Darkness and the Light, by Olaf Stapledon

9 — New World

i. A World of Villages

THE AGE that now dawned was one of almost explosive progress, explosive, yet controlled. Unlike the industrial revolution, which is familiar to readers of this book, it was not dependent on licentious economic individualism. Its energy was derived, of course, very largely from the self-assertive itch of able individuals, but the means of satisfying this craving were now in the main centrally planned and socially useful.

Superficially at least I was able to grasp the material achievement of the race in this period, but its cultural life henceforth increasingly escaped me, outranging my comprehension.

Nevertheless it seems worth while to describe the main features of the new order, not only because it was characteristic of the human race for a very long time but also because of its novelty and its significance for our own age. At the outset the innate calibre of the average human being was not appreciably higher than our own. Men were on the whole no more intelligent, and had no more capacity for generosity than we have; but, owing to the world-wide victory of the will for the light and the founding of a new tradition of moral integrity and a more wholesome economy, average individuals behaved far better. They lived normally far nearer the upper limit of their capacity. Instead of being constantly degraded by their environment, they were constantly braced and humanized. The rulers of the new world were not content with this. The whole social organization was dominated by the aim of continuously raising the average human capacity far beyond its present level.

The social order of the new world was very different from any earlier form. It might be described as at once ‘super-modern’ and yet in a way medieval. At bottom it depended on the special characters of the new source of mechanical power. Two contrary but harmonized tendencies were at work. On the one hand mechanization was being steadily pushed forward; on the other there was a surprising recovery of manual skill and versatility in the life of the ordinary human being. On the one hand came the fulfilment of social unity and harmony, on the other the development of the individual’s self-sufficiency and all-roundness.

This balanced economy was greatly assisted by the fact that power came to be accessible almost anywhere and was derived from quite ordinary materials. In our own age, no doubt, such an order would be far more difficult to establish, since in our stage of industrial evolution, power and manufacture both demand far-reaching organization, and the reducing of individuals to specialized cogs in the great machine. But even we, had we clear sight and the will for change, could at least set our faces in this direction.

Though at first the generators had been exceedingly cumbersome and delicate, the method was later transformed by a series of brilliant inventions, resulting from world-wide co-operative research. The standard generator, which supported the new civilization as combustion engines of all sorts support our own, was a subtle little machine which could be housed in a small barn. All the skill of the most expert physicists was needed for the making of this instrument; but the finished article, if not fool-proof, was reliable, potent, and versatile. It could be used not only for the production of power but also for the transmutation of the elements, and the synthesizing of a vast range of materials for use. As a power-unit it demanded little more skill than we use in motoring; but as an instrument for the varied synthesizing of materials it could employ every range of ability. Some elements and compounds could be produced easily by any competent person, some demanded rather special aptitude and training, some could be attempted only by the most brilliant masters, and some had to be undertaken in the great electro-chemical factories.

Little by little every village came to have its own power plant. Even isolated houses generated their own power and could produce the simpler materials. In the main, however, the village was the unit of the new social system. Its strength was due to the scope and limitations of the standard generator, which employed directly and indirectly in village industry and agriculture between fifty and five hundred persons. The population of the average village consisted of the electro-magnetic engineers who saw to the generating of power, a number of craftsmen specialized in the production of the different kinds of material needed by the village, and another set of craftsmen who worked up the materials into articles of use. The former class of craftsmen, who were called ‘atomic weavers’, used as their raw material ingredients in the local earth. These they bombarded with sub-atomic particles, fired out by their mighty power plant, and thus they produced a great range of elements and compounds. The process demanded the same kind of skill as that of the old-time hand-spinners and weavers, the craftsmen vying with each other to produce the subtlest and most serviceable compounds and mixtures free from all impurities. These products were then worked up by craftsmen of the other class into crockery, furniture, cutting tools, building materials, clothing, and so on. The village textile workers clothed their fellow villagers in a great variety of simple but pleasing fabrics. Even isolated households, with their smaller plant, could provide themselves with many of the simpler materials. On the other hand some villages excelled so much in a particular line of craftsmanship that their products were in demand throughout the countryside. Only the most difficult materials and articles had to be brought to the village from the local factory, itself but a large and highly specialized village or cluster of villages around a great power house and synthesis station.

The food of the village was not produced by the synthesis of organic compounds under sub-atomic power. Agriculture was still practised. But the old kind of agriculture was rapidly giving way to direct photo-synthesis of the essential food factors under sunlight. The village was surrounded by its private gardens and communal fields. The earth was impregnated with appropriate chemicals and sprinkled with the spore of an artificial ‘organic molecule’, which absorbed light and propagated itself till it covered the field with a green exfoliation. It was then gathered by a tractor armed with a sort of vacuum cleaner, washed, and worked up with other materials (similarly produced) into a great variety of food-stuffs. Throughout the summer the fields were harvested at intervals of about a week. The advantage of this system over the old-fashioned agriculture was that the land produced nearly ten times its former yield in food value.

Certain luxury foods, and every villager demanded his share of luxury, had to be procured from the local or national factory, and some specially choice articles from foreign lands. But any village with any pretension to taste and local pride could produce characteristic local variants of the essential synthetic ‘meats’, ‘breads’, ‘cheeses’, ‘fruits’, and drinks. Many an isolated homestead, if its food-making was managed with intelligence and artistry, could produce a simple but elegant meal to delight the most fastidious traveller.

Little by little the new processes transformed the whole economy of the world. A miniature aeroplane, driven by sub-atomic power derived from one of the rarer elements in the air, made it possible for everyone to travel anywhere at a speed which we should regard as more than adequate. For very long fast journeys people had to resort to air-liners and stratosphere-liners; but enterprising young men, and young women also, often went to the farthest countries in their own miniature planes. These little vehicles, commonly called ‘flies’, were rather smaller than our smallest gliders. The flyer lay full length on his stomach in the coffin-like fuselage, which was padded to form a sort of bed.

Towns such as we know were disappearing. It was no longer necessary for people to live in great warrens, and there was a general demand for spaciousness. Owing to the invaluable fly, this was no longer incompatible with constant social intercourse. Many of the old towns were being demolished or thinned out so as to display to better advantage their few but valued architectural treasures. Slums had long since been turned into parks or agricultural land, with here and there a village. Of the old towns, the great ports alone fulfilled their old function, but these too were transformed. Save where ground space was restricted, as in New York, the congested area gave place to a host of villages separated by parks, market gardens, orchards, and fields. The great increase of local self-sufficiency might have been expected to kill sea-borne trade, but though at first the ports declined, a new tendency soon appeared. Sub-atomic power had released so great a fund of human energy and skill that many of the peoples began to specialize once more, not indeed in the production of basic necessities, but in luxury foodstuffs, luxury handicrafts, superfine machines and tools. A new and fierce competition arose between peoples that vied with each other to produce the very best articles of some particular type, such as optical instruments, textiles, furniture, and so on. This competition was not of the capitalist sort. Its motive was sheer pride of workmanship and enlightened patriotism. In consequence of all this new industrial specialization, sea-borne and air-borne trade, and the transport of goods along the great arterial roads of the continents, were still important social services. Every village in this new and prosperous world demanded that, in addition to its self-sufficiency in essentials and its pride in local craftsmanship, it should have a share in the choicest products of the excess energy of all peoples.

The average individual in the new order, in whatever land he lived, was either a village craftsman in one of the specialized sub-atomic skills or a sort of glorified subsistence farmer. On his personal acre or in the communal village fields he produced enough food for his family or co-operated in the communal production of the village. Enough was left over for taxes, bartering, trade with foreign lands, and lavish hospitality. As he would not be fully occupied by the new agriculture, unless he specialized in some difficult luxury product, he might also be enough of a craftsman with the sub-atomic machinery to make many of his household goods. His wife, possibly aided by the daughters, would prepare the food and keep the house in order. With the new power and the new labour-saving devices this would occupy no more than a couple of hours a day. The women would therefore lend a hand on the farm and probably spend a good deal of time on the production of clothes for the household. The children also would help on the farm, chiefly for their education. They would learn crafts for future use. The difference between the village agriculturalists and the village craftsmen was only one of emphasis. Both classes practised both activities, but while the agriculturalists supplemented their main occupation with simple crafts, the craftsmen were tillers and gardeners in their spare time.

As in the period that we call the Middle Ages, the great majority of men were agriculturalists to some extent; though minorities specialized completely, working in the factories, laboratories, and so on. In some districts specialism was more common than elsewhere. The different countries retained much of their characteristic pattern of life, but native customs were transmuted to accord with the general pattern and spirit of the new world. In some lands the ordinary village included, along with the houses of the village craftsmen, those of the local agriculturalists, who went to the communal or private fields each day by fly. Elsewhere the villages were populated mainly by craftsmen. The agriculturalists lived in scattered farm-houses throughout the countryside. In some countries there were few specialists, in others many. In some, agriculture was mainly individualistic, though subject to strict control by the state or the village; in others it was carried on by communal village enterprise. In some, where population was sparse, the grown sons would set up new farms in the untamed land. In others, densely populated, the sons might either decide among themselves who was to take over the paternal farm, or all might stay on in the old home with their wives and families, supplementing its produce by trade in handicrafts. Sometimes the individual homestead expanded into a clan village. Sometimes a dwelling-house would be little more than a dormitory, all social activity being centred upon the village. Sometimes the villages them-selves tended to be mentally dominated by some neighbouring town or metropolis. But even the greatest cities of the world were now organic clusters of villages, each making its own special contribution to the city’s life.

ii. Village Culture

One remarkable institution was almost universal, namely the village ‘meeting’, a gathering of all the villagers for the planning of their communal life. The ‘meeting’ took a great variety of forms in different lands; but nearly always it centred on a building which combined many of the characters of a village hall, a church, and a public house. By some freak of the evolution of language it was known in all countries as the ‘poob’. In it the village met every evening to yarn, play games, sing, drink their synthetic elixirs, smoke their synthetic tobaccos. It was also the communal eating-house where friends could meet over a meal, where many of the more sociable villagers fed every day, where the guests of the village were entertained, where village banquets were held. In it also the villagers met for concerts and lectures. In it at regular intervals they held their formal ‘meetings’ to discuss communal business and settle disputes. There they also held their sacred ceremonies, such as marriages, funerals, initiations into citizenship, commemorations of great events, local, national, or cosmopolitan.

The poob housed the village sports trophies, historical relics, and art treasures. It contained also, normally behind curtains, but displayed on great occasions, the village ‘ark’. This was at once a safe where valuable documents were preserved, a mascot, a sacred symbol, and a shrine. The ark was a great carved chest, often surmounted by a symbolic statue or picture. Sometimes it was the work of local craftsmen, sometimes it was a much treasured import from the near-by city or some foreign land. These objects varied greatly in aesthetic value and in symbolic power. A few were visited by pilgrims from every part of the planet. Others, though dear and sacred to the hearts of their own villagers, drew no attention from elsewhere. These symbols sometimes represented in a stylized manner incidents of special significance in the life of the village or the nation or mankind. Sometimes they symbolized love or reason or family, or the unity of the human race, or man’s relation to the cosmos. On any solemn occasion, such as a marriage or one of the regular ‘days of contemplation’, the ark would be unveiled, and the assembled villagers would sit in silence for a few minutes before it. Music would follow, choral or instrumental, and then the brief and simple ceremony would be performed by the village headman or some specially deputed villager or stranger, either with some well-established form of words or impromptu, or perhaps with silent gesture. When the ceremony was over the ark would be once more veiled, and the villagers would drink or feed together.

Often the poob was simply the ancient village church or temple. In cities it might be the cathedral or the city hall or some other historic building. Meetings of essentially the same type as the village meetings, but more ritualistic, took place in all the cities and in each national metropolis. Specially important meetings occurred in the four great cultural world-centres, Peking, Benares, Moscow, and San Francisco. But most exalted of all were the annual commemorations in sacred Lhasa.

Now that the economic problem had been solved, public attention was more and more directed to the cultural life of the race. Education was no longer dominated by the need to equip the young for the individualistic economic ‘battle of life’, nor yet by the demand for efficient and docile robots. Vocational training was still an important element in education, but it no longer devoured the whole time and attention of the young people. All children were brought up mainly in their native village. There were no boarding schools, great swarms of young things living in monastic isolation from the life of the world. Normally every child lived at home, and grew up in the normal environment of farm life, acquiring the various skills which were demanded by the varied life of adults. The village schools, though some were severely criticized for inefficiency or laxity, were in the main inspired by the new tradition of the race. In every country the teachers were jealously selected, and carefully trained in the great residential universities. In some countries a group of a score or a hundred neighbouring villages might combine to set up a common school for the brighter children of the whole district. Elsewhere this principle was rejected as tending to create a class division between the bright and the dull. Instead, both types were kept in the village school, but those who showed superior capacity were allowed to absent themselves from classes so long as they kept pace with the class work. The time thus gained they spent on developing their special powers or interests. A searching system of vocational selection skimmed off from the village schools those children of leaving age who had superior aptitude for particular occupations, and those who, through high general intelligence were fitted to become teachers or research workers in some branch of science or in technical philosophy, and also those whose special talents for organizing and social intercourse were needed for industrial management, large-scale economic planning, and political leadership.

Potential artists were also selected. These might either go into residence at one of the great art schools or universities; or else, living on the maintenance grant, they could allow their genius to pursue its own course, eking out their meagre grant by selling their works. Of set purpose, and not through mere niggardliness, the state allowed the young man or woman who chose to avoid all state-organized professions only a bare minimum of help, whether his field of adventure was art or science or philosophy. Thus it was hoped to weed out those who had not actually ‘got it in them’ to produce creative work. On the other hand, no matter how preposterous or shocking to the public his products might be, the adventurer was at least assured of his minimum grant. And if it had any real merit (unperceived by the majority), and indeed often if it had no real merit at all, he might well succeed in selling. For, unless his work was both technically feeble and quite extravagantly idiosyncratic, it was very likely to find some sort of market in the new culturally conscious world. For in this new world-society pictures, statues, music, and writing were in demand, in some cases by the national, in others by the world-wide public, and in yet others by one or other of the special publics, each interested in some particular sphere or genre of art. It. was not uncommon for a neglected young painter to leap from penury to affluence and fame on the sale of a single work. Many artists, however, had no such luck, and were forced to live on the maintenance grant alone throughout their lives. Some of these, ahead of their time, became world-famous after death, but the great majority were merely untalented enthusiasts. No one dreamed of grudging them their futile but harmless careers, since the community could well afford to maintain them. Indeed, since most farms kept open house for any stray travellers, and all villages provided meals and beds for a constant flow of visitors, these artistic failures could eat and sleep their way over the face of the earth and use their maintenance grant wholly for clothing and extra comforts.

iii. The Forwards

One class of persons in the new world-order it is very difficult to describe. They cannot be fitted into any of our categories. Moreover their function gradually changed and increased in importance. In the earlier period of the continually developing world-Utopia they were merely tramps with a bent for self-observation, observation of their fellow men and speculation about the universe. Later, they became a recognize and increasingly respected profession. They were called by an Indian name which was translated into the English of that period as ‘the forwards’. In some respects they were the equivalent of the ancient ‘Servants of the Light’ who had played so great a part in the overthrow of the Tyranny, but their function was not to overthrow a social order and found another. In some ways they were a religious body, but they had no common creed save their common loyalty to the spirit. Like the medieval friars they were under a vow of poverty. A forward’s belongings were never to be more than such as could be carried easily in a moderate-sized rucksack. They spent much of their time wandering from village to village and from continent to continent, much also in retreat in the austere and beautiful hostels which they themselves had built with their own hands. There they occupied themselves with communal farming and craftsmanship, and also with meditation and discussion. They practised ‘psychic exercise’, a form of self-discipline leading to super-normal clarity and depth of experience and to profound personal integration. On their travels they often helped in harvesting or other emergency work, and they took part in the social and religious life of the villages where they stayed, absorbing the atmosphere of the local poob and in return giving whatever was communicable in their own life of contemplation and discipline. They were under no vow of chastity, but marriage and domesticity were rare among them. A few married couples lived in the hostels or wandered together, gipsy-like, with their children. The celibate sometimes permitted themselves sexual love, either with colleagues of the opposite sex or with persons outside the order. Women who bore children from these unions were not disgraced but honoured. The extramarital sexual relationships of the forwards were mostly passionate and brief. Long before their fire was quenched the consecrated partner would hear the call to pass on. Then in grief but without rancour, and in thankfulness for the past, the lovers would part.

It was the aim of every member of the order to participate so far as possible in all the great emotional experiences of the awakened human life, while at the same time remaining in his innermost self detached from all save fundamental loyalty to the spirit. Thus sexual love, and even marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood, must be broken off at the first sign of enthralment, and on the other hand before the deep and pure current of emotion was contaminated by disillusionment. Every partner who entered into relation with one of the forwards knew well that this was the stern condition of the union. But the agony of these separations could be a fruitful agony for both members. It was the claim of many of the forwards themselves that in the desolate recovery from these partings they sometimes rose to their states of clearest vision. On the other hand those few who lived in permanent marriage were apt to pity rather than admire the majority, saying, ‘Well, for each there is an appropriate way; but for us the undying, the life-giving union.’

In addition to the duty of detachment from ordinary human experiences, the forwards laid upon themselves a complementary obligation. They must in a manner preserve detachment even from their supreme consecrated task of spiritual adventure. This too, if it should become enthralling to the hungry individual spirit, or lead to any slightest withdrawal of active sympathy from the life of the world, or again if it should be poisoned by any faint breath of self-pride, must be at once abandoned. The penitent would then impose on himself some weeks or months or even years of mundane life, as a farm worker or craftsman, a factory-hand, organizer, or teacher.

The twofold aim of the forwards was to explore the highest capacities of the human spirit and to impart their findings to the world. They were very widely respected, but not universally. There were some intellectuals of sceptical temper and also some hard-headed men of affairs who regarded the whole enterprise of the forwards as futile. These critics pointed out that in the perfecting of society and the raising of average intelligence and the endless developing of intellectual culture the race would be able to occupy itself fully for centuries to come, and probably for ever. There was no need, they said, to peer into the black fog of mystery.

For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years I seemed to watch the successful carrying out of this policy, the patient perfecting of the social organization, the amplification of human life, the slow but universal rise of intelligence, the proliferation of culture in a thousand novel directions. Throughout this long period the forwards played an unostentatious but valuable part. Their spiritual researches led to no striking discovery, but they formed mankind’s permanent outposts towards the super-human; and their influence in keeping the daily lives of ordinary men and women sweet, and in preventing the temper of the race from becoming merely mundane, was probably very great. Of course there were fluctuations in their integrity and in their usefulness, phases of corruption and regeneration, of stagnation and of significant change; periods too when their presence was barely tolerated or even actively resented, and others when their influence was very great. But on the whole throughout this age their part was never central and dominant, as it was later to become.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30