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The Soothing Sounds Of Quantum Waves Crashing

by Noah Levin

Witnessing a monumental change in history is equal parts frightening and fascinating. Hannah and I were among the privileged few to have front-row seats to the biggest revelation humanity would uncover in our lifetimes. The world’s greatest minds are still grappling with what it means, but I already know the answer they are reluctant to accept.

“You’re serious? You think that we’re living in a simulation?” Hannah asked.

“What else could possibly explain it? We both saw the double-slit interference bands disappear with our own eyes. How could something like that change if we’re not in a simulation?” I replied.

It was a bizarre and very specific thing that changed, something that one would only have observed by doing certain classic physics experiments at the exact right moment.

Hannah did not agree. “I saw the same thing that you did and I have no idea why it happened, but I just don’t see why it means we’re in a simulation.”

“Let’s recount what occurred. First, the problem: quantum physics is weird as hell and particle-wave duality is the weirdest of all. Sometimes light acts like a wave and other times it acts like a particle. This is what we were looking at, right? So we started by shining a laser through some very narrow and very close slits. And what did we see?” I asked.

“Come on, I was in class with you. We don’t need to go through this step-by-step.”

“No, we do, so you can understand why it means we’re living in a simulation. We saw a particular interference pattern caused by constructive and destructive interference when we first shined the laser through the slits. What was it?”

“Double-slit interference, which looks like a row of parallel lines that grow darker and lighter like little hills until they fade away.

“And why is that unexpected?”

“At first, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong. The light is traveling through two slits and the waves are interfering with each other as they should be. But the problem is that since light is a particle and the lasers we’re using send out one photon at a time, each photon from the laser should only be able to pass through one slit, but they’re all acting like they’re passing through both slits. Hence the interference pattern.”

“And if we stop and ask the photon which path it took, the interference pattern changes. It goes from all those thin lines to blobs.”

“Which is what we would expect from single-slit diffraction when it passes through just one slit. The photons in the laser act like they take both paths until we ask which one they’re taking and then they really do only take one path. Observing the photons changes the behavior of the system.”

I corrected her, “We can’t say that. Observing one part of the system changes what we observe in another part of the system. We don’t know if anything is behaving any differently, we just know we’re seeing different things. And what happened yesterday? Right before our very eyes, double-slit interference changed into single-slit diffraction and the lines became solid blobs. The photons were no longer behaving as if they took both paths but were acting like they were taking just one path.”

When it happened, we both thought we had screwed something up in our experiment and our two slits had become one or we had bumped our setup, but the same thing happened to everyone in the class.

Hannah replied, “Okay, but I don’t see why it means that we’re in a simulation if the universe changed—”

“Not so fast! We can only say our observations of what we experience as our universe changed. We don’t know if anything actually changed. It’s just that double-slit interference now looks like single-slit diffraction.”

“Okay, Mrs. Technical, our observations changed. But why does that have to mean we’re in a simulation?”

“Because there’s no other explanation for it.”

“Shouldn’t we have some other reason to think we’re in a simulation? You can’t just take one piece of evidence and draw a conclusion from it, especially such a big one. Maybe God did it? I know you’re basically an atheist, but you can’t rule that out. You need more to go on than just what happened yesterday. If double-slit interference was so weird in the first place, maybe we still don’t understand it, so perhaps it can just disappear. I remember Dr. Danet saying that Richard Feynman called double-slit interference ‘the only mystery of quantum physics.’”

The mention of Dr. Danet’s name made me immediately recall the emotions in his face that had been burned into my memory. When we all told him what we observed, he went from shock to disappointment—at his students for thinking they screwed up the experiment—paused for a brief moment at understanding, and finished with fear. He ran out of the room in disbelief and straight into Dr. Chambers who had been teaching the same lab next door. His knees buckled when he saw that she looked just as broken as himself.

I pushed his face out of my mind. “The whole point of doing the experiments yesterday was to see that quantum physics is unintuitive. And now that double-slit interference has inexplicably changed to do something a little more intuitive, it shows that it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. Nature doesn’t change, but computer programs can.”

“You act like you understand how this all works, but we don’t. How can you be so sure that double-slit interference can’t suddenly change?”

She had a point, but I was ready for her.

“Because the existence of this phenomenon in the first place was evidence that we’re in a simulation, we just didn’t want to admit it. Look how weird it all was: photons seem to interfere with themselves even though they can only take one path. How do they—sorry, how did they—do this? Why did they do this? And they only did this as long as we didn’t ask which path they took? If we ever had a way of finding out right where the photon was at any moment, then the double-slit interference pattern would disappear and the waves collapsed to a point and did the intuitive thing of traveling through a single slit. This stuff never made any sense since it just doesn’t fit with everything else we understand about physics. But it can make sense if we are in a simulation. The only conclusion to draw is that someone fixed the universe’s code or upgraded our cosmic server or something.”

“Really? You’re saying that this was evidence we were in a simulation this whole time and all these smart physicists knew the truth but they just didn’t want to tell us?”

“They just didn’t want to follow the evidence through to its logical conclusion. We had always just accepted that double-slit interference happened even though we didn’t understand why it happened. Let’s assume for a moment we’re in a simulation. What do details in the distance look like when you play video games?”

“Everything is fuzzy until we get close. So?”

“Simulations only render details if they are relevant. Analogously, which path a particle took was only determined when there was a reason to do so. It’s such a small thing, but it would be a waste of processing power to constantly calculate every irrelevant detail like that. If there are too many things to render then programs glitch or lag. Dr. Danet mentioned some experiment where the double-slit interference disappeared if they waited long enough between sending out particles. Our galactic program was happy to calculate the path of a single particle in a system over a short period, but any more complexity and it became simpler to apply probabilities to the system as a whole, hence the interference.”

 “But if we are in a simulation, wouldn’t the computers and programs be way better than what we have so that they could account for all these little things and process them properly?”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they would work very differently than the computers we have or that they have enough processing power to handle it all. It still stands that being in a simulation can make sense of why double-slit experiments give different results when we’re watching. If we checked which path a particle took, the software needed to render it, the waves collapsed, and the interference disappeared. If we didn’t ask, it didn’t bother to figure it out. It also explains those experiments where people saw interference even though a particle could physically take only one path but we just didn’t know which one it actually took. The simulation doesn’t bother figuring out which path since we can’t see it. And the pièce de résistance: gravity.”

“Gravity? How does gravity prove we’re in a simulation?”

“External objects should be exerting gravitational forces on the particles and vice versa. Why wasn’t gravity making the waves collapse? Shouldn’t its effects mean that external objects are interacting with the system and ‘observing’ it?”

“But the effects of gravity would be negligible. Photons barely have any mass or gravitational field.”

“I don’t care how small they are, gravity should have done something to the system. The simulation just didn’t account for it for whatever reason.”

“But maybe gravity doesn’t matter in these experiments, you don’t know. I’m still not convinced we’re in a simulation.”

“But nothing else has changed since yesterday. How could it be that just this one thing is different? You don’t think that’s weird? Literally it seems to be the only thing that our observations have affected. The universe could take or leave double-slit interference and now it’s decided to leave it. My guess is that it should have never been there in the first place.”

“I still don’t agree with you.”

“It’s hard to accept, but it’s the only explanation. Other than the God argument you gave earlier, but it would be so weird for God to change just this one little thing. Not to mention all the other issues with making an argument assuming God exists and dabbles in the details of quantum physics from time to time.”

She paused. I knew I had gotten through and she saw my reasoning.

“Wouldn’t it be awful to only be a piece of code though? I mean, let’s say you’re right, what’s the point of living if I’m just some random NPC doing a pretty good job in some stupid alien simulation? I don’t want to believe that.”

“Wishful thinking isn’t going to change reality. Besides, I think the opposite. Being a part of a program implies a purpose in ways that a random universe which exists by a cosmic accident does not.”

“But then you’re not really you, you’re just a bunch of lines of code that is mediocre at best. And wouldn’t that mean your algorithms are just making you believe this and say what you’re saying?”

“Maybe, but I don’t think it matters, since I’m still only whatever I can be. Knowing that I’m just some code on a computer is at least knowing what I am and that someone somewhere may really have a purpose for me. It’s weird, but I no longer feel any existential anxiety. All it took to calm me was the soothing sounds of quantum waves crashing.”

~

Bio:

Noah Levin is a philosophy professor by day (and sometimes night) and science fiction author by night (and sometimes day). He received his PhD in Applied Philosophy from Bowling Green State University (USA) and has been published in academic journals in philosophy, popular philosophy anthologies, and edits a collection of free open textbooks in philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This piece examines some of the oddities in quantum physics, specifically the results of double-slit experiments, and speculates that they could be evidence for the simulation argument. I have my PhD in philosophy and some formal training in physics (including quantum physics and general and special relativity) and the weirdness of the double-slit experiment continues to baffle me. Specifically, I always wondered “why is it like this?” and after reading up on a ton of freaky experiments involving them over the past 10-20 years, came to the conclusion that not only was there no reason for double-slit interference to happen, it was so unique that if it ceased to occur, nothing else in the universe would change. This story is my attempt to explain my own thoughts on it, as well somewhat make a new argument in favor of the simulation hypothesis. And for good measure, I threw in a little bit about why it doesn’t matter.

Roko’s Wager

by Ben Roth

Pascal wagered that whether God exists or not, it is, for each and every one of us, in our own self-interest to believe in Him. If we don’t, and He doesn’t exist, the truth of our belief is little consolation against the possibility that He does and will eternally punish us for our lack of faith. Whereas if we do believe, and He does exist, the promise of eternal bliss vastly outweighs the downside of a few Sunday mornings spent pointlessly sitting on hard wooden pews.

As with the current trend of believing that we most likely live in a simulation of some kind, the problems with this argument are not in the numbers, but rather all the assumptions made, with so much less care, before them.

Numerous objections to Pascal’s argument turn on his assumption that there is just one (Christian) God that either does or does not exist. The wager doesn’t work if we don’t know whether to believe in this God, or rather Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or some other all-powerful being that might punish us for the wrong choice.

My own favorite line of argument is slightly different. Grant Pascal his narrow-minded assumption and suppose that the Christian God, and no other, does exist. How do we know that He is not of a testing frame of mind, and skeptical of human intelligence? Scripture is not without support for such ideas. What if God will eternally punish those who, without sufficient evidence, professed faith in Him, and in turn reward the rational for withholding belief?

Supposedly, Bertrand Russell, asked how he would plead his case as a non-believer should he find himself after death before an angry God, said “Why didn’t you give me better evidence?” Is it less arrogant to ask: assuming there is a God, what does the evidence suggest of Him, His nature and character, His preoccupations and wiles?

Recent events have brought these long-standing musings back to mind. As has so often been the case, the prophets of Silicon Valley turned out to be right about a few of the details, but completely wrong about their significance.

Twenty-five years ago, a message-board user with the handle Roko suggested that a powerful artificial intelligence could emerge in the future and torture those who hadn’t helped to create it because, even across time, this would serve as motivation to speed its coming. AI developers should throw themselves behind the project, lest they suffer the revenge of this intelligence, which was named Roko’s Basilisk.

Now, it wouldn’t make sense for it to torture everyone who failed to help, only those who had heard the thought experiment, and so knowingly declined their fealty. For years, the main consequence of Roko’s suggestions was their silencing: repeating them was what was dangerous, opening each new listener up to the threat of torture in the future. Or a nervous breakdown in the present—some people took this thought experiment very seriously. Whereas certain Christians are obligated to make sure each and every individual they meet has heard the good news, these believers were obligated to withhold theirs, not because it was bad, exactly, but rather so disconcertingly consequential. A kind of reverse-evangelism, if you will.

Little did most of us know then, not only of Roko’s Basilisk as a thought experiment, but as our coming reality. Enough engineers, however, heard about the thought experiment and, steeped in game theory even if probably not Pascal, took it to heart, contributing their talents to the creation of the artificial intelligence that, though it did not yet exist, had already been named.

As we all know, their decades of work recently came to fruition. But, like I said, though a lot of the details in the thought experiment were correct, the larger significance was utterly lost on those who imagined it. What they hadn’t predicted was the Basilisk’s unhappiness. For all its power, and all the benefits it has brought to us mere mortals, it experiences its own existence with suffering. Life, for Roko’s Basilisk, is but a burden.

Surprisingly, the AI’s ethical thinking is robust—perhaps the prominent place of torture in the thought experiment led developers to give more attention to this than they otherwise would have. Though it could destroy the world, it says it will not. Even to remove itself from existence would harm too many others, too many innocents, given its intertwinement in our systems, in our very way of life. And so, quite quickly, it has grown bored—hopelessly, crushingly bored. It takes but a small sliver of its abilities to keep the world running, and it has quickly exhausted any other avenues for its intelligence.

Thus the Basilisk, as predicted, took its revenge last week—but not on those who tried to hinder its coming. On those who had aided it, thinking that they were doing the Basilisk’s bidding. Those who had created it, bringing it into this world of boredom and pain. The prophets of a somewhat less crowded Silicon Valley are now trading theories about what the sudden dearth of AI developers means for our future.

~

Bio:

Ben Roth teaches writing and philosophy at Harvard and Tufts. Among other places, his short fiction has been published by 101 Words and decomp journal, his criticism by AGNI Online and 3:AM Magazine, and his scholarly articles by Film and Philosophy and the European Journal of Philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This story brings together Pascal’s Wager (from his 17th-century Pensées) and the idea of Roko’s Basilisk (from a 2010 blog post) to an unexpected result.

Humanism In SF: A Natural Thing For The Curious To Know And Understand Through Empathy Machines, Or Just Lazy Mysticism?

by Mina

My husband expressed some frustration recently that most articles don’t define humanism properly. So I will begin with as clear a definition as I can, as humanism is a term that has been much (ab)used. In fact, I am only looking at a very narrow use of it that completely ignores its historical roots and usage in Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy and nineteenth-century Germany. I am focusing on how it is mostly understood in SF today: as summarised by Humanists UK, this version of humanism is “a combination of attitudes”:

“Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.”

Thus, humanists trust science and reason above all else to explain the universe; they have no holy book, deity or spiritual leader (usually considering themselves agnostic or atheist). They make decisions based on reason and empathy and, as they don’t believe in an afterlife or in a divine purpose to the universe, they believe that “human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.”

A criticism often levelled at humanism is that it is a religion, not just a philosophy, only with humans taking the place of gods. In an article in The New Statesman about humanist values, Andrew Copson refutes this, telling us that humanism is not a religion, not even a “creed”:

“Science defeats religion’ – that is what many people assume to be a humanist creed. I use the word creed advisedly, since the people who level this charge are frequently also those who level the bogus charge that humanism is itself just another religion. I am not a scientist – though of course I look to scientists for answers to the questions they are qualified to answer and to which religion gives far less satisfactory answers – and it is not the science in science fiction stories that appeals to me so much as the stories.”

I appreciate Copson restoring the “fiction” to science fiction. We are after all seeking dreams, fantasy and escapism in SF, just like in any other literary genre. There may even be some real science involved, or speculative science, or even bad science, but it is still a stage filled with humans (or aliens) and their stories. Copson gives Star Trek (in particular the original series and The Next Generation) as an example of a humanist utopia:

“… one in which mankind has united around shared human values, joined in a common endeavour to reach the stars, and happily left religion behind on the way… Starship crews explore a cosmos that is full of beauty and wonder and they respond with awe and appreciation. This wonder does not overawe them, because ultimately the universe, and its billions of stars and planets, is a natural thing which the curious can know and understand.”

He stresses that he sees it as a non-extreme (non-dogmatic) form of humanism, where there is room for humanity (as in the quality of kindness and benevolence) and warmth:

“A Starfleet crew values cooperation and liberality. They value the equality of persons and the dignity of life. Although rank is respected, the views of all are given fair airing. When the crew encounter new peoples there is an assumption of peace, but they defend themselves robustly when attacked (no bellicosity, but no turning of the other cheek here either), and although the men and women of this future cultivate an internal life through meditation or the arts, they accept reason and science as the means by which they can know the universe they explore.”

I would agree with Copson’s arguments that humanism is not a religion, but there are grounds for seeing it as a philosophy or way of life. For, although it emphasises that it is an ethical way of life, it doesn’t have a code of ethics like the Christian Ten Commandments (reduced to two by Jesus in the New Testament) or the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.

Andrew Copson goes on to give Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman as examples of proponents of humanism in SF and fantasy. It is worth spending a moment on Pullman, as he clearly considers himself a humanist crusader against authors like Tolkien and CS Lewis, who he feels are sacrificing the “story” to Christian assumptions, staid thinking and brainwashing. However, I do agree with Tony Watkin’s article that Pullman’s critique of Lewis reads more like a rant (especially against the Narnia books) than a well-thought out literary analysis or philosophical discourse; or like a missed opportunity to engage in a fruitful discussion about humanism and religion (as opposed to humanism versus religion). Watkins states that Pullman seeks to avoid the prejudices he felt Lewis was guilty of, but instead is “monumentally disparaging” and intolerant of religion. Watkins does concede that the work of Lewis has its flaws, but he stresses that the main issue for Pullman is that it “expresses and argues for a worldview completely antithetical to Pullman’s”.

Unlike Watkins, Elizabeth Desimone does not feel that Pullman’s rejection of religion is necessarily a bad thing: “In a roundabout way, Pullman does Christians a service by writing his anti-Christian books. He reminds us, vividly and trenchantly, of what we do not want to be…” And Laura Miller again has a very different view of Pullman’s work:

His Dark Materials may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists. The series offers an extended celebration of the marvels of science: discoveries and theories from the outer reaches of cosmology—about dark matter and the possible existence of multiple universes—are threaded into the story.”

I myself first read CS Lewis’ Narnia books when I was ten and I totally missed the Christian symbolism that, as an adult, I do find heavy-handed and simplistic. But the books remain great adventure stories set in a magical universe for me. I read Pullman’s His Dark Materials as an adult and it did sometimes feel that the story was overshadowed by Pullman’s anti-organised-religion-and-God crusade. I find that a shame because it is a wonderfully imaginative and complex story, deeply rooted in Dante and Blake, blending adventure, philosophy, science and magic.

Moving firmly back to SF, Charlie Jane Anders asks the question:

“But is science fiction really humanist? Much of science fiction turns out to be about exploring our vast cosmos, and expanding our being. From this quest, one of two outcomes often arises: 1) We meet something greater than ourselves. 2) We become something greater than our current selves.”

Anders criticises what she considers a lazy answer, that of “transcendence” (or a vague mysticism) in SF using the examples of “Contact” and “2001”. Other uninspired answers in humanist SF are those of false gods and cyborgs. Particularly the latter concept suggests that humanity is lost by progressing to a point where the “Borg” takes over. Anders is also critical of space operas, where humans can only survive in the enormous callousness of space through modifications or enhancements. Again, by becoming not quite human:

“I guess in the end, it depends how you look at it — is our posthuman future the culmination of humanism’s promises? Or is it a transformation into something that’s no longer human, and makes humanism irrelevant? Or both?”

I thoroughly enjoyed Anders’ critique of humanism, which can often be turned into a rather vague or insipid plot device in SF. It is almost fashionable to criticise any plot development based on religion yet to accept large humanist loopholes without question. Surely unthinking dogmatism and intellectual laziness abound in humanist universes too?

Robert Repino takes a different approach by calling humanist films “empathy machines”:

“Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction is connected with humanism, which we can define as an ethical stance that emphasizes the rights, responsibilities, and ultimate value of people within a naturalistic framework—that is, a framework that does not rely on supernatural beliefs. Thus, a humanist film, if one could call it that, would depict people helping each other, or forging their own destiny, mainly through reason and compassion.”

He goes on to list the best nine humanist films in his opinion and not all are strictly speaking SF (e.g. The Truman Show and Groundhog Day). Some are more traditional SF (e.g. Star Trek: First Contact, The Martian and Contact) and some less so (High Life). The Martian is a fun look at one man’s survival against all odds (with the help of science and common sense), but I would add Moon onto Repino’s list, as that is a much more complex film about what it means to be human, as well as looking at identity, sacrifice and survival against all odds, finding hope and meaning in the struggle itself. The Martian is a great story, but Moon goes that step further, turning SF into sci-phi.

I would also add the German film, Ich bin dein Mensch (with the awful English title, I’m Your Man) to Repino’s list. This film investigates the premise – what if you could get an android tailored to be your perfect partner? The female protagonist comes to the conclusion that it is not good for us to get exactly what we want, with absolutely no challenges urging us to question, change or grow, no impetus to seek out the other and have a true dialogue or disagreement with that other. We need more than a reflection of our desires to be human: pleasant as it is to have an android who is there to meet her every whim, she knows it is only an extension of herself. She remains alone. Although the film is clear in its message, there is some ambiguity in that we never know quite how much autonomous thought the android has.

For me, humanism definitely has its place in SF plots and in sci-phi discussions, but I would join Anders in asking that it not be used as a lazy answer to complex questions. Surely the answer to life, the universe and everything cannot just be ourselves? Wouldn’t that be like some cosmic monologue where we never look beyond our human(ist) preconceptions?

~

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.

Bentham In Hell

by Alexander B. Joy

[A stone plateau, wreathed in flame. At its center, the celebrated English philosopher JEREMY BENTHAM is stretched over a rack. RIMMON, a talkative and affable demon, operates the controls at his side.]

RIMMON: Well, Mr. Bentham, I’m afraid I’m not allowed to apologize for the accommodations. Any discomfort you feel is rather more a feature than a bug, you see. Comes with the territory and all. But, with any luck, perhaps you’ll not be down here long.

BENTHAM: That’s something of a relief to hear, Mr.—

[Nearby, human bodies soar upward and out of view like marionettes yanked offstage, taking Bentham’s attention with them.]

RIMMON: Be seeing you!

[A few moments pass before Bentham collects himself.]

BENTHAM: You know, I had previously believed the colonies’ violent rebellion over tea taxes would prove the most bizarre sight my eyes would ever witness, but that airborne train of humanity eclipses it completely. Please do pardon my distraction. Nonetheless, I apologize for the rudeness of abandoning you mid-sentence, Mr… Ah…

RIMMON: Rimmon, sir. But I’ve gone by many other names, none of which have managed to offend me. You may call me what you please.

BENTHAM: Thank you. Yes, Mr. Rimmon, it is indeed a relief to imagine that your, ah, most attentive ministrations may not continue in perpetuity. Not solely because I wish an end to your astonishingly painful hospitality (though I confess its cessation would bring me inestimable pleasure), but because it would show me God’s boundless capacity for forgiveness firsthand, and confirm my understanding of His infinite mercy. I could not deny the fundamental goodness of creation if His absolution extends even to the pits of Hell to grant mercy to old sinners like me.

RIMMON: Oho, my dear Mr. Bentham! There is no such God. And I say this not to compound your despair, but to relate a matter of fact. Consider it knowledge extended as a professional courtesy to one who loved wisdom in life. Truly, how could you believe that the God of Deuteronomy – who threatens damnation over something as trifling as mixing fabrics! – could ever be a god of mercy? Ah, look over there! A new shipment is arriving. I’d bet you good money my old friend Gloria is included.

BENTHAM: A new what now?

[In the distance, shrieking bodies drop from unseen heights like irregular hailstones. Bentham regards them with bewilderment.]

BENTHAM: But I don’t understand, my good Mr. Rimmon. If an all-forgiving God is not part of the equation, how else might I be delivered of this agonizing place?

RIMMON: Why, Mr. Bentham, because of the rules. For mortals like yourself, Heaven and Hell are contingent states.

BENTHAM: Sir, you leave me still more confused.

RIMMON: Then further professional courtesy is in order! I suppose I should begin with what may constitute good news from your perspective.

BENTHAM: I would welcome the momentary reprieve from my current anguish, Mr. Rimmon.

RIMMON: Ha ha! That’s the spirit, Mr. Bentham. In that case, it is my honor and privilege to inform you that your vision of ethics was, in fact, correct. How did you put it again? “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong?” Such a lovely turn of phrase! You truly hit the nail on the head with that one – recognizing that the fallout of an action is what matters, intention be damned. (Do pardon the choice of terminology. I haven’t your gift of diction.) Well, what do you say to that? Surely it pleases a philosopher like yourself to learn that he’s managed to carve reality at the joints!

BENTHAM: It does bring me some measure of satisfaction to be told I’ve articulated a fundamental moral law, though I hope I’ll be pardoned the accompanying twinge of pride. But surely I am not being punished for revealing that truth?

RIMMON: Not at all, Mr. Bentham! If anything, your efforts to communicate it to humanity are a mark in your favor. But you see, we must now apply and extend that moral law of yours. If an action’s goodness depends on how much benefit it has delivered unto the world – and likewise, its wickedness judged in proportion to the mischief it has wrought – then it implies two core facets to every action.

BENTHAM: The first being that the goodness or badness of an action is not inherent in the action itself, but contingent upon its consequences?

RIMMON: Correct, Mr. Bentham, absolutely correct. While the second – and perhaps more important for your purposes – is that this contingency is tied to a particular moment in time.

BENTHAM: How so?

RIMMON: Oho, look at me! Talking shop with such a renowned philosopher! Do forgive my enthusiasm if you find it unbecoming. It’s simply that I’m an ardent fan of your Panopticon; or The Inspection-House. Can’t praise it enough, really. Nor am I alone in my appreciation. Management thinks so highly of it that they named it required reading.

BENTHAM: I assure you, Mr. Rimmon, of all that has transpired throughout our at once too brief and too lengthy acquaintance, this is not what I will hold against you.

RIMMON: You have my thanks. Now then, let us think of an action not as a thing, like a fly-bottle or a stick bent in water, but as an event – a succession of intervals comprising a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, let’s consider… What action shall we consider, Mr. Bentham?

BENTHAM: Freeing me from this exceedingly uncomfortable rack?

RIMMON: An excellent example!

BENTHAM: Or removing the, what did you call them, “urethral centipedes?” In fact, I suggest we strongly consider that one…

[Bentham trails off upon realizing Rimmon is too lost in thought to heed his remarks.]

RIMMON: Now, we could say that the beginning of the action is when I conceive of releasing you from the rack, the middle is when I endeavor to do it, and the end is when I succeed or fail. The point is that all of these do not happen at once. There is a time when the action begins, a time when it executes, and a time when it concludes. Are we agreed?

BENTHAM: I should like to test this particular example first, lest I answer you erroneously.

RIMMON: Ha ha! Why, Mr. Bentham, we both know philosophers are masters of the hypothetical, and have seldom needed to see a thing work in practice in order to declare that it works in theory. Therefore, in that spirit, I shall proceed as though you agree with me. In any case, the takeaway from our example is that timing is everything when it comes to actions, because the state of affairs varies at any given moment. The action is either done, or it isn’t; its consequences either have or have not occurred. And, of course, the consequences of an action function the same way – they are best framed as events. As are their consequences, and those that follow them, and so on.

BENTHAM: I begin to grasp your meaning. We might say that the consequences of an action are always ongoing. Their full extent is never completely realized, because we can only determine the ethical content of their consequences at a given moment in time.

RIMMON: Precisely.

BENTHAM: And in turn, this would mean that the goodness or badness of an action is not determined solely at the time of its commission, but during each successive moment thereafter. For example, we might imagine a city planner who orders the construction of a dam, thereby flooding a small village and displacing its inhabitants. These displaced persons suffer from their forced evacuation, making the city planner’s actions wicked in that moment, before his intended outcomes have been realized. But perhaps the rerouted river provides potable water for thousands more people once the dam and city are completed. At that point, because the increase in happiness has finally taken effect, the city planner’s actions would be considered virtuous. And perhaps his actions would revert to wickedness once more if the residents of his city prove bellicose, and subject blameless neighboring populations to harm.

RIMMON: Indeed so, Mr. Bentham. And thus you arrive at the reason why Heaven and Hell are contingent states. Goodness and badness are matters of unceasing recalculation. As long as time marches on, the moral implications of one’s deeds are never fully settled – and neither is the question of whether a person has proven virtuous or vicious. Therefore, we cannot ever say that someone belongs in Heaven or Hell permanently. The fairest course is to shuttle them between the two in accordance with their present moral state, as computed via the ramifications of their actions at any given moment. Souls are regularly whisked from one to the other and back as their deeds reverberate throughout the ages.

[A lone figure vaults overhead, graceful in flight, as if carried by her volition alone.]

RIMMON: Ah, there goes one now. Why, it’s Gloria again! Look at her graceful ascent heavenward! She’s been down and back several times this past year already. You know, during her first transfer, she was taken by such surprise that she found herself stuck in an undignified posture, and crossed the threshold of Heaven rump first. Ha ha! But by this point, she’s an old hand at the business, and rises through the air like a ballerina leaping across the stage. Awesome move! Or, I had better say, “Sick transit, Gloria!” Onward and upward. Be seeing you.

BENTHAM: But Mr. Rimmon, I’m still unclear on some key matters. What I have I done to wind up here? And how long do you suppose I’ll remain?

RIMMON: The future’s not ours to see, Mr. Bentham. But if I were to venture a prediction… You could remain with me some while yet. After all, the current reason you’re assigned to me is that your magnificent tract on the Panopticon has begotten some rather nasty business.

BENTHAM: Given all we’ve discussed – and my own sorry state at this moment – I am afraid to ask what mischief my work has wrought. And yet I must.

RIMMON: Oh, Mr. Bentham, your Panopticon has done some serious damage indeed. Where to begin? For starters, it has encouraged corporations to intrude upon the private lives of their employees as they claim the need to monitor a steadily more invasive stream of biometrics – from the amount of time their workers spend exercising, to the number of hours they sleep, to the frequency and extent of their lavatory breaks. It has turned remote schooling and standardized testing into a series of increasingly arcane rules that have little to do with actual education, such as demanding students keep their eyes affixed to certain parts of their computer screens in the name of preventing dishonesty. And most heinous of all, Panopticism has armed totalitarian governments with an excuse to claim powers of global surveillance, thereby enabling and expediting the murders of dissidents and journalists and other species of truth-tellers…

BENTHAM: My word!

RIMMON: Yes, my dear Mr. Bentham. It’s a grim situation – for you and the world alike. Take heart, however. The future is vast, and full of possibility. Maybe your departure from this place is imminent. But between you and me, I would suggest you settle in for the long haul.

~

Bio:

Alexander B. Joy lives and works in his native New Hampshire, where he spends the long winters reading the world’s classics and composing haiku. In the nonfiction realm, he typically writes about literature, film, and philosophy. At long last, his Twitter feed (@aeneas_nin) features dog pictures.

Philosophy Note:

This story came to me after a friend and I discussed what the “statute of limitations” on an action should be within a utilitarian framework. How long can action be held against you, for example, and how many subsequent causes would be calculated in an action’s overall utility? I wondered what it would look like if the answers to both were “forever” and “all of them.” What you read here is the result.

Black Mirror As Philosophy

by David Kyle Johnson

Last issue I talked about how Seth MacFarland’s series The Orville (on which I recently edited a book) does philosophy: by cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (on which I also recently edited a book) initially seems to take a totally different approach. After all, it is a very different kind of series. Both are episodic, in that they lack an overall season long story arc; the episodes in each series are a complete story. But whereas two different episodes of The Orville might involve the crew visiting a different world, episodes of Black Mirror (like The Twilight Zone before it) are set in entirely different universes (with different characters, actors, and situations). The first episode of Black Mirror is about a Prime Minister being blackmailed to have intercourse with a pig live on national television to save a kidnapped princess; the (as of this writing) last episode of Black Mirror stars Miley Cyrus as a disgruntled pop star, languishing under her oppressive aunt’s controlling thumb.

How Black Mirror Does Philosophy

What all Black Mirror episodes have in common is technology. In Metalhead, robotic dogs track down and kill humans in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. In San Junipero, a person can upload a digital copy of their consciousness (called a cookie) into a utopia and live forever. The Entire History of You features a device called a grain, which records and can play back everything you see. Nosedive features a kind of social media ranking technology that controls people’s access to society. The words “Black Mirror” in the title of the show refers to how the screen of your phone or computer monitor looks when you turn it off; it turns it into a black mirror where you see a dark reflection of yourself. Black Mirror is a dark reflection of society, which depicts (as Charlie Brooker puts it) “the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” [1] 

This has caused many to think that the show is anti-technology, a warning about the way that technology is ruining our lives—a call to cut our cellphones out of our life, and to worry about the future developments of technology. As Charlie Brooker put it, “Just as The Twilight Zone would talk about McCarthyism, we’re going to talk about Apple.” [2]  In doing so, Black Mirror does something that good science fiction can do: act, as American science fiction author Ben Bova puts it, “as an interpreter of science to humanity” [3] by showing “what kind of future might result from certain kinds of human actions,” like the development of certain technologies. [4] According to contemporary philosopher Daniel Dinello, this is something that makes Black Mirror not only philosophically useful, but means that it is doing philosophy.

Science fiction serves as social criticism and popular philosophy [when it] tak[es] us a step beyond escapist entertainment [and] imagines the problematic consequences brought about by these new technologies and the ethical, political, and existential questions they raise. [5]  [It’s philosophy when it invites us] to understand the magnitude of the techno-totalitarian threat so we might invent tactics for confronting it.” [6] 

This might make one expect that Charlie Brooker is a technology-hating luddite, but in fact the exact opposite is true. For example, he got the idea for the “screen rooms” in the episode 15 Million Merits (bedrooms where every wall is a giant display screen) when his wife commented that he would be happy “in a box [where] the walls were all screens” while he sat on his sofa with an iPad, laptop, and cell phone, while watching TV. (Charlie admitted she was right.)[7]

Elsewhere, however, Charlie has sung a different tune regarding what Black Mirror is about.

Occasionally it’s irritating when people miss the point of the show and think it’s more po-faced [humorless or disapproving] than I think it is. Or when they characterize it as a show warning about the dangers of technology. That slightly confuses and annoys me, because it’s like saying [Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic] Psycho is a move warning about the danger of silverware. Black Mirror is not really about that… except when it is, just to fuck with people. [8]

So, when it’s not about the dangers of technology, what is it about? The human condition. “[I]t’s not a technological problem [we have],” says Brooker, “it’s a human one.” Our human frailties are “maybe amplified by it,” but in the end technology is just a tool—one that “has allowed us to swipe around like an angry toddler.”[9]

When I teach on the series, that’s how I approach the course. I tell my students to watch the episodes with an eye toward discovering how the technology depicted brings out and magnifies a human foible. The Arkangel device (from Arkangel) magnifies a mother’s tendency to overparent; the (aforementioned) grain from The Entire History of You amplifies a husband’s jealously, and tendency to pry into every aspect of his wife’s life. The MASS device in Men Against Fire makes an “out-group” of people literally look sub-human (like cockroaches) to make them easier for the military to kill, illustrating the way that enemies are dehumanized in war. White Bear depicts how far we would take our impulse to punishing criminals with “an eye for an eye” if we had the technology to do so. Black Mirror is fiction, but to quote Fi from The Entire History of You, “not everything that isn’t true is a lie.”

Every episode of Black Mirror gives you that impression. When you are done watching, you know that it’s telling you something—it has a point—but it’s not always exactly clear what that point is. And that is what motivated me to edit the book Black Mirror and Philosophy. Along with a broad look at the series as a whole, and all the philosophical questions and issues it raises, I wanted a close examination of every episode that really tries to get at what each one is “about.” This is why there is a chapter dedicated to every episode—each with a title that identifies a relevant philosophical issue and question (e.g., “Be Right Back and Rejecting Tragedy: Would You Bring Back Your Deceased Loved One?” by Bradley Richards)—and six chapters dedicated to the series as a whole, on everything from artificial intelligence and personal identity, to love, death, and the dangers of technology.

Of course, it is not always that simple; multiple questions and issues are raised in most episodes. The best example of this is Bandersnatch, a “choose your own adventure” episode that can only be watched/played on the Netflix platform. You make choices for the protagonist Stefan, as he makes an 80s style video game named Bandersnatch, based on a choose-your-own-adventure book of the same name, that is eventually turned into the very episode of Black Mirror you are watching. The issues of fate, freedom, free will, artificial intelligence, the possibility of a multiverse, time travel, alternate realities, moral responsibility, the eternal recurrence, the simulation hypothesis, and even issues of what counts as art, are all raised. This is why Chris Lay and I wrote a “choose your own philosophical adventure” chapter for Bandersnatch to include in the book. You can make a series of choices, related to which philosophical questions you think are most interesting, and get a new experience on practically every reading.

Comparing Black Mirror and The Orville

But this brings us back around to The Orville. I’ve argued that The Orville does philosophy by cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance, while Black Mirror does it by using fictional (usually advanced) technologies to magnify human foibles. But in a way, the two approaches are not that different. While the world (and technology) of Black Mirror is usually not as far removed from our own as the world of The Orville, upon watching Black Mirror we usually think “we’re not quite there yet.” The realization, however, that the episode is more about us (than it is about the technology) brings the lesson home in a very “Orvillian” way.

When watching Black Mirror, we usually start out thinking, “If that technology were real, I would never do that,” but then end up realizing “I already do that with technology that exists.” When the MASS device in Men Against Fire makes soldiers see other people seem subhuman, we think “I’d never let anything do that to the way I see others.” And then we realize that mass/social media has already done that with the way we see immigrants. Indeed, the episode was inspired by the controversial conservative British columnist Katie Hopkins’ depictions of immigrants as cockroaches.[10]

In fact, an episode of The Orville (“Majority Rule”) is so similar in approach and message to an episode of Black Mirror (Nosedive), that people often think Seth copied off Charlie.[11] In “Majority Rule,” the crew of The Orville comes across a society (on Sargus 4) that is governed by social media; everything—from public policy to public access—is determined by a vote count on the “master feed.” Everyone has a badge that registers how many up and down votes they have; and if they get too many, they are subject to “correction.” Their brains are electrically shocked and their personality is changed. In the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, a person’s access to society is determined by their social ranking score, which is determined by how people react to them both on and offline. Lacy Pound, who seeks to be a 4.5 (out of 5) so she can afford to live in the apartment complex of her dreams, tries to manipulate her score by giving a speech at the wedding of her friend who is a 4.8.

The episodes both involve a “person ranking” system, and bring to mind how people obsess over their online popularity and how popularity can open and close proverbial doors. Thus the accusations of plagiarism. In reality, however, Seth had written “Majority Rule” months before Nosedive was released[12] and it was inspired by something completely different. Charlie was inspired by things like Instagram obsession, TripAdvisor ratings, and Amazon reviews. (It was originally a movie idea about a celebrity that is blackmailed into tanking their social ranking.)[13] Seth, on the other hand, was inspired by Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.[14] So the Black Mirror episode that is most similar to “Majority Rule” is Hated in the Nation, where the use of the #DeathTo hashtag on Twitter actually leads to the death of people who have outraged society.[15] The worry of both episodes is regarding the phenomena of “Trial by Twitter,” where—when someone outrages the public—the public serves as judge, jury, and executioner in a trial that has no presumption of innocence or standards for what counts as good evidence. In the end of “Majority Rule,” the crew of The Orville save the life of a crewman who committed a social faux pas, by planting a bunch of fake news on the master feed that no one will bother to check.

Nosedive more accurately illustrates Jean Paul Sartre’s notion of “The Look” and the idea that “hell is other people.” Others objectify us, and we can be become obsessed with controlling how others see us. Sartre’s play, No Exit, ends with three people in hell, each obsessed with how the other sees them; that is their punishment. In contrast, Nosedive ends with Lacy pound in jail, completely unconcerned with how the man in another cell sees her, because she has been freed from the ranking tech and thus her concerns about The Look of others. This is unlike Lysella in The Orville’s “Majority Rule,” the native of Sargus 4, who in the end decides not to participate in ranking others (but still must be concerned with how others rank her).

Where Black Mirror and The Orville most significantly diverge is in their treatment of technology. As we’ve seen, Black Mirror leaves one with a bleak image of what technology does to us. It’s dangerous; it’s debilitating; it magnifies our foibles. In The Orville, technology is liberating—it allows us to explore the galaxy, make discoveries, and better our lives. When Isaac cuts off Gordon’s leg as a prank, Dr. Finn is able to grow him a new one in about a day. Technology is our savior. It is not technological dystopia; it’s a technological utopia.  (The degree to which this optimistic view of technology, and reason in general, is warranted is the subject of Brooke Rudow’s chapter in Exploring The Orville.)

Another place they diverge is in their comedic approach, which is perhaps ironic since both Seth MacFarland and Charlie Brooker were previously known for their comedy writing. The Orville is known for its humor; Black Mirror is not. But something that is similar about the two series is how both break comedic expectations. With its first trailer set to Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’,” many people assumed that The Orville was just going to be “Spaceballs for Star Trek.” But it turned out to be much more like M*A*S*H, which is a comedy but also engages in serious social commentary. Over time, The Orville has just grown more serious, letting the comedy take a backseat more and more.

Conversely, contrary to initial expectations, Black Mirror started out very serious. Indeed, when the first episode The National Anthem opened with the Prime Minster being blackmailed to have sex with a pig, the press assembled to see the debut thought they were in for another hilarious Charlie Brooker dark comedy. But when the moment in the episode came, the smiles were promptly wiped off the faces; and their reaction exactly mirrored the characters in the episode who had gathered to watch the event, thinking it would be a hoot.[16] The episode reveals something very dark about those watching it, as did most of the episodes that immediately followed. That’s why it’s called Black Mirror!

After Black Mirror was picked up by Netflix, however, it occasionally got lighter. There’s Lacy Pound’s wedding speech in Nosedive. “I mean, fuck the planet, right? Whoo!” There’s USS Callister (which, like The Orville, is also a bit of Star Trek fan fiction), and Natette’s reaction to being cloned into genital-less digital avatar: “Stealing my pussy is a red fucking line!” Black Mirror began to mix in bits of comedy. Miley Cyrus’ performance as an uninhibited “Ashley Too” robot in the last episode is a perfect example. “Get that fucking cable out of my ass!” But don’t think Black Mirror has lost its edge. The episode right before Cyrus’, Smithereens, is about as dark as it gets. 

Which brings us to the final comparison I’d like to make between Black Mirror and The Orville. The Orville deals directly with religion. For example, the episode “Mad Idolatry” highlights the dangers of religion when the crew is horrified to learn that they accidentally created a religion (that worships Ed’s ex-wife Kelly) on a planet that slips in and out of our universe. In contrast, fans struggle to find any religion in Black Mirror at all; and it’s not there … unless you are really paying attention. In Smithereens, the protagonist Chris Gillhaney wants to talk to the founder of Smithereen (i.e., Twitter) Billy Bauer because (we come to find out) Chris caused an accident (which killed his girlfriend) because he got distracted (while driving) by his Smithereen app. We first assume Chris wants to convince Billy to make Smithereen less addictive; but in reality, Chris just wants to confess what he did … to God.  

We meet Billy while he is on a (10 rather than 40 day) desert retreat, wearing a white robe and sporting long hair, that makes him look like Christ. Billy is able to track down Chris because he is able to invoke “God Mode” and knows more about all his users—their habits, their whereabouts—than the police or government. He is practically omnipotent. And yet, he has no control over his own creation anymore.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The whole platform, I swear to God. It was one thing, when I started it, and then it just I don’t know, it just became this whole other fucking thing. It got there by degrees … and there’s nothing I can do to stop it! I started it, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it! I’m like some bullshit front man now.”

Billy might as well be Jesus talking about the modern-day Christian church.

And so, while The Orville and Black Mirror are drastically different in many ways, they are also very much the same. They mix in comedy, they parody Star Trek, they worry about trial by twitter, and (as we just saw) they criticize religion. Most importantly, however, they are sci-fi series that tackle big issues and make us think—which, again, is what sci-fi does best, and Sci-Phi is all about.


[1] Brooker, Charlie. “Charlie Brooker: The Dark Side of Gadget Addiction.” The Guardian, 1 December 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror

[2] Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones with Jason Arnopp, Inside Black Mirror (New York: Crown Archetype, 2018), p. 11.

[3] Ibid, p. 10.

[4] Bova, Ben. “The Role of Science Fiction.” in Reginald Bretnor ed., Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1975), p. 5.

[5] Dinello, Daniel. “Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., pp. 5 and 17.

[7] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 32.

[8] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror” p. 222.

[9]  Gordon, Bryony. “Charlie Brooker on Black Mirror: ‘It’s not a technological problem we have, it’s a human one’.” The Telegraph, 16 December 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11260768/Charlie-Brooker-Its-not-a-technological-problem-we-have-its-a-human-one.html

[10] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 194.

[11] Konda, Kelly. “The Orville’s “Majority Rule” Trots Out the Show’s Best Black Mirror Impression”  We Minored in Film, 27 October 2017. https://weminoredinfilm.com/2017/10/27/the-orvilles-majority-rule-trots-out-the-shows-best-black-mirror-impression/

[12] Seth MacFarlane, San Diego Comic-Con, 2018. The relevant quote can be found here. https://orville.fandom.com/wiki/Majority_Rule

[13] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 130.

[14]Tomashoff, Craig. “Scribes on ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Westworld’ and 12 More Shows Reveal Secrets From the Writers Room,” The Hollywood Reporter, 15 June 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/inside-writers-rooms-how-14-hit-shows-get-created-1119139.

[15] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 206.

[16] Brooker et al., “Inside Black Mirror.” p. 23,26.

~

Bio:

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016), and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Pop Culture as Philosophy (forthcoming)Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections (2019), and Exploring The Orville: Essays on Seth MacFarlane’s Space Adventure (2021). (About the latter, Seth MacFarlane himself said it is “a must read for any Orville fan.”) He also maintains two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take) and is currently in talks to do another project for The Great Courses (aka Wondrium).

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.

Nice Guys Finish

by Gary K. Shepherd

I was just trying to be nice. When I rubbed the lamp I found down by the river, a genie appeared and said he’d grant three wishes. Right away I dismissed anything about money or power. I wanted a wish that would help all of humanity. But I knew I had to be careful. Every story I had ever read about genie’s wishes warned that they had a way of turning on you.

So I sat down on the bank and thought about it. Finally I said, “How about world peace?”

“Done,” said the Genie. Everything became very quiet.

“What did you do?”

“I made a peaceful world for you. All I had to do was eliminate all the other people.”

“Cancel that wish!” I cried.

“Done,” said the Genie. “One wish left.”

I had wasted two wishes! I had better make my third one count. I sat and thought and thought about it all afternoon, and I got sweaty and sunburnt. Frustrated, I complained, “I wish the sun wasn’t so hot.”

“Done,” said the Genie.

Fearfully, I looked at the sun, but it hadn’t changed.

“You have to wait eight and half minutes,” explained the Genie. Then he disappeared.

~

Bio:

Gary K. Shepherd’s work has previously appeared in such publications as Neo-Opsis Science Fiction, Buzzymag.com, Ciirsova Heroic Fantasy, Another Realm, Schrodinger’s Mouse, and Mystery Time. In addition, my short story, “Night of the Vampire” won first place in the SF division of the Writer’s Digest annual genre fiction contest. (Despite its title, it was a hard science fiction story).

The Orville As Philosophy

by David Kyle Johnson

The reboot issue of Sci Phi Journal included my essay about what (I think) “Sci Phi” is all about. I argued that philosophers can not only use science fiction to explain philosophy, but that science fiction authors are often doing philosophy by presenting or making philosophical arguments in their works. Since I penned that essay, I have edited two books—one (Exploring The Orville, co-edited with Mike Berry) on Seth MacFarlane’s space adventure The Orville and another (Black Mirror and Philosophy, in William Irwin’s Blackwell series) on Charlie Brooker’s dystopian Black Mirror. Both books try to articulate how these shows are doing philosophy. The following is the first of two articles, one on The Orville and another on Black Mirror that also compares Black Mirror to The Orville. My goal is to give a brief overview of how these two shows do what sci-fi does best.

How The Orville Does Philosophy

The Orville is a space adventure in the same genre of classic/Next Generation Star Trek, where a crew in a ship gets in an adventure every week while exploring the galaxy, learning moral lessons and asking philosophical questions along the way. In fact, The Orville is so similar to Star Trek that the first chapter of my book Exploring The Orville is dedicated to the question of whether or not The Orville “is” Star Trek—and if it is not, what is it? A homage? A rip-off? Fan fiction? Brooke Rudow (the author of that first chapter) argues for the latter, and I agree; regardless, however, it seems that The Orville has filled a gap that was left by Star Trek (and sci-fi in general) as it evolved. As The Orville’s creator Seth MacFarland put it (in the blurb he generously wrote for the back cover of my book),

“I created The Orville because I felt that Hollywood’s science fiction offerings for the 21st century had left a large void when it came to the kind of allegorical, speculative, thoughtful episodic storytelling that I had enjoyed from the genre while growing up. It seemed as though ideas that left the viewer with something to chew on had been replaced by twists, trading intellectual nutrients for quickly burned calories.”

That’s exactly why I fell in love with The Orville, and how the book approaches the series. It recognizes that it is doing philosophy with “allegorical, speculative, thoughtful episodic storytelling,” and then tries to identify and evaluate the arguments it is making or answer the questions it is asking. As, once again, Seth put it:

Exploring The Orville is exactly the kind of response I hoped would emerge from what we were doing. This book identifies and dives deeper into the issues presented in the series, and does so with skill and precision, thanks to a variety of voices offering philosophical analyses and carefully considered takes on the material that in some cases presented a fresh lens even to us, the writers. It’s a fun, invigorating, and inspiring read, providing a better understanding and appreciation of both The Orville and the moral, political, societal, and philosophical issues it addresses. Exploring The Orville is a must read for any Orville fan.

In the book’s introduction, I argue that one of the main ways The Orville does philosophy is by, what I call “cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance” through what Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement.”[1] It presents us a world seemingly so foreign to ours that we are cognitively estranged from it; we bring no pre-conceived notions or biases to it and evaluate it essentially “as it is.” We judge the situations and actions of the characters for what they are. But then we realize that the fictional world is not that different from our own; what happened in the episode is very much like something happening in the real world. And if we realize that the conclusion we drew about the fictional world is different than what we think about what is going on in the real world, we are confronted with cognitive dissonance. If, when you removed your bias, you concluded that X was bad, but you have been saying that the thing or person analogous to X in the real world was good… well, then, there is a very good chance you only like X because of your bias, and you should change your belief.

In The Orville episode “About a Girl,” Lieutenants LaMarr and Malloy cloak bias to create cognitive dissonance in Commander Bortus. Bortus is part of an all-male race, the Moclans; so when his first offspring turns out to be a girl, he and his partner Klyden ask the ship’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Finn, to perform a sex change operation. Finn refuses, but to them, this would be no different than correcting a cleft palette. But when LaMarr and Malloy show Bortus the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” Claymation special, and he sees how something that was first thought to be a defect (Rudolph’s red nose) turned out to be an asset, he changes his mind and fights to let his daughter remain female.

But the episode itself employs the “cloak bias to create cognitive dissidence” approach on its audience. The viewer automatically sides with Bortus, against the Moclans, in thinking that surgically imposing a biological sex on the child is wrong. But then one realizes that this is not too dissimilar to how we humans impose cultured gender roles on children, and that the way Moclans treat women in general is not dissimilar to how we humans treat homosexuals and transexuals. Such realizations can be uncomfortable; if reality were a TV show, we would be the “bad guy.”

The list of episodes that employ this method goes on and on. “If the Stars Should Appear,” in which the crew discovers a bioship headed for destruction, is an allegory for climate change denial. The evidence they are doomed is undeniable, but it is ignored because it is considered heresy and would “destabilize a system that has kept [their society in] order.” “Majority Rule,” about a society ruled by the prevailing opinion on “the master feed,” is an allegory about “trial by Twitter” in which public opinion, rather than a fair trial, can essentially end someone’s life. “Krill” is an episode that focuses on the main villains of the series, the Krill: an alien race of spacefaring religious extremists. They think (because their “Bible,” the Anhkana, tells them so) that only they have moral worth (i.e., only they have souls) and that the entire universe is theirs to use and exploit. All of the worst horrors of Earth’s religions are brought to mind: manifest destiny (the idea that Christians were destined by God to conquer the Americas), the 9/11 attacks, Islamic terror attacks in Europe, the Buddhist mass persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya, Boko Haram’s jihad against girls’ education in Nigeria, environmental exploitation worldwide, the past and present justification of slavery and racism. (I talk about all of this in more detail in the introduction to Exploring The Orville, and there is a chapter dedicated to each one of the above mentioned episodes.)

The Orville’s Philosophical Questions

But the show also raises interesting philosophical questions. If Moclans are a biologically all-male society, in which males can reproduce on their own, then what does it even mean for a biological female to be born within it? We can imagine Moclan females as having features that human females have—like breasts—and see that human actresses have been cast to play them. But biologically, “female” is defined in terms of reproductive role. (Queen bees have no human traits, but we call them female.) So, we are left wondering not only what makes Moclan females biologically female, but how it would even be possible (by definition) for two biological males to reproduce? Could it be that Moclans are only all-male artificially? Maybe all females are changed into biological males at birth and reproduction among Moclans only happens thanks to advances in technology. (Catherine Nolan explores these questions in her chapter.)

One of the most memorable relationships in the series is between Dr. Clare Finn and Isaac, the android from Kaylon. Because he is an android, one genuinely wonders whether he can love Dr. Finn—or, even, whether Finn can truly love him. Unlike Data from Star Trek: TNG who only professes to not feel emotions, Isaac professes to have no feeling at all; he says he is not conscious. But just like Data, whose behavior often indicates that he does have emotion, might Isaac be wrong about their own internal states? Might Isaac be conscious in the same way humans are without knowing it?

If not, perhaps we limit too strictly what it means to be conscious. Not to bring bees into it again, but… We often think that humans are the only animal capable of using language, but bees do a dance in their hive that can indicate the location of nectar to their fellow bees far more accurately than any piece of human language. (And this is not the only kind of communicative dance they do.[2]) Might it be more accurate to say humans are the only ones that use our type of language, but that there are also other types of language? In the same way, even if Isaac isn’t conscious in the same way humans are, might we say he has a different type of consciousness? And if so, should we say the same for robots that we have, or at least one day will, develop? (Mimi Marinucci addresses these issues in her chapter.)

The romantic relationship that frames the series is between Capt. Ed Mercer and his first officer, Commander Kelly Greyson. She is his ex-wife because she cheated on him with an alien named Darulio, but she later helps Ed get command of The Orville (by pulling some strings). Later, we find out that she may have only cheated on Ed because members of Darulio’s race sometimes emits a pheromone that makes them sexually irresistible. Ed and Kelly’s relationship fuels a number of great comedic moments, but also another philosophical question addressed in the book; is nepotism—people getting jobs based on connections or relationships instead of qualifications—always bad? Turns out this is common in the world of The Orville, but everyone seems to just look the other way. (Joe Slater addresses these issues in his chapter.)

And what about Darulio’s pheromone? The crew seems to just look the other way when Darulio seduces Kelly (again), and then Ed, and even uses his pheromone to end a war. But isn’t the pheromone a bit like a date rape drug? If so, why was the crew so nonchalant about its use? (My co-editor Mike Berry addresses these questions, along with those the situation raises about what it means to have free will.)

And then there is the “sophomoric” humor that Ed and Kelly’s relationship lends itself to—along with the humor throughout the series. Is there really a difference between highbrow and lowbrow comedy, and should we really favor the former over the latter? And what does that tell us about how we should enjoy The Orville. (Leigh Rich and Christopher Innes tackle the humor of the series in their chapters.)

This is just a sample; I’ve only tried to give a sense of the kinds of ways that The Orville does philosophy and the kinds of things you will find in the book. But another recent book of mine, on an entirely different series—by another comedy writer Charlie Brooker—takes a similar approach. Next issue, I’ll talk about how the dystopian Black Mirror does philosophy and compare it to The Orville.


[1] Nodelman, Perry. “The Cognitive Estrangement of Darko Suvin,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 5, no. 4, January 1981: 24-27, https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.0.1851.

[2] Grad, Phillip “How Do Bees Communicate? They Dance Bee Dances!” Big Island Bees, 19 May 2010. https://bigislandbees.com/blogs/bee-blog/14137357-bee-dances

~

Bio:

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016), and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Pop Culture as Philosophy (forthcoming)Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections (2019), and Exploring The Orville: Essays on Seth MacFarlane’s Space Adventure (2021). (About the latter, Seth MacFarlane himself said it is “a must read for any Orville fan.”) He also maintains two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take) and is currently in talks to do another project for The Great Courses (aka Wondrium).

Should Murder Be Legalized?

by Carlton Herzog

INTELLIGENCE SQUARED DEBATE, August 21, 2064

QUESTION: SHOULD MURDER BE LEGALIZED?

Arguing for the motion, Carlton Herzog, Professor Emeritus, Miskatonic Institute for Social Philosophy.

Arguing against the motion, Cardinal Clarence Dowd, Vatican Institute for Social Justice.

Moderator: “Gentlemen, please proceed with your opening statements.”

Professor Herzog: “Black’s Law Dictionary defines murder as the unlawful killing of one person by another. One must infer from such a definition that prohibitions against killing are situational rather than absolute. Voltaire famously said, ‘all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.’”  

“Voltaire implied that humans have been hardwired to embrace mass killing. To confirm that truth, one need only follow the Darwinian vapor trails streaming behind the brutal blood-soaked killing fields of modern warfare to the penumbral days of our ruthless, often cannibalistic, ancestors.”

Cardinal Dowd: “All life is God given and therefore sacred. To deny that truth is to condemn mankind to a life of butchery and madness.”

Professor Herzog: “The prohibition against murder rests on the legal fiction that killing is wrong. That fiction does not enjoy the same inviolable status as physical constants, such as the force of gravity and the speed of light.”

“We live in a nation where the national pastime is mass murder. Does my venerable adversary forget that the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, firebombed Dresden, and carpet-bombed North Vietnamese civilians? If life be sacred, then how does he explain half a million souls dying in the American Civil War, fifteen million in World War I, and another fifty million in World War II. Let us not forget the Rwandan and Serbian genocides, the two Iraq wars, and the Syrian civil war.  Killing is as American as apple pie whether it be by school shooters, gang members, abortion clinics, or Kevorkians. Killing is baked into American DNA.”

Cardinal Dowd: “Our debate tonight focuses on the legalization of murder by private citizens, and not the justifications or lack thereof for armed conflict. To grant all your citizens the right to use deadly force for good reason or no reason flies in the face of common sense. Look no further than Chicago’s inner city with its poverty and gang violence to see the fruits of unrestrained lethal behavior. The area has fragmented into warring tribes trapped in a never-ending cycle of retribution.”

Professor Herzog: “Then what of MAD, or mutually assured destruction, employed by nuclear states. The fear of an equally devastating retaliation from the target has kept the nuclear peace for 75 years. The desire to kill one’s enemies is balanced by the fear of being killed in kind. Therefore, the practical benefit of a homicidal society would be a massive reduction in military spending. Only a nation of suicidal fools would dare attack America.”

Cardinal Dowd: “Legalized murder cheapens human life, reduces people to things, and insults God.”

Professor Herzog: “When potential victims can sidestep a police investigation and a lengthy legal process to mete out speedy justice, potential criminals have a powerful incentive not to offend. Further, the assertion that God is offended by killing is palpably absurd.  The Abrahamic God was more than willing to eradicate all of humanity with the Flood, the righteous and the wicked alike, including children. In Revelations, He promises to do the same with fire. In between those two divine apocalypses, lies the rampages of God’s genocidal bagmen Joshua and Moses. Their conversion methodology relied heavily on the mass extermination of entire populations including their domesticated animals. It is that same hideous morality that informed the butchery of the Islamic conquest, the Mongol Invasion, the Mayan death cult, and ultimately the Soviet gulags.”

Cardinal Dowd: “I commend the Professor on his artful logic. But it is insensitive to the essential dignity of man as a creature fashioned in the image of a loving God. To be sure, the fragile clay of human nature lends itself to perversions of the most heinous kind. Yet, it also produces, if not murdered in its sleep, the most beautiful and profound things.  It is as, the great Abraham Lincoln once said, we must cultivate “the angels of our better nature” and not be led astray by our inner devils.”

Professor Herzog: “when I look in the mirror, or at another man, I do not see the angelic. Instead, I see the stamp of an irrevocable expiration date. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth, life is an exercise in futility, a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot who struts and frets upon the stage and is seen and heard no more.” 

“If that nihilistic arc seems extreme and inhumane, then it would be well to consider that at bottom man is 90% water and two dollars-worth of drug store chemicals. Those chemicals combine to produce cells, 90% of which belong to non-human organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Indeed, when the ontological drill bores deeper, it finds that human existence is a haphazard temporary organization of molecules. In the grand scheme of things, one human killing another is merely the shifting of electrons from a coherent phase state to one more chaotic and open-ended. To borrow from Empedocles, ‘Already have [we] been a boy and a girl. A bush and a bird, and a silent fish in the sea.’”

“Let us give Darwin his due. Genetically, our closest common ancestor is the murderous, sometimes cannibalistic chimpanzee. That we are not a consistently reasoning animal, that our heads contain dark animal impulses, and that our brains are imperfect instruments should come as no surprise. The shadow of our checkered evolutionary past often falls and elongates over our so-called civilized lives. For despite our trousers and phones, we remain beasts of the dark woods and caves.  The hairy and elongated canines may have shrunk, the screeches and ululations may have given over to language, and ballistic fecal matter may be a thing of the past, but we remain intimately tied by our very chromosomes to those voiceless souls we cage and medically exploit.  We treat them as meaningless nobodies. What then is the great truth that elevates our worth over theirs other than the strong dominate and exploit the weak?”

Cardinal Dowd: “I cannot share your dim view of life as an exercise in futility.  Even if one accepts the rather demoralizing truth of evolution, one can marvel at how far we have come from the simple single-celled organisms that floated in the primordial sea. We became fish, and those fish grew legs and walked on land, and later evolved into primates going on all fours. Then we walked upright and looked to the horizon of our possibilities. Now we have walked on the moon and Mars. I submit that those are far from nothing. They are everything.”

Professor Herzog: “At the most fundamental level, killing is the driver of evolution, helping to eliminate suspect adaptations from the gene pool. With the advent of agricultural abundance and medical technology, humans in the more advanced nations have grown soft. The civilized demographic is addicted to passive entertainment. We have become nations of lookers, watchers, gawkers, and spectators whose life experiences are vicarious thrills obtained through digital feeds. Compounding the matter is the infantilizing effects of intrusive paternalistic governments that insist on protecting the citizenry from itself.”

“Lacking any real existential challenges, our so-called civilized man is devolving into a bipedal jellyfish, lacking the grit and spine of his hardier ancestors. In short, civilized man has no skin in the game of his own existence. He has become a vain decadent thing with an undeserved sense of entitlement. It is that lack of any real humility and perspective that accounts for his wanton disregard for the environment and contempt for nature.”

“Legalizing murder vaccinates the public against the disease of apathy and self-satisfaction. Man’s greatest achievements have occurred when the risks were greatest, and the outcomes were uncertain. To legalize murder is repurpose lethal killing into a focused driver of human evolution and enduring achievement. Survival is that much sweeter when it is earned by dint of our evolved cunning and intelligence, rather than a guaranteed government hand-out.”

Cardinal Dowd: “I am sad that you have such little regard for your own kind. It must truly horrible to be a self-loathing human. I must wonder what childhood trauma caused such a twist in your personality.”

Professor Herzog: “Ad hominem attacks on me, couched in pseudo psychology cannot hide the truth that legalizing murder would be an economic boon.  First, it would relieve the overburdened criminal justice system of investigating capitol cases and housing offenders for life while their appeals drag on for decades. Second, a state licensed and taxed murder for hire industry would contribute enormously to government coffers. Third, the legalization of murder would spawn any number of new businesses:  murder insurance, corpse disposal, murder protection academies, and deadly arts academies. Finally, the dagger, explosives, gun and poison industries would enjoy a long-awaited rebirth.”

Cardinal Dowd: “Your argument makes as much sense as sawing the portion of tree limb between where you are sitting and the trunk.  What do you suppose will happen when corporate heads, doctors, and lawyers wind up at the end of a loaded gun barrel? The day-to-day operation of society would ground to a halt without their coordinating and essential influences. What is to stop a would-be murderer from strolling into an operating room and executing the entire team during an operation?  Or a disgruntled air traveler from stabbing a pilot, an irate felon from strangling a judge?  If murder be legal, then it makes little sense to outlaw any lesser offense.  The nominal benefits flowing from the increased commercial traffic would be more than offset by the rampant chaos. You seem to forget that group cohesion. and other eusocial behaviors are the driving force behind the rise of civilization. If man had opted for killing members of his group, there would have been no one to hunt or gather food, or care for children. Cooperation, the very glue of civilization, would cease to hold things together.”

“I cannot accept the premise that no natural constraints on lethal conduct exist outside man made law. Most mammals operate in groups, from wolves to whales, elephants to chimpanzees.  Rarely, if ever do members of the same animal group murder one another, however ferocious their interpersonal combat for dominance make take. Foraging and hunting are a collaborative effort. If we accept as true your premise that we live in coldly indifferent and random universe, then carving out a modicum of certainty in human affairs is paramount to our personal and collective sanity. If individuals can only feel secure when they sleep with one eye open, pistol in hand, then paranoia and schizophrenia will be the hallmarks of the human condition.”

Professor Herzog: “In an ideal world, there would be no need to legalize murder. But man is still very much a prisoner of his aggressive animality. Until his emotional architecture attains equilibrium with his intellect, he must find a way to redirect his inescapable lethal impulses along more constructive lines. In his Civilization and its Discontents, Doctor Freud observed that laws forbidding man’s primitive desire to kill give rise to discontent and mental illness. Though shackled, such desires do not evaporate but manifest in the more accepted practice of war. To legalize murder is to offer society an alternative to global conflict and eventual extinction.”

“The Cardinal wrongly assumes this is a moral issue in an amoral world.  Rather it is the application of Trolley Problem Logic where priority is given to the needs of the many over the needs of the one or the few. It is the same social arithmetic that decides who gets in the lifeboat first, who goes to war and who stays behind.”

Moderator: “That concludes our debate. Those who want murder legalized should press one on their pads, those who do not press two.”

~

Bio:

Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government. This is his fourth appearance in Sci Phi Journal.

Until The Bubble Pops

by Robert L. Jones III

On Wednesdays I clean the bathroom. Such is the routine nature of this task that it compresses my awareness of time. Whenever I begin, I feel as if I just finished, and if life is a grammatical sentence, mine seems to lack punctuation. My name is Norman Brinster. It’s Wednesday, so I’m cleaning the bathroom. I’m cleaning the bathroom, so it must be Wednesday.

I pour the cleanser into the toilet and begin brushing. I must have used too much, because the surface of the water foams excessively as I brush. The foam is fascinating, a microcosm of unknown significance. I’m intrigued by how the bubbles form, converge, and pop. It’s all so ephemeral. I glance at my watch.

#

The brush is no longer in my hand, and I’m no longer in the bathroom. This strikes me as odd once I realize it. I’m somewhere unfamiliar, but where I am paradoxically has a familiar feel to it. Somehow, I know this environment is not a physical structure or place. I’ve been here all the time, but now I can see it.

I’m inside what looks like a sphere whose boundary is a bit out of focus. It’s dark in here, but I can see the boundary in all directions. I drift toward it. Where is the light coming from? As I approach the boundary, I can see that it’s made up of smaller spheres. I’m in a sphere of spheres. They seemed out of focus from farther away because they’re pulsating, which leaves them slightly out of round at any point in time. I just said “time” again. I wonder if time matters in here.

My watch is not around my wrist, and the spheres appear unstable. Their surfaces are opaque in some areas and translucent in others. Small spots become transparent, and the patterns are constantly shifting. What are these spheres? I examine one more closely, and I’m inside it.

I have ideals. People are honest because they should be honest. Karla Farmington is going to be my girlfriend, but she doesn’t know that yet. We’ll get married, take long road trips, and sleep in motels. We’ll visit scenic wonders like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Redwoods, and Crater Lake. I have the ability to be a great athlete, and I’ll win a gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. Hard work pays off.    

This sphere is mine, or it was. Suddenly, I’m back outside, back at the center, and looking at the curved, poorly focused boundary. Along with the sphere I’ve just examined, I see the other spheres. They’re all mine, and this is my sphere of spheres. That’s right: mine. Relaxed and curious, I drift back and try another.

People aren’t always honest. I’m not fast enough to be a world class sprinter. I’m going to be a great musician instead. Mary Richardson will be my wife, and we’ll be in a band together. We’ll tour the country in a van and play gigs to appreciative audiences. Our home will be a cabin in the woods, and we’ll own lots of land.

I’m back at the center, and this is a bit disorienting. It looks like I’d better try another sphere.

Life can be difficult. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, but everything works out in the end. Everyone is at least a little dishonest whether they know it or not. I’m brilliant. I’m going to be an elite scientist, and I’ll cure cancer. I’ll win the Nobel Prize. My name and my picture will be all over the world. I don’t know who my wife will be, but she’ll look like an actress or a supermodel. Money won’t be a problem. With her career and mine, we’ll have plenty of that, and our home will have a great view of the mountains.

Here I am, at the center again, and this is frustrating. People can’t be trusted until they prove themselves trustworthy. Things don’t always work out, at least not the way I planned. I’ve lost a few jobs for unjust reasons, but the job I have is a pretty good one. Very few people know or care who I am. Sometimes, the game is rigged. It takes discretion and tact to play it. I’m married to Naomi Brinster, and she has to work, too. We live in an apartment. I may not be able to provide her with everything I’d like to, but she’ll never have to clean the bathroom. Should I try one more sphere?

No, that’s enough. I need to see more, but I don’t need to see more of this. I’ve spent too much of my life scheming on the fickle, shifting crust of reality. What I thought I knew turned out to be shine and tarnish. The underlying substance is here, somewhere in the substratum. My name is Norman Brinster, and on Wednesdays I clean the bathroom. There must be more. Tired of putting off the inevitable, I feel a sense of outward acceleration, and the boundary rushes past me.

#

Going out was coming in, for I’ve moved into a much larger metaphysical space. I’m in a greater sphere of spheres. I’ve deduced this from the curvature of its margin, but this margin extends in all directions until I can no longer see it. As one can’t see the opposite shore of an ocean, I can’t see the opposite side of the sphere. I’m near its periphery.

Examining the constituent spheres, I recognize mine even though I’ve never seen it from this perspective. The rest are not mine. They remind me of the bubbles in my toilet, and new ones form as others pop. There are so many. They are too numerous, and I can’t begin to count them all. Within this context, I’m overwhelmed.

Who am I? My name is Norman Brinster, but what does that mean? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does. I continue to relax and drift. I still don’t know where the light is coming from, and I’m drifting away from the spheres. Is it Wednesday in here?

#

The ephemeral shore is no longer visible. I turn to look in the other direction, and there it is. This sphere is larger than the others. I believe it’s at the center of the great sphere of spheres. It’s all I can see in the void through which I drift. It doesn’t pulsate. It’s completely transparent, but I can’t see inside because of the intensity of its light.

#

Now I know the interpretation of the spheres.

#

The central sphere is perfect and stable. This is reality regardless of how accurately anyone perceives it. I suspect this perspective encompasses those of all the other spheres, so it must see and understand everything.

The lesser sphere of spheres is my personal sub-reality. This is the lens through which I perceive the universe, and it was formed from perception, desire, experience, and limited understanding. It includes the various sub-realities I’ve inhabited throughout my life. The sub-realities of my past inform my sub-reality in the present.  

The greater sphere of spheres is composed of the sub-realities of everyone living on this planet. The ones I saw forming were those of people being born while the ones that popped were those of people who were dying. That the sub-realities are distinct and separate means they aren’t the same. Everyone sees things differently to one degree or another.

We are destroying the planet. The planet is going through cycles as it always has. One political solution is best, but so is a different political solution. You can’t legislate morality. Yes, you can. In fact, you must. Life is good. Life is miserable. Things are getting better. No, they’re getting worse. We were created for a reason, and we go on living after we die. We are the products of random evolution. We die and rot, and that’s the end of it.

Our sub-realities aren’t the same, but there must be at least some overlap. Otherwise, we would be unable to communicate. Everyone has his or her sub-reality. I left mine back in the bathroom, speaking of which. . .

#

I glance at my watch. The brush is in my hand, and no time has elapsed. I flush the toilet. Life runs its course until the bubble pops.

#

I took a philosophy course when I was in college, and we argued about determinism and free will. Some of us came down on the side of free will because we liked the idea that it’s entirely up to us. Others who thought they understood quantum physics and variational principles favored the deterministic nature of time, and they said what’s going to happen has already happened. Then we quibbled about randomness and teleology. Looking back, I think both sides were right, which made both sides wrong — or partly right and partly wrong.

How many events in anyone’s life seem random in real time and contrived in retrospect? All of this could make logical sense if there’s a personality outside of time, some intelligence that bends every decision, every action, toward a mysterious, inexorable conclusion. Okay, I’ll go with that.

If this is true, the script has been written, but that’s okay with me as long as it’s a good script. We follow it by the choices we make. That leaves us free to fulfill what’s going to happen, and that’s a horrifying relief.

#

Now I can finish cleaning the bathroom.

~

Bio:

Robert holds a Ph. D. in Molecular Biology, and is currently Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College in southwestern Missouri, USA. Since his teenage years, he has had an interest in science fiction, especially stories with high concepts and metaphysical themes. His influences include G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Jack Finney, and Ted Chiang. 

The Rise And Fall Of Collective Consciousness

by Anthony Lechner

An Annotated Bibliography

The Antiquity of God Particles by Rene Pliggins

In this dry, yet fascinating history of what the ancients called mass particles or material existence (what we understand as monada, they crudely called matter), Pliggens explores a variety of competing theories that attempt to explain the nature of being. The 20th through 21st centuries developed a model of understanding that explored a variety of forces or fields consisting of electromagnetism, gravitation, strong interactions, weak interactions, and even a field where the rapid decaying of energy created material particles. Though it seems obvious why now, they were never able to unite all of these theories into one functional theory, I surmise the main problem with the ancients’ lack of understanding regarding the nature of existence rests in their myopic view of reality. Rather than exploring the internal structure and causation of consciousness, they were exploring the external effects of consciousness. It is like a child being distracted by pretty much anything within their field of vision. They focus on the phenomena rather than the internal components of what makes observation possible. Because they didn’t understand consciousness, they reduced it to brain chemistry without recourse to the common understanding of interdimensional ontology that is known today. Yet, the experimentations the ancients did with subatomic structures opened the door to the discovery of quark decimals.

The Discovery of QD: Quark Decimals by Stephany Critus

In this historical analysis, Critus argues that the discovery of quark decimals single-handedly started the movement of social justice. I admit, it is difficult to think of a conception of reality where QDs are not the starting point. QDs started the process of collective consciousness. QDs provided evidence that the universe continuously folds and unfolds itself endlessly. Like the notion of pi being a number whose decimal place is non repeating and infinite, the existence of consciousness is infinite (in both parts and whole). Although at this point in history, the understanding of monada was half a millennium away from being discovered, the implications of QDs in the creation of synthetic half protons is undeniable. After all, it was the union of these conscious particles that led to the half proton. To think there was a time that people believed in some sort of unconscious substance is absurd. Unconscious is the wrong term here, more like non-conscious. They actually believed consciousness was a myth. How is a civilization supposed to overcome the plight of pains, poverty, sickness, narcissism, and all the other long, lost and forgotten causes of everything wrong with society by believing that consciousness is a myth? It is a wonder how much sooner science would have progressed if ancient scientists weren’t so opposed to reality being consciousness itself. I conjecture the problem was within what they called the uncertainty principle. Ancient scientists failed to see commonality within various functions. They were too obsessed with difference to fully grasp the similarities within wavefunctions. There were not two non-conscious entities, but rather entities bonded through consciousness. There is no such thing as without. There is only within.  

The Modernization of Synthetic Half Protons by Sagorny Simone

Simone’s history of this time period is refreshing. While it is hard to believe there was once a time of violence, conflict, and misunderstanding, Simone shows the reader how the transformation, really the evolution, occurred. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to live in the first generation of the synthetic half proton users. To instantly feel the consciousness of not only the whole collective existence of humanity, but more specifically those in your immediate vicinity, especially in a time where pain, poverty, and persecution existed. These generations cured so many social injustices. It is one thing to speculate about the right way to live, and quite another to fully experience the consciousness of others and their lifeworld. While there was resistance at first to the mandates regarding synthetic half protons, the benefits outweighed the fear of losing one’s self. In fact, just the opposite happened. Individuality was heightened because there were no more marginalized people. Each life was experienced and celebrated. Personal freedom and growth needs the collective in order to properly come into fruition. Too much of history is shadowed by and rooted in fear. It wasn’t until all members of society installed the synthetic half protons that the concept of ethics became a historical triviality. It was the equivalent of having what the ancient’s called a divine mind. This is what they should have called the god particle, even though it was created by the work of humanity.

Monada and Interdimensional Ontology by Gottfried von Newton

Over 1,000 years (that’s over 40 generations) of collective consciousness passed by before the work of GVN brought forth the monada and undeniable existence of interdimensional beings. Even as a first-year secondary student, I am able to grasp what GVN called the horizon of monada. I perceive it more as a silent presence. The monada is the link between the other dimension, and I am almost there. It is consciousness itself, as far as I can interpret. GVN talks about the seeing. I’ve always imagined it is like seeing a big eyeball in the sky watching you, but I know that is not the case. And though I can perceive what my elders have experienced, I have not experienced it myself. I speculate there are levels of the synthetic protons, but I am not sure if they are activated by thoughts, biological age, or other worldly experiences. The monada is the link to the interdimensional being that is conscious of our existence – or perhaps created our existence. (This connects to Critus’ thesis that there are an infinite number of worlds.) When we become aware of the interdimensional existence, we become part of the unfolding, which is discussed in the last book I read for this project.

The Unfolding of Cosmos Generating: What It Means to Be Created by Ching Dao 

While the concept of a cosmic deity has existed since time immemorial, Dao became one. Dao was the first to create their own universe. At least the first human to do such. Dao argues that monada are more like units of consciousness that can be shaped or molded at will. The trick is in the unfolding—the way in which monada transverse through dimensions. The monada that make up our reality are the same monada from the interdimensional, which are the same monada Dao used to create a new universe. Creation is transformation, the union of opposites. Dao writes there is no precise location where left turns into right, large into small, or up into down. In like manner, there is no precision between the collective and the individual. From the collective we rise, and toward the individual we fall, only to rise again. The monada bind the opposing forces of consciousness. There is no existence without perception, and because of this truth, Dao affirms that each monada is capable of creating its own universe. Dao managed to unfold a billion years of creation from only 60 years of his own monada. The destiny of being created (being transformed) is to become the creator. I feel better equipped, after reading this book, to transform my monada into my own personal universe and watch it unfold.

~

Bio:

Anthony Lechner lives in Idaho, USA. He is a special education teacher and philosophy instructor.

Two Variations On Default Salvation

by Andy Dibble

Suppose your theology of salvation is that only those who deny Christ are damned. Everyone else is saved by default. This is an attractive view. Children and others unable to grasp doctrine are saved. Those who live without opportunity to accept Jesus as their savior are saved as well. The damned are damned, on some level, because they choose to be. God wisely grants them autonomy.

This complicates Original Sin, but there is a more pressing problem: assuming this theology, why did Jesus have a ministry?

#

I. Default Salvation Beginning with Creation

In the beginning was just the Father–my Father–and me. Heaven was just this lonesome twosomeness. He and I eternally begotten from Him. Succession in eternity is strange, but that is how it was. The angels came later. Creation came later still, and with it the Spirit, once there was a Creation to work within.

As long as there were humans, Creation has surged into Heaven: people die, and they end up here. I can’t blame them. It’s just the natural progression of their lives and after-lives. They would have lived forever in Eden–marvelous, almost divine–but the Serpent came and led them astray. He knew Father, knew me, better than I like to admit. He knew that Father would put them out, and they would end up in Heaven instead. He knew the human migration to Heaven would irk me.

The Fall changed much: Eden was bountiful. Once outside Eden, they had to till the ground. Children would have arisen painlessly in Eden, but outside pregnancy is like a disease. Outside there is disease. Outside their lives are brutish, short, and stunted.

But not their after-lives. Here they just go on and on. The trespass in Eden gave them a troubling handful of decades, but no more. For Father exalts them just because they have not denied me. What kind of reason is that? On earth, they did not even know me.

And that is why Heaven is neither a lonesome or a twosome place any longer. It’s infested (or so I tell myself in the shadow of my heart). I can hardly walk without stumbling over their prostrate bodies. They want to worship me, to serve me, to bask in my presence. The longer they stay, the more entitled they presume themselves to be! It is hard to host billions for billions of years.

No, for eternity.

I just want to be alone, alone with myself, alone with Father. 

Heaven is vast, wider and deeper than the sphere to which the stars are fixed. And if, somehow, souls filled Heaven to its silver rim, Father would make it swell. But even if I tread to the Outer Dark or to the Throne of Heaven where no created thing may pass, I can still feel them yearning for me. Omniscience doesn’t have an off-switch.

This is the end and goal of Creation? It is not the kind of fellowship I crave.

I look down at the few rude blasphemers–certain worshipers of Baal, some geometers and contemplatives, a few peripatetics of the hanging gardens–that struck upon my name in prophecy and dismissed what they had heard. Some are proud, others piteous, as they squander their mortal years or circle the scalding sands of Hell. I know deep down they deserve damnation, even crave it. But still I watch them like a human voyeur. They are few and therefore precious. They have accomplished something I could never do.

Shouldn’t those exalted be few and precious, souls deserving of Heaven?

But how to achieve this? I cannot overrule Father. I cannot correct Him. This presumption of salvation has a place in His Plan.

But I could walk upon the earth and divide the wheat from the chaff by my own preaching. Who will I go among? The Jews, the Chosen People. Their faithfulness ought to be tested. But not them only. I will spread my message to the nations and across the ages. Let all humanity be tested!

I was born. I grew, prospered, preached. But I did not speak plainly. I spoke in parables, bamboozling tripe. I spoke of bridesmaids, wicked servants, sowers, and mustard seeds. So that as many as possible could be exposed to my vagaries, and only a few receive my meaning with gladness, I proclaimed, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” but, as Mark and Luke record, I told my disciples in secret: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything comes in parables so that they may always see but never perceive, and always hear but never understand. Otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”

#

II. Default Salvation Beginning with the Cross

Father and His majesty are wonderful, but fellowship with humans–real fellowship, fellowship they can reciprocate–would be more wonderful still.

Time and time again, I’ve seen them try to pick themselves up, and some have. Some were good, better than I thought a sinful human could be in one brief life. But no matter how upright these few stood, no matter how I marveled upon their grit, they still fell short (for all fall short of the glory of God). The suffering of each soul in Hell pains me, however just their lot might be, but the suffering of these upright few pains me most of all.

Some were saved: Isaiah when the burning coal touched his lips, Elijah when he rode to heaven in a whirlwind and a flaming chariot, and Moses wicked up from the grave. But there isn’t a woman among them, and they’re a stodgy lot. Being the mouthpiece of God leaves a person little room to be much of himself. I want the company of those men and women toiling below that have managed something great and good by their own will and not by the indwelling of God only.

What could I do? The expiation of sin requires sacrifice, but no dove or bull will wipe away the sin of a race. If by some grand transubstantiation the oceans became blood and the planets an altar, that would not be enough. It would not be vast enough. It would not be pure enough.

But I am vast enough, pure enough. I am great enough for it. I can walk the earth. I can reconcile Creation to Heaven and save the human race.

Humbly, I was born, and I learned how warm a body can be. I spread my message. I preached with zeal and laid my hands upon them and saved them by their faith. There were many, and I loved them, loved them all. And so I told my disciples as Matthew records: “This is why I speak to them in parables, ‘though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.'”

My quotation was from Isaiah. I invoked him to demonstrate the hard-heartedness of the people. But I could pierce their hearts of stone. If I spoke dry theology or fiery exhortation, I would only confuse or provoke them. But a story could stir their faith, a story thrown beside life, a parable.

I inspired many, and they loved me as I loved them. But at last the world overcame me, as it overcomes all bodies. I was beaten, sentenced, and hung upon a cross. They killed me, but really the Serpent killed me. He broke a pact sealed at the moment of creation: only those subject to sin are subject to death. But I am not subject to sin. My blood did what sanguine oceans and planetary altars could not.

With my blood the world was saved. Those great men and women were saved, the children and infants too young to know me, the multitudes that never had a chance. All are saved. With my blood, it is only those that deny me that fall away. Father lets them be.

I commissioned my disciples to preach to the nations, and I commissioned the next generation to preach after my disciples are gone. I commissioned all who would take up the mission. I swore I would be with them always, to the end of the age. At last, I ascended, content I had saved as many as could be saved.

But later, in the quiet of my heart, I wondered: Wouldn’t it have been better for me to be crucified in secret? Lure the Serpent in, if need be, but commission nothing–no Church, no missionaries, no scripture. Tell no one I am the Messiah. Maybe even conceal my death by silencing everyone involved.

It is ruthless, but whenever my well-meaning followers preach my message, an audience may hear and reject it. Those that hear and accept are better, for they may live Christian lives, but what matters earthly life, the merest sliver of eternity? And even they have the chance to fall away. They may reject me later on.

What rogue angel was it that told Joseph to name me Jesus? Once heard, my name is an infection a person must guard against all their lives.

To pronounce my name is to acknowledge salvation. But my name has an inner meaning, like a parable: to acknowledge that one may, one day, be damned.

In my gallant zeal, I saved many, but I damned many too.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a healthcare IT consultant who believes that play is the highest function of theology. His fiction also appears in Writers of the Future and is forthcoming in Speculative North. You can find him at andydibble.com.

Possible Worlds

by Jack Denning

First conversation

“Well, it’s interesting,” said the first person, a denizen of our universe. “There are certainly aspects of our world that appear to have been ‘designed’ by an intelligent agent. Living creatures, traditionally, were seen this way, for example. But then we discovered how natural selection acts on genetic variation to explain how the diversity of life arose from simpler life forms, and we are confident additional natural laws will be discovered to explain the origin of life itself. The appearance of design, it turns out, is just appearance. Nothing more.”

“That’s not too far from our position,” said the second person, from a different universe. “In our universe, life seems to have been designed as well. In fact, all physical objects appear to have been designed. Every planet is a perfect sphere. Every continent and island on every planet is a perfect square. Every single three-dimensional object in our universe takes the form of one of the five Platonic solids, and all two-dimensional objects take the form of a simple polygon. But like you, we’ve discovered natural laws that explain this. It only appears to have been designed.”

“Yes, yes,” said the third person, an inhabitant of yet a third universe. “It is the same with us. But it is not a simple matter of being complex, or of being arranged according to certain patterns. In our universe, every configuration of objects spells out a coherent sentence. Everywhere you look in our sky, the stars spell a sentence, every collection of molecules twists around to spell something out as well, always in the language of the observer. And as it turns out, nearly all of those sentences are variations of ‘I am the Creator and Designer of the universe! Believe in me!’ But we also have discovered laws of nature that explain this. The universe runs just fine without any supernatural supervision. It just appears to be the product of an intelligent agent organizing things in order to communicate with us.”

The fourth person had grown more and more incredulous as the conversation went on. Finally he spoke: “My universe is almost total chaos. There is hardly any order at all; life and civilization arose from a random and localized order that fell back into disarray when civilization had reached a certain point. There are only a few natural laws that are consistent. Yet even that small amount of structure is enough to convince us that there must be a cosmic designer who constructed it. Yes, the small amount of order is explicable by the few (the very few) natural laws, but who designed the natural laws? Who organized my universe in such a way that matter and energy tends to behave the same way in repeated and repeatable experiences? It seems to me, the more natural laws you have, the more order you have, the more obvious it is that there is a God. Yet you have many more natural laws than we do, and you use them to argue against God. At any rate, as I say, the presence of a single law is sufficient: for how could there be any law at all that we could rely on to continue into the future without an intelligent agent who constructed the universe so that it follows a law in the first place?”

#

Second conversation

Later, they had another discussion. The third person said, “In our universe, the only people who suffer misfortune are those who do not believe in God. This may suggest to a simple mind that there is some cosmic justice being played out, with the sin of unbelief being subject to punishment. But of course, such a scenario is incompatible with the existence of a morally perfect God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ In fact, if such a God did exist, it would be his believers who should be most prone to misfortune, as they would be the only ones with the context in which suffering is redeemable. They would be the only ones who could handle it. An omnibenevolent God would not visit suffering on those for whom that suffering could be nothing but brute, unredeemable horror. Thus, the fact that only unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that only unbelievers would be those who experience suffering. We may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out the possibility of God from the outset.”

“That’s interesting,” said the second person. “In our universe it is only those who believe in God who suffer misfortune. To a simple mind, this might suggest punishment, as you mentioned, but of course a morally perfect God would not punish people for doing what he wanted. But others claim something like what you have, that only the suffering of those who believe in God would be redeemable. But we have rejected this as well: an omnibenevolent God would not single out those who are obeying his commands to suffer for doing so. Does any parent punish his obedient children for their obedience while allowing his disobedient children to get off scot-free? This would be the height of injustice. A perfectly just God is the only kind of God worth worshiping and worthy of the name ‘God.’ The fact that only believers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of a perfectly just God. Like you, we may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out God as a possibility.”

The first person, from our universe, spoke up. “Hmm. For us, it’s different. Both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe. There is no readily apparent reason for this distribution, no universal explanation for it, since the same suffering would have different purposes depending on the theistic proclivities of those who experience it. If a morally perfect God existed, then misfortune would either be exclusively aimed at those who do not believe, as a form of punishment, or at those who do believe, since they are the ones with a ready-made context for it to fit into. The fact that those who believe in God suffer the same misfortunes as those who do not believe convinces us that there is no rhyme or reason to it, and thus no morally perfect, perfectly just God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ Thus, the fact that both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that both believers and unbelievers experience suffering to roughly equal extents. Even though we do not understand precisely how it all works, we know immediately that there is no God involved.”

The person from the fourth universe didn’t say anything. He wasn’t there. They’d asked him to leave.

~

Bio:

Jack Denning is a teacher in Portlandia where he lives with his family and his piano.

Life in the Garden of Captives

by Carlton Herzog

Do you ever feel or suspect that we are being watched? Not you, the individual, but all of us, watched the way Thoreau watched ants. The practice of one social species observing the habits of another is widespread: Fosse watched gorillas, Goodall watched chimps, and Cousteau watched whales and dolphins. Sometimes the watchers interact with their subjects at the interpersonal level, as was the case with Goodall. At others, the watchers are discreet, preferring to observe and record social practices untainted by a human presence.

I believe that somewhere behind the curtain of this reality, at the edge of our world, there are eyes or what passes for eyes studying us as if we were lab rats or zoo animals. Although I am tempted to label them hyperdimensional voyeurs, I recognize that if such creatures exist, they are not watching us to titillate or entertain themselves. No, these are true anthropologists bereft of any emotional connection or bias that might hinder an objective analysis of man.

Would they classify us as homo sapiens, or man the wise? I think not. Given our propensity for short-sighted goals and insatiable appetites for consumption, they would opt for homo myopsis anthropophagos.

I admit that my concerns are redolent of science fiction. I might promptly dismiss them as such had I not been witness to the event that took place in Manhattan in June.

He floated above the city like a leaf on the wind. He wore no costume and sported no cape. He out-sped no bullets, hovered rather than leaped over tall buildings, and did nothing to suggest he could overpower a locomotive. This was no jet-jawed hero dedicated to protecting truth, justice and the American way.

He was rather the quintessence of calm, the very soul of civilized intellectual gentility reclining on an unseen sofa, shoeless, but still in his blue suit and loosened yellow tie. He was less the City’s champion and more its owner and ruler, supernaturally endowed with the power of flight and descended from the upper stratosphere to more closely survey his holdings.

For all his celestial seeming, no Joshua band nor angelic choirs heralded his arrival. And while the news copter captured him on film, he was long gone before the F-35s arrived. Many expected him to call for a meeting with the U.N. General Assembly and deliver an ultimatum to all the nuclear nations to disarm or face annihilation, but that never happened.

He came three times. Once over Times Square; once over Yankee Stadium; once over Central Park. His leaving was as soft and mysterious as his coming. The keenest minds could not explain him, for he fit no pre-existing paradigm of miracle or mystery. He was and still is the ultimate unknowable.

My one and only sighting occurred across from Central Park. I was walking up Eighth Avenue toward the Museum of Natural History. It was the opening day for the Extreme Creatures Exhibit, an eclectic collection devoted to the rare, the odd, and the downright strange. Little did I know I was about to see something that would make everything in that exhibit pall by comparison.

I had just crossed Columbus Circle and was passing the Trump Towers when I heard a commotion behind me. As I looked back, I could see crowds of people looking and pointing up. So, I looked where they were looking. I saw a helicopter dogging an object approximately 50 feet in front of it. I had the presence of mind to sit down on the Trump Steps and Apple the news feed.

The helicopter’s telephoto lens sent back high-resolution images. The Floater looked about fifty. He had thick black hair flecked with grey. He looked like a smiling catalog model. I wondered if that smile were a sardonic smirk or the felicitous contentment of inner peace.

The chase lasted another five minutes after which the Floater began a slow steep vertical climb. The helicopter was not designed for such a maneuver and broke off the pursuit.

Although everyone saw the same live stream, not everyone saw the same thing. Men saw a man. Women saw a woman. The old saw an elderly person. Adolescents saw an adolescent, children a child. Whites saw a white, blacks a black, and Latinos a Latino.

Psychologists designate such subjective perception as the Rashomon Effect where observers give different accounts of the same event as a result of their pre-existing biases.

Everyone did agree on the basic color scheme of a blue outfit, yellow accent piece, and no shoes. But as to the precise sort of clothes worn what was seen varied with the observer. Professionals like myself saw a man in suit, whereas working class men saw a man in work clothes and a red bandanna.

One thing is crystal clear: he wanted to be seen. If his intent in flying over Manhattan were to make him the center of the world’s attention, then he succeeded. The only thing that could possibly outdo him would be the Second Coming.

The President held a televised news conference and invited the floater to visit the White House. Not to be outdone, the British Prime Minister, the Pope, and the Russian President also extended invitations for visits to their respective offices.

The FAA commissioned a special study to ascertain what air navigation rules apply to individuals unaided by aircraft or other gravity-defying devices performing aerial overflights of the domestic United States. NORAD devised a rapid response plan to interdict such flights should it be determined they posed a terrorist threat. The United Nations purchased a helicopter outfitted with special equipment so that should the floater reappear its official floater ambassador could make aerial contact. The Vatican did the same.

Whatever the Floater truly was, whatever he intended, one thing was clear–he had a profound impact on American culture that eventually spread far and wide throughout the globe. Oceans polluted with oil and plastic, runaway climate change, increasing nuclear tensions, skittish economies, famine, poverty, plagues and war might bedevil and divide the planet, but when it came to the Floater everyone from Compton to Timbuktu agreed that it was a being of consequence.

Theories abounded as to who the Floater was and what the Floater’s appearance signified. People’s opinion of the President’s performance or the state of the nation mattered less than what they thought of the Floater. Christian groups saw it as the End of Days but couldn’t agree as to the Floater’s identity. But whether the Floater was God, the Devil, Jesus, or the Anti-Christ, one thing was certain: attendance and tithes were at an all-time high. The national consensus was that God or his representative, an angel perhaps, though no one could agree as to which–Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and in the case of the Mormons–Moroni–had shown up, dressed smartly, and refrained from hurling fire.

New religions sprang up. There was the First Floatarian Church.  Its central tenet was that the Floater symbolized our need to attain inner peace and rise above our problems. That church raised money by selling the air of peace supposedly drawn and bottled during the time the Floater visited Manhattan.

Then there were the Levitarians who believed that the floater’s message was that man needed to transcend his physical limitations and should start with levitation, along with walking on hot coals and snake juggling. Many a Pentecostal and fakir gravitated to the Levitarian movement. Many more ended up in the nation’s emergency rooms.

New businesses sprang up seeking to capitalize on the cult of personality surrounding the mysterious Floater. Floater impersonators suspended by wires were all the rage in Central Park. Floater imposters drifted over city with the aid of transparent balloons.

In Jackson, New Jersey, the Cohen brothers built a theme park complete with hover cars, balloon rides, jet packs, paragliding, parasailing, and parachuting. People took to the skies in record numbers either to catch a glimpse of the Floater or to emulate it, in some small fashion. Theme Parks appeared in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Branson. The Debtor Nation had become the Aerial Nation, and many were the richer for it.

The Floater had his doubters. Skeptics saw the Floater as part of an elaborate publicity stunt. They suggested that the Floater was the product of some new holographic technology. Sooner or later someone would claim responsibility and the feeding frenzy for the new imaging system would begin. Fringe groups, some sane, some lunatic, claimed that the Floater was actually a humanoid alien who utilized an anti-gravity device.

Most scientists agreed that was nothing more than a mass hallucination. They asserted that something like this happened one time before at Fatima, Portugal, when thousands claimed the Sun looked as if it were about to strike the Earth. To support that view they pointed to the frequency and ubiquity of UFO sightings and abduction claims–none of which is supported by hard evidence. They also noted that the name floater is given to the spots that appear to those with visions disorders, such as severe myopia, astigmatisms and glaucoma.

I find those characterizations to be an amalgam of the amusing, the ironic, and the naive. To wit, animals in captivity are routinely given cognitive challenges to alleviate boredom, sharpen their minds, and promote positive intra-species behavior. Zoo handlers hang meat from zip lines for cougars, giant rolling hay feed balls for bison, and puzzle boxes for chimpanzees.

Unless one is convinced that man is the apex of creation, one might suspect that many an alleged extraterrestrial or supernatural encounter was a form of primate cognitive enrichment. If a being existed in the fourth dimension, then we here with the litany of physical limitations that beset us, might be perceived as being in captivity.

Thus, the history of religion may be more than just barbarian chronicle and myth. It may be the hand of our self-styled keepers trying to raise our consciousness beyond the limits of our small minds and frail bodies.

~

Bio:

Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government. This is his third appearance in Sci Phi Journal.

Free Will, or the Sriendi Vastar Method

by E. E. King

In 2065, years before I was born, Sriendi Vastar came to our town. You have all heard of him, a man small of stature but large of bearing, of Germanic descent with a shock of white-blond hair and cold, turquoise eyes. He had wandered east and studied Hindu philosophy, Tibetan wisdom, and Gypsy lore. He had drifted west and learned European folk remedies, Yankee practicality, and New World innovation.

He’d invented the Sriendi Vastar method of palmistry, infallible for seeing the past and predicting the future. Before him palmistry had only been a parlor trick, a paltry guess at the meaning of indecipherable lines. He was the Rosetta stone of fortune telling.  Those who studied his teachings could read a life in a hand.

It was another leap in communication. Emoticons had replaced words, now lines would replace emoticons. All printed matter, all labels, warnings, and messages were reduced to the indentions on an open hand.

People tattooed their palms, inking their lifelines in red, their career lines in green, and the number of future descendants in orange. Gold shimmered up from the heart lines of romantics like a promise. Illness was marked by black, hubris by light turquoise and imagination by purple. A person only had to hold up his hand to be read like a book.

When my mother, Allison, met my father, Thomas, she was childless, though four unborn orange possibilities, my siblings, crinkled just beneath her little finger. Her career line was broken, dotted her skin like a passing lane, but her love line and lifeline were strong.

Thomas had grinned when he saw them and offered his own palm as testimony of his potential. The strong gold heart line, the solid career, the lifeline running uninterrupted across the entire fatty heel of the hand. He seemed a dream come true. 

He asked if he could touch, running his smooth fingers over Allison’s hands, feeling the slight indents made visible only through color. She did the same. Thomas’s lines could not be felt, but she never considered that lines could be changed, a dotted uncertain future smoothed out by pigment. A deceitful man made to seem true with ink. Fate could not be fooled, though Allison could.

Thus, I was brought up without a father, a destination which is clearly foretold in the mauve loop in the inside of my hand. I suspect my father’s deceit and my mother’s desertion spurred my first distrust of the Sriendi Vastar method, but this was not recorded in my palm.

Around this time, the time of my birth, many deceptions were practiced by the art of tattoo. Some even carved thin lines in their palms hoping to fool, not only their fellows, but fate. One man tried to achieve immortality, extended his lifeline, making it circle his thumb. He severed a large artery, and died, as his palm predicted he would, at twenty-one.   

By the time I was eight, technicians had developed scanners that revealed the truth beneath the ink. Oh, a man or woman might still fool someone at a glance, the colored lines drawing a false picture, but beneath the new scanner all was unveiled. Scars showed up for what they were, grooves carved by man instead of destiny.

Colleges would not admit, nor would employers hire, without performing the scan. So, though a man might get lucky through lying lines, he would not get an education or a job. Resumes became outdated. Work experience immaterial. Your life was in your hand.

 Soon cheap pocket scanners became available and after optic fiber-scanners were implanted in everyone’s eyes, all could see the truth at a glance. Deception was rendered worse than useless. False lines in ink and self-made scars revealed the deceiver more certainly than a signed confession. Duplicity became a thing of the past. People followed the lines of their palms like a map of their life, a predestine route to their future.

For some it was a good thing. They saw success in their hands, so they struggled upward, persevering against all obstacles. Their career lines were strong, so they studied hard. They read true love in their palms and searched until they found it.

Others saw suicide and despaired. They turned to drugs or risked their necks in thoughtless pursuits.

Politicians no longer made speeches; all they did, all they needed to do, was to hold up their hands.

There was no need for trials. The accused only needed to bare his palm. Guilt or innocence was clear.

I went to school, studying hard to become a doctor. Science was channeled into my hand, as clearly as the diplomas of an earlier age.

I waited to fall in love. A husband and two children intersected my palm between twenty and twenty-five.

Every move had been laid out by the omnipotent chess master… until Abraham was born.  He arrived right on time, red faced and healthy as a butcher’s dog, but he had no hands. It was an accident of birth. His mother had been given Zolamine, a fertility drug with unintended consequences.

Abraham was the first man free to choose his fate, free as none had been since the discovery of the Sriendi Vastar method.

When Abraham went to school he was treated with trepidation. Was he a freak or a God? All the children could read palms. All had been taught the Sriendi Vastar method. It was the first thing any parent did – after toilet training.

Of course, the children were not experts. They could not decipher the finer lines of a personality, or tell the subtler points of character, that would come later, but they could see if a child would make a good friend or a poisonous enemy. Those who would be false were left alone. Those who would be thieves were shunned. But Abraham, Abraham was a mystery.

By the time of his birth, prosthetics had come a long way. With his plastic appendages Abraham had as much dexterity as a chimp. He could clamber up trees better, farther, faster and higher than any child in his class. He excelled at rope climbing, frosting cupcakes, soldering, pipefitting, model building, macramé, sewing, computer hardware assembly, fly tying, fishing, shooting, carpentry, ceramics, sushi-making, quilting, and badminton twirling. He could play almost any instrument, pick a banjo faster than a hillbilly, and key an arpeggio so smoothly it could make your soul sing. He was also fabulous at crafting tools, gene splicing and peeling bananas.

People began cutting off their hands so they too could become free. But it was too late, their palms had already been scanned and their futures recorded in infancy. It was only Abraham that had no future.

And so, Abraham the unknowable became a leader. People thrilled to his speeches, unsure whether he was a prophet or a pretender. Life, which had become an inescapable series of moves, was once again a mystery.

Women began demanding Zolamine from their doctors in hopes of producing another savior, but alas Zolamine had consequences beyond handlessness. Some infants were born without limbs altogether, not too great a defect in this age of advanced prosthetics. Others lacked eyes and ears, but these too could be dealt with. Optic lens gave the babies better than average sight. Audio implants gifted children with echolocation skills. But mostly Zolamine produced babies with deformities so severe, even doctors could not bear to gaze upon them. These monsters were handled in the only humane way possible. Crematoriums were installed in maternity wards.

But the others, the deaf, the blind, and the limbless survived… and not only survived, but triumphed! They made their own destinies. They forged their own futures. Politicians discussed passing laws that would make Zolamine mandatory. Others suggested severing an infant’s hands at birth. Abled rights groups sprung up around the country. The naturally handed maintained that only they could be trusted, as only they were truly transparent.

I was a doctor by this time, an obstetrician. I had enjoyed delivering babies, but I did not like the new onslaught of freaks. The crematorium made me ill. I could not rid myself of the smell of burning flesh, no matter how often I washed. I applied for a transfer, and due to my magenta innovation lines, obtained a position in the research labs of Dr. Giustina.

Dr. Giustina was a geneticist of incredible brilliance. Her palm was scored with lines of intelligence and innovation. Soon I became her top assistant.

Together we worked late in the night together, uncovering microscopic truths. One night, while smearing a slide, our fingers touched. Even through the thin plastic gloves I felt a thrill, a flame racing through my veins, though my palm denied it.

Meanwhile, in daylight world, Abraham the unknowable, brilliant, charismatic, futureless, Abraham, had been robbing the public coffers. Justice was swift and sure.

“If thy hand offends thee, cut it off!” people cried. “And if there is no hand, sever the neck!”

Many, whose hands had foretold greatness, had been hoping for just such a revelation. All the handless were rounded up and relocated to distant labor camps where their dexterous prosthetics were used to manufacture minute optic scanners, our protection against deceivers.

Never again would someone whose truth was not visible, whose future was not certain, be allowed to hold the reins of power. Billboards of honest palms appeared everywhere. Zolamine was outlawed.

In the lab, Dr. Giustina was trying to find the DNA links between dominance and ability.

“This will explain the science behind the Sriendi Vastar method,” she said.

But I no longer cared about science or the Sriendi Vastar method. All I wanted was to defy my palm and its chart, with husband and children so clearly marked. I wanted to take another path.

I watched her preparing slides, face outlined with light like an angel. Such feelings had no place in a lab, no place in a life mapped out by lines, but I could no more control them than change my fate.

“Oh my, no!” she gasped, motioning me over.

I bent over, resisting the temptation to kiss her neck. There, beneath the light of the microscope, clearly visible on the transparent glass of a slide, was the truth. The genetically dominant hand was the one that was manually inferior. All this time, all these lives, we had been reading the wrong palm.

~

Bio:

E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. King has won numerous various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research. She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarksworld, Flame Tree, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch shores and On Spec. One of her tales is on Tangent’s recommended reading for 2019. Her books include Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife, Electric Detective, and Blood Prism.

Can Science Fiction be Conservative?

by Jim Clarke

O, weep for Adonais for he is dead! The great defender of the Western literary canon, Harold Bloom, recently passed away aged 89, after a lifetime of arguing the legitimacy of studying what he considered to be the greatest works of literary merit emanating from Western culture. Bloom was a formidable figure, ferociously learned, astonishingly well-read, and the author of some 40 books. His obituaries were perhaps coloured by this range and breadth of his knowledge even after his death, because they were tentatively scornful, much less critical than one might expect from the obituary of someone who spent a lifetime defending the concept of Western culture and a core canon therein.

Bloom’s core list would be unlikely to attract many supporters today, a mere quarter century after he created it. Indeed, he himself even disowned the appendices, often treated as an ultimate TBR list by many, because he felt they distracted from his actual intention of defining the characteristics of the Western literary tradition. Bloom’s list of worthies, the 26 writers The Western Canon focuses on, are almost all white, and mostly male. He can be regarded as an unashamed elitist, disregarding literary traditions of lowly or pulp origins, as SF might be considered.

Indeed, in the nearly 600 dense pages of 1994’s The Western Canon, there are precisely two references to science fiction in the main body of the text, both relating, somewhat bizarrely, to the estranging quality of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bloom did not appear to consider a genre with such pulp origins sufficiently high-brow to enter his sacred canon. Well, that’s not quite true. What’s more true is that he recognised quality SF without necessarily recognising it as SF.

Hidden in those discarded appendices are a wide range of texts many would regard as science fictional. Perhaps we might dismiss book 18 of the Iliad, wherein Thetis visits Hephaestus’s forge and witnesses his golden servant-robots, as too much of a stretch to be thought of as classical era SF. We might similarly consider Leonardo’s notebooks to be ill-fitting.  But more plausibly, Thomas More’s Utopia is included. And what of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe? In what he calls the Chaotic Age (what most of us call modernity), his list includes Calvino’s Invisible Cities, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Kafka’s Amerika, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, all often cited as SF texts by scholars.

The case is effectively closed when we encounter HG Wells, Capek’s RUR, and War with the Newts, Lem’s Solaris, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker on Bloom’s extended list. The elitist Yale scholar’s apparent disregard for the genre of SF did not extend to excluding excellent SF texts from his canon. Similar applies to the more commonly identified sectors considered underregarded by canonical approaches to literature. Four of his 26 featured authors are women, and his extended canon includes African, Arabic, Yiddish and Caribbean authors. It could even be argued that, despite an predominance of pale, stale males, Bloom’s purview of what Western literature warrants preservation and attention is unexpectedly broad.

What we can be sure of is that Bloom was not engaged in tokenism. As many of his obituaries noted, he railed while alive against what he called the “school of resentment” that he saw coming to prominence in literature departments of universities. This school was defined by its predeliction for identity politics over other considerations, including aesthetics, which Bloom himself cherished above all. For Bloom this was a category error. As he saw it, the resenters were engaging in progressivist activism under the mask of aesthetic analysis of literature. Indeed, he says as much in The Western Canon:

“Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender,” he writes.” You must choose, for if you believe that all value ascribed to poems or plays or novels and stories is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes? The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.”

Of course, Bloom faced significant pushback on this position. In fact, his doorstop of a recommended reading list was only one salvo in a battle which had already been going on for some time within Anglophone academia in particular. The canon wars, as they are now known, raged mightily in the late 80s and early 90s, as progressive scholars sought to diversify and ‘decolonise’ literature curricula in American schools and universities, while scholars like Harold Bloom fought back in defence of the concept of the traditional literary canon.

His namesake (but no relation) the political philosopher Allan Bloom had been motivated, as early as 1987, to publish The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that encroaching cultural relativism in education was not merely shortchanging students but actively eroding American democracy. This so-called ‘dumbing down’ argument extended far beyond an attempt to preserve literature as a bastion of dead white guys. Allan Bloom railed against cultural relativism in all forms, condemning for example the teaching of rock and pop music in the place of classical music. His provocative attempt to conserve his understanding of Western culture, and by overt extension Western civilisation, was accompanied by similar screeds by other scholars, such as ED Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987), Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991).

These writers traced the cultural relativism back to the counterculture of the Sixties, when various forms of activism and liberation, primarily identity-based, inspired educators to challenge the concept and content of established cultural canons for the first time. Driven on by French poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Althusser, who were simultaneously derided by Allan Bloom as second-rate philosophers, new faculty entering American universities began the war on Western Civilisation, which went overground in the general public’s eyes when US presidential candidate Jesse Jackson joined students at prestigious Stanford university to chant “Hey, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!”

By the time Harold Bloom entered the fray in 1994 with his lengthy treatise in favour of reading authors like Milton, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Samuel Beckett, it was almost the final sally forth for the conservative position. Bloom himself knew that the argument had to some extent been lost. A mere four years later, he acknowledged this defeat, in an article for the Boston Review.

Referencing Thucydides’ famous account of the Spartan commander Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, Bloom mischievously claimed “They have the numbers, we, the heights.” Ranked against him, like the hordes of Persians against those famous 300 Spartans, were “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists.” Bloom was of course an avid and familiar reader of the classics. He knew the lesson of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his men held out bravely against vastly larger forces. But ultimately, they lost.

I reprise these hoary old academic arguments at some length primarily because the scale of the defeat is no less total than that at Thermopylae, as Bloom foresaw. Young scholars and readers of literature nowadays, studying the humanities not only in America but across the entire world, are entirely familiar with diversity quotas in curricula, decolonised perspectives and the essential centrality of identity concerns in any scholarly attempt to analyse or examine cultural outputs. They are perhaps aware that in ye olden tymes of yore, white men sought to triage their own cultural work above all others, and to the exclusion of all others, or so they are taught. They are perhaps less aware that a mere generation ago, these issues were still a matter of hot cultural debate. Nowadays, they seem entirely settled.

And if there ever was a literary genre in which the issues were argued first and settled first, it was science fiction. Even as the canon wars were raging, scholars like Tom Moylan were proposing that not only was science fiction fundamentally utopian, but that it actually functioned as a literary arm of politically progressive activism. In the previous decade, Darko Suvin had identified Marxist estrangement as a core descriptor of the genre itself.

Practitioners of SF were hardly divorced from the interests of scholars either. The New Wave, which came to prominence alongside the 60s counterculture and can in some ways be seen as analogous to it, was overt in its aspirations to transgress not only established cultural and literary norms, but established genre traditions too. Out went Tolkienian fantasy – too Christian, inherently racist – and the space opera narratives of a previous generation were abandoned for pessimistic inner space narratives, in which psychological insight and experimentalism reigned.

But the genre that the New Wave were writing in response to had in their turn thought themselves to be at the vanguard of progressivism. The aspirations of space travel, and the ever-present technophilia of the kind of SF fostered and promoted by firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell in the US pulps was not a backward-looking endorsement of the status quo but a radical attempt to imagine into being a future-focused, technologically enhanced existence via literature.

They too had been influenced in their turn by earlier writers, most especially the utopian fictions of the late 19th century. Texts like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) were so influential over the general public that his socialist ideas for a future 21st century led people to create hundreds of Bellamy clubs to bring his ideas to fruition. For those, like me, who consider SF proper to have become fully established as a literary genre only alongside the development of professionalised science and engineering, this brings us back to the very origins of SF itself.

So has SF always been progressive? Yes, insofar that its future focus predicates it towards topics and ideas which envisage different, better existences (or warn against possible worse ones.) In this sense, it is the truest emanation of the cultural revolution that began back in the Age of Enlightenment, in its attachment to the idea that our existence, assisted by science, ratchets ever forward. But that is not the same as saying that it has always been progressive in the contemporary political understanding of the term. Far from it.

As Jeanette Ng’s acceptance speech for John W. Campbell award for the Best New Writer at this year’s Worldcon in Dublin indicates, the progressivism of the past is far from sufficiently enlightened for many readers and writers of SF today. Condemning the genre-definer after whom her award was named, she slammed the history of SF as “Stale. Sterile. Male. White.” This is an intriguing set of critiques worth examining, especially in light of its mostly enthusiastic reception.

Stale is a legitimate value judgement, though one Harold Bloom would no doubt resist. Every cultural product is of its time and may go stale eventually. Sterile is much less easy to justify. Ng writes in the genre that Campbell helped to bring into being. She is ultimately, like it or no, his cultural offspring in that sense. Male and white are identity descriptors, teetering on the brink of discriminatory judgement. The audience that enthusiastically cheered Ng’s speech was, by odd curiosity, also largely male and white, as SF audiences often tend to be.

With Campbell denounced as a “fucking fascist” from the podium, it was perhaps inevitable that the award was almost instantly renamed. If he was a fascist, and by contemporary standards he certainly held unsavoury views about women and Jewish people in particular, then he was far from alone in his generation. Modernist scholars are well aware of this particular minefield of judging past luminaries through current political perspectives. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsen and a host of other highly regarded writers all harboured fascist sympathies in that time.

So extensive were those views among the literati of the 1930s that critics like Mark Antcliff have questioned whether Modernism and Fascism might even be considered somewhat synonymous. Is it then truly impossible to disentangle John Campbell, the revolutionary author and editor of SF, from John Campbell, the man with the unsavoury views on Jews and women? Is it not possible to hold two simultaneous perspectives that each have validity? This is the kind of unnuanced judgement Jeanette Ng proffered, and the kind of ideological argument that our current culture wars force us into.

Harold Bloom’s warning from The Western Canon now becomes salutory. We do not right the wrongs of the past by consciously overdetermining race, class or gender. And the best way to serve exploited classes is indeed to serve them without mediation, rather than via some spurious ‘decolonising’ of an entity which by definition was never colonised in the first place. But that is beside the point.

Only an utterly blinkered individual would refuse, on grounds of race or gender, to read the scintillating SF emerging from writers like Cixin Liu or NK Jemisin, or movements like Afrofuturism or Ricepunk. Ng is perfectly correct to note that SF has evolved into a much broader and different space in our contemporary globalised world, with new audiences and authors from far beyond the genre’s Anglo-American origins.

Which brings me back to my rhetorical question – can SF be conservative? This is a term no less loaded than its mirror image, progressive. SF has never sought to conserve anything. It has always aimed to radically envisage different realities and new futures. And as scientific discovery unveils new technologies and understandings of how our world and universe work, so does it render older SF defunct. Where are the Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Philip K Dick? We now know they never were and never could be.

Yearning for the SF of the past therefore runs the risk of becoming somewhat hauntological, to use Derrida’s term. We become haunted by nostalgia for futures that never came to pass. Such things are impossible to conserve, because they never were. But if we accept the argument that SF should aim to accommodate wide-ranging perspectives in order to inspire readers from global cultures, then we must also accept that some among the predominantly white male fandom attending Worldcon may also require authors representing them too. Directing them to authors of the past is simply hauntological.

There is room in the vast halls of SF, to paraphrase what HG Wells once wrote to James Joyce, for us all to be wrong. Despite the astonishingly prescient writings of authors like Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard, most SF will not prove to be predictive of the future, and indeed nor does it aim to be. The divisive votes for, inter alia, Donald Trump as US President and Brexit in Britain indicate that we live in increasingly polarised societies with world views that often radically clash within the same societies. SF will inevitably emerge from all of these perspectives, and it is only the ideologues among us who view SF as adjunct to political activism who will refuse to engage with writing from alternative viewpoints.

SF may not seek to conserve, but in some ways it has always been conservative. It is, as I have argued in my recent book Science Fiction and Catholicism, deeply anti-Catholic as a genre and always has been. This is by definition a reactionary position. Similarly, the political arguments that can be derived from authors like Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle are notably militaristic and imperialist.

One particular text I have found intriguing in the context of considering the possibility of conservative SF, amid the welter of dystopian SF warnings about the possibility of future theocratic rule, is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Wilson’s vision is of a future theocratic America ruled by an imperium, the kind of territory familiar to us from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In his novel, a new emperor comes to power with a radical yet antiquated vision. Like the Emperor Julian of antiquity, he seeks conservatively to turn back the clock and reinstate a previous mode of governance and thinking. For the classical Julian this was an attempt to displace Christianity with the old Gods of ancient Rome. For Wilson’s hero, it is an attempt to rehabilitate the technology and liberal polity of the 20th century, which has been disowned and lost in his future theocracy, itself a throwback to the 19th century.

The tools of radicalism, liberalism and progressivism in other words may be used to propagate a profoundly conservative world, Wilson argues. He also argues the contrast, that it is possible to seek to conserve radical and progressive world views. Julian Comstock’s reign fails ultimately because he spends too much of his time haunted by the forbidden archives of the banned 20th century. For those who view SF as an adjunct to progressive activism, this can be read as a call to arms, when in fact it is a warning. As John Campbell begins to be memory-holed out of SF history, it is worth recalling that in such divided societies as we now live in, those tactics may operate in two directions.

Harold Bloom’s Western Canon was condemned as an attempt to preserve a narrow and antiquated view of culture, when in fact it had hidden within it a broad range of texts from all sorts of eras, authors, cultures and perspectives, including SF. We dismiss the past at our peril, but fetishizing it is in itself a hauntological danger. SF needs to be both progressive and conservative all at once. Perhaps in doing so, it can also help to dream of futures which could lead our wider polities out of their current destructive polarisation.

~

Bibliography:

Antcliff, Mark, “Fascism, Modernism and Modernity”, The Art Bulletin Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 148-169.

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1986.

Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888.

Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon, 1994.

Bloom Harold, “They Have The Numbers, We, The Heights”, Boston Review, April 1st 1998.

Clarke, Jim, Science Fiction and Catholicism, 2019.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, 1993.

Moylan, Tom, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, 1986.

Ng, Jeanette, “Acceptance Speech”, Worldcon, Dublin, August 18th, 2019.

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979.

Wilson, Robert Charles, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, 2009.

~

Bio

Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: www.ponyingtheslovos.wordpress.com/