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?