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G. Scott Huggins

His Missing Materials

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by G. Scott Huggins

Detail of The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flanders, 1562)

I was asked to speak recently as part of a panel at a convention on the anti-Narnia trilogy committed by Philip Pullman called His Dark Materials. The books are, like the Chronicles of Narnia targeted toward the youth audience. I’ll say in passing that I find it absolutely stunning that I heard volumes of advice from churchgoing folk on the merits vs. the evils of reading Harry Potter books, which pretty much align with Judaeo-Christian moral teachings, if anything. Yet never once did I hear a peep about these three books, which in effect openly declare war on the Christian faith. In the series, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost: not a Creator, but simply an immensely old and powerful being who assumed the title of “God” in order to rule all who came after. The Authority maintains Hell for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings to establish “The Republic Of Heaven.”

So, I told those running the panel that as a practicing Christian, I would have some fairly sharp criticisms to direct toward the books’ portrayal of Christianity, which as questions of fairness go is about on a par with Tim LaHaye’s portrayal of atheism in the Left Behind series. And if this was a fan panel extolling the books’ virtues then I would probably not be the person they wanted. They agreed. And in some sense I am disappointed, because I was rather hoping they might want to foster a sharp debate on the issue, but I get it: people are fans of things, and they don’t always want to be told why they shouldn’t be.

Now, I don’t expect with this essay to dissuade anyone who loves these books: there are many out there who regard war upon the Christian faith as a good and necessary thing, and if you think that weaning children away from it is a moral triumph, then I imagine that you will indeed like these books. I disagree, of course, and I imagine that no one who is a fan cares. But what I find truly interesting is this: So often, when I speak with atheists, they boast of having read the Bible. They believe they know it better than Christians do, and it is often stated – and more often implied – that if Christians would actually read the whole thing, including the morally challenging bits, then they would stop being Christians. Perhaps especially in light of that, I would encourage people who are familiar with Pullman’s story to consider all the things this triumphant war on God had to leave out in order to be prosecuted to its successful conclusion.

Christ

The most glaring omission from the entire series is the story of Christ. The Authority portrayed in the books is explicitly Christian in character. The Catholic Church is still a frightening world power in the first book. Can you imagine a Catholic Church without Christ? And yet, the story of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is entirely absent. The story of Enoch from Genesis and of Lucifer’s Fall are pretty much central to the storyline. But the defining act of Christianity is completely ignored. And the only conclusion that I can possibly come to is that it had to be ignored for the tale of an evil God to make the slightest bit of sense. Because the charge that God is an evil puppetmaster that just loves to torment people by holding them to an impossible standard and then punishing them when they fail really falls apart if that same God has sacrificed himself or his child to reunite humanity with Himself. But I have to confess that I don’t see why the whole story of Christ wasn’t revealed as a complete fabrication to lure gullible humanity into worshipping the Authority. If the whole thing had been revealed as propaganda, then that would effectively have made the Authority just that much more ruthless: the promise of Divine Grace revealed as a lie. But I think the problem here is that Pullman has either a) simply failed to understand that the story of Christ is central to the Christian faith, or b) doesn’t care that it is, and is confident that his readers will have too little religious education to call him on it.

Heaven

For reasons that are never fully explained, humans can be kept alive indefinitely in the torment of Hell – Lyra and Will free the damned souls in the third book – but cannot be kept alive in Heaven. This despite the fact that we know that Enoch somehow won enough favor from the Authority to be turned into the archangel Metatron. Baruch also somehow became an angel, with an extremely long life, but when Will reasonably asks how, Baruch demurs to say. So humans can be transformed into – if not eternal beings (because even God dies of old age) – at least incredibly long-lived and powerful ones in a condition free from torment. Yet this apparently cannot happen anymore. All the souls freed from Hell simply dissolve into nothingness. In fact, the nothingness, which is described as a mystical but unconscious joining with the life of the Universe, is portrayed as superior to becoming an angel, because angels seem to envy humans the pleasures of the flesh. Even though angels can lust after and mate with human women. So angels are apparently incels.

And again, one wonders how we are supposed to take this? Because it seems to me that Pullman leaves himself with a rather terrible end to his own story. Lyra speaks breathlessly of creating “The Republic of Heaven,” at the end of the series, but no one seems ever to wonder whether the Authority’s apparently unique power of human apeotheosis could ever be duplicated, even though all the Authority’s power seem to have come from his superior experience. And if the Authority dies in the end, then surely the other angels will as well. Followed by humanity and all other life. The Republic of Heaven, in the end, will come to nothing.

Satan

Funnily enough, Lucifer, who is regarded as a hero by Lyra’s parents, never shows up in the story except by reference. He is cast as the archetypal liberator of the universe from the tyranny of the Authority, but is apparently lost forever in the mists of time. Of course one might well think that Satan is the proper hero for two parents who abandon their child, refuse to acknowledge her to her face, and literally cut the soul from her friend’s body in order to unlock the secrets of the universe. Apparently, like every revolutionary tyrant in human history, the ends justify the means for them. As long as they were on the “right side,” fighting against God, they get to wear the mantle of virtue. Like Satan himself, their recorded crimes are to be washed away because… the Author(ity?) says so.

So in the end, it seems to me that Pullman has managed to demonstrate (since “proof” is far too strong a word to use in connection with any work of fiction) just two things.

Firstly, he has demonstrated that a Christianity with no Jesus Christ, no hope of heaven, and no real sin to oppose, is a monstrous tyranny. I would, I suppose have to agree. I wonder if Pullman might next favor us with a dystopia in which he concludes that a republic with no representation, no elections, and no limits on power is a terribly abusive form of government? Surely we must then conclude that republics are oppressive, yes?

Secondly, he has demonstrated that he is, within his scope as a fiction writer, perfectly willing to indulge in the same abuses of power that he mocks the Authority for abusing: he will allow no grace to those he has designated as evil, he will offer no hope of salvation to anyone. Near the end of the third book, Mary Malone says that good and evil are names for what we do, not what we are. Good actions help people and bad actions hurt them. However, Pullman seems to have taken that to a fearful extreme: what determines whether an action helps or harms has nothing to do with people actually hurt or actually harmed. Rather, the proof of an action’s good or evil has much less to do with actual harm caused than upon whether they were done under the correct flag. So long as the Authority was destroyed, all of Lyra’s parents’ cruelty and lies were good things.

The Authority is Dead.

Long Live the Author.

~

The Gospel According To James Holden

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by G. Scott Huggins

Warning: this column includes extensive spoilers for The Expanse, Season 3.

Sometimes I’m astonished by the spiritual lessons to be found in places where they are not intended. It’s almost as if there are unavoidable truths that Someone is forcing us to face. I came across the latest of these while watching The Expanse.

Image by Alex Antropov

By season 3 of The Expanse, which is, if you hadn’t noticed, a wonderful show, humanity and the central protagonist, James Holden, are in serious trouble. An alien-engineered protomolecule, whose discovery nearly wiped out all life on Earth, has shaped itself into a giant ring. Ships that pass through the Ring find themselves inside a pocket universe, controlled by a station-like artifact at its center. Due to a number of events, the exploration fleets of Earth, Mars, and the Belt all become trapped there by a technology far beyond their understanding. Unable to leave the pocket universe or communicate with the alien station, the humans try to force their way free by detonating a small ship’s fusion drive.

The result is that the station begins charging itself with enough power to potentially wipe out the solar system, leaving the humans just hours to act. The Belter commander, Klaes Ashford, prepares to fire his ship’s communications laser at the Ring. If successful, he will destroy the Ring and doom all of the fleet trapped inside to death. If he is unsuccessful, he will likely ensure the doom of all of humanity.

 But there is another possibility: James Holden turns out to be the only person who can communicate with the alien artifact. Why this is, he doesn’t know. In fact, he can’t even prove that he can do it, because the way the artifact chooses to communicate with him is by speaking to him through the image of a dead man: Detective Miller, who was killed by the protomolecule and possibly absorbed within it. To everyone else, Holden appears to be holding conversations with thin air, if they witness it at all. The artifact refuses to speak to anyone else, but it does tell Holden that the only way to save humanity is for the trapped fleet to turn off their fusion reactors, leaving themselves utterly vulnerable to whatever might occur next.

So, to sum up, James Holden has special knowledge of how to save humanity, and he can’t prove that any of this knowledge is valid. He even questions it himself, and asks the Miller-construct some very pointed questions about his past, because he has to make sure that the man he trusted, who sacrificed himself to be consumed by the protomolecule, is still there and worth his continued trust. He has to rely on faith, and then get others to believe in his message.

Meanwhile, Ashford, also a man who is, to give him credit, trying to save the Earth – in fact, arguably more heroically than Holden is, because Ashford’s attempt will absolutely doom him along with every other human trapped in the pocket universe – has a solution that can at least be conceived of as partly rational, and which does not rely on any special knowledge at all: destroy the Ring, and we cut the alien artifact off from its ability to destroy humanity. Of course, this approach also does require a fair amount of faith, though this is disguised. It requires faith that a) the laser will actually be effective in attacking the Ring, that b) the artifact is really dedicated to destroying humanity, and c) that the laser attack will not be the thing that triggers the aforesaid destruction of humanity.

I have to admit that the whole thing is a stunning allegory for the position of Christians (and some other theists, but I’m going to speak from my own position here) in the world and their atheist opponents: as Christians, we believe that there was a man, Jesus of Nazareth – who was fully a man, but also God – who could speak with the words of God because he had been with God (John 1). He told the truth about God to a small group of his disciples, and the truth was about how to save humanity. And to most of the world, this seemed to be utter foolishness (I Cor. 1:25)

Of course, that really is the rub in matters of faith. James Holden is either right to trust the message he has received from the Miller-construct, or he is wrong. But let’s look at the consequences if he is wrong. If he’s wrong, there’s no way to save the humans trapped in this bubble universe. If he’s wrong there may be a way to save humanity – but only if Klaes Ashford is right that the Behemoth’s comms laser can sever and destroy the Ring. Given that the Ring is made of a substance that manipulates gravity, inertia, and made a hyperspace portal by transmuting chunks of Venus, I would not rate that probability as high. But if Holden is wrong his message is worse than useless. It’s disguising insanity as hope.

On the other hand, if Holden is right, what then? If Holden is right to trust the message he has received, then everyone can be saved, both the humans in the bubble universe and those in the Solar System. If Holden is right, then he is the savior of humankind. 

The parallel just leaps out, doesn’t it? And further, it’s not especially fair that there is only one way for humanity to be saved. It’s not as though Holden can provide any proof that he is correct, nor can Ashford either verify or disprove Holden’s claims, which is very frustrating for both of them. Holden even says to the apparition of Miller, “So it’s a magic trick?” Miller’s response is telling: “So is your whole damn reality, kid.” In the end, Miller is right. We know nothing that we cannot perceive through the magic of our senses, which is analyzed by a brain we are only beginning to understand.

One of the most common objections I get to the gospel of Christ is that it’s not fair, and it’s not properly Godly. Some readers are likely thinking that here is where my analogy breaks down: God is supposed to be omnipotent. The aliens of The Expanse, though powerful, are not. Why doesn’t God prove He exists? Why not just tell everyone, in words they can understand and that are incontrovertible, what salvation is?

But if someone like Holden can doubt the clear evidence of his senses, then it’s not such a stretch to think that the Ashfords of the world would, as well. If Ashford were to receive such a visitation from Miller or from someone else he knew, Ashford might well consider such a visitation to be a mere trick. If we take Scripture at all seriously, then it suggests that such a manifestation would solve nothing. God supposedly took the Israelites out of slavery and appeared to them in pillars of smoke and fire while destroying their enemies and feeding them daily by miracle. And still they worshipped golden calves. However, it’s hardly necessary to take Scripture seriously to encounter this tendency. When you consider how many people refuse to believe that the Earth is round, that vaccines are good, and that terrorists actually flew airliners into the World Trade Center, it’s hardly a stretch to think that God might win fewer converts than we might imagine by showing Himself.

 Many of my friends who are atheists harp on the fact that matters of faith cannot be proven, and if they cannot be proven, then they are under no obligation to believe in them. And so far as that goes, they are correct: there is no intellectual obligation to believe what cannot be proven. What this ignores is a very simple truth: we are not in a laboratory. Life is not an intellectual construct.

The circumstance we actually find ourselves living, dying, trusting and doubting in, is much the same as that which confronts Holden and those around him: we have no proof that will tell us what to believe and how to act. We have no time to acquire that proof. Like them, we cannot do nothing: our lack of action will have very serious and deadly consequences! A crisis is building in all of our lives. For the characters of The Expanse, it is the station’s imminent action. For us – every one of us – it is the knowledge of our impending deaths. We must choose to either believe the message of the one who claims to know, or to trust, like Klaes Ashford, that humanity’s desperate schemes to circumvent mortality will eventually save someone – though almost certainly not us, if we’re alive to read this – despite the massive evidence to the contrary. The quest for the fountain of youth and the elixir of life is at least as old as religion, as Gilgamesh’s tale will bear out.

So what choice do we make? In these circumstances, what choice should we make. It’s not about who should be right, who has the most scientific evidence, or who is smartest. In the end, all those things go away. And the only thing left is what is true? Who do you trust to tell you what is true? And how will you act on that trust?

I have no idea what the beliefs of James S.A. Corey or the writers of the screenplays of The Expanse are. But the message is clear.

Trust saves.

~

When Pain Doesn’t Hurt: A Lesson From Dune

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by G. Scott Huggins

In the wake of the building excitement surrounding Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to take on the filming of another incarnation of the novel Dune, which is one of my all-time favorite reads (and let us hope that he will be the director who finally realizes that there are NO GUNS IN THE ARMIES OF DUNE!), I find myself drawn to the question of pain. For those unfamiliar with the book: in one of the most iconic scenes from the novel and the David Lynch movie, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam tests the young Paul Atreides with a box that induces almost unbearable pain through his nervous system. Her reasoning for this is that a fully-aware human must be wiling to endure pain for the greater good of his species. To wait through pain to achieve the goal of protecting those who would trap and harm humans. In fact, she uses the analogy of an animal caught in a trap chewing off its own foot to escape. A human would wait in the trap and attempt to kill the trapper.

It occurs to me that there is yet another point to her argument that is not explored. A human would also consider the possibility that the trapper might not be the enemy that he seemed. This is one of the reasons we sometimes trap animals in the wild, after all: to treat them. Further, a human would realize that chewing off its own leg would actually hurt it, depriving it permanently of a limb, while remaining in the trap might preserve the limb and its life.

It seems to me that in Western society, we have fallen for a terrible delusion that pain is always equal to hurt. On the very superficial level, this is ridiculous. We also have the saying “no pain, no gain.” Discipline is always painful. It is, however, the very opposite of hurtful. We tolerate the infliction of pain on ourselves for gain. Why do we assume that the inflicting of pain upon others, or them inflicting pain upon us, is some ultimate trauma not to be borne?

Moreover, the definition of pain seems to be expanding at a dizzying pace. It was in my own lifetime that corporal punishment was not out of the question at schools around the nation. Today, it is out of the question at all but a vanishingly small number of private institutions. And increasingly, we are asked to believe that speech is violence, and that disagreement is tantamount to violence.

Steven Barnes, a writer whom I respect enormously, has often repeated that humans naturally move toward pleasure and away from pain. If someone is not moving in the direction of greater personal development, it is because he or she believes that the pleasure of accomplishment is lesser than the pain that accomplishment will cost. He knows, as do all fully developed and awake humans, that pleasure always lies on the other side of pain. And so the cost of making the choice not to go through that pain – however understandable it might be, however well-justified it might be, however good a reason you have – is to remain less than the human that you could become.

It’s important to realize, of course, that humans have limits. No one can go through all the pain of a lifetime in too short a time. We do need to recover even from good pain, to say nothing of actually harmful pain. To do otherwise is analogous to over-training at the gym: you will hurt your body rather than strengthen it. It is possible to do the same to the mind and the soul.

I believe that there are two forces at work here that have contributed, however, to our society’s embrace of the opposite extreme, the one that avoids all pain at all costs:

Firstly, the 20th century exposed the world to the fact that there are many predators out there who will claim to be inflicting pain only for the good of the oppressed. The Nazis, Fascists and Communists all claimed that their death camps and gulags were only operated in the service of the greater good of “freeing” the world from oppression. Even the Western democracies, while immeasurably better-behaved, signed on to monstrous deeds in the name of “saving” the world from these scourges.

Secondly, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the world reach the apex of human civilization thus far. Humans, especially in the Western world, are more powerful and richer than they have ever been. And the purpose of power is, well, to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. That is the normal human use of power. And today, we can use it to construct virtual echo chambers around us, where no dissenting thought need be admitted except to be mocked by us and our friends. Where no one is allowed to contradict us, much less threaten us with actual violence. We can, for the first time, on the mainstream level, protect ourselves from the pain of having to engage with our fellow humans on any level we do not wish to. We cannot prevent them from affecting us, but we can persuade ourselves that we are right, that we are in the majority, and that we are stronger. And when two or more sides of a conflict believe that, then war is not far away. Indeed, war is not even to be feared, and may be desirable. Those people do not have to be argued with: they can simply be swept away. It is a type of Orwellianism, only without the need for an oppressive state to impose a Two Minutes Hate. Twitter mobs can spontaneously begin one and continue destroying their targets until the hate burns itself out. Or the target commits suicide. And if we choose to join one, we can cast ourselves in that most envied role: that of the brave revolutionary, forever oppressed, yet forever marching forward to inevitable victory, secure in the moral superiority of our permanent revolution. 

And so the pleasure that we are enjoying and the pain we are avoiding, as far as I can see, is leading us away from developing ourselves as humans, and away from developing a healthy society. In Dune the Reverend Mother said, “once men turned their thinking over to machines in the belief that this would set them free, but it only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” While that is a problem we are dealing with, I might more urgently paraphrase it thus: “Now we turn away from pain to enjoy pleasure, but it will only permit other humans who will endure pain to outthink and enslave us.” Pain stands in our way. That’s where it always is. But pain is not the problem. Unwillingness to confront and overcome pain is the problem, and it traps us, keeping us closer to our animal and child natures than to our human and adult natures. Pain and pleasure are always before and behind us. We have only to choose to flee from the pain and pleasure behind, and confront the pain and the pleasure before. This is what it means to be fully human.

~

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.

~

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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