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SF Beats Academics To It.

An article by Tom Holland in Saturday’s guardian review about the aftermath of the Roman Empire argued that there was no sudden change from classical to mediƦval times, no instant forgetting, but rather a long interregnum in which the rise of Islam was an important feature.

Holland points out that the transition was all a messy business, triggering the evolution of legends of various sorts, which in Britain involved the King Arthur stories plus the evocation of elves and orcs to account for the gigantic ruins of Roman buildings. He sees Tolkien’s endeavours as an attempt to restore these myths to the culture.

The article surprisingly, to my mind, mentions Science Fiction favourably in that Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Herbert’s Dune sequence both recognised what Holland sees as the salient aspect of the transformation somewhat before it gained foothold in academe.

When I read the books it was easy to recognise that Asimov’s trilogy was modelled on the fall of the Roman Empire but it is the character of the Mule that Holland finds interesting – a Muhammad like figure with unusual powers. (That the Mule upset the apple cart of the Foundation’s “psychohistory” suggests to me a reflection of Asimov’s world-view.)

The parallels of the Dune sequence with Arab culture were of course unmistakeable even as a very young teenager. Paul Atreides (Muad’Dib) as Muhammad was at that time a step beyond me but is unmissable now. Herbert did seem to be in sympathy with Arab culture if not necessarily the religion it spawned. At the time I took his critique to be of the phenomenon of religion as a whole rather than Islam per se and I see no reason to alter it.

(The article further ponders the historical evidence surrounding the life of Muhammad, a matter on which I am not in a position to judge.)

Historically, the Roman Empire’s fall cannot be seen as anything other than significant. That authors still continue to see it as a template within which to set their stories – Holland mentions Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica as other not so rigorous examples – is testament to the endurance of its legacy.

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