Month: November 2012

The Last Son of Krypton: Superman as the Metaphorical Embodiment of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

The Last Son of Krypton: Superman as the Metaphorical Embodiment of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

 

As a student of philosophy I have asked many time what is the practicality of my discipline and how I might apply it to the concrete world? This is a reasonable inquiry for the layman who sees a discipline so esoteric and obtuse that it defies understanding on the practical level. Many times philosophers have to resort to breaking down the concepts for those not in the discipline for the non-philosophers to understand the conceptual erudition that goes on in philosophy. Also, if the philosophers are unable to conceptualize philosophical concepts in such a way that the layman is able to understand them than on a practical level the philosophical concept is nothing more than flotsam and jetsam on the theoretical ocean. This is where characters such as Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman may be used to deconstruct philosophical concepts and show the uninitiated reader how these concepts would work on a practical level. If we are to examine philosophy for its practical uses and how those uses might be distributed to the general population, what better way than using comic book superheroes to help with this distribution.

One of the most complex of all philosophers in the Western tradition is the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant.  His various critiques set forth complex propositions that sought to reconcile several schools of opposing philosophy. There is no doubt Kant is easily one of the most complex thinkers to rise in the Western tradition. However, that does not mean he is indecipherable and closed off from practical understanding. One of Kant’s most important ideas is the “categorical imperative” which appears in two of his works: first in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and later in Critque of Practical Reason. Both in which he creates a dense, complex argument for the treatment of fellow humans. Although these ideas are our complex and usually left to philosophers to decipher, they need not be. We need only look to Siegel and Shuster’s Kryptonian immigrant as an inspiration and metaphorical example of Kant’s “categorical imperative”  and should be used as an example of how easy it is to integrate philosophy into a practical and moral conceptual framework.

Due to his earthly parents’ inspiration Superman is a being who considers that he should do what is honorable because he has the potential to do so. Because Superman always selects to do the right thing no matter the costs, he is cast in the part as an inspirer. He is unassuming and does not believe his astonishing capacity gives him the right to be more than he should be. He realizes it is not his physical capacities that make others admire him  but it is his desire to do good and make life better for those around him. He sees his role as protector because he has the power to do things others cannot. In Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, The Spectre foretells an Armageddon caused by all the Metahumans because Superman withdrew from public life. The Spectre declares to Norman McCay, a pastor the Spectre compels to travel with him, “Those who, a decade previous, felt the crush of Superman’s greatest and most necessary failing… His inability to perceive himself as the inspiration he is.”  (Ross and Waid 33) This is Superman’s real capability and the basis for  his endurance for over 70 years and why he achieved icon and cultural archetypes standing. Superman is the American “everyman.” He believes in hard work and doing the most with the abilities you are given. There are comic book critics who would assign Superman a godlike status, and there is an element of truth to this statement; however, if we were to ask Superman/Clark Kent, he would reply that he is merely a man who is gifted and he chooses to use these skills for honesty and ask us why we should see him as the metaphorical embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative.

Before we can ground  Kant’s moral philosophy, we need to determine if the Last Son of Krypton is worthy to be considered the modern metaphorical embodiment of the “categorical imperative,” and  we must allow Kant to first decide what is commonly called the “paradox of freedom.” The paradox focuses the obvious inconsistency between one’s sense of sovereignty, a who person considers that he is the source of his own acts, and the apparent universal axiom of causality that infuses nature. Such as a rock has no choice about falling off a precipice; whether it does or does not is controlled by intricate but determinate natural laws. Insofar as humans are part of the same physical world, there seems no good motive to prohibit them from the same requirement. Kant solves this conundrum by referring, once again, to his transcendental philosophy. He says that if we  consider the problem empirically, humans are indeed part of the physical world and therefore not free. However, if considered transcendentally, that is, “considered as objects in themselves,” separate from the world of appearances, they are free. We might justifiably asked how this does not oppose Kant’s own principles, according to which such “noumenal knowledge,” understanding of things as they are, is impossible. Kant has no answer to this protest, but without human autonomy, his moral system, or any moral system, is unmanageable.

Supposing that this last, step is effective, Kant goes on to conclude the substance of the “moral law.” For Kant, the “moral law” is based on the concept of autonomy.  What differentiates people from the rest of reality is the will and, more specifically, the” rational will;” for Kant, to be unrestricted is nothing more than to be able to obey one’s sense. Rocks, plants, and animals all obey natural laws of causation, even if they are inconceivably multifaceted rules. Humans, however, are free from this necessity, and this freedom or autonomy is what gives them their intrinsic dignity and ethical substance. The specific kind of logic which is relevant to the good life is what is called “practical reason”. “Practical reasoning,” Kant contends, is just as characteristic to human nature as the unity of apperception; not only do humans experience, they also see the world as a “field of action.” Practical reason is what directs humans as to what they ought to do. Now, the ethical law, Kant considers, should flow decisively from practical reason; if it is contaminated with separate requirements and conditions, one is no longer free. One must be committed to reason alone.

When Kant says “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals) he distinguishes two different kinds of imperative or “ought” statements. There are hypothetical imperatives which place some state or requirement on their imperative. For example, one might say “If you want to make a lot of money, you should go to school.” This declaration may or may not be true, but it certainly does not apply to a person who is not concerned in making a lot of money. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, is completely unqualified; it is a “ought” statement which applies equally to every conceivable actor: “You should not steal.” Kant believed that at the origin of all morality, there was a lone categorical imperative, though he delivered several interpretations for it. The first formulation is that one ought to act in a way that is always consistent with a universal law. In other words, one should not act in such a way that he would not want others acting. The next formulation of the categorical imperative, professed to be derivative from the first, is that one must treat people always as ends and never as means. That is, one cannot just use other individuals to fulfill their own objectives, with no reverence for the fact that they have aims of their own as well. The third formulation, comparable to the first, asserts that one should always act as if his actions were establishing some rule that the rest of civilization had to follow.

From this foundation, Kant is able to grow a ethical law that is more or less in agreement with “common sense.” It forbids such anti-social actions as homicide, robbery, and rape because such things are not consistent a “universal law” and view other individuals as means and not ends. Kant’s moral system, however, does challenge “common sense” in some areas. Particularly, he has a peculiar way of handling the problem of emotions. Kant believed that an act is good only if it is opposing to one’s proclivities; to merely act in agreement with one’s wishes is a submission of autonomy and, therefore, not a uninhibited act. It is not corrupt, but simply nonaligned act. The only ethically worthwhile acts are those which are done in harmony with obligations divergent to one’s proclivity. Thus, an accomplishment is only worthy insofar as it is demanding.

If we scrutinize the superhero genre as a entirety, we find that collectively the hero/superhero allows himself/herself to be subjugated to a higher ethical vocation. In the article “The Definition of the Superhero” by Peter Coogan, he cites the court case National Publication, later to become DC Comics, brought against Fox Publications in 1940 where Judge Learned Hand defined the superhero as

(a) heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers — extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mysterious skills; who has a superhero I dandy embodied by a codename and the iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin(transformation from ordinary person to superhero): and who is generically distinct, i. e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret.

(Coogan, The Definition of the Superhero 77)

This successfully expresses the superhero archetype in a cultural framework where the superhero is subjugated due to their obligation to society to use their amazing facilities for the betterment of mankind. Anybody who has seen the first Spiderman movie, directed by Sam Raimi, will recognize the creed Uncle Ben Parker gave to young Peter Parker/Spiderman. Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This defines the superhero archetype as the individual who is willing to use their gifts not in a selfish way but as a person who recognizes they are to affect change in the world and be an inspiration to those without power. This is Superman’s primary strength as an icon and why he has remained relevant as an icon and an archetype for the superhero for almost 70 years.

It is the selfless duty that Superman possesses and is his greatest means of inspiring others. If we examine H. J. Paton’s book  The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy in which he seeks to examine the Kantian categorical imperative as a means to ground moral philosophy, we find in Chapter 3 where he discusses duty he states,

Our concern, however, is not with a holy will, but with a good will under human conditions and therefore a will which acts for the sake of duty. Hence the phrase ‘under human conditions’–which it would be tedious to repeat–must be read into many of our sentences; but this must not lead us to forget that much, if not most, of what we say is not to be taken as true of all good wills without exception.  (Paton 46)

It is this human condition that Superman is inherently tied to because of his Kryptonian heritage, immigrant status, his earthly parents who instilled in him the concept of duty and sacrifice, and his unique status on the planet Earth.  According to Paton, Kant distinguishes between three types of action with a third of these actions breaking away from the animal instinct of self-interest toward something that is good and just. As Paton states, Superman might act “not for an immediate inclination or self-interest, but for the sake of duty”  (Paton 47) Superman could just as easily indulge his baser instincts and act in self-interest but he was not because he understands that his power implies that it was given to him for a purpose beyond baser ideals.

To illustrate Superman as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative we need to examine the recent animated short called Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. In the film a young 10 year old named Billy Batson lives in a rundown slum with almost no food for him and his pet rats. As the film progresses Billy gets out of bed and put some a T-shirt bearing the Superman crest. This should indicate to the audience that Billy admires Superman. (For those who are unaware who Billy Batson really is in the comic book world, he is Capt. Marvel. Capt. Marvel was a property of Fox publications in the primary reason for litigation between National Publications And Fox Publications because National Publications felt that Capt. Marvel was infringing on the Superman copyright. ) When Billy leaves his rundown apartment to have breakfast with Clark Kent, he runs into a group of bullies robbing a homeless man. In an attempt to save a homeless man Billy is beaten up by the bullies but is rewarded by the homeless man with a subway token. It is when Billy meets Clark at the diner do we understand why we should see Superman as the embodiment of the Kant categorical imperative. Clark buys Billy breakfast and Billy relates the story of what happened in the alley with the bullies and how he got his black eye. Billy states that he tries to be good to matter what it is not help him in life. Clark’s reply is being good is hard but the reward for being good is a reward itself. At this time Black Adam attacks and a battle ensues between Superman and Black Adam. Because Black Adam’s powers are magic-based Superman is particularly vulnerable to them and he is being hurt severely by Black Adam’s power. At this time Superman could just leave. He has the power to do so but he stays to protect Billy even at the peril of his own life. Superman feels a duty to protect life no matter the cost to him. Some critics will say that because Superman is so powerful that this is no real threat and his actions are not in embodiment of any moral action. I will also point out that any such critic is not a comic book reader and does not understand the full extent of Superman’s vulnerability to magic. He is more susceptible to magic because Kryptonians are from a world where there is no magic. Is the simple fact that he stays and fights a villain who has the ability to kill him because he feels a duty to another sentient being that makes it a ethical act.

During the fight between Superman, Capt. Marvel, and Black Adam, Black Adam rips a woman from a car and holds her by the neck revealing to Billy Batson/Capt. Marvel the reason why he is Black Adam and chose to stay in his powerful form that he got when he said the magic word “Shazam!.” He said the power changed him; made him realize he was far above regular humans and God like. In other words he is indulging his baser instinct and not acting according to a higher moral calling of duty for which the power should be drawing him toward. He is the antithesis to Superman because of this indulgence of the baser instincts. And Black Adam says if Billy does not revert back to his mortal form he will crush the woman like “ant.” At which time Billy says the magic word and reverts back to a child although he knew this would be his death it was Superman’s inspiration that drew Billy to this selfless act in an attempt to save the woman, whom he did not know, from death at the hands of Black Adam. At this point being the villain he truly is, Black Adam throws the woman over a skyscraper and grabs Billy by the mouth so he may not say shazam! again. Although Superman had been off saving the city from one of the many catastrophes set up by Black Adam in an attempt to separate Superman and Capt. Marvel from each other, Superman returns carrying the one Black Adam had thrown over the skyscraper and distracting him long enough for Billy to revert back to Capt. Marvel. Filled with rage Billy begins to beat Black Adam into submission with the thought of ending the threat of Black Adam forever. Once again, Superman reminds Billy/Capt. Marvel that being good is hard and that the murder of Black Adam will serve no purpose other than to corrupt him.

Superman’s mission can be stated in one simple concept. He believes that if you have the means and the power that you must use those means as a tool to help humanity and not further yourself. As Peter Coogan states in his seminal work on the superhero genre he takes a quote from the DC comic arc called Final Night in which Robin and the Spoiler flight in a building with looters and it collapses on them from the weight of the snow and the ferocity of the fight. Putin states, “Robin picks himself up and revives the Spoiler. He then works to free the looters from the snow. The Spoiler disagrees arguing they should let the looters, who had tried to kill them, die. Robin rejects this reasoning, saying “that’s not how it works[…]. What Batman and I do isn’t all that venture and cheap thrills. There is a commitment and it’s never an easy one””  (Coogan, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre) And this is what Superman does over and over again throughout comic book history. He repeatedly pushes himself to do the right thing not because he wants some gain from it but because it is hard and the correct way to act. This is why Superman should be seen as a metaphorical embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative. He continuously and thoughtlessly places himself in a position that would morally compromise most other characters that he chooses the road of right because he believes in a higher moral calling that his great gifts and abilities have instilled in him.

Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: Monkey Brain Books, 2006.

Coogan, Peter. “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comic Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: Univesity Press of Mississippi, 2009. 77-.

Daniels, Les. Superman: The Compete History. New York: Chronical Books LLC, 1998.

Engstrom, Stephan. “Introduction.” Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. XV-LIII. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Critque of Practical Reason. Trans. Stephen Engstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Print.

—. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. Project Gutenberg, May 2004. Web. 20 March 2012..

Paton, H.J. The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948. Print.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: University of Missiissippi, 1992.

Ross, Alex and Mark Waid. Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics, 1997.

Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos. Perf. George Newbern, et al. 2010. DVD.

 

 

Farnham’s Freehold and My Response to the Recent Election

Yeah, I know the site’s name came from this book and I am feeling a little presumptuous, but given the events a week ago, I have to ask a lot of soul-searching questions.

Farnham’s Freehold was probably the most controversial book Heinlein ever wrote.  It is at least in the top three.  The main issue: racism can cut both ways.  The postulate that blacks and whites could switch places and that the blacks would use whites as food as well as slaves was one that was not well received.  Heinlein used up a lot of his guru capital he gained with Stranger in a Strange Land to make this one.  In the racially tense 1960s, this took guts.

I have to wonder in some fashion if this is not happening in a more symbolic sense.  First off, I am not a racist.  I don’t care about the color of a person’s skin, my question is the color of their politics.  Symbolically there does seem to be a connection however.  The minorities make up a large part of the Democrat vote and they have won.  They are in power in the Senate and the Executive Office fo this country.  The House is still in Republican hands.  They campaigned on the notion of making the rich (dare I say white) people pay more and give them more stuff for free.  This bread and games strategy worked and the supporters of this notion came out in droves.  Personally,  I think this is the beginning of the end for this Republic and I am wondering which direction to turn.

Option One: Wait

This is the easiest thing to do and probably the one requiring the most guts.  It, however would mean watching the slow decline of the economy over the next two to four years.  Sorry, you can’t add this much money to the debt and then throw a healthcare system like Obama Care and not have it be detrimental effect on the economy.  Already the news talking heads are talking about the fiscal cliff were heading off.  Companies are now announcing that they will have to reduce hours and lay people off to pay for the requirement of health insurance.  This is going to lead to most employees being part-time to avoid full-time benefits and I believe double-digit unemployment will follow in less than two years.

Politically, this will happen fast enough for a backlash.  I predict that like Obama’s first term this will mean a loss of seats in both the House and Senate in 2014.  Obama will lose the support of Congress when the Senate falls to Republicans.  Obama will; however, not change anything.  He will see himself as the last line of defense for his plan and being the radical he is, he will fight for it even to the detriment of the country.  Despite pressure from Congress, the people and even the media, Obama will stand fast.  He is far to arrogant to believe anything other than he is right.  In 2016, the country will elect a Republican president but he will inherit a mess.

The problem with this scenario is that the media and the Obama campaign have been very successful in demonizing the corporations and rich and I don’t think that will stop.  Ultimately the people will have to be decided who is a fault and the Obama camp will play the ‘rich people are to blame’ card.  How effective this will be will be anyone’s guess.

Option Two: Prepper

Maybe it is time to prepare for the worst.  To be like the Farnham’s and fight not only for survival but for the preservation of the American culture and ideals.  To emerge from the wasteland and restart things is an appealing image but it is not one I relish.  I live  in the most prosperous country in the world and I would like that to continue.  I cannot be blind; however, to the fact that collapse can happen and I need to be better prepared.

Option Three: Take Action

But which action?  This depends on what I think the future will be.  If collapse is inevitable, then the best thing is to be a part of something like Asimov’s Foundation that will shorten the time between collapse and rebirth.  If I think the situation is salvageable, then the option would be to do what I can to salvage it.  Not an easy choice because I am not sure which option will be reality.

So, what to do?  Perhaps there is nothing to really do but take each day as it comes and work toward all the possibilities.  Problem, my resources are limited and if I am to survive and be successful, I need to eliminate what will not be the case quickly so I can focus I what legitimately could be.

In the end I need some advice from my readers here at The Freehold.  Perhaps you have an option I haven to thought of.

Seductive Beasts: The Female Werewolf in Victorian Literature


      The most exotic and interesting of all werewolves  must be the female werewolf. While the she-wolf is rare in any period’s literature, she does appear in the Victorian period quite a few times. Her appearance in literature is much rarer than in the oral history of lycanthropy which is full of women changing into wolves at night. When she does appear the she-wolf is often a sexual beast. She uses her dual nature and female charms to ensnare her prey. She is also a vehicle for at least one author to explore feminism and male sexual obsession something that would have been frowned on if it had been written about outside of the peculiar confines of Gothic horror.

 

A Rare Breed? The Female Werewolf

The female werewolf while very uncommon in literature holds a prominent place in myth and folklore. In our modern age when we think of female shape shifters wolves are often the last thing to come to mind. There are literally thousands of popular books depicting women turning into cats or catlike creatures but not wolves; however the female werewolf was much more popular in European mythology than our modern literary and media tradition would suggest. The female werewolf was prevalent in medieval stories and was often a witch that transformed herself with a magical potion. While the witch werewolf hybrid was the most common form of female werewolf it is far from the only type. Just as with males, female werewolves could be created by supernatural curses, deals with the devil, and even wearing the skin of wolves. Women could even turn their unborn children into werewolves by a simple magical spell that makes childbirth painless, “If a female at midnight stretches between four sticks the membrane which envelopes the foal when it is brought forth, and creeps through it, naked, she will bear children without pain; but all the boys will be were-wolves,” (Baring-Gould 80).

The female werewolf  was written about by several 19th century authors such as Clemance Housman and Frederick Marryat.  Housman was a writer, illustrator, and a leading feminist of her day. She wrote stories which fit more in with the traditional folklore than some of the other Gothic horror novelists. Her werewolves are the most interesting of the Victorian period and her exploration of the theme was more thoughtful and thought provoking than any of the other werewolf literature at the time.

 

 White Fell: Feminism, Sexuality, and Duality

The Were-Wolf, by Housman introduces us to the story with very little in the way of context or exposition. We know that it is winter, this is a large farmhouse, and that an extended family lives there. The names of the characters and even their pets give very little away about where or when this is taking place since they are a mix of Norse, Anglo Saxon, and Celtic names. We do know that this story probably takes place before the invention or at least the popularity of firearms as the only weapons used are an ax and a boar spear. Housman seems to have intentionally masked the characters in time and place to give the reader a sense of timelessness. This is important to the story in another way. White Fell, who we discover later is a werewolf, does not surprise the characters with her appearance. In she acts and dresses like a man and this is important for Housman’s underlying narrative. While White Fell is certainly the villain of the piece she also seems to be an extension of Housman’s ideas on feminism. White Fell is the equal to a man on every level. She is obviously a successful huntress. She able to best Christian (one of the two brothers in the story) in a foot race even after the narrative suggests that Christian is almost preternaturally fast. She is also able to outfight Christian and eventually gets the best of him. White Fell seems to represent a ferocious female spirit which can’t be defeated by any normal means.

This is however a Victorian novel and as such the female protagonist must be in some way depraved. Housman is able to get around that Victorian trope in several innovative ways. White Fell is the object of desire by Sweyn. Sweyn is the more beautiful and athletic of a pair of twins. He is only bested in one thing by his twin Christian and that is in the ability to run quickly. It may also be suggested that Christian has a much more keen sense of danger than Sweyn since Sweyn is totally taken in by the “Fell thing” (Housman 27). In Housman’s story it is not the werewolf who is the sexual wanton it is Sweyn. There is no suggestion in the story that Sweyn falls under the sway of the wolf woman by guile or even supernatural methods. No, Sweyn falls for White Fell naturally and because she is beautiful. He will hear no protest by his brother that she is a werewolf and his lust for her blinds him to the truth and to his brother’s concern. The tragedy of the story is not that a werewolf has arrived, but it is the unreasoning lust/love of Sweyn. This lust allows each death in the story as he protects White Fell from all accusations.

Christian from the beginning warns Sweyn and then the entire family that White fell was a supernatural creature but Sweyn convinced them all that Christian had gone mad with jealousy. In the end it was actually Sweyn’s jealousy that doomed them. White Fell is merely a predator doing what any predator would do. She is a monster but she would have had no power over the family if not for a lust that was not her own. Housman created what should be taken as a warning to all men that unreasoning love/lust is destructive.

Housman’s work is one that delves deeply into many issues that were prevalent in her time. Early on she explores the twin concepts of sexuality and feminism. Here she rejects the Victorian norm in which the strong sensual woman is the sexual predator. White Fell is a predator just not a sexual one. Instead she explores the idea that men are the origin of sexual deviancy and furthers her own ideas of feminism through the White Fell character. In fact if the last page of the story was missing this could have well been a story of a strong woman falsely accused of lycanthropy.

 

For Housman the female werewolf in her classic story is a vehicle for her to present a strong feminist inspired female character. White Fell is as competent as any man and had she not been hiding the creature inside herself she would have been the epitome of the perfect confidant woman. It is possible that Housman was telling the world that women had a hidden strength and that men should beware of their own hidden nature. This is an important concept because while White Fell has a dual nature the two male protagonists represent a dual nature of their own. The two men are twins and that alone should suggest this duality. Sweyn is beautiful and well made. The perfect male form but he harbors lust and distrust in his heart. Christian on the other hand is not beautiful and not the equal to his brother but he is pure of heart. Housman creates a modern parable by weaving a tale around three people who are never what they seem on the surface. It is a warning not to trust appearance but to find out the contents of a person’s heart.

Works Cited

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1865). The Book of Werewolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition. New York: Causeway Books, 1973. Print.

Clemence Housman (1896). The Were-Wolf. Web (Project Gutenberg) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13131

 

 

 

Call for Papers: Robert J. Sawyer Conference

Robert J. Sawyer has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers, and if you’re looking for an author to hook a newcomer to the genre, his books are definite go-to titles. To commemorate the donation of his papers to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, the university will be holding a weekend-long conference next year, and a call for  papers is forthcoming. The details, as announced by Rob via his Facebook page:

A conference commemorating the donation of the manuscripts and working papers of Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author ROBERT J. SAWYER to The William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University.

Robert J. Sawyer has called science fiction “the literature of intriguing juxtapositions,” and so it is, combining a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, astronomy, computer science, evolutionary biology, gender studies, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, and sociology.

We’re interested in papers from all academic areas, with a focus on Canadian science fiction in general and Sawyer’s oeuvre in particular. The call for papers will go out shortly. Request a copy by emailing:

serruys@mcmaster.ca

Sawyer’s archives will be housed and displayed alongside McMaster’s massive collection of Bertrand Russell material, its H.G. Wells collection, and its extensive archival holdings in Canadian literature, including the papers of Pierre Berton, John Robert Colombo, Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, and publisher Jack McClelland.

How Alien are Aliens Anyway?

I think of all the alien races I have read about Robert Heinlein’s Martians were truly off the edge as far as being totally alien.  This is actually harder to do than most people think.  Any author who is using aliens will tell you that writing about something truly alien is hard to do.  In order to connect with human readers, there very often has to be something human about the aliens.  There has to be some connective point or the reader loses the story.  The way Heinlein accomplished this is so subtle with just shades of connection.  The main thing is that the humans in the books speak of his Martians as totally alien and requiring people to think differently.  It is this learning to think differently that makes the connection.

Most alien races are actually forms of extremism in human behavior or culture.  Klingons are representative of human aggression, Vulcans of human reason, Babylon 5’s Narn of deep faith in the face of oppression, etc.  In all cases, there is a human elements to alien races.  You may make the race totally alien in appearance, but there is usually some element of culture or some behavior that is human.  In many ways, the alien in science fiction is a fun house mirror of human behavior.

It calls into question whether or not one can truly do something completely alien that can be understood in literature by human beings.  Does the mere fact that a human being came up with an alien race make it in some way human and thus not truly alien in concept?  Is it possible to escape this circle and be truly imaginative? Probably not but that does not make it any less fun to try.

At the same time, I also have to ask do we really want to make aliens so outlandish that we can’t learn something from them?  It seems that in creating aliens we are trying to say something about ourselves.  It in many ways becomes the process of taking out an aspect of our society, culture and/or  nature and analyzing it by taking it to extremes.  In so doing, it is the author’s hope to pass on some understanding about humans that they can apply to themselves.  There is definitely a tension between making an alien different and making it understandable.

Ultimately, we are dealing aliens as a literary tool.  How that tool is used depends on the author, but I can’t help wondering how alien are aliens anyway? They are perhaps more of a mirror into the human psyche than anything else I know.  That; however, is what makes them interesting.

The Enquiring Hitchhiker Interviews Author Greg Bear

The Enquiring Hitchhiker Interviews Author Greg Bear

 

I have long been a fan of Greg Bear’s work. I think the first thing I ever read by him was The Strength of Stones and that segued into Blood Music which is probably my favorite novel by Bear besides Darwin’s Radio. It is hard to choose between the two.

 

The Enquiring Hitchhiker asks….

Question 1- As an archaeologist I found Darwin’s Radio fascinating. Do you think that the human race will undergo another major evolutionary change before we manage to wrest control of our own evolution?

 

Evolution never stops. We’ve defined evolution at the species level, but adaptation to changing environments occurs at the individual level throughout one’s life; we don’t individually grow wings to fly from danger, but we do bring into play phalanxes of genetic responses to changing seasons, physical threats, food supplies, sexual needs—you name it. Every aspect of biology is about solving problems on a second by second basis. What we call evolution, then, is a larger scale instance of that constant flux, observable in the different body plans of separate species, in the fossil record, in ontogeny AND phylogeny, which may or may not give us clues as to how change has happened in the past. Societies solve and support and adjust as well, politically and culturally, organizing populations, and that echoes back to how individuals adjust. To be sure, human evolution is now as much about social and technological adjustments as actual genetic adjustments; the mix and back-and-forth of this scale of evolution is not easy to quantify. But it’s important and may signal even greater changes to come. Whether or not, in all of this, a new “human” species will evolve is unknown—but if that sort of change is to come, it will have to sneak in soon. Because we’ll likely soon have the understanding and means to reverse such change, should we find it inconvenient.

 

Question 2- In Eon and subsequent novels you deal with the idea of alternate universes and alternate futures do you think that we are currently moving toward a physical model of the universe that allows for alternate universes in which life can arise?

 

These ideas are certainly fun to write about. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that a kind of “sum over histories” approach to alternate universes comes into play in living systems, including plants, which apparently have ways to maximize efficiencies through quantum adjustments in their photosynthetic chemistry. If that’s the case, and it appears pretty solid, then I may have to reassess my opinion of Frank Tippler’s quantum neurobiology! And that could imply that our own cognition and behavior may rely on a kind of motion through time which is less of a knife-edge slide into the future, and more of a smeared-out perception of competing futures… in which we may at times be able to make a choice. In CITY AT THE END OF TIME, I call it Fate-shifting. Fascinating prospects!

 

Question 3- Many of your works are about Humans evolving in a direction that seems to make them more dependent on each other physically and mentally. Do you think humanity is evolving toward a singular “overmind” or a small group of “control minds” and away from the rugged individual. Do you think there is room for the individual in the “Singularity”?

 

Centralization is not how minds get things done. Minds get things done through efficient and orderly distribution of problem-solving. An “overmind” is frightening because it’s basically unnatural. Likely it would also be terribly inefficient, and perhaps have a difficult time shedding waste heat! The Singularity is already upon us, has been upon us; no individual can grok the totality of modern technology. I know I can’t!

 

Question 4- I have not yet read The Mongoliad yet I am very interested in the concept and will pick it up at some point. Tell our readers why what is unique about it?

 

MONGOLIAD is distributed problem-solving (and story-writing) spread out among seven writers, with several other good folks providing tech support and fact checking. That it works at all—and it does, very well indeed!—points toward not just forward-looking attitudes on the part of Subutai’s founders, but a unique group of writers able to shed ego and focus on character and story.

 

Question 5- Our site is of course geared towards rational conservatives, libertarians, and objectivists. How would you describe yourself politically and what do you think are the major problems facing our society?

 

In many of my novels, I demonstrate my political persuasions through future-casting and social modeling—and because I try to play an honest game, many readers are confused about what to call me. I keep telling Jerry Pournelle I’m a liberal, mostly to irritate him—he’s been a major figure in my life–and he says I’m not a liberal, more of a maverick. Probably true. We still like each other, despite major disagreements. But the so-called rationalist and objectivist political persuasions have in recent decades slid into a lock-step with confederate conservatism that I find not only distressing, but irrational. I respect old-school libertarians—but not bigoted, pseudo-libertarian evangelicals who somehow manage to draw their ideals from both patriarchal plutocrats and Ayn Rand. That mix just doesn’t make sense. I doubt that Mr. Heinlein would sympathize with core Republican conservatism today, and I know Rand would have been disgusted. But that’s all part of continuing evolution in American politics! And times are a-changing, or swinging about in new winds. I remember back in the nineteen sixties, when I was a pre-teen conservative, trying to read a cruddy little tome called “None Dare Call It Treason.” I couldn’t get through it. The author accused Eisenhower of being a commie. Some currents never shift or run pure. Plus ca change!

 

Thank you for taking time out to answer these questions for us.

 

Weather Control, Sandy, and The Wrath of God

Weather Control, Sandy, and The Wrath of God

I remember a long time ago I saw an old newsreel about the possibilities of weather control.  The short movie speculated that hurricanes could be diverted with rockets shot into the atmosphere and thus creating artificial moisture or pressure centers.  More recently the idea is to use mirrors to artificially heat areas of atmosphere and do much the same thing.  The main idea is to create atmospheric barriers that storms and hurricanes cannot cross or that weaken those storms as they cross them.  It would also be possible to strike the center of a storm and weaken it.  If perfected the whole thing would make things like super storm Sandy a thing of the past.  From a getting off this rock point of view, terraforming possibilities exist within these technologies, so more power to these people on several fronts.

Hurricane Sandy / Super Storm Sandy has been one of those storms where I think such weather control technology would have been well worth the money spent.  I believe it would be a welcome addition to any disaster control team.

That said, I suppose I should apologize for my misguided and egotistical Christian brethren who propose that such disasters are God’s Wrath.  Sorry, I do not think so.  It gets very hard to maintain such theology in the face of say children being drowned by flood-waters or burned by fires.  When good people suffer, it is hard to say this is the Wrath of God.  It makes God into a mean sadistic SOB.  I would rather look at it as one of those things that simply exists in this world and to be honest in many respects I think they are ever-present simply to teach the human race to grow, develop and mature.  Perhaps God is simply waiting for us to get off our collective asses and develop weather control.  God has perhaps placed the solutions to our problems in our hands but we have not the sense to act.  We are waiting to be delivered and the tool of our deliverance is already in our hands.

Unfortunately, to many of those of faith see God as a cosmic Santa Claus that one needs to always bail them out of a jam.  God becomes the thing that saves them not the one who develops them.  As a father, I often have the means to bail my children out of a jam but that does not mean I always should.  I have never attempted to spoil my children because I feel it would be bad for them.  I believe God is much the same way.  This is not God’s wrath, it is simply the laws of physics in action and we have the capacity to stop it if we put our collective minds to it.  If God were to just take storms and hurricanes away, how would we get better as a race?  It is the challenges that make us grow.  People die yes, but people die every day.  These things are just another way it happens.

My ultimate goal as a father is that my children love me but can stand on their own two feet for most of life.  They may still need family and community from time to time but for the most part I think and hope that I have taught them that the first duty of a citizen is to take care of themselves so they are in a position help others and not be a burden to society.  That is achieved by defending and valuing your freedom and the freedom of others, not by controlling others or limiting others.  You also have to ultimately trust yourself in the end.  Liberty and opportunity are the greatest gifts and they need to be defended at all costs in order for a person to achieve this or a society to achieve greatness.  If God acts the same way, then maybe it is simply time to do for ourselves to grow up as  the human race.

Yes, I know there are other people who read and write for this site who are not believers.  It is not my point, that they should be; rather, my point is that being a believer does not mean that one should divorce oneself from using grey matter to think intelligently.  I only buy the wrath of God angle, if some guy gets out there and predicts the disaster ahead of time with details like intensity, date and time and then it happens.  Otherwise, it is simply a storm like many others.

What should be happening from those of faith is not judgment, but fulfilling of the mandate to treat others as we would want to be treated.  So far the truest Christian I have seen in all this is one of my parishioners who will be traveling east with some friends and a water pump to help people get the waters back where they belong.  He does not give two dingoes’ kidneys whether or not Sandy is God’s wrath or not, he just knows people need help and he is going to help them. What we need is not condemnation by the religious talking heads, but a use of our minds to come up with better ways to help with and stop disasters.  Then perhaps, God will see we have matured and guide us to and through the next step.  Maybe weather control by humans is God’s objective.

The victims of Sandy can either be casualties of God’s wrath or a catalyst for us to be better and do better as human beings.  I choose the latter.

The Girl Adventurer Comes of Age: Heinlein, Feminism, and the Juvenile Novel

The Girl Adventurer Comes of Age: Heinlein, Feminism, and the Juvenile Novel

 

In the early days of science fiction the genre was almost entirely the domain of male heroes. While female characters existed in science fiction they were generally the love interest of the hero, his mother, or a convenient damsel in distress. There are a few notable exceptions. Wilma Deering in Philip Francis Nowlan‘s 1929 novel Armageddon 2419 A.D is a capable and commanding female character. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Dale Arden in Alex Raymond‘s Flash Gordon. These women were momentary aberrations in science fiction and even they were soon to be relegated to the damsel in distress and love interest roles in later publications. A handful of other female characters exist that would challenge the traditional roles, but no science fiction author wrote consistently strong females into his work until Robert Heinlein. This is especially true of the juvenile market. One would be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel marketed for teens produced before the middle 1960s with a strong female character…..except for those of Heinlein.

Heinlein began writing his juvenile novels in 1947 for Scribner. In all he wrote twelve of these novels most all of them centering on a precocious young boy at odds with an often violent but fascinating universe. In that time Heinlein changed the juvenile adventure novel forever and in many ways he changed the face of science fiction as well.

Heinlein added a new dimension to science fiction stories. Before him the female character had a very specific and submissive role. That would not be the case with Heinlein. Heinlein’s female characters were equal to any male character. In a scene from the Heinlein juvenile novel Tunnel in the Sky, Rod Walker a young boy about to embark on his adventure is given advice from his older sister. The advice is about survival on an alien planet and she gifts him her favorite knife  “Lady Macbeth” and tells him not to be overconfident or it could get him killed. Not only is her advice sound, it comes from authority. She is a soldier and the equal of any man who may be giving this type of advice. Further into the book we find Rod teaming up with girls from his survival class. Not only do they not need saving, they are more prepared than Rod or any of the boys who have been sent to survival training. This is a revolution in story telling for young boys. Here is a novel aimed at the tween/teen demographic that not only shows that some girls are better and smarter than boys  it also includes veiled sexual situations with powerful females that are more than the traditional platonic friendships. This book was published in 1955 in the same year Tom Swift had still never held hands with his love interest, the Hardy boys barely spoke more than a sentence in each novel to theirs, and Biggles the main British juvenile hero was left wondering if he even liked girls. Love interest or not Heinlein had grabbed the juvenile market and injected females and feminism into the mix.

Heinlein not only introduces us to interesting and engaging female characters he goes deep into sociological explorations of female centric cultures. These are not the sex crazed Martian women of so many 1950’s science fiction movies but examination of living cultures. According to C.W. Sullivan in his article Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years he states,  Space Cadet is important because it contains the first of Heinlein’s interesting aliens, the Venerian natives. All of the Venerians with whom Matt and his friends come in contact are females. The group is headed by a female, the “mother,” and the others are her “daughters.” Matt finds himself being referred to as a “daughter” and his superior, Lt. Thurlow, referred to as his “mother.” (Sullivan 65)  here Heinlein is at his best as the anthropological storyteller leading his youthful charges in a National Geographic tour of the solar system. Introducing young boys to concepts that they would have never experienced until they were in college in 1950’s America. Heinlein had leaped light years ahead of the other children’s literature that was being published at the time. According to Marrietta Frank, “Although the females portrayed in Heinlein’s juveniles break the stereotypical roles most females were assigned in science fiction stories, especially stories of the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Heinlein is all but ignored by feminist science fiction critics.” (Frank 119)

There was one thing Heinlein had yet to do and it was not until 1963 that he published what would be one of the most important pieces of science fiction in feminism. With the publication of Podkayne of Mars Heinlein accomplished something that no one had done before, he gave juvenile science fiction it’s first girl centered adventure novel. Podkayne is written in the boy adventure novel vein but instead of the typical teen boy here we have a typical teen girl as hero. This should be a landmark in feminism and in children’s literature. Frank suggests that feminists dismiss Podkayne and all Heinlein’s juvenile work because in the novels  some of the female characters disregard feminism and seek very traditional gender roles. Podkayne for instance has trouble deciding whether to be a space pilot or a mother. “In Heinlein’s juveniles, readers will find examples of female characters in traditional females roles. Heinlein also peoples his juveniles with strong female characters, often in untraditional female roles. Because Heinlein chose to show females in both types of roles, Heinlein’s juveniles reflect today’s society, even though he began writing them more than fifty years ago” (Frank 130). Regardless of the dismissal by feminists themselves, Heinlein’s work is the culmination of feminism in juvenile fiction.

You would be hard pressed today to find a juvenile adventure novel without a strong female character. You may be hard pressed to find a boy adventure novel marketed solely to the male audience. The genre has begun to fade as juvenile fiction begins to blend male and female characters together. This is legacy of Heinlein. His novels began the integration of the strong male and female protagonists and led to the combination of male and female gender roles in boy and girl adventure fiction. Would a Hermione Granger exist without the influence of the genius girl child Podkayne? Would Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials have as it’s protagonist the plucky little girl that went up against the religious establishment of her entire world without the confident and intelligent female colonists in Tunnel in the Sky? It is hard to say, but the Heinlein juveniles did change how people looked at females in  male dominated adventure literature. Children who grew up reading those books did take away something from them.  That something has helped create our current literary world. From the sailing ships of the Victorian period and the boys who jumped a ship, were shanghaied, and were washed onto deserted islands to massive starships of the future cruising through the solar system the male/female dynamic continues to be illustrated through the literature of our youth.  Over the past hundred years in boy adventure fiction women have slowly climbed out of their traditional roles from mother and love interest all the way to equal partners. Sometimes they are even more than equal in the adventures that boys read and take to heart. While the prejudices of the past are never gone completely the time of the women who knows “her place” is over… Long live the strong, intelligent, adventurer.

 

Heinlein wrote something in his novel Tunnel in the Sky that sums up his belief in the power of the feminine…

“I’ve said this nineteen dozen times but you still don’t believe it. Man is the one animal that can’t be tamed. He goes along for years, peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat. Which goes double for the female of the species.”(Heinlein 6)

 

Works Cited:

 

C. W. Sullivan III, Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Year.
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly – Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 1985, pp. 64-66 Web 25 Nov. 2011

 

Frank, Marietta, Women in Heinlein’s Juveniles. Young Adult Science Fiction. Ed. C. W. Sullivan, III. Greenwood Press, 1999. p119-130. Web 28 Nov. 2011

 

Heinlein Robert A., Tunnel in the Sky. NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 2005 Print.