restricted access 9. The Battle for Civilisation in Gibbon's Science Fiction
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119 CHAPTER NINE The Battle for Civilisation in Gibbon’s Science Fiction Scott Lyall The concept and future of civilisation were ideas much discussed in the early decades of the twentieth century, particularly between the two world wars. Civilisation was frequently perceived as being under threat, most acutely so in the 1930s when J. Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon was writing.1 This chapter locates Gibbon’s science fiction novels, Three Go Back (1932) and Gay Hunter (1934), within those debates over civilisation . While it was the concern of some commentators that civilisation – consanguineous with ‘the West’ – was menaced with the spectre of evolutionary degeneration, for Gibbon, it was civilisation itself, especially in its modern manifestation, which was responsible for stymieing human liberty. Gibbon’s science fiction owes much to the influence of H. G. Wells. Yet in this work Gibbon would oppose what he regarded as Wells’s elitist worldview, to suggest the freeing of the commons of the world from civilisation’s controlling grip. The seeming crisis of civilisation during the Modernist interwar period brought forth – particularly from the political Right – civilisation’s champions. For instance, the anthropologist Lothrop Stoddard believed civilisation to be ‘a recent and a fragile thing’, and that history ‘is littered with the wrecks of dead civilisations’.2 Stoddard, reactionary, racialist and imperialist, thought some ‘branches of mankind’ more capable of civilisation than others and that those peoples who have ‘stopped at some level of barbarism’ were a serious problem for civilisation.3 He numbered the ‘barbarian stocks’ as ‘the peoples of Asia, the American Indians, and the African negroes’ – all non-Caucasians.4 For Stoddard, ‘Natural Equality […] is a figment of the human imagination’, whereas inequality is an ‘iron law’.5 Stoddard, in common with many others in the early decades of the twentieth century, thought that civilisation’s problems sprang from ‘[r]acial impoverishment’ and hereditary rather than environmental factors; as such, he promoted eugenics – a ‘science of race betterment’ 120 that is ‘the mightiest transformation of ideas that the world has ever seen’ – as a means to a superior race of people who would keep civilisation alive.6 Striking a Social Darwinist note, he claims that ‘evolution means a process of ever-growing inequality’, one which has seen the rise of what he calls the ‘Under-Man’.7 The Under-Man is the converse of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or Overman, the super-human who transcends Christian morality to create a dynamic new elite value-system. Stoddard’s Under-Man consists of the lower social orders and non-whites. He sees the Under-Man as a biological inferior, the result of poor breeding rather than poor social conditions, and characterises the Bolshevik Revolution as ‘The Rebellion of the Under-Man’.8 Stoddard opposes Marxism and Bolshevism as ‘modern doctrines of revolt’ against civilisation emerging from ‘the inevitable discontent of individuals or groups placed at cultural levels above their inborn capacities and their instinctive desire to revert from these uncongenial surroundings to others lower but more congenial’.9 Significantly, in lieu of Gibbon’s Diffusionist-inspired ideas, he also attacks ‘the “Lure of the Primitive”’, especially the vogue of Rousseau, who ‘was born of unsound stock’.10 Stoddard’s racial theories entered popular consciousness when mentioned with approval by a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and he was certainly not alone in this period in proposing a eugenical solution to civilisation’s problems.11 The Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, who, like Stoddard, believed civilisation was an ‘an intermittent phenomenon’, hoped that ‘eugenics will, in some future civilisation, carefully segregate fine races, and prohibit continual mixture, until they have a distinct type, which will start a new civilisation’.12 Petrie was friends with Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883.13 As Richard Overy points out, eugenics had significant adherents in Britain, such as the economist J. M. Keynes, the sexologist Havelock Ellis, and Darwin’s grandson Thomas Huxley, but it was under Hitler’s National Socialist regime in Germany that ‘[t]he power of popular biological argument was evident in its most extreme form’.14 The fascist threat and the social and political effects of the Depression caused a crisis for capitalism in the 1930s, and also undermined the idea that civilisation as it was understood in Britain would be a permanent feature of life in the West. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, first published in English in 1926 and popular with the intelligentsia...