Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Men, persons, humans

Thor: A person who is not a human

Since the Old English use of man to mean ‘a human being’ has been largely co-opted at this stage in the history of English to mean ‘a male human being’, many people have rightly sought new, gender-neutral/inclusive nouns to refer to individual human persons.

The most common solution is person/persons (or people). However, this does not work in all cases, since in some domains, human beings are not the only persons potentially under discussion. The realms that come to mind in this regard are theology, mythology, and science fiction and fantasy. In the last dual category of genre fiction, Star Trek calls us earthlings humans (pronounced by Quark the Ferengi as ‘humahns’). Obviously, many non-humans in Star Trek are persons — Odo and Hu, just to mention those who’ve already made an appearance on this blog. But all humanoid species and many non-humanoid species in Trek are persons. Even Q, the space fairy.

I am actually less certain about fantasy, since I do not read a lot of new fantasy. In Tolkien, the human species is populated by Men with a capital ‘M’, reflecting both the archaic nature of the language and its cadence as used by Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s own era.

In mythology, one has a variety of non-human persons. The concern here arises for translators and philologists who want to discuss literature in the Classical tradition. How do you render anthropos and homo? It cannot be person, since by current English usage, gods, demi-gods, centaurs, et al., are also persons.

Similarly in theology. In Christian theology, God is a Trinity of Persons, so it is actually imprecise to use person where a few decades ago one would have used manMankind also runs into similar problems, often solved by humankind, a word I dislike; much better to say humanity, I think. One place where this is a difficulty is Genesis 1, where God speaks of making, in older translations, ‘man in our image’. Andrew Louth circumvented this danger in Introducing Eastern Orthoodox Theology by consistently rendering (from Greek, not Hebrew) anthropos as human kind until he had to bring the discussion to the singular.

Many current English translations of the Bible and ancient Christian literature seem to think person is a perfect synonym for anthropos. Or, in the case of new translations of the Nicene Creed, cut men out altogether, ‘who for us and for our salvation’. Loses some of the theological potency; us what?

One of the books that is consistent in using one solution to the problem is Greta Austin, Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. She consistently always refers to human beings using the substantive humans. This works. It is not as common as it should be, although I see it every once in a while. The philological objection is, of course, that human is an adjective, not a noun. But adjectives are frequently nounified when necessary, and this maintains the linguistic precision of the Latin text under discussion as well as the theological context of Burchard.

Perhaps not a breakthrough or deep or illuminating, but it is important for us to keep in mind not only why we may wish to shift our lexicon away from something, but also to consider where we are turning. Precision and accuracy are important, and person is often too imprecise for accuracy in language.


Personhood and Relationship (and Odo from Star Trek)

I’ve blogged on this topic once before, in relation to the character of Hu in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hu, you will recall, was a Borg who became dislocated from the rest of the Borg Collective, and during his time on the USS Enterprise, became friends with Geordie Laforge. This friendship was the evidence necessary not simply of Hu’s emergence as an individual separate from the drone-state of the Borg, but of being a real person.

You see, we manifest our personhood not simply in our individuality (rocks are individual, my mobile phone is individual, the Wedgewood vase on my windowsill is individual) but in our relationships with others. True personhood, whether human, alien, or divine, is manifested most fully in relationship with others.

And in relationships of love — such as friendship — that personhood is actualised in a particular way that can bring out the best in us.

It turns out that this theme is not restricted to Hu. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 3, Episode 14, ‘Heart of Stone’, Odo and Major Kira are trapped in some caverns in a seismically unstable moon. In true Trek fashion, Kira is trapped in a crystal, and looks about to die, so she asks Odo to tell a story to keep her occupied.

Odo tells the story of how he got his name.

Odo, in case you don’t know it, is a changeling, a shapeshifter. He was discovered by a Bajoran scientist and raised in a lab. At first, they did not know what Odo was. All the specimens in the lab were labelled, and this one was given the label, ‘Odoital’, which was meant to represent that the specimen was unknown, but is actually the Cardassian word for ‘Nothing.’

Once it became clear that Odo was actually sentient, they still called him Odo, but broke it in two like a Bajoran name — Odo Ital. Whenever anyone called him by this name, Odo, he heard this nothing behind it. That that was all he was — nothing.

But not anymore. Not since meeting Kira. And the rest of the crew of the space station Deep Space 9. Now, when people call him ‘Odo’, it simply means himself.

Through friendship, through companionship, this lost, lonely alien, who until recently knew no other of his kind, became comfortable with his own person. Odo became a name to him; it meant himself.

This is what our relationships do to us. We are not discrete, atomised individuals, but persons interacting all the time, moving through one another in relationship. These relationships are what make us persons. We should probably cultivate good ones, I think.

The thin grasp of reality (Ray Bradbury’s poetic SF)

In my first year of undergrad, I was deeply offended by a dismissive sentence in my English lit textbook, setting aside all ‘genre fiction’ — mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror — as not being for the literati or being great, interpretive, artistic literature. It’s been 15 years, so I honestly don’t recall the wording. But something to that effect.

I was offended, of course, because I was 18 and a science fiction and fantasy fan, and all 18-year-olds are easily offended by people who challenge the stuff they like. Nonetheless, even if a lot of SF is pure escape (which may still be art, after all), a lot of it is also great literature. If only more people read it!

I am slowly, one story every once in a while, working my way through Ray Bradbury, Stories, Vol. 1. Whenever anyone disregards the entire genre of science fiction, dismisses it with a sniff, looks down his’er nose at it in scorn, I think fondly on Ray Bradbury and his poetic science fiction. This morning, I read his story ‘No Particular Night or Morning’. This is a snapshot of life aboard a rocket ship in the vast emptiness between the stars. One character, Hitchcock, has started to lose his grip on reality. If he can’t see it, can he know it’s real? Does earth exist — has it ever existed? The sun? Yesterday?

Soon, he begins to doubt the very fabric of the present moment. Are the people in the next room real? Is his friend Clemens, standing in front of him, real? How can Clemens prove his reality to Hitchcock?

One of the things that makes good science fiction very good is when it is a story that needs its imagined context. That’s a tall order at times. One could imagine a similar story to this aboard a sea vessel. Yet in the sea there is still day and night. In space, there is nothing but an endless night. The psychological effects of long-term, interplanetary space travel would probably be grievous. But they are rarely explored in the staples of our SF diet, not in Star Trek, barely in Battlestar Galactica.

You can read this story as just a psychological thrill, the horror of deep space.

But it penetrates to one of the big questions of human existence, interstellar or earthbound.

How do we know what is real? Why do we trust our memories? Why do we trust our senses? Why trust our reason? Indeed, can we trust our memories, senses, reason? Pontius Pilate comes to haunt us, ‘What is truth?’

Ray Bradbury thus brings us from simple entertainment to the horrors of our own inner life, into the realm of psychology, philosophy, theology. This is the sub-branch of philosophy called epistemiology.

How do you know you are real? How do you know that I am real? Least real of all, this digital life. Go feel the sun, kiss your children, eat some pie. Hope that it’s real before it’s all gone…

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

My review of The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, #4)The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final volume of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — I’ve already reviewed The Shadow of the Torturer which comes first. The first volume helped give us the lay of the land and introduced us to Severian and his far future Urth (that is, Earth) in the last days of the Sun. At the end of that volume, Severian enters exile.

The next two volumes follow the journey motif common to much fantasy — of course, as my review of the first says, this is not quite fantasy as we know it, but a sort of ‘science fantasy’ in the far future. This volume ends the journey motif, not that Severian stops moving around.

Honestly, I was not that interested in the chapters about the fighting in the war, which is why it took me so long to get through it. But immediately following those chapters, the knots start to unravel. Or maybe the loose ends start to be woven together? Whatever the metaphor, stuff happens, and things are revealed that make sense of episodes in the earlier books and various allusions Severian has made throughout.

For example, we learn about the New Sun and what it would take for it to come. We learn more about the ‘cacogens’. We learn about the Autarch and why that is his name. Big cosmic ideas come into play about time, dimensional travel, the universe. As well, my main suspicion about Dorcas was confirmed, but there was a further revelation I never suspected (ooo … the suspense!).

Tying together all these strands of narrative, of description, of enigmatic references from earlier volumes was done deftly. It could easily have descended into too much, too fast. Or large amounts of exposition. But it was done very well. However, I do recommend reading all four volumes in a short span of time. Because Wolfe ties all the strands together, and unloosens all the knots, by the end of volume 4, we have a complete but by no means exhaustive view of Severian’s society, its past, and its future. For those who like world-crafting, I believe Wolfe has done an extraordinary job in creating a rich tapestry without bogging us down all the time with explanations. Indeed, despite my reference to a ‘complete’ view, much is left unexplained — but that’s kind of the point.

All in all, a triumph.

View all my reviews

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1)The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book because it was amongst the interesting-sounding novels discussed in A Short History of Fantasy — of course, in certain respects this sounds more like science fiction, set as it is in the extremely distant future. Nonetheless, the feel of the novel is that of fantasy, with a certain amount of low-tech material culture.

As the title of the quadrilogy says, this is the the Book of the New Sun. Some of the fantastic elements derive from the transplantation of extraterrestrial species on Urth in the generations of human space travel. Other things are possibly due to evolution. The inorganic elements of fantasy are a similar combination — extraterrestrial artefacts and creations of the deep history of human tech.

But none of this is why I heartily recommend this book. All if it is, however, partly why this is not your run-of-the-mill piece of SF. Nevertheless, the unfolding of Severian’s narrative from the Citadel and beyond is itself compelling. Once it gets going, the plot hooks you and pulls you along with it; the world of Urth and its dying sun is revealed and unfolded before you as you learn more about the main character and the various other people with whom he interacts in the Citadel and city of Nessus.

I admit, though, that I found it awkward for the first few chapters. Part of the feeling of the exotic that Wolfe gives us is the use of Greek-based words for stuff that does not exist in our world, and not always with a description of this hitherto unknown plant/object/animal. This, and the whole in medias res made the very beginning a bit difficult. But once the scene is set, and the world unfolding, then the plot gets moving and hooks you, pulls you in, and you follow Severian on his journey…

View all my reviews

Ghostly logic

In The X-Files, Scully routinely states not simply her objections to paranormal or extraterrestrial explanations of otherwise unexplained phenomena in terms of ‘science’, ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, but also the fact that some of the things she has encountered cause her to doubt science, or something to that effect. She believes in reason, logic, science.

I was recently reminded of Scully’s attitude whilst staying in a reputedly haunted research institution. One night over a conversation where the local ghosts were raised, one of my friends expressed disbelief not simply in those particular ghosts, but all ghosts in general. When asked why, the response was quite Scullyan: Because I believe in logic and science.

This led me to attempt some sort of annoying Socratic questioning of the premisses that lie behind such statements. What, precisely, is illogical about ghosts? As such conversations do, my (perhaps) aggressive line of enquiry went nowhere, and a plea of, ‘It’s late,’ led to mercy on my part.

I think, however, that ghosts are a good test case for questioning the Scully approach to unexpected, extraordinary phenomena and what we think we mean when we claim belief in ‘logic and science’. Why? Because few people are especially emotionally invested in the question of ghosts, unlike the questions of God or specific miracles. I, myself, find most ghost stories suspect.

First of all, what are ‘ghosts’? Ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the physically dead. In the context of The X-Files and haunted research institutions, ghosts are specifically the disembodied spirits of the physically dead who are in some way present in physical locations and who can make their presence known through certain auditory and tactile phenomena.

Why might one reject ‘ghosts’ altogether? Reasons to reject the notion of such ghosts altogether are an unthoughtful rejection of all extraordinary phenomena unexperience by oneself. Thoughtful people will similarly reject ghosts on the premiss simply that the supernatural or numinous does not exist — or a belief that the human person has no spirit. Others will reject ghosts on the premiss that we live in a two-storey universe; even if the physically dead persist in a spiritual existence, they cannot interact with us, nor we with them, like the gods of Epicureanism. A fourth group will reject ghostly encounters as representing contact with the physically dead on the grounds that divine judgement does not leave a place for such spirits to roam free amongst the physically living.

All of these belief systems, as it turns out, require a set of assumptions well before one approaches the stories of ghostly phenomena and extraordinary encounters.

What is necessary for a belief in ‘ghosts’?

First, one must recognise some sort of supernatural/numinous/spiritual element to the composition of the universe. The true atheist or the committed agnostic, the materialist, will not believe in ghosts. However, there is room within theism, even deism, and animism, for the presence of the ghostly dead amongst us.

Belief in the numinous, contrary to what the New Atheists tell us, is not itself irrational or contra-rational; contrary to the Christian apologists, it is also not the most perfectly logical way of believing. No such perfectly logic worldview exists, for humans and reason and our ability to experience phenomena, are flawed. To date, the best argument for the supernatural I have met is C. S. Lewis, Miracles, although there is a chapter in N. T. Wright’s methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God that also presents a different approach that can be helpful to some.

Second, after believing in the supernatural, one must be willing to believe that the physically dead have a spiritual, or ‘ghostly’, existence beyond the death of the body.

Third, one must believe that said spirits can, and sometimes do, co-exist with the physically alive on this plain of being.

Fourth, one must believe that a being normally invisible and intangible can, under some circumstances, be able to make itself known to those of an ordinary physical existence through visual, auditory, and occasionally tactile phenomena.

All four of these are not scientifically verifiable. This is the problem with metaphysics and ghostly logic. Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has as its purview the ordinary workings of the physical universe as verifiable through controlled and precise observation, measurement, and experimentation. Science, as a field of human knowledge, can tell us nothing about the possibility of ghosts.

These premisses do, however, have logical arguments both for and against them. Since science cannot help, all such arguments will remain inconclusive. That’s part of the fun of being human.

Some people, however, have tried to prove ghosts scientifically. I’ve watched some of their ghost-hunter documentaries, and none of them is convincing. Perhaps I remain unconvinced because I do not share their premiss — the presence of spiritually active psychological entity will leave behind some sort of physically verifiable trace such as energy or hot and cold or suchlike other scientifically verifiable phenomena.

Returning to the haunted research institute, one of my other friends responded that he also had not formerly believed in ghosts. However, his encounter in the library at 4:00 AM with a non-visible person who had the auditory phenomenon of coughing directly behind him has changed his mind.

If one accepts enough paranormal/supernatural premisses to believe that spirits of the physically dead may sometimes roam the earth with the physically alive, the question remains of how to deal with the ghost stories. Logic and rational enquiry can help us here. For example, alleged photographs of ‘ghosts’ have often turned out to be distortions in the cameras field of vision that have a non-supernatural explanation within the physical world as verifiable by science. I believe they are sound-waves.

What of the many anecdotes? First, ask whether the person is reliable. Some people fib. Other people exaggerate, whether purposefully or accidentally. Second, if the storyteller is a known, reliable person who seems, by and large, rational in their approach to the world, ask whether or not there is another, and preferably better, explanation for the phenomenon described. A house creaking at night as it settles. A physical person in the shadows but unseen to the storyteller. A small earth tremor that caused something to move.

Of course, even if a story meets such criteria, the encounter may not be supernatural; it may simply be currently inexplicable by science’s measure, or it may have been a misdiagnosis of the facts by the one reporting it. Furthermore, a paranormal or supernatural encounter need not include a ‘ghost’ as narrowly restricted to the spirit of a physically dead human person. Traditional Christianity believes at least in angels and demons. Many Irish believe in a variety of paranormal beings conveniently labelled ‘fairies’ in English. Most ancients and animists also believed in a variety of non-visible, supernatural beings, including the invisible dead.

I, myself, have yet to hear a story about ghosts that leaves me entirely convinced that the spirit of a physically dead human being manifested itself to someone. But I also remain unconvinced by the premiss that the spirits of the physically dead roam the earth. This has nothing to do with ‘science’, however, but to do with a variety of other premisses and pieces of logic from elsewhere in my worldview.

Nonetheless, I am open to being convinced.