Thursday, June 24, 2010

Deus Ex Scriptores

I have come to the conclusion that there may be some legitimacy to "Intelligent Design" after all.

How did I come to this conclusion? Well, it started when Lucy Pevensie claimed that she had been to to the magical land of Narnia and, get this, that she went there through a wardrobe. I know I was skeptical too. But then Professor Kirke said we had to believe her because she was family. Okay, I wasn't family, but Peter, Susan and Edmund were. But, anyway, since they knew her, they knew she couldn't be crazy, and therefore couldn't under any circumstances think something was true that wasn't. And they knew that she wasn't a bad person, and therefore would never under any circumstances lie. Therefore, she had to be telling the truth.

Since I wasn't family, I chose to remain skeptical, but whaddya know, later on in the book we all found Narnia. As such I have come to the conclusion that the universe was designed by an intelligent being. Specifically, the universe of Narnia was designed by an Irishman named C. S. Lewis, who was "intelligent" in the sense of being sentient.

However, it should be noted that this intelligent designer tried to use the same argument, known as Lewis's trilemma to prove the existence of God. Because Jesus (apparently) wasn't evil or a madman, he must have been telling the truth all the time.

Unlike, Narnia, this shoddy logic is the only evidence Lewis provides for the existence of God.

In general, problems like this occur when one tries to use a work of fiction to prove a point. In a work of fiction the author can decide what happens, but not in real life. If they want the attempt at creating a utopia to result in the creation of an unspeakable dystopia, the author can come up with a clumsy reason for that to happen. If they want aliens to come from a parallel universe that sees our own universe as its Platonic Ideal, they can do that, even if it makes no sense whatsoever.

But it doing that doesn't help prove your point. For this tactic to be effective in proving one's point, the fictional device has to be plausible in the real world. When the point you are trying to make is that God exists, this becomes even more problematic. This is because there is sufficiently little evidence for the existence of a sentient creator, that one can safely assume the non-existence of God. But in fictional universes, there is always a creator, the author.

So when someone tries to use fiction to argue for the existence of God, really all they're arguing is that they wrote a book.

Flat-Earth Atheism

Where things get really weird for Lewis is in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, where all the Pevensie kids we've grown to love get killed in a train crash and go to Narnia Heaven. All except one. Susan Pevensie, you see, no longer believes in Narnia, so she doesn't get to die happily ever after (to find out what does happen, see Neil Gaiman's excellent short story "The Problem of Susan" from the anthology Fragile Things).

Now, in real life, it's possible that someone might be convinced by Lewis's trilemma, become a believer, and then later realize it's all a load of crap. But Susan actually went to Narnia. That's pretty incontrovertible evidence. It would be like me suddenly not believing in France. You don't just stop believing in places you've been to. Not without serious head trauma. And mind you, she stopped believing before the train crash.

This is the main reason why the Harry Potter books are better than the Narnia books (more can be found here). When muggles see magic in action they become believers in magic and only stop believing when a witch or wizard casts a memory charm on them.

The Buffyverse also gets it right. Oz's reaction when he sees a vampire get staked in front of him: "Actually, it explains a lot." It also has Willow getting into witchcraft by viewing it as another branch of science. Because in the Buffyverse, magic is another branch of science.

Like the Narnia books, the Christian horror movies that popped up in the last decade are fond of Flat-Earth atheists. This is silliest in The Reaping where a small town is infested by biblical plagues.

Hillary Swank plays an atheist who travels around the world trying to disprove miracles through science and reason. When she encounters the biblical plagues she insists there must be a scientific explanation, but by the end of the movie becomes convinced that some things can't be explained by science and returns to her faith. But the fact that Carey Hayes can inflict biblical plagues on a fictional town doesn't mean that anyone can inflict biblical plagues on real small towns.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose does the same thing with Laura Linney's skeptical defense attorney. In this case it's even more sleazy because it was based on the real-life story of Anneliese Michel who died of malnutrition and dehydration resulting from a year-long exorcism. And the movie expects us to defend her mistreatment because in the fictionalized version she was actually possessed.

But it's not just explicitly Christian and religious fiction that employs this device. Flat-earth atheists are an efficient way to create the illusion of depth in a fantasy story. So if you want to convince people that your "'Gilligan's Island' meets 'Twin Peaks'" TV show is more than weird for weird sake, you can toss in a Flat-Earth atheist, and suddenly, it's all, like, you know, about something, and, you know stuff.

Consider the epic faith-off between Jack Shephard and John Locke (no relation to the philosopher of the same name). Shephard's Flat-Earth atheism was especially prominent in the second season where there was an arc concerning a button that has to be hit every 108 minutes or the world will end. It's completely implausible in real life, but the Lost universe is sufficiently weird that it's understandable that someone might create such a button.

Much of the debate about the button concerns whether it's real or just a psychological experiment. If it is just an experiment then it should be okay to not push the button, but if it's real horrible things will happen. So the severity of what would happen if its real counteracts the unlikelihood of it actually being real. Of course, this is a world with smoke monsters and polar bears on a tropical island, so it's probably real.

But rather than presenting the debate in those terms, it's just Shephard doesn't want to push the button because he's a "man of science", while Locke does want to push it because he's a "man of faith". Later when Locke looses his faith temporarily a new character, Mr. Eko, is introduced to be even more faithey than Locke ever was. After a season of shouting they see what happens when they don't press the button and, surprise surprise, faith wins. Because in the universe of Lost, faith must always win. Even though in the real world science wins all the time.

The fact that everything is so weird in the Lost-i-verse, however means that it would be perfectly reasonable and scientific to think that the button is legit. Just as Willow can use scientific principles to figure out how magic works in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Shephard should be able to conclude, through the scientific method, that things on the island are pretty wonky. But then the show wouldn't be able to "prove" that science is wrong.

This is especially annoying because the basic premise of the world-ending button and whether or not it's for real is an interesting premise that is perfectly suited to a "weird for weird sake" show like Lost. But by pretending to be deep, it turned into a season of Shephard, Locke and Eko yelling at each other.

Furthermore, back in 1991, another "weird for weird sake" show, Ren & Stimpy, tackled the issue in the episode "Space Madness", and did so with much more finesse. This was accomplished by not trying to turn it into a religious allegory.

Fourth Wall

Of course, one can still use fiction to make points. One way of doing this is to create a fourth wall, where the fictional world obeys its own logic, even if that isn't necessarily the same logic as the real world. In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the various magical aspects are based on scientific principles going down to the particle level. In the Harry Potter books and the Buffyverse magic is a bit less rigorously defined, but they still adhere to basic laws of cause and effect.

Those fantasy series can use the rules of their fantasy-worlds to present parallels to our world and be genuinely deep, where the Narnia books, Christian horror movies and Lost fail.

Science fiction, and especially hard science fiction does this a lot more often. In recent years, the science fiction show that has done the best job at being legitimately deep has been Ronald D. Moore's re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. Moore took a (mostly) naturalistic approach to the series, and used it to explore a lot of issues, often related to the war in Iraq. Now the occupation of New Caprica wasn't exactly like the occupation of Iraq, but they were close enough that the show could explore the issues without too many inexplicable plot development that exist solely to make the points.

However, there was one aspect where Battlestar Galactica ultimately failed: and that was once again the "faith vs. science" issue. It actually started out pretty well. The war with the cylons was made into a religious war between the polytheist humans and the monotheist cylons. So, yeah, the monotheists were the bad guys.

But over the course of the series, they added in mysteries, possibly trying to capitalize on the success of Lost, and kept on putting off their explanation. First they made Baltar have visions of one of the hot cylon babes, Number Six. Then they made those visions make actual predictions. Then they went out of their way to explain that the visions weren't the result of a chip in his head. Then they made Number Six have visions of Baltar, and be equally confused by them, definitively throwing out any possibility that the visions were being generated by her. Then they made Baltar have visions of himself.

Then there was all sorts of other stuff where characters would take weird drugs that would guide them to earth. Then they made those drugs work. And then there was all that stuff with Starbuck that I won't spoil. And then characters started spontaneously getting Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" stuck in their heads at the same time. By the last episode, the genre of the show effectively changed from science fiction to fantasy, and there was a big deus ex machina ending that pretty much said that God was responsible for all of the unexplained events.

The specific words Baltar says are:
"I see angels, angels in this very room. Now I may be mad, but that doesn't mean that I'm not right, because there's another force at work here. There always has been."

And he's right, mostly. There is another force at work here. But this isn't the work of angels, but this guy:

It's not an act of God, or God out of the machine. It's God out of the writer (see essay title).

In addition to the fact that it doesn't make the point very effectively, this ending also breaks the fourth wall. Because the series was so naturalistic most of the time, all the various mysteries shatter that naturalism, and draw attention to the fact that they result from the writers painting themselves into a corner. In this respect, Lost was able to get away with some of these things, because it was weird for weird sake from the start.

But still, Lost was at its best when it was just dicking around and not pretending to be deep. And Battlestar Galactica was at its best when it was actually being deep.

Going Meta

Of course you don't always have to go the naturalistic route. Sometimes it can be fun to treat the author as a God in a fictional universe. Especially when said writer/God is, for want of a better word, a "stinker".

In this situation, you use the lack of realism to comedic effect. You don't pretend that it is real, because it's not.

You can also use this technique to make a point. For example, the plays of Bertold Brecht tend to strip things down to their bare essentials, sort of like Leonhard Euler reducing the seven bridges of Königsberg to a few dots and lines. But in this case, you use the last remnants of realism to make the point, and the lack of realism is just intended to prevent other things from getting in the way.

The color of the bridges of Königsberg has no bearing whether on not you can cross them and end up back where you started. Similarly, the family history of Anna II in The Seven Deadly Sins has no bearing on whether or not bourgeois conceptions of morality are based in absolute truth or defense of the status quo (for the record, it's the latter).

A similar approach is to take an idea you don't like, and follow its logical consequences to the point of absurdity. In this case the lack of realism is what makes the point. Pyotr Lustik's movie The Outskirts does both of these, where he caricatures old Soviet "socialist realism" to attack Stalinism, while stripping its main plot to its bare essentials to attack capitalism. But in all of these situations you have to acknowledge that there is a difference between the crazy fictional universe and reality.

But just as Christians refuse to acknowledge that fantasy mythopoeia is distinct from reality, post-modernists refuse to acknowledge that wacky, meta, fourth-wall breaking fiction is distinct from reality.

The post-modernist approach to meta is the same as C. S. Lewis's approach to fantasy. Lewis says that in the fantasy world there is a creator (which is correct), so there is a creator in real life (which is not). The post-modernists say that fiction is not real (which is correct), so reality must also not be real (which is incorrect).

While Catholics would readily admit that not all fantasy concurs with their worldview (His Dark Materials, for instance), post-modernists have this annoying habit of referring to everything as post-modern. If you adhere to a cliché, it's post-modern. If you subvert a cliché, it's post-modern. If you ignore, a cliché, it's post-modern. If you do anything even remotely weird, it's post-modern. It gets to the point where people assume that post-modern and meta are the same thing.

And people, like Joss Whedon, for example, will even describe their own non-post-modern artworks as "post-modern" without even knowing what the term means. For the record, post-modernism is the philosophical belief that all of reality is just a figment of Umberto Eco's imagination. The post-modernists literally believe that God is a writer.

There are a lot of things art can do. It can entertain. It can provide useful social commentary. It can provide escape from the reality or draw attention to truths you'd rather not acknowledge. It can scare you. It can provide something to make fun of. It can do a bunch of those at the same time. Fiction can draw attention to aspects of reality or it can revel in its lack of reality.

But fiction is still fiction, and reality is still reality. Don't go mixing them up.


  1. Even at its best - and it's one of the best - BSG raised questions I felt were insufficiently addressed. Like how do you settle a labor dispute in the middle of a deep space diaspora? Or what can be done to address the contradictions of an open society "under attack" by sleeper-cell style terrorism?

    But it did do what good fiction does best: break up and recombine elements of society, themes, issues, and present them in thought-provoking ways. It took the cold-war concept of the soulless robot and re-cast it as the post-soviet cyborg, made them monotheists ... and then made them both the jihadist and the Christian occupying force.

  2. I would also be interested in knowing what you think of the various works of China Mieville, "weird fiction" author, member of the SWP in Britain, and childhood fan of Dungeons and Dragons. Read anything by him?

  3. In general there seems to be a tendency to cop-out endings in sci-fi TV episodes about labor disputes (all three of them). And, in general it's a bit too much to expect Ken Loach-level clarity in TV. "Land and Freedom" had enough trouble getting distribution. When you need to sustain a TV show over the course of several years based on advertising money, it makes things harder.

    I haven't yet read anything by China Miéville, but I have been meaning to get into him. I've heard good things about the Bas-Lag books. I have read this:

  4. Duuuude, great list! Thank you for sharing. I'm pleased to see a lot of things I've enjoyed on that list (Bellamy, Banks, Butler, London, Shelley, Wells) and that he was unabashed about putting Rand on there (I feel slightly vindicated about that). Other writers, like Moorcock and Robinson, I'm more surprised to see on there. This just cements the feeling that reading your blog has dropped me into a secret socialist sci-fi club, hahaha. Can we do a reading list together or something?

  5. To be clear, the entry on "Atlas Shrugged" begins with "Know your enemy." Think of it like Lynn Walsh recommending "The Economist" magazine.

    What about Moorcock and Robinson was surprising?

  6. Yep, it's exactly the same reason I feel moved to read Rand. (Coincidentally, I am subscribed to the Economist - and the WSJ, heh.)

    It's hard to put my finger on why Moorcock surprised me. I read one book of his long ago, something about his eternal champion series. I think maybe even the concept of an "eternal champion" or the way it worked in the books seemed reactionary rather than progressive. The German overtones evoked the Nibelungenlied and felt kind of ... "off" to me. But I think I read it in middle school, whatever it was. Obviously it would be worth reading again, and perhaps more extensively.

    Robinson - I've never read his work, but it always seemed to me to just be some apolitical sci-fi. I was unaware until reading his Wikipedia article that he wrote The Years of Rice and Salt, too, which always looked interesting to me. I'm surprised mostly as a result of my own ignorance, in this case.

  7. I am not a postmodernist, but if anything could make me become one, it would be your ludicrous obnoxious strawman arguments against them.