NBC’s Community and Subtle References to Dystopia

Community-Poster-630x336You know me, I’m not really in the habit of reviewing television shows that don’t involve a science fiction plot or zombies. But Community is one of my favorite shows currently on TV, and this past week they did an episode that I found absolutely brilliant. Starting with the premise of a new social utility app that let’s people rank others, it then got into some serious dystopian lit territory!

To break it down, the setting of the show – Greendale Community College – becomes the beta testing ground for an app called MeowMeow Beenz. This gives people the chance to rate each other the same way they would a movie or product online, and it becomes a big hit on the campus. Quickly, people realize that ratings made by people with five beenz (five kitty faces) carry more weight, and a social hierarchy is formed!

Community - Season 5That’s when all the dystopian imagery comes into play. The school is then rezoned based on people’s rating and everyone is forced to dress accordingly. The fives live in pastel covered room, wear white robes and futuristic looking devices, and are waited on hand and foot. Four’s dress like something out of Logan’s Run and live in the halls adjacent to them, where they aspire to become fives.

Threes and Two live in the “common area” where things are darkly lit, everyone dresses in grey coveralls, and the voice of dean informs them over the PA that “tranquility is advancement… a happy three is a future four”. And one’s are banished to the “outland”, which is the campus grounds that have now been redecorated with barbed wire, search lights, and fires in metal drums.

community_app2Eventually, the Fives try to appease the masses by holding a talent contest where the winner will receive Five status. Jeff and Britta, two of the show’s MCs plot to bring it down by getting Jeff to win and then denounce the rating system. But after he wins the contest – which is a clear allusion to American Idol and so many other reality TV tropes – he joins the Fives and tries to become its new leader.

Meanwhile, Britta – disillusioned by his betrayal – goes amongst the Twos and Threes and foments a revolution,  replacing the rule of the Fives with a system of revolutionary justice where the Ones run things. As the leader, she is called “the Mother of Ones”, and judges all the fives by “reducing them to Oneness” – i.e. reducing their status to make them the same as everyone else.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????But in the end, Jeff points out the cruel irony that the app developers have played on them. It asks people to rate each other, but the beta test ended days ago and the app itself is already available and rated FIVE STARS. He tells everyone that they must rate this “unregistered Five” by erasing it, and they all do. Realizing it’s Saturday, everyone then leaves school and goes home to sleep.

I tell ya, it was brilliant! Not only did it capture the essence of so many 20th century dystopian epics – showing how a hierarchical system based on fear, greed, the promise of advancement and propaganda can so easily take over. It also captured the very dangers of a revolutionary movement which seeks to replace such a system with one of forced equality, led by a tyrannical mother/father figure.

we_zamyatinIt also managed to provide some fitting satire on reality TV, the very way it conforms to some of our earlier dystopian predictions, and how the drive to be popular and famous is responsible for a great deal of angst in America and the world. Top all that off with some stabs at Zuckerberg, Facebook, and social utility apps in general, and you’ve got yourself a kickass episode!

And at one point, there’s was even a subtle reference to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s WE, the classic novel that inspired Orwell to write 1984 and presumably, Huxley to write Brave New World (though he denied it). At one point, two of the show’s characters are hiding in an office, and label that reads D-503 is on the door. This just happens to be the designation of the main character in WE, as no one in the One State has actual names anymore.

This is the reason I love this show. Dan Harmon, the show’s producer, knows great television, has great writers, and loves being all meta! In fact, that’s something they repeatedly say in the show: “that’s meta!” If you haven’t caught this show yet, then do so. It stars Chevy Chase (until the most recent season), is on Netflix (Canada, but not in the US), and makes hundreds of clever movie and television references.

2014’s Master To-Do List

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersWith this year in full swing and the events of 2013 now a memory, I thought it was high time to take stock of everything I need to do in the coming twelve months. As always, I got a lot of projects in the works and plenty of things I want to get done, some of which I was supposed to be finished with already. And I seem to recall mentioning a few of these items in the course of my New Year’s resolutions…

So here goes…

1. Finish Editing Papa Zulu and Release It:
Now this is one I’ve been letting linger for quite some time! Originally, I had hoped to have this book ready a year ago, but editing has proven to be a more arduous process than previously expected. However, I got my trusty and professional editor (hi Leslie!) in my corner, and she’s editing both it and Whiskey Delta. So sometime before the Spring season hits us, I plan to release the one and re-release the other. It will be a kind of one-two, launch/relaunch combo!

2. Edit Fast Forward and Release it:
Back in April of 2013, I penned a number of short stories for the A to Z Challenge. Since that time, I’m coalesced the best stories, added a few extras from over the years, and created a volume of futuristic tales that I named “Fast Forward”. And with my membership over at Shutterstock.com, I also prepped a new and eyepopping cover that I think will get some attention once its published. But before that can happen, I need to go through it again and make sure its all cleaned up.

FlashForward_2

3. Bring Yuva Anthology to Completion:
Khaalidah and I – a friend and fellow indie writer over at Writer’s Worth – started this anthology of space travel and colonization two years ago. At first, we found ourselves joined by several friends and respected colleagues who also wanted to see the project come to fruition. But after several months of initial progress, things began to slow down and linger.

But I’m pleased to say that in the past few weeks, things have really picked up again. Owing to a full-court press to recruit new talent, we have just about all our stories accounted for and I’m waiting for drafts from all the participants. It would be really nice if we could get this book – a tribute to Ray Bradbury and a tale that is more relevant than ever now – finished by the end of the year.

Yuva_cover

4. Finish Reading List and Review Them:
Yeah, my reading list is, as always glutted and filled with stuff I was supposed to have finished a long time ago. It seemed to take me forever to finish reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks. And now that that’s finished, I am hoping to finish the last three books that I have started but not finished, and then move on to the many other novels on my nightstand.

These books include Accelerando by Charles Stross, a story about this century that is required reading for anyone trying to write about the Technological Singularity; We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the quintessential dystopian tale about social engineering, failed utopias, and the inspiration behind such classics as 1984 and (arguably) Brave New World. And last, but certainly not least, The Quiet Game: Five Tales To Chill Your Bones by Rami Ungar.

we_zamyatinAnd when I’m done all those books, which I’ve been reading simultaneously and in bursts, I can move on to Ready Player One, The Giver, and Back To The Front, an account of one man’s walking tour of the battlefields of World War I. Hey, I don’t just deal in science fiction, you know!

And with all that done and put away with, maybe the wife and I can finally find a bigger place, which is something we’ve been working on for some time. And of course, there will be the walking tour that we will be doing with my family this coming April. I need to do some research to prepare for that, and you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be hearing about it too!

So yeah, 2014 is shaping up to be an eventful year. I hope it proves to be as productive and enjoyable as I hope, and that you all get what you want from it as well. Take care and Happy New Year!

New Movie Trailer: Divergent

DivergentCame across this trailer recently, for the upcoming movie adaptation of the 2011 novel Divergent. And while the trailer does look like impressive, this does seem like a really predictable move on Hollywood’s part. With the recent adaptation of the Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, it was only a matter of time before producers began looking farther afield to find more examples of YA dystopian literature.

In fact, that’s been a subject which I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately. In terms of sci-fi trends, the past decade has seen a revival of dystopian literature, and the majority of it seems to be aimed at young readers. Not surprising really, seeing as how issues like the “war on terror”, domestic surveillance and NSA data mining have led to a resurgence of fears that humanity could still be living in Big Brother state in the near future.

divergent-iron-on-patches-summit-boothAnd with the rise in publications that appeal to young adult readers – with everything from Twilight to Harry Potter – writer’s began to see just how accessible dystopian tales would be to young readers. And Divergent is certainly no exception to this rule. And just like the Hunger Games, a dystopian society is used as a metaphor to address the issues of teen angst and the struggle to belong.

Basically, the story takes place in a Chicago of the future, where live in a society that is divided into castes and membership is determined when people turn 16. Enter into this Beatrice “Pris” Prior, a young woman with a special mind who undergoes the test designed to determine what caste she belongs to, only to find out that the test failed and she has been declared “Divergent”.

divergent-movie-set-reportThe rest of the movie, as is made clear from the trailer, consists of her joining the resistance – a group composed of “casteless” people (aka. other Divergents) – and waging war against the state. So, a society where people are forced into specialized roles, where those who are different must live in secret or face persecution, and a heroine who rises up to bring down the system… sound like the teenage experience to you?

Yeah, me too. And while some criticize Divergent for being a Hunger Games ripoff, people who actually know their dystopian lit are quick to point out that that book was probably a ripoff of Battle Royale. And in reality, all these books are eating crumbs off the table of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell, and the YA angle with all its wish fulfillment is nothing that hasn’t been seen a hundred times before.

Anyhoo, the movie is set for release on March 21st, 2014. Enjoy the trailer!

Religion in Sci-Fi

Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.

And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!

Alastair Reynolds:
Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.

Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.

In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.

Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.

While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.

In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.

Arthur C. Clarke:
At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”

However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.

Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.

In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.

So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.

Frank Herbert:
Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.

And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.

When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.

However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.

As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.

After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.

As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.

For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!

Gene Roddenberry:
For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!

Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.

However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.

In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.

These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.

George Lucas:
Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.

In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.

What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.

In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.

All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.

However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.

Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!

H.G. Wells:
Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.

These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work,  aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.

When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.

In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.

Isaac Asimov:
Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.

His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.

In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.

Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.

What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.

Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.

Philip K. Dick:
Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.

Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.

In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.

All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.

Ray Bradbury:
Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.

For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.

As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.

In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.

Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”

In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.

Robert A. Heinlein:
As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.

These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.

In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.

What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”

But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.

Summary:
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉

What’s On…

If you’re like me, and suffer from what I assume is a form of literary ADD – where you can’t seem to commit to reading, or writing, one thing at a time – then it helps to take stock once in a while and make a list. At other times, its disconcerting, like whenever I check out my Goodreads account and see that a book I cracked over a year ago is still on my “Currently Reading” list.

But today I thought I’d combine that list with my list of upcoming reviews. As I’m sure I mentioned in a previous post or two, this vacay has been pretty good for scoring new books. I got some long 0verdue ones and managed to find at least one that has come highly recommended. To ensure that they don’t wind up in my pile, partially read and collecting dust, I thought I’d make a definitive list. That oughta help my ADD!

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is not a physician or psychiatrist and has no medical credentials whatsoever. He is thus in no position to diagnose, either in himself or others, any form of ADD or its hyperactive cousin, ADHD.

  1. Mona Lisa Overdrive – the final book in the Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson. Due to diversions in reading The Hunger Games, Second Foundation and a slew of others, this book has remained opened far longer than it had to have been. I hope to finish it this or next week.
  2. Second Foundation – the third installment in the Foundation series, which I have been meaning to read for some time. As the (sort of) conclusion to the Foundation saga, and after reviewing the first two, it was only fitting that I find and tackle the third book. I say sort of because decades after finishing this third novel in the series, Asimov would finally cave to demands that he return to the series with three more books. Fans and publishers, what can you do?
  3. Martian Chronicles – this book I just picked up last week. After years of hearing great things and wanting to get into it, I finally procured a copy and began devouring it. I got half way through before the wife and I got back to civilization and it was forced to take its place in the queue. It’s a testament to Bradbury’s old school, accessible, yet still high-minded style that you can read through his works quickly and still feel like you’ve digested a lot. I look forward to finishing this one and borrowing freely from it 😉
  4. A Feast for Crows – my reading of this fourth installment in the Game of Thrones series has stalled for a few reasons. One, I got a little tired after the first three books, especially since all the main characters keep dying! Second, after three books of excitement and climactic battles, George RR Martin seemed to think that was needed was a book that contained all the scraps. Not a bad read by any measure, but it’s kind of like a serving of leftovers after three sumptuous banquets.
  5. We – the classic of classic by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Again, I cracked this book a long time ago and haven’t been able to get into it due to the myriad of books that have entered and left my reading pile in the interim.  I want nothing more than to finish it and give it its long overdue due! For crying out loud, this man practically invented the dystopian satire and inspired my heroes – Orwell and Huxley. If that doesn’t warrant a read, I don’t know what does!
  6. The Giver – here’s a book that my wife has been recommending for ages! Considered to be a classic of YA fiction, this novel is certainly a must-read for those looking to stay current on the genre. Having found a copy at my local Coles, right next to City of Ember, I decided it was time to have a looky-loo so that I knew what I was talking about next time I chose to include it in a review of current utopian/dystopian lit.
  7. Red Mars – holy crap has this one been on my shelf for a long time! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked it up and put it down. Which is really too bad. It’s definitely one of the more profound sci-fi books that I’ve ever read, but somehow, the style lends itself to a certain inaccessibility for me. I do enjoy reading it, but find that it doesn’t quite happen easily or organically. In that respect, Kim Stanley Robinson is not unlike William Gibson for me. I know I want to hear from them, and I do get through their books, but not with the ease and grace that I would something by Bradbury or Asimov.
  8. Ready Player One – this one I bought alongside The Giver because I thought it was time to invest in something new. I tend to be reserved about buying the works of new authors, mainly because I don’t invest time and money in something which might prove to be disappointing or a flavor of the month kind of thing. However, I said ‘screw it’ this time around and picked this one up. And lo and behold, I discovered that it is actually a quite famous read, with the entire back of the dust jacket dedicated to the heaps of accolades that have been piled on it. Not only was it a manager’s pick at the Coles, it also comes recommended by my peeps over Io9.com. Them folks know their sci-fi, so I’m glad I went with my gut and checked this one out!
  9. Starfire – this hard sci-fi novel, by Charles Sheffield, is actually one I picked up in a laundry room at the park where my wife and I were staying in Lund. We had just returned from camping, were in the process of returning to civility (with showers and other amenities) and realized we still didn’t have anything to read! So I took a gander at this one, and after seeing that it was endorsed by Kim Stanley Robinson, I gave it a chance. I only got about 70 pages in before we had to leave and I chose not to take it (having nothing to exchange), but I was wrapped up enough in the plot that I decided I’d get a copy as soon as I could. Still looking, might have to go Amazon or Kindle on this bad boy, but I don’t intend to let it slip. The plot, which involves the creation of a massive orbital shield after A/B Centauri goes supernova, is quite interesting, and constructed using the latest in astronomical data. Check it out if you can!

Well, that about does it for me. Nine books in the reading list, not so bad. I could think of some more but… seriously, who the hell wants that kind of responsibility 😉

Dystopan Literature Over Time

Came across this list on Goodreads, thanks largely to Molly Spring’s post (which I will reblog next since it’s pretty dawn awesome!). Basically, the table gives graphic representation to historical trends and the popularity of dystopian lit over the past few decades. Though it does preclude Yevengy Zamyatin’s We and Jack London’s The Iron Heel by a few years, it manages to pick up in the early 30′ with the creation of Brave New World.

Cataloging what led to the creation of that and all many subsequent dystopian classics, the creator of this infographic shows how our perceptions and tastes – as expressed through popular dystopian visions – have changed over time. In the end, the point seems to be that we’ve evolved from thinking simply that the state is the primary threat to human freedom in our world. Things like body image, reproductive rights, environmental issues, nuclear weapons, epidemics (both man-made and natural) and agism.

You might think that it’s making the point that people have more to worry about today than they did before. But personally, I just think it’s pointing out how the literature is evolving to focus on our own evolving sense of self and understanding of ourselves. You know the old saying, “the world isn’t any worse, you just understand it better?” Well, it’s a little like that. The literature isn’t any darker, just more complex. Quite the little romp too, if you ask me. 

“Red Skies: Soviet Sci-Fi”

"The Heavens Call" movie poster (1959)

This morning, I came across a very cool article in Scoop.it, about science fiction as a genre in the former Soviet Union. As it explained, until recently this area has remained virtually unexplored, with historians focusing on the “greats” of the 1920’s – men like Eisenstein – and the “socialist realism” of the 1930’s (aka. Stalinist propaganda). However, between those decades and the opening up of the former Soviet Union in 91, a lot of interesting developments happened. And, interestingly enough, it seems as though sci-fi in the Eastern Bloc went through a similar transition to that in the west.

And let’s not forget that, even though there was a very real wall preventing cultural exchange between East and West during these years, some degree of exchange did take place. Take for example Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of “We“. His classic tale of a super-rationalized world state where emotion and individuality were suppressed and sex served only reproductive purposes had a profound influence on George Orwell, Ayn Rand and (presumably) Aldous Huxley, thought he denied ever reading it.

In addition, Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (Queen of Mars), a story about a man who travels to Mars and finds a totalitarian government which he helps to topple, inspired a movie adaptation. Made in 1924 and featuring constructivist-style sets, the movie had a profound influence on Fritz Lang, who’s 1927 classic Metropolis featured sets of similar design. The 1957 film Road to Mars, directed by the famous Pavel Klushantsev, contained several slow-motion scenes of astronauts floating weightlessly through space. This movie apparently had a profound influence on Stanley Kubrick and his shooting of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the west was flooded with previously inaccessible stories which began to be adapted (or plagiarized, depending on your point of view). Not the least of these was Hungarian sci-fi writer István Nemere’s story Holtak harca. Translated to “Fight of the Dead”, this story is about a criminal and a police officer who are cryogenically frozen, only to wake up in a future where society has been purged of violent behavior. This story became the basis for the Hollywood movie Demolition Man, not to mention a law suit or two!

In any case, it’s a good read and makes me think I should be on the lookout for added movies and book titles. Here’s the link and I recommend checking it out:

http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49760