which can too easily lead to tyranny.
Take Brecht, for example. He put personal philosophy before universal truth and, either by correlation, calculation, or just dumb chance, found himself fighting both for and against oppressive regimes at different points in his life, the side for which he stood dependent—or so it seems—solely on whether the regime in question aligned ideologically for or against his version of the truth—the same version of the truth that led him to both sides in the first place.
Science fiction has always been fascinated by the future, and for this reason, it’s often wanted to predict, anticipate, or—to borrow Brecht’s words—“shape reality.” There have been many movements throughout sci-fi history that have espoused the need to not only anticipate the problems of the future, but also to solve them before they even have a chance to happen, almost like some trite reimagining of the Cassandra myth, with science fiction writers cast as both prophet and hero.
But should art be tasked with such a narrow definition of moral imperative? Isn’t it moral enough to simply reflect honestly on the human condition as it is today and allow posterity to do with that honest expression what it will? I can only offer my opinion on the matter, but I will always believe in the power of descriptive teaching over prescriptive teaching. Descriptive teachers trust those whom they mentor. They believe in humanity’s ability to think critically and discern. Prescriptive teachers have no such faith in their pupils, mostly because such faith does not benefit them. Prescriptive teachers don’t want equals, they want acolytes.
Forecasting the future can be fun, but we must not let it become science fiction’s raison d’être. When we allow for art to become a means to an end, we open up the possibility that those means, no matter how noble the intent, will become corrupted.
And to those who still wish to shape the future, I only ask that you prepare for failure. The future, as history can attest, doesn’t like being told what to do.
In this issue of Dark Matter, nine stories explore the folly of man’s desire for dominion over himself and the world around him. In “What Salt Will Bring to Bear,” by Sloane Leong, we witness the true cost of conquest, which is the soul of those used to conquer. In “Scintillae,” by M. A. Blanchard, the most successful artists manipulate imagined truths, but after a gifted young artist unlocks the power to recreate lost truth, she quickly learns that manipulation, especially when used to deceive, is a difficult adversary to defeat. In “Ms. Höffern Stays Abreast of the News,” by Sarah Pauling, a fortune teller and a televangelist share a similar business model, but only one believes that her prognostications are truths meant to help lead humanity into a brighter future. The other one just wants her unlikely friend to recognize the folly of her ways before it’s too late. Author Justin Diviney pokes similar fun at the hubris of man. In his story “Goodbye Copernicus,” humanity travels the galaxy in search of new worlds to shape with our truth—until that is, we learn that our truth is hilariously wrong. In “Dream Dealers,” by Heather Santo, “Silent Slumber,” by Malena Salazar Maciá, “Loom,” by Solomon Uhiara, and “We Shall Not All Sleep, But We Shall All Be Changed,” by Eneasz Brodski, we see how prescribed realities often destroy the ones that the reality makers claim to be helping, often via control of the mind, or via colonization of the soul. And finally, in this issue’s reprint story, “Burrowing Through the Body of God,” by Rich Larson, we are told the only truth that matters: Despite what we tell ourselves, the complexity of our universe will always exceed our understanding, and any control we have is an illusion.
© 2022, Rob Carroll