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freedom

Is it Live or is it Memorex?

by Avery Elizabeth Hurt

Alex rubbed his face, almost gouging his eyes with his fingers, then moved his hands around and started working on his neck. He tried to organize his thoughts. He could get this straightened out, he knew, if he could just organize his thoughts. If he could just find his thoughts.

Many of them thought it would be the food that would finish them off. All that processed non-food everyone ate for so many years. Excessive amounts of sodium and hydrogenated fat and corn syrup. Heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia, and cancer. Cancer. They always worried more about cancer than anything else. Cancer was killing them, of course, and the food, too. Some of them, sometimes, a few here, a few there, all strung out over the course of a lifespan that started getting a little shorter with each generation after the end of the 20th century. Many of them died before their time, and many suffered miserable illnesses on the way. But not all of them. Not everybody. No, it took more than a bad diet and a carcinogenic lifestyle to finish them off en masse, to take down the whole civilization.

They worried (not that worrying caused them to do anything about it, but still they worried) that walking around with radio receivers in their ears off and on all day, most of them more on than off, would give them cancer. It didn’t. But they were totally blindsided by what it did do to them. Of course, they wouldn’t have been able to see it coming, would they? That was both the cause and the effect. They opened themselves to everything, and everything came in. They were abysmally unprepared.

Monica just sat there and stared, occasionally mumbling something more or less coherent or quoting a snatch of a song, repeating bits of a conversation some people in Toronto had in 2016, perhaps an advertising slogan from the late twentieth century. Once in a while, she came out with a snatch of an old TED lecture, making her seem momentarily intelligent, if you didn’t listen too closely and if you didn’t pay attention to the confusion in her eyes.

Alex had better control. He had a system. When the junk got too much for him to ignore, he started counting. One, two, three, four …. But he never managed to keep it up for long. He rarely made it past fifty; there was just too much garbage in there. Sooner or later he lost the thread—fifty-seven Welcome, ladies and gentlemen twelve We have a caller on line two ninety-four It’ll put spring in your step! It’s all fake news! What prizes do we have today, Lauren?—and went back to rubbing his face and massaging his neck and trying to not listen. But at least it was something.

There was probably some justice in it, if you were the sort to look at things that way. Those in the developed world, as they liked to call it, were on top for a long time, gobbling up way more than their share of the world’s resources. So now the only people on the planet who were remotely functional were the ones who hadn’t been able to afford radio receivers for every ear. Now they were running the world, or trying to. Trying to pick up the pieces is more like it, while the rest of humanity slumped against walls, staring into space, listening to the scraps of dead civilizations crackling in their heads.

Alex tried to get Monica’s attention. “Is it live or is it Memorex?” she said. He looked out the window at the empty street.” One, two, three . . . If this were a real emergency….

~

Bio

In addition to writing speculative fiction, Avery Elizabeth Hurt writes science and history books for children and science journalism for adults and children. The research she does for her nonfiction writing often sparks ideas for her fiction. 

Does This Offend Thee?

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by G. Scott Huggins

This is a column with more questions than answers, I’m afraid, but one I feel needs to be written. Some background: some time ago, I asked a question on social media that boiled down to, “When is one justified in taking offense?” I didn’t get a lot of takers on that question. The one I didn’t expect was from a rather well-known SF writer, who doesn’t often weigh in on my threads. He brusquely informed me that the question was a useless one, and unanswerable.

Detail of street art by Dan Perjovschi at Museumsquartier in Vienna

Since then, I have seen this same writer offer a lot of opinions about which people are right and wrong to take offense at certain actions and statements of other people, and why they are right or wrong in doing so. I am therefore forced to the conclusion that one of three things are true of this writer:

1) He did not understand the question I was asking (which may be the fault of either or both of us).

2) He is simply unaware of the conflict among his utterances about taking offense, or

3) He is well aware of what he is doing, and simply doesn’t want people to think about it too hard, lest they discover a principle that upsets his method for designating who gets to take offense and under what circumstances.

I am generally inclined to believe that the first or second explanation applies, here. But what’s the point? Why do we take offense in the first place?

It seems to me that offense is the first part of our defense mechanisms, by which we keep ourselves, our families, and our tribes from harm, or signal for help after we have been harmed. We recognize what we perceive to be a danger, and react against it, marshalling our energy and will to oppose the threat. But then again, what is taking offense? Is it the belief that we are under threat, or is it the action we take in order to signal that we have the belief? These are separate things, much as a thought is separate from the utterance of a thought. And of course, it is imminently possible to have a thought, and then speak in contradiction to the thought. In other words, we can lie. So the outward “taking of offense” can, like any other human signal, be subverted: it will not always truly signal the belief that the “offended” party is under threat or has suffered harm. It can also be used to gain advantage in the absence of threat or harm. The taking of offense can be deployed offensively.

So from these principles, we can break offense into three possible categories:

1) That in which a threat or harm to the offended party exists (e.g. a person has been slandered, and they take offense).

2) That in which no true threat or harm to the offended party exists, but they believe it does (e.g. a person believes they have been slandered, and takes offense, but the person committing the “slander” was actually referring to a third party).

3) That in which no true threat or harm to the offended party exists, but they believe it is to their advantage to pretend it does (e.g. a person knows that their “slanderer” was talking about a third party, but takes offense, insisting that the “slanderer,” a political opponent, was acting maliciously in order to discredit them).

There is of course, a great deal of difficulty in distinguishing among these three categories: to distinguish whether someone “taking offense” is in the second or the third categories would require reading their minds. If they are of the third category, they have every reason to continue the lie, and none to tell the truth. To distinguish whether someone is in the first or the second category may be easier, but if the offended party has reason to distrust the offending party, it may not.

I imagine that a number of readers may at this point say, along with Stephen Fry, “so the fuck what? Be offended?” But the problem with this is that the very term “offense” is enshrined in law: at some point, we decide that real harm has been done to someone that justifies doing violence to bring the offender to justice: to force them to repent or make restitution for their offense. And that certainly does not limit itself to physical violence or even violence to property. The offense of slander requires no physical violence to be considered an injurious crime. Or perhaps a better example would be this: The “offense” of disrespecting a reigning monarch was enshrined in law not three centuries ago. The “offense” of Black people walking into public places where White people didn’t want them was enshrined in law in the United States not sixty years ago. The “offense” of women appearing in public without head coverings is law in several countries today. Insofar as these laws have been repealed, it was because we came to believe that such “offenses” should not offend any reasonable persons: that the offense caused by their existence was much greater than any “offense” suffered by those in favor of those laws.

Now if we consider the elimination of such laws to stand for actual moral progress, rather than just a kind of legal fashion, we must agree that there is a standard by which we measure, or ought to measure, offense. And yet, I am unsure on what principle we can draw this line except to state it thus: “Offense should be taken only when a credible threat of harm, or actual harm, is done to a person.” But even then, we have a vast judgment call to make about what constitutes a credible threat of harm, or actual harm, or a proportional response to it. I might be justified in taking offense at a person who openly insults me. But even if I am a germophobe, I would certainly not be justified in responding with offense at the mere offer of a handshake. Already in the West, many restrictions upon free speech have been proposed and passed in the name of freeing people from the burden of suffering offense. Have those people truly been threatened? Have they suffered actual harm? And obviously that is a very different question than whether they have felt threatened or harmed. Anyone can feel anything; but when are we justified in those feelings? And even if the offended parties have been truly threatened by others’ speech, does curtailing that speech truly lead to less harm? I strongly believe it does not. But my beliefs alone cannot stand against a tide of feeling that may reshape our laws – our “offenses” – if we do not frame an answer. What should that answer be? What is the guiding principle by which we may distinguish a true threat from a false? A true “offense” from the gratuitous taking of offense? It is an important question, and one to which we need an answer, yet I see no easy answer to it. Nor do I believe that we can simply ask people to ignore all threats, as some of my acquaintances have suggested: it might be reasonable to ask me, (to use an example that in no way reflects something I am now worried about), to simply ignore someone who said, “All Christians ought to be shot.” But if you say that no verbal utterance ought to be restricted, then you would be giving carte blanche to someone who would, for example, call me at all hours of the day and night threatening to kill me and my family, specifically, for being Christian. And no one can live with that. But where do we draw that line? This is the question that must be answered. And I am no nearer to answering it.

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The Day The Earth Still Stood

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by G. Scott Huggins

Every now and then, I see things so differently from other people, I wonder if I’ve gone insane. Can I really, I wonder, be that wrong?

The Day The Earth Stood Still has got to be one of the most famous science-fiction films of all time. Klaatu and his robot, Gort, come to Earth, and Klaatu is almost instantly shot and wounded. Escaping from custody, he encounters various humans until, upon trying to return to his ship, he is shot again and mortally wounded. But Gort is able to revive him long enough to give his speech, which I will reproduce here:

“I am leaving soon and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The Universe grows smaller every day — and the threat of aggression by any group — anywhere — can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all — or no one is secure… This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly… We… have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression… The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots — Their function is to patrol the planets… and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war… We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works. I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course — and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”

And when I finish reading this, all I can think is, Klaatu’s supposed to be the hero of this film? I mean, he’s even hailed, in many interpretations, as a Christ-figure, giving his life for the sinners of Earth. Consider what he is saying: it boils down to, “Trust and submit to us, or die.” Now the fact that the message costs Klaatu his life does lend some moral teeth to his argument, but the essentials of Klaatu’s policy is pretty much the same as then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy of massive retaliation in the 1950s: at the first sign of an attack, the United States will reduce your nation to ashes. Does anybody remember how grateful the rest of the world was for that policy? Does anyone remember how the Soviet Union immediately stopped all acts of military aggression? Neither do I. Neither does Hungary, to take a case in point.

How is Klaatu a Christ-figure, here? I mean, I have met atheists who would claim that Christ was no better: “Believe in the name of Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Corollary: And if you don’t you’ll be damned. However, if what Christ says is true, He at least has the excuse of literally being God. Klaatu has neither deity nor perfection to offer. He “has a system.” Great. The United States had a system, too. Generally, it’s been vilified as being paternalistic, overbearing, and inconsistently enforced. Possibly better than the system the Soviets had where they conquered you if they thought it was in their best interests and called it liberation. Klaatu – who looks human enough to walk our streets undetected – has given us no reason to think any differently of his robotic supernuclear deterrent. Yet when it comes from him, it’s somehow profound.

It is curious in the extreme to me, that I do not recall having heard anyone other than myself level this criticism at the film. It reminds me of that appalling novel Childhood’s End, which I have discussed before in this publication. We humans prove ourselves capable of imagining thousands of rich worlds in our science fiction: Why is it that when we turn that imagination on our own problems, we are so quick to replace the thing we hate with an obscurely different version of it, and then imagine we would love it?

Arthur C. Clarke threads a polemic against the ridiculousness of religion throughout Childhood’s End, and in the end it turns out that the human race’s children are effectively taken up by an Overmind indistinguishable from God except for its utter lack of love for humanity. The human race is guided to this point by Its vaguely caring angels/demons. But this we are supposed to call evolution and science. Now in The Day The Earth Stood Still, the nuclear tensions of the Cold War and American nuclear hegemony (remember that this was 1951) are to be replaced by the threat of summary destruction from beyond our solar system – and we are supposed to call that peace and justice. Yet far from altering the way that problems are solved, it seems that Klaatu’s solution is not even revolutionary, and still less divine. On the day after the Earth stands still, the Earth still stands under the sword of Damocles, only now in the hands of those who need not live on the same planet as those they threaten to destroy.

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