The Cimmerian Hypothesis

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Beyond the Black River ends with these words:

‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’

This is more than a bit of bluster meant to add color to an adventure story, John Michael Greer argues:

Science fiction has made much of its claim to be a “literature of ideas,” but a strong case can be made that the weird tale as developed by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and their peers has at least as much claim to the same label, and the ideas that feature in a classic weird tale are often a good deal more challenging than those that are the stock in trade of most science fiction: “gee, what happens if I extrapolate this technological trend a little further?” and the like. The authors who published with Weird Tales back in the day, in particular, liked to pose edgy questions about the way that the posturings of our species and its contemporary cultures appeared in the cold light of a cosmos that’s wholly uninterested in our overblown opinion of ourselves.

Thus I think it’s worth giving Conan and his fellow barbarians their due, and treating what we may as well call the Cimmerian hypothesis as a serious proposal about the underlying structure of human history.

What sets barbarian societies apart from civilized ones, he suggests, is that a much smaller fraction of the environment that barbarians encounter results from human action:

When you go outdoors in Cimmeria — if you’re not outdoors to start with, which you probably are — nearly everything you encounter has been put there by nature. There are no towns of any size, just scattered clusters of dwellings in the midst of a mostly unaltered environment. Where your Aquilonian town dweller who steps outside may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by nature, your Cimmerian who shoulders his battle-ax and goes for a stroll may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by human beings.

What’s more, there’s a difference in what we might usefully call the transparency of human constructions. In Cimmeria, if you do manage to get in out of the weather, the stones and timbers of the hovel where you’ve taken shelter are recognizable lumps of rock and pieces of tree; your hosts smell like the pheromone-laden social primates they are; and when their barbarian generosity inspires them to serve you a feast, they send someone out to shoot a deer, hack it into gobbets, and cook the result in some relatively simple manner that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re all chewing on parts of a dead animal. Follow Conan’s route down into the cities of Aquilonia, and you’re in a different world, where paint and plaster, soap and perfume, and fancy cookery, among many other things, obscure nature’s contributions to the human world.

Here’s where his argument takes an unexpected turn:

“Primitive” cultures — that is to say, human societies that rely on relatively simple technological suites — differ from one another just as dramatically as they differ from modern Western industrial societies; nor do simpler technological suites correlate with simpler cultural forms.


Thus traditional tribal societies are no more natural than civilizations are, in one important sense of the word “natural;” that is, tribal societies are as complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent as civilizations are. There is, however, one kind of human society that doesn’t share these characteristics — a kind of society that tends to be intellectually and culturally as well as technologically simpler than most, and that recurs in astonishingly similar forms around the world and across time. We’ve talked about it at quite some length in this blog; it’s the distinctive dark age society that emerges in the ruins of every fallen civilization after the barbarian war leaders settle down to become petty kings, the survivors of the civilization’s once-vast population get to work eking out a bare subsistence from the depleted topsoil, and most of the heritage of the wrecked past goes into history’s dumpster.

If there’s such a thing as a natural human society, the basic dark age society is probably it, since it emerges when the complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultures of the former civilization and its hostile neighbors have both imploded, and the survivors of the collapse have to put something together in a hurry with nothing but raw human relationships and the constraints of the natural world to guide them. Of course once things settle down the new society begins moving off in its own complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent direction; the dark age societies of post-Mycenean Greece, post-Roman Britain, post-Heian Japan, and their many equivalents have massive similarities, but the new societies that emerged from those cauldrons of cultural rebirth had much less in common with one another than their forbears did.

Human societies that don’t have urban centers tend to last much longer than those that do, he notes:

As we’ve seen, a core difference between civilizations and other human societies is that people in civilizations tend to cut themselves off from the immediate experience of nature nature to a much greater extent than the uncivilized do. Does this help explain why civilizations crash and burn so reliably, leaving the barbarians to play drinking games with mead while sitting unsteadily on the smoldering ruins?

As it happens, I think it does.

As we’ve discussed at length in the last three weekly posts here, human intelligence is not the sort of protean, world-transforming superpower with limitless potential it’s been labeled by the more overenthusiastic partisans of human exceptionalism. Rather, it’s an interesting capacity possessed by one species of social primates, and quite possibly shared by some other animal species as well. Like every other biological capacity, it evolved through a process of adaptation to the environment—not, please note, to some abstract concept of the environment, but to the specific stimuli and responses that a social primate gets from the African savanna and its inhabitants, including but not limited to other social primates of the same species. It’s indicative that when our species originally spread out of Africa, it seems to have settled first in those parts of the Old World that had roughly savanna-like ecosystems, and only later worked out the bugs of living in such radically different environments as boreal forests, tropical jungles, and the like.

The interplay between the human brain and the natural environment is considerably more significant than has often been realized. For the last forty years or so, a scholarly discipline called ecopsychology has explored some of the ways that interactions with nature shape the human mind. More recently, in response to the frantic attempts of American parents to isolate their children from a galaxy of largely imaginary risks, psychologists have begun to talk about “nature deficit disorder,” the set of emotional and intellectual dysfunctions that show up reliably in children who have been deprived of the normal human experience of growing up in intimate contact with the natural world.

All of this should have been obvious from first principles. Studies of human and animal behavior alike have shown repeatedly that psychological health depends on receiving certain highly specific stimuli at certain stages in the maturation process. The famous experiments by Henry Harlow [sic], who showed that monkeys raised with a mother-substitute wrapped in terrycloth grew up more or less normal, while those raised with a bare metal mother-substitute turned out psychotic even when all their other needs were met, are among the more famous of these, but there have been many more, and many of them can be shown to affect human capacities in direct and demonstrable ways.

Jim Baen’s Top 10 Science Fiction Books

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Jim Baen called David Drake on Thursday, June 8, 2006, saying that Amazon had asked him at BookExpo for a list of the ten science fiction books that everybody should read. David Drake goes on:

He wanted me to join him in coming up with the list. Jim and I did this sort of thing — him calling me as a resource — very frequently. The only thing unusual is the fact that he’d had a mini-stroke during the night. When he finally went to the hospital on Monday, June 12, he had the fatal stroke. This was literally some of the last thinking on SF that Jim did.

I was rather shocked that I had in fact read all ten:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  3. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
  4. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert
  6. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague deCamp
  7. Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
  9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  10. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

I went to back to see when I mentioned any of these book earlier, and the last time I mentioned Jim Baen’s list, I lamented that I’d missed a few. So, I have made some progress.

Anyway, I’ve mentioned Foundation repeatedly, but not to discuss its literary merits:

I’d consider myself a Heinlein fan, but I barely made it through Stranger in a Strange Land as a teen, and I didn’t make it through a few years ago. I much preferred the short novel he wrote while taking a break from Stranger:

I didn’t find Citizen of the Galaxy memorable.

When I tried to read A Canticle for Leibowitz in college, the pre-Vatican II Catholicism didn’t work for me, but when I re-read it a few years ago I found it powerful and insightful:

I did not know it at the time, but Walter Miller, the author, had served in a bomber crew that helped destroy the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, and he converted to Catholicism after the war. Seen through his sympathetic eyes, the Church is a source of great practical wisdom, with established methods for steering flawed human beings toward productive behaviors — not unlike the Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong crowds, but more experienced, if also tied to a peculiar cosmology.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea never did much for me. He’s supposed to be the father of science fiction, so he may simply need a better translator.

Dune I mention here regularly, as a powerful novel that didn’t quite work for me — but obviously stuck with me:

I definitely enjoyed Lest Darkness Fall, which has its modern-day protagonist bring telegraphy without electricity to ancient Rome. That scenario raises the interesting question of ideas behind their time.

The Time Machine is an absolute classic. Lawrence Auster would certainly recommend it. Wells wrote many novels worth reading.

By contrast, Mark Twain might qualify as a wit of the highest order, yet I found A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court hard to take. It’s mainly hamfisted whig history, which played to his audience, I’m sure.

Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Science fiction is speculative fiction, John C. Wright argues:

Many a fan of Science Fiction would like to include any classical work containing an unearthly or supernatural element in the work t be Science Fiction, including the Odyssey, Aenead, Fourth Eclogue, Divine Comedy, Tempest and Faust, not to mention the Ring Cycle of Wagner.

Science fiction is the fiction of the scientific revolution. It is the unique product of the revolution in thought that ushered in the modern age. That revolution changed both the theory and the practice of life, the paradigm and the technology, both what men thought about the cosmos and how they lived their daily lives.

Having lived through one paradigm shift and its attendant technological advancements, an audience was ready for fictional speculation about the next paradigm shift, the next technological advancement.

Speculative fiction, properly so called, is fiction taking place in a cosmos that differs from what the audience understands to be the real world, either (in science fiction) after the next paradigm shift or (in fantasy) before the previous one. Both challenge the imagination by rejecting the paradigm, or the technology, current to the time and place in which the author and his readers generally agree they live.

Even a single element unearthly or extraterrestrial element in an otherwise mundane setting —a Mindreader in Brooklyn—can make the story science fiction; this is because discovering a Mindreader in Brooklyn would overthrow the current paradigm. We don’t believe in telepaths, and James Randi disbelieves even less than we do. Therefore a tale where the reader is asked to take that possibility seriously, to think through the implications, challenges the current paradigm.

The genre is called “speculative” because of the emphasis on implications. The Invisible Man of H.G. Wells has to run around naked because his clothing was not also transparent; and his footprints dinted the snow. The invisible ring in Orlando Furioso had no such logical limitations: it was magic. When Brandamart puts it in her mouth, she vanishes.

All this is in marked contrast to the epics and poems mentioned here. They were written by authors whose purpose was to confirm the paradigm of the time and place in which they wrote.
Dante was not attempting to lead his Christian readers into speculations about what the pre-Christian world looked like to pre-Christians, or to imagine what the world was like had that long-lost world-view been true. Dante did not write a fantasy. He wrote the opposite. Pagan elements are introduced (Ulysses, etc.) for the express purposed of being retrofitted into a Christian philosophical framework. This would be the same as if some author (for example Mary Renault) took a character from the previous prescientific world view (for example, Theseus) and retold his story explaining all the supernatural elements in terms of scientifically and anthropologically modern ideas (for example THE KING MUST DIE).
The speculative element is exactly what is missing in Dante: and I say this with the greatest respect for Dante’s scientific learning. His astronomy and his optics are spot on perfect. But when the shades in Purgatory see the shadow of Dante on the ground, and the departed spirits cast no shadow, it is not explained how the ghostly eyeballs can see Dante’s shadow, if the photons are passing through them–and if the photons are not passing through them, then how is it that the departed spirits cast no shadows? Common folk wisdom of Dante’s time said shades were shadowless, and he had craft and art enough to work this cleverly into his poem. But he did not speculate about scientific implications. Dante’s take on ghosts was meant to confirm the paradigm of his age.
In contrast, Robert E. Howard wrote fantasy. Conan does not live in our universe as we understand it: he cannot be fitted into the modern scientific world-view. Conan is a speculation (if we may dignify it with that term) about what the world would have been like had the men of the previous paradigm been correct in their view of the universe: a realm of capricious gods, monsters, bold barbarians, beautiful slavegirls, pirates, kings, where magic worked and sorcery hung thick as incense on the air.

Do not be deceived by the presence of wondrous and fantastic elements in the great poets. All tales are really about wonder. All readers suspend their skepticism at least in part for the sake of the tale being told. I truly doubt every man in the audience of Homer believed in Amazons or Centaurs. Certainly Plato scoffs at Homer’s portrayal of Gods and demigods. And there were skeptics even in Shakespeare’s day who did not believe the ghosts: but ghosts were an accepted part of the revenge story, and so a ghost in HAMLET was not something alien to their paradigm of the universe. There are many modern skeptics who do not believe in love at first sight, but who will accept it as possible for the sake of watching a love story.

So, with all due respect, while we have the liberty to define SF broadly enough to include anything and everything we want (indeed, a liberty I take here), we run the risk of sounding puffed and presumptuous. I have never been at an SF Con were a fan said his three favorite science fiction authors were Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil. I have never found a copy of Shakespeare’s TEMPEST in the Dungeon and Dragon’s aisle at the bookstore, even though Prospero is clearly a Twelfth Level mage, able to cast a seventh level control weather spell with an area-effect modifier.

The Point of Disbelief

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Definitions of SF are a subject not likely to be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction, but John C. Wright makes an effort:

The simplest definition is to say that, where normal stories are about rescuing princesses from pirates, science fiction stories are about rescuing space-princesses from space-pirates.

Behind this facetious definition there is a thought worth examining:

All stories are falsehoods used to reveal some truth. The falsehood is one the storyteller and the audience tacitly agree shall be treated as true for the purposes of telling the tale. In this respect, the storyteller is a magician who enchants his audience; they are willing to believe the unbelievable, to suspend their disbelief. But if he makes too great a demand on their willing suspension of disbelief, the spell is broken, and his illusion stands open to their contempt as a cheap trick.

Different audiences will place this ‘point of disbelief’ at different heights.

For example, in a comedy, the audience is willing to accept the most unlikely and unrealistic coincidences in plot or stunts in action, merely because it is funny. The tolerance is high. In a gritty action thriller, however, any unrealistic detail, such as shooting seven bullets from a six-shooter, will break the spell for a serious audience.

Every reader will recognize when it has happened once or twice that his point of disbelief has been notched upward. Let me use a war picture as an example. When the hero runs through a hail of machinegun bullets fired by Nazis unscathed (or, in Science Fiction, when he runs through a lightningstorm of blaster fire from Imperial Stormtroopers) something clicks in our brains, and we smile, and settle back in the theater seat, and we don’t take the movie was seriously as we did the moment before. We might still like it: but now it is a ‘popcorn’ movie, light entertainment. Our tolerance for unreality for light movies is more generous than for gravid ones. Compare that, on the other hand, with the opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where the whistling storm of machinegun-fire was realistic and horrifying. No one was running around protected by an invisible aura of ‘main character glow’. The point of disbelief was low.

When we have put our tolerance at the high point, either because it is a genre we like or an author we like, we react grumpily to any evidence that the scenes are unrealistic. Complaints seen like nit-picking, small-mindedness. The complainer cannot get in the spirit of things. He is trying to break the spell.

What makes the calculation of where to put the point of disbelief complex is two factors:

First, unbelievable things actually do happen in real life: there are moments of high heroism and deep horror, eerie coincidences and true love. There really are men like Napoleon and George Washington, who change history. Stories are supposed to be about the unusual: anyone who works on a newspaper can tell you that.

Second, the craft of the artist consist of certain tricks and devices he uses to make the unbelievable seem real. This is called verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the illusion of reality: a thing that is not real, but which seems realistic.

Stephen King writes with masterful craft by using settings and people as one might find in any small town in America; only after the reader is habituated into trusting these descriptions, do odd, and then unearthly elements begin to intrude on the picture. He is correctly regarded as a fine horror writer, perhaps the finest, because of his mastery of this device of verisimilitude.

There is a famous scene in Homer, when Andromache brings her baby out to say farewell to Hector before that warrior prince issues forth to battle. Astyonax is startled by the plumes on his helm of his father and begins to cry. This is the type of realistic detail suddenly makes the unearthly elements in the epic seem more realistic. When Hector batters down the gate of the Achaian palisade, he hoists a rock so large that “two men, such as men are now, could not have lifted it.” The fact that the baby was startled by his gleaming armor makes Hector seem like a real person; even when he does feats no one now-a-days can do, the feeling of reality is maintained. Instead of shaking their heads, and saying no one could lift up so large a rock, the listeners nod and listen.

Now, along the spectrum of realistic to unrealistic fiction, Speculative Fiction (by which I mean Science Fiction and Fantasy together) occupies the more unrealistic side. Indeed, Speculative readers not only tolerate but demand that a high demand be placed on their imaginations: they want to see life or Mars, or Barsoom, or Middle Earth, or in the Year 2000 or in the Hyperborean Age. We place the point of disbelief very high.

The separation of fantasy from science fiction is merely the difference in the craft of verisimilitude used. Fantasy impersonates the tone and style, the tropes and details of medieval and ancient songs, epics and folktales. Unearthly and unbelievable things can happen in Middle-Earth, provided they seem to happen in the same mood and atmosphere as ORLANDO FURIOSO or LE MORTE D’ARTHUR. If the mood is not broken, the audience will accept the illusion as real.

Science Fiction impersonates science. The science does not need to be real, but it needs to produce a realistic illusion. Time Travel, or Faster-Than-Light drive, are both as fantastical as Santa’s Elves: but, in the communal imagination of SF, they are assumed to be the product of scientific investigation, built in a workshop or lab, produced by the same ingenuity as Robert Fulton or the Wright Brothers.

This point is worth dwelling on. In order to create verisimilitude in THE TIME TRAVELER, the author H.G. Wells has a frame in the first chapter. The scene opens with an unnamed first-person narrator describing a conversation at a dinner party: the idea that time is a dimension that can be crossed like length, breadth, and height are introduced, and a machine for crossing time, similar to a flying machine, comes on stage as a prop. Now the reader is ready to accept the idea of a man who crosses time in a time machine the way a sea-traveler crosses the sea in a steamship. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be might bring Scrooge into the future to view a prophecy, but this is a supernatural visitation. The Time Traveler’s vehicle is natural, a product of his workshop, no more supernatural than a steam engine. But without the frame of the dinner party, where we meet the Time Traveler, without the initial theoretical discussion, the stress on the readers willing suspension of disbelief would be greater.

This is the unique property of Science Fiction. The readers of Science Fiction are expected to know something about modern science, and they expect that whatever fantastic adventure about to be told them will be framed in terms of some explanation that is plausibly scientific. Whether the science fiction is hard or soft depends on how implausible the scientific explanation is, and how central the story it is.

Science fiction readers expect to be convinced by having a discussion or lecture take place in the text, which has enough real science to make the fake science seem real. These lectures are unknown in other genres.

Tales where the props and settings from science fiction are merely thrown in for flavor, or to produce a background of wonder, are rightly called Space Opera: adventure stories that take place in space, no different, really, than similar tales taking place in remote jungles, pirate-infested seas, golden palaces, or the mountains of Tibet. STAR WARS, for example, is space opera, since the science is there merely for flavor. The same tale could have taken place, almost unchanged, in the fairytale Japan of legend.

There is, by the way, a similar division in fantasy between hard and soft, or high and low. Fantasy that accurately follows the ancient models of the world, now lost, which our ancestors knew, is realistic fantasy (if we can use that term). The language is elevated, the action is mannered. Sword and Sorcery stories follow the themes of ancient epics and folktales. Oriental fantasy follows the model of Arabian Night’s Tales, with their strange vistas, Jinn-haunted palaces, and cruel bejeweled splendors. The ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Jack Vance are a superb example of this opulent oriental flavor, even though they take place in the Far Future rather than the Far East.

Fantasy where the characters talk and act like middle-class gamers from Southern California, except that they swing swordsand shoot lightning from their fingertips, is a tale where the fantasy settings and props are merely thrown in for flavor. We should call such unrealistic fantasy Elf Opera.

But the point, the main point, of speculative fiction, both fantasy and science fiction, is that they are both ultramundane. Fantasy is unearthly, and science fiction is extraterrestrial. They deal with things that do not happen in the here-and-now. Either the setting is in another world Beyond the Fields We Know, or something from the Other World or Outer Space has intruded into our comfortable little reality. When something from Beyond intrudes into our little world, the reaction is either terror or awe. All the old SF magazines had titles reflecting this: Thrilling, Wonder, Amazing, and so on. Any definition of Science Fiction or Fantasy that does not point to this central characteristic of unearthliness is defective.

Great Books and Genre Books

Monday, July 27th, 2015

There is no great Science Fiction literature, John C. Wright admits — or, rather, great Science Fiction isn’t necessarily Great Art:

To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak.


I must emphasize that the science fiction value of the work proceeds, in my opinion, from different standards. Whether a science fiction book is good as science fiction depends on several things, of which I will here list the top three:

Scientific – Are the ideas extrapolations from real (or fairly realistic) science? SF gets points form me when it is based on something legitimately scientific, even if my personal taste runs more toward the softer end of the spectrum. Larry Nivens “Neutron Star” captures this criterion: despite the magic technology of hyperspace or invulnerable hulls, the problem and the solution in the tale is all legitimate, basic Newtonian physics.

Wonder – Does the work awe, terrify, or inspire the reader with the contemplation of the scientific view of the universe. A book that delivers this might be written in an unpalatable style with stiff and lifeless characters, but still win on sheer strength of its sense of wonder. GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith, and THE NIGHT LANDS by William Hope Hodgson fit into this category; so does NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by Geo. Orwell.

Imagination – A good SF story is speculative in small things as well as in great. That is to say, given the counterfactual premise of the story, what details in the lives of the characters logically must also differ? If the author imagines the ramifications in greater detail than the reader, it is a better SF novel than one where he falls short. The Golden Age writers of John W. Campbell Jr.’s stable, for all their merits, were not good at this: some imagined future society would have remarkable technological changes, but the characters would still have to go downtown to make a long-distance phone call or send a telegram, the wife would be in the kitchen, and the porter on the train would be a black. When an author does it badly, the reader’s reaction is to slap his head and ask “Why not?” If these people can raise the dead, why not kill the sick and resurrect them in new bodies? If those people have teleportation, why not have your ‘house’ have a room on every continent? A whole book could be written on what Star Fleet in real life would do, if they had transporter technology, which they do not do on STAR TREK.


To sum up, these criteria are unrelated to the criteria for good literature. A books can have crummy characters, a weak plot full of wholes, or no plot at all, tin-eared dialog and cardboard characters, but if it is hard, wonderful, and imaginative, science fiction readers will rightly count it as a first class science fiction book for decades.

Star Wars Ukiyo-e

Friday, July 24th, 2015

Japanese period dramas, or jidai-geki, influenced George Lucas well beyond lending the Jedi their name. Now traditional Japanese artists have crowdfunded ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Darth Vader, the Battle of Hoth, and Queen Amidala (with R2-D2 and an adult Anakin Skywalker):

Ukiyo-e Anakin and Amidala Close-Up

Ukiyo-e Battle of Hoth Close-Up

Ukiyo-e Darth Vader Close-Up

The Revenant

Friday, July 24th, 2015

The story of Hugh Glass, mountain man, survivor, is a gruesome one:

In August 1823, old frontiersman Hugh Glass was scouting ahead for a fur trapping expedition in South Dakota when he surprised a grizzly bear mother with her two cubs. The bear charged him immediately, knocking his rifle away and mauling him badly. Glass drew his knife and fought the grizzly hand-to-hand (maybe I should say hand to paw?), stabbing it repeatedly as it clawed and bit him. Hearing his screams, two trapping partners soon arrived and found him laying unconscious on top of the bear in a ghastly mess of human and animal blood. They finished off the dying bear with a rifle shot to the head, then took Glass with them back to their camp. Expedition leader Andrew Henry took a good look at the mangled mess of a man and announced that he would soon die of his injuries. Henry asked two trappers to stay with Glass until he died, give him a good burial, and then rejoin the group.

Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald volunteered to stay behind with Glass and began to dig his grave. What happened next is uncertain. The two men later claimed that they fled for their lives after hostile Arikaree Indians discovered them, but there is no evidence of that. They soon caught up to the rest of the group heading to Yellowstone and reported that Hugh Glass was dead. However, the old mountain man did not die—after an unknown period of time he woke up in his shallow grave, under a thin layer of dirt and leaves. All his weapons, equipment, and protective clothing were gone, taken by the two men responsible for his burial. His leg was broken, and the rest of him was hardly better off. The bear attack had cut him so badly it exposed rib bones on his backside. He had lost a lot of blood, and his wounds were festering. Alone and defenseless, he was more than 200 miles away from the nearest settlement, Fort Kiowa. He set his own broken leg, wrapped himself in the bear hide that had covered him in the grave, and started crawling.

It took Glass six weeks of crawling on his hands and knees to reach the Cheyenne River, 100 miles away from his grave. The bear had nearly torn off his scalp. He suffered from fever and advanced stages of infection. To prevent gangrene from progressing in his wounds he lay back on rotting logs and let the maggots eat his dead flesh away.

That’s just the beginning. Understandably, his story has been turned into a novel, which has been turned into a movie, starring a rather grizzled Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie is “inspired by true events”:

Guided by sheer will and the love of his family, Glass must navigate a vicious winter in a relentless pursuit to live and find redemption. The Revenant is directed and co-written by renowned filmmaker, Academy Award® winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel).


Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Bloom County is back — and alonier:

Bloom County Alonier

Gone With The Wind and the Confederacy

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

When Americans think about the Confederacy, they often think about Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic, Gone With the Wind, Cass R. Sunstein says:

Inspired by recent debates over the Confederate flag, I decided to give the book a try. I confess that I did not have high hopes. I expected to be appalled by its politics and racism, and to be bored by the melodrama. (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes? Really?) About twenty pages, I thought, would be enough. I could not have been more wrong. The book is enthralling, and it casts a spell.

I felt the same way about the movie.

Both are now considered Confederate propaganda:

But in 1936, The New York Times thought that Mitchell “writes from no particular point of view, although now and then there glitters a dull rage at the upset that ended such a beautiful civilization.”


At this point, skeptics might respond that subsuming the actual politics of the war, and the pro-slavery convictions of the Confederacy, beneath the gauzy romance of the plantation is precisely what the Lost Cause has been about — that in the end, Gone With the Wind is inescapably a set of political claims, designed to promote political ends. That’s a fair objection to some depictions of the world of the plantation, but it’s grossly unfair to Mitchell’s book, which is much more interested in memory, love, and resilience than it is in causes, won or lost. Of course, Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

Five Hours of TV per Day

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The average American watches more than five hours of live television a day:

More if you’re African American. Quite a bit more.

Less if you’re Hispanic or Asian American.

For all ethnic groups, TV viewing time increases steadily as we get older, according to the March 2014 “Cross-Platform Report” released by the Nielsen media ratings company.

Once we pass 65, we watch more than seven hours a day.

The average American then spends another 32 minutes a day on time-shifted television, an hour using the Internet on a computer, an hour and seven minutes on a smartphone and two hours, 46 minutes listening to the radio.

Averages can be deceiving, but wow.


Thursday, July 16th, 2015

In a letter dated Thursday, Sept. 6, 1928, Henry W. Akeley explains to Albert N. Wilmarth of Miskatonic University some once-again-timely facts about the Outer Beings:

Their main immediate abode is a still undiscovered and almost lightless planet at the very edge of our solar system — beyond Neptune, and the ninth in distance from the sun. It is, as we have inferred, the object mystically hinted at as “Yuggoth” in certain ancient and forbidden writings; and it will soon be the scene of a strange focusing of thought upon our world in an effort to facilitate mental rapport. I would not be surprised if astronomers become sufficiently sensitive to these thought-currents to discover Yuggoth when the Outer Ones wish them to do so. But Yuggoth, of course, is only the stepping- stone. The main body of the beings inhabits strangely organized abysses wholly beyond the utmost reach of any human imagination. The space-time globule which we recognize as the totality of all cosmic entity is only an atom in the genuine infinity which is theirs. And as much of this infinity as any human brain can hold is eventually to be opened up to me, as it has been to not more than fifty other men since the human race has existed.

Political Theory from the Future

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Neal Stephenson may eventually be remembered as the most subversive Sci-Fi author of his generation:

His technological extrapolations are fun, but Stephenson’s most interesting and subversive contributions lie in his sociological and political thinking.


I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the America of Snow Crash referred to in the media as a libertarian dystopia, and I think calling it a dystopia entirely misses Stephenson’s point. After all, a typical dystopian science fiction tale will (or should) unambiguously take whatever ideology it’s trying to address to the mat and demonstrate its horrors through object lessons. Snow Crash doesn’t do that at all. Rather, it depicts a very well functioning world which just happens to seem terrifying to late-20th-century readers.


We move on to The Diamond Age. The world of this story is dominated by the presence of nanotechnology. Every material object is absurdly cheap, bordering on free. Yet there is still an enormous underclass of stateless individuals (“thetes”), including our protagonist Nell. Why? Well, turns out you naturally end up with haves and have-nots even in a post-scarcity world. To hammer home this lesson, Stephenson sets atop the hierarchy of this world a group known as the Neo-Victorians. The Neo-Victorians have lords and knights; ladies are expected to stay home and raise the children; despite the ability to build anything they could want, they choose to wear old-fashioned, handmade dresses and shoes and bowler hats. My favorite Stephenson term of all time is “equity lord,” meaning somebody who has the title of Lord because they are an equity holder in the corporation which constitutes the economic footprint of Neo-Victorian society.

Where Snow Crash seemed at first blush to be an anarcho-libertarian dystopia, The Diamond Age seems almost like some kind of Reactionary dystopia, except where exactly are the dystopian elements? Yes, there’s a huge underclass — there’s an equally huge underclass today, and factory workers in the modern Third World are materially worse off than the poor of The Diamond Age. At least the thetes of the story have their bread and circuses and free housing.


Locked in economic (and eventually military) contest with the Neo-Victorians are the Chinese Confucian phyle. While the Neo-Victorians are largely Anglo-Saxon technologists who embrace a Victorian social and material aesthetic, the Confucians are a largely ethnic Han Chinese group who embrace the principles of Confucian hierarchy as it existed before the British made China a de facto colony, complete with Mandarins and corporal punishment and strict patriarchy. So the two dominant social and economic powerhouses in the story adhere to extremely rigid, patriarchal, Reactionary social codes. The story doesn’t leave us wondering why this is, either — we’re told through the conversations of the characters that when nation-states and traditional economic models fail, people fall back on ethnic homogeneity, conservative and traditional gender roles, and harshly regressive penal codes in order to establish the unity, cohesiveness, and strength needed to compete in a chaotic world.

Okay — so The Diamond Age looks like a Reactionary vision of the future and Snow Crash looks like a Libertarian vision of the future. Neither are particularly dystopian, at least not compared to reality, but nor are they sugar-coated utopian fantasies. They are more like semi-serious extrapolations, evenhanded simulations of what those socio-political systems might turn into.

He goes on to look at Seveneves and Anathem, too.

(I’ve discussed The Diamond Age before.)

Dune, 50 Years On

Friday, July 10th, 2015

In 1959, Frank Herbert was researching a US Department of Agriculture program to stabilize the shifting sands near Florence, Oregon, by introducing European beach grass:

About to turn 40, Herbert had been a working writer since the age of 19, and his fortunes had always been patchy. After a hard childhood in a small coastal community near Tacoma, Washington, where his pleasures had been fishing and messing about in boats, he’d worked for various regional newspapers in the Pacific northwest and sold short stories to magazines. He’d had a relatively easy war, serving eight months as a naval photographer before receiving a medical discharge. More recently he’d spent a weird interlude in Washington as a speechwriter for a Republican senator. There (his only significant time living on the east coast) he attended the daily Army-McCarthy hearings, watching his distant relative senator Joseph McCarthy root out communism. Herbert was a quintessential product of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast, self-reliant and distrustful of centralised authority, yet with a mile-wide streak of utopian futurism and a concomitant willingness to experiment. He was also chronically broke. During the period he wrote Dune, his wife Beverly Ann was the main bread-winner, her own writing career sidelined by a job producing advertising copy for department stores.

Soon, Herbert’s research into dunes became research into deserts and desert cultures.

His research into ecology and desert cultures combined with many other influences, too:

This setup owes something to the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as well as the tales written by Idaho-born food chemist Elmer Edward “Doc” Smith, creator of the popular Lensman space operas of the 1940s and 50s, in which eugenically bred heroes are initiated into a “galactic patrol” of psychically enhanced supercops. For Smith, altered states of consciousness were mainly tools for the whiteous and righteous to vaporise whole solar systems of subversives, aliens and others with undesirable traits. Herbert, by contrast, was no friend of big government. He had also taken peyote and read Jung. In 1960, a sailing buddy introduced him to the Zen thinker Alan Watts, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Long conversations with Watts, the main conduit by which Zen was permeating the west-coast counterculture, helped turn Herbert’s pacy adventure story into an exploration of temporality, the limits of personal identity and the mind’s relationship to the body.

Herbert didn’t stop writing non-Dune works after the book’s success:

He wrote about education for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and lectured at the University of Washington. In 1972, during the American push to extricate itself from the south-east Asian quagmire, he worked in Vietnam, part of a project called “Land to the Tiller”, aimed at cutting Viet Cong recruitment by enacting land reform. He built a family home on the Olympic peninsula which he thought of as an “ecological demonstration project”. He built his own solar collector, wind plant and methane fuel generator. In a 1981 interview he described himself a “technopeasant”.

Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to bring his vision of Dune to the silver screen, and David Lynch’s didn’t live up to the book’s promise:

Actually, the great Dune film did get made. Its name is Star Wars. In early drafts, this story of a desert planet, an evil emperor, and a boy with a galactic destiny also included warring noble houses and a princess guarding a shipment of something called “aura spice”. All manner of borrowings from Dunelitter the Star Wars universe, from the Bene Gesserit-like mental powers of the Jedi to the mining and “moisture farming” on Tattooine. Herbert knew he’d been ripped off, and thought he saw the ideas of other SF writers in Lucas’s money-spinning franchise. He and a number of colleagues formed a joke organisation called the We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.

Star Wars borrows from everything.

As I’ve said before, I find Dune oddly compelling, even though it didn’t quite work for me.

Engineering Fiction

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The first two-thirds of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is not science fiction so much as engineering fiction, John Derbyshire notes:

The moon suddenly disintegrates, cause unknown. There are seven big pieces and innumerable smaller ones.

At first there seems no cause for alarm. The fragments are gravitationally bound. The single, solid moon has been replaced by a rubble cloud; that’s all. The big pieces — orbiting their common center of gravity — occasionally collide and shatter, but there seems to be no danger in that.

Then someone does the math. The number of collisions will increase exponentially, reaching a “hockey stick” upward turn in two years’ time. Then trillions of moon fragments will fall from orbit onto the Earth, superheating the atmosphere and sterilizing the surface. The bombardment will last for millennia.

The first two-thirds of Seveneves describes the frenzied two-year effort to get enough people and materials into orbit for life up there to be self-sustaining. The International Space Station, somewhat enhanced from its actual current configuration, plays a lead role.

At this point in what we used to call “the Space Age” (remember?), ISS — now in its 15th year of continuous occupation — is deeply unglamorous. Probably most Americans are not aware of its existence. Neal Stephenson is very aware. He has researched ISS down to the last lug. It’s the toehold he needs to make his story work.

So this first two-thirds of the book is in fact not so much science fiction as engineering fiction. There are no just-barely-imaginable scientific possibilities in play here, only Newtonian mechanics and a relentless press of technical problems large and small. Large: Those trillions of falling rocks will fall through the orbital zone ISS inhabits. Small: The human eyeball loses its shape in prolonged weightlessness, so everyone needs new eyeglasses.

You either like this kind of thing or you don’t. I couldn’t get enough of it, and breezed through these first 566 pages.

Free-Handed with Violence

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

I haven’t seen the latest Mad Max yet, but David Grant explains that the villain of the piece, Immortan Joe, maintains a measure of civilization but is still the villain — to a modern audience, at least — because he is more free-handed with violence than with the benefits of civilization:

He engages in slavery; he attacks people who simply wander into his territory; he withholds water from the people below him; he restricts immigration up to his fortress. All these things are supposed to feel wrong to us modern, Western viewers. Instead, we’re supposed to sympathize with Furiosa and company’s dream of escaping Joe’s tyranny. When the gang returns to the Citadel with Joe’s corpse strapped to the front of their car, there is much rejoicing as the crowd tears Joe’s corpse, the women carry people up to the fortress along with them, and the women already up top release water for the people below.

What we do not see is that the food supply is still meager, the people overuse the water and eventually run out, and a rival warlord seizes Gastown and the Bullet Farm and lays siege to the Citadel, killing or enslaving everyone he gets his hands on. The women’s dream of a better life for themselves and their children proves illusory. Max, understandably, doesn’t stick around to watch all this unfold.

That’s not the point though:

Compare Max to another uncivilized hero near-and-dear to the hearts of many neoreactionaries: Conan the Cimmerian. Conan kills, rapes, and steals as the desire strikes him and prudence permits him; he has no respect for private property, law and order, or any authority beyond power. He has a barbaric code of honor that places great emphasis on personal ties and obligations, and while that code often makes him more admirable than his civilized antagonists, it is not sufficient to support a civilization.

Like Fury Road, the stories of Conan are straightforward action-adventures. We don’t read them for any kind of morality play but rather because we want to see a man facing adversity and triumphing through strength and cunning. When Conan strangles the tyrannical king of Aquilonia and seizes his throne, we are not supposed to take this as social commentary and definitely not supposed to go out and try our own hands at Hyborian rapine.

The value of Max and Conan, as well as heroes from James Bond to Luke Skywalker to Odysseus, is to exemplify various masculine virtues and to show us the great deeds that can be accomplished with them. Their stories inspire us to live out those same virtues; they teach us how to be men. This kind of instruction is badly needed these days.

Mad Max: Fury Road should be watched as an action-adventure film. There is no need for us to seek a deeper meaning to it. But if people want to see it as a morality play and to sing the praises of Furiosa, the strong, independent woman who still needs a man, we can explain how Joe was a benefactor to his people and that by destroying him, Furiosa has led them all to death and desolation. Normal people do not wish to live in the waste; they will recoil from these thoughts.