“What If It’s Already Too Late?”: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene

“We’re f**ked. Now what?”

From John Halstead

I had a terrible thought recently …

“What if it’s already too late?”

Actually, this idea has been haunting me, hovering on the boundary between my conscious and unconscious mind, for some time.

In 2016, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist organization 350.org, came to speak at a rally at the BP tar sands refinery in my “backyard” in the highly industrialized northwest corner Indiana.  The occasion was a series of coordinated direct actions around the world against the fossil fuel industry, collectively hailed as the largest direct action in the history of the environmental movement.

What struck me about McKibben’s speech, though, was its tone of … well, hopelessness. Here’s how he concluded his 10 minute speech:

“I wish that I could guarantee you that we’re all going to win in the end, the whole thing. And I can’t, because we don’t know. The physics of climate change is pretty daunting at this point. The momentum of it is pretty big. We’re not going to win everything. We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.

“But the work you’re doing literally couldn’t be more important. There’s not many people who get to say in their lives, ‘I’m doing the most important thing I could be doing.’ But that’s what you guys are doing today. I can’t guarantee you’re going to win. But I can guarantee you in every corner of the world that we’re going to fight. And that’s going to be enough for now, just knowing that we are taking it on.”

That’s pretty sobering material for a speech at an environmental activist rally, not to mention a speech by one of the leaders of the climate movement:

“We’re not going to stop global climate change. It’s too late for that.”

At the time, I was caught up in the enthusiasm of participating in my first act of civil disobedience, so I didn’t think much about McKibben’s words.

But they kept coming back to me.

“What Did He Just Say?”

“A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.”

I remembered McKibben’s words later, as I was watching Aaron Sorkin’s HBO TV series, The Newsroom.  In one scene, a high ranking scientist in the EPA is being interviewed by the show’s lead, a news anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The scientist explains that the latest measurements of atmospheric CO2 had passed the point of 400 ppm (parts per million) and what this means for humans:

EPA scientist: The last time there was this much CO2 in the air, the oceans were 80 feet higher than they are now. Two things you should know: Half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of an ocean.

News anchor: And the other?

EPA: Humans can’t breathe under water.

The anchor then asks the scientist what his “prognosis” for humanity is, “A thousand years, two thousand years?”  The scientist’s response was bone chilling:

“A person has already been born who will die due to catastrophic failure of the planet.”

After a pause to get his bearings, the anchor resumes:

News anchor: You’re saying the situation is dire?

EPA scientist: Not exactly. Your house is burning to the ground, the situation is dire. Your house has already burned to the ground, the situation is over.

News: So what can we do to reverse this?

EPA: Well there’s a lot we could do…

News: Good…

EPA: …20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But now, no.

News: Can you make an analogy that might help us understand?

EPA: Sure. It’s as if you’re sitting in your car, in your garage, with the engine running and the door closed, and you’ve slipped into unconsciousness. And that’s it.

News: What if someone comes and opens the door?

EPA: You’re already dead.

News: What if the person got there in time?

EPA: Then you’d be saved.

News: OK. So now what’s the CO2 equivalent of the getting there on time?

EPA: Shutting off the car 20 years ago.

News: You sound like you’re saying it’s hopeless.

EPA: Yeah.

(You can watch the full clip below.)

 

The first time I saw this, I felt a flood of conflicting emotions: a combination of sinking horror and an absurd desire to laugh. I recognize it now as gallows humor.

Now, this was a television show, but it’s not fiction.  In the real world, we passed 400 ppm not long after the episode aired. And the fatalism of Sorkin’s EPA scientist makes sense when we understand what 400 ppm really means.

Remember Bill McKibben’s organization, 350.org?  It takes its name from the research of James Hansen, the scientist​ who drew the public’s attention to climate change when he testified before Congress in 1988.  In 2007, Hansen told the world that 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point.

But we passed that point in 1988–30 years ago!

At time of my writing this, we have already seen CO2 levels as high as 412 ppm, and we are permanently over 400 ppm.  And we’re already feeling the effects: As of 2015, the planet is warmer than it has ever been in the last 11,000 years!

No wonder McKibben was fatalistic when I heard him speak in 2016.  When he organized 350.org, in 2007, it was already two decades after we had passed the safe threshold.  Now we’re in our third decade, and CO2 level had only continued to rise, with no sign of abating.  More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony than has been released in the entire history of civilization before that!

Science Fiction?

“Who killed the world?!” — Mad Max: Fury Road

“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

— Emerson

Back on the TV show, the Jeff Daniels’ character asks the scientist to explain what all this would look like:

EPA scientist: Well, mass migrations, food and water shortages, spread of deadly disease, endless wildfires. Way too many to keep under control. Storms that have the power to level cities, blacken out the sky, and create permanent darkness.

In this hopes that this was hyperbole, I started researching.  The math is right on,  and according a Mother Jones article which fact checked the script, the predictions are pretty reasonable. Even the part about blackening out the sky might come true if the “geoengineers” have their way and start sending sulfur into the atmosphere, Matrix-like, in the hopes of reducing global warming.

In 2014, just as I was starting to wake up to climate change, the New York Times reported that a large body of research indicates that it is “inevitable” that the planetary temperature will rise by 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) and that we are “locked into” a future of drought, food and water shortages, and rising sea levels.  And that’s the optimistic estimate!  In fact, we’re on track for more than 4°C of warmingThat’s the temperature difference between the last Ice Age and the world now!  So it’s reasonable to expect the world of the near future to be as different from today as today is from the Ice Age.  According to the Times, that kind of change might render the planet “uninhabitable” to human beings.

Reports like this have become part of our daily news diet.  It’s shocking that they don’t trigger a revolution.  But as Steven Yeun’s character says in the recently released movie, Sorry to Bother You, when people see a problem that they don’t know how to solve, their response is to get used to it.

Archdruid John Michael Greer, author of Dark Age America agrees with Sorkin’s prognosis.  From Greer’s vantage point, this bleak prediction is only notable for what it leaves out:

  • expanding war and ethnic conflict
  • increasingly frequent environmental disasters
  • a return to a subsistence economy even in first world countries
  • the collapse of governmental institutions
  • the rise of charismatic authoritarian strongmen
  • and drastically declining human population–

anywhere from a 70% reduction (from 7.5 billion to 2 billion), which would bring the population to a sustainable level, to complete human extinction.

Does this sound like science fiction?  If it does, it’s not surprising, since these themes are increasingly common in our entertainment.  There’s the food shortages, the police state, and the walled off cities depicted in USA’s Colony (minus the aliens). There’s the government-endorsed religious fundamentalism and regressive sexual politics in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  There’s the crop failures, resource depletion, and declining population in the movie Interstellar.  There’s the collapse of governments, the rise of walled-off corporate states, and the sprawling climate refugee encampments, in the SyFy series Incorporated (more on that later).  And let’s not forget the rise of feudal warlords like Negan, the villain in AMC’s The Walking Dead (which became bigger than Monday night football).  Each and every one of these fictional scenarios is likely to be a part of humanity’s reality in the not-so-distant future.

The decline has already begun.  Its effects can be seen everywhere, but we barely notice it because the change is usually incremental, rather than sudden.  If we step back a minute from the daily barrage of news, we can see it:

This was the stuff of science fiction not too long ago.  Today, it’s our reality–and our entertainment.  While shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Colony have the potential to numb us to our present reality, sometimes science fiction can help us see our present more clearly. Watching one of these shows not too long ago, I had another terrible thought …

What if none of this is an accident?

“Everything is Going According to Plan”

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SyFy’s “Incorporated”

“Everything is going according to plan. I don’t know whose plan it is, and I think that it’s a really stupid plan, but everything is going according to it anyway.”

—  Dmitry Orlov

I had always thought racism was a glitch in America’s social system, something that could be overcome with time and education. Recently, however, I’ve begun to see how racism is actually a function of a capitalist system.  It keeps the poor and working class divided along race lines, to the benefit of the rich. As Malcolm X succinctly put it, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

What if, like racism, biosphere-wrecking climate change is not an accidental byproduct of our capitalist system?  What if it isn’t a bug, but a feature?  What if the system isn’t broken, as progressives claim?  What if the system is functioning exactly as it is supposed to?

It was another television show that got me thinking about this, a series called Incorporated, which premiered on SyFy in 2016.  The premise of the show was that world governments had gone bankrupt and had been effectively replaced by large corporations.  These corporations functioned in walled-off cities, called “Green Zones”, outside of which was a sea of displaced people living in “Red Zones”, which included refugee camps overflowing with people having fled coastal cities flooded due to climate change.

In the show, there is virtually no mobility between the residents of the Green Zone, the corporate class, and the residents of the Red Zone, the unincorporated.  There are no checks on the corporations, other than the threat of violence from other corporations.  Although they live very privileged lives by comparison, those living within the corporate walls are virtual slaves to the corporation.

As I watched this, I was struck by two thoughts.  The first was the close similarity between Incorporated‘s dystopic future to our present reality.

The second thought was: “What if this the goal?”  What if this is the desired outcome for some of the corporate class?  Zero government regulation.  Anything can be bought for a price.  Extremely exclusive social status.  Technological wonders for the few who can afford them. In short …

What if everything is going according to plan?

It doesn’t require believing in a conspiracy to see that our capitalist system is driving us toward the future depicted in Incorporated, and that it isn’t by accident.

For it to function, capitalism depends on growth.  Without growth, the incentive for capital investment disappears and the system breaks down.  In an ideal capitalist system, there are no limits to growth.  In order to grow without limit, capitalism needs two things: unlimited demand and unlimited supply.  On the demand side, this means conspicuous consumption, socially manufactured needs, and disposable goods.  On the supply side, this means access to cheap and abundant energy, i.e., fossil fuels.  Without these conditions, the system cannot produce the kinds of surpluses which motivate the capital investment that perpetuates the system.  But these conditions–unchecked consumption and the burning of fossil fuels–inevitably lead to disasters, both economic and environmental.

It turns out, that’s part of the system too.

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Klein describes how the corporate class has learned to profit from natural and economic disasters, by pushing through policies of deregulation and privatization while the impacted citizenry is too distracted and disorganized by the disaster to notice.  Examples include Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf War, and 9/11, to name just a few of the many.  The corporate class benefits from these policies, while the rest of the population is left with collapsing public infrastructure, declining incomes and increasing unemployment.

“An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines …. Our common addition to dirty, non-renewable energy sources keeps other kinds of emergencies coming: natural disasters … and wars waged over scarce resources …, which in turn create terrorist blowback …”

“Given the boiling temperatures, both climatic and political, future disasters need not be cooked up in dark conspiracies. All indications that simply by staying the current course, they will keep coming with ever more ferocious intensity. Disaster generation can therefore be left to the market’s invisible hand.

“While the disaster capitalism complex does not deliberately scheme to create the cataclysms on which it feeds (though Iraq may be a notable exception), there is plenty of evidence that its component industries work very hard indeed to make sure the current disastrous trends continue unchallenged.”

— Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

According to Klein, this leads to an increasingly divided world.  Whether it is post-Gulf War Iraq or post-Katrina New Orleans, everything is divided between “Green Zones” and “Red Zones”, stark partitions between the privileged and the precariat. In the Red Zones, infrastructure is left to decay and social services are stripped of resources, while the privileged withdraw to the gated Green Zones, which are protected by the police/military. In many places, this is the present day reality, and it’s not so far removed from the future depicted in Incorporated.

We’re F**ked.

ozymandias2
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

“There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew
that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”

— Robinson Jeffers, “The Purse-Seine”

Of course, the world of Incorporated isn’t the end of the story either; it’s just a chapter in the story of civilizational decline.  And we know how that story ends: death.

Our civilization is going to die.

If you’re like me, you need to sit with that last sentence for a while.

Of course, there’s plenty of people out there saying otherwise.  I could pick different sources to believe.  With the World Wide Web at our fingertips, it’s quite easy nowadays to choose the answers you like.  I could choose more comforting answers.

But it was a question, not an answer, that really devastated me.  Radical environmentalist, Derrick Jensen, asks this question of his audiences, and it’s one which I think every environmental activist should ask themselves:

“Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life?”

That question is what convinced me that the world as we know it is going to end, sooner rather than later.

And more and more experts are coming to the same conclusion.

Like Brad Werner, a pink-haired complex systems researcher who, in 2012, presented a provocatively titled paper to thousands of scientists at the Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, titled “Is Earth F**ked?”

Werner’s answer: “More or less”.

Or like Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive psychologist who won a Nobel prize for his studies of how irrationally humans respond to problems which require immediate personal sacrifices now to avoid uncertain collective losses.  When asked to assess humanity’s chances for survival, Kahneman responded, “This is not what you might want to hear. I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.”

Or like Mayer Hillman, a social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute who has spent the last 20 years writing and speaking about climate change policy, and who, in 2017, announced his withdrawal from speaking and writing on climate change, declaring

“We’re doomed.”

Hillman raised the same question as Jensen: Do we really think human beings will move to zero global emissions in the near future? More specifically, Hillman asks,

“Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

Hillman can’t.  Jensen can’t.  And I can’t either.

That’s the point that is glossed by so many evangelists of renewable energy: renewable energy can’t “replace” fossil fuels.1

About two hundred years and fifty ago, human beings started using fossil fuels–first coal, then oil–to power civilization.  What followed was unprecedented explosion of growth.  The civilizational “progress” which we take for granted is result of the burning of fossil fuels.  But the fossil fuels are a finite resource, and when they are gone, that will be the end of growth and progress too.

Renewable energy sources cannot produce as much energy as fossil fuels.  And transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy only addresses the supply side of the equation. A renewable energy economy would only work if we simultaneously reduced our consumption.  I’m not talking about people taking shorter showers and turning off the lights when they leave the room.  I’m talking about a contraction of the economy which would crash the global capitalist system.

We simply can’t transition to a 100% renewable energy economy without also ending capitalism.  Nothing short of a global socialist revolution is going to be enough (and I’m using “revolution” quite literally here).  But capitalism has proven so adept at adapting to challenges and absorbing dissent, nothing short of the end the world is likely to bring it about.

“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”

— Fredric Jameson, “Future City”

While it’s easy for most people in developed countries to look around and think that all is well, the fact is we are living in what Roy Scranton calls the gap between sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  We are like the patient goes to the doctor for a routine checkup.  They feel fine, but the doctor returns looking grim.

The prognosis is terminal.

For some, this might actually be welcome news. I have communist friends who have been waiting a long time for the collapse of capitalism.  And I have anarchist friends for whom the collapse of civilization is good tidings of great joy.  “Everything is going according to plan,” indeed.  (There’s even some people who are trying to accelerate the collapse by undermining any attempt to reform capitalism which might prolong its demise.)

It turns out that the Marxist are partially right: Capitalism is going to collapse, but it won’t require the revolution of the working class. It’s going to happen through the natural process of capitalism doing what capitalism does: consuming forests, species, and human potential and excreting carbon dioxide, toxic chemicals, and radioactive waste–in short, eating everything in sight and shitting where it eats.

Even if climate change were not a reality, our civilization would still die.  Capitalism is just not sustainable.  The combination of overconsumption (only partially the result of overpopulation) and overpollution will lead inevitably to civilizational collapse.  Considering the damage capitalism is doing to the planet, that might not be such a bad thing.  But unfortunately, our civilization is going to take a good part of the biosphere down with it.

The Stages of Grieving for a Civilization

“When you become a parent, one thing becomes really clear. And that is that you want to make sure your children feel safe. And it rules out telling a ten year old that the world’s ending.”

Insterstellar (film)

When my son was 13, he went through an existential crisis. He was losing his faith in the religion he had been raised in, including the belief in an afterlife. The thought of personal extinction terrified him.  Over the next several years, he made peace with his own mortality.  He did so, at least in part, by taking refuge in a new faith, the faith in human progress.  He could accept the fact that he will die one day, but at least the accumulated knowledge of humanity would survive.

I felt the same way.  And I know many atheists and religious naturalists who do as well.  We accept our own mortality, while we cling to faith in the immortality of civilization.

But I don’t believe that anymore … and I don’t know what to say to my son.

It turns out, it’s not just individuals who die.  So do civilizations.  As Archdruid John Michael Greer, explains in Dark Age America, the last 5,000 years of human history have not been a straight line.  There have been many dark ages.  Europe in the early Middle Ages is only the most recent example in the West.  There was also the collapse of Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilization in the Bronze Age.  There were three separate Egyptian dark ages.  And there have been others, in both the West and the East.

The causes of these prior dark ages are familiar: climate change, population growth, soil degradation, and widening social inequality.

“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”

— G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Our present situation is unique, however.  Those civilizations before us exceeded the carrying capacity of their land bases, but we are connected to a global economy.  We are facing collapse, not just on a regional level, but on a planetary scale. And while civilizational decline is not uncommon, the speed at which we are rushing toward ours is.  The reason why we are so rapidly rushing toward this end is because we have a terminal case of denial.

In The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker theorized that the basic motivation for human behavior is the desire, in fact the need, to deny the reality of our own deaths.  According to Becker, we engage in “immortality projects” in an attempt to create something that will transcend death.  But these immortality projects are maladaptive, because they sever us from the flow of life–of which death is a part.

We do this on an individual level, but also on a collective level. Western civilization itself can be understood as a collective immortality project–one giant, complex attempt to deny our connection to nature, to the Goddess, and hence to deny our mortality.  Climate change denial is just a special case of a much broader and deeper denial–a denial of our limits.

And it’s not just climate change deniers who are in denial.  Many activists on the other side of the spectrum, like me, are in denial as well.  I wasn’t denying that climate change is happening, but I was denying what it meant.  “I believe that we will win!” I chanted along with my fellow activists.  I was in denial.  And the origin of that denial, a faith in human progress, is what got us into this mess.

Looking back, a lot of my environmental activism looks like the stages of grief: denial, anger, and bargaining.  I moved into the depression phase recently.  The good thing about the depression is that it allows me to recognize this process for what it is:

I am grieving for the death of human civilization. 

The last stage of grief, I am told, is acceptance.  But what does that look like?  Do we go on protesting?  Do we go on fighting, like Bill McKibben says, because fighting is better than doing nothing?

To be continued tomorrow in “‘Die Early and Often’: Being Attis in the Anthropocene”.


Notes

Nor is nuclear energy the panacea that many techno-wizards hope it is, due to insurmountable problems of scale, waste, and energy-return-on-investment.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.


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If Not Now, When? Models for Resistance in SF

I have always enjoyed science fiction, particularly the writings of Ursula le Guin, as a way of exploring hypothetical alternative societies, cultures, futures, and histories. I don’t enjoy most fantasy. I do enjoy urban fantasy, which is more like science fiction. I am currently watching Babylon 5 again on DVD, and would highly recommend it as an exploration of what happens when a totalitarian and xenophobic government takes over, and how people come together to resist.

Both fantasy and SF present alternative visions of the world; but some of these visions are helpful, and others are not. Some are dystopian, some are utopian. Some are hierarchical, some are egalitarian. Some have individual heroes, others have resistance movements. Some inspired whole Pagan movements, such as the Church of All Worlds, inspired by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Can you grok that? There are a surprising number of parallels between Paganism and SF, and a lot of Pagans who read SF, too.

The other day, I saw this tweet, and it set me thinking. Would people who said they’d follow the MockingJay, or fight in Dumbledore’s army, actually resist fascism? Would they be able to relate the fantasy world resistance to the real thing?

In order to answer that question, which of these genres provides better models for resistance, we have to take a step back to another question.

What’s the difference between fantasy and SF?

In science fiction, there is usually an explanation (however tenuous or inferred) of how the world, and the technology in it, came to be the way it is. Science fiction can include alternative histories, what-if scenarios, extrapolations into the future, utopias, and dystopias. It has many sub-genres. There’s hard science fiction, which mainly deals with the effects of technology on society; soft science fiction, which is written more from a social science perspective (anthropology or sociology, sometimes linguistics or psychology). There’s steampunk, where the technology is mostly steam-driven, with lots of cogs and brass (this emerged out of the alternative history sub-genre). SF is sometimes called speculative fiction.

In fantasy, the underlying technology is generally magic. Fantasy also has several sub-genres. There’s the sword and sorcery tale. There’s space opera (which is basically fantasy masquerading as SF). A lot of fantasy seems to be set in a very hierarchical medieval or feudal world, and often in a magic kingdom which is reached by a magic door (or wardrobe, or mirror). There are many interesting and classic fantasy novels, but in many ways the genre was put out of joint by the sheer weight of The Lord of the Rings, which has had many imitators, most of them bad (I really like LoTR, but for goodness’ sake, get your own plot, fantasy authors). And quite frankly, the Harry Potter books are basically a school story with magic in it (though I heartily approve of the egalitarian behaviour of “Dumbledore’s Army”, and of the brilliant caricature of OFSTED in the person of Dolores Umbridge). A marvellous exception to all of this is Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which is deeply anti-authoritarian, and has quite a lot of crossover with science fiction, with parallel worlds, and even a slight steampunk feel to some of the worlds in it. And of course there’s Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly insightful Discworld novels, which are arguably Pagan theology at its finest.

Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is set in our reality, into which fantastic elements emerge, and it uses these to comment on things in our world. Examples include most of Neil Gaiman‘s oeuvre, Seanan McGuire’s hilarious InCryptid series, which is about the adventures of a family of cryptozoologists, the Storm trilogy by R A Smith, and The Last Changeling by F R Maher.

Models for resistance in SF and fantasy

In fantasy novels, when someone resists the encroachment of evil, the evil is usually fairly obvious, and frequently relies on a supernatural source of power. It’s a Dark Lord (Voldemort, Sauron, etc). Better quality fantasy novels have more subtle tyrants, like Saruman, who started out trying to resist Sauron, but because he tried to use Sauron’s power to do so, ended up becoming like Sauron himself. Another example of a subtly-drawn tyrant is Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials, who works for the Magisterium, and indeed Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who is something of an ambivalent character. The protagonist of these novels is usually especially gifted with magical powers to resist the evil (the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising; Harry Potter; even Lyra), or has been fated to be the one to resist since the beginning of time, or since their birth. One of the clever things about The Lord of the Rings is that there’s nothing all that special about Frodo Baggins, except perhaps the ordinariness of hobbits. As Tolkien himself pointed out, it is Frodo’s vulnerability and smallness that fitted him for the task.

In science fiction novels and dramas, the evil or oppression to be resisted is often systemic, and identifiable as a human construct, the outcome of a complex web of causality (though sometimes, as in Asimov’s story The Caves of Steel, it’s the consequence of the environment). Because the evil or oppression is usually systemic, the means of resisting it is usually co-operative and collaborative; not led by one single hero, but requiring the input of many people working together. In Babylon 5, for example, although Sheridan is important as a leader of the resistance, he couldn’t have done it without Delenn, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Franklin, the resistance on Mars, the co-operation of the security people who didn’t collaborate with the regime, and so on. In Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge, the resistance consists of many different individuals coming together to bring about change.

Bertolt Brecht, Darko Suvin, and cognitive estrangement

In his ground-breaking essay, Estrangement and Cognition (1968, 1979, 2014), where he analyses the difference between SF and fantasy, Darko Suvin, a Croatian-Canadian literary critic, wrote that science fiction engages in ‘cognitive estrangement’. Suvin says that fantasy and myth is estranged from everyday reality, but it does not ask us to think about why; we accept the magic door, and other magical effects, as a priori necessities in the fantastical universe. Literary fiction, set in our universe, is not estranged, though it may be cognitive and require us to think about cause and effect. Science fiction, on  the other hand, is set in an alternative world, but it is one we are required to think about, and to actively construct in our imaginations by looking for clues in the text about how the world, and its technology, works; how the society of the SF novel came to be the way it is.

Suvin based his interpretation on the Russian theatre technique of ostranenie, a term coined by the playwright Shklovsky, and meaning ‘making the familiar strange’. This is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s usage of Verfremdungseffekte (often translated as ‘alienation effects’, but Suvin’s translation, ‘estrangement effects’, gets the idea across much better). It’s possible that Brecht was told about the technique on a visit to Moscow in 1935. Brecht created his plays and poetry to get people thinking, and to do that, he didn’t want them to identify with the characters and achieve a cathartic effect or a discharge of emotion. Instead, he wanted people to think about what they would do in a similar situation, or about the causes of the situation. Why does Mother Courage go round and round in circles, getting poorer and more miserable? Why do the characters of The Threepenny Opera have such terrible lives? Brecht wants us to analyse the underlying causes, as well as having a general solidarity or empathy with the characters.

The beauty of the science fictional setting, of course, is that it is already strange, and so it makes the reader think about what is happening, so that they can piece together how this fictional world works. In his essay on science fiction in Speculations on Speculation, Samuel R Delaney quotes a sentence, “I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap” (from Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants). As Delaney points out, this single sentence lets you know that there is a water shortage in this world, because there is only a trickle from the fresh water tap, and the fact that it is labelled fresh tells you that there’s another tap with non-fresh water. This leads the reader to ask, why is there a water shortage? Has there been an environmental catastrophe, or is it a desert world?

Fantasy, on the other hand, does expect the reader to identify with the characters, and to achieve an emotional catharsis through the dramatic journey that they experience. Readers of fantasy, however, know that the proper order will be restored in the end, and the evil tyrant defeated, because that’s how fantasy works. They also know that it’s the job of the pre-destined hero with the special powers to defeat the evil tyrant. And of course they know that in the real world, the odds may be stacked against the hero. Fantasy doesn’t provide much of a road-map for defeating a whole system of tyranny. It’s very good on overthrowing the Dark Lord with a magic sword, but what if the Dark Lord has loads of minions waiting in the wings who are just as obnoxious as he is?

Science fiction, on the other hand, being set in ostensibly the same universe as the one we live in, with the same physical properties, and the same sort of people (barring the occasional telepath), and dealing as it does with whole systems of oppression or flourishing, is much better placed to provide us with road-maps for resistance. Of course there are exceptions to the picture I am painting here, but it’s mostly true.

Resistance is collective. Yes, there are those who dare to dream bigger and better, and actually do something, and they are extremely important as catalysts – but a catalyst is no good unless it is followed by a reaction. One excellent example is when Alley Valkyrie and Rhyd Wildermuth founded Gods & Radicals – but all the other people who said “Yes! Pagan anti-capitalism, that’s exactly what we need” – the other writers, and the readers who read our stuff, are part of a collective sea-change in thinking, and acting.

In order to bring about change, we need to create a mass movement of people who are tired of racism, tired of homophobia, tired of misogyny, tired of austerity, tired of capitalism. We need to inspire them to dream something different. And we need to show them the blueprints for change, not just tell them that it is possible.

As Ursula le Guin said at the National Book Awards in 2014,

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

And she went on to add,

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Most fantasy merely provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual. It would be good to see more fantasy that challenges the usual tropes of fantasy – which is why urban fantasy is such a refreshing change.

Science fiction, on the other hand, provides a blueprint for other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of feeling. It puts the characters in a hypothetical situation and asks what the human reaction to that situation would be; not the superhero reaction, but the human one. It can posit whole different ways of organising society, or gender, or sexuality, or the economy, and explore in depth how they would work, and how people would flourish or struggle in that environment.

carnevale-crema-01
Carnival in Crema, Italy. By CremascoOwn work, CC BY 3.0.

Recommended reading – fiction

  • The Fifth Sacred Thing – Starhawk
  • City of Refuge – Starhawk
  • The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
  • Always Coming Home – Ursula Le Guin
  • Empire of Bones – Liz Williams
  • The Ghost Sister – Liz Williams

Recommended reading – non-fiction

  • Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, eds James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria
  • The Anarres Project for alternative futures

Rosa Mason

Rosa Mason has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991.  She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.


Though it’s not fiction, it’s still got some pretty good ideas in it! Check out Pagan Anarchism, available in print or digital.

Book Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There have been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.

This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novella of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.

The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.

You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.

What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.

The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.

So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?

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Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

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