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Critical Mass


Michele Dutcher

In Physics, critical mass is defined as the minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction. In a political or social this definition can become the minimum size or amount of something required to start or maintain a venture or a social upheaval, so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth.

As I witness political and social revolutions happening around the world, I can’t help but wonder about how revolutions are portrayed in Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. In stories, evil regimes are often overthrown by an offshoot strain of Critical Mass, where the fissile material is a hero/heroine bringing a new idea from outside the political system.

The idea that one man, or one book, or one story can become the minimum amount of fissile material needed to start a revolution is a prevalent idea in science Fiction. Often that man or idea will be carried into the errant society from outside the societal boundaries. 

One of the earliest of examples is the myth of Perseus. When Acrisius, Perseus’ grandfather finds out that his daughter, Danae has birthed a son, he is furious and locks Danae and her baby Perseus in a large chest and casts them out to sea. Somehow, they manage to travel safely to the island of Seriphos, where Polydectes rules. The king's brother, Dictys, who is a fisherman, catches the chest in his net and pulls it to shore, freeing Danae and her son. Perseus grows up to become a strong young man. Polydectes hears about Danae and asks for her hand in marriage, but she rejects him, and Perseus protects her.

So the king decides to create a plan to get rid of the young man. Eventually Perseus reaches the kingdom of Aethiopia, rescuing the beautiful princess Andromeda from the evil Kraken, Cetus – being the catalyst that sets the entire kingdom free from a monsters evil tyranny.

In HG Wells epic, The Time Machine, a man only know as the Time Traveler, ends up in the far future where there are two classes of people: the innocent Eloi and the cannibalistic Morlocks who rule the society preying on the Eloi whenever they wish. The Time Traveler, being from another place and time can see that this arrangement is inhuman and becomes the fissile material that leads to the evil Morlocks being dethroned and obliterated. We’re led to assume that The Time Traveler stays behind in the future to help facilitate a rebirth of freedom among the human Eloi.

While Perseus was carried over water, and The Time Traveler was carried through time, John Carter is carried through Outer Space to attempt to become the fissile material on Mars in Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1917 tale, A Princess of Mars. John Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars and finds that he has great strength in his new environment. He is befriended by the Tharks and rises to high position in their tribe. Eventually he gets involved in the politics of the two societies after saving the princess of Helium, finally being the catalyst to attack the enemies of the princess’s realm, and bring peace to the Red Planet – for at least nine years.

The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, has a small hero intent upon destroying a ring that is a tie to evil’s tyranny in his world.

Dune by Frank Herbert has a hero who is an off-worlder whose journey will force him to rise above his doubts and lead a planet to retake its rightful place in the galaxy.

Childhood’s End has a devil-like creature that suddenly appears out of nowhere to assist humanity in acquiring its next step on the evolutionary ladder.

The Hunger Games’ heroine changes her society from the inside out, dethroning the evil tyrants who are holding down the average citizens.

Star Trek saves societies from evil computers and god-like tyrants putting social evolution back on course. Star Wars has heroes who come from the outside to tear down the Evil Empire.

However, comic books – I mean graphic novels – have the hero endowed with superhuman virtues, but they tend to hide away instead of coming to the forefront and changing their society. Perhaps that’s the bone I have to pick with all these humans with amazing powers who are so unsure of themselves that they spend most of their time huddled in their rooms.

For instance, Wonder Woman – constantly saves her boyfriend from the Nazis, but her influence isn’t widely felt. In comic books – I mean graphic novels - society often becomes the victim of an evil force with massive buildings tumbling down, killing 100s of thousands of innocent bystanders. There is no Critical Mass here where tyrants are tumbled and a new age of freedom comes into the political arena.

Whether we are writers or readers or critics, perhaps it is up to each of us to become a fissile material in our own small world, starting a chain reaction that reaches a societal critical mass and changes lives for the better. However, before you try to change the world, feel free to allow yourself a few happy hours reading over these humble offerings from The Muse herself. Enjoy!

2015-06-17 22:04:24
John David Rose - Your editorial brings to mind Heinlein's _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. It's probably one of the best when it comes to a science fiction story about revolution.

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