On Dehumanized Ascians
The merit of sacrifice falls on him who without thought to his own convenience offers what he has toward the service of the populace. —an authoritative statement of Correct Thought allowed to Ascians as dogma to be quoted
Classics of Political Incorrectness Dept. (15)
Recently I was burned out from trying to read Evola’s Ride the Tiger, and so I was casting about for something easier to read; and a friend of mine gave me Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and highly recommended it (even saying that I reminded him of the protagonist, a member of an ancient guild of torturers), so I read it. I used to read a lot of science fiction, and Wolfe wrote the Book back in the 1980s, so I’m surprised that I had never heard of it, or at least don’t remember having heard of it. But it’s an excellent book, or series of books, as the Book of the New Sun consists of four thickish volumes.
The story takes place on Earth, or Urth, in the distant future, long after humans had colonized other worlds. (In fact one of the things that bugs me about the story is that there’s no telling how far into the future it is—certainly many tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly even millions. The sun is dying and getting cooler, and the religion of the people is an extremely distorted version of Christianity in which people wait for the coming of the New Sun.) Many of Urth’s resources have long been exhausted, which, along with general decline and fall, have resulted in most people living at around the same standard of living as, say, the 16th century. Despite the almost medieval lifestyle and outlook, there are remnants of high technology, even alien technology, which naturally are mostly at the disposal of governments, military forces, and aristocrats. Monstrous, genetically modified plants, animals, and humanoids are also part of the neo-medieval environment.
Anyway, the protagonist Severian is a citizen of the Commonwealth, which exists on the continent of South America, around where Chile is today—though the Andes appear to be much farther from the sea than now. The Commonwealth is evidently a kind of decayed feudalistic system with an Autarch at the head, assisted by a mysterious alien counsellor or prime minister. The Autarch is in the midst of a long defensive war with the Ascians, a nation occupying most or all of the North American continent; and it is mainly these Ascians, descendants of the Americans, that I am mainly interested in here.
The Ascians have more access to advanced technology, and are allied with, or enslaved to, huge space aliens, or maybe mutants, living in the oceans, who intend to enslave the entire population of Urth if it ever becomes practicable. Shortly after the scene recorded below, a kind of junior priestess informs Severian that the Ascians are not human, and thus killing them, though bad, does not qualify as murder, because they have had their humanity stripped from them. They are obviously biologically human, but not psychologically. They have been socially engineered by a totalitarian government, reputedly led by “the Group of Seventeen.”
If the world of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four were allowed to endure for thousands of years, we might have something like the nation of the Ascians: a kind of government-controlled hive mind. The author was obviously offering a glimpse of a dystopia far beyond Ayn Rand’s Anthem, maybe about as bad as Huxley’s Ape and Essence (which is way beyond Brave New World). The dystopia is a result of an authoritarian government controlling what people are allowed to say, and thus also what they are likely to think. Wolfe was prescient in this, considering that attempts to limit speech in America and in the west generally are evidently much worse and more advanced now than they were in the “golden age” of the 1980s. Just consider political correctness hysteria today, with people losing their careers, reputations, and friends for stating their honest opinions about, say, whether men identifying as women are really, truly women. People’s lives can be ruined for stating what was considered plainly obvious up until just a few years ago. We have retrogressed back towards the days when fanatical Christianity determined what was right and good, and what was damnable heresy—except now, as with the case with the Ascians, the “Correct Thought” has little to do with morality or wholesomeness. It’s more a matter of easing authoritarians into control and establishing socialized globalism.
Another real-life foreshadowing of the Ascians is the parroting of propagandist catch phrases by the media: suddenly one morning almost all the major news networks are saying exactly the same thing, like “the walls are closing in” or “digging up dirt” or “quid pro quo.” Then, after they have run their course, the phrases are simultaneously dropped by everyone in the media as though by some invisible signal, and they move on to the next.
I suspect that if society ever becomes as communistic and equal as are the Ascians, it would probably be the result of brain augmentation with computer chips and AI—which of course would be exploited by authoritarian governments to monitor and control what people think. (Some say that some of the tech elite like Elon Musk already have brain implants, although I really have no idea.) I have little doubt that people will someday be offered “free” computer chip implants, allowing them mental Internet access, etc., if only they allow “special offers,” i.e. commercial advertising, into their mind. From there it’s just a small step towards psychological surveillance and punishing people for thought crimes and political Wrong View. So I advise anyone to be very wary of computerized brain augmentation in future. In exchange for an IQ boost of 50 or 100 points, or the ability to watch movies on the backs of one’s eyelids, or to turn on the coffee maker by thinking at it, one may have to sell one’s soul, so to speak.
Anyway, on with the Ascians. The following scene occurs in a military hospital near the front lines of the Commonwealth and Ascian war.
* * *
from CHAPTER FIVE — THE LAZARET, from The Citadel of the Autarch, the fourth and final volume of Book of the New Sun
…The lazaret was as quiet as it ever became; somewhere far off two men were talking and another cried out, but their voices only emphasized the stillness. I sat up and looked around, hoping to see the soldier. On my right lay a man whose close-cropped scalp made me think at first that he was one of the slaves of the Pelerines. I called to him, but when he turned his head to look at me, I saw I had been mistaken.
His eyes were emptier than any human eyes I had ever seen, and they seemed to watch spirits invisible to me. "Glory to the Group of Seventeen," he said.
"Good morning. Do you know anything about the way this place is run?"
A shadow appeared to cross his face, and I sensed that my question had somehow made him suspicious. He answered, "All endeavors are conducted well or ill precisely in so far as they conform to Correct Thought."
"Another man was brought in at the same time I was. I'd like to talk to him. He's a friend of mine, more or less.”
"Those who do the will of the populace are friends, though we have never spoken to them. Those who do not do the will of the populace are enemies, though we learned together as children."
The man on my left called, "You won't get anything out of him. He's a prisoner."
I turned to look at him. His face, though wasted nearly to a skull, retained something of humor. His stiff, black hair looked as though it had not seen a comb for months.
"He talks like that all the time. Never any other way. Hey, you! We're going to beat you!"
The other answered, "For the Armies of the Populace, defeat is the springboard of victory, and victory the ladder to further victory."
"He makes a lot more sense than most of them, though," the man on my left told me.
"You say he's a prisoner. What did he do?"
"Do? Why, he didn't die."
"I'm afraid I don't understand. Was he selected for some kind of suicide mission?"
The patient beyond the man on my left sat up—a young woman with a thin but lovely face. "They all are," she said. "At least, they can't go home until the war is won, and they know, really, that it will never be won."
"External battles are already won when internal struggles are conducted with Correct Thought.”
I said, "He's an Ascian, then. That's what you meant. I've never seen one before."
"Most of them die," the black-haired man told me. "That's what I said."
"I didn't know they spoke our language.”
“They don't. Some officers who came here to talk to him said they thought he'd been an interpreter. Probably he questioned our soldiers when they were captured. Only he did something wrong and had to go back to the ranks."
The young woman said, "I don't think he's really mad. Most of them are. What's your name?"
"I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'm Severian." I almost added that I was a lictor, but I knew neither of them would talk to me if I told them that.
"I'm Foila, and this is Melito. I was of the Blue Huzzars, he a hoplite."
"You shouldn't talk nonsense," Melito growled. "I am a hoplite. You are a huzzar."
I thought he appeared much nearer death than she.
“I'm only hoping we will be discharged when we're well enough to leave this place," Foila said.
"And what will we do then? Milk somebody else's cow and herd his pigs?" Melito turned to me. "Don't let her talk deceive you—we were volunteers, both of us. I was about to be promoted when I was wounded, and when I'm promoted I'll be able to support a wife."
Foila called, "I haven't promised to marry you!"
Several beds away, someone said loudly, "Take her so she'll shut up about it!"
At that, the patient in the bed beyond Foila's sat up. "She will marry me." He was big, fair skinned, and pale haired, and he spoke with the deliberation characteristic of the icy isles of the south. "I am Hallvard."
Surprising me, the Ascian prisoner announced, "United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands.”
“Foila said, "They fight even when they're pregnant—I've seen them dead on the battlefield."
"The roots of the tree are the populace. The leaves fall, but the tree remains."
I asked Melito and Foila if the Ascian were composing his remarks or quoting some literary source with which I was unfamiliar.
"Just making it up, you mean?" Foila asked. "No. They never do that. Everything they say has to be taken from an approved text. Some of them don't talk at all. The rest have thousands—I suppose actually tens or hundreds of thousands—of those tags memorized."
"That's impossible," I said.
Melito shrugged. He had managed to prop himself up on one elbow.
“They do it, though. At least, that's what everybody says. Foila knows more about them than I do."
Foila nodded. "In the light cavalry, we do a lot of scouting, and sometimes we're sent out specifically to take prisoners. You don't learn anything from talking to most of them, but just the same the General Staff can tell a good deal from their equipment and physical condition. On the northern continent, where they come from, only the smallest children ever talk the way we do." I thought of Master Gurloes conducting the business of our guild.
"How could they possibly say something like 'Take three apprentices and unload that wagon'?"
"They wouldn't say that at all—just grab people by the shoulder, point to the wagon, and give them a push. If they went to work, fine. If they didn't, then the leader would quote something about the need for labor to ensure victory, with several witnesses present. If the person he was talking to still wouldn't work after that, then he would have him killed—probably just by pointing to him and quoting something about the need to eliminate the enemies of the populace."
The Ascian said, "The cries of the children are the cries of victory. Still, victory must learn wisdom."
Foila interpreted for him. "That means that although children are needed, what they say is meaningless. Most Ascians would consider us mute even if we learned their tongue, because groups of words that are not approved texts are without meaning for them. If they admitted—even to themselves—that such talk meant something, then it would be possible for them to hear disloyal remarks, and even to make them. That would be extremely dangerous. As long as they only understand and quote approved texts, no one can accuse them."
I turned my head to look at the Ascian. It was clear that he had been listening attentively, but I could not be certain of what his expression meant beyond that. "Those who write the approved texts," I told him, "cannot themselves be quoting from approved texts as they write. Therefore even an approved text may contain elements of disloyalty."
"Correct Thought is the thought of the populace. The populace cannot betray the populace or the Group of Seventeen."
Foila called, "Don't insult the populace or the Group of Seventeen. He might try to kill himself. Sometimes they do."
"Will he ever be normal?"
"I've heard that some of them eventually come to talk more or less the way we do, if that's what you mean."
I could think of nothing to say to that, and for some time we were quiet.” …
...But of Ascia itself I had no idea. I did not know if it had great cities or none. I did not know if it was mountainous like the northern and eastern parts of our Commonwealth or as level as our pampas. I did have the impression (though I could not be sure it was correct) that it was a single land mass, and not a chain of islands like our south; and most distinct of all, I had the impression of an innumerable people—our Ascian's populace—an inexhaustible swarm that almost became a creature in itself, as a colony of ants does. To think of those millions upon millions without speech, or confined to parroting proverbial phrases that must surely have long ago lost most of their meaning, was nearly more than the mind could bear. Speaking almost to myself, I said, "It must surely be a trick, or a lie, or a mistake. Such a nation could not exist." And the Ascian, his voice no louder than my own had been, and perhaps even softer, answered, "How shall the state be most vigorous? It shall be most vigorous when it is without conflict. How shall it be without conflict? When it is without disagreement. How shall disagreement be banished? By banishing the four causes of disagreement: lies, foolish talk, boastful talk, and talk which serves only to incite quarrels. How shall the four causes be banished? By speaking only Correct Thought. Then shall the state be without disagreement. Being without disagreement it shall be without conflict. Being without conflict it shall be vigorous, strong, and secure."
I had been answered, and doubly.
“Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed. Goods in common, the rule of the people…everything. You wish for progress? The Ascians have it. They are deafened by it, crazed by the death of Nature till they are ready to accept Erebus and the rest as gods. We hold humankind stationary…in barbarism. The Autarch protects the people from the exultants, and the exultants…shelter them from the Autarch. The religious comfort them. We have closed the roads to paralyze the social order…” His eyes fell shut. I put my hand upon his chest to feel the faint stirrings of his heart. “Until the New Sun…”