Wednesday, October 31, 2007

P is for Poe

I think that if you were some sort of psychological archaeologist, and you could dig down through all the consciously scientific strata of my mind, and all the consciously religious strata, and all the weird deposits laid down by the vagaries of history and biology, you would find- a very little distance above the primeval bedrock of "There seems to be an I that is thinking"- these words, engraved in letters as deep as a spear as long:

Hear the sledges with the bells-
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Hear the mellow wedding bells,
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And an in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor,
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows:
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells-
Of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells-
Iron Bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people-
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All Alone
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone-
They are neither man nor woman-
They are neither brute nor human-
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells-
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells-
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells:
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells-
Bells, bells, bells-
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

O is for Orwell

Hobbit women are often named after plants and flowers, says Tolkien in the LOTR Appendices, and it was vague memories of Keep the Aspidistra Flying that led me to name my hobbit rogue Aspidistra, was back in 1991. While young her nose had been cut off by a mage looking for spell components, but eventually she managed to source a golden one. In LOTR Online, you cannot make up characters with no noses, but I have reconstituted an Aspidistra:

Figure 1: Aspidistra under the constellation Menelvagor

‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps towards it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record about one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.’ – George Orwell

On November 24th, I expect Labor shall win the federal election. The sudden convergence of policy on everything between the two parties is in one way disappointing, but in another way is a refreshing sign that our country is more or less sane. It would be much worse if the two sides were being dragged along by their lunatic fringes, which seems to be the case in certain other English-speaking countries.

The public pronouncements of Rudd have tracked ‘right’ on Iraq to such an extent that I think it will make absolutely no difference to the U.S. alliance which party wins. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister has tracked ‘left’ on Anthropogenic Global Warming to such an extent that he is no better than Labor. He has also frightened me by promising to enshrine ‘Some Australians are more equal than others’ in the constitution, and I am irritated by the prospect of him handing over to Costello because I know this would mean another time-wasting constitutional debate.
I don’t expect I shall mind Labor winning overmuch, given this convergence. A Labor government will provide a good opportunity for people to remember that mandatory detention of asylum seekers, gutting higher education, and privatising everything that stands still long enough to slap a price tag on it were policies initiated by the last lot of federal Labor governments.

I have read fewer of Orwell’s essays than I ought, but the ones I have read say something clearly and logically, and the something that they say is always sane, and usually something I can agree with. This is unlike any essays that are written in newspapers or magazines nowadays. Even this celebrated fragment has a good deal of truth in it, and an important message for me to remember:

‘Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.’

The protagonist in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose name escapes me, has an attitude to birth control which one now expects to find only among extreme religious believers. I am pretty sure from things I have read elsewhere that Orwell shared this opinion. In fact, from where I stand now the similarities between Orwell and Chesterton are far more important than the differences.

I was reading 1984 after school on the afternoon when my sister was being born, and my maths teacher walked by, not knowing my sister was being born just then, and said ‘Big Brother!’.

This is included as an example of an anecdote that has no point.

The only longer work of Orwell’s that I have read and re-read is Animal Farm. In the introduction to the edition I have it suggests that the subtitle ‘A Fairy Story’ relates to the arbitrary nature of success in fairy tales. In fairy tales, there is often no logic to choosing a successful course of action. Anyone may succeed in a fairy tale, no matter how unpromising their beginnings, but for everyone who succeeds hundreds fail. Think of all those knights who try and fail to rescue the princess, leaving their bones to litter the landscape, before the hero succeeds for some arbitrary reason.

Chesterton makes a similar point on the arbitrary nature of morality in fairy tales. In fairy tales, there is often no logic to what is stated to be good or bad. Happiness hangs by an irrational thread. Chesterton shoehorns the arbitrary nature of fairy tale morality into an argument that fairy tales are moral after all.

But I am not entirely convinced.

I have a bad habit of not paying enough attention to things. And I rarely forget instances when I have been stupid. (This is why I keep getting ‘Running out of memory’ errors). So I can remember my father showing me something with the quote ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ on it and me breezily, stupidly, saying that I had seen it before. Of course my father would not show me something that was not worth looking at. It had been misquoted as ‘All people are equal, but some are more equal than others’. It had been misattributed, to- I think- ‘Animal House’ rather than ‘Animal Farm’-and it had been, worst of all, cited approvingly to illustrate the importance of education, since by education we could be one of those animals who are more equal than the other ones!

I have felt very bad about not paying attention at that moment ever since. I’m sorry, dad. :(

This is included as an example of an anecdote that has a point.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Spero: Question 5

[The notes on this point in my ‘Spero’ document are not the most coherent. I am not entirely sure what my pre-blogging self intended to say from the fragmentary notes they made, so I may be going off on a complete tangent here and misrepresenting their opinions.]

What is the universe like?

When we compare our concept of God and our concept of the universe, it would be good if they did not contradict one another. If they seem to do so, we must either adjust our concept of God, or adjust our concept of the universe, or adjust our concept of how they are linked one to another. I am using my definition of ‘universe’ which was something like ‘everything that exists which is potentially knowable to us’ as opposed to ‘Universe’ which was simply ‘everything that exists’.

Thus my implacable opposition to what is called Creationism owes a great deal, as I have said before, to the assertion that to create the universe ex nihilo as we see it- with all its pointless suffering and such a lot of excellent indirect evidence that it was not created ex nihilo like it is now- is absolutely unworthy of any God worth worshipping.

What do we see, when we look at the universe?

We see that it is physically rather hostile to creatures like us. It seems to be governed primarily by impersonal laws that make no distinctions between us: it does not matter whether we are nice or nasty, it does not matter what our name is or where we went to school, we will all obey G = m1m2/r2 if we should trip and fall.

On the other hand, the universe is psychically congenial. These implacable laws seems to be within our capacity to figure out. This is pretty amazing.

The universe is rather big.

The universe is also prodigal. It is inexplicably full of vast numbers of very similar things. If it was created ex nihilo, it was created by someone with a child’s joy in repeating very similar things over and over and over again. Look at all of those stars! Look at all of those insects! Look at all of those organic compounds!

The universe does not have one story at one scale, but a bewildering hierarchy of stories at different scales. Things that are very very small are interesting, and obey certain rules. These rules acting on these small things give rise to systems that are larger, and can be largely understood in terms of different rules which do not explicitly refer to the set of rules operating on the smaller scale. And these systems give rise to higher order systems, etc. The universe has all these layers of nested hierarchies emerging out of each other. But, there is no indication that one level of the hierarchy is more important than any other: if it was created ex nihilo, it was created by someone who lavished equal attention on all levels of the hierarchy.

The laws we have discovered suggest that there is no need to postulate that there is anything called ‘mind’ separate from ‘matter’ in the universe. But matter is incredibly interesting and behaves in bizarre ways. We can explain all of the hoped-for phenomena that we used to postulate a ‘soul’ for without there being anything in the universe besides matter. This is the point my pre-blogging self spent most of their time nattering about in the fragmentary notes.

I suggest that the universe also seems to be very pretty, at any scale we happen to look at.

Thus, the universe appears to be:

So darn mean.
Yet largely explicable.
Inexplicably large.
Inordinately fond of beetles.
In agreement with the statement ‘size doesn’t matter’.
Full of matter.

I am not sure what my pre-blogging self was aiming at- but I think my aim now is that all of these features of the universe should sit comfortably within a self-consistent worldview incorporating God as defined previously. There are certainly other features of the universe that will impress you, that ought to be fit into this self-consistent worldview as well...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doubtless I have written many dumb things

...and on the principle of ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ ought to remain silent. But I am weak.

Here is an extract from a letter quoted in a book I have just finished reading:

They keep sheep in Magdalen grove now, and I hear the fleecy care bleating all day long: I am shocked to find that none of my pupils, though they are all acquainted with pastoral poetry, regards them as anything but a nuisance: and one of my colleagues has been heard to ask why sheep have their wool cut off.

It is immediately followed by a second extract from the same letter:

It frightens me, almost. And so it did the other night when I heard two undergrads, giving a list of pleasures which were (a) Nazi, (b) leading to homosexuality. They were: feeling the wind in your hair, walking with bare feet in the grass, and bathing in the rain. Think it over: it gets worse the longer you look at it.

Now, if you knew *nothing at all* about the writer except that he wrote the first quote as well as the second quote, it would be blindingly clear that (s)he has overheard two pretentious undergraduates, with little experience of life outside the city and in obvious reaction to the early 20th century German cult of Nature, saying that these simple pleasures lead to Nazism and homosexuality. The undergraduates are saying that bathing in the rain leads to Nazism and homosexuality.

But, but, this is the ridiculous thing, the guy who is writing the book that quotes the letter doesn’t get it! This is what he says:

‘It is twenty-two years since I read that letter ... and on and off I have been thinking it over. At no time have I been able to see anything Nazi or necessarily homosexual in the listed pleasures, which are precisely of the kind which might occur in a George MacDonald fantasy. But the pleasures are, of course, those of youth, and Lewis at the age of forty seems to have forgotten what it was like to be young. He sees exuberant, and perhaps sensual, pleasure in the natural world ... now such stuff seems to him ‘Nazi’.’

Perhaps this would be excusable if Lewis were a minor figure in this book. But it is a biography of him! Elsewhere in the book, it is clear that the guy who wrote it has read everything C. S. Lewis ever published, as well as reams of unpublished material and things written about him by people who knew him personally. He ought to have gleaned some vague sense of what the fellow is like. In twenty-two years, how could it not have clicked that his reading of the letter was preposterously wrong? Didn’t he show his manuscript to any friends or colleagues who could have pointed out that his reading of the letter was wrong? If he could misread his subject so badly, what is he doing writing a biography of him at all?

Speaking of biography, I read the other day in the newspaper that there is no biography in English of Hu Jintao, despite the fact that he has been in charge of the Renegade Mainland Provinces for five years. This seems to indicate a frightening lack of interest by the English-speaking-world in the non-English-speaking world.

And I see Thabo Mbeki has won a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Congrats!

Spero: Question 4, take 2

Q: What do we mean by God?

A: At some level of the Universe more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe. That is, it knows everything there is to know about our universe and wills what is good, without exception, for everything in our universe. This entity is God.

Omniscience, and therefore omnibenevolence, will be limited by the amount of information coming from yet more fundamental levels of the Universe, unless it is also true that God is the fundamental self-existent uncreated thing upon which everything else is dependent.

God can interact with us as a person, although what God is really like is as unknowable to us. This person is not a face put on by God, but is a valid ‘cross section’ of God, like the Sphere in Flatland being able to interact with A. Square as a circle.

This is the point that winstoninabox said he wanted to hear more about- in those happy days of long ago when the world was young- the intersection between God and Man.

I hold two ideas which sit somewhat uncomfortably together and make it hard for me to get hold of how this works.

The first idea is that we obtain all our information about the Universe through sense impressions, so that God must interact with us through the universe. In every instance of God interacting with us there will be material causes in the universe that make material changes in our brains.

The second idea is that the universe as we see it has the properties it has because of interactions between God and free-willed entities more fundamental than we are. God would not by fiat alter the properties that have arisen because of the free decisions of these entities, because that would make a mockery of their free will.

Thus, God acts only through the rules of the universe He has constructed, and can only interact with us- transient emergent phenomena emerging from the interactions between more fundamental beings- when the freely willed actions of those more fundamental beings allow. So I am stuck saying on the one hand that we cannot tell what God is like by observing how the universe is, but on the other hand that we do not have any other means of obtaining information.

I think the only way out is not to restrict ourselves to the means of knowledge that are ‘at our disposal’, but to consider also the means of knowledge that are not at our disposal: our observations of how the universe ‘ought to be’ are just as much part of the universe, even if they are not verifiable, as our observations of how the universe ‘is’. Hence the importance of the unwieldy term ‘physico-psychical’ in the quote below:

Just as long acquaintance with a man of great character may greatly influence one’s whole manner of conduct ... so if contemplation and study of the physico-psychical universe can imbue a man with principles of conduct analogous to the influence of a great man’s works or conversation, then that analogue of a mind- for it is impossible to say that any human attribute is literally applicable- is what he means by God.” (C. S. Peirce, ‘The Concept of God’)

I first read this a while ago and did not agree with it, but after thrashing around unsuccessfully looking for a better explanation I have read it again more carefully and think that I do. Though this contemplation of the universe will always be looking ‘through a glass darkly’, we should still see features in the universe which point us towards God. I think these are:

* The morality, C. S. Lewis’s ‘Tao’, which we seem to share.

* Our sense of the numinous which William James made so much of.

* The fact that science actually works, which ought to keep us all in a state of continuous total amazement.

Beyond this, I would suggest that God communicates with us through apparently chance combinations of events. God can hold the whole universe in His mind the way we can hold an equilateral triangle, and see that if these uncountable trillions of fundamental particles here, and here, and here can be persuaded to take various actions {N1, N2 ... Nlots}, it will present a particular set of circumstances to a particular transient being such as you or me. Since God is continually active in the universe in this way, maybe it would be true to say that all our experiences are experiences of God, if we chose to interpret them in this way. If these experiences make us feel like we ought to behave as though God exists, then we ought to.

How can we have an idea of God which is consistent with the reality of God? Putting things in terms of Peirce’s four ways of making our ideas clear:

* We could just stick to whatever ideas we happen to have, come what may.
* We could try to conform with the ideas of the people around us.
* We could define some a priori rules.
* We could make a study of our own and other people’s experiences.

I think in this particular case authority and experiment are uniquely conflated as ways of knowing. If we try to abstract the things that are common to human experience of God, it is hard to get anything much except the ‘Tao’. Therefore I am going to propose only one a priori rule, that we should respect this largely common moral teaching of humanity, and seek to hold an image of God that conforms with it.

In the absence of evidence outside our own experience of God, we have a duty to hope for the Best God Possible. We know (or think we know, or hope) that there is such a thing as Good. The Best Possible God will therefore be perfectly Good, and that is the God we should seek.

I hold that this omnibenevolence is the critical characteristic of God. (Omniscience is only necessary because in order to act towards the optimal outcome in a system, you need perfect knowledge about that system. Omnipotence is incapable of definition.)

An Omnibenevolent God will desire us to do any small thing that is good, but will not be satisfied until we are perfect.

What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk? What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son?” (George MacDonald)

So if anyone tells us either that God will reject our first tentative moves towards good, or will ultimately be content for us to remain as something less than perfectly good, we should ignore what they say.

I worked with a Mormon once who was quite scandalized by the idea of deathbed conversions.

‘You have these Mafia people who spend their whole lives doing horrible things, then on their deathbed they repent, and that’s okay, they go to Heaven? Where’s the justice in that?’

This opinion is to be rejected because it is in conflict with omnibenevolence.

If the authority of very many Saints and Prophets tells us something is wrong, while our conscience can see nothing wrong with it, then the omnibenevolence of God suggests that we ought to swallow our pride and accept that ‘the white we see is black’, because progress in goodness can only mean becoming more good.

If on the other hand we voluntarily wish to reject something that our Saints and Prophets have historically had no problem with- e.g., owning slaves, or eating dead animals- we may possibly be right: Ignatius Loyola never said that we had to accept that ‘the black we see is white’.

If there is anything in our inherited idea of God that suggests He is not omnibenevolent- such as, for example, the idea that non-believers will be subjected to eternal torture;
or the idea that He just happened to create a world full of pointless animal suffering-
then we must reject these ideas and try to interpret our observations of the universe, or the probable reality behind what authority has told us, in a way which does not call God’s omnibenevolence into question. We must cut away from our idea of God anything that we would consider unworthy behaviour in a human. How much more would such behaviour be unworthy of an omnibenevolent God?

Following the principle of omnibenevolence is one way that reason can give us a clearer picture of God. Ultimately, experience of God is the only way to know God. Here, reason can also help us to form a clearer picture of God by considering the experience of other people, since as individuals we are such a tiny sample of humanity.

If our idea of God is in conflict with our personal experience of God, either our idea of God is flawed or we have misinterpreted our experience of God. Authority- the cumulative experience of God and the ideas about God developed by those who have gone before us- can help us to judge whether we have interpreted our experience of God correctly. Finding out what other humans think about God, and their experience of God, will always be valuable. Do we behave in a similar way because of our experience of God as other people who have had experience of God? Is there something obvious we have missed? If we maintain a respect for Authority, and are very very reluctant to contradict any of the Prophets, we will be most unlikely to end up like Thomas M√ľntzer or Jim Jones.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Old men staring out to sea

There is a Film Forensics about The Island; but I just saw it the other day and had to write something. Or, I saw it the other day and just had to write something.

I can’t remember the last movie I saw that started out with so much promise and then collapsed so completely. It was like The Matrix and the first of those crummy Matrix sequels had been combined into one movie. It was like Highlander and Highlander 2 had been combined into one movie. It was like the screenwriter had disappeared halfway through, and been replaced by his 15-year-old clone who liked to blow things up.

So my first suggestion for improving the movie would involve the following two steps:

(a) Cut it in half
(b) Throw the second half away

Two things bothered me, besides the long and tedious action sequences. The first was the economics of the cloning operation, and the second was the behaviour of the people involved in it.

Economics first: $5 million is just too much to pay if all you get is replacement organs, and them not on demand: who wants to wait in a coma for months or years while your replacement parts are grown? Androo hit the nail on the head: “If the technology is there for building adult bodies, it’s not so much of a leap to go further and have brain transplants. Why bother repairing the old host body, when you can just move your brain into a new body? Ickier, more memorable, and we have a chance at some interesting plot points to go with it. The clones have to be physically trained to match (or exceed) the capabilities of the originals, which is a better explanation of why they have to be conscious...”

Then the people: Of course, groups of people can easily be persuaded to do evil things to other people. You usually need to do two things: isolate your group of evildoers from outside norms of behaviour, and convince them that their target group is subhuman. In The Island, there are too many humans working with the clones, and they interact with them all the time and see them behaving like regular humans. They are allowed to treat them occasionally in dehumanising and cruel ways, but not as a matter of course, since that would spoil the product. And they do not live on an isolated company compound, but commute to normal homes in the outside world. I think, if under these circumstances none of them have had pangs of conscience, if none of them have squealed about what is going on, it can only mean the rest of the country shares their morality. It only makes sense that they would behave that way if everyone considers clones to be inhuman, whether they are conscious or not, and that the uplifting scene of clones wandering across the desert at the end will soon be followed by scenes of helicopters rounding them up and taking them back to the pens.

In my version, most of the black-shirted people wandering around managing the clones will be clones themselves, who believe the same backstory, but have been conditioned to believe they have an important role in managing the facility and will automatically be sent on to the Island after a given length of time. Among these will be a few humans, some of the very few who know the whole story. Upstairs, where the clones are processed, things will be as automated as possible, and most humans working there will be unaware that the products were ever conscious.

The first part of the film will therefore unfold almost exactly the same as before, except that, of course, there is no need for white-suited clones to know how to read. I expect black-suited clones will be able to read. Also, the sleazy mechanic will be played by Jet Li.

When Lincoln escapes into the upper part of the facility, he will not find bustling corridors full of medicos, but- after a bit of atmospheric wandering around looking at cool special effects- an operating theatre where remotely operated robodocs are operating on the football-player replacement clone. Everything is under control: there is no racing about trying to escape. Lincoln just sees the guy lying there, obviously the man who won the lottery. An unspeakable machine comes up and puts some tubes in. Another one puts in some more tubes. Some lights flash. Maybe something beeps. Another machine comes up and shaves a small spot on his head. Splot, a machine sticks a thick steel tube through his skull. Schlurp, we see his brain being pumped, grayish-pink and icky, through a transparent tube. He is shrinkwrapped, a few more tubes are attached, and then a door whooshes open and a couple of gowned figures come in to check dials and wheel him away.

Consumers don’t come to the facility. That would be bad. So there is no scene with a baby being handed to grateful parents.

Then, there is no stupid action scene when Lincoln and Jordon get away. The clones are smart. Androo, again, has it perfectly right: “Have them both with some notion that they’re escaping to somewhere incredibly dangerous: that the world is not only radioactive, but filled with hideous beasts, as they see on the videos. They dress in radiation suits, take fresh water, weapons, and other supplies, and are cunning about hiding.”

Now, if you were running a facility like this, where would you put it? A disused military base in an open democracy where there are things like a free press and an activist judiciary? Only if you are a Michael Moore-style fantasist and the government is in on the deal. No, when they get out of the facility, the clones are not in the Nevada desert. They are on a bleak street in a Chinese industrial city, tarted up to look a bit more like Blade Runner because it is after all 2042. As they wander down the street, totally lost and looking like dills in their radiation suits, we see that the ‘Medical Supply House’ they have escaped from is not the only one. No, this street is lined with them. They can’t tell, because they can’t read.

Since, for a brand new body, $5 million is not so much. Millions of people can pay that. There are hundreds of these places here in Chengdu, where labour is cheaper and regulations less strict than they are in Nevada.

We flash back to the excitingly CGI-rendered video conference (clients aren’t going to travel out to the middle of nowhere to listen to a sales talk, after all) where the evil scientist fills in the back story for the folks at home. Its not good for old geezers to be transported into a body that is bed-ridden and weak from just sitting there in a vegetative state, of course: so it has to be exercised, by the latest top of the range equipment which keeps it in tip-top condition. Our automatic equipment for exercising our vegetative clones is the best in the world, which is why our bodies command premium prices, etc., etc. Because, and this is why the guys who own this place are really evil, they don’t have to keep the clones conscious in order to make their product. It’s just cheaper that way. It’s all about the bottom line.

The clones are wandering down the street when Lincoln sees his old friend Jet Li. Jet Li drops his dinner, which he is carrying home, in surprise. Jet Li can fill the clones in on his version of the backstory back at his place.

Now, I have slightly reconsidered my first suggestion, which was to throw the second half of the movie away. Perhaps some essential part of The Island is the dichotomy between a cerebral, intelligent world that is a total fraud and a stupid world of ultrakinetic action that is reality. Instead, we will make sure that the hyperkinetic action sequences are justified by the only justification for hyperkinetic action sequences, that they be part of the Hong Kong action movie tradition.

So, there is some artificial plot device to stop the clones from contacting their owners right away. They are pursued by the police and by the mercenaries. Far fewer things are totally destroyed, since we have spent more of the special effects budget on booze. The police will actually collect the clones, bring them into the station- not to charge them with the murder of Jet Li, because he is alive in this version, and they’ve brought him into the station too, but because it is an authoritarian state where they can do what they like to simple-minded foreigners in weird costumes who run away and break things- and then they will be grabbed by the mercenaries, who have more impressive special effects than the police.

The clones will be tied up and spirited away, but we always thought the mercenary leader was going to turn out to be a good guy, and our suspicions are about to be confirmed: he has gotten a better offer and is being nice to the clones and taking them somewhere else. Meanwhile it will be revealed to the viewers at home that, going through proper channels, what the police were going to do is hush things up and disappear the clones quietly. The mercenary leader is taking the clone to Matt Damon of Team America: World Police, who is investigating dumping of cheap Chinese clones on the market. We are just starting to like the mercenary leader when he turns evil again and is shot by Matt Damon. Lincoln borrows Matt Damon’s mobile phone and calls his owner. His owner is mortified and nice, and immediately arranges for the two clones to be repatriated.

Lincoln and Jordon go to live with Ur-Lincoln, who lives on- dramatic music- an island! Yep, it’s a real nice private artificial island, either in Tampa Bay (like in that Alan Dean Foster book based on Navajo mythology), or part of The World in Dubai. (There will be nothing in this film to offend any geography pedants.)

We see the same police who were going to hush things up barging into the upper floors of the clone factory, now that it is no longer possible to hush things up.

We see the other clones owned by Americans being happily repatriated to a real swell holding facility in Nevada, until Team America:World Police can figure out what to do with them.

We see Lincoln and Jordon sitting on the beach happily drinking pina coladas.

We see the inert bodies of the evil scientist and the rest of his evil non-clone collaborators, and yes, that’s Jet Li there too, he was caught by the authorities as well- being processed on a conveyor belt. A robodoc much like the one we saw in use in their facility is dissecting them for organs. Splot. Schlurp. Buzz, whir.

Then we pan along that street in Chengdu again, past ‘Medical Supply House’ after ‘Medical Supply House’.

Everyone happy. Cue credits. Await diplomatic incident.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Butlerian Jihad, My Shiny Metal Arse

The term 'Butlerian Jihad' is obviously a reference to Samuel Butler's 'Erewhon'.

Deriving the name from somebody named 'Serena Butler' or 'Jehanne Butler' is just plain stupid.

N is for Nobody

Science fiction is dead.

Exhibit 1: Last month I found myself in the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ section of an average-sized bookshop, one of a major chain of such shops that you can find in any shopping centre in the country.

There were some Star Trek books. There were some Star Wars books. I think there may have been some Stargate books. There were a few of those sequels to the Dune Books by Brian Herbert which I have never had the slightest inclination to read. There was ‘I, Robot’. There was, in one gleam of hope, a whole slab of shelf devoted to a new edition of Philip K. Dick’s novels.

Beyond that, it was all Fantasy.

Of course, not all bookstores are like that. But if Science Fiction was a going concern, there wouldn’t be any bookstores like that.

To a first approximation, therefore, it would seem that no science fiction with mass appeal is being written today.

Refutations of this statement, with copious counter-examples, would be welcome. While awaiting them I will have a go at possible explanations:

(1) As a superannuated fuddy-duddy, I am out of touch with the vibrant and populous community of modern science fiction readers. Entirely possible... but if they were really vibrant and populous one would still expect to see more evidence of it in the chain bookstores. I think.

(2) It just got too hard to write science fiction, because the real world got too science-fictiony, and was more or less the same as the Cyberpunk world we used to read.

Exhibit 2: When I read science fiction, even my favourite stuff, it always has a period feel nowadays: In all but a very few cases, it is obviously of the 50s, or the 60s, or the 70s, or the 80s, and could not be anything else. I can immediately imagine a ‘generic’ science fiction story of each of those decades, as dated by its themes and characters as if it were full of artifacts and celebrities of that period.

Exhibit 3: I can think of two authors immediately who wrote science fiction that was interesting and good, in different ways, and then went off to achieve fame and fortune writing formulaic fantasy. I can’t think of anyone who went the other way.

I sat down once and thought about what sort of thing I liked to read best of all, and I remember deciding that it was science fiction stories of the sort written by Larry Niven. I can’t think of any particular way they stand out. It is just that every other particular science fiction author I think of has particular foibles that would grate on me if I had to read only them forever. So, if I was forced to take the short stories of only one author with me to Camp X-Ray to read and re-read for the term of my natural life, it would have to be Larry Niven.

Having said that, I have almost never re-read a Larry Niven novel.

And, I can’t think of any way in which Larry Niven has changed my world view. Perhaps changes in world view only arise in response to being sufficiently irritated. So, although ‘N’ was originally going to be for Larry Niven, I have changed my mind.

N is for the next science fiction author to make an impact on the way I look at the world.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

More precious than carbuncles

This post is about different books than the one Marco is writing.

In the Narnia books the land of Narnia is described as a small country on the margin of a great empire, the land of Calormen. We are never told the extent of it, but in The Horse and His Boy Shasta and Bree travel north for ‘weeks and weeks’ along its coast from a spot which seems far from its southern edge, while Narnia itself is the sort of place which can be crossed in a few days. ‘It is not the fourth size of one of your least provinces’, as Prince Rabadash tells his father the Tisroc.

Calormen is far larger and more populous than Narnia and Archenland, where humans first appeared on the world. And, while throughout the history of Narnia the inhabitants of these little countries continue to resemble King Frank and Queen Helen- that is, to look and act English- the Calormen are people of Middle Eastern appearance. While Aslan is remembered and revered in Narnia and Archenland, the Calormenes are heathenish in their habits, with manners resembling those of the Ottoman Turks.

Where did this vast empire come from?

Why do its inhabitants look different?

And how did they come by such different customs?

In many thousand years, one might reasonably expect people to swarthen and grow heathenish, simply by dwelling in hot countries Aslan does not deign to visit. This timeline, however, while possibly apocryphal, provides an awkwardly short interval for this huge country to be populated and develop such a distinctive culture.

If we are to accept the dates in this timeline, another hypothesis is necessary.

In ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ it is stated: ‘King Frank and Queen Helen and their children lived happily in Narnia and their second son became King of Archenland. The boys married nymphs and the girls married wood-gods and river-gods.’

For one thing, this contradicts the timeline: but it is easy enough to argue around that. Now, the timeline tells us:

204 - Outlaws from Archenland travel across the Great Desert to the South and establish the kingdom of Calormen.

It would be reasonable for even a smallish band of outlaws to increase to the few millions needed to fill up Calormen over four hundred years or so. But outlaws in mid-twentieth-century fantasy worlds are usually male and unlikely to form decent breeding populations. However... coming from a time when it might not have been unusual to interbreed with demihumans, perhaps the dark complexions and distinctive cultural traits of the later Calormenes come from non-human ancestresses?

In Narnia and Archenland, which have a European climate, the demi-human population is drawn from (Non-Christian) European mythology; in the deserts of the south, is it not reasonable to expect demi-humans out of the Age of Ignorance? All the curious things out of the Arabian Nights and the pre-Islamic pantheons one can read about in the introduction to Sale’s ‘Koran’. I postulate that this band of outlaws from Archenland got the ancestors of the Calormenes upon lovely fire-goddesses and air-goddesses, ifrits and djinni, in the southern deserts and jungles. The lesser Gods and Goddesses of the Calormenes mentioned in The Horse and his Boy- Azaroth and Zardeenah- may well be deified ancestors from this time.

Tash is another matter. While the worship of the lesser deities seems to have fallen by the wayside by the time of The Last Battle, we get to see Tash making a personal appearance, in all his icky vulture-like four-armed glory. He is obviously not a mere deified ancestor. Given the claim of the Tisrocs to be his descendants, there may be a stomach-churning non-PG-rated kind of story in the remote past of their line. If I were to write it, I would associate it with the only other bit of Calormene history C. S. Lewis (or Walter Hooper) has put in this timeline:

302 - Aslan turns the Calormenes of Telmar, who disobey his principles, into non-speaking beasts.

Anyway, enough of that sort of thing.

I think the tombs of the ancient kings outside of Tashbaan are associated with a people of more Narnian/Archenlander culture. They are called ‘ancient kings’, not ‘ancient Tisrocs’, or some other eastern-sounding title. ‘Kings’ are what they have in Archenland and Narnia. I am guessing that the tombs were associated with the original Kingdom of Calormen, that the line of the Tisrocs and associated worship of Tash arose somewhere further distant to the south, and that the Tisrocs took over this Kingdom as a going concern. Conquest is the usual way in which slave-owning cultures arise, after all, and if the Calormen culture is meant to be modelled on the Turks, it makes sense for them to be a nomadic people who rode in and took over. The Tisroc’s empire is probably not that old at the time of The Horse and His Boy. The Tisroc says ‘More than five Tisrocs in Tashbaan have died because their eldest sons, enlightened princes, grew tired of waiting for their turn,’ as though ‘more than five’ was a significant number. This suggests to me that there probably have been no more than 20 or so Tisrocs reigning in Tashbaan before that time, and their reign there began no earlier than c.600 by the timeline; probably closer to 800.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I know, I know, I excised this topic from the Accidental Blog

But, I was just cheered up enormously on the way home yesterday listening to Cardinal Pell on the radio. I am proud to be associated with a religion whose #1 spokesman in Australia is sane and sensible.

On climate change: 'It's much less important than the fate* of the five or ten or fifteen per cent of the poorest Australians; it's much less important than the problem of marriage breakdown, it's much less important than the problem of abortion.'

Amen, alleluia, amen, alleluia, etc.

Contrast this with the breathtaking probably-quoted-out-of-context statement that appears to contradict 2000 years of Christian thought by the Jesus-didn't-really-mean-that-stuff-about-divorce-to-apply-to-kings-ican bishop of Canberra and Goulburn: 'The Cardinal, for whatever reason, put private morality as number one, and private morality is important, but the public agenda, the social agenda, the contribution that the world community makes to its common welfare is essentially part of the Christian agenda, this is our core business.'

Hmm. The fate of poor Australians is part of the social agenda. Marriage breakdown is part of the social agenda. Abortion is part of the social agenda. These things are part of the core business bit of the Christian agenda, because Christian saints and theologians have been saying they are for thousands of years and because there is a very clear, very solid, very well attested link between the private sin and the public welfare. It is not the core business of Christianity to uncritically accept the loopiest catastrophic extrapolations of global warming trends and advocate actions to avert them that (a) have no chance of stopping climate change anyway, (b) will hurt the poor, and (c) constitute a dreadful waste of resources that might be better used in other ways.

* Not 'faith', as it has in the transcript.