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.

The Tao of the Atheist Communist Culture

When it came to religion and politics, the beliefs of British SF writer Iain M. Banks were never subject to doubt. Whilst dystopian futures feature in some of the best SF, and are also found in much of the worst of the genre, comparatively few writers set their stories in a triumphant, confident utopia which they unashamedly adore. Even fewer attempt to repeatedly wring dramatic stories from such an unpromising setting. Perfection does not lend itself to tension. Hence Banks tends to construct scenarios where his beloved Culture, a galactic post-scarcity civilization, has to lower itself to dealing with barbarians at its borders. The clash of civilizations gives Banks ample opportunity to express his views on religion and politics, by comparing the examples which he favors with those he deplores. With that in mind, I want to consider a particular question: might we say that Iain Banks’s Culture manifests a certain spirituality, or a ‘tao’ which goes beyond crude materialism? And if so, is this tao uplifting, or possibly even superversive?

Banks’ disdain for any alternatives to his utopia are made plain. Barbarians might have religion; the Culture has long abandoned superstition. Different genders of barbarian species may adopt differing roles within society; citizens of the Culture do not experience gender except as another aspect of physical pleasure, and they change their gender at will. Barbarian societies might have governments, hierarchies, even businesses, whilst the Culture has no need for them… though close inspection suggests this conclusion is false. In short, the Culture is an atheist communist interstellar paradise, the kind of society that Marx might have dreamed about, if he dared to imagine the workers had achieved class consciousness, then invented benevolent machines that made them all redundant. Banks’ Culture is pristine, unsoiled by any of the messy internal compromises that real communist societies have felt necessary to accept, irrespective of the pressures created by external rivals. However, the behavior of real communists has sometimes been compared to that of religious zealots; as Karl Popper observed, Marxism tends toward a pseudoscientific worldview, demanding a degree of faith not supported by empirical observation. Because we can analyze the values of a political dogma as if it were a religion, we can make sense of the question I posed above.

To begin with, let us characterize what the Culture is, distinguishing what is described in the novels from some of the labels that Banks and others have wanted to apply to it. It is a civilization whose technology has conquered scarcity and has no higher purpose than gifting its citizens long, indolent and indulgent lives, whilst assimilating other civilizations as rapidly as it can. There is no capital, no money of any description, and no private enterprise, except in the sense that private individuals may do as they please. The society is hence communist, though perhaps communism does not really apply as there are no longer any workers to own the means of production. Private property seems to persist – for instance, people appear to treat their homes and clothes and pets as if they are belongings – but everybody can have what they want simply by asking for it. Strangely, nobody ever wants a unique possession that is already owned by another, such as an historic relic, or somebody else’s goldfish, or the product of a foreign economy. Furthermore, nobody has appetites so great that they would test the limits of what the Culture could supply. As such, the limits of the Culture’s liberal anti-capitalism remain conveniently untested.

At the same time as giving every citizen so much material freedom that they never desire more, the economy of the Culture is subject to centralized planning. The planners of this society are Minds, artificial intelligences of such scale and subtlety that human beings would be unable to determine if they were manipulated by them. Fortunately, what the Minds want coincides with what everyone else wants, although Minds are seemingly capable of disagreeing with each other. So whilst Banks and others have a desperate desire to label the Culture as anarchist, its citizens are free in the same sense that animals in a nature reserve are free; they lack both the mental capacity and desire to explore the limits of their freedom, though at some level they are governed by intelligences beyond their comprehension. In short, Banks and others make the mistake of confusing the wildness of the animals with whether the reserve is governed.

In another paradoxical twist, all ‘work’ is done by non-sentient machines, but both humans and intelligent drones choose to occupy roles that we would describe as jobs… although none of them demand payment in return. Admittedly, these jobs always seem to be inherently desirable, not least because of the status they confer. The Culture has plenty of architects, poets, diplomats and spies, but has no plumbers or waitresses, and it is unclear if anybody thinks childcare is vocation. A disproportionate number of the Culture’s citizens work in academia, being professors of almost any subject except the ones where the vastly intelligent Minds would clearly know all the answers already. Nobody needs to clean the toilet or process garbage, because dumb machines do all that. Even more oddly, there are intelligent drones which supposedly possess all the same freedoms as any human being, but who want to perform the tasks they have been designed to do. In other words, the Culture is an anarchy only in the perverse sense of the word that communists often employ: everything important is planned and ordered from the top down, but its subjects have been educated and improved to such an extent that the vestiges of their selfish desires always fit harmoniously within the designs of the elite who make all the decisions.

I could keep picking away at Banks’ description of the Culture, but that would be niggardly. Weaving a world on such a scale will always result in some loose strands and frayed edges. It is enough to say the Culture is a kind of communist atheist society that a modern Western social liberal might applaud. Its citizens are free to do the kinds of things that many of us dream of doing, enjoying plenty of casual sex and aimless recreation, whilst never suffering pain or hardship. On the other hand, the Culture’s citizens have evolved to the point where they never choose to do any of the other things that people currently enjoy doing, but which are anathema to modern Western social liberals. This includes: praying, raping, farting, stealing, being faithful to a partner or jealous of their infidelities, telling a rude joke to somebody who does not want to hear it, or asking for your bit of economy to be exempt from somebody else’s ‘planning’. Banks presents a society whose perfect values leads every citizen to be similarly perfect… or at least free of the vices and flaws that human beings have exhibited throughout recorded history.

As a consequence of being so perfect, there is a division of the Culture called Contact, which sequesters huge amounts of resources in a rather secretive and corporatist manner, and uses them to civilize every other society it encounters. This being a socially liberal utopia, any comparisons to empire-builders or missionaries are deeply unwelcome, even if they seem apt. I treat this as a crucial hint of the quasi-religious faith that underpins the Culture. The Culture’s mission includes expansion, but questioning the need to expand is somewhat taboo. Though it has the technological and material superiority to defend itself from aggressors, the Culture does not merely seek to preserve its borders, and to serve those who already lie within. The Culture also seeks to spread and assimilate, sharing the benefits of its wisdom even with societies that are deeply hostile to it. This extravagant self-confidence is not enough to demonstrate a tao that goes beyond the base cause-and-effect of materialism, but it might be evidence of a tao.

Like some philosophical arguments for the existence of God, Banks might think the Culture cannot be perfect without also seeking to maximize the reach of its perfection. And so, if there is a perfecting force within the universe, it necessitates both the existence of the Culture, and that the Culture spreads until it is ubiquitous. The Culture expands its borders because it is vital; the extension of its range may be the consequence of its tao.

With so many Culture novels to choose from, I fear an exhaustive examination of them all would leave the Culture’s tao as ineffable and superficially paradoxical as the Tao described by this planet’s Taoists. For that reason, let me look for more evidence of the Culture’s tao within the confines of a single novel. The Player of Games was the second Culture novel to be published, and it was reworked from a draft that Banks had written many years before. As such, there is a good argument for saying this novel should represent the spirit of the Culture as Banks envisaged it.


The story was written early enough to capture Banks’ original thinking on the Culture, but being the second published novel it can explore concepts that are essential to the Culture without needing to be so hesitant about the audience’s sympathies. The story is about an interaction between the Culture and another civilization with contrary values, focusing on a single citizen of the Culture, the game-player Gurgeh. He visits the barbarian civilization of Azad, which takes its name from the extraordinarily complicated game that is used to select its ruler. Gurgeh enters the tournament whose winner is appointed Emperor, ostensibly playing as an honorary guest-cum-diplomat, though the underlying goal is to destabilize the Azad government.

The heart of this story is about communication. Whilst the game-players are competing for victory, their moves are also a form of expression. The complexity of the game means this expression may be as sophisticated, comprehensive and nuanced as that which may be conveyed through language or art. In an important and fundamental sense, the game can be a vehicle for different cultures to talk to each other. This leads to a telling question which will help us examine the Culture’s tao: what does the game-playing style of Gurgeh say about the Culture?

Before answering that question, it is necessary to assess if Gurgeh is speaking for the Culture, or merely for himself. Gurgeh is not a philosophical man, having spent his entire life perfecting his skill at playing many different kinds of game, most of which concern the movement of pieces upon boards, or the shuffling of decks of cards. Outwardly this superficial life is perfectly suited to the endless recreation of the Culture, and Gurgeh enjoys the adulation that comes with his many victories, but he may not be truly representative of the Culture. In fact, the story begins with Gurgeh feeling a sense of ennui; as comfortable as his life his, he is not happy unless he wins games, and whilst he is a peerless game-player, even the joy of victory seems to be wearing off. On the second page of the novel, Gurgeh asks himself: “what am I doing here?” having been drawn into a recreational activity which is typical of the Culture but which Gurgeh finds silly and pointless. He challenges his love interest, Yay, who persuaded him to take part:

It’s infantile, Yay. Why fritter your time away with this nonsense?

This is a confrontational question, given that every inhabitant of the Culture spends their whole life fritting away time on activities which mean nothing. However, Gurgeh also admits that he bores easily. As such, the reader knows that Gurgeh is not fully at ease with himself or others. When questioned why he lives alone, Gurgeh tells his friend Chamlis:

“Nobody can stand to live with me for long.”

“He means,” Chamlis said, “that [Gurgeh] couldn’t stand to live for long with anybody.”

Gurgeh’s lifestyle is depicted as idyllic, with a beautiful home, many admirers, and easy access to sexual partners. However, he admits:

“Everything seems… grey at the moment, Chamlis. Sometimes I start to think I’m repeating myself, that even new games are just old ones in disguise, and that nothing’s worth playing for anyway.”

If Banks intends Gurgeh to be the ‘voice’ of the Culture, as selected by the Minds that govern it, he also allows Gurgeh to question the superficiality of its ideals. Part of the problem with the Culture is an absence of meaning that can only be the result of taking risks:

“I used to think that context didn’t matter; a good game was a good game and there was a purity about manipulating the rules that translated perfectly from society to society… but now I wonder.”

He nodded at the board in front of him. “This is foreign. Some backwater planet discovered just a few decades ago. They play this there and they bet on it; they make it important. But what do we have to bet with?”

Gurgeh’s friend Chamlis agrees that Gurgeh is not perfectly adjusted to the Culture:

“You are a throwback,” Chamlis told him. “The game’s the thing. That’s the conventional wisdom, isn’t it? The fun is what matters, not the victory. To glory in the defeat of another, to need that purchased pride, is to show you are incomplete and inadequate to start with.”

Gurgeh then pinpoints why he feels ill at ease:

“This is not a heroic age… The individual is obsolete. That’s why life is so comfortable for us all. We don’t matter, so we’re safe. No one person can have any real effect any more.”

At this point, I think it worth noting how Banks has invested so much creative energy into describing a utopia which he clearly agrees with, but is willing to so beautifully articulate the feelings of a character who is dissatisfied with life in that utopia. Banks deserves credit for this. It also suggests Banks would not be satisfied with a utopia that is completely inert. Gurgeh’s call for heroism gives us a hint that the Culture should be a moral force, capable of exerting a dynamic influence as well as coddling its inhabitants.

Chamlis responds to Gurgeh by mentioning Contact, the division of the Culture which does take risks and engage dynamically with forces it cannot perfectly control.

“Contact uses individuals,” Chamlis pointed out. “It puts people into younger societies who have a dramatic and decisive effect on the fates of entire meta-civilisations.

However, Gurgeh is dismissive of Contact, saying the people who work for Contact are “selected and used,” and comparing them to “game-pieces”. As he such, he illustrates how the ‘anarchism’ of the Culture culminates with a hard-headed elite who seek not just to govern within the Culture, but also to govern those outside it. When pressed on the subject of whether Contact could help him tackle his ennui, Gurgeh says:

“I have no intention of applying to join Contact… Being cooped up in a GCU [a very large spacecraft] with a bunch of gung-ho do-gooders searching for barbarians to teach is not my idea of either enjoyment or fulfilment.”

Gurgeh’s failure to fully embrace the Culture’s values is also emphasized in other ways:

“I feel you want to… take me,” Yay said, “like a piece, like an area. To be had, to be… possessed.” Suddenly she looked very puzzled. “There’s something very… I don’t know; primitive, perhaps, about you, Gurgeh. You’ve never changed sex, have you?” He shook his head. “Or slept with a man?” Another shake. “I thought so,” Yay said. “You’re strange, Gurgeh.”

Being a little unsettled and anti-social compared to others, Gurgeh is unusually sympathetic to Mawhrin-Skel, an intelligent drone which is a dangerous misfit by the Culture’s standards.

The little drone annoyed and amused him in almost equal parts. It was rude, insulting and frequently infuriating, but it made such a refreshing change from the awful politeness of most people.

Mawhrin-Skel’s discontent with the Culture is more noxious than Gurgeh’s:

“Oh, it’s all so wonderful in the Culture, isn’t it, Gurgeh; nobody starves and nobody dies of disease or natural disasters and nobody and nothing’s exploited, but there’s still luck and heartache and joy, and there’s still chance and advantage and disadvantage.”

Mawhrin-Skel has been ostracized from Contact, ostensibly for being too aggressive, even though the drone was designed to engage in combat. As a consequence, its talons have been removed, with the extraction of much of the military hardware it previously incorporated. In describing the original purpose of its life, Mawhrin-Skel chooses words which have biblical overtones:

“… imagine what I feel, all set up to be the good soldier fighting for all we hold dear, to seek out and smite the barbarians around us! Gone, Jernau Gurgeh; razed; gone.”

Gurgeh’s boredom leads him to cheat at a game with the encouragement and assistance of Mawhrin-Skel. However, the duplicitous and belligerent drone had manipulated Gurgeh with the intention of blackmailing him. It knows Contact wants Gurgeh to volunteer for a particular mission, so pressures Gurgeh to take the mission and use his influence to have Mawhrin-Skel reinstated. When Gurgeh learns the mission will involve traveling to Azad, a civilization outside of the Culture, he rationalizes:

…Gurgeh never ceased to be fascinated by the way a society’s games revealed so much about its ethos, its philosophy, its very soul. Besides, barbarian societies had always intrigued him, even before their games had.

And when Gurgeh contemplates what it would be like to travel outside the Culture for the first time ever, he looks at what life is like inside the Culture:

Something about the square, the whole village, disgusted and angered him. Yay was right; it was all too safe and twee and ordinary.

Gurgeh is briefed about his mission. The briefing further confirms how the Culture views other societies, as well as explaining why Contact needs Gurgeh’s assistance.

“Every now and again, however, Contact disturbs some particular ball of rock and discovers something nasty underneath. On every occasion, there is a specific and singular reason, some special circumstance which allows the general rule to go by the board. In the case of the conglomerate you see before you – apart from the obvious factors, such as the fact that we didn’t get out there until fairly recently, and the lack of another powerful influence in the Lesser Cloud – that special circumstance is a game.”

The society of Azad is described, with great emphasis on its faults compared to the utopian nature of the Culture.

“Empires are synonymous with centralised – if occasionally schismatised – hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through – usually – a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of both the society’s information dissemination systems and its lesser – as a rule nominally independent – power systems. In short, it’s all about dominance. The intermediate – or apex – sex you see standing in the middle there controls the society and the empire. Generally, the males are used as soldiers and the females as possessions. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea?”

Per the geniuses that run the Culture, a society like this would normally have crumbled long before it reached its current range and technological sophistication. However, the ruling game of Azad is the factor that has held it together.

“… Azad is so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct. Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance.”

However, the astute reader will have noticed that the hierarchical Azadian society is being described dismissively by an agent of the Culture’s hierarchical Contact division. Though Contact has not been elected by the public to influence or control other societies, that is how they see their purpose. Mawhrin-Skel perceived its role as essentially defensive, but Contact is actively engaged in coercing societies which pose no serious military threat. And when considering how the Azadian hierarchy controls information, there is another comparison that Banks seems blind to:

“If we let everybody know about Azad we may be pressured into making a decision just by the weight of public opinion… what may not sound like a bad thing, but might prove disastrous.”

“For whom?” Gurgeh said sceptically.

“The people of the empire, and the Culture. We might be forced into a high-profile intervention against the Empire; it would hardly be a war as such because we’re way ahead of them technologically, but we’d have to become an occupying force to control them, and that would mean a huge drain on our resources as well as morale; in the end such an adventure would almost certainly be seen as a mistake, no matter the popular enthusiasm for it at the time. The people of the empire would lose by uniting against us instead of the corrupt regime which controls them, so putting the clock back a century or two, and the Culture would lose by emulating those we despise; invaders, occupiers, hegemonists.”

This passage is dripping with irony, though Banks appears not to be conscious of it. The only reason this peace-loving ultra-transparent anarchy has not already invaded Azad is because an unelected elite has withheld information from the public! Instead of entering into direct confrontation, Contact intends to promote change in Azad by destabilizing its government. Does it not occur to anyone in the Culture that there is another option: to leave the Azadians alone? Whilst I feel this passage illustrates a flaw in Banks’ crushingly utopian morality, it also serves as an unflinching statement of its moral purpose. To be of the Culture, and to think like the Culture, means seeing yourself as anarchist liberators of oppressed people, willing to compromise every anarchist principle in order to achieve that goal. And the goal of liberation overrides the wishes expressed by the people being liberated; they must be liberated by the Culture, even if they neither seek nor want the Culture’s interference. This is not my tao, but it is a tao.

Fortunately, Banks saves himself from all the liberal paradoxes of his position by doing what communists often do: justifying the need to save the people by demonizing those same people.

“They have done things the average Culture person would find… unspeakable. A programme of eugenic manipulation has lowered the average male and female intelligence; selective birth-control sterilisation, area starvation, mass deportation and racially-based taxation system produced the equivalent of genocide, with the result that almost everybody on the planet is the same colour and build. Their treatment of alien captives, their societies and works is equally…”

There is no need to keep on quoting. In fact, the middle third of the book is devoted to one long laundry list of how utterly despicable Azad is. Poverty, theft, prostitution, sexual perversion, drugs, torture, corruption, hypocrisy, murder, inequality, deceit, sexism, cruelty to animals, jaywalking and nose-picking… Azad suffers from every vice imaginable. Azad’s prevailing ideology is Nazism on steroids.

Banks’ garish depiction of Azadian society serves as a wonderful distraction from the essential question that liberals should ask themselves: “as horrific as we find their society, why is it an obligation to overturn their way of life and impose our own?” Though not answered, this question is vital to understanding the tao of the Culture. The driving logic of the Culture, as epitomized by the behavior of its Contact division, is that of a false dichotomy that always leads to the same conclusion. If they encounter a society that is like the Culture, they will not disrupt it, and assimilation is inevitable. On the other hand, if they encounter a society unlike the Culture, then it is morally necessary to disrupt/educate/civilize (delete according to taste) that society until it is ready to join the Culture. In terms of the progressive march of history, this worldview could almost have been copied straight from a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary manual.

Whether intentionally or not, Banks shows that petty policing of language is used to disguise the arrogance of the Culture.

“They do,” Gurgeh said, “sound fairly…” – he’d been going to say ‘barbaric’, but that didn’t seem strong enough – “… animalistic.”

“…Be careful, now; that is how they term the species they subjugate; animals. Of course they are animals, just as you are, just as I am a machine. But they are fully conscious, and they have a society at least as complicated as our own; more so, in some ways. It is pure chance that we’ve met them when their civilisation looks primitive to us; one less ice age on [their homeworld] and it could conceivably have been the other way round.”

It is necessary that the Culture destroys/reforms/saves the horrible horrible Azadians whilst avoiding the use of pejorative language to describe them! And why are they in the position to do this? By virtue of ‘pure chance’! This passage implies an absence of morality: might is right, and the Culture just happens to be much mightier than the Azadians. However, the subsequent development of the story contradicts the bleakness of this especially amoral quote.

Gurgeh is persuaded of the need to compete in the Azadian tournament, and so undermine its government. I do not like the moral logic that Banks deploys, which relies on cheap stunts (genocide, racial extermination!) to gloss over the fact that the Culture has a central plan that involves assimilating every society, no matter how similar or dissimilar it is to theirs. But there is a moral logic here, and the conclusion is always: they must assimilate other societies for the good of the people living in them. Is this sufficient to demonstrate that the Culture has a tao? Probably not. The argument for the Culture’s tao comes at the end of the story, when game-player Gurgeh has reached the peak of his abilities at a game that is “so complex, so subtle, so flexible and so demanding that it is as precise and comprehensive a model of life as it is possible to construct.”

The journey to Azad takes years, and during that time Gurgeh studies the rules of the incomprehensibly complicated game he has been sent to play. Banks had set up his central character to feel vaguely dissatisfied with the Culture, so when Gurgeh finally arrives in Azad, Banks slaps him hard in the face. The author presents both Gurgeh and his readers with all the shocking reasons they should be grateful to live a ‘twee’ life that is the product of benevolent central planning. Gurgeh’s adventures all confirm the monotonously awful nature of Azad’s society. Meanwhile, the game-player improves his skills whilst winning match after match, despite the strenuous efforts of the corrupt Azadian hierarchy to intimidate, bribe or kill him. At one crucial juncture, Gurgeh is on the verge of losing a game and being ejected from the tournament, so his AI drone escort decides to take him on a journey to new parts of Azad that Gurgeh has not already seen. This reveals that Azad is even more rotten and unjust than we previously thought, and stiffens Gurgeh’s resolve. He makes a tremendous comeback, and progresses to the final rounds of the tournament.

Whilst Banks uses vivid language when condemning Azad’s immorality, he has a light touch when describing the AI drone that brazenly manipulates Gurgeh. The implication is that psychological engineering is fine, when done by a clever machine to promote an outcome we should all agree with.

The reigning Emperor of Azad is Gurgeh’s opponent for the final match of the tournament, though the naughty cheating lying Azadian elite has already told the public that Gurgeh has lost. Hence the final game is merely an exhibition match, played to appease the Emperor’s vanity. In short, Gurgeh is doing a brilliant job of upsetting the Azadians by beating them at their own game, and the Azadians do a terrible job of just killing and/or throwing him out of a tournament which he is not eligible to win anyway. For all their ruthlessness, it is almost as if the Azadians want to humiliated by this infidel! Banks can be a clever writer, but even a villain in a James Bond movie would roll his eyes at the conceit of the Azadians. Real villains persist by ruthlessly disposing of threats to their existence, not by welcoming them into their home and encouraging them to participate in lengthy pageants that also provide plenty of opportunity for intrigue.

Gurgeh’s progress in the tournament is not just representative of his personal accomplishments. Like Bobby Fischer defeating Russian grandmasters, or the sequence of victories by Russian grandmasters beforehand, Gurgeh supposedly wins because he is a product of his society, and demonstrates why that society is superior. Gurgeh did not merely choose to play in the tournament; the Minds that govern the Culture identified him as the Culture’s best player. His whole life has been dedicated to playing games because the Culture makes that lifestyle possible, and his abilities have been enhanced by the genetic modifications and educational riches bestowed on every citizen. And when Gurgeh temporarily loses his motivation, the AIs which run the Culture knew which buttons to press in order to restore his will to win. Everything builds to one conclusion: the Culture is better than all others, and that is why it wins, whatever game is being played. This is psychological torture for the Azadians, and its ruler in particular.

For Banks, the tao of the Culture is psychologically dominant: others may pretend their society is better, but deep down they know the Culture would win any fair competition. This tao is arrogant, but not without precedent. Whilst religions often exhort their adherents to be humble, zealots may adopt the opposite attitude. Within the Culture, those who work for Contact are most likely to be zealots. Perhaps we should not be surprised if Banks identifies with Contact most of all.

Like other people of faith, Banks must struggle through his doubts before he enjoys his supreme vision. This is evident when describing the game between Gurgeh and the Emperor Nicosar, which begins badly for Gurgeh.

Gurgeh was immediately impressed Nicosar’s play. The Emperor didn’t stop rising in Gurgeh’s estimation; the more he studied [his] play the more he realised just how powerful and complete an opponent he was facing. He would need to be more than lucky to beat Nicosar; he would need to be somebody else. From the beginning he tried to concentrate on not being trounced rather than actually defeating the Emperor.

Gurgeh falls behind, and struggles to reconcile his performance with his self-belief.

He was missing something; some facet of the way Nicosar was playing was escaping him. He knew it, he was certain, but he couldn’t work out what that facet was. He had a nagging suspicion it was something very simple, however complex its articulation on the boards might be… An aspect of his play seemed to have disappeared…

But then, Gurgeh is manipulated by his drone companion again. Gurgeh had taken to speaking and thinking in the Azadian tongue. The drone forces him to use the Culture’s language instead. The superiority of the Culture’s tao is manifest even in the words it uses – which is also an important belief for many progressives. Forcing Gurgeh to speak the correct language is the key to his reaching his full potential…

After initially finding it rather needlessly complex, Gurgeh enjoyed hearing the language again, and discovered some pleasure in speaking it…

He had his best night’s sleep since the day of the hunt, and woke feeling, for no good reason he could think of, that there might yet be a chance of turning the game around.

Choosing the right words means thinking the right thoughts, and that leads to enlightenment.

It took Gurgeh most of the morning’s play to gradually work out what Nicosar was up to. When, eventually, he did, it took his breath away.

The Emperor had set out to beat not just Gurgeh, but the whole Culture. There was no way to describe his use of pieces, territory and cards; he had set up his whole side of the game as an Empire, the very image of Azad.

Another revelation struck Gurgeh with a force almost as great; one reading – perhaps the best – of the way he’d always played was that he played as the Culture. He’d habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful.

The absurdity of Banks’ metaphor should be obvious to anyone who has not fallen under its spell. Gurgeh is the game-player, the single decision-maker in his ‘society’. In the same way that Banks is the sole author of this work, it is nonsense to suggest that Gurgeh’s forces have no hierarchy or leadership. Banks merely plays the same trick that he always plays: focusing on the supposed ‘freedom’ of the individual pieces so we ignore the elite authority that moves them around.

However, if we ignore this serious fault with Banks’ thinking, we can see how the Culture possesses a ‘tao’. The Culture’s freedom leads to a way of playing every game, approaching every problem, solving every puzzle, though this may only become evident with a game and a player as sophisticated as Azad and Gurgeh. And the Culture’s way is inherently superior to all other ways.

Every other player he’d competed against had unwittingly tried to adjust to this novel style in its own terms, and comprehensively failed. Nicosar was trying no such thing. He’d gone the other way, and made the board his Empire, complete and exact in every structural detail to the limits of definition the game’s scale imposed.

Note that Azadian society is competitive, whilst the Culture is not. But Banks does not entertain the possibility that a competitive society is more likely to evolve varied and winning strategies than one where there is little incentive to compete. For Banks, the Culture just is better, and there is no need to explain how it came to be better, or why no better alternatives will ever arise. In that sense, the way Banks describes the inevitable victory of the Culture is just like the way Marx described the inevitable victory of communism. Again, I dislike this tao, but I have to accept that Banks has an unshakeable belief in the ‘way’ of the Culture.

Because Gurgeh has rediscovered the tao of the Culture, he starts to make a comeback.

He gradually remodelled his whole game-plan to reflect the ethos of the Culture militant, trashing and abandoning whole areas of the board where the switch would not work, pulling back and regrouping and restructuring where it would; sacrificing where necessary, razing and scorching the ground where he had to. He didn’t try to mimic Nicosar’s crude but devastating attack-escape, return-invade strategy, but made his positions and his pieces in the image of a power that could eventually cope with such bludgeoning, if not now, then later, when it was ready.

And so, even the playing of a game becomes subject to destiny. The Culture may appear to be losing, but so long as it remains true to its tao, it will prevail!

Having reached enlightenment, Gurgeh loses his identity and becomes an avatar for natural and divine forces.

Gurgeh was overcome by the sensation that he was like a wire with some terrible energy streaming through him; he was a great cloud poised to strike lightning over the board, a colossal wave tearing across the ocean towards the sleeping shore, a great pulse of molten energy from a planetary heart; a god with the power to destroy and create at will.

The breaks and the times when he slept were irrelevant; just the intervals between the real life of the board and the game. He functioned, talking to the drone or the ship or other people, eating and sleeping and walking around… but it was all nothing; irrelevant. Everything outside was just a setting and a background for the game.

Banks becomes explicit about the game being a form of communication, between the tao of the Azadian Empire and the tao of the Culture, or perhaps within the dualism of a universal tao.

He watched the rival forces surge and tide across the great board, and they spoke a strange language, sang a strange song that was at once a perfect set of harmonies and a battle to control the writing of the themes. What he saw in front of him was like a single huge organism; the pieces seemed to move as though with a will that was neither his nor the Emperor’s, but something dictated finally by the game itself, an ultimate expression of its essence.

Gurgeh is in rapture, partly as a result of continuously using intelligence-enhancing drugs that help him to play. The game-player becomes so divorced from his physical body that his drone escort has to monitor his bladder and tell him when to pee. The drone is concerned about Gurgeh’s wellbeing; if it had the choice, “it would have stopped the man playing there and then.” But the drone which has repeatedly manipulated Gurgeh is not free to do that, because “it had its orders.” Once again, Banks allows the facade of anarchy to slip, revealing the tao of the Culture depends on a hierarchy, even if discussing that hierarchy is taboo. Whilst the drone continues to keep Gurgeh functional, the game-player has been absorbed by the game, losing all sense of himself.

Breaks, days, evenings, conversations, meals; they came and went in another dimension; a monochrome thing, a flat, grainy image. He was somewhere else entirely. Another dimension, another image. His skull was a blister with a board inside it, his outside self just another piece to be shuffled here and there.

But as fulfilling as it is, the rapture must end, and the game must have a victor. As he has been sublimated into the tao, Gurgeh sees the inevitable outcome before anyone else.

Over over over. His – their – beautiful game over; dead. What had he done? He put his clenched hands over his mouth. Nicosar, you fool! The Emperor had fallen for it, taken the bait, entered the run and followed it to be torn apart near the high stand, storms of splinters before the fire.

Empires had fallen to barbarians before, and no doubt would again. Gurgeh knew all this from his childhood. Culture children were taught such things. The barbarians invade, and are taken over. Not always; some empires dissolve and cease, but many absorb; many take the barbarians in and end up conquering them. They make them live like the people they set out to take over. The architecture of the system channels them, beguiles them, seduces and transforms them, demanding from them what they could not before have given but slowly grow to offer. The empire survives, the barbarians survive, but the empire is no more and the barbarians are nowhere to be found.

The Culture had become the Empire, the Empire the barbarians. Nicosar looked triumphant, pieces everywhere, adapting and taking and changing and moving in for the kill. But it would be their own death-charge; they could not survive as they were; wasn’t that obvious? They would become Gurgeh’s or neutrals, their rebirth his to deliver. Over.

As the game proceeds towards the victory of Gurgeh and the Culture, the game-player feels empathy for Emperor Nicosar. However, Banks has little pity for those who are vanquished, and he restates the supremacy of the Culture whilst portraying its opponent as a cartoonish villain. On the eve of Gurgeh’s victory, Nicosar meets his opponent privately:

The Emperor was silent for a few moments. “You must be very proud of your Culture.”

He pronounced the last word with a distaste Gurgeh might have found comical if it hadn’t been so obviously sincere.

“Pride?” he said. “I don’t know. I didn’t make it; I just happened to be born into it, I-”

“Don’t be simple, Gurgeh. I mean the pride of being part of something. The pride of representing your people. Are you going to tell me you don’t feel that?”

“I… some, perhaps yes… but I’m not here as a champion, Nicosar. I’m not representing anything except myself. I’m here to play the game, that’s all.”

At this point, I wonder if Banks is being willfully obtuse when he puts these words into Gurgeh’s mouth. A man who spends his whole life perfecting his skill at playing games, who craves the pleasure of victory and says he would like to play for higher stakes, who consciously meditates on the tao of his Culture and plays in a way that represents its ethos, claims that the victory represents nothing. This sounds to me like the self-deception of an ideologue who refuses to acknowledge his own ideology. Meanwhile, Nicosar is reduced to playing the role of comic-book tyrant, with religious overtones.

“You disgust me… Your blind, insipid morality can’t even account for your own success here, and you treat this battle-game like some filthy dance. It is there to be fought and struggled against, and you’ve attempted to seduce it. You’ve perverted it; replaced our holy witnessing with your own foul pornography…”

Emperor Nicosar is right: the game is not just a game played by two players. The Emperor is devastated because the Culture’s tao is about to prevail. His belief-system has been fatally undermined, and so has the faith of every member of Azad’s ruling elite who has watched this final game. Even if Gurgeh vacillates, Nicosar acknowledges the tao of the Culture. For me, this is enough confirmation that the Culture has a tao; it is akin to a moment of religious conversion. Though Nicosar rejects the values of the Culture, he can no longer dismiss their potency.

Gurgeh will win because he has followed the Culture’s tao, but the uplifting nature of the Culture’s tao has always been implicit. Its citizens are well-fed and safe, its rivals are demons, but nobody so far has explicitly argued for the moral superiority of the Culture’s tao. So Banks finally uses Gurgeh as a mouthpiece for why the Culture’s tao is stronger. As communists often do, Banks constructs an argument for the Culture that relies heavily on criticism of the alternative offered.

Gurgeh… felt dizzy, head swimming. “That may be how you see it, Nicosar… I don’t think you’re being entirely fair to-”

Fair?” the Emperor shouted, coming to stand over Gurgeh… “Why does anything have to be fair? Is life fair?” He reached down and took Gurgeh by the hair, shaking his head. “Is it? Is it?”

… Gurgeh cleared his throat. “No, life is not fair. Not intrinsically… It’s something we can try to make it, though,” Gurgeh continued. “A goal we can aim for. You can choose to do so, or not. We have. I’m sorry you find us so repulsive for that.”

At last Banks shows the cards he has been holding all along; being rather weak, he was wise not to play them sooner. The tao of the Culture is best expressed by the vague concept of fairness. Like many arguments for fairness, it is best not to examine what this entails, in case the unanimity of support for fairness is fractured by thousands of disagreements about what is fair in actual practice. However, though fairness is a vague concept, it is essentially uplifting. All other things equal, nobody prefers an unfair outcome to a fair one.

And for a man who writes a lot of words, Banks offers an ingenious excuse for why he will not examine the concept of fairness more closely:

Were they to argue metaphysics, here, now, with the imperfect tool of language, when they’d spent the last ten days devising the most perfect image of their competing philosophies they were capable of expressing, probably in any form?

But though he has wriggled out of the need to express why the Culture’s tao is superior, Banks cannot resist one brief (and seemingly reluctant) victory speech.

What, anyway, was he to say? That intelligence could surpass and excel the blind force of evolution, with its emphasis on mutation, struggle and death? That conscious cooperation was more efficient than feral competition?

And so we have the tao of the Culture, which unsurprisingly reflects Banks’ belief that central, common, benevolent, rational planning will always yield better results than the diversity promoted by competition. It even yields better results when playing competitive games!

A more sensible Emperor might have simply told Gurgeh and the Culture to leave, and then returned to ruling his Empire. However, the acknowledgement of the Culture’s tao is too much for the Emperor to bear, so he goes bonkers and kills everybody, thus hastening the demise of the Azadian Empire. The only survivors are Gurgeh and the drone that escorts him, thanks to their superior technology. At this point, it is revealed how much the drone and other AIs were manipulating Gurgeh and the Azadian elite, with the goal of encouraging the self-decapitation of the Azadian Empire.

“You’ve been used, Jernau Gurgeh,” the drone said matter-of-factly. “The truth is, you were playing for the Culture, and Nicosar was playing for the Empire. I personally told the Emperor the night before the start of the last match that you really were our champion; if you won, we were coming in; we’d smash the Empire and impose our own order. If he won, we’d keep out for as long as he was Emperor… That’s why Nicosar did all he did. He wasn’t just a sore loser; he’d lost his Empire. He had nothing else to live for, so why not go in a blaze of glory?”

“Was all that true?” Gurgeh asked. “Would we really have taken over?”

“I have no idea. Not in my brief; no need to know. It doesn’t matter; he believed it was true.”

… “You really thought I’d win?” he asked the drone. “Against Nicosar? You thought that, even before I got here?”

… “As soon as you showed any interest in leaving. [We’ve] been looking for somebody like you for quite a while. The Empire’s been ripe to fall for decades; it need a big push, but it could always go… Everything worked out a little more dramatically than we’d expected, I must admit, but it looks like all the analyses of your abilities and Nicosar’s weaknesses were just about right. My respect for those great Minds which use the likes of you and me like game-pieces increases all the time… All you needed was somebody to keep an eye on you and give you the occasional nudge in the right direction at the appropriate times.” The drone dipped briefly; a little bow. “Yours truly!”

And if that was not sufficient manipulation to make you question how much freedom is enjoyed by citizens of the Culture, Banks’ final revelation is that the drone which accompanied and manipulated Gurgeh is a disguised version of Mawhrin-Skel, the supposed outcast which first bullied and blackmailed Gurgeh into working for Contact.

So the Culture has a tao, but whether you consider it uplifting depends on your values. Its citizens have freedom, so long as they think and do the right things. If they are inclined to think and do otherwise, then the great intelligences who make all the important decisions will correct their thinking, by using deceit and blackmail if necessary. The Culture is transparent and honest, except to the extent that it is not, and it has no desire to conquer other territories, although they consider it a moral requirement to civilize their neighbors and absorb them into the Culture using the most efficient methods they can. Its people are cared for materially, but have no spiritual needs. The Minds who quietly govern the Culture only need extreme rationality to determine the difference between right and wrong. And if anybody offers an alternative point of view to theirs, then they will be defeated by the Culture’s superior technology and resources, which is proof that might equals right, and that being right makes you mighty.

I do not subscribe to these values, but I know some people do. Whether you consider the tao of the Culture to be uplifting depends on which direction you consider to be up. Banks loves his Culture, and is an apologist for every dirty track played in its name, but he dodges the greatest challenge to its tao. As useful as rational thought is, how could rationality ever construct a moral compass? Banks follows the lead of other atheist communists by maintaining blind faith in ‘rational’ values that cannot be derived rationally. If you have faith in those values, then it follows that the Culture novels were superversive for you, and if superversion is to avoid the same moral ambiguities that trip up every attempt to ‘scientifically’ extrapolate from reason to morality, then it must include a foundation of moral absolutes. Those absolute principles are like the rules of a game, not adopted by convention but because they describe the genuine Tao, and hence guide us towards a good and fulfilling life. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I admire the extent to which Iain Banks devoted his life to promulgating his beliefs about tao. The challenge for any author wishing to be superversive, is to understand the extent of Banks’ accomplishment, and then to do more.

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.

How to Defeat Ingsoc

Imagine you are confronted with a society run by left-wing fascist elitists. They are determined to fix the problems of mankind – which also means fixing you. They routinely monitor the thoughtcrimes of their enemies, and of their comrades. They rewrite history, they invent statistics and they justify persecution through cod psychology, as bolstered by the scientists who work for them. They will even amend language, trying to force everyone to think better thoughts. This is a familiar scenario, and not just because we have watched The Lives of Others, and recognize how East Germans were treated before the fall of the Berlin Wall. George Orwell outlined the defining characteristics of this society in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When confronted by a society like this, how should we respond?

Last week I wrote about superversion and subversion, arguing that subversion should not be an end in itself, but superversives should sometimes employ subversive tactics. In particular, Winston Smith should not be criticized for trying to subvert Ingsoc, the ruling party in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Being in no position to offer a positive alternative, the most Winston could accomplish would be subverting Ingsoc where possible, and hoping the results might encourage others to do the same. However, Anthony Marchetta pointed out a serious difficulty for my argument.

How, exactly, would you fight the society of “1984”? The problem as I see it is that Orwell has created an essentially unbeatable dictatorship.

I think Anthony is correct. Orwell did create an unbeatable dictatorship… if the socialists he wrote about are right to believe that everything in the world is malleable, including human behavior. If Ingsoc has acquired the capability to change people, then nothing could defeat them, which is why they are so terrifying. This is how Winston thought about the philosophical problems raised by Ingsoc’s power.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?

Winston’s fears are later confirmed by O’Brien, the party’s interrogator:

O’Brien silenced him by a movement of his hand. ‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.’

The basis of control is further developed in this exchange:

‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

For Ingsoc to be invincible, we need only to agree that suffering can be used to control human minds, and that control of human minds gives control over everything. These ideas are somewhat intuitive, and reflect what governments do in reality. The Khmer Rouge convinced themselves that they would resurrect the glories of the Angkor Empire by reeducating the Cambodian people and purging foreigners. On a smaller scale, every so-called ‘liberal’ rule that censors beliefs or mandates behavior, no matter how well-intentioned the objective, must be backed by the power to inflict suffering. There can be no deterrence if the guilty are not punished. That is the correct context for judging whether awarding USD135,000 damages for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding is a genuine reflection of the distress caused to the gay couple, or else motivated by a sincere desire to control the behavior of bakers. To give some perspective, when academics calculate the benefit of clearing land mines in Cambodia, they have often concluded that a Cambodian life is worth only USD2,000.

However, I do not believe that Ingsoc’s view of human nature is correct. Human beings have resisted change throughout history. They have desires that cannot be reasoned with, and which prompt them to break rules and risk punishment. This means resistance to Ingsoc would not be futile. On the contrary, it would be inevitable, even if often invisible.

One relevant example features prominently in Nineteen Eighty-Four: sexual desire. Human beings have devised many systems with the intention of curbing sexual activity, and defining what is acceptable and what is considered deviant. However, none were wholly successful. In a society which uses the force of law to prohibit sex, even a private sexual act can double as undisguised political subversion.

Extreme policing, education or changing language will not stop ‘crime’ if the individual believes they are doing nothing wrong. Perspectives on right and wrong are influenced by desire. Perhaps Ingsoc could change some desires, but I doubt they could control them all. And if the party permits freedom in one domain, it becomes possible to imagine freedom in every other domain. If I choose who I have sex with, might I not choose what substances I put in my body? If I choose what substances I put in my body, might I not choose who I bake cakes for?

If the party polices words and changes language, it may take away the individual’s ability to justify their actions. But human beings are not rationality machines. They can have desires without first seeking rational justification for them. They can want things, even if they lack the words to express what they want.

As much as I admire Nineteen Eighty-Four, I do not believe such a society would behave the way Orwell describes it. There may be a few like Winston, prone to philosophical fretting. But many more would be simply insane, breaking rules without being able to explain why. Their actions may be despicable and ill-focused – a baker might spit in the cake mix although he feels no enmity to any specific customer. Though shapeless and rarely identified, these acts would still be subversive. A free society allows frustrations to be vented, and so permits a greater share of the population to be considered normal but different. Without the tolerance of a free society, and without the words to explain their choices, there would be no way to categorize society’s willful outsiders and refuseniks, except to consider them mentally disturbed.

In Orwell’s society, irrational anger would prompt some to engage in violence and destruction, reflecting the violence of society upon relative innocents. Others would turn their violence inwards. Consider that East German suicide rates were considerably higher than those in West Germany. And it is dangerous to dismiss a large minority as insane, because the larger the number excluded from rationality, the more the individual realizes that rationality is just a choice, and they may choose not to be rational.

Contrary to the writings of revolutionaries like Che Guevara, it is not necessary to have a plan or objective in order to have a revolution. The success of a revolution does not depend on whether anyone presents a coherent alternative to the status quo. All that really matters is that the governing order is disrupted. This can be achieved by the mad and angry without requiring the services of the theorist and philosopher.

In an oppressive society, grievances will fester, only to be inflamed by something trivial. Being unable to compromise, a party like Ingsoc would have no way to prevent grievances from building. Then something trivial will spark a wider conflagration. In the Indian Rebellion of 1857, it was the suspicion that army ammunition had been greased with animal fat. The Tiananmen Square protests followed the death of a former Communist Party General Secretary. The Tunisian Revolution began when a street trader’s stall was confiscated, and his frustration reached a point where he set fire to himself. The Arab Spring followed soon after. George Orwell does not describe events like these in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He can create a fictional dictatorship that is perfect in its stability because he never needs to allow for the genuine unpredictability of human nature.

American readers may now wonder why their country had a revolution. Was it because a three percent duty was levied on tea, and used to pay the salary of unelected bureaucrats? That might seem like a laughable reason to go to war, compared to some impositions now placed on American citizens by their elected government.

Today’s left-leaning fascists still offer explanations for why they will prevail in constructing utopia, just like Ingsoc. They believe their victory is mandated by the irresistible march of progress, though usually with less mention of boots stamping upon faces. Other, better theorists can be called upon to counter these extravagant claims. For example, Nassim Taleb and Mark Blyth wrote an excellent analysis of the Arab Spring, which begins with the observation that governments that try too hard when suppressing the mad, bad and different will only succeed in making their world less predictable.

Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

The Liberal philosopher Karl Popper was similarly convinced that social reforms should be conducted on a piecemeal basis only, whilst insisting that utopian social engineering only ever leads to tyranny. As such, he railed against the pseudoscience of Marxism and tended toward a view of reform which resembled Burkean Conservatism.

Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle — the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.

Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.

The former quote is from Popper, the latter from Burke.

So how do we defeat Ingsoc? Not by emulating their strategy of centralizing power, and using it to command and control. People defeat authority by outflanking it. To be superversive, and offer a better alternative, we should look to how free markets deliver superior alternatives. They do it by being varied, and through experimentation. They spread their resources wide, and trust customers to signal which offers are the most appealing. Revolutionaries can do the same. Our notion of revolution is so tied up with Marxism that we struggle to imagine revolutions that involve choice. However, if we learn anything from the confusing mess that followed the Arab Spring, it was that different factions fought to overthrow existing dictators for conflicting reasons. That post-revolutionary imbroglio may sometimes be more harmful than the suffering caused by a tyrant, but at least it unleashes the human dynamism that will often lead to a better settlement in the long run.

To defeat the subversives of Ingsoc, we should subvert all of their methods. If they write a rulebook for language that is as tall as the Tower of Babel, we should encourage diverse communities to develop and speak many languages, ranging from textspeak to new branches of mathematics, Klingon to new forms of poetry. This will render the rulebook irrelevant. If Ingsoc try to reinvent history and science, then we should encourage those with independent minds to conduct their own research, allowing the force of facts to trump revision. Let us counter statism by creating the hothouse conditions where many thought experiments may flourish. And if Ingsoc wish to regulate commerce, stooping so low as to sanction bakers for their religious beliefs, then we should favor freedom of exchange. We know that, in the long run, the power of choice and recommendation will more reliably reward those who give the best service.

Finally, if Ingsoc construct a treasured mountain from literature and art, so only the blessed elite may climb to its very top, then we should scatter our words and pictures across the ground, where anyone may pick them up, and anyone may add to them.

There is only one way to defeat the self-righteous. They cannot be overpowered by rules or force; such tactics only strengthen them. We can only win with tolerance, and compassion, for real people, and their disparate desires. We must be resolute when fighting evil, but quick to forgive sinners. We know that authority flows from the choices made by individuals, who must be granted the utmost freedom to explore and use their human faculties. Ultimately, we must trust in human diversity, which also leads to unpredictability, and makes it hard to govern people. The right response to Ingsoc is to encourage people to be somewhat ungovernable, and often imperfect. That is the one subversion that Ingsoc could never overcome.

Subverting Subversion

If I encounter the enemies of my enemy, should I consider them my friends? If a statement is not not false, does that make it true? Propositional logic gives an affirmative answer to the second question. Other systems of logic are less decisive, and may be more helpful when contemplating real-life decisions. After all, the brigands who murdered my enemy may treat me no better. So if superversion opposes subversion, where does that leave the subversion of subversion?

Tom Simon described the relationship between subversion and superversion in an essay that begins with this extract from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’


‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’

‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’

‘And do you consider yourself a man?’


‘If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.’ His manner changed and he said more harshly: ‘And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?’

‘Yes, I consider myself superior.’

O’Brien did not speak. Two other voices were speaking. After a moment Winston recognized one of them as his own. It was a sound track of the conversation he had had with O’Brien, on the night when he had enrolled himself in the Brotherhood. He heard himself promising to lie, to steal, to forge, to murder, to encourage drug-taking and prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases, to throw vitriol in a child’s face. O’Brien made a small impatient gesture, as though to say that the demonstration was hardly worth making. Then he turned a switch and the voices stopped.

Simon’s analysis of Winston Smith concludes that his rebellion was…

…doomed from the start. It is not just that the man who inducted him into ‘the Brotherhood’ was a spy for Big Brother. Winston’s failure was even more fundamental. He tried to rebel by becoming a subversive, but the Party itself was a gigantic instrument of subversion. O’Brien’s vision of the future was of ‘a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’ How can any rebel avert such a fate by throwing bombs or spreading disease? All the methods of the Brotherhood were simply ways of doing what the Party wanted done.

Subverting subversion is presented as futile. This prompts Simon to offer a different kind of response to subversion.

In such a state, there is only one way to make a difference. You cannot subvert ruins; but you can build right over top of them. If to subvert is to destroy a thing from below, might we not coin an opposite word? We could destroy a state of ruin from above, and, as I like to say, supervert it. Where people have abandoned their standards, we could suggest new ones (or reintroduce whatever was good and useful in the old). Where institutions have been abolished, we could institute others to do their work. Above all, we could instil the ideas of creation and structure and discipline into human minds and hearts, and especially the hearts of the young.

There is much to admire in Simon’s essay. However, I wonder if Simon draws the right lessons about the methods used by Winston Smith, and the forces that destroy him. A boot upon a human face is a vivid metaphor, but even that image is not wholly nihilistic. It requires that somebody has manufactured a boot.

Winston Smith does not live in a Hobbesian anarchy, where all are at war with all. His society is at war, but the threat posed by foreign powers is used to unite the population. Much has been built by Ingsoc, the party which rules. In particular, they have constructed a very large government, which has a permanent character even though it impoverishes the population. They have also developed a ubiquitous surveillance network, and they are in the process of rolling out a new language. These are not modest accomplishments. They require a rigid adherence to a single strategy, which is why loyalty is so important to Ingsoc.

Ingsoc prevails over Winston Smith not by killing him, but by co-opting him. The soul of Winston Smith is decimated, but his body lives on. What made him Winston Smith has been annihilated, in order to secure the loyalty of his shadow. This is how the novel ends.

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

Even if the goals of Ingsoc are nihilistic, it is not nihilism without limit. Their goal is a mirror reflection of that espoused by classical liberals. If the paradox of freedom is that there must be some limits on freedom to maintain a steady maximum of liberty, then there must also be some limits on nihilism to maintain a steady maximum of oppression. Orwell’s indictment of socialism is compelling because it shows how the free thinking pursuit of socialist principles can lead to doublethink, and ultimately to the prohibition of any alternative thought.

[Ingsoc] rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of Socialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a powerful story because we all take the side of Winston Smith. Even socialists sympathize with Winston. Winston’s struggles may have been futile, but I am loathe to discount his methods. In Winston’s society, subversion was the right response. He could not be expected to simply ‘build over’ Ingsoc, putting in place rival institutions. In order to build something new, he would first need to clear the land of existing obstacles. More importantly, he would need to work with others to do that. But how do you find others to work with you, when everyone suffers the oppression of Big Brother? How should we do it, in the world we live in? Subversives can do more than destroy. They may use subversion to send a signal to others, in order to construct coalitions. Subversive methods may be key to getting people’s attention, and encouraging them to join the fight.

A winning strategy requires more than the pursuit of victory; an enemy is also defeated by their own failings. Perhaps Ingsoc could not be defeated, but Winston was still right to fight in the only way he could. When Winston was defeated, it was because of his human frailty. To maintain the hope of eventual victory, we must first refuse to be defeated. As Sun Tzu observed:

In antiquity those that excelled in warfare first made themselves unconquerable in order to await [the moment when] the enemy could be conquered. Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with the enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable. Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.

Simon was right that an endless revolt loses all purpose. He is right to rail against the perpetual subversives who, like Don Quixote, have grown obsessed with old battles and outdated stories. They try to relive imagined glories by fighting villains and monsters that do not exist. As a consequence, they may fill fantasy worlds with caricatures of what they claim to find in the real world.

Because Simon is right to criticize the ‘subversive’ critics, we cannot allow a contradiction to emerge, where our enemies are permitted to use the weapons of criticism, but the rest of us forego them. Criticism is less heroic than constructing something new, but heroes fight to win, and they should exploit the weaknesses of their enemies. Just as importantly, subversion often makes for a good story. To build and operate the Death Star would have been a tremendous feat of engineering and logistics. But Luke Skywalker is a hero because he blows it up!

Whilst we try to maintain a positive outlook, we should remember the enemies of superversion are not weak. On the contrary, they have a passionate commitment to building bigger, bolder, more ruthless governments, that would be empowered to increasingly police what ordinary people say and think. We do need alternative institutions, but we also need to subvert any institution that obstructs our right to offer alternatives. This leads me to conclude that the method of subversion is not contrary to superversion, but necessary for it. What distinguishes the proponent of superversion is they do not allow subversion to become a goal in itself.

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?