Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Climate of Opinion

Hot on the news that James Gunn will be named the next Science Fiction Grandmaster - an award he will receive at the 2007 Nebula Awards ceremony in May- John Joseph Adams ran an interview on SciFi Wire that I only just stumbled on now (I've been away). At the close of the interview, Gunn articulated something so well that I'm going to repost it here, italics mine:

"Let's save the world through science fiction. Built into SF is a concept that the world is changing, and we can influence the direction of that change by the choices we make today. I believe SF thinking has the potential to save the world, not in specific ways—it always has stressed the need to do something about pollution, overpopulation, war, racial and gender prejudice and all the other crimes against humanity that we could change if we chose—but in the more important general ways. So it isn't any one thing, but our human outlook that can save the world. To offer one illustration: Isaac Asimov said, 'SF writers and readers didn't put a man on the moon all by themselves, but they created a climate of opinion in which the goal of putting a man on the moon became acceptable.'"

It's that climate of opinion that I think is so important. I remember when James Cameron's Terminator 2 came out in 1991 , being really struck by how important it was that Cameron suggested the annihilation of humanity via technology (which I took then as a strong metaphor for our nukes) wasn't inevitable. Even the uber-optimistic Star Trek always just assumed that WWIII happened sometime in the 1990s. It was an assumption that was pretty universal (even in comics continuity - poor Jonah Hex) all through the 60s and 70s, and Cameron was the first time I registered someone standing up and saying "Maybe this doesn't have to happen." And say what you will about Arnold Schwarzennegger - putting out a mass meme like that is of major importance. Because the ideals of our media do trickle down into our collective consciousness and take root. (There's a great line I seem to recall reading in Japan Edge: The Insider's Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture that talks about how we're the generation that got our morality from The Brady Bunch but saved the higher philosophical notions for Empire Strikes Back. True.)

Nor do I think Cameron's subtitle Judgment Day should be overlooked. Because there's no literal final judgement by the machines of the humans in the film; no judgment imposed from the outside (by robots or dieties) - the day in question is the day in 1991 where the concept that the future is predetermined (uh, predestined) is undermined. And it was around that same time, sometime between August 2, 1990 and February 1991 - a period I spent mostly in London - when I was back in Alabama watching with horror as those around me, some of them relatives, all speculated if the Gulf War wasn't the start of Armaggedon - the general opinion of the time being that if it was, they were all ready to meet Jesus. (I sure as hell wasn't!) And the realization then that we had a man in power with his finger on the button who might share the same crazy notion as those around me sent a chill down my spine. So, for my money, the importance of fostering a climate of opinion in which we have some positive alternatives to blowing ourselves up was and remains vital.

17 comments:

David B. Ellis said...

Your family sounds much like mine (I'm from Tennessee). I grew up in a household where it was assumed the Second Coming was almost certainly just around the corner.

A damn dangerous meme.....all too possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lou Anders said...

When I lived in Hollywood, I couldn't get my writing partner to understand that my father believed in a seven day creation. "But your dad is so smart," he kept protesting. The thing that it was so hard to get him (and friends from all around the world) to grasp was that there were some very sophisticated intellects who believed in the literal truth of the the Bible. It was one thing to think "simple folk" in the "Deep South" believed, but another to imagine that people as smart or smarter than yourself did. But for me, attending a fundamentalist school and church from 1st to 12th grade, going away to college was a reverse-revelation. It blew my mind to meet people who weren't just nonbelievers, but had no concept of the Bible at all. At 17 I met some girls from NY who had never even heard about the resurrection, and they might as well have told me they were from mars. I could accept that they weren't believers, but growing up in America and not even knowing the story was like, to my perception then, like growing up here in Alabama and somehow speaking Chinese instead of English! Talk about scales falling from your eyes. So for many years, I was an ex-Christian like I'm an ex-smoker. It's taken me two decades to realize that there are good people doing good things in the name of religion too. I believe, statistically, that Xtians give the largest percentage of charity of any social group (would love a fact check on this), but I'm pretty hard on attempts to roll back the Enlightenment.

Paul Cornell said...

Thanks, Lou, that's typically open-minded of you. (This being the internet, I'd better point out that I just meant that, with no sarcasm implied.) I think the apocalypse is a burden that the cultures of religion, nuclear war and physics (the Big Bang implies an ending, and we find it hard to think about what may be the case, no start and no end) all unconsciously participated in creating. My own form of Christianity insists upon striving for a *future*. The Kingdom, if you will. Which I see as something more akin to the Revolution (in its most intellectual form, no walls and gunshots), or even one's own personal enlightenment, than to trumpets, whores riding dragons, etc.. I may have written a novel about this once. And 'the person who believes the opposite to what I do is as smart as me': *that's* a meaningful revelation. Why do you always lead me into these serious discussions? Can't you start a debate about fluffy bunnies or something?

hutch said...

I don't know about the beliefs of the Bush family, but I remember once reading somewhere that Reagan believed in the literal fact of the Apocalypse. Which, considering he was one of the few people on the planet actually capable of causing it, was...startling.
Paul's right; can't we talk about fluffy bunnies?

Anonymous said...

Paul is on to something here. Is our culture trapped in a Biblical paradigm?

(Consider the little clues. Why does everyone swear religiously, even the non-religious? "Go to Hell!" shouldn't have any significance to a lot of people, and yet... they say it.)
:-S

hutch said...

Actually, now I think about it, I wonder if Asimov shouldn't have gone further and said that science fiction had set the goals in the first place.

Tim Akers said...

We seem to be going in a couple directions with this discussion. Frustrating, because I thought of a bunch of things I wanted to say when I started to read Lou's post, then a bunch of other things at the second half...and then there are things in the comments I want to respond to. And I'm at work, and there's a lot to do.

I'll start with the most recent discussion, about the role of xianity is society. Paul and Lou are both right, xians do represent the lion's share of charity in the country. My wife and many of my friends work with one of the largest fundraising organizations in the country, mostly focused on homeless shelters and food banks around the country. Entirely xian, and the language of charity is by its very nature spiritual.

That's part of what drives me batty about fundamentalist xianity. It's supposed to be a religion of charity, humility and love. The current iteration bouncing around the cultural sphere of america simply isn't. When we talk about values voting, what we should be talking about is taking care of the poor and good stewardship of the planet, not gay marriage and abortion.

Re: The Apocalypse. Complicated. This is something I used to think about a lot, when I was younger, and so the residue of the apologitics is still strong in my head. When most kids were arguing, I suppose, rock bands and kissing girls, I was arguing millenialism with my father the theologian. This is why I drink. I will say that it's safe to assume that most american evangelicals are historical premillenialists, meaning that they believe in some variation of a literal interpretation of the book of the revelation, except the bits which clearly make no sense, like the actual number of the elect and so forth.

What Paul seems to be espousing (and I'm just theorizing here, I could be full of it or misinterpreting or something) is postmillenialism. Which fascinates me. Postmil is a very optomistic school of thought, which sort of implies an individual apocalypse which works its way out into a culture-wide and then world-wide apocalypse as the whole race strives for a better and more perfect tomorrow. As far as I know the last time it held much sway culturally was in the age of the Titanic, when people believed that things were getting better, and they would always keep getting better. Heaven on earth. It heartens me to think that this could become more prominent today.

I've blathered too much, and haven't even touched on the things that I actually wanted to talk about. Curses, Lou. Curses.

Lou Anders said...

In the early 90s, I was heavily into Robert Anton Wilson, and thru him Tim Leary's SMI2LE equation (Space migration, intelligence increase + life extension), reading Mondo 2000 from issue one and a total extropian transhumanist before I had the vocab, when a british socialist/marxist friend of mine running a theatre company in Chicago burst my bubble big time by pointing out that I had traded one hope of heaven for another, that my notions of progress were deeply rooted in American can-do meets religious fundamentalism. Ever since, I've been deeply suspicious, not of the Rapture of the Nerds, but of the longing for it. And it was around that time that an ex-girlfriend had me laying on the ground in tears by taking me thru Ram Das' Be Here Now.

I'm fascinated, though, by what looks like humanistic extropianism working backwards into liberal theology, and want to explore this. But what fascinates me about Paul's beliefs, if I may speak of you my friend, is that they would be utterly unrecognizable as Xtianity to anyone over here. I was raised in a dualist worldview where there were Xtians and non-Xtians, and apart from the Jews, who had a partial excuse for getting it half right, that was it. (Aside: far from being anti-semetic, a lot of Fundamentalists wish they were jewish, as to be a jew who converts to Christianity is to be double-chosen.) But point is, our "reality tunnel" (thank you RAW for that insight) was one in which if you weren't a Jedi, then you were deliberately and knowingly a Sith. Secular humanists lurked under the bed, waiting to pull me down, so that, when I was 17 and in Europe and met the NYC girls referenced above, when they told me they weren't Xtiains, I replied "Oh, so you must be secular humanists." To which they responded, "Huh?" (That I now work for, in the persons of Prometheus Books, the one group of anti-Xtians that actively does self-identify as secular humanists is the height of irony and/or the evidence of karma).

It was a tremendous revelation, occuring in my 20s, to recognize that the world wasn't just two sides of a coin, but that Christianity was a range that included Mormonism on one end, Catholicism in the middle, and voodoo on the other side. My brother hit a similar insight when he studied Hinduism and decided that there ain't no such animal, just a billion disparate regional beliefs that only appear as one religion when viewed by ignorant Westerners looking in from the outside. His medieval studies led him from there to the opinion that there was no such animal as "Christianity" either...

But the point is, to walk out of that kind of a Truman Show into the world wide web hopefully goes a way towards explaining why when someone tells me not religion is bad, it takes me some nerve-steeling moments not to shiver. I grew up on the Planet of the Apes, and when someone like my good friend Paul says, "But hey, we've got good apes over on my side of the pond who promise not to cut your brain open and lobotomize you. Why not come party with us?" My response is still somewhere between, "Not that I don't believe you and thanks, but I've had enough apes for a lifetime already," and "Why must we always talk about apes? Can't we talk about lemurs and wombats for a change?"

Ironically, Mike Moorcock and I were recently talking about his non (not anti) religious upbringing, and how his post-Fundamentalist friends all strike him as exactly like his post-Communist ones, unable to talk about matters without framing them in terms of the State, despite their relationship to the State having changed. A prodigal or rebellious child is still a child of their parent, after all.

But walking out of a narrowly constructed and all-defining worldview into a larger galaxy is an experience that you cannot understand unless you've been there, akin to discovering your sight after years of being blind, and probably explains, among other things, my attraction to SF, as it was both means of and metaphor for my own journey slash escape.

Still, liberal theology's revelation as a self-actualized, lets-work-for-it utopia fascinates me. My big question is - if we manage to build our Roddenberry-esque, currency free (I read that book,Paul, see), meritocratic, egalitarian space heaven, why credit it to Jesus? And how will we know whose hand brought it about anyway? Might claiming it in the name of religion be a bit like the IRA phoning in to say "we did it" after an explosion they might not have set? Or does it matter? But need we label it at all?

I think I know the answer. My brother followed a parallel-in-time/inverse-in-direction trajectory to my own course to awakening, when he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. In his mind, he was tired of legalese and dogma, and merely wanted the focus of his religion to be on the most important commandment, not one of the Ten that get posted around the courtrooms here, but simply the injunction: "Feed my sheep."

Paul Cornell said...

I think the Church of England feeling would be, Lou, that those you were raised amongst, while doubtless having many other fine qualities, were taking bits of scripture and really... running with them. Sprinting, even. Taking to the air, let us say.

Now, that's just us saying we're right and they're not, which is as bad as anything else. Except that we choose to enforce *our* rightness on the world by staging a number of quite fun village fetes, and giving out a large number of sticky buns, possibly with some tea. Those who disagree... get *no tea*. And maybe, if they're really bad... even no buns. Yes, unto that extreme. That is the nature of the Anglican Inquisition.

All of which is my way of saying that my 'weird liberal semi-Christianity' is actually a national blinking state religion, ta! If you'd been brought up here, you'd have had questioning everything you'd been taught beaten into you at an early age.

You lot pay no attention when I boggle at what passes for the Christianity you're battling hand to hand with, do you? If you were battling with Anglicanism... well, you'd win, obviously. But you'd be well fed and catered for along the way. Damn it.

Lou Anders said...

I hope I have not offended you.
Your rebuttal has me in stitches either way. I do maintan that discussions you and I have had of religion differ from (or expand beyond?) my understanding of Anglicanism, such as it is, but I surrender happily to the Anglican Inquisition. I do not mean to denigrate your beliefs by associating them with the weird uber-cult of my current environs, though sometimes it is hard to see any religion free of the psychic scars and mind forged manacles of my youth.

Paul Cornell said...

'What are the symbols on those buns?' -Dracula Has Written To His Nephew, Hammer Productions, 1968.

Tim Akers said...

I would like to say that, when going through my various religious struggles of the past, I frequently sat down and said something along the lines of "I wish I'd been born Anglican" or something.

Lou Anders said...

I should add that my wife, when she asked and was informed as to what I've been blogging about all day, opinioned that she deserved a great deal more sympathy points for having grown up in a communist regime than I get for simply living in the deep south. It's worth noting, however, that even as a child she could recognize propoganda for what it was, and as such, has always been bemusedly apolitical, whereas I drank the koolaid hook, line & sinker. I am always jealous of those who can view religion from an outsider perspective without the accompanying baggage.

Anonymous said...

My father went through the whole 'scales-dropped-from-his-eyes' experience when he became a sailor in the late fifties, and experienced other cultures -- he grew up in a region steeped in fundamental Christianity (yes, we do have those, even in Holland ;-).

So while I grew up in the same Dutch 'Bible Belt', I was never imprinted with that viewpoint, because my parents let me develop it for myself.

And that went either way: for example, when I --as a young kid -- wanted to go to Sunday School, they just let me. I simply wanted to go because most of my friends went there: so I assumed it had to be cool. When I went there -- just for the one time -- I found it horrible. I couldn't understand why my friends would go there. I just didn't realise that they *had* to go there from their parents.

Anyway, while I was always aware of the fundamental Christian angle, I never much carried that baggage with me.

Also, my worldview in early 90s Europe was quite different: that was just after the Iron Curtain fell, and the Soviet Union became (more or less) democratic. In other words: the Cold War was over!

I do distinctly recall having nightmares over the Cold War turning hot. In the Netherlands we were almost right in the line of fire: if West Germany went, we were toast, as well. I had dreams of a full-blown nuclear war.

So when the Cold War ended, a huge burden fell off my shoulders. Compared to that, the first Gulf War was small beer. Armageddon to me was the USA and USSR launching their thousands of nuclear missiles. Gulf War 1 was a nuisance, no more.

Of course, I'm not happy with terrorism, or the war on terror. But I still feel multitudes safer than twenty years back. And to my mind, the post-apocalypse scenario died the moment the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. Which made Terminator 2: Judgement Day just entertainment, nothing more.

Admittedly that's a European viewpoint.

--Jetse

Anonymous said...

And yeah: I agree with Xin.

--Jetse

(Apologies if I spelled her name wrong!)

Joel Shepherd said...

While I understand the frustrations of home-grown conservatism, I have my own frustration with American liberals, who on the one hand criticise bible-belt Xtians as narrow minded and not understanding the broader world, and then condemn such fundamentalists as the worst religious fundamentalists on the whole planet. Which is itself a very narrow-minded misunderstanding of the world, because I think anyone who makes a point of studying and comparing these things should know that American religious fundamentalism is very benign by global standards.

I think this culture divide in America, between the religious and anti-religious, can become so obsessive that each side considers the other to be the worst possible extreme, without being aware of the broader global context. In fact, viewed from this distance (Australia), I think American believers and non-believers probably have far more in common than either would like to admit. Anyone not believing that should buy a plane ticket to Quetta, Pakistan, and live amongst the Taliban for a while.

david b, ellis said...


I was heavily into Robert Anton Wilson, and thru him Tim Leary's SMI2LE equation (Space migration, intelligence increase + life extension), reading Mondo 2000 from issue one and a total extropian transhumanist before I had the vocab, when a british socialist/marxist friend of mine running a theatre company in Chicago burst my bubble big time by pointing out that I had traded one hope of heaven for another, that my notions of progress were deeply rooted in American can-do meets religious fundamentalism.


Of course, the correspondence is obvious.....but, in my opinion, its not a matter of displaced religious longings.

I think its more fundamental than that. Religion and extropianism are both focused on a basic human desire---overcoming the limitations and suffering inherent in humann life---they just go about it in very different ways. Religion by what amounts to magic. Extropianism by science and reason.

Extropianism isn't religion under another name. Its simply addressing a reasonable human desire by rational instead of superstitious methods.