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I just watched The Golden Compass last night. I haven’t read the books–though if the movie is any indication, they do seem intriguing, and the glimpses provided of the world made me curious to check them out and see more of Pullman’s worldbuilding and his ideas.

One of the themes of the film, however, seems to be the tension between free will and coercions. I gather that the Magisterium, a coercive organization that looks rather a lot like the medieval Catholic Church interpolated into modernity, is an oppressive ruling force that seeks to shape fact and science through ordinance. They also appear to want to create docile, cooperative humans who will be perfected in very specific ways.

The main character, Lyra, is a young girl who evokes the fairy tale of the boy who knew no fear–she seems ready to march into any situation and fortunately for her, she is also resourceful and clever enough to get herself out of most of them–at least in the film.

At one point in the film, a mysterious and witchy character, Serafina Pekkala, explains that the stakes in the war to come will be “free will itself”–having just pointed out that Lyra is the subject of prophecies and will be a key figure in the conflict. This kind of conjunction between issues of free will and prophecy seems common enough in sf/f–e.g. it often deals with some emergent and long-prophesied figure, who will fight for the freedom of the people, or will battle metaphysical forces in order to protect the people from some kind of coercive evil that will rob them of their free will.

This kind of bothers me–though it obviously depends on the formulation. The reason is that if there’s the assumption that the people have free will at present, and are fighting to retain it, then how does a prophecy–something that strongly implies predetermination–fit in with that?

The most problematic conception, of course, is the one in which the people currently have free will, except for the subject of the prophecy, who will rise and ensure that everyone gets to keep their free will, while still somehow being trapped in the prophecy. Still, there are a number of variations. Here are the most common:

a) circumstances conspire to keep the saviour on the fixed path, which manifests in the fruition of the prophecy. This is the strongest imposition of determinism and kind of irritates me, if there are also claims of free will floating about (and if not, it risks being dull, because it’s just about watching circumstances shape themselves to suit the prophecy). After all, if “circumstances conspire” that means that not only the saviour, but other actors as well, will need to act in predetermined ways, in order to ensure that the correct circumstances come about and the prophecy is fulfilled;

b) a kind of Calvinist-derived notion that the saviour so much embodies some set of virtues and inclinations that she will inherently want to act in particular ways, such that the most minimal threshold of favourable circumstances need arise in order for her to make the choices that will fulfill the prophecy. Here, the saviour’s free will is conflated with the prophecy, so that the prophecy somehow “reads” what are natural choices for the saviour. I still find this problematic, if there are claims of free will, but less so. It seems to me that this is where The Golden Compass is situated, at least in the film. Lyra seemed to want to do things that happened to play into the hands of the prophecy about her–though she also had inherent abilities that seemed predetermined and appeared to be key factors that “qualified” her as the subject of the prophecy (which is more like option “a”);

c) the pattern-recognition version is one in which the prophecy is just about finding the likeliest outcome of a variety of circumstances, based on patterns of behaviour and calculations of probability. I probably like this version the best. Psychohistory is a great example, as are the precogs in Minority Report (the film). I find it far more interesting (not to mention engaging and tense) when the prophecy is fallible and the uncertainty of choice, in the moment, is a real factor–an antagonist of sorts. Here, the prophecy is something people are hoping for and even relying on (or sometimes fighting against) but it may not come about at all, if things don’t line up just so AND the character doesn’t make the right choices at particular moments.

d) a final version is exemplified by a world in which everything is predetermined/coercive and there is little or no free will, but part of the predetermination involves the arrival of someone who is not subject to the coercions that bind others, and who then frees everyone. Here, the person who arrives is presumably subject to a separate set of coercions, which force her to break the pattern binding the people to a specific course. I don’t really care for this one either, unless it’s purely metaphorical (e.g. a visionary who shows an oppressed group that they need not be oppressed any more. I don’t mind that–but often those end up being real-world accounts, like Gandhi, etc. As well, we’re moving away from notions of prophecy in such instances). A slight variation involves the person just doing things differently, not acting in a specific, prophesied, or “saving” way, but just inspiring people to break free by herself not being coerced.

I’m curious to know whether any of you, as readers, have a similar response to this issue–or indeed, how you feel about the free will/predetermination issue in books about prophecies in which saviours are “freeing” the people in some way. If you’re a writer, is this a theme you’ve ever used, and if so, in which of the above variations (or have you made use of a further variation that I haven’t listed here)?

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