Adric has found the Doctor sulking in the TARDIS cloisters. The Doctor has lost Romana and K9. He’s feeling his age. His ship seems to be falling apart too. The stone pillars, overrun with vines, crumble under his fingers. And, to cap it off, Adric wants to be taken back to Gallifrey.
“I sometimes think I should be running a tighter ship,” he says sadly.
“A tighter ship?” gasps Adric, as though this is a threatening notion.
“Yes. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is taking its toll on the old thing. Entropy increases.”
“Yes, daily. The more you put things together, the more they keep falling apart. That’s the essence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and I never heard a truer word spoken.”
It’s only fitting that the Doctor should fight one of his most elemental battles against omnipresent entropy. The Doctor has encountered entropy many times on his travels. The Tribe of Gum were dangerous because their world was dying in the cold, all heat drained away. The Moroks froze entropy in an attempt to freeze their own declining imperial history. Skaro was a petrified jungle, everything “turned to sand and ashes”. Later, the same planet was depicted as a wasteland, with technology evolving in reverse as the Thals and Kaleds fought a backwards war of attrition. The Exxilons built a city that sucked all life and vitality out of their civilisation. Skagra tried to fight entropy by subjecting all life to his will, thus turning the universe into a machine for constructing more and more structure. The Argolin were sterile, living on a desolated world. The Melkur came to the Keeper’s walled garden and started breeding blights and weeds. The Doctor even comes from a world that has stalled entropy forever, only to find itself socially entropic. Entropy has always been implicitly unbiquitous in the Doctor’s universe. Just as he notices it nibbling away at the TARDIS, it becomes explicitly unbiquitous.
SF is obsessed with entropy because SF is one of the cultural products most peculiar to modernity. Modernity is, essentially, the condition of the rise and triumph of capitalism. Capitalism is entropic. Like the Master, it ‘generates’ entropy.
SF expresses the dizzying possibilities of modernity in terms of space travel and time travel. It is not ‘scientific’ but it would be unthinkable without science. The language of science is the language it uses to reiterate the old myths and legends of death and decay and eternity. It is, perhaps, the quintessential genre of modernity. It is how fiction tackles the “relationship of man to his tools” in a modern, capitalist age when the tools have become powerful enough to destroy worlds and (seemingly) think for themselves. SF keeps coming back to the hyper-destructive violence of high-tech war. It keeps coming back to the end of the world, the post-apocalyptic wasteland. It keeps coming back to stalled and tottering dystopias. It keeps coming back to the malfunctioning of technology, its unintended by-products, the machines that kill and ruin.
Capitalism invented the concept of entropy. It is an insight from the Industrial Revolution, concerned with the functioning of engines. Capitalism adapted entropy to information; Information Theory began in the Rand Corporation. Capitalism creates more and more commodities, which depreciate in real terms or get superseded in relative terms. They break and run down, or they get overtaken by new models. Either way, capitalism creates wastelands of spent and useless commodities, junkyards, massive landfills, island-sized rubbish tips. Capitalism surrounds us with broken machines and sputtering engines, and the packaging they come in, and the spent batteries that made them work. Capitalism is a forest of belching chimneys. Capitalism is a panorama of old cars with flat tyres, beached on great stretches of motorway covered in the grime of exhaust pipes. Battered old police boxes by the side of the road, sat next to litter bins and abandoned bicycles.
Capitalist industry creates smoke that turns buildings black. It creates awesome machines that end up rusting. It creates warehouses that get boarded up. It mass-produces chaos by making more and more things. It does this by raising the productive forces to levels unprecedented in previous history. The more you put things together…
Capitalism cannot help creating economic crises. They are built into its structure. It needs them. These crises entail overproduction of things for profit, which will then be left unbought by people who can no longer afford them. Bankruptcies and busts litter the land with empty shops and empty houses and people living in cardboard boxes. Capitalism can only clamber out of such crises by destroying huge amounts of capital.
Capitalism generates destruction anyway. Capitalism generates imperialism and war. It fuses with nation states, and these fused blocs then compete for resources. It creates massive industries catering to war, mass-producing more and ever-greater machines of destruction… and then those machines either sit uselessly until they are replaced, or they are sent to pulverise the other side’s machines into fragments, along with their people and buildings and roads…
This is the universe the Doctor lives in. This is Argolis and Zolf-Thura and Skaro and Uxaerius; laid waste by high-tech warfare. This is Karn, littered with crashed ships because apparently everyone on the planet is trying to fend off death using some kind of occult science. This is the Tharil empire; a feudal world reduced to haunted ruins by a revolution in trade. This is Paradise Towers; modernity (Modernism, even) in decay. This is Frontios, with its failure proof technology that fails. This is New New York, stuck in a social moebius loop by a runaway commodity. This is, unquestionably, the Time War.
Things have always decayed, but the ubiquity of entropy that we now take for granted is a phenomenon of modernity. The condition of modernity is the condition of being surrounded by entropy. It is the condition of living in a world in which entropy is kept barely in check.
It is the condition of constantly inflating a punctured tire.