Madsen Pirie’s science-fiction novel Tree Boy begins like Robinson Crusoe, morphs into a murder mystery and ends as an action thriller; and if that sounds confused, well, it is anything but. It targets teenagers; a venerable form with distinct protocols, that appeals to grown-ups lifelong in books such as “Treasure Island.” Amid gripping action come insightful moments of applied biology and sociology more than just the usual physics: so, no, it isn’t all rocket science.
However, at heart, “Tree Boy” is about virtue: virtue is the noble secret of this book and the seemingly technophilic tradition from which it comes. Yet, within a nearly extinct sub-set of a fast-dwindling publishing genre, to understand its role requires some context.
Classical, or so-called “hard,” science fiction has been dying since its Golden Age in the 1940s-1950s and has now virtually given up the ectoplasm. The literary discipline welcomes any imagination so long as it conforms to known scientific laws, and its demise may have several causes.
One is that women, apparently, tend to prefer reading fantasy or indeed anything other than classic sci-fi (a paucity of female students in the hard sciences may be indicative); and women buy more novels than men do. Women, as most commissioning editors, also choose what not to publish. Secondly, science fiction publishing has split into many specialised sub-genres (including Superhuman SF, Cyberpunk, Space Westerns, Alternate History, Military SF, Comedy SF and others) that appeal to niche audiences more than does classicism. The overall genre has also spread into media other than novels, from cinema to video games and other entertaining distractions from the printed word. Moreover, the Great Age of Scientific Faith seems to have passed; the adventuresome dreams of boys who longed to be test-pilots or astronauts have lost their allure. But there is another possible explanation.
For its first 125 years or so, almost from the Age of Napoleon through the Second World War, science fiction was schizophrenic. Scientific dystopias, such as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) warned of science even as the Industrial Revolution improved human health and longevity as never before. Ultimately, her chastened scientist warns:
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
The dystopian view remained a full century later: in the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (where his brother’s term “robot” enters our lexicon), the cyborgs kill off humankind and a mechanical, self-perpetuating “Adam and Eve” begin intelligent life anew.
In film-director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), politicians and tycoons bamboozled workers, artisans and scientists into building a Tower of Babel. The charismatic Maria proclaimed (in melodramatically wordy silent-film captions):
“We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!” Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many – BABEL! BABEL! BABEL! – Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.
(It resonated in Weimar Germany within months: “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labour, to begin their historical mission,” declared Joseph Goebbels. Lang was mortified).
Science fiction’s vigorous dystopian tradition is hard to fathom. There had been few devastating misapplications of science in the nineteenth century; its influence had been almost wholly benign and yet it inspired fear, at least among writers. It may have been one of those many heresies, much older than the Church that opposed them and surviving still; notions that Man or the whole material world is somehow evil.
On the other side of bipolarity were the technophiles. Yes, the Victorian scientist-visionaries of Jules Verne were usually mad, but by the early twentieth-century a broader and less-examined kind of hubris crept in, thanks largely to H. G. Wells. Wells (1866-1946) was an optimist and a Modernist ideologue; a Progressive, a Fabian Socialist, a supporter of eugenics and world-government, endorsing nearly anything full of what Russell Kirk later called “defecated Reason.” Wells was also the author of innumerable books and tracts while being one of Britain’s best-selling novelists. His scientism may have offered hope against the horrors of the Great War and the West’s loss of Christian faith.
In 1936, as Spain plunged into civil war and broader Europe hung on tenterhooks, Wells rewrote one of his earlier novels as the screenplay for Alexander Korda’s film, Things to Come. It covered three generations of futuristic war, chiefly pitting scientists and other visionaries against nationalists and Neo-Luddites, and it concluded with one massive cannon launching men into space, inside of a projectile-vessel, as an angry and fearful mob failed to stop it in time. At the very end, two characters summed up:
Raymond Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Oswald Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man – too much, and too soon, and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Raymond Passworthy: But…we’re such little creatures. Poor humanity’s so fragile, so weak. Little…little animals.
Oswald Cabal: Little animals. If we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?
This stirring stuff was triumphalism’s high-water mark, its last hurrah at least as science fiction was concerned. By the end of World War Two, science fiction had changed and a new Golden Age had begun. The horrors of Dresden and Hiroshima, Auschwitz and the Blitz had extinguished any cockeyed optimism over Man’s moral perfectibility, while technological mastery seemed more certain than ever.
The new post-war science fiction, led primarily by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and the British Arthur C. Clarke (the only non-American among the greats) contrasted Man’s limited capacity for moral improvement against prospects of enormous technological change, driven by human imagination, constrained only within the unalterable physical laws of science. It recognized and scrutinized the Permanent Things, viewed through a lens of changing circumstance, and thus science fiction outgrew ideology, addressed virtue, and became a form of literature.
Although Bradbury was the most morally inquisitive in the pack, Russell Kirk could as easily have contrasted pre-war and post-war science fiction when he wrote:
…he does, indeed, look forward to man’s exploration of the planets, although not to the gloating “conquest” of space. But Bradbury is no more an idolator of science and technology than was C. S. Lewis. H. G. Wells expected man to become godlike through applied science: yet Wells’ interior world was dry, unloving, and egotistical. Bradbury…thinks it more probable that man may spoil everything, in this planet and in others, by the misapplication of science to avaricious ends—the Baconian and Hobbesian employment of science as power. And Bradbury’s interior world is fertile, illuminated by love for the permanent things, warm with generous impulse.
In this humane tradition comes “Tree Boy,” the author’s fifth novel of teenage science-fiction, among his nearly forty titles that range from public policy, economics and philosophy, to popular non-fiction including “Test Your IQ.” Once a professor at America’s Hillsdale College, an advisor to Republicans in the U. S. Congress and leading figure in MENSA, the high-IQ group, Madsen Pirie appears frequently on British television and is the founder and president of London’s Adam Smith Institute, which first rose to prominence by drafting many Thatcher-era reforms.
We meet Theo, a teenage boy, being strapped into the escape-pod of a doomed starship from which he alone survives. Crashed onto a rain-forest planet ostensibly lacking intelligent life, he hunts for food and water until confronted by Kareela, from a race of human-sized, lemur-like creatures; the castaway’s Man Friday. Analytically and cleverly they learn to communicate and Theo is gradually welcomed into Kareela’s arboreal clan. Over several years Theo learns their survival skills: how to move from tree to tree, to hunt and to lower his vital signs in order to evade predators. He also learns their values; chief among them a taboo against any manufactured goods.
The descriptions are just as vivid as the applied biology is fascinating and plausible; combining earth-bound (and often conflicting) anthropological traits such as hospitality versus clan defensiveness, to animal survival tactics that either resemble Earth or reflect the new planet’s evolutionary peculiarities. A deep bond develops between the young human and his alien friend, only to be shattered when Theo must return to his crashed vessel where he had seen rare medicinal plants needed to save Kareela from plague. The guest violated the clan’s major taboo by returning to the manufactured pod, and lost their trust so he is banished.
Amid the lush environment vividly described, and no shortage of adventure, the initial portion of the tale lays a foundation of virtue to be more fully explored in later chapters. These include tolerance and hospitality, patience and diligence and imaginative enquiry, bravery and loyalty, all displayed in mutually-reinforcing ways. As with earthbound cultures, alien tradition mythologizes and commemorates great acts of virtue, while overall the book conveys the wisdom of legend, the value-driven bonding function of community, and the benefits to individuals as well as to the sub-group and species. Overall, virtue promotes survival. As a demonstration of Natural Law on or off of Planet Earth, it makes a happy marriage of Burke and Darwin, and we can see it in our own biosphere just as within Theo’s adopted arboreal “family.”
A hallmark of teenage fiction is that it avoids the complicating factors of sex and romance, focusing intently on adventure and, in its highest examples, virtue. This may explain why the overall genre and this particular novel, although taking but a few healthy bites from the whole sandwich of literature, retain their appeal among adults.
Due to a virtuous act of loyalty, bravery and friendship, Theo has been banished, but his visit to the crashed escape-pod inadvertently sets off an alarm and the castaway is rescued by a naval spaceship. Lacking years of formal education he is still tentatively made a cadet. Theo the Tree Boy encounters hesitation from some of his classmates and hostility from others, but his educational deficiencies are counter-balanced by his athletic prowess acquired over years with the arboreal aliens. His uncommon fitness gives him quiet self-respect to withstand adversaries, and the diligence, with which he acquired that fitness, propels his academic studies.
Here readers are given subtle arguments against a tyrannical insistence upon “relevance” in modern education – Theo would never have foreseen the off-planet utility of what he learned in alien forests. His supposedly inapplicable skills save his life, when an anonymous would-be assassin releases a deadly carnivorous insect that, while Theo sleeps, burrows into his flesh and gnaws toward his heart. Message: learn all that you can for you never know what may prove valuable.
Non-preachy, and thus powerful, lessons continue as a school bully becomes a friend when Theo must trust him in order to save both of their lives in a space accident. Again, survival hinges upon cooperation, and cooperation is driven by Virtue and Reason together, mutually reinforcing.
Theo’s teachers explain the murder attempt, warning him that he has unwittingly become a cause-célèbre; a hero to those who preach tolerance and cooperation as humankind encounters other intelligent species, versus a bigoted and greedy Manifest Destiny movement putting human interests first. It is a tutelary metaphor for the evolutionary, economic and cultural advantages of symbiosis, cooperation and trade, versus brutality and empire. Winning survival and expansionary skills for humankind, based on cooperation, could not be more starkly different from Wellsian bombast and triumphalism.
In order to protect Theo from his bigoted would-be assassins, he is assigned a junior diplomatic post at a vital conference of numerous alien species, where security will be tight. There, while tending to a nearly hostile ambassador from his old arboreal planet, Theo uses his rain-forest skills to identify a terrorist plot. He must help to rescue diplomats and classmates, and identify and confront his would-be killer, while the very planet breaks up under his feet. The denouement is thrilling stuff indeed, subtly underscored by Theo’s imagination, uniquely acquired skills and moral character.
“Tree Boy” (linked to UK hard-copy above, and in America for Kindle here) provides both entertainment and moral education to any deserving teenager, especially one who imagines himself doing great deeds at a tender age. But you will want to read it first if you still love Robert Louis Stevenson and others of his ilk, plus worthwhile (but now forgotten) teenaged sci-fi classics by Bradbury, Asimov and Heinlein.
Dr. Pirie’s book, every bit as good as Asimov’s or Heinlein’s best teenage science fiction, begs a big question. With a heady mix of excitement and virtue, why have such sci-fi works become virtually extinct?
“Kid-lit,” as it is sometimes called, thrives apace, far broader than only Miss Rowling and her phenomenal boy-wizard. The genre lacks neither adventure nor imagination nor virtue. The problem may lie in the science more than in the fiction.
Modern science ought to be as inspiring as it was fifty years ago; from frequent and dramatic advances in medicine to genetic engineering, from computers to environmental sciences, from space probes to undersea exploration. But unmanned space flight lacks a certain inspirational pizzazz, while overall (apart from computing) science grows less accessible to beginners. A boy of the 1940s built his own radio-set that seemed advanced; in the 1970s there were simple lasers and model rocketry. Now, anything home-made seems hopelessly retrograde and quaint compared to the costly complexity of “real” grown-up technology and the micro-circuitry that drives it. As importantly, in a passive culture of spoon-fed and pre-digested entertainment, most boys rarely make anything – neither scientific gadgets nor even plastic aeroplane models.
This has contributed to disinterest in hard sciences and growing scientific illiteracy in the West. The science-fiction sub-genres that survive, and the groaning shelves full of fantasy wizards and dragons, virtually all lack any hard science; a sci-fi death-ray is no more scientific, and explains no more scientific fact, than a sorcerer’s spell. Both are suited perfectly to an infantilised audience retreated into sheer make-believe, away from the educational value of old ”hard” science fiction that required some thinking, provided practical knowledge to use later, and made science seem worth studying.
Those sci-fi fans, who grew up during the war, often went to work at General Electric or General Motors, or Raytheon or Boeing as engineers. They are now all retired and struggling with Medicare paperwork. When today’s fantasy readers grow older, they won’t be studying astrophysics or oceanography or chemistry; children named Wong and Patel are doing that. The kids named Smith and Murphy will be enrolled in Media Studies programmes as befits an increasingly lazy, self-satisfied and decadent culture, while our empire’s helots do the grunt work until other cultures and nations realise that they have the whip-hand.
It is not to say that fantasy lacks merit: Harry Potter, Tolkien’s tales, the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis and even the Star Wars films, all fantasy stripped of fact, offer entertainment and virtue aplenty but they are devoid of science. And so the decline of classical teenage science-fiction is but a symptom of a greater malaise that will have profound effects on the knowledge, imagination and economic competitiveness of the West.
But the books survive, so your children and grand-children can be different. And “Tree Boy” is a fine place to start.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.