The Fear of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aldous Huxley Brave New World

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look,” he commanded.

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

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

“the weather’s always …”

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Is Galaxy Quest Superversive?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is it superversive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galaxy Quest Jason Nesmith
Pictorial definition of “unlikely hero”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fandom Is Dead. Long Live Fandom!

the medium is the message

If you change the medium, you change the message.

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

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

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

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

Dragon Con

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

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

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

In the early days, science fiction enthusiasts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Brad R. Torgersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Trek: The Apple

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll meet them next time.

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.