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Saturday, 23 June 2007


SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Amber Spyglass or 1984, and don't want to know plot points beforehand, don't read this (I say nothing for Brave New World because I doubt that prior knowledge of the stuff I'll say on it would make the book less interesting). I use both books to illustrate ideas in ways which give away part of the ending.

L.L. Barkat has been writing about stories recently, a subject that has to be fascinating to anyone who, like me, reads Terry Pratchett as much for philosophy as for laughs.

I need books. I've been reading one book after another ever since I first learned how. I need them for emotional expression -- I tend to feel like I haven't fully understood an emotion until I've felt it through a book character as well as through myself. Somehow, reading about someone else feeling something similar is the best way to validate the feelings that shape me (though seeing it on film or in a play is a good second). Books are my release. Books challenge my assumptions. I read books written at every level of heaviness, for every age group. I couldn't live without them.

A good story will often have all sorts of small threads, any one of which could be important to a given reader, as part of a whole which has a more over-arching message. When I first read The Amber Spyglass, I took away what I think was one of the main messages, the idea that you should lead your life fully and richly. By the end of the book, the world, nay, the multiverse, has been rearranged so that everyone must do this. Why? Because when you die and go to the world of the dead, the messengers will only show you the way out (to dissolve at last in the light) if you have a true story with which to repay them for their trouble. You must have some kind of story. If you are alive, you should live. And this highlighting of the importance of richly experiencing things is central to the book's later climax.

But when I re-read the book, years later, while I was interested to realise how it had influenced my philosophy, the most important thing to me was a smaller point, a mere expression of emotion. The Amber Spyglass has the best expression I've ever seen of what it's like to fall in love deeply for the first time and then lose it before it even starts. I needed that story. It's not actually a very common one; certainly I never found a pop song which lamented my love the way I needed to grieve for it.

Similarly, it was a minor realisation from George Orwell's 1984 that was most important to me the first time I read it. While the political insight is important, and I'm glad for that reason that I had to read it for English, the most important thing for me at first was when I got to the end where the authorities finally find a way to break him. I remember letting the book fall for a moment, lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling, transfixed, thinking Everybody has a breaking point. Logically, you can only value one thing above all else and it isn't usually anything particularly brave or noble; you shouldn't expect it to be. "Everybody has a breaking point," I whispered to the ceiling . . .

. . . and forgave myself.

Speaking of dystopias, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World had a rather important effect on me. It made me distinctly uncomfortable. I didn't really want to know the things it was saying. You see, my morality has always had a distinctly utilitarian bent. But Huxley's failed utopia is one which is designed to make people happy. They are brainwashed from birth to like being the way they are. If they get unhappy, there is a nice drug with few unpleasant side effects that they can take which will remedy the situation with perfect ease.

The whole set-up is creepy. Huxley creates this effect deliberately, mind, but in my view the creepy aspects that are hardest to put down to nothing more than culture shock are those which relate most strongly to the way in which the society of the book tries (with considerable success) to eliminate unhappiness from the world. Why? Well, maybe it's because the people who live there generally have no stories. Their lives are happy, if bland, but so devoid of story that even the comprehension of exciting, interesting stories is beyond them.

So that's how a story modified my view of the 'good' that we as individuals and as a society should strive to create. Sure, we should promote people's happiness, but we should also help their stories along. It's good to have a society in which people can dream for things. It's good for people to have a few problems (maybe not too many) and it's good for those problems to be solvable. Human beings need stories in order 'to be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape', as Death says in Hogfather. Let's not forget it.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Humanist Symposium #3

The third Humanist Symposium is up at Black Sun Journal, and looks to be as intriguing and inspiring as ever.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Potter and a proselytiser

The final Harry Potter book comes out in just over a month. Two years ago, on the day the sixth book came out, I made it to the bookstore at about half an hour past the release time (eleven in the morning, in New Zealand). There were multiple staff at work selling precisely that book; as I recall my copy was pre-ordered and I got hold of it fairly swiftly.

I didn't take it home. I have three little sisters, two of whom are huge fans! The only reason the other sister wasn't a fan is because she was only three, and far too young. But Mum was going to want to get her hands on a copy, too, and I didn't want my hold on the book to be compromised by anything until I had read it cover to cover. So I found a nice armchair in the local mall, opened the book, and began to read.

I paused after about two chapters to let the information so far imparted sink in. Didn't want to rush it -- I only get to read it for the first time once! As I glanced around the surrounding mall scene, I was approached by a girl who handed me a flyer.

It was shaped like a bank note and had '$100,000' written on it, along with 'THIS NOTE IS NOT LEGAL TENDER' in the place where an ordinary note would say the opposite. Around the edge, very small letters proclaimed the still more extreme worth of the message of Jesus Christ in somewhat doom-laden terms.

I looked up at the girl. She looked to be a few years younger than me, and was accompanied by another girl, still younger -- a sister? youth group friend? I couldn't resist remarking with some amusement "You're trying to bring people to Jesus by appealing to their sense of greed?"

Her smile as she shrugged and nodded was wry but friendly. And then she began her spiel.

"Do you know the ten commandments? You know, like don't kill, don't..."

"I could probably recite a few of them, but I might not be able to remember them all."

"Yeah? How many of them do you think you've broken?"

I tilted my head to one side. "I read a book recently, actually, that laid out all ten, interpreting them quite strictly, and I think there was maybe one that didn't apply to me." I know I must have smiled, thinking of it. I wasn't counting "don't murder" -- that's too easy. And adultery doesn't count either, because (a) I'm not married, and (b) if you think 'adultery' includes all sex outside of wedlock then I'm not actually always against it, so the fact that I was at that time (and regretfully still am) a virgin is merely an accident of circumstance.

She looked at me appraisingly. "You're quite humble, aren't you?"

I shrugged and smiled. I was flattered. "Sometimes, perhaps. Definitely not always!"

"I mean," she continued, "most people say 'Well, you know, I haven't killed anyone' " -- she mimicked the defensive tone recognisably but without exaggeration -- "so, no, I reckon you're pretty humble, really."

"I try..."

"D'you know about Jesus? Are you Christian?"

"I'm not," I returned calmly.

"You're not? Well, the thing is, if you've broken any of the ten commandments, God will punish you. You'll go to Hell. The only way to escape is through Jesus Christ, because He died for our sins so that we could be forgiven by God." Her tone was a weird mixture of earnestness and prattle.

"I have problems with the idea of Hell," I said. "It just doesn't seem reasonable."

"We've all sinned," she explained. "We're incredibly wicked, and --"

"I disagree!" I interrupted passionately. "I think we're all pretty beautiful, really."

"Well -- me, too."

"So how can you say that we deserve Hell?"

"Because -- well -- there has to be justice, doesn't there? What if we're talking about a murderer? Somebody brutally murders someone, and you're saying God should just let that person straight into heaven?"

"Well, maybe. I don't really hold with hurting people unnecessarily -- although I suppose some sort of punishment might be needed as a deterrent. Aside from that, it gets tricky. . ."

She looked at me doubtfully.

"Look, personally, I don't think I'd give a murderer more than maybe . . . thirty years? Fifty, maybe. I dunno. But seriously, can you honestly say you agree with endless torture? I just don't see how that could ever be justified. I mean, ten thousand years, perhaps, maybe we're all really terrible -- maybe some people deserve a billion years, even -- but eternal hellfire?"

"Maybe. You're a good person, I think. I mean, most people don't think they've broken very many commandments, but when you actually look at it -- don't have false gods, that includes anything you place above God, and then there's don't lie. . ."

"Actually," I said, catching a fragment of memory, "I think the one about lying might have been the one I didn't break. . ."

She looked at me doubtfully, and, considering what I'd just said, I frowned a bit myself -- why had I thought that?

"Well," she said, "bye. Keep the note. You can use it for a bookmark."

So I did.

After I'd finished the book, after my sick flash: "Oh, my god [sic]. Oh, my god. Harry is a horcrux. He's got to be. It's right there between the lines. But this is J. K. Rowling, so you can never really be sure. . ."

. . . after all of that, when I had a spare moment, I went back to our bookshelf and pulled down the piece of Christian exhortation I'd referred to in my conversation with the Christian girl. And there it was in black and white: Thou shalt not bear false witness. Why the author of the book didn't choose to extend it to all lying I'll never know. If he'd done that, he'd have got me. But, no. He started with saying that it didn't just refer to lying under oath and went on to include stuff like repeating nasty gossip about people. I could remember reading it and thinking:

Okay, so he's started with something I'd never do and now he's going on to talking about something that I've always seriously objected to and never been particularly prone to. . .
. Have I ever done something like that? Ever? I think -- oh, no wait, there was that one time I felt really terrible about -- wait, no, that was just me laughing at something nasty that somebody else said. It was bad, but it doesn't actually fit this crime.

Good grief. Has this guilt vendor actually
missed me? I think he might have. . .

Friday, 1 June 2007

Oh, the ache of disappointed patriotism.

Via PZ Myers, I just discovered that my country is not as wonderful as I thought. Maybe I gotta stop stereotyping those crazy Americans. The really harsh thing is that Weta Workshop is getting involved. Weta, the company that grew huge as a result of Lord of the Rings and was every bit as Kiwi as Peter Jackson. Weta, the cool little company that wanted to dress up their Oscars in little Barbie and Ken suits until they realised that the little statue comes with a big rule book!


How dare they.

Yeah, I know they're doing it for the money, but I still think it's unethical. So I sent them an email:

To whom it may concern,

I was shocked to read in the New Zealand Herald that Weta Workshop will be helping to design a creation "science" museum:

I seriously thought New Zealanders were above such blatantly false doctrines, and I am disappointed that such a vibrant and previously likeable company as Weta would consent to be involved in a misinformation campaign.

There is solid geological evidence (from radioactive dating) that the Earth is millions of years old. To pretend that any reputable scientist could say that the Earth is only a few thousand years old is a mistake of such undeniable magnitude that it can only be called a lie.

Museums such as these are aimed at children, children who are too young to have developed the proper critical thinking skills to deal with them. Please, please, do not assist these people in their distortion of reason and promotion of ignorance.

Yours sincerely,

[my actual name]