Two fantastic women departed from our sight on Earth last week, leaving it more barren than before.
I barely knew Lynn Margulis, who was no less gifted and no less a gift, having prodigious impact on the world of ideas and the advancement of science. Both were fascinating people, cultural icons and role models.
Professor Lynn Margulis was instrumental in developing “endosymbiotic theory“… the incredible theory that our very cells derived out of the unification of many separate species that learned, through the harsh selective process of evolution, to work together for their common benefit.
Once a radical idea, it’s now widely accepted that the mitochondria inhabiting – and providing power to – the cells of eukaryotic metazoans like fish and mammals are descended from bacteria-like creatures that once lived independently, but somehow united through a process of symbiosis that became Margulis’s lifelong theme. Other cellular organelles have since been proposed or accepted as having joined us through a process of incorporation that took a billion years.
This theme was taken to new levels when Margulis extended the early “Gaia Hypothesis” of James Lovelock… the notion that Earth’s biosphere shares many traits of a living organism, such as self-correcting feedback loops, synergistic behavior and overall optimization, as if it were in effect a living being.
That’s the “weak Gaia Hypothesis.” The strong version, which Margulis never proclaimed, would remove from my previous paragraph the words “if it were in effect.”
I made extensive use of Margulis ideas, performing riffs in my own work. Heart of the Comet explored possible implications of endosymbiotic theory. And it was impossible to avoid having great fun with both weak and strong versions of the Gaia Hypothesis in my novel Earth. Both themes reappear in my forthcoming book, Existence.
What I admired most about Lynn Margulis was her bold willingness to always take a step back in order to encompass the wider context, the bigger picture. Then an even bigger context, and so on.
Anne was a sweet lady who showed me great kindness whenever I visited her impossibly green farm in County Wicklow, Ireland.
I could reminisce further, but that would just be pointless bragging. So I’ll pay tribute to the colleague and writer who entertained and influenced millions. One thing Anne did for me was to help distill what is the essence of my profession. It happened one day when we were both being interviewed by a reporter, who referred to the famous McCaffrey “Dragons of Pern” books as “fantasy novels.”
Oh, how Anne bristled! With clenched restraint, she corrected the reporter:
“I don’t write fantasy. I am a science fiction author.
Now, a great many people have tried to define the difference between fantasy and SF. Some try to explain it as a matter of past or future, or setting, or gimmicks and tools (e.g. swords vs spaceships), or even the vast moral distinction between magic and science. And sure, one can grasp how some folks make lazy assumptions. If it’s got dragons, well then, it must belong in the same category as Tolkien, right?
Anne dealt with that part of it swiftly. “My dragons were genetically engineered. Scientists designed them to help colonists save themselves from a terrible environmental threat.”
Hm, well. It’s not just the dragons. Most of Anne’s tales are filled with colorful things like tapestries and great stone castle holds, with much talk of weaving and herbal lore and fathom-deep traditions. There are duels and nobles and bards and songs and brave knights that are standard fare in your typical fantasy. If you’re going to judge by superficialities, like the furniture, then it’s easy to see why some people make the mistake.
But here’s the real difference and it goes to the heart. The characters in the Pern stories dwell in a feudal setting, all right. But unlike the endlessly repeated trope-protagonists in all those Tolkien-clone universes most of them don’t want to!
And they don’t intend to. Not for any longer than they must.
In the course of Anne McCaffrey’s fictional universe — as the stories unfold — people discover that things weren’t always this way – with peasant-serfs tied to the rocky land, wracked by filth, pestilence and arbitrary rule by hereditary lords, staring in occasional wonder at the great dragon-riders who protect them from raining death. Sure, their condition is eased by a myriad lovely traditions and crafts, reflecting the makeshift creativity of brave folk, improvising – making the best of things across centuries of darkness.
But during the span of many novels, they come to discover a core truth: that things could be better. That their civilization fell from a height so great that people once voyaged between stars, cured disease, pondered secrets of the universe… and even made dragons. And, as soon as they realize this, they start wanting to get all of those things back.
Anne’s characters know there’s something better than living in grimy ignorance and violence, even lightened by clever medieval arts. It will be a long climb back, but they itch to get their hands on flush toilets, movable type, computers, democracy. And one thing is certain – they are going to quit being feudal, just as soon as they can.
Oh, sure. Feudalism tugs at something deep within us. Those images of lords and secretive mages and so on resonate within us, because we’re all descended from the harems of guys who managed to pull off that trick! Anne certainly made good use of those resonating themes, and more power to her! But her notion of the time flow of wisdom was always aimed forward, rooted in a love and belief in progress, in our ability to raise better generations, in a hope that better days will come.
She was a science fiction author. One of the best. And I’m proud to say she was my friend.
My condolences to Dorion Sagan, and to my esteemed colleague Todd McCaffrey, and to their families. Soar on.