Eta Cancri review

Please welcome Xewleer to Superversive SF, he is a new reviewer and you can expect a lot more from him. His review is cross posted from his blog millennialking.wordpress.com

Spoilers! It’s a great book, and worth reading.


I just finished Eta Cancri by Russell May. It was, surprisingly for an author who was not on my radar before, an excellent read chock full of delicious theology. It was a treat, to be sure. The characters are living and breathing with distinct personalities. The descriptions are on point. The science is a good medium-hard, with just the right amount of give for philosophical and theological conversations the teeth they need to grow. Ah… that more stories which pride themselves on science and philosophy would take this route!

The book switches through various characters’ POV. My personal favorites were Ed and June, along with the AI Archie. Each one has a solid voice and drive that breathes life into this book more than could be expected. Indeed, books that switch perspective live and die on this sword. I could tell that the POV shifted through the author’s choices in word play, character focus and other hints almost instantly.

The conceit of the story, which involves demonic possession, bacteria and genetic modification, was well done and quite unique to this author from my experiences. Though I have experimented and read up on demonic possession and stories about it, this is the first time I’ve seen it used in such a broad and interesting way. Nothing triggered any sort of violation of the suspension of disbelief. It holds up the story incredibly well. This is dreadfully important in this genre as Russell did it. If the suspension of Disbelief is violated, then the entire book will fall over itself and the threads that he depends on to carry the story forward logically will be lost, unable to be gained back.

Though there is no part of the story I groaned at the reading of, I did feel fatigue about halfway through on chapter 3 or 4 (?). The story before and after focuses on multiple characters, the evil of the Demon Legion, the science, philosophy and theology mix and POV shifts. This middle bit has nothing that really sticks out too hard. The story sticks to Pierce the techno-everyman and doesn’t shift too much. There’s just too much dialogue and not enough cool stuff to give us a rest between theological questions. Not that I was exhausted by the questions, I just wish the heady brew was cut a little with soda. Even a bit where Ed deals with his crazy and preps for the ship coming in, or June sees something which heightens our horror at the actions of Legion would do much for the pacing and general interest. I’ll point out that Ed has no reason to not succumb or struggle with Legion’s influence and a decent POV could have been written comparing and contrasting his belief in Dame Fortune and the belief in God, which is touched upon later but not to my satisfaction.

I’ll point out that, theologically, what we call Dame Fortune is the Will of God. That the saved man has free will is not something I debate or question. I question how much Dame Fortune impugns it. (I use Dame Fortune as a conceit from the story. Mentally, I use the term ‘Fate’) Does a belief in Fortune change how free will operates as we continue in Christian Free Will or Willfulness Against God? I think that there might have been an excellent few points to be made there between Ed and Father Justinian, more than was done in story. Though, there is a sequel in the cliff hanger, and I will be purchasing it as soon as it comes out.

I also wanted a little more debate on the nature on Transhumanism. I am not fond of it, as I believe that the body has the critical mass to keep the soul ‘Human’ and that, at a certain point, the ‘I as I’ that is ‘You as you are’ becomes warped into something that could be described as ‘ME’ 2.0. Also, what is morality to someone who is neither permanent or baseline human? (Though those points are touched on) June seemingly has no contrast in character, but rather is June personality as June soul is June without much debate despite much lycanthropy. Various ideas are presented with authority, but I don’t feel it is earned. The matrons producing ubermenschen in the asteroid belts are not properly repudiated in a manner that I call an argument. Rather, it is just presented as wrong. I dig, but I’m really hoping for a similar thing to Ed in the sequel.

I’ve not gone into the plot because it’s quite simple. A colony goes dark and a ragtag group of cyborgs, everymen and mercenaries go to figure it out and cleanse with fire whatever’s in there. Just about right, really. You don’t need fancy pants intrigue for stuff like this. Most of the characters are moral, upright and probably one of the best portrayals of Christians I’ve seen in Science Fiction. I’m sorry John C. Wright, but sort of randomly turning Mickey the Witch into the Space Pope of the Seventh Humans because of his wife without a redemption scene just doesn’t compare to baptism after flamebroiling demonic abominations with improvised explosives created by a literal Biblical evil. But it’s different scopes. That scene doesn’t compare to the Cathedral of Luna in the 4th book of Count to Eschaton. Ahhhh it’s perhaps differences in scale. But I’d be very interested in talking with Russel May some time to break down what he believes and what his reasoning is.

I wanted MORE, if you could believe it. I find that I have a hard time reading philosophy directly, so I have a better time consuming it if its regurgitated through literature, especially when the author provides examples within the story to provide a more definite framework for the reader to investigate. It really does wonders for the most artistically inclined philosophers, who may not be able to as readily read the great works directly. Of course, this assumes the reader is able to properly manage things that are presented vs. their origin points. Counter and counter-counter is appreciated through the characters of Archie, Father Justinian and even Legion. Legion’s absolute Nihilism is well presented without the usual tropes in plain evidence. There’s always a fresh horror from him. His unfetteredness and nihilism make an excellent baseline for the ‘evil’ of the universe. Nihilism is a hell of a drug, kids, and leads to madness.

I also think the book is missing a carnival scene. But then again, I’m a sucker for them. I also wanted more crazy bomb stuff fight scene flip outs from Michaud and Lars, but ah.

The combat scenes are fresh, well done. The weapons properly treated with excellent extensions of characterization through them. The creativity that Russell displays drives the story forward with brazen steps. Lar’s and the rest of the characters’ spirituality treated so delicately as to be art. Ah! There are few flaws and many boons to reading this book!

Overall this book is mos defs a purchase soft-cover, maybe hard-cover kinda book. Sadly, there are only kindle copies available at this time. It is worth a read! It is SUPERVERSIVE. I hope with fervent prayer that we are coming to an era where the dominant voice in Sci-Fi is Christianity! If Russell May joins the luminaries of the Superversives, Castalia House and others, shall not the glory of God be expanded in this genre of atheists, science worshippers and deviants?  DEUS VULT!

Xewleer

I, even I, drink ink like wine.

The Fear of Silence

How often do you enjoy silence? True silence, not only in the atmosphere around you, but in your mind as well. Do you appreciate silence, or do you find it a burden? Unless we seek it out, is there ever a time when we are not surrounded by distractions and noise?

The past century has brought many advances in technology and changes to the people’s daily lives. From radios, to television and Hollywood, and the internet, the world is far from where it once was. Even in my rather short lifetime, things have changed a lot. I remember before social media was so present in our daily lives, when cell phone were almost exclusively for making calls, back before people started documenting their lives on their devices. And yet now, practically everyone has their phone always with them. Hand held computers make distractions so very easy. So much entertainment and temptation at the touch of a button, anywhere, at any time. The perfect excuse to avoid real-life social interaction.

Why do people become so attached to the internet? To car radios? To social media? To the endless noise and things constantly going on around them? Because the noise is easy. If they are always moving from one thing to another, they don’t have the time to look closely at themselves. The noise keeps them distracted from the thoughts and questions deep inside them. Distracted from the feeling that something is not quite right, but you don’t know what the thing is or why it bugs you. Instead you pretend it’s not there, and use noise to drown it out.

It’s not only our entertainment and gadgets that keep us perpetually busy. Everyone has school and work and activities to go to. School, for example, seems to completely take over the lives of the youth. Certainly, it is important to be educated and able to read, write, calculate numbers, and other basic things to function in our society. But does it need to be at the point where they are at school all day, doing homework all night, stressing about assignments due, and left with no time to themselves? And even when they do have free time, they are so exhausted all they can do is rest and recharge. All their critical thinking is used up memorizing the material to repeat back on the test.

Couple that with the social pressures they are subject to in school and from peers, and the media in general, how do you expect the youth today to be able to think and really know who they are by the time they are an adult?

For me, especially in my younger years, it was rather easy. Mom never allowed us to sit in front of a screen or watch TV for very long. And being homeschooled, I didn’t have the hassle and stress from the school environment. So the majority of my childhood was spent playing games with my brothers and friends, or off exploring and doing my own thing.

Then we moved to a small farm when I was ten, and not long after I got my first laptop to write on. In the years following I certainly knew, and sometimes fell into, the temptation of wasting my time on the internet – of letting the “noise” go on and on. But what made the difference for me, was that I had animals to feed. Every day I would have to go outside and tend to my animals. This can take from twenty minutes to an hour or more, depending on the season. Occasionally I would listen to music while I worked, sometimes I’d sing to myself, but mostly it was just me and my animals.

I never really realized it until now, but that was my time for silence. It was my time just to be with myself, away from the noise. I believe it is what has kept me sane – as sane as a writer can be – and secure in myself and who I am and what I think.

Growing up in such a way allowed me to spend a lot of time with myself, and thus get to know myself very well. I am in no way perfect, but I understand my strengths and my weaknesses, I know what I am and what I am not. And when you understand that about yourself, it makes it much harder for people to tear you down.

Now let me compare that to the time that I call “my crash course in everything high school.” This happened two summers ago when one of my brothers, my good friend, and I attended a college workshop for high school kids. It was simple: two days of classes, one day was a fun field trip, and on the last day we all took a test. The students that did the best, got awarded a scholarships, and we all went home. This was the closest I’ve come to a public school environment, and it had all your typical high school stuff: the bus ride, the obnoxious kids, the ‘boy’, the girl drama, the sitting in classes, and the stress before taking a test. Like I said, crash course in high school. It about ran me into the ground.

The main thing I noticed, was how out of myself I became. There were so many people around, all the time. If you’ve ever meet me, you will know how much of a social butterfly I am and how much I enjoy being around and talking to people. However, usually the social butterfly side of me is balanced by my anti-social author side. But in this case, I didn’t have that balance. I didn’t have the time or space just to chill out and be completely by myself without distractions for a very long time. I was either in my dorm with my friend, or in class with a bunch of other people, or doing activities with other people. There never seemed to be a time that I wasn’t surrounded by other people.

But allow me to explain what this constant stimulation did to me.

I was overly-hyper, jittery, constantly talking, over stimulated, and as a whole, unbalanced. I had too much energy always focusing outward, and never enough time to bring the energy back inward. After that whole experience, it wasn’t until a couple days after I got home that I felt like myself again. I was just so wound up from all that social interaction – from all the noise – that I never had a chance to unwind. And so I became tighter and tighter wound and further and further away from myself.

See, I never understood that concept I had often heard preached at teens to “find yourself” or “be who you really are.” I just didn’t get why that was such a ‘thing’ that teens needed to do. But after that week, I finally understood. Because I had already known how to be myself, I had spent so much time by myself and out of the noise that I couldn’t be anything but myself. Yet now, seeing what that buzz and noise did to me after only a couple days, I can only imagine what it would do to me if I had spent my whole childhood in that. I’d be a totally different person. I wouldn’t have the space or freedom from the noise to be comfortable and grow in myself. It would be terrible.

 

In C. S. Lewis’ work the Screwtape Letters, there is an ongoing conversation between a demon named Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. Uncle Screwtape is encouraging and reprimanding his nephews’ work on tricking a human into eternal damnation. Allow me to quote uncle Screwtape’s comment about silence, .

 

And now for your blunders. On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this? The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality. Thus if you had been trying to damn your man by the Romantic method—by making him a kind of Childe Harold or Werther submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses—you would try to protect him at all costs from any real pain; because, of course, five minutes’ genuine toothache would reveal the romantic sorrows for the nonsense they were and unmask your whole strategem. But you were trying to damn your patient by the World that is by palming off vanity, bustle, irony, and expensive tedium as pleasures. How can you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet? Didn’t you foresee that it would just kill by contrast all the trumpery which you have been so laboriously teaching him to value? And that the sort of pleasure which the book and the walk gave him was the most dangerous of all? That it would peel off from his sensibility the kind of crust you have been forming on it, and make him feel that he was coming home, recovering himself? As a preliminary to detaching him from the Enemy, you wanted to detach him from himself, and had made some progress in doing so. Now, all that is undone.

C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

 

Uncle Screwtape is criticizing his nephew because he allowed his patient to enjoy silence. Wormwood allowed his human to find the peace in the silence, to relax and see the world around him. He allowed his patient to enjoy something good for it’s own sake. This is very dangerous to them, because it dispels the noise and self-centeredness.

Think about going to the top of a mountain. Imagine standing on a wooden balcony overlooking an entire valley. The tops of the mountain lost in low clouds, the variety of shades of trees covering the mountain face like an impressionist’s painting, the startling drop below you as you lean over the edge, looking into the life and layout of an entire town. Are not you in awe of such a sight? Is not your heart stirred? Is not your mind caught up in the grandness and majesty? Does it not make you feel so much smaller in comparison? But not even in a insignificant way, for it does not diminish you, but lifts you. It brings you to see the wonder and majesty of God’s creation, it brings you out of yourself; so you can see that even though you are not any less valued or significant, you are only one small part of this universe. It makes our problems seem so much smaller in comparison, and you see and feel the almighty power of God.

Basically, it brings you into perspective.  But this perspective cannot be achieved when caved in on ourselves and surrounded by noise that encourages us to stay that way.

As it says in the letter, when you are opened up to real Pleasure and Pain, the illusions we build around ourselves disappear. Many people get caught up in small dramas; like what their favorite celebrity is doing, their status on social media, and other things of that nature. In small doses those things aren’t that dangerous. But it becomes a slippery slope when those little dramas totally take over our minds and, we become obsessed with it.

When that happens, it becomes such a big part of people’s thoughts that if something undesirable happens it is the worst ever! However, if something truly bad happens – like a death, illness, or misfortune – it brings things into perspective, shatters the illusion, and leaves you much more sober.

And same thing with real pleasure. You wouldn’t be talking about it just to fit in. You’d truly be filled with joy and constantly be sharing and talking about it for it’s own sake. Because it is good in itself.

The characteristic of sin and the noise is to cave you in on yourself. When you focus on the little drama that seems like such a big deal, your focus becomes self-centered. And when you only look at yourself you miss the bigger picture and the needs of others. Exactly what the enemy wants you to do.

In the little dramas you look in at yourself in a superficial way: What I want, how I look, how much popularity do I have, what pleases me. These kinds of questions happen when there’s an event or trend going on.

Yet when you look deeper the questions are: who am I? Where did I come from? Why do I exist? What is my purpose? Now those kinds of questions come when you have a near death experience, a life changing event, or when you are in silence. Because those questions or always there somewhere in the back of our minds, it is when we are out of the noise that we can hear them best.

When those questions arise, some think of it as an existential crisis. And when you don’t have the answers, which most don’t, it can be quite scary to have these nagging thoughts deep inside you, the ones that challenge and call you. But if instead of facing these questions you seek to drown them out, you are taking the easy way. It is less painful to slip into passiveness and mindless pleasure than to seek out the the answers and pursue truth. And so, to be in silence is to look at yourself, but also look past yourself, to the one who made you.

This is what comes in real silence. And this is what people fear.

But no, we can’t take a hard look at ourselves, we must stay caught up in our daily stress, we must be constantly making things easier and more instant, we must forever be talking about the drama of others, we must be outraged at every new story the media pushes at us. Because if not, we might stop to think and tune out the noise. We might realize that the world and its problems are much bigger than our petty dramas. After all, in the end all is vanity.

Coming back to my point about silence in nature, here is a passage from Brave New World, in which they are explaining how they get people to go into the country, without actually wanting to see the country.

One of the students held up his hand; and though he could see quite well why you couldn’t have lower-cast people wasting the Community’s time over books, and that there was always the risk of their reading something which might undesirably decondition one of their reflexes, yet … well, he couldn’t understand about the flowers. Why go to the trouble of making it psychologically impossible for Deltas to like flowers?

Patiently the D.H.C. explained. If the children were made to scream at the sight of a rose, that was on grounds of high economic policy. Not so very long ago (a century or thereabouts), Gammas, Deltas, even Epsilons, had been conditioned to like flowers-flowers in particular and wild nature in general. The idea was to make them want to be going out into the country at every available opportunity, and so compel them to consume transport.

“And didn’t they consume transport?” asked the student.

“Quite a lot,” the D.H.C. replied. “But nothing else.”

Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes; to abolish the love of nature, but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep on going to the country, even though they hated it. The problem was to find an economically sounder reason for consuming transport than a mere affection for primroses and landscapes. It was duly found.

“We condition the masses to hate the country,” concluded the Director. “But simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time, we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport. Hence those electric shocks.”

“I see,” said the student, and was silent, lost in admiration.

 

Aldous Huxley Brave New World

And again you see it is an “I”. I want to go play golf because it is a sport I enjoy. Nothing wrong with that. But as you seen in the conditioning, that is the only reason they go into nature. The people of Brave New World would never dream of going into a field of flowers and enjoying it simply because it’s beautiful. Admiring true beauty for the sake of beauty and wishing to be silent in it is a danger to a stable society.You might get people thinking!

In our world today, we are surrounded by beeping buttons and flashing light. Our attention is being pulled a hundred ways at once. There is almost no way to get away from all that noise. And because in the noise it is so hard to get to the deeper core, it is all just static. Because of that, it is easiest to just go with with is the loudest signal, and what is loudest is usually from the people with the most power. And there’s always an agenda behind that.

For people with a lot of power and something to push, the noise works very well for them. They can easily manufacture noise, they can stir up riots, they can control the media, and whatever else to get emotions of people running out of control. Because if they get people to stop checking their gut reactions and think through things, they can swings those reactions the way the want.Thus adding to the noise. Then while everyone is distracted, they can push their agenda.

Although there are plenty of corrupt people willing to take advantage of this and manipulate events, they can only really control what is in their lifetime, which is relatively short. No human can guide the events over generations. One could try but it would be imperfect, since this job would have to be passed from person to person. But if there were someone immortal being that had a grudge against all things good and holy…..

If you look back on the last century, there are some disturbing trends. There are things that have fallen in line in the past decades that would have had to be set in motion many generations ago. To think that the corruption in our society today was conducted only by human hands would be wishful thinking. For although there are human powers that have played a role, I have no doubt something more sinister is leading this march of distraction.

Now allow me to conclude with another excerpt from Brave New World. It is a scene with two characters going on a date. I believe it does an excellent job illustrating the person desiring something beyond himself, and the person who is far too complacent and happy in her conditioning, who fears the silence because it is something she can never understand.

 

Pretty harmless, perhaps; but also pretty disquieting. That mania, to start with, for doing things in private. Which meant, in practice, not doing anything at all. For what was there that one could do in private. (Apart, of course, from going to bed: but one couldn’t do that all the time.) Yes, what was there? Precious little. The first afternoon they went out together was particularly fine. Lenina had suggested a swim at Toquay Country Club followed by dinner at the Oxford Union. But Bernard thought there would be too much of a crowd. Then what about a round of Electro-magnetic Golf at St. Andrew’s? But again, no: Bernard considered that Electro-magnetic Golf was a waste of time.

“Then what’s time for?” asked Lenina in some astonishment.

Apparently, for going walks in the Lake District; for that was what he now proposed. Land on the top of Skiddaw and walk for a couple of hours in the heather. “Alone with you, Lenina.”

“But, Bernard, we shall be alone all night.”

Bernard blushed and looked away. “I meant, alone for talking,” he mumbled.

“Talking? But what about?” Walking and talking-that seemed a very odd way of spending an afternoon.

In the end she persuaded him, much against his will, to fly over to Amsterdam to see the Semi-Demi-Finals of the Women’s Heavyweight Wrestling Championship.

“In a crowd,” he grumbled. “As usual.” He remained obstinately gloomy the whole afternoon; wouldn’t talk to Lenina’s friends (of whom they met dozens in the ice-cream soma bar between the wrestling bouts); and in spite of his misery absolutely refused to take the half-gramme raspberry sundae which she pressed upon him. “I’d rather be myself,” he said. “Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.”

“A gramme in time saves nine,” said Lenina, producing a bright treasure of sleep-taught wisdom. Bernard pushed away the proffered glass impatiently.

“Now don’t lose your temper,” she said. “Remember one cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments.”

“Oh, for Ford’s sake, be quiet!” he shouted.

Lenina shrugged her shoulders. “A gramme is always better than a damn,” she concluded with dignity, and drank the sundae herself.

On their way back across the Channel, Bernard insisted on stopping his propeller and hovering on his helicopter screws within a hundred feet of the waves. The weather had taken a change for the worse; a south- westerly wind had sprung up, the sky was cloudy.

“Look,” he commanded.

“But it’s horrible,” said Lenina, shrinking back from the window. She was appalled by the rushing emptiness of the night, by the black foam-flecked water heaving beneath them, by the pale face of the moon, so haggard and distracted among the hastening clouds. “Let’s turn on the radio. Quick!” She reached for the dialling knob on the dash-board and turned it at random.

“… skies are blue inside of you,” sang sixteen tremoloing falsettos,

“the weather’s always …”

Then a hiccough and silence. Bernard had switched off the current.

“I want to look at the sea in peace,” he said. “One can’t even look with that beastly noise going on.”

“But it’s lovely. And I don’t want to look.”

“But I do,” he insisted. “It makes me feel as though …” he hesitated, searching for words with which to express himself, “as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body. Doesn’t it make you feel like that, Lenina?”

 

 

However, Lenina does not understand, and never will. She does not feel the pull of something beyond herself. Lenina is far too attached to her conditioning to understand the longing that Bernard feels.

Bernard wishes to do things in private, like to go on walks alone and just talk. He wants to sit in silence looking at the sea. He is looking for intimacy deeper than the constant activity and casual sex.

Lenina doesn’t understand this. And because she doesn’t understand the silence, it frightens her. It frightens her because the silence invites her to deeper thoughts and feelings, the kind she would rather take soma to forget about.

And so you see, there are many things to keep us from silence. There is always something fighting for our attentions – tempting us to take the easy way and go with the noise. And yet it is paramount that we seek out and acquaint ourselves with silence, not only for our mental health, but for our physical and emotional health as well. We need silence to properly think. That’s why people are so afraid of silence. Because it takes away the static. It takes away the convenience of following the loudest signal. It makes you question and have to listen for that whisper of truth.

People are afraid of silence because that is when the truth that is ingrained in all of us is the loudest. And truth is terrifying.

Is Galaxy Quest Superversive?

Galaxy Quest
The crew of the Protector, about to give the Enterprise crew a run for their money–and have more fun while they’re at it.

Yesterday I revisited the late 90s cult classic Galaxy Quest. Not only is it one of my favorite comedies, it easily stands among my favorite SF films and is just plain one of my all-time favorite movies.

OK, I’m laying my cards on the table. In addition to the accolades I already heaped on it, Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie. Sure, it’s an homage that parodies Trek in much the same way that Spaceballs riffed on Star Wars (of which it is the fourth best film, but that’s another post), but Galaxy Quest succeeds where even Mel Brooks failed. It beat its source material at its own game.

Don’t take my word for it. Fans at a major Star Trek convention ranked Galaxy Quest the seventh best film in the series, and that was only because of backroom politicking that bumped Quest down from its starting position in second place. Key members of the creative team who’ve worked on Star Trek movies since The Voyage Home declared that it deserved to be #1.
A twist on a familiar story

For those who are unfamiliar with Galaxy Quest, shame on you! Go watch it right now.

NOW!

For those who are at work or school or prison or somewhere like North Korea that won’t let you stream videos, Galaxy Quest follows a simple yet ingenious premise.

NOTE: this movie is almost twenty years old, so my spoiler filter is off.

The washed-up stars of a 70s SF TV show, forced to subsist on convention signings and ribbon cuttings since the program’s cancellation, get much more than they bargained for when what they mistake for another promo gig turns out to be the real thing.

Facing genocide, an alien race has turned to “Historical Documents” from earth, i.e. television transmissions, for guidance–especially old episodes of Galaxy Quest. They lovingly reproduce the series’ iconic ship down to the last bolt and dab of paint; then enlist the original crew to lead them in battle.

Galaxy Quest NSEA Protector
The most accurate fan prop ever! Seriously, the visuals alone tell you how well the filmmakers understand the subject matter.

Unfortunately, the “crew” don’t have their act together–figuratively or literally.

Galaxy Quest Crew
The pictorial definition of “fish out of water”.

Besides the shock of finding themselves embroiled in a real interstellar war, the actors must confront the interpersonal grudges and rivalries that have alienated them from each other as they’re thrust back into their old roles. It’s the command performance of a lifetime, with stakes far higher than bad ratings.
A worthy homage

In design and execution, Galaxy Quest not only meets the standard set by Star Trek, but sometimes surpasses it. Quest is like the rare cover version of a song that draws out the original’s latent potential and takes it to the next level.

Now imagine that the cover song is by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the metaphor is complete. Don’t let the comedy distract you from the fact that the artist is a bona fide genius.

Why does Galaxy Quest deserve such praise? The simplest reason is that it’s a sci-fi, parody, ensemble cast, character-driven, comedy/adventure film that works on each and every one of those levels.

First of all, comedy is widely and correctly understood as the hardest genre to pull off properly. Galaxy Quest is indeed a sterling comedy. Rare among contemporary films in this genre, it doesn’t stoop to lazy one-liners or crude slapstick for cheap laughs. Instead, it takes the high road of crafting situational humor based on solidly established characters and how they react to their strange circumstances.

NB: critics lament how modern comedies have largely replaced actual jokes with glib pop culture references. Ironically, Galaxy Quest is one of the few movies that could’ve gotten away with that gimmick. Yet its makers exercised admirable restraint in weaving SF tropes into the story subtly and organically through the actors’ performances.

Alexander Dane: Typecast Thespian archetype. Alan Rickman’s delivery says it all. 

The near-subliminal references even extend to the movie’s visual design.

Galaxy Quest Protector
Yes. The NSEA Protector is a comm badge from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

After soaring over the highest hurdle, Galaxy Quest goes for the gold in the sci-fi, space opera, and characterization categories. Though the science is extra squishy (just how I like it), the movie more than compensates by adding new speculative elements that are just as satisfying as their Trek analogs.

The digital conveyor, FTL flight via black holes (later explored seriously by Interstellar), and the Omega 13 device are just some of the masterful conceits that establish Quests’s own consistent mythos.

One added benefit of rewatching the film was realizing just how gorgeous it is. The conceptual and technical design; even the costumes, are on par with the finer Trek movies while having a pleasing aesthetic all their own.

I was also surprised by how the movie’s visuals influenced the descriptions in my own writing. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the bridge of the Protector clearly inspired the wheelhouse of the Serapis from Nethereal.

Not the Lovecraftian ship in front; the one way off in the background.

The special effects only lose a few points because some of the CG looks a little outdated now, but it still beats any Syfy Channel original movie.

In the action department, Galaxy Quest largely departs from the submarine warfare style of most Trek installments and depicts pulpier, though honestly more exciting, space battles. The character-level gun play and fisticuffs retain comedic elements while portraying deadly consequences, sometimes in direct contrast to the TV show’s camp.

Alexander at the crux of his character arc. Same line; vastly different context and significance.

But is it superversive?

Galaxy Quest is a criminally underrated comedy and sci-fi masterpiece. But solid craftsmanship alone doesn’t qualify a work of art as superversive.

As I’ve noted before, superversive fiction entails a particular commitment to storytelling in the service of beauty, goodness, and truth. Tom Simon gives the definitive explanation.

“…[C]ourage is the essential quality of a superversive story: not the dumb, dull fortitude that passively endures in the face of suffering, but the courage that allows the character to take action – to risk becoming a hero.”

That right there is the standard of a superversive tale. Does Galaxy Quest rise to it?
Damn straight it does

At the movie’s low point, Jason Nesmith (aptly portrayed by Tim Allen) must confess to the alien leader Mathesar that he and his “crew” are not what the aliens believed. They are simple actors pretending to be space explorers on sets made of plywood, tinfoil, and Christmas lights.

Galaxy Quest Jason and Mathesar
Yes, Mathesar, there IS a Santa Claus.

Mathesar’s race–the Thermians–are perfect examples of the purely material beings described by master SF author John C. Wright. Mathesar states that his people lacked transcendent beliefs, and that they interpreted all earth television broadcasts as historical documentaries.

This is strong evidence that the Thermians are purely material–or at least materialistic–beings with no spiritual dimension to their existence, who as such have no longing for a reality above and beyond the mundane world.

Wright convincingly reasons that sapient beings who are fully “at home” in the material world would have no need for or concept of fiction. Their libraries would have only textbooks and newspapers; not pulp magazines and novels. The Thermians therefore see no difference between fiction and lies.

The interactions between guileless Thermians and duplicitous humans brings about one of the movie’s core moral themes: what value, if any, does fiction have? When asked why humans would go to the considerable effort and expense of creating such elaborate charades, Nesmith admits to Mathesar that he doesn’t know. He makes halfhearted mention of entertainment, but it’s clear that he’s never thought through the basis of his craft.

It is here, in the last act, that Galaxy Quest goes from being a workmanlike and thoroughly enjoyable parody to a work of\superversive genius.

The cast of the Galaxy Quest TV show start the movie as petty, frustrated characters, depressed by their inability to be who their talents and dispositions call them to be. They’re suddenly given a final, all-or-nothing chance to redeem themselves.

Galaxy Quest Jason Nesmith
Pictorial definition of “unlikely hero”

The crew of actors are given multiple chances throughout the film to escape the conflict and return home to their old lives. Each time, they decide to stay, even after learning that they’re in mortal danger. Jason and his crew don’t just suffer adversity with patience. They willingly accept terrible risks for the sake of practical strangers from a distant world.

Even more impressive, Galaxy Quest answers its thematic question about the value of art; not through dialog, but through the characters’ actions. Traditionally, protagonists in mistaken identity plots prevail by either tapping into hidden strengths, or by leveraging their native abilities.

The cast of Galaxy Quest do both–employing their acting chops to overcome challenges while growing into their fictional roles for real. By the end of the movie, Tony Shalhoub’s character really is the Protector’s chief engineer. Reluctant pilot Tommy flies her with confidence and skill. Jason is established as the ship’s master and a leader of men.

Yet it’s the final touch that cements this film as a superversive triumph. The human crew of the Protector have defeated their adversary and saved the Thermian race. At this point, a lesser story would have ended with the aliens gaining knowledge of fiction and losing some of their innocence, possibly with a trite speech about faking it until you make it or the inspirational value of noble lies.

Instead, the Thermians are convinced that Nesmith’s confession was itself a ruse, and their faith in the “Historical Documents” is fully restored.

Now, I anticipate criticism on the grounds that our heroes leave the Thermians in ignorance. Isn’t the bitterest truth preferable to the sweetest lie?

To which I reply that anyone making such an objection is equivocating. Equating fiction with deceit is the Thermians’ mistake, made because they’re fundamentally blind to the difference. Trying to distinguish between a lie told with malice and a story told in service of the truth is a Sisyphean task where Thermians are concerned, and no futile task is morally obligatory.

And because we, the audience, are not Thermians, we can see how Galaxy Quest upholds the wonder and beauty of space exploration, the good of heroic virtue, and the truth that the value of good fiction transcends the world of base matter.

Update: in a glorious instance of life imitating art imitating life, Amazon has had a new Galaxy Quest series in the works. Production has been put on hold following the incomparable Alan Rickman’s tragic death. Here’s hoping a satisfactory yet respectful way can be found to complete the project.

Fandom Is Dead. Long Live Fandom!

the medium is the message

If you change the medium, you change the message.

Philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan argued persuasively that advances in media, regardless of content, can incite dramatic, culture-wide effects.

A best selling print book can reach millions of people, but turn that book into a hit movie, and you increase its sphere of influence by orders of magnitude. Consider The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.

Or, for a meta-example, In the Mouth of Madness.

Now throw in digital technologies–the power to instantly connect with anyone or everyone, everywhere. The effect is compounded exponentially.
A media paradigm shift is playing out in SF fandom.


Dragon Con

Getting back to McLuhan, saying that he was ahead of his time would be an understatement. In fact, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call his work prophetic. Let’s put it this way: the dude predicted the internet in 1962.

McLuhan noted that print technology caused a massive societal shift away from the more tribal, logic-focused outlook of the Middle Ages to a more individualistic, rhetorical worldview. He expected the web to swing the pendulum back toward tribalism.

Let’s take a look at SF fandom through the lens of McLuhan’s “medium as message” theory.

In the early days, science fiction enthusiasts:

A. Got their fix almost exclusively through the printed word in the form of novels and short stories circulated in magazines.

B. Were a pretty nonconformist, iconoclastic bunch. As Andy Duncan recently said on the passing of the great David Hartwell:

Even in the mid-20th century, David continued, science fiction was a haven for gay and bi and trans people, for people in open marriages or triads or even more complex domestic scenarios, for people with physical and mental disabilities, for shameless exhibitionists and unapologetic recluses, for anarchists and socialists and Birchers and libertarians and Weathermen and CIA operatives, for cosplayers and gamers and creative anachronists and people who crafted wholly spurious biographies for themselves that were accepted and therefore became sort of true, for channelers and Scientologists and orthodox Jews and pre-Vatican II Catholics and Mormons and New Agers and heretics and atheists and freethinkers, for Ph.D.’s and autodidacts, for writers of COBOL and speakers of Esperanto, for Forteans and CSICOPs, for astronomers and astrologers, for psychics and physicists, for basically anyone who was smart and passionate and willing to pitch in somewhere— though talent certainly helped, and curiosity, and a zeal for argument, and a sense of humor.

C. Subsisted as a relatively small subculture within larger Western society.

It’s often been remarked how sci-fi fandom burst out of the basements, niche bookstores, and cramped con suites of its birth to win new legions of adherents with the 1977 release of Star Wars.

For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.

–Brad R. Torgersen

Most commenters usually emphasize this event’s unprecedented effect on C, take A largely for granted, and so gloss over–or misattribute–the causal relationship between the change in the primary medium of SF consumption and B.

Brad is an outlier in his astute recognition that newer media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) contributed to the disruption of old fandom. But he focuses more on what kinds of SF contemporary fans prefer than how they prefer to experience it.

The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom.

My explanation for the conflicts that have shaken fandom of late differs slightly from Brad’s. I agree that relative innovations like movies and TV, and recent developments like video games (which are all reasons why there is no universal canon of SF touchstones), lie at the root of the turmoil.

But I don’t think that fandom is tearing itself apart. Instead, what we’re seeing is various sub-tribes of SF fans vying against each other to establish the identity of an emerging, consolidated fandom.

Brad gives a good description of this phenomenon: “It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.”

That, my friends, is the shape of the future. But what will be the content of its character? What sort of men will these post-fans be? Or will the Amazon servers and mega-convention halls of tomorrow be populated entirely by omnisexual, non-binary otherkin?
Fandom will become more communal, but what sort of community will it be?

Star Trek: The Apple

Watching a movie requires less personal effort than reading print. Even eBooks engage readers’ senses and though processes differently than print books do.

Audiences watching the same movie share a much more uniform experience than readers of the same book. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars knows what Luke Skywalker looks like, but no two Neuromancer readers have exactly the same mental image of Case.

The film industry dwarfs print publishing. As more people come to SF through movies, their shared experience will restore fandom’s sense of community. What the values and customs of this community will be remains undetermined.

The outcome is being decided right now, by self-appointed makers and high priests of culture. If we would have a say in the destiny of fandom, we must wield the new technological tools at our disposal. And we must establish a presence in film.

Currently, I am at best a lowly squire in the battle royale for fandom’s soul. Who are the warring tribes, and who are the chieftains that champion their visions?

We’ll meet them next time.

Reply to a Comment on the Previous Post

On Fairy StoriesCommenter ksterlingh has kindly offered constructive criticism of my previous post. Technical difficulties prevent me from responding in Superversive’s comments section, so I’ll post my reply here. Since the original reply approaches post length itself, I’ll address it point-by-point.

ksterlingh’s comments will appear in italics. My replies will appear in bold.

Hi Brian, this article left me a bit confused.

I’ll do my best to remedy that.

It seems you don’t enjoy many current epic fantasy series,

Correct. Because modern epic fantasy has suffered a total inversion from its original purpose. It’s the Holy Roman Empire of spec fic.

and I’m not going say you are wrong in not liking them. That’s personal taste.

De gustibus…

But the end of your article suggests these are “pure nihilism” (among other things which I disagree with but will leave alone).

Here’s one likely reason you were confused. My post was an examination of my estrangement from current fantasy. The impetus for my post was Leo Grin’s article, which finally explained why I (and, there’s good reason to believe, many others) have grown so disenchanted with the fantasy genre. I can’t take credit for identifying nihilism as a major flaw in contemporary fantasy. That was Leo. He makes a compelling case. If you didn’t read it before, take the time to do so here.

I can’t speak about the Belgariad, or the full series of Wheel of Time. But the first book of Wheel of Time and everything written in the Kingkiller Chronicle universe is hardly nihilistic.

I didn’t call any of those books nihilistic. Here’s the quote I used from Leo Grin:

The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210″). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.

Immediately after which I added:

Here, Grin crystallizes the source of my displeasure with contemporary epic fantasy…

I did mention those series, but in the context of fantasy that I tried reading and gave up on. At the time I didn’t know why. Leo Grin’s article illuminated several deficiencies that turned me off from current fantasy. Nihilism is his main culprit, but I quoted him calling out others, including:

  • Period soap operas with superficially fantastic trappings sold as epic fantasy
  • Excessively drawn-out plots with no endgame in sight, and probably not in mind
  • Postmodern deconstruction of myth (i.e. anti-fantasy) sold as fantasy
  • And, yeah, nihilism
Now, my list of contemporary fantasy series prefaced a train of thought where I pondered why I didn’t like them as much as Tolkien’s work and then pointed to Grin’s article as an answer. I didn’t get into a play-by-play account of what I disliked in each series, because I was making a general observation about the fantasy genre as a whole.
 
But in the interest of clarity, here you are:
 
I didn’t get around to The Belgariad until earlier this year. Friends told me they thought it was awesome when they were kids. I don’t think it holds up. It’s pretty derivative of Tolkien, right down to the War of Wrath style prologue. That’s no slight against Eddings. His work is the earliest on my list, and his perch on Tolkien’s shoulders wasn’t as crowded as it’s become since.
 
The Wheel of Time has a lot of good points–if only because there’s so much of it. I was a big fan of the series until one rather uneventful day got stretched over three or so books. I haven’t read Sanderson’s installments, but the prior volumes are based on an explicitly cyclical view of history and a pseudo-Hindu cosmology which, while not nihilistic, leaves little room for hope.
 
The Name of the Wind–the only Kingkiller Chronicle book I’ve read–isn’t overtly nihilistic, either. It is steeped in a self-congratulatory secularism that should be pretty obnoxious to anyone with even a basic understanding of Western history. ORGANIZED RELIGION BAD! SECULAR UNIVERSITY GOOD! Where, exactly, did the idea of the university come from, again?
 
I will argue that NotW’s protagonist conforms pretty well to the archetype of a Nietzschean superman.
 
I guess I can see ASOFAI seeming that way, since the world is grim and there are nihilists within it, but there are certainly moral characters to choose from.
 
Have you read Martin’s books, or have you just seen the TV show? I’ve read the whole series thus far. It’s not just a matter of the setting, mood, or characters. It’s how all of those elements interact to shout from the rooftops that the philosophy underlying ASoIaF is unadulterated nihilism. When I mentioned “a hollow veneer of fantasy trappings airbrushed onto a core of pure nihilism,” this series is what I had in mind.
 
The presence of moral characters doesn’t absolve a book of nihilism. Most nihilistic works that I’ve seen specifically include moral characters so they can be mocked and abused. ASoIaF is firmly in this camp. Name one moral character whose virtue is rewarded. Point out one instance where cynical Machiavellianism isn’t the winning behavior. If you can come up with any, I’ve got a dozen counterexamples for each.
 
The baffling part is that after criticizing these series you laud Robert E Howard? It may be true that current series do not work as heavily in mythic elements, but uhmmm… Conan is somehow not nihilistic?
 
No. Conan is not nihilistic. I’ve only read a couple of Howard’s Conan stories. That’s why I deferred to Leo Grin, who’s an acclaimed Howard scholar. Again, read his article.
 
Compared to WoT or KC? His unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle never came off to me as exactly moralistic in tone.
 
Not being moralistic isn’t sufficient cause to brand a character as nihilistic. Neither is mere evil behavior. Being (and I use the term loosely) a philosophy, Nihilism is an underlying context and reason for behavior. A nihilist could just as easily perform an intrinsically good act, but his reason for doing so would differ from, say, a Christian’s. It’s vital to keep in mind that presenting “nihilist” and “moral” as direct opposites is a false dichotomy.
 
One could argue he has Pagan virtues but then all of those you cited have that as well. And Howard’s sharp attacks on civilization while fetishizing the physically gnarled and fierce Picts (across his writing), don’t quite mesh with a heavy moralistic framework.
 
Yes. Conan practices pagan virtues–like courage and his earthy brand of wisdom. I’ll take your word for it that Howard attacked civilization. So? Bringing that up would only make sense if you were accusing Howard of being an anarchist; not trying to claim that Conan is a nihilist.
 
And here again, it’s assumed that a “moralistic framework” is antipodal to nihilism. A nihilist isn’t simply an amoral person. He’s someone who denies that objective truth exists. Remaining consistent in his nihilism would require admitting that all morality is false, but that’s a consequence of nihilism; not the philosophy itself. (And since he denies truth, he’s not obliged to be consistent, anyway.)
 
Conan doesn’t deny truth. He leaves the Big Questions to priests and philosophers, but according to Howard experts and the few stories of his I’ve read, Conan does acknowledge a fundamental order to the universe. It’s each man’s job to discover the truth for himself, but it’s clearly there. 
 
I disagree with Wright’s assessment of what fantasy is “meant” to satisfy. It can of course play the role he describes but it is a genre which can be used for many things.
 
 
“Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”
You’re right that fantasy can play a lot of roles. But that’s not the question I asked in my original post. I wanted to know what this “fantasy” thing is, and you can tell what something is by its true purpose. Tolkien and Wright don’t deny that fantasy is versatile. They assert that the glimpse it gives us of fairyland–what Tolkien called eucatastrophe; what we around here call the superversive–is definitive.
 
It’s interesting that you counter a statement of fantasy’s defining purpose with an observation that fantasy has many purposes. The two statements aren’t mutually exclusive unless you’re arguing that fantasy has no defining purpose, in which case it’s really nothing, which is a remarkably nihilistic claim.
 
The idea that Howard’s blood-soaked terrains were somehow pointing to a less disordered time, a golden age or paradise, is… questionable? Definitely simpler times, but not the rest.
 
“Disordered” in my original post didn’t mean “socially disorganized”. I meant it as, “not living according to authentic human nature”. Whether folks in the Hyborian Age lived more contrarily to human nature than we postmoderns do is a debate I’m willing to have.
 
I’m glad we agree that Howard’s work gives us a glimpse of simpler times. Thus, it satisfies that aspect of fantasy’s primary purpose.
 
And with regard to mythic elements, if I remember right Howard became tired of the same euro-tropes and was trying to shift into “pioneer”, basically old-west, style motifs.
 
How did we get on the subject of geography? So what if Howard switched to writing westerns? His fantasy is all that’s relevant here.
 
And I say this as a person who really likes Howard.
 
Another point of agreement!
 
If your “ages undreamed of” include unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle, then nihilism does not seem to be your biggest concern in fantasy fiction.
 
We’ve already dispensed with this conflating of general immorality and nihilism.
 
Next, I’m quoted saying:
 
“The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?”
 
Isn’t that ASOFAI all over the place? All of the major characters are doing the first part, and a fair yet dwindling number are doing the second as well (which underlines the impossible odds).
 
Reread that quote from me. I wasn’t giving two related elements of a story grounded in hope. I was contrasting a fundamentally nihilistic story with a fundamentally hopeful one. Indeed, most major characters in ASoIaF do the first part–which makes them nihilists. The fact that the few characters who persevere against impossible odds grow fewer all the time due to always having their hopes betrayed SHOWS THAT HOPE IS A LOSING BEHAVIOR in Westeros.
 
It occurs to me that this might be where the confusion over nihilism and morality came from. To clarify, nihilism is a metaphysic that denies objective truth. Therefore there are no moral truths. Consequently, to a nihilist, virtues (like hope) are stupid and for losers. That doesn’t mean that nihilism=immorality. Everyone behaves immorally from time to time, but not everyone is a nihilist.
 
Unless you mean stainless virtue, in which case I can go back to Howard and ask for examples.
 
Of course every character doesn’t have to be immaculate to qualify a story as fantasy. Look at Boromir.
 
And finally, you end by congratulating Leo Grin (with a link to a post titled “Leo Grin grins when he slays”) for induction into the Evil Legion of Evil.
 
That’s right. Think I’ll do it again. Congratulations, Leo!
 
Yes yes I get it’s all ironic,
 
I assume you’re referring to the organization’s name. I’m glad you get the irony, because the following suggests otherwise:
 
but that does seem to be sending mixed messages given the rest of the piece. Persevere in virtue?
 
A bunch of writers are “sending mixed messages” because their group’s name uses a literary device? That’s a bigger stretch than saying that J.K. Rowling advocates witchcraft.
 
Then there’s this:
 
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Is. 45:7)
Since that verse doesn’t tempt me into the heretical belief that God actually creates evil, you can understand why a group of writers ironically calling themselves the Evil Legion of Evil doesn’t scandalize me.
 
Please take this as constructive criticism and not just running your post down. I really did feel confused about the message being delivered.
 
Thanks for your time and effort. Please consider this post a constructive critique of your comment constructively critiquing my previous post. Hopefully it cleared things up.

Middle Earth 90210: How Tolkien and Howard’s Successors Blew Their Inheritance

Leo Grin

As this blog’s subtitle implies, I write speculative fiction. So far my works include hard SF, mil-SF, weird fiction, SF/horror, and space opera.

Perhaps you noticed the absence of fantasy from that list. The omission seems even stranger when you consider that I’m an incorrigible Tolkien fan. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion had a strong influence on my formation as a writer. Yet I haven’t published any epic fantasy, nor do I read it anymore, except for revisiting Tolkien.

It’s not for lack of trying. I made good faith attempts at reading many of the more popular epic fantasy series: The Belgariad, The Wheel of Time, The Kingkiller Chronicle, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc. In fact, I’ve almost certainly read more fantasy books than sci-fi books.

Yet the pattern is always the same. A new series is recommended. I dive in with enthusiasm. The story sets its meticulously crafted hook. Enjoyment is had–largely derived from the wonder of exploring a new world that never was. At some point (it could be upon finishing the fifth book, or the third, or the first, or halfway through the first), the spell fades. I put the series aside, and increasingly, the genre as a whole.

Why this strange, almost total dissatisfaction with fantasy? If something’s not working, considering what the thing was designed for can help identify the fault. As John C. Wright has said, fantasy is meant to satisfy–if only partially and temporarily–the intrinsic human thirst for a world that’s simpler and less disordered than ours; a lost golden age or paradise.

Epic fantasy pioneers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard understood the purpose of the genre they invented. As Cimmerian blog editor Leo Grin pointed out in a 2011 article that’s only grown more relevant with time, this understanding has largely escaped Tolkien and Howard’s heirs.

The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210″). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.

Here, Grin crystallizes the source of my displeasure with contemporary epic fantasy–a sentiment I’m far from alone in holding, if the precarious financial standing of those works’ publishers is any indication.

The truth is that little if any real fantasy–heroic tales grounded in myth that feed our longing for ages undreamed of–has been published (or pushed) by the Big Five in quite some time. Instead we’re given aimless soap operas that read like prime time cable scripts with a hollow veneer of fantasy trappings airbrushed onto a core of pure nihilism.

Note that “nihilistic” isn’t synonymous with “dark”. The former describes a particular philosophy underlying a story. The latter is a description of mood. You can have an upbeat yet fundamentally nihilistic story, or a dark and eerie story that’s ultimately grounded in hope. The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?

Congratulations are due to Leo Grin, both for shedding light on the sad state of contemporary fantasy, and for his well-deserved induction into the Evil Legion of Evil. May he receive what is best in life.

God, Atheism and Aristotle … a little off topic

I realize the following is a little off topic, but I wanted to post it somewhere and between here and Sci Phi Journal maybe some one will see it and it will be useful to them.

Can you be good without God? This is one of those perennial questions that comes up in discussions between theists and atheists and never seems to go get anywhere. This essay was inspired by a discussion along those lines over at John C. Wrights blog and I thought I would set out an idea that I think may provide a solution to the problem.

First some preliminaries that need to be addressed to save on confusion. This is not a question of morality as such. Anybody can ascribe to the historic conception of the good and seek to live in accord with that, adopt a stoic vision of reality that provides a moral framework or adopt the 10 commandments and attempt to live in light of those precepts without regard to whether the origins of those precepts are coherent. That rather misses the point though. The question is, does an idea like morality make sense and can it be grounded in some fundamental way that makes moral behavior a binding duty and not simply an optional suggestion if I feel like it. The real question is, do I have an obligation to be moral even when I don’t want to be, or it would be to my advantage not to be. That is the real test of a moral system, when it costs me more to adhere to it than to abandon it. It is easy to say “I would never steal $10,000,000!” until the bag of money is there in front of you and nobody would find out if you did take it, and you are badly in debt and the money would solve all of your immediate and pressing difficulties. That is when you really find out if you would do it or not, whether your principles are real or just for show. Until the moment of testing it is all just platitudes.

That raises the question, can the atheist be good without god in this sense? Alone in the dark when nobody is watching and there would be no consequences to the moral transgression. I think the answer is no, but not because they don’t believe in God as such, that isn’t actually the problem, at least not directly. Interestingly, if this idea works it will present a problem for many theists as well in that they will have to rectify it by adopting something like Divine Command Theory ethics. It would seem DCT is problematic because it seems very open to charges of being arbitrary and based in the idea that you must be good because God carries the biggest stick.

So what is the problem for the atheist? It would seem that for the atheist the problem is one of a metaphysics. To make for a coherent moral framework that is obligatory, even when you are alone in the dark and no one is watching, you will need something very much like Aristotelian formal and final causes. Without final causes the is/out gap presents a serious problem. As Hume showed, you can’t really get from a descriptive statement about the world, “the way it is”, and from that observation derive an ought about what is the moral cause of action.

The way to avoid the is/ought problem is with Aristotle. There are actions that are in line with a way a being ought to behave, that work towards the good for the being, that operate in line with their inherent design and function and there are things that don’t. That man has an obligation to live in line with the good because that is mans final cause. That is the way he ought to live, it is a fact of reality if formal and final causes exist. Without formal and final causes, if you attempt to adopt the “mechanical project” as Edward Feser terms it, you encounter all of the problems of trying to derive an ought from an is, along with the problem of induction, the mind/body problem and everything else that the modern philosophical project has spawned with its rejection of formal and final causes. Efficient and Material causes wont let you construct a binding moral framework that applies alone in the dark. The problem is deeper than that, as Aristotle showed in Book 2 of the Physics. You can’t separate the causes, Efficient and Material causes are insufficient to explain causality coherently.

The solution to grounding morality effectively is a return to Aristotle’s robust understanding of causation, abandon the failed attempt to dispense with formal and final causes and a return to virtue ethics. The alternative is the moral nihilism that the mechanical project inevitably ends in. I would suggest it is worse than that and the mechanical project will end in full fledged nihilism that extends all the way to the merelogical but that is a bit beyond the scope of the question here.

So why is this a problem for the atheist? Can’t they just adopt the robust Aristotelian theory of causation, get a moral foundation of formal and final causes back and go on their merry way, able to answer he Christian who challenges them and says they cannot be good without god?
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for the atheist the answer is no. If the atheist adopts Aristotelian causation he will have a new problem. A somewhat obscure monk named Tom showed why in his beginners book on theology. Tom showed rather conclusively that if you adopt Aristotle’s understanding of causation that you can’t avoid needing to adopt a fairly robust generic theism and that that conclusion followed logically from this basic understanding of causation coupled with some very basic observations about the natural world that nobody can really dispute.

I’m referring of course to that giant of medieval philosophy, the Dominican monk Thomas Aquinas and his mammoth volume The Summa Theologicae. Thomas’ 5 ways each build on a simple observation about the world that is difficult to dispute and then extrapolates from that observation, in conjunction with Aristotle’s 4 types of causes, to a proof for the existence of God that have been widely dismissed and misunderstood but never to my knowledge been shown to be wrong (See here for a typically abysmal example of the misunderstanding and see The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas Lectures by Peter Kreeft and The Last Superstition by Edward Feser for explanations of the idea). The early modern philosophical atheists solved the problem by dispensing with formal and final causes, not understanding what they had given up in this bargain.

So where does that leave the atheist, or the modernist Christian? In something of a bind. You can’t avoid the is/ought problem if you try to only have efficient and material causes as the early modern philosophers tried to do. There is no way to bridge that gap and you will forever be looking for a moral framework that ultimately comes down to “Someone with a big stick says do it!” whether that person is God or the state or some appeal to some sort of anthropomorphized nature in the form of an “evolutionary imperative”. Whatever solution the moral framework generated in such a way will be somewhat arbitrary and will never solve the “alone in the dark when nobody is watching” problem. Even the theist is solving that problem by asserting that you can never be alone in such a sense, the cosmic policeman is always watching.

What can be done? For the modernist Christian they can just renounce this fools errand, return to a more robust understanding of causation and get on with it. This might sound simple but many a Protestant is going to struggle with this option. For the atheist it would seem there is no solution. They must either abandon their atheism and accept a robust understanding of causation with its attendant and unavoidable theism or perhaps engage with one of the greatest of the medieval minds and try to show where he made a mistake. No easy task as the typical solution to date has been to do an end run around Thomas and remove the Aristotelian framework he used as the assumption for his argument. Alternatively they can renounce the moral project and accept that the atheists enterprise, because of its reduction of causation to efficient and material causes only, is destined to be morally nihilistic.
Is a generic theism really all that bad given the alternative?