Sunday, August 02, 2015

What does Sean Connery eat when he goes on holiday to Cornwall?

On page 279 of the Hugo-nominated collection of essays Transhuman and Subhuman, John C. Wright writes the following:

Now, it must also be clear that men have free will, and can train themselves either to fulfill their nature or oppose their nature. Merely because we have a natural inclination toward something tells us nothing about whether we ought to do or avoid that impulse. I have an impulse to be kind to children with big eyes, which I think I should indulge, and I have an impulse to stab my rivals through the eye and into the brain pan with my sword cane, which is an impulse I think I should suppress, not the least because my blade is dull and I am past the age when one can face the gallows with dignity. 

As a matter of fact I agree with Hugo-nominee J.C Wright’s point. You can’t get from an “is” to an “ought”. You can’t make gut-feeling the arbiter of morality. You should sometimes suppress your urge to be kind to cute children, say, because this particular cute child is a Skrull agrent; or because giving that one more chocolate will make him sick and rot his teeth. 

But what a bizarre way this Hugo-nominated writer has of expressing himself! Why talk of stabbing someone with a sword-cane, when you are a citizen of the United States and could legally obtain a hand-gun if you wanted to? And why talk about “facing the gallows” when your home state carries out executions (by gas and lethal injection, not hanging) only about once a decade, and then only for the most grotesque and heinous multiple murders? Why not write “I have an impulse to shoot my rivals, which is an impulse I think I should suppress, because I’m a rotten shot and I shouldn’t think I would cope very well with jail?”

And it really true that the main reasons for not murdering people are that you you don’t have an appropriate weapon and that you are afraid of the punishment? Isn’t the main reason that you think that a higher authority than your own gut-feelings — God or the Tao or natural law — says that murder is wrong? And doesn’t that same morality tell you that you should not only be kind to cute children, but ugly ones as well?

At the end of an essay about Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Hugo-nominated Wright muses that it is possible to imagine angels telling stories or writing poems, but not to imagine them telling fairy tales. Fairy tales speak to our sense that, since the Fall, we humans don’t quite belong in the natural world, so angels wouldn’t have any reason to make them up. This is a perfectly decent point. It’s a perfectly decent point derived from Tolkien’s Essay on Fairy Stories and C.S. Lewis's Weight of Glory, but none the worse for that. Good writers borrow; great writer’s steal, as the fellow said.

The Hugo-nominated essay concludes: 

Why should they daydream, and not do? No youth sighs over his beloved's picture when she is in the bridal bower and demurely shedding her veil.

In the bridal what? Demurely shedding her what? Why this sudden lapse into archaism? Wouldn’t “No young man drools over his girlfriend’s photo when she is already undressing in front of him” have made the point better? I should have been inclined to write “No-one surfs for porn while they’re having sex with an actual human being” but I probably go too far in my preference for plain speaking. 

Having said that, this Hugo-nominated author writes very well. Many of the essays in this volume are worth reading, even if they don’t exactly push the boat out in terms of radical or challenging subject matter. Why do science fiction stories so often imagine future wars being conducted with swords? Because swords evoke an older, more chivalrous, version of war. Who were the great writers of the Golden Age? Heinlein, Asimov and (unjustly neglected) Van Vogt. Is it better to be regarded as good, or to actually be good regardless of what anyone thinks of you? Better to be good. What characterized classic science fiction? Competent men solving problems by gumption, ingenuity and intelligence. What is the secret of great writing? Show, don't tell; tell the truth; fulfill your promises to your readers. Was Arthur C. Clarke's critique of religion a bit naive? Yes. Was the Desolation of Smaug very good? Er... No. His pen has a habit of running away with itself, but he has the knack of summing up a train of thought in a forceful paragraph.

Here he is on the fact that science fiction readers — as opposed to mundanes, or, as he amusingly calls them, muggles —  positively like to be confused or baffled by a setting. In return, the science fiction writer — like the traditional detective story writer — has an obligation to play fair. He has to understand how his world works, and he has to give the reader reasonable clues so he stands a chance of working it out for himself. But:

This willingness to be lost tends not to work across genre boundaries. The reason why a collective groan of disbelief rose up to heaven from the massed fans of Star Wars was because of one line in one scene from the Phantom Menace, when the Jedi say Jedi powers are based, not on a mystical energy field binding the galaxy together, but due to microscopic bodies in the bloodstream. The groan was because the genre boundary had been crossed. 

I couldn't have put it better myself, and indeed didn’t. Unless…maybe that crossing back and forth between genre was part of the point of Star Wars to begin with? Maybe a mystical energy field which is also a side effect of telepathic micro-organisms is very much the same thing as an old-fashioned sword which is also a high tech piece of hardware? But let's not press that point. He's dead right that making Obi-Wan "a crazy old wizard" is a different proposition from making him "a student of mind science" even if the super-powers are the same either way.

He thinks that science fiction is more about mythology than prediction, and defines mythology thus:

A mythology is an explanation by means of concrete images of the abstractions and passions of the age; myth speaks in a vocabulary of anthropomorphoized figures.

Very well put: that’s just what mythology is, and it would be worth running the definition past the kinds of people who think that the Bible (for example) is either the LITERAL HISTORICAL TRUTH or else a PACK OF LIES. In fact, he's rather good —  if a little verbose and shrill —  on the whole idea of science and religion being necessarily at odds: 

With apologies to my fundamentalist brethren in Christ, all that happened is that one small group in schism with the Roman Catholic Church, militant fundamentalist Christians who reject the authority of the Magisterium to interpret and teach scripture, has decided on a literal interpretation of Genesis, and insist on a six-day timeline of creation that does not fit geological, astronomical, or biological evidence......

Meanwhile, another small group in schism with the Roman Catholic Church, militant fundamentalist atheists who reject the authority of science to say what is and what is not science, has decided on a mystical, Shavian, Hegelian or Marxist misinterpretation of Darwin’s Origin of Species....

These two groups, neither of whom represents mainstream Christianity or mainstream scientific thinking, have decided that there is a war going on between science and Christianity....

I mean, it's a bit of a stretch to see fundamentalists as schismatic Catholics and a big stretch to see Dawkins' lot that way, but the idea that "religion vs science" is not a clash of two mighty ideologies by a quarrel between too tiny sub-groups is really very well played. 

And he’s pretty good even when he’s being deliberately contentious. He is very annoyed with Hell is the Absence of God, a satirical short story by three-times Hugo award winner Ted Chiang, because (he thinks) it sets up a straw-man version of Christianity instead of engaging with what Christians actually believe. The Hugo-nominated Wright claims to have been an atheist when he first read the book, and says that even then his reaction was “doesn’t Ted Chiang know any Christians?”

The major charge of honest atheists is that the claims of the Christian religion are false…. When asked politely if they can see the Wizard, the atheists are told that no one can see the Wizard, not nobody not no how. Small wonder the atheists are skeptical. You do not undercut this fairytale by saying that The Wizard is an evil bunny-killing tyrant and that the Wicked Witch of the West is merely a soulful and misunderstood victim of circumstance. 

This is a good analogy. I shall probably steal it at some point. It's the flip side Ford Prefect's "isn't it enough that the garden is beautiful without believing that there are fairies are the bottom of it?" Can't you say that you don't believe in fairies without lying about what the fairy tale is about? 

But in the same essay, the pen of Hugo-nominated J.C Wright demonstrates its tendency to run out of control: 

The major objection honest atheists must level is that religion is false; that even if true, it has no claim on our loyalty; that the reason of man, being reason, cannot be bound by dogma; and that the claims, true or false, are repellent to the dignity of free and rational beings. 

Well, no. Those are not arguments that an honest atheist must put forward. These are four different arguments that four different kinds of people might possibly have for rejecting religion. 

1: Religion is false

2: Religion has no claim on our loyalty

3: Humans can’t be bound by dogma

4: The claims of religion are repellent

I think what the Hugo-nominated writer is trying to get at here is that you might plain and simple not believe in God. On the other hand, you might be far from sure that God does not exist, but very sure indeed that there is no need to worship him even if he does. Or again, you might be agnostic about God's existence but still have a problem with the absolute claims of some churches. You might even say that religion is so horrible that you don't care whether or not it is true. It obviously isn't the case that an honest atheist must say that the claims of religion are repellent. Lots of honest atheists say "It's a lovely story. I can see why you want it to be true. But I don't believe it is." Perhaps the Hugo-nominated Wright means to say "an honest atheist must level one or more of the following claims against religion"? But that doesn't work either —  only the first claim is strictly atheistic, and there are many more than four reasons for rejecting religion.

The sentence is a muddle because one word, religion, is being pressed into service to mean

a: Theism, the belief in God

b: Religion, the practice and worship of a particular God

c: Catholicism, a particular version of a particular religion.

And a single word, atheism, is being treated as "the opposite of religion" so it covers “people who don’t think there is a God”; “people who don’t practice any religion” and “people who aren’t Catholics.” It doesn't help that dogma has a technical theological meaning and a popular, colloquial one and that it isn't clear in which sense it is being used.

The Hugo-nominated Wright likes to present himself as a bit of a donnish pedant, worrying about the proper meanings of words and distinguishing between Aritstotle's four different ways of answering a "why?" question. But he actually writes quite carelessly, particularly when he's affecting to be annoyed about something. And he has a habit of saying the same things over and over in different words. (He is also addicted to reiterating statements using various synonyms.)


There is a certain kind of modern art where the idea is more important than the object. It is quite funny to know that a Frenchman once put a toilet in an art gallery and labeled it “Fountain”; it’s not so necessary to go and see the actual loo in question.

Similarly, the idea of a book is sometimes more important than the book itself. It is quite funny to know that someone once translated Winnie the Pooh into Latin, or photographed every public lavatory in London, but once you know that they have done so, you do not necessarily need to read the books.

The Hugo-nominated Transhuman and Subhuman is best thought of as a conceptual book. All the talk about sword-canes and hangings and bridal bowers is a bit of literary cos-play. The book is an homage: a pastiche. It has a point  — an obnoxious point, but still a point — but it makes that point by existing, not by arguing any particularly compelling case. People who agree with the point will own a copy; and quite possibly vote for it in the 2015 Hugo Awards. But they will not necessarily read it; at any rate, not right to the end. (The last two extended essays defeated me, and I'm the sort of person who is good at struggling through difficult books.) 

This is a Hugo-nominated essay collection that is trying, very hard, to sound as if it comes from 1920s England, not 2015 California. The rhetoric, and many of the actual arguments, sound like something out of C.S. Lewis. It keeps lapsing into flowery archaic language, and sometimes pretends not to understand modern vocabulary. It doesn’t reference any philosopher more recent than Aristotle. Its science fiction reference-points are books that I was reading at school: A Princess of Mars, The Foundation Trilogy, Childhood’s End, the Lensman series, classic Star Trek, the original Star Wars. Not insignificantly, the author appears to deliberately dress like G.K. Chesterton.

The medium is the message. You don’t need to read any modern science fiction to know that it's all awful. You don’t need to read modern philosophy to know that it’s all codswallop. The Golden Age is past: schools no longer educate children; journalists no longer tell the truth; and science fiction has turned away from the one true way of John W. Campbell. 

So the thing to do is to huddle together writing very old fashioned essays on very old fashioned books in very old fashioned language, and wait for an intellectual savior in an old fashioned hat, and old fashioned frock coat, armed with an old fashioned sword cane to stab the dragons of modernity through the eye (and into the brain pan) on our behalf. 


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