Browse Tag

culture

Fresh Kill

by James C. Clar

“In those days, the world of mirrors and the world of men were not … separate and unconnected … one could pass back and forth …”

 Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

I own an antique shop on Nuuanu Avenue in the heart of Honolulu’s Chinatown. The area has seen numerous ups and downs. The latest “up” was a gentrification and transformation into a trendy, artsy neighborhood with boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Then came COVID which, frankly, hit the area hard. Numerous places went out of business, crime increased and the homeless populated the streets and alleys in record numbers. Even now, with the virus seemingly on the wane, things have not returned to pre-pandemic ‘normal’.

Through it all, I’ve managed to do well thanks to Internet sales and wealthy, mostly Asian customers who are more than willing to pay handsomely for that certain piece that completes their collection, or which adds a certain undefinable aesthetic or, in some cases, wabi, to their homes or offices. Things are even better now that customers – both local and those visiting from elsewhere – are shopping in person.  I pride myself on the quality and authenticity of my merchandise. Nothing in the store is cheap and everything I sell has an established history or provenance.

The incident I am about to relate is remarkable, singular even, on any number of levels. It involves a recent acquisition; a very old bronze Chinese mirror acquired from a College Hill estate sale in Manoa adjacent to the University of Hawaii campus. The College Hill area is rich in local history and boasts numerous homes on the Historic Hawaii Foundation Register.

The mirror has been in the shop now for a little over a year. It belonged to a local Chinese family and, according to their records, it was with them when they came to the islands in the 1890s. At that time, they started what would become a very lucrative jewelry and jade business. The piece is spectacular. It stands just under six feet tall in a simple metal frame that has long since acquired a green patina. The front of the mirror itself is highly polished and reflective. There is an emblem of the Zodiac cast on the back. When light hits the front, the obverse design is reflected on the rear wall and the mirror becomes virtually transparent. The effect is nothing short of magical.

The manufacture of such mirrors can be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty and is mentioned in at least two texts from the later Tang, the Record of Ancient Mirrors and the Dream Pool Essays of Shen Kuo. While not nearly that old, the mirror in my possession is most probably a reproduction from the early 19th century Qing Dynasty, utilizing the traditional techniques.

Myths and legends about such mirrors abound. Ancient Chinese sages suggest that animals, whole worlds even, exist inside or, rather, on the reflective surface. One ascetic school of thought shunned mirrors entirely based on the belief that whatever images were reflected by them became somehow stored or ‘trapped’ within. I lend no credence to such fantasy but, still, I must admit that I have become loath to sell the mirror that now sits in the front hall of my shop, to the left of the front door. Truth is, I am fascinated by the object, transfixed. I spend many late afternoons sitting in a chair watching the light from the setting sun play across the surface of the bronze. More than once I’d swear that I’ve seen figures moving in its smoky, translucent depths.

Strange as it may seem, I am not alone in my obsession. About a month ago, a well-dressed man in his early 60’s came into the shop to inquire about the mirror. Based on his astute questions, I assumed him to be a collector or, at least, an aficionado. He was remarkably reticent to divulge any details about himself or his background. I was surprised that, to best of my recollection, I had never encountered him before. Honolulu is in many ways, a small-town masquerading as a big, cosmopolitan city. Everyone knows everyone and the antiquities community is even ‘smaller’ in that regard. I told the gentleman that the mirror was not for sale. He pestered me to an unseemly degree and simply would not take ‘no’ for an answer. At one point I thought I would have to have him forcibly removed from the store! He’s been back at least twice since that first visit, each time with the same result.

Things came to a head just two days ago. I heard the small bell attached to the front door tinkle signaling that someone had entered the shop. I looked up from my desk to see the older man back, staring fixedly at the mirror. We went through our, by now, usual routine. It was obvious, however, that this time he was not going to leave. I reached over and touched him on the shoulder so as to usher him out the door. With that, he pushed me. I slipped and hit my head as I fell backward onto the floor.

What happened next is, admittedly, a bit fuzzy. I was stunned by the impact. It seemed to me that as the mysterious stranger turned quickly away from me, his momentum caused him to lose his footing as well. He reached out his hand to steady himself against the mirror. I heard, or thought I heard, the sound of a drain emptying. After that, he was gone. I may be mistaken, but I simply don’t recall hearing the bell on the door indicating his departure.

Since then, I’ve been tempted to inform the police about what had happened. I’m doubtful that I will bother. Something tells me that I will no longer be troubled by that strange gentleman. You see, when I picked myself up from the floor after my fall that day, I went immediately to the mirror to inspect it for damage. It was unharmed but, this time, and even given the fact that I had just hit my head, I am quite certain of what I saw. Gazing into its sooty depths I spotted a tiger. The animal was burnt orange with fuliginous stripes tracing their way around its powerful body. The big cat seemed to be feeding, its muzzle stained red as it ripped and tore its way through its prey. Whatever it had caught, it was clearly a fresh kill.

~

Bio:

James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between the mean streets of Honolulu and the wilds of Upstate New York.

Philosophy Note:

The inspiration for this story rests on my obsessive re-reading of Borges and my lifelong fascination with mirrors. Mirrors are remarkable on any number of levels. Consider… Two mirrors facing one another reflect an infinite number of images. An ancient analogy for the multiverse perhaps? It is also worth noting that the functioning of many modern telescopes, not to mention the DSLR digital camera relies, in part, on the properties of mirrors. What if mirrors somehow retained or ‘captured’ the images they reflected? That idea, the premise of my story, is not too far from the notion of a computer hard drive… From the standpoint of psychology, mirrors are, to a certain degree, instruments of vanity. Consider a world devoid of reflective surfaces or, at least, those surfaces designed expressly to show one images of oneself. What would happen to marketing, advertising, and the beauty industry? To what degree would such a lack impact the acquisition and content of self-esteem, for example? I could continue but I’d rather have you enjoy my story.

Frankenstein And Cyborgs: Of Proper And Improper Monsters

by Mina

A recurring figure in SF, whatever the sub-genre, is that of the “monster”. One common starting point is with that classical creation, Frankenstein’s monster: made and not begotten, to (mis)quote the Nicene Creed and ascribe new meaning to it. Brian Aldiss goes as far as to call Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the first true SF story because, although it is deeply rooted in the Gothic novel, the central character, Victor Frankenstein “rejects alchemy and magic and turns to scientific research. Only then does he get results.” Mary Shelley herself refers to Darwin in her introduction and stresses that the speculative science in her novel will one day be possible. Two novellas spring immediately to my mind that take the Frankenstein trope and do interesting things with it: Grace Draven’s Gaslight Hades and Eli Easton’s Reparation.

Gaslight Hades (in the “duology” Beneath a Waning Moon) blends gothic and steampunk with romance, and it is clearly referring back to Jules Verne and early SF/fantasy, which extrapolated from the then-known to touch upon the then-fantastical. The romance is unremarkable, but the novella’s protagonist is an intriguing Frankenstein figure: the “Guardian” wears “black armour reminiscent of an insect’s carapace”, his eyes are black with white pinpoints for pupils, his hair and skin are leached of all colour, his voice is hollow. He guards Highgate cemetery from resurrectionists who snatch dead bodies to create soulless zombies. His armour comes alive to protect him from enemy fire (where Frankenstein meets primitive cyborg). It turns out he was created from the body of one man, the soul of another. The process remains vague, but I love the invented words used to describe it: “galvanism combined with gehenna… liquid hell and lightning.” It seems to involve replacing blood with a silver compound and running electricity through it (all holes in logic are covered by vague references to magic, which is a cop-out). The Guardian is not a zombie because he has a will of his own, thoughts and emotions. He talks to the dead, does not eat or sleep and is described as “a Greek myth gone awry, in which a mad Pygmalion begged an even more perverse Aphrodite to bring a male Galatea alive”. So, a pretty monster, with a soul.

Reparation is part of a collection of novellas under the heading Gothika: Stitch (which includes another novella with a golem, a “monster” from Jewish lore and much older than Frankenstein). This novella moves into what we would consider proper SF as it is set on another planet. It weaves rebellion, slavery and space into a love story that is quite good. It is a hidden gem that asks questions about crime, punishment, redemption and forgiveness, moving it one step further than the stark retribution of Frankenstein’s monster. One of the protagonists, Edward, a farmer on the harsh planet of Kalan, loses his adjunct and his wife in an accident that also leaves him recovering from injury. He turns one of his “recon” slaves Knox into his right-hand man in the cultivation and harvesting of lichen “spores” for (he believes) the production of pharmaceuticals. Knox can read and write, is capable of learning and has fleeting memories unlike most recons: “reconstitutes” or cyborgs, part robot and part human. The human parts are taken from Federation prisoners condemned to death. Recons are not allowed to be more than 80% human or they would have human rights; they are programmed against violence and used as manual and factory labour. Knox is (unusually) fully 80% human, most of his body from one prisoner and his brain from another, with 20% reinforced titanium joints and the spore filtration system in his lungs.

In his new role as overseer, Knox moves out of the recon barracks into master Edward’s house. The changes disturb him, such as being spoken to like a person, being thanked, feeling guilty without knowing why, memories slowly resurfacing: “he did not want to hope; did not want consciousness”. Knox battles with feelings of dislocation, too – his massive body is alien to him. It becomes apparent that he has been “conditioned” to fear anything electronic. He remembers his chilling execution in a nightmare. At that point, Knox realises he was “made” and is horrified. Edward tries to comfort him: “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? That your mind survived what was done to you?” Edward treats Knox with kindness and allows him access to his books. But the master is surprised that Knox has a strong grasp of philosophy and moral issues. Knox remembers having spent time in space in a previous life and that he lived on a green planet once, which he thinks is gone. Slowly the fog in his mind begins to clear and he accepts his new body, even enjoys it. Knox and Edward become friends and then lovers.

Knox finally remembers that he was once Trevellyn, a member of the resistance to the Federation. The rebels’ attack on Kalan’s spaceport led to the death of Edward’s father and brother. His guilt and Edward’s initial condemnation leads to a brief rift between them. In his anguish, Knox writes down his memories, a diary and even poetry. In a crisis, with Edward facing deadly sabotage, they reconcile with Edward forgiving Knox for the actions of his past self. Knox breaks his programmed aversion to technology to help Edward survive. As he does so, he remembers why he was in the resistance: the spores are not used for medicine but to terraform planets, willing or not. The Federation used the spores to eradicate all life on his home world so they could turn it into a mining operation – wholesale genocide for profit. Edward is horrified as he did not know. Knox in turn forgives him his ignorance. Together they destroy all current supplies of the spores on Kalan; not winning the war but at least a battle. They decide to leave Kalan, using Edward’s money and Trevellyn’s contacts to move to a primitive world of no interest to the Federation. The romance trumps the politics as is to be expected, but the novella has a depth and originality not usually present in such stories. Best of all, we see the “monster” as a thinking, feeling being that awakens from a long sleep as if emerging from a chrysalis. I liked that this novella was psychologically profound, something that is missing from most depictions of cyborgs.

My first encounter with cyborgs, however, was with the much more superficial The Six Million Dollar Man, with its protagonist Steve Austin as the bionic man: one arm, two legs and one eye are prosthetic and give him superhuman strength, speed and sight. Of course, it was mostly filmed in the late 70s, so the special effects consist of slow motion (to suggest superhuman speed or jumping high), close-ups (to suggest superhuman eyesight) and cheesy sound effects.  The bionic man also led to a bionic woman spin-off (Jamie Sommers, with superhuman hearing instead of eyesight), lots of crossovers and some films. The plots, script and characterisation were basic, but it led to the bionic man and woman dolls which I remember wishing I owned as a small child in the 70s, unlike the anodyne Barbie dolls. The bionic man is loosely based on the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin; the title of the book is much less ambivalent about the nature of the protagonist. Steve Austin had very little personality but was portrayed as a hero and a “goodie”. Subsequent cyborgs in film have tended to remain very two-dimensional but been turned mostly into fighting machines in violent action films like RoboCop or horror/SF such as Moontrap.

To find more complexity, I would rather cite Ghost in the Shell, in particular the 1995 anime version. It’s not as deep as many reviewers seem to think it is; although it does posit interesting philosophical questions, they are presented as if the audience needs everything spelled out. We meet cyborgs with a completely cybernetic body and a computer-augmented brain. As the only biological component, the brain houses the “ghost” (mind/soul/spirit). The main character, Major Kusanagi (with a curiously sexless body, much like a busty mannequin’s), muses: “There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind. Like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others. But my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my consciousness.” She also admits: “I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I’m not who I think I am. Like, maybe, I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there was never a real ‘me’ in the first place and I’m completely synthetic”. Her friend Batou tells her that she is treated like other humans and she retorts “that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated.” And she asks the question crucial to the film: “What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost… and create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?”

The Puppet Master in the film (initially the enemy) claims to have done just that  – it is a computer program that has become sentient: “DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. And memory cannot be defined. But it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own… And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you? When neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is…. I am not an A.I …I am a living thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.” At the end of the film, the Puppet Master merges with Major Kusanagi because it wants to become a completely living organism, by gaining the ability to reproduce and die. It wants to do more than copy itself as “copies do not give rise to variety and originality”. When it is persuading the Major to agree to the merge, it states that they will create a new and unique entity. The Major argues that she fears death and cannot bear biological offspring; the Puppet Master replies that she “will bear our varied offspring into the net just as humans leave their genetic imprints on their children”, and then death will hold no fear. There is a certain arrogance in the Puppet Master’s arguments too: “I am connected to a vast network, that has been beyond your reach and experience. To humans, it is like staring at the sun, a blinding brightness that conceals a source of great power. We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds. And to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.”

Waking up in a new (child’s) shell procured by Batou, the new entity tells Batou: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways. And now I can say these things without help in my own voice.” I must admit that, being very familiar with the biblical passage[1] being subverted here, I did not find the end particularly original. And it does fall into the lazy “transcendence” plot device so beloved of humanist SF. The plot, in fact, is almost irrelevant. But the film does ask interesting questions about the nature of cyborgs and treats them as much more intricate beings than the usual lean, mean, killing machines. The only other place I have found a proper examination of the nature of cyborgs as sophisticated “monsters” is in the Star Trek canon, through characters like Seven of Nine, Hugh, Icheb, Locutus/Picard, the Borg Queen and Agnes Jurati (if you want to know more about any of these characters, go to this fan site).

Cyborgs have also made it into story-rich computer games like the Deus Ex series. Deus Ex is a role-playing adventure game with “augmented” humans (through nanotechnology reminiscent of the Borgs in Star Trek), incorporating combat, first-person shooter and stealth elements. For me, despite the fascinating world building, complicated politics, conspiracy theories, historical mythologies and speculative and dystopian fiction, the cyborgs remain lean, mean, fighting or stealth machines. If I have understood the concept behind the game correctly, however, the cyborgs can become as multi-faceted as the player wishes, with a lot of interaction with non-player characters, freedom of choice and open-ended plot lines. They are a little like hollow shells filled with the ghost the player gives them. But my feeling is still that the main fascination with these cyborgs remains their superhuman abilities granted by their augmentations, like in much SF. It is a shame that these wonderfully genre-hopping entities aren’t allowed more into the realms of Sci-Phi, as they represent a great opportunity to reflect on “human” identity (like the crisis of identity Knox and the Major undergo) and what sentience is and could be. There is curiously little speculation into a (for now) fictional “monster” that begs for far more existential debate.

Coda: There are some satisfying cyborg poems out there like CyborgMatthew Harlovic and The CyborgCecelia Hopkins-Drewer.

And here is one I wrote just for this essay:

Emerging

Where am I?

Pain, God, so much burning pain,

I am lost in its undertow.

Then, it spits me out onto jagged rocks

Like flailing flotsam.

I open my eyes to

Blinding light and blank walls.

A neurological pulse and

I raise my arm to flex

Gleaming alloy fingers.

Memory floods back

To who I was

Before.

“You are paralysed from

The neck down

Mr Jones.

We can offer you

A new life.”

I look at my perfect

Alien body which I inhabit

But do not own.

What will the price of

This Faustian bargain be?

I find that, right now,

I do not care.

I feel a fierce joy that

I am alive and

Something new.

Maybe, later,

I will learn to be afraid.


[1] 1 Corinthians 13 (11-12): “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (This is the New King James Version; verse 12 is much more poetic in the original King James Version: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”)

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

Religious Traditions Considered Through Science Fiction And Fantasy

by Andy Dibble

Strange Religion: Speculative Fiction of Spirituality, Belief, & Practice, which I recently edited—part of the Strange Concepts series put out by TDotSpec—was conceived with the goal of helping readers engage with religion meaningfully through science fiction and fantasy. The reasons for this anthology are diverse. Some editors have reservations about publishing stories that engage with real religious traditions because they worry such content will offend segments of their readership. I and other editors at TDotSpec wanted to give a platform both to stories that dig into ideas that surround and comprise religion and stories that engage with religious traditions as they are actually found in the real world. There have been speculative publications dedicated to particular traditions—Wandering Stars (1974, Harper & Row), an anthology of Jewish science fiction and Mysterion, which publishes Christian speculative fiction, come to mind—but I know of no anthology that aims to cut across religious traditions.

Connecting Religious Traditions With Science Fiction and Fantasy

One of the goals of Strange Religion is to synergize science fiction and religion, to help readers imagine religions of the future. “Al-Muftiyah” by Jibril Stevenson follows a Muslim man, who seeks to undermine an AI capable of settling all disputes involving fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. “The Rebbetzin Speaks” by Daniel M. Kimmel is a series of Dear-Abby-style questions and answers that engage with points of halakhah (Jewish rabbinical law) in a future where humans have populated the solar system. “The Fireflies of Todaji” by Russell Hemmell centers on two women—one Japanese, the other South Indian—whose families have migrated to the Moon as they consider the meaning of a traditional Japanese water festival in a community that has to conserve water to survive. Set further in the future is “Before the Evolution Comes the Smoke” by Terri Bruce, in which an orphaned woman performs rituals to gain access to AI witches in order to bring her parents back to life, and “Bio-Mass” by Mike Adamson, in which a jaded galactic tourist reassesses the value of his long life.

On the other hand, Strange Religion also seeks to immerse readers in the worldview of religious persons of particular traditions, which is primarily the province of fantasy. The characters of “Shattered Vessels” by Robert B. Finegold and Kary English are cut from the ten sefirot of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah). “The Gods Also Duel” by Andrew Majors imagines two conflicts in parallel: a dispute over temple taxation and divine justice on one hand and feuding Daoist gods of sun and rain on the other. My own story “Deep Play” considers how an American college student reassesses his Cambodian Buddhist heritage after the hells of all the world’s religions are thrust upon him during a clinical study. “*lr*d” by Doug Hawley, considers the difficulty of accessing religious worldviews that are far removed from historians in time and space.

Countering Misconceptions About Religion

Strange Religion is a counterpoint to some of the biases and misconceptions about religion found in speculative fiction. There’s a segment of speculative fiction that envisions religion on the model of Christianity or on a particular view of Christianity. This is where the mistaken notion that religions are “belief systems” comes from. Outside of Christianity, and especially Protestant Christianity, it’s much more common for religion to be about what you do or how you identify yourself than what you believe.

To counter this misconception, Strange Religion includes stories that engage with a variety of religious traditions, including Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Humanism, Chinese religion, Hinduism, and indigenous traditions. Additionally, the several stories that engage with Christianity help readers understand it from new perspectives. “Dying Rivers and Broken Hearts” by Gabriella Buba centers on a Filipina witch, who identifies as Catholic. A Nigerian-Igbo man, who is also a convert to Protestant Christianity, brings charges of homosexuality against his American friend in an Igbo court of law in “The Man Who Misused His Manhood” by Chukwu Sunday Abel. “The Devil is a Shape in the Brain” by Joachim Glage explores universal Christian salvation, drawing upon the occult, nineteen-century psychology, and cosmic horror. “The Other War on Terror” by Michael H. Hanson is set in an alternative history where the United States is a Muslim nation and the terrorists are Christians. There are stories in Strange Religion with a theological bent—stories focused on clarifying or interrogating orthodoxy—but the bulk of stories are about people acting, using the tools available to them, religious or otherwise, to bring about change in themselves, their communities, and the cosmos.

Also from Christianity and modern secularism, we have the idea that religion is only the vocation of clergy or an activity limited to certain parts of life—what we do when we aren’t “rendering unto Caesar.” But in many cultures and traditions, especially in the developing world, religion is integrated into every aspect of life. About half of all languages don’t even have a word for religion. Religious studies scholars have largely given up trying to define “religion,” and some following J. Z. Smith, believe the term shouldn’t even be used by scholars.

To counter this misconception, we selected several stories that show people solving everyday struggles, that demonstrate religion isn’t just for certain times of the week: A software developer teams up with a rabbi on a metaphysical programming project in “Fate and Other Variables” by Alex Shvartsman—but his goal is to save his brother from addiction and drug dealers. In “Samsara” by J. A. Legg, a Bangladeshi Hindu teen struggles with an absent father and demanding relatives as she grapples with a corporate tycoon seeking to reincarnate as her unborn child. “The Life That Comes After” by Lauren Teffeau follows an overworked hospice nurse trying to protects a secretive organization from oversight by new administration.

Some writers coming at religion from an atheist or secularist perspective, characterize religion as world-denying, oppressive, doctrinal, backward, and the like. These labels fit—some of the time—but when thinking about religion it’s crucial to keep in mind the tremendous diversity that characterizes the world’s religions. Beyond what can be said about humans in general, it’s very difficult to say anything at all about religion in general. We can interrogate our concept of religion, but we should be careful about how and when we apply that concept to real people and communities.

To counter such labels, Strange Religion helps readers think about religion as scholars do. Following each story are discussion questions written by a scholar. These questions aim at wider themes in religious studies—e.g. syncretism (borrowing between and merging of religious traditions), tradition vs. modernity, theodicy (justifying God’s goodness in the face of evil), the afterlife, and others—or the religious tradition(s) the story engages with. Sometimes these questions pry at weaknesses in the story and encourage readers to question a line of argument made by an author or draw in considerations the author may not have addressed. In a similar way, stories in Strange Religion sometimes take a critical or even humorous stance toward particular religious traditions, but criticisms are aimed at specifics and particulars rather than a product of the hasty characterizations we make about traditions before we’ve acquired a depth of understanding. Criticisms of religious traditions—or better yet particular movements, people, or actions within traditions—do not always have to be appreciated by religious insiders, but they have to account for what people are actually saying and doing.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His work also appears in Writers of the Future Volume 36 and Space & Time. He is Articles Editor for Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.

You Can’t Fly To Space In A Corinthian Column

by Taylor Hood

A quick Google Image search for the term “sci-fi” illustrates that our conception of the world of tomorrow is one in which the sleek, unadorned, and mechanical have taken hold as an aesthetic principle. With industrialisation and, more specifically, since the Golden Age of science-fiction, our dreams of a bright and shiny future have deeply altered the ways we express ourselves. I propose that aspiration toward the machine-like has played the largest role in the demise of traditional forms of decoration honouring not only the natural world but a sense of the storied and the sacred. It is therefore unfortunate that the sci-fi genre, largely concerned with what humanity can achieve, has inveigled itself so profoundly with certain stylistic movements—indeed, has perhaps even influenced them—so as to be virtually synonymous with everything that is inhuman. Because what we see around us directly influences our wellbeing, and the spaces in which we live most obviously reflect our values, the focus of this essay will be on the built environment.

The Ministry of Truth (1984) is described as a glittering white pyramid; Metacortex, the building in which Neo worked (The Matrix), stands as a huge concrete-and-glass spine; Bladerunner 2049 showcases an excess of garish signage in a seedy urban underworld. All of these buildings and environments feature in dystopias, indicating that we know what is unpleasant and unbeautiful. Indeed, one function of these types of stories is to engage with a particular critique of the societies which brought them about in the first place. It is curious, then, that this same visual language is present in almost every depiction of the future one can find, as if the very notion of forward movement means more slick metal and glass, imposing concrete slabs, and vibrant neon. There is nothing whatsoever intrinsic to the word “futuristic” to suggest that we ought always to live in such spaces, yet we bring these with us even when we venture into supposedly utopian futures (Tomorrowland). With the portrayal of tech-savvy entrepreneurs living in luxurious modern houses (Ex Machina) and hip hacker-mercenaries roaming the streets (Cyberpunk 2077), there is the creeping suspicion that sci-fi revels in such spaces because they are considered admirable and something to strive toward.

There have been a number of architectural trends which point toward a mechanical appearance. While pure white and rigid Modernism and rough concrete Brutalism could be construed as being closer to a sense of ascetic spirituality and thus far less mechanical than older, ornate styles, it is precisely the lack of ornament that renders it inhuman—and spirituality is a uniquely human feeling. This world is biological, messy, complicated. Moreover, we have the sub-creative gift of mimicking the complexities and variety of nature through art. Where the influence of technology is most blatant is with Futurism’s desire to emulate the speed, energy and power of machines and Structural Expressionism’s emphasis on transparency of construction. In a Globalist skyscraper city, there exists the very tool-like sameness inherent in a machine’s effective operation, not to mention the monolithic scales involved. When homogenisation is not present, we have to contend with idiosyncratic postmodern projects which fit in nowhere. A lot of postmodern buildings are exercises in artless technical proficiency, paralleling sci-fi’s tendency to envisage different futures through the interplay of technology and human ingenuity. Even biomorphic or zoomorphic architecture representing plants and animals lacks warmth in that there is often little surface detail or colour. In a similar vein, depictions of the future that seek nature-technology integration, for example in the “solarpunk” sub-genre with its glasshouse-like structures, are suggestive of our world being turned into one enormous tool for the acquisition of energy. A surprising amount of plain modernist architecture can be found even in these settings, indicating how attached to this aesthetic complex we have become.

In sci-fi cities, just as in modern ones, one has the feeling of having been shrunk down to wander the inside of a computer case. It is as if we are actively trying to forget our fallibility as squishy animals and the roles we play as actors in venerable societies, instead upholding technology as a new kind of all-encompassing ideal. This is where the central problem lies, if not for others, then for this author and his appreciation of the genre. Humanity moves through gears, circuity, oil, and LEDs, but with each step in this direction we risk leaving behind that which we have evolved to find pleasing and meaningful in natural, archetypal, mythical forms. It is indeed strange to consider that, though our development must coincide with bustling cities, nature-flattening infrastructure, and a profusion of instruments unconcerned with beauty, we are often most moved by that which harks back to an earlier age or incites within us some primordial memory.

The people of the past were more obviously concerned with natural forms because of their closeness to their nonhuman animal brethren, the need to work the land, and the primacy of death. Why, for example, would a Paleolithic man paint a horse in ochre on a cave wall, or a Grecian sculptor fashion acanthus leaves at the top of a Corinthian column if not to honour the horse and the plant in some way? These are beautiful creations, but even the darkest imagery could be poignant. Think of the architects of the Middle Ages carving grotesques when a simple waterspout would do. The human figure took pride of place as the Nude in Greco-Roman sculpture and in the Middle Ages, as Nakedness, it was as a reminder of shame and sin, only to be reglorified in the Renaissance. Even geometric designs enlivened our living spaces and brought to mind the florid and eternal, as in Islamic art. What binds these disparate styles together is the understanding of form being the equal of function, but it is the subject matter which pertains most to our discussion. The pre-modern mind was full of mythical beasts, vigorous heroes, holy and aspirational symbols, and these were often given pride of place. Such creations are not merely the province of millennia ago: even into the last few centuries, with the highly ornamental Baroque period, Gothic Revival and Neoclassicism, there was still an emphasis on decoration and use of traditional materials such as wood and stone.

Since we are already dwelling on the past, it may be useful to briefly compare sci-fi with fantasy. Fantasy stories are more often rooted in a distant era or in a secondary world where technological development is limited, and civilisations are separated by great distances. As such, there is an emphasis on the natural, vernacular, and traditional. The protagonists of fantasy tales do not often seek to change the world on a grand scale, but to protect what is already present because it is under threat from some outside, destructive force (The Lord of the Rings). Works in this genre often feature the status quo being upset (Lud-in-the-Mist), or the intermixing of magic and beauty with the mundane (The King of Elfland’s Daughter). Even divorced from the stylistic tropes and trappings of Medieval Europe, there is an inward contemplation of the earthly and the numinous, of wonder and enchantment (Piranesi). Sci-fi on the other hand, while philosophical and ideas-oriented, appears to operate on a more active desire to change, subsume and develop, just as we do in the modern world. Think terraforming (Mars Trilogy) and the erection of megastructures (Star Wars). Sci-fi is often outward looking (Last and First Men) and is propelled by a Humanistic vision of Homo sapiens filtering through the cosmos, making alliances with strange and novel species (Star Trek), or, if staying at home, employing technology for the betterment of the world. And it is technology which is often the true hero of these narratives.

It is telling that the antique aspects of invented sci-fi societies and worlds most readily impart a sense of the sublime, the beautiful and the reverential. Consider the Warhammer 40K universe with its grand Neo-Gothic “knights in space” aesthetic. We root for the Na’vi in Avatar because they hold to higher values of nature, spirit, and community. Dune (2021) may feature Brutalist architecture, but its distinctly Middle Eastern influences grants the setting a sense of potency. Certainly, most sci-fi takes inspiration from the real-world and invents wholly new races and customs, but a more general and stronger point can be elucidated here. It is difficult to imagine any advanced alien civilisation which does not in some way invest into its material culture a sense of origin, e.g., history, ecology, language. Unless, perhaps, the pinnacle of existence is to leave all of this behind.

At the highest level is the idea of transcendence, something upon which sci-fi often dwells. Although the same argument could be levelled at religion’s promise of salvation and an afterlife, hidden in our faith in technology and the hope for a better future is, paradoxically, a world-denying strain which sees this Earth and all its multiplicity of peoples and cultures as nothing more than a steppingstone to some higher, more ascended state of being. If our concerns are with reaching upward (space exploration), escaping the body (augmentation, virtual reality), harnessing the power of the universe itself and learning its secrets (particle acceleration) what need have we to invoke mere beasts and the ideals of ignorant, long-dead people? We no longer feature plants and animals in our designs because they are no longer the focus of our world, nor do we prize time-consuming decoration, because everything is speed, power, efficiency. If in this universe technology can only be as it is due to the laws of physics, everything must tend toward some kind of end state, some form of “culture” which venerates only the purposefulness of machinery and the coldness of the programmable and the synthetic. We cannot, as it were, stay in The Shire forever, but one doubts what value transcendence through technology has if we sever all ties to the Earth and to ourselves.

In light of these considerations, sci-fi may be viewed as anti-traditional in that it favours progress at any cost, thereby exacerbating this disconnect. Equally, it may be said that the oldest tradition of all is the development and application of technology. Logically, our computers, robots and engines should manifest in art and architecture too. It is surely a false dichotomy to compare machinery designed for a specific purpose to art, but if the apotheosis of our species is to be integrated with technology, to the extent that even our architecture seeks to emulate it, why does it all feel so soulless and sterile? Ignoring historical and cultural significance, should we not be moved more by Gropius House than by a Cotswold cottage, or the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral rather than St Peter’s Basilica?

This may appear to have been one long concession to mere aesthetic preference on a subjective matter. In some respects, perhaps it has, but in a future wherein every part of human culture is technologized and mechanised, there will be little room for difference. Even if postmodern architecture reigns and buildings become dynamic and recall the organic, it is difficult to imagine anything except intraspecific variation, i.e., more glass and steel structures but of differing configuration. Those who adore traditional architecture often consider uniqueness to work against visual and community coherence and to be a betrayal of the arduous growth of tradition. They are not wrong, but to suggest that our buildings, even those represented in fictional worlds, follow the specific motifs and guidelines originated by a handful of civilisations thousands of years ago, forever, approaches the absurd. Standards of beauty have always shifted and the fluid, nature-inspired buildings of today are not, one may argue, inherently worse than the rose windows, pagodas, tympanums, and minarets of old because they, at least, have meaning. If anything, the fight must surely be against the soullessness and artificiality of corporate offices, phallic towers of megalomaniacs, drab estate tower blocks, and nauseating neon metropolises plastered over with advertisements.

Although I am a Romantic at heart, such a return is now impossible, and to halt the advancement of our species is to deny whatever destiny lies in store for us. Humanity should be proud of its technological advancements, but we ought not to forget where we came from and who we are. To erase the biological, the cultural and the traditional in our fictional depictions of the future in favour of some sterile technological ideal is to deny all that came before us as worthless. Because Earth is the only home upon which to base our experience, we are necessarily always looking back to it even when we fashion new worlds from our imagination or set out into the cosmos in real spacecraft. On a cold and dark planet newly colonised, will we erect buildings which only glorify the technology that got us there, or will we carve trees, birds, and human faces upon their facades?

#

Further Reading

Website/Online Journal

Why is the Modern World So Ugly? – The School of Life

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture Current Affairs

The Architecture of Evil: Dystopian Megacorps in Speculative Fiction Films

Redesigning the aesthetic of the future – Gemic

The Aesthetics of Science Fiction. What does SciFi Look Like After Cyberpunk? | by Rick Liebling | The Adjacent Possible | Medium

Can Science Fiction Predict the Future of Technology? – JSTOR Daily

Science Fiction as a predictive tool for Architectural Trends. by Sanjay Somnath – Issuu

Future Urban Environments in Science Fiction: Initiated Thought Experiments

Books

Matilde Battistini, Symbols and Allegories in Art, 2005

Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, 2001

Jonathan Glancey, Architecture: A Visual History, 2017

Neil Oliver, Wisdom of the Ancients: Life Lessons From Our Distant Past, 2020

Roger Scruton, Beauty, 2009

Veronica Sekules, Medieval Art, 2001

Tim Stanley, Whatever Happened to Tradition? 2021

Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 2010

~

Bio:

Taylor Hood is a British writer of dark yet largely uplifting fantastical stories about nature, creation and escapism. He is interested in heritage and aesthetics, and has qualifications in wildlife ecology and countryside management. His website is thoodauthor.wordpress.com.

Where The Monster Lurks

by Malik Mufti

The Vizier sat in the front row of worshippers, along with the other dignitaries, as the High Hierophant droned toward the end of his sermon on fidelity: fidelity to the Twin Goddesses who poured their beneficence down to all in equal measure, to their representative the Emperor, to the officials high and low who enforce his laws, to the collective good of his subjects.

Eyes half closed, the Vizier had tuned out most of the service, stroking groomed whiskers as his mind flitted from one vexation to another. First, that cur Suf-An four seats to the right with his endless scheming at the imperial court. Then, the ongoing decline in revenues despite his latest tax levies, and the mediocre performance of the expeditionary force he had sent to crush the fanatics in the outlands. Finally, above all, his private passion, the manuscript that had stymied him for so long – his exposition on the conundrum of the One and the Many propounded by the ancient philosopher Hak-El. Now, however, alerted belatedly by a familiar and hitherto reliable instinct, the Vizier’s attention dove back down into the temple. 

The High Hierophant, who was no fool, had been treading a fine line between acknowledging the congregation’s concerns – about official corruption for example – and affirming the Emperor’s Goddesses-given mandate to rule. But there was no mistaking the increasingly desultory, even resentful, tone of the responses to his benedictions from the rabble crowded row upon row to the Vizier’s rear. Was it the crushing taxes? The arbitrary conscription? He turned to the aide behind him.

No, they were complaining about the government’s failure to do something about a supposed monster that had been terrorizing the capital in recent days. It was said to emerge from the great river Idigna which divided the city in two, seizing solitary pedestrians who were never heard from again. The Vizier recognized the panic that slithered and surged like a sinister current through the assembled mass. This was not good.

#

Deaf to the urban clamor around him, blind to the captivating reflections of the two holy moons in the Idigna’s waters, the Vizier contemplated the urgency of his situation as he walked across the Bridge of Triumphs, the most magnificent of the river’s many crossings, and made his way up to the affluent part of town where he lived. It was his habit to dispense with carriage and attendants when needing to plot his major moves.

Just days after the disquieting temple service, he had been summoned to an imperial audience. Entering the Grand Hall, he had noted at once the uncharacteristic absence of music and raucous laughter, and how the young Emperor’s boon companions – Suf-An of course at their head – mimicked his grim visage. The Vizier had come prepared to account for the recent financial and military setbacks, but instead the Emperor demanded to know why nothing had been done to allay the populace’s panic about the river monster. He had ten days to deal with it.

The Vizier had been unable to resist glancing at Suf-An. There it was: the hint of a smile, the embryo of a sneer. But also something else, softer and more elusive, as if Suf-An saw a secret he himself could not. He had forced himself to focus on the trap that now lay before him. His failure to capture the nonexistent monster would provide the pretext for his ouster. He would be accused of negligence and corruption, put to torture until he revealed the various hiding places of the fortune he had accumulated, and then cast out as a scapegoat for the envy and rage of the mob.

But now, scaling the Idigna’s eastern embankment under the crepuscular moonslight, the repellent sights, sounds, and smells of the capital’s teeming western half receding behind him, the Vizier was no longer concerned. That very morning he had received the latest dispatch from the governor of Kharba, the southern port where the Idigna flowed into the great sea. Kharba had been the pinnacle of the technological efflorescence overseen by the previous emperor – a fully submersible city built right on the shoreline in defiance of the land-swallowing tides generated by the twin moons. Most of the dispatch was routine – riots suppressed, imposts levied – but, in an attempt to inject a diverting note, the governor also recounted how after a particularly massive ebb tide, the remains of a large sea creature had been found on the beach. It appeared to be a giant specimen of the sort of squid fishermen occasionally capture in their nets, but putrefaction and bloating had rendered it unrecognizable. The Vizier wrote back at once, ordering the carcass to be shipped up the Idigna in strict secrecy.

On, then, to the reason he had chosen to walk alone. He had made a breakthrough in understanding how Hak-El resolved the dilemma of participation, which lay at the core of his theory of being: how the world’s diverse multiplicity could nevertheless be generated by one eternally unchanging, entirely separate truth. It was right there, more or less, in his second and fifth hypotheses. Positing a relationship between the One and the Many, which allowed participation to take place without compromising the integrity of the former hinged on the realization that Hak-El’s definition of the One was equivocal. This insight would be his claim to true greatness as a philosopher. This would show his mentor, who back at the academy had tried to steer him toward more mundane problems better suited, she apparently thought, to his limited abilities.

The Vizier reached his mansion and hurried up the stairs past the laughter emanating from the family quarters. He would wash up and change into finer garments before heading for his private study on the top floor, eager to begin outlining the final revisions to his manuscript.

#

It was some days past the Emperor’s deadline when the Vizier headed for the temple downtown, once again forgoing his carriage despite the now full-dark. He had dealt with his various distractions. The Kharba squid’s disfigured cadaver had been paraded through streets to popular acclaim, pacifying the rabble, solidifying his position at court, and redirecting the Emperor’s expropriatory attention to his rival. Once the imperial torturers were done with him, Suf-An would be released, stripped of his fortune and – lest he be tempted to join the growing rebel ranks – of his eyes as well.

As he crossed the Bridge of Triumphs onto the pathway which hugged the western bank of the river for a while before veering into city center, therefore, the Vizier concentrated on his real problem: his resolution of the Hak-El dilemma had proven illusory. There was no getting around it – the missing term of the decisive syllogism in the fifth hypothesis was untenable. How had he overlooked that? Could it really be that Hak-El’s entire treatise on the One and the Many was an obscure and elaborate joke? What did it mean?

Just then, however, the ripples and splashes behind him that had for some seconds registered only on his subconscious reached a volume that brought him crashing down to earth. He spun around, eyes wide open. There was nothing there. It must have been a fish leaping for some prey. Smiling at his own folly, the Vizier resumed his descent into the seething heart of the city.

~

Bio:

Malik Mufti is a professor of political science at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His writings focus on Near Eastern politics and political philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This story is inspired by an anecdote the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun recounts in his Kitab al-Ibar about an ostensible river monster that terrorized the people of Baghdad one year. It provides the framework for an exploration of the ancient philosophical question of unity and multiplicity, and of the vital importance of participation between the one and the many.

Hollow Pursuits: Is Star Trek Truly A Universe With No Gods Or Creeds?

by Mina

Earlier this year (21 August 2021), Yanis Varoufakis published an article about politics and international relations, discussing Star Trek’s (ST) Prime Directive, i.e. that those with superior technology must not interfere in cultures/communities which are still technologically behind: “the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota”. Varoufakis finds this liberal anti-imperialist doctrine particularly fascinating because it was part of the original Star Trek (TOS) in the 1960s and could be interpreted as a criticism of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. He calls this a clear political philosophy and a critique of US foreign policy that is still relevant today. It is a good point, but I do not want to delve further into political philosophy and ST here; rather, I would like to examine whether ST lends itself to a similar analysis with regard to religious and moral philosophy.

ST’s creator Gene Roddenberry was an atheist and “secular humanist” (i.e. espousing a philosophy that emphasises the importance of reason and people, rather than religion or God, for human fulfilment), who imagined a future without religious doctrine and conflict. To quote long-time ST producer Brannon Braga on Roddenberry’s wish to cast off “superstition and religion”:

“This was an important part of Roddenberry’s mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.”

As an interesting aside, the word “God” was banned, even as an expletive, in Discovery (one of ST’s most recent reincarnations). So, is ST a universe devoid of religious and moral philosophy (which I prefer to “superstition and religion”)?

To begin with, ST is full of encounters with god-like beings, such as Q. Q is most definitely not a god, but he does remind us of the Ancient Greek and Roman gods in his capriciousness and callous disregard for individuals. Even his affection for Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) reminds us of Roman and Greek mythology, with bored gods playing with their favourite mortal toys (like Q plays with the crew of the Enterprise in his first appearance in Encounter at Farpoint). Since each episode is created by humans, we should not be surprised that the writers and producers draw their inspiration from human history, mythology, and religious and moral philosophy. A nice detail is that even semi-gods like Q show character development. Q in particular appears in several episodes in STNG and Voyager (VOY) and gains depth over these episodes.

To my mind, the Klingons also fall into this category of drawing from human history: they are a war-like race that seem like a cross between certain aspects of the Vikings and Japanese samurai. The Klingon philosophy is based on being a warrior as a way of life, attaining a glorious death, semi-religious rituals (e.g. the Klingon death rite), weapons as semi-mystical objects (e.g. the bat’leth, a double-sided scimitar), Kahless (a messianic figure in Klingon lore), Sto-vo-kor (the Klingon afterlife) and Gre’thor (a Klingon Hades). The most interesting thing in Discovery is the Klingons wishing to remain themselves, with their own language and culture, and not to be absorbed into a Federation that would literally “emasculate” them. Although female Klingons are presented as fierce warriors too, they do seem to be reduced to the status of Klingons-with-breasts, i.e. there is no real attempt made to differentiate between the Klingon sexes in ST.

In his article on opuszine, Jason Morehead gives examples of TOS episodes where human religions are at the very least respected. In TOS: Balance of Terror, Captain Kirk officiates a wedding in a universal “chapel” on the Enterprise at the beginning of the episode. The chapel appears again at the end of the episode as a place for grief. In STNG, the chapel seems to have been replaced by the holodeck where the crew can recreate any place or ritual they wish, e.g. the Klingon Rite of Ascension is STNG: The Icarus Factor. In TOS: Bread and Circuses, Uhura corrects the crew’s erroneous interpretation of the “sun” worship in the local culture, reminding them of the worship of the “son of God” in Earth’s not-so-distant history. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are forced to acknowledge the power in history of a religion based on love and brotherhood, where great sacrifices are possible.

Morehead finds it fascinating that even in TOS, religious matters do occasionally creep in:

“…it seems odd to strive to be so faithful to the letter of Gene Roddenberry’s ethos when even he was frequently incapable of doing so. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s weird to be so focused on this particular aspect of Roddenberry’s vision (his atheism), particularly when those series that he was most involved in - The Original Series and The Next Generation  - weren’t afraid to include such content. (If nothing else, religious and faith matters can make for great drama.)”

Brannon Braga has also been quoted as saying:

“…there was no consideration in giving humans, talking about God, or talking about those types of things. We wanted to avoid it to be quite frank. But we did very often explore theology through alien characters. Which frankly is much more interesting anyway. Whether it was the Bajorans and their religion or the Borg and their religion. They had the religion of perfection. That, I think, was more interesting. We want to keep Star Trek secular. The human facet of Star Trek secular.”

This brings us nicely to The Borg as seen in STNG and VOY, and the Bajorans and their “Prophets” in Deep Space Nine (DS9). The Borg with their extreme collectivism and hive mind could be seen as a sublimated form of communism: there is no “I”, only “we”. Yet even this collective has a “queen” presented very much as an individual, comparable to a female Stalin or dictator. Characters like Seven of Nine in VOY are shown as needing to recover from the complete brainwashing that comes with such a totalitarian philosophy. The Borg have a form of immortality (each drone’s memories and experiences live on in the collective consciousness) and they strive for a perfect (technological and transhumanist) “ideal”, both of which are aspects of most world religions.

The Bajoran faith and mysticism is built around their Prophets, regardless of the fact that Starfleet science considers them “wormhole aliens” (DS9: Emissary). Ben Sisko asks his son Jake to respect the Bajoran belief in their Prophets as gods in DS9: In the Hands of the Prophets. For Ben Sisko, your own beliefs do not mean that you can disregard and disrespect the beliefs of others; “it is a matter of interpretation”. The Prophets are one of the central plot arcs in DS9. I could not summarise it better than here on Ex Astris Scientia:

“The general tendency is that the Bajoran faith grows on Ben Sisko, that the Prophets are gradually becoming more god-like and that ultimately Ben even becomes one of them. The Prophets’ god-like nature becomes particularly clear in the episodes where they determine the destinies of the Bajoran people and of Sisko, respectively…”

This reminds me of Old Testament prophets in the Christian Bible, and Sisko’s journey has Buddhist undertones for does he not become a sort of Buddha in the eyes of the Bajorans?

This brings us to the Vulcans and a bridge into humanism, where each individual has agency and can contribute to the future of the human race. Whereas ancient Vulcans seem to have practised a polytheistic faith (STNG: Gambit), modern Vulcans have enshrined logic and science above all else, based on a philosophy developed by Surak, where logic must rule over all emotions and science has an answer for everything. Is this not a large part of secular humanism? Humanism in my view simply replaces gods with humanity. Behind STNG’s utopian universe in particular is the belief that humanity can move beyond its primitive origins, reach for the stars and achieve wondrous things. This comes uncomfortably close to deifying ourselves, creating an “Übermensch” or, at the very least, an unforgiving meritocracy. This is why one of my favourite episodes is STNG: Hollow Pursuits.

Hollow Pursuits is for me a critique of an unbridled humanism. The character of Barclay begins as a perceived failure in STNG: he is shy, nervous, a terrible communicator and physically unprepossessing; he has OCD tendencies and seems bright but unstable. Barclay does not fit in and even Picard trips up and uses the crew’s nickname for Barclay (Broccoli). Barclay hides on the holodeck where he has developed programmes to boost his lack of self-confidence, leading to a holodeck addiction. It is the only episode that shows the crushing weight of the meritocracy that comes with Roddenberry’s espousal of humanism. It also shows how the crew must take some responsibility for the state Barclay is in (highlighted by Guinan in one scene) and for understanding and supporting him. With the right support, Barclays is able to prove that he too has a valuable place in the ST universe. This episode is also humorous and shows that audiences held the fumbling Barclay in great affection because he went on to appear in other episodes where it is precisely his idiosyncrasies that help him save the day. This offers a little balance in an otherwise painfully perfect social order.

I would argue that all of the ST universe contains spirituality in some form – for what else is a search into the mysteries of the universe and the nature of man? I would also argue that this spirituality has a place in even a mostly atheist or agnostic future (and that humanism itself is a moral philosophy, even if it is not a religious one). As the authors (Jörg Hillebrand et al) of Ex Astris Scientia (EAS) state:

“Roddenberry condemned religion because it suppressed people in his view, which is definitely true for some eras of human history. But he did not look at the other side of the medal that, quite contrary to his statement that religion is making people dull, it has enriched Earth’s cultures and even science in the course of the centuries. What would our world be without its magnificent cathedrals and temples, without music and literature inspired by religion, without scientific interest that has its roots in the desire to be closer to god(s)?“

They go on to say:

“There are certainly fundamentalists who do not respect other views than their own. However, like political fanaticism this is just an outgrowth of human nature, not of the idea of religion. It would be unfair and ultimately counter-productive to ignore the ways of life of the majority of humanity in an effort to depict ST as a desirable future for them. In order to achieve Roddenberry’s utopia some day, we could ponder about abolishing everything that might be subject to misuse or what might restrict our freedom. But then we could question the existence of just about every technological, cultural, political or social custom, law or institution, anything that makes up our lives. With a firm stance that it would be better to take away faith from people, ST, in its few worst instalments, is just as narrow-minded and arrogant as the religious zeal it strives to condemn. On these occasions ST acts against its own principles.”

However, I would not couch my conclusions quite as negatively as EAS because ST has involved many different “cooks” and they did not “spoil the broth”. In fact, the ST canon in all its guises repeatedly asks questions and draws many different conclusions about philosophy, religion, mysticism, faith, rituals, false gods, humanism and the human race’s general search for meaning. If this universe sometimes contradicts itself (or its creator), that is a happily accurate rendition of our own universe, where we are faced with many questions, conflicting views and no easy answers.

Coda: Some claim that ST itself has turned into a religion or cult, with its conventions, fan clubs, forums, fan fic, a founding prophet (Roddenberry), a set of (humanist) beliefs or principles, scripture in the form of well-loved and much-quoted episodes, debates about what is “canon” and what is derivative, collectibles as pseudo-sacred objects, a vision of a utopia to be striven for, etc. However, I think I would agree with Mark Strauss’ conclusion that this is a bridge too far. Fandom or even a sub-culture do not a religion make.

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

Apocrita

by Cooper Shrivastava

The day the last drone of the old generation dies becomes the Feast of the Renewed Eye, and the whole hive comes alive in dance and drumming. They pour from the ziggurat, every last bee tumbling claw over eyecluster, burning their feet on the sun-soaked sand outside. Today is the day the adult generation comes of age, and the youths are assigned houses and castes. Today is the day they drink the honeypus from the back of the Prophet-Queen. Today is the day they see the vision of the afterlife and are rewarded with knowledge of which of the six combs—two of world, two of heaven, two of underworld—will be their eternal home.

Today is Ruzig’s last day as a costumer. After the ritual, he and the other costumer bees of the older generation will become drones, and chosen members of the youngest generation will step into their shoes. Ruzig has never flown under the hot sun to search for pollen and nectar; his life’s work has been the hummingbird costumes arrayed before them, the symbol of Sygyzmur, god of his House. He has been a costumer since he ascended the southernmost side of the ziggurat and joined the House of Red Orb, leaving behind Aurzosh, Oddi, Uhar, his childhood friends.

Ruzig looks at the other costumer of the House of Red Orb, Agba. Together they tie off a costume, while the warrior wearing it sips nectar from Agba’s open mandibles. They move to the next warrior, chitin becoming feathers, exoskeleton becoming endoskeleton, compound eyes becoming simple lenses, mouthparts adapted for chewing and sucking becoming a beak with the tongue torn out, as the warrior becomes an avatar of Sygyzmur, the god of diplomacy, sisterhood, and the six cardinal directions.

Agba goes to the front of the swarm of the House of Red Orb, and Ruzig loses sight of him. He is still tying off a great golden hummingbird skin, which has taken on an almost punishing lustre under the sun’s rays.

To the left of Ruzig, the House of Map begins their dance, their warriors outfitted in the skins of beetles, the avatar of zTriibigzz. The rattle of wings both living and dead shakes each of the tiny hairs that grow on Ruzig’s body until he
can’t feel or hear anything but the House of Map. Ruzig feels as if the ground, the ziggurat, the whole world is vibrating. It has begun.

The bees of the House of Red Orb begin to crawl towards the ziggurat but the holy form is missing one hummingbird: the last costume is still clutched in Ruzig’s front claws, as the warrior meant to wear it has disappeared on ahead
rather than risk missing her one chance to taste honeypus.

Ruzig swivels around in alarm. These rituals are his holy responsibility, and he cannot expose the colony to the disfavor of Sygyzmur by failing to complete the set.

At the base of the structure the bees spin and then smack the ground, and the drumming intensifies. The Prophet-Queen has emerged from the top of the ziggurat and Ruzig is stricken with awe. He has loved her from afar, as all bees do, for his whole life, and the momentousness of this occasion suddenly strikes him, overpowering his fear of being left behind and his worry for the dance and the costumes and sacred geometry, and even overpowering his fear of what vision he will see of his afterlife.

She is gigantic, and the six pimples on Her back are swollen and ripe for bursting. Her antennae are large and pendulous. Her thorax is scarred from the fight with Her sister-Queen when She seized the hive. Her spermathica is full from Her recent mating flight. Soon there will be larvae. She flaps Her wings and the bees vibrate in ecstasy, roll on the ground, wave their antennae, share nectar mouth to mouth with one another.

The pace of the drumming accelerates further, and the bees of the younger generation start to push forward, converging on the ziggurat. Ruzig is left at the outskirts of the staging area trapped by the oncoming flood of younger bees, but unable to move without abandoning the heavy costume of the hummingbird god.

He pulls it along the ground behind him, frantic, allowing the sunset orange and lemon peel yellow feathers to drag on the ground, as the younger bees come racing up behind him. His heart breaks to think each house will reach the top of
the ziggurat with six sets of six dancers except for Red Orb.

The fastest of the younger bees has reached Ruzig, and steps on the wing of the hummingbird costume as he races by. He gets behind the costume and pushes with all his might, but he is no warrior bee, and it merely flops over. The young ones are upon him; Ruzig can’t protect the costume from their furry mass.

But then he sees a single body turning around, a warrior from the House of Orchid. The warrior leaves his swarm and takes to the air, managing for several long seconds to look away from the Prophet-Queen, and to come zipping low over the heads of the assembly to where Ruzig is huddled near his trampled costume.

Aurzosh is immediately recognizable even after all this time; his bony mid-tibial spurs, his slender hind basitarsus, his corbicula clean of flower pollen for the occasion. He nudges Ruzig with his forelegs, but the air is too saturated with odor plumes and pheromones and vibrations for them to communicate.

Aurzosh nudges Ruzig again, grabbing the costume in his mandibles. Ruzig is stunned. He is seeing two wondrous sights today: the Prophet-Queen, and member of the House of Orchid who is willing to take on the costume of the Red
Orb, willing to take it on for Ruzig’s sake.

They heave the costume over Aurzosh’s head and let off prayers of odor plumes from their tarsal glands. They are almost, but not quite, close enough to smell each other. Ruzig vomits nectar from their comb’s collective stomach into
Aurzosh’s mouth, and he can’t imagine it tastes good, he is a poor honey-alchemist, but Aurzosh swallows it and trundles through the crowd of young bees, with Ruzig in his wake.

Aurzosh doggedly pushes bodies out of the way. He will not take flight, for he, like Ruzig, will not destroy the sacred symmetries. Ruzig grabs the tattered tail of the hummingbird costume in his mandibles and lets himself be pulled forward, until his feet hit the waxy steps.

They are getting close, and Ruzig’s tiny heart pounds as he thinks they might make it after all. Aurzosh is climbing faster now, overtop the other bees so his legs land on furry bodies rather than the tacky wax of the ziggurat. He can see the great white pustules on the Prophet-Queen’s back; he is closer to Her than he ever has been before!

Ruzig’s eyes are fixed on the Queen, and that is why he doesn’t notice as fast as the other bees do. Bees take to the air from the sides of the ziggurat, disrupting the sacred geometries. For a moment he is consumed with rage at their
heresy, but then a shadow falls over him and Aurzosh, who have finally reached the middle tier, just steps below their Queen.

The shadow forms the shape of a paw, but with five long fingers and no claws. The warrior caste is fully in the air; even Aurzosh has shed his costume as they attack the intruder, but to no avail. It picks up the Queen in its monstrous grip
and pinches Her holy body upside down over a giant tub.

Ruzig watches on in horror as the pimples express. Six bursts of pus gush from her back, and into the monster’s collection tub, their prophetic power dissipating. The warriors are attacking frantically, and the workers and drones join
them, but it is too late. The Queen is tossed to the ground by the five fingered monster, Her holy body rolling through the dust.

The bees of the six houses swarm and sting, but the monster casually bats them away. Ruzig is in shock. Twelve warrior bees bear the body of the Queen back underground to the safety of the hive. She waves Her limbs in distress, the six burst pustules on Her back still oozing liquid. They are honorable bees and do not try to taste it.

The monster has retreated, taking their future with it in the tub. Ruzig stands on the ziggurat alone. All around him the hive is flying and mourning and moaning; the monster is gone and there is no one left to sting.

He does not know what he will become, only that he will no longer be a costumer. He does not know what he will face in the afterlife. He looks up into the red sun, so hot it burns his eyes, and searches in vain for the face of Sygyzmur.

~

Bio:

Cooper Shrivastava is a writer based in New York City. She was a member of the 2019 Clarion Writers Workshop, and her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Heavy Feather Review and Tor.com. She is currently working on her first novel.