Transhuman and Subhuman Part VI: Swordplay in Space

"Why is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire the sword?" John C. Wright tackles that question in the sixth part of his essay collection Transhuman and Subhuman.

Following the premise that a man's attitude toward war and death reveals his outlook on life, Wright examines a selection of great science fiction books for the answer to why authors attempting to imagine the future so often employ archaic conventions.

Wright posits five basic views on war.

  • The hopeful place faith in supernatural justice. Though not blind to the horrors of war, their belief allows them to face death with chivalry and joyful abandon.
  • The noble don't rely on supernatural faith; nor do they ignore the brutality of war. But they strive for worldly justice and laud self-sacrifice for a worthy cause.
  • The ruthless put stock in neither divine nor human justice. They are consequentialists who believe that war is inevitable and should be fought with no quarter asked or given. This ruthlessness serves paradoxically utopian aims founded on the belief that it will usher in the perfection of human nature and eliminate all conflict.
  • Idealists are the polar opposites of the ruthless, though they share their antipodes' utopian vision. Idealism exalts human nature to the extreme of presuming that all conflicts are based on misunderstandings and that violence is never justified.
  • The despairing embrace a nihilism that scorns utopianism, nobility, and hope alike. They value nothing but their own pleasure but will gladly let others, whom they deride as fools, fight and die for them.
According to Wright, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, with its focus on patriotism, virtue, and valor, embodies the noble view of war.

Forever War and Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman represent the ruthless and the idealistic view, respectively. The former tells of soldiers who make terrible sacrifices for what turns out to be a meaningless war. The latter proposes empathy as the solution to all conflict, without reference to the wars waged over greed, fear, ambition, and honor.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is the only great science fiction book that Wright places in the "hopeful" category. "...its realism about the horror of war is absolute, but also its hope in salvation even of souls bent, broken, and ruined by war is absolute."

Though Wright admits his aversion to books in the despairing category, he cites works by Kurt Vonnegut, and notes that stories of this type are growing in popularity.

As for why the sword is the standard issue weapon of soldiers in the Galactic Empire,
...the easiest way for an author to summon up images of grandeur, either godlike or Oriental or barbaric, or images of chivalry, is to hearken to the past; and a sense of things both half-familiar and hauntingly romantic is most easily achieved by such archaisms.

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