A conspiracist’s perspective on science fiction

Gary Farber listened to a very odd podcast — it’s all about how the atheists and Marxists conspired to take over science fiction. It’s hosted by a guy named Max Kolbe, who runs a blog titled Escaping Atheism: Because atheism is bullshit” (I guess his biases are obvious, at least), and he’s interviewing an author named Brian Niemeier, who is pleased to have been one of the Sad Puppies, so you know where he is coming from, too. Niemeier’s introduction to the interview is weirdly self-congratulatory and back-patting.

YouTuber Max Kolbe recently had me on his show to explain how the SJW convergence of tradpub science fiction happened. Max is particularly interested in the sudden shift from stories that took the Christian worldview for granted to overtly atheistic, anti-religious works. We discussed how John W. Campbell ended the reign of the pulps and how the Futurians fomented a Marxist revolution in SF publishing.

The episode garnered a lot of praise. Listen in and learn how sinister forces relegated the once-dominant SFF genre to a cultural ghetto.

Max himself is an unabashed sci-fi fan from way back, and I couldn’t help nodding along as he related how he drifted away from the genre about twenty years ago. He’d also been led to think of the post-1937 Campbell era as the “golden age” of SF and to regard everything that came before as trash.

The interview itself is a ghastly mangling of history with a great deal of lumping together of everything they dislike: notice how atheist, Marxist, and SJW are all used pretty much interchangeably?

Here’s the nonsensical premise of their discussion. There was a time in the past when science fiction was much more Christian, and readily embraced Christian themes. Then John Campbell abruptly forced all of science fiction to become atheist in 1937, and he was aided and abetted by a coalition of 50 godless liberal New York editors. The evidence for all of this is in an appendix in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide.

I don’t know what to say in the face of such an onslaught of bullshit.

There has always been a strain of irreverence in science fiction, and there have always been authors who explore novel ideas both in and out of the context of religion. Start with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; very irreligious, but exploring the roles of the creator and created. Is it an atheist book? Atheist-influenced, certainly, and written by a freethinker, but its relationship to religion is complicated. CS Lewis wrote science fiction. Tolkien was religious. Mary Doria Russell is an acclaimed, even by this atheist, author of books that have a strongly Catholic perspective. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov was an atheist…but religion is orthogonal to most of the stories he told (I must be a traitor to atheism to say that Russell is a far, far better writer than Asimov ever was). I’m sure a lot of contemporary SF authors are godless, but it would be tough to tell from reading their work. I simply do not see a pattern in the history of SF that would support a transition from religious to non-religious, or even that religious ideas are suppressed in contemporary work.

Ah, but you must look at their evidence. Here it is: Appendix N from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, published in 1979. It’s Gary Gygax’s personal reading list of science fiction and fantasy books that influenced him. According to Kolbe and Niemeier, this is a very spiritual list that if not openly Christian, takes Christianity for granted. WTF? These books?

Anderson, Poul: THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS; THE HIGH CRUSADE; THE BROKEN SWORD
Bellairs, John: THE FACE IN THE FROST
Brackett, Leigh
Brown, Frederic
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: “Pellucidar” series; Mars series; Venus series
Carter, Lin: “World’s End” series
de Camp, L. Sprague: LEST DARKNESS FALL; THE FALLIBLE FIEND; et al
de Camp & Pratt: “Harold Shea” series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: “The World of the Tiers” series; et al
Fox, Gardner: “Kothar” series; “Kyrik” series; et al
Howard, R. E.: “Conan” series
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO’S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: “Fafhrd & Gray Mouser” series; et al
Lovecraft, H. P.
Merritt, A.: CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP; MOON POOL; DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE; et al
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; “Hawkmoon” series (esp. the first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
St. Clair, Margaret: THE SHADOW PEOPLE; SIGN OF THE LABRYS
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; “Ring trilogy”
Vance, Jack: THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; THE DYING EARTH; et al
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; “Amber” series; et al

Here’s the deal: if your story is a medieval European fantasy, like Anderson’s or Bellairs’, then yes, Christianity is taken for granted, usually. It’s part of the environment, like castles and swords and dragons. But the others…have they even read Burroughs or Howard? There ain’t no Christianity in them, but there is a lot of disrespect for priests and gods. Fritz Leiber’s books had magic and pagan deities and demigods that could be poked with a sword. Moorcock’s Elric stories are about a battle between the gods of chaos and law; he’s also the guy who wrote the obscenely blasphemous book, Behold the Man (which I recommend!). Manley Wade Wellman…sure, he was religious. He wrote stories built around Appalachian folk Christianity, also good stuff. I really don’t see a consistent religious or non-religious theme in this list.

Oh, and H.P. Lovecraft? This is your representative of spiritual Christianity in old SF? The interview waffles around the criteria, but eventually reveals that if a story features clear-cut good and evil, that’s enough to define it as spiritual and Christian-based. Apparently moral ambiguity and complexity are the vices the SJWs and Marxists have inflicted on genre fiction. Which sounds like praise, to me.

As for the “50 SJW editors” who control the SF publishing world from their citadel in New York, I don’t know. I can’t say that I have much familiarity with big name SF editors. What little I do know suggests that there’s more diversity than this conspiracy theory can tolerate. Jim Baen published a lot of stolid old school and military SF, stuff that the Sad and Rabid Puppies probably consider just fine, and the one true acceptable kind of science fiction. I’ve met Teresa and Patrick Nielsen-Hayden — they’re not atheists, but definitely on the progressive/liberal side of social issues. Maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge, but I’m just not seeing an atheist/Marxist/SJW cabal out there.

Maybe the real world is more ambiguous and complex than the crystal-clear distinction of good and evil that these Catholic fanatics imagine it to be.

Bye, Milo, you’re done now

Fifteen is exactly the right amount of time for minutes of fame and for Milo Yiannopoulos’s speech at Berkeley yesterday, which apparently no one could hear anyway, and which cost UC Berkeley $800,000 for security. It’s a metaphor for his career, I guess: an overpriced flash of incoherent bullshit, soon gone and forgotten, except for the slimy stain he leaves behind.

Somebody doesn’t understand how teaching works

I rolled my eyes at this story: Forget Cheat ‘Sheet’ — Student Outwits Professor With Enormous ‘Cheat Poster’. The gist of it is that a professor told their students they could bring a 3×5 card with notes to an exam — but he didn’t specify the units (there’s a lesson right there), so one student created a crib sheet that was 3 feet by 5 feet. The professor was good natured about it, as I would be in such a situation, but the article completely misses the point.

The purpose of the exam is to evaluate learning, not the ability to read stuff off a card. I’ve occasionally given open-note exams, and told the students they can even bring their textbook if they want. It doesn’t matter all that much. Those kinds of exams are asking, do you understand the concepts? Can you apply them correctly? Can you think creatively and synthesize multiple ideas? I think students are all aware of this: if the professor lets you bring in notes of any kind, the test is not going to be about literal transcription of facts from one piece of paper to another.

The professor was not outwitted at all. If anything, they might feel a little chagrined at a loophole that tricks a student into wandering around campus with an awkwardly huge notecard. And they probably figure creating that ‘cheat sheet’ was a useful study exercise for the student, so no problem — if they mastered the material, good for them.

Sure. My lab looks just like it.

Behold! Gwyneth Paltrow’s new retail store, which she calls Goop Lab.

The store, called Goop Lab, opened this week in Brentwood Country Mart, a cluster of boutiques in a plush, celebrity-filled neighbourhood near the Pacific Ocean which likes to call malls “marts”.

The shop is airy, bright and small, just 1,300 sq feet, with soft music and smiling, white-clad staff – a physical embodiment of the online store that inspires devotion for Paltrow’s vision of wellness and scorn for products such as jade stones which women are invited to insert into their vaginas.

Crap. Her ‘lab’ is bigger than mine. Much tidier, too. I’m also missing out on a profit opportunity here.

The entrance, which mimics a garden, offers “buttery and soft” deerskin gloves for $48, gold-handled floral scissors for $72 and the “prettiest compost bin ever” for $175.

Further inside, you find a pair of Portuguese napkin rings with images of sky blue swallows for $56 and a champagne flute for $180. A silk blouse costs $685; a floral dress $795.

Probably the first thing you’d see in Myers Lab is a cable rack draped with years of accumulated wires and connectors, some of them antique and artisanal. I should slap some pricetags on them.

On the left, the interior is dominated by a large cattle trough which is used as a reservoir for the flow through water system for the fish tanks. Imagine you hear the lowing of well-groomed happy cows, and the burbling of a brook running through the field. That is the ambience we are going for.

I have nothing to compare with the “prettiest compost bin ever”, unfortunately. I do have some chemical waste disposal containers, though — maybe I should spruce them up with a cheery sprig of heather, and sprinkle some sapphires about the bench.

At least I have some tiny, delicate iris scissors that were a heck of a lot pricier than her floral scissors. How déclassé of her.

Even Pickle Rick was flawed and broken

Some people don’t get it. They watch Goodfellas and want to grow up to be Henry Hill. They read Lolita and think Humbert Humbert was unjustly condemned. They watch Breaking Bad and believe that Walter White, especially in his Heisenberg persona, was awesome. Isn’t anyone familiar with the concept of the anti-hero anymore?

Here’s another one: people who watch Rick and Morty and come away from it wanting to be just like Rick. I love that show, but jebus…no one in their right mind should admire Rick. He’s the most brilliant scientist in the multiverse, but he’s also a totally messed-up, broken dude, and everyone in his family is damaged, and every week, the show goes out of its way to highlight that fact.

If we’re to believe Rick is admirable for being a cold, misanthropic know-it-all, the show doesn’t do a very good job of selling it. He’s too rich in his emotions, too human in his failings; the show repeatedly finds him dealing with moments of vague tenderness and regret that he then undermines, contributing to the overall tragic arc of his character. Harmon’s much-scrutinized writing ethos involves richly drawn emotional journeys for every character, and as he said, in the recent response to Entertainment Weekly, “I don’t want the show to have a political stance.” It doesn’t. Rick And Morty’s concern is ambiguous, flawed, relatable characters, slowly changing and slowly staying the same. To assume that Rick—or any of them—represents Harmon’s idea of some ethos to aspire to is to misread his intent.

You can only admire Rick if you ignore all the two-by-fours the show repeatedly slams into your face.

However, it’s absurd to claim the show has no political stance. Writing about “ambiguous, flawed, relatable characters, slowly changing and slowly staying the same” at a time when way too many people are latching onto imaginary paragons (even the show’s oblivious fans!) is a political stance. It’s hard to argue against the idea that everything is political.

The good that men do should live after them; the bad should be interred with their names

We can keep this one.

Nature published a catastrophically bad editorial a while back, in which an anonymous someone whined about how tearing down statues of scientists like Marion Sims was “erasing history”. You’ve all heard it before — apparently, we’re learning history from dead lumps of marble or bronze. Where will it all end? Next thing you know we’ll be ‘erasing’ Cecil Rhodes and HG Wells, or even Francis Crick.

In the early 1970s, Crick defended other prominent racist scientists who proposed a plan where individuals deemed unfit would be paid to undergo sterilisation. Crick wrote in one letter that “more than half of the difference between the average IQ of American whites and Negroes is due to genetic reasons”, which “will not be eliminated by any foreseeable change in the environment”. He urged that steps be taken to avoid the “serious” consequences. Crick also proposed that “irresponsible people” be sterilised “by bribery”. In the brochure of the institute bearing his name, Crick is nonetheless presented as a scientific hero known for his “intelligence and openness to new ideas”.

Damn. Crick always came across as the good one, but noooope. Everyone is wrong. There are no heroes.
We’ve all got bad ideas that will fail the test of history. So now I’m thinking we’re all asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking whether it’s right to tear down statues and monuments now.

We should ask why we were putting up statues to scientists in the first place.

If you think about it, it is a singularly stupid way to honor science — and let’s not mince words here, statues and monuments aren’t about education, they’re about singling out individuals as exemplary and worthy, or rich and powerful. We’re going to keep fucking up when we yank the occasional prominent individual out of the collective enterprise of science and put them on a pedestal, because that kind of reverence is antithetical to the whole idea of science. Instead of a monument to Watson and Crick, put one up honoring the discovery of the structure of DNA…and sure, slap a plaque on it that explains why it matters (education!), and that lists the host of people, including Watson and Crick, who contributed to the determination.

Ask what the people you want to honor have done that deserves the honor, and celebrate that. This may not be popular. All the statues of generals will have to be replaced with grisly piles of mangled corpses, and the dead tycoons will just have boring dollar signs on their memorials, but that’s OK — being forced to think about what we consider important is, well…educational. Isn’t that the excuse we’re using for not tearing them down?

Let’s not forget posterity, either. A lot of our history is from inscriptions and monuments and tombs and old hunks of stone and bronze, which means much of our history is skewed towards Great Men who were often bloody conquerors and exploiters. Wouldn’t it be nice if future archaeologists, digging up the American Era layers, were making lists of interesting accomplishments, rather than long dry lists of names and dates?

Everyone gets to stay home tomorrow!

Good news! The world isn’t ending today. The absence of an onrushing Niburu has compelled the original false prophet to retract his claim. Go ahead and throw a party tonight, for good or ill. (For some strange reason, my wife has decided to go on a Christmas movie binge. I’m sitting here praying for Niburu to show up after all.)

Then, remember, tomorrow was supposed to be the start of Freedom Week, that nonsensical few days that Milo Yiannopoulos was supposed to bring all of his asshole friends to Berkeley to test the limits of free speech with advocacy of Nazi policies. There were portents and omens of raging incompetence ahead of time, and now they have been fulfilled — the event has been formally cancelled.

In a Saturday letter to the school, an attorney for Berkeley Patriot, Marguerite Melo, wrote, “On their behalf, you are hereby notified the Berkeley Patriot is canceling all Free Speech Week activities it sponsored.” The letter accused administrators of putting up roadblocks and said the group was “contemplating initiating litigation against the responsible parties and the administration for violation of our clients’ civil rights.”

Yeah. It’s the administration’s fault because the students (and Milo) failed to get speakers signed up and to pay for the auditoriums they wanted to reserve. Except that also it was clear that this was just the alt-light wackaloons trolling the university.

But in a separate email chain obtained by this news organization, Lucian Wintrich, one of the supposed speakers, told Mogulof the event had been a set-up from the start. “It was known that they didn’t intend to actually go through with it last week, and completely decided on Wednesday,” Wintrich wrote in an email around 10 a.m. Saturday morning.

“Wait, whoah, hold on a second,” wrote a clearly surprised Mogulof. “What, exactly, are you saying? What were you told by MILO Inc? Was it a set-up from the get-go?” “Yes,” came Wintrich’s one-word response. Wintrich did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

So it was officially cancelled, but everyone behind it had known it couldn’t possibly happen, and…some of them are still claiming it will happen, without any institutional backing or security or venue.

But representatives for Yiannopoulos insisted the event would move forward without the student group. “The Berkeley Patriot may have pulled out of the event, but Milo and his other speakers have not. More details will be released at a FaceBook Live press conference that will be streamed shortly,” spokeswoman Mona Salama wrote in an email around 11:15 am Saturday.

I think that means that aimless disorganized thugs will show up anyway, wander around haplessly, try to cause a little trouble, and get rounded up by campus police. Fun! Chaos! Confusion! And afterwards,
the recriminations and finger-pointing!

Except here. I’ll be home grading papers.

Niburu, where are you?