Monday, February 23, 2009

Science Fiction and Its Discontents

Over at Mark Shea's blog he has a post about Science Fiction and its inability to accurately predict the future. He attributes it to a flawed anthropology that most science fiction authors possess. Which is certainly true, and I highly suggest you go and read his post there. I, however, take a different tack on science fictions ability to predict the future. You see, one thing that one has to understand about science ficiton is that it never has been, never will be about the future. It is, always and forever, about right now. Yes, that's right, right now. As in this moment. Well, not exactly. It's about the period in which it is written. First, I'll tell you my thesis,a d thhen we'll bring out a few examples to prove my point. I bring up 4 or 5 well-known instances. There are dozens more I could bring up.

For starters, let's discuss what exactly science fiction is. While there are many competing definitions, we'll use the one that I think allows for the most leverage, and the most stories to fall under its heading. When I say science fiction, I use it to mean any story wherein there is technology advanced beyond then current technological levels, and there is a general, but not necessarily exclusionary, understanding in the ability of the scientific method to explain much of the universe. I believe the first part of my definition is rather self-explanatory and needs no further elaboration. As for the second part of my definition, I think that needs a little explaining. What I mean is that there is a general faith that science can explain many phenomena in the universe. This does not mean that there is no mystery or sense of wonder in the story. Merely that there is a scientific understanding of the universe, not a magical one. So, for example, Dr. Who, which has science that is completely made up techno-babble and is, more or less, merely magical incantations by the Doctor, still counts as science fiction. It has advanced technology, though made-up, and a generally scientific view of the world. In fact, whenever the Doctor encounters something "magical" or even religious, it is usually discovered to be merely scientific (usually some creepy alien trying to enslave the human race. But what do you expect from atheist producer Russell Davies?). So we have our definition, let's go on to why science fiction simply cannot be about the future. That's right, can not.

Science fiction is speculative. At its heart, science fiction is a "what if" question. What if this, what if that. The thing about what if questions, is that they really can't come out of left field. They always have to be based upon something that actually exists and happens. Oh sure, one can think of something does not currently exist, but it's always based on something that does. Say you read a story about a mechanical manservant, and what it would be like to have a mechanical manservant. Well, we do not have mechanical menservants, but we do have menservants. therefore, it is based upon something that already exists. Most science fiction is written this way. Moreover, most science fiction, and usually the greatest and best science fiction is written about actually trends that are going on, or their opposites. If we keep doing A, then B will follow, and after B, well, things get weird. Or, if we do anti-A, we get C, and so on. Science Fiction, like all literature, has to be set in its time, and is responding to conditions it finds there. So, on tot he examples.

Science fiction began in the 19 century. Oh sure, you can make arguments for Utopia, Gulliver's Travels, and even Don Quixote to be science fiction, but most understand that it began in the 19th century, usually attributed to Edgar Allen Poe, although there are others. Th 19th century also saw the birth of Communism, Socialism, and most importantly, Marxism. Early science fiction is steeped in Marxist thought. Why? Because it was the new sexy philosophy. Example , H.G. Wells, specifically the Time Machine. The Time Machine is set in a dystopian world where there are two ...breeds, for lack of a better term, of human. The baby-like Eloi, who live on the surface and enjoy the fruits of the world's advanced technology. And the Moorlocks, who live under the earth, and provide the labor for the world's advanced machinery. I think Wells's comment, is fairly obvious. The Eloi represent the "oppressive' owners of business, and the Moorlocks represent the workers. The workers have been so oppressed, and the owners so coddled, that they've become distinct species of humans. Again, Wells is only, and can only, comment on what was going on around him. So let's fast forward a bit. Let's go into the 20th century, and my favorite time period ever (except of course for the ancient Sumerians), the 50's. Now, much science fiction dealt with what? Rockets of course! Why? Well, besides the fact that rockets are cool, they were being worked on feverishly. World War II had seen furious development of rocketry (mostly by the Germans), and it clearly seemed to be the future. What did 50's science fiction not include? Computers! Why? well, at the time a computer was the size of a an apartment, and all it could do was add numbers together, but not double digit numbers! That would have taken way too much processing power. So in all 50's science fiction, you read about plenty of rockets, but few laptops. Let's go furhter into the future, shall we?

Space...the final frontier...these are the voyages... some of the most famous lines in science fiction. Guess what? No vision of the future at all. Merely a vision what was going on at the time. For those that have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm talking about the opening of Star Trek (I refuse to call it "The Original Series"). Star Trek takes place in a Utopian future, where there is one world government, all racial and cultural prejudices are gone, religion has finally been eradicated, and the galaxy is governed by a large bureaucratic body known as the United Federation of Planets, except of course for the evil Klingons with whom the Federation has an uneasy truce. How does is this wonderful vision merely reflecting what was going on at the time? Simple. See, Star Trek debuted in 1966. Two years previously the United States had hosted the 1964 World's Fair (this is the same World's Fair that Walt Disney's artists worked on, introducing Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and It's a Small World), bringing a (short lived) sense of world community to the United States. The Civil Right Movement was also beginning to gain momentum, now that Jack Kennedy was out of the way (this comment should not be construed as meaning any disrespect to the fallen President. I have great a respect for John F. Kennedy, and think his legacy has been greatly misunderstood. Having said that, he had a horrible record on civil rights). Speaking of Kennedy, he had also pledged that we;d reach the moon by the end of the 60's, and astronauts were regarded as American heroes. But not everything was hunky-dory. In 1960 Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev banged his shoes in anger at the U.N., denouncing "American Imperialism". In this soup of multiculturalism, civil rights, Cold War paranoia, and bright-eyed fantasy of the future, Star Trek was born. Once the counter culture started going in 1966, it was later incorporated into the show as well. In fact, Star Trek is a pretty good cultural lodestone for the entire decade of the 60's.

One more example and then we'll finish up. I promise. The most recent science fiction film to hit it big was an animated one, Wall-E. The story of plucky little trash compacting robot, who falls in love, travels through space, gets the girl, and teaches human beings and important lesson about love and the environment. While there is certainly an environmental message to the film,the filmmakers have consistently stated that it's merely a plot device and not relevant to the main story. I take them at their word, although I think we can all see how crazy enviro-nuts would love it. The main story is that humanity hasn't struggled with anything, and is unable to communicate with each other. People are completely alone in their own digital worlds, constantly entertained, distracted, and satiated. Andrew Stanton, the director, has stated that this is a direct comment on modern technology and society. That people today are just sitting at home Twittering, Facebooking, cellphoning, and reading blogs (not that there's anything wrong with that). People are getting increasingly detached from the real world and each other. The Axiom is merely that taken to the extreme.

I could bring up more examples, but I think that suffices. I used the more famous ones to illustrate my point more clearly. Now, having gone to this length, I will say this. Science fiction authors get the occasional things right. Jules Verne accurately saw a lot of modern technology, although in all honesty he merely took things that already existed and made them much more fantastic. Still From the Earth to the Moon, and its launch from Florida is remarkably prescient. Robert Heinlein fairly accurately predicted, and even contributed to, the sexual revolution. And William Gibson discussed "cyberspace" when the internet was still completely newsgroups for extreme, extreme geeks.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Latin, SSPX, and the Liturgy

OK, ok, I'm going to do my (hopefully) one liturgy post. This is something that tempers tend to flare around, with charages of heresy against anyone that disagrees with someone over the liturgy. I'm simply going to say that, in all honesty, I don't have very strong feelings about it. The same way I don't have very strong feelings about archaeological digs in Japan, the internal temperature of the sun, or exactly what the point of 2001: A Space Odyssey was. Basically, I don't have much knowledge of the development of the liturgy, and whenever I read anything about it on either side it tends to just devolve into quote-offs with very little substantive arguments being made. I will say that I only know two people that experienced both the Tridentine Rite of the Mass and current Ordinary form of the Mass, and both of them say the Ordinary form of the Mass is the best things that ever happened to it. These two men are my two grandfathers who both had roughly 40 years with the Tridentine, and 40 years with the current Mass. I recall a few years ago a friends of mine telling me about a Mass he went to in Rome with the Pope. It was very elaborate and the played Mozart or something, and he quipped "Sitting there listening to Mozart, it was hard to believe we gave that up for out of tune guitars and bad singing." And it occurred to me, that we didn't. According to my grandfathers, we gave up an out of tune organ and bad singing in a language no one understood. Now, you can make a comment if you'd like about the loss of Latin knowledge in the general population, or the current state of American education, or whatever; but the point remains that most people couldn't understand Latin. And not every church had a full orchestra and 40 voice choir. In fact most had an out of tune organ, that was old and sounded terrible, and a cantor that couldn't sing very well. I have no doubt that a Mass by Mozart, or Haydn is a truly moving experience, I just don't think many people experienced that every week at Church.

Which leads me to another pet peeve of mine. People are constantly complaining about terrible music at Mass, and how awful the singer is. they usually get very personal like the cantor is out to specifically ruin their experience of the Mass. Does it ever occur to these people that perhaps the cantor loves god just as much (or more) as the person complaining? That maybe, just maybe, the singer's singing has less to do with ruining someone else's experience and more to do with trying to render something beautiful to the Lord regardless of the gifts he or she may have been given? Like a child giving a crayon drawing to his father, and being delighted to find it on the refrigerator. I don't know. Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time being mad at people trying to live good lives, even if they screw up and aren't the most gifted people. God distributes his gifts in mysterious ways, for mysterious pruposes known only to him. My advice for all of you, is that the nest time you think about how terrible the singer is, pray for that person. Forget about you, and think about someone else for change.

Finally, the SSPX. Again, I'm just going to say that I don't know much about the situation, so i'm not going to try and second-guess the Pope. I will say, I don't understand the obsession with Latin that some people have. In fact, I really don't understand the Latin craze much. If someone would like to explain it to me, please do. Here's my thing. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, ther New Testament in Greek, and Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. The earliest Christian writings are almost universally in Greek, and so are the oldest records of the Liturgy that we have. So, my question is, where does the Latin come in? Imean, I can understand from an administative viewpoint that having one language being an official language of the church, particularly a dead one whose meanings aren't going to change, is a good thing. It means that there's no real ambiguity, as meanings of words aren't going to change over time. I just don't get why it's Latin, and why Latin is consoidered "God's own language." If somebody wants to explain to me, please do, as I'm more than willing to learn and be corrected. But nobody's ever done it before.

As for my opinions on the liturgy itself, I look at myself and my opinions as relatively unimportant. For what it's worth, I consider any Mass that I go to where my mind doesn't start wandering to homework I still have to finish, or how I'm going to pay my rent next month, as a victory. Anything beyond that is just gravy to me. Maybe I'm not good at the Mass, but that's how I feel (I know I'm not good at prayer). If the Church wanted to keep it in the vernacular, that would be great by me. If they wanted to go back to Latin, that's fine too. If the Church chooses to have the Mass in Finnish, I would consider that extremely odd, but would deal with it.

Ite missa est

Monday, January 26, 2009

Catholics and Country

I've noticed a curious thing among certain Catholics on the internet. There's a curious disdain from them for patriotism. This isn't limited to merely one side of the political spectrum either. Among left-leaning Catholics (which, thankfully, seem to all be connected with one website) there's an open disdain for the United States, and the love of it. Curiously, love of European countries is viewed as good on this website. With Catholics of a more conservative bent there's an even stranger permutation of this. For some bizarre reason, right leaning Catholics have burning hatred of the federal government (well, that's not bizarre), and a curious pining for the Confederacy (that's the weird one), to the point where they often refuse to use the term Civil War, or acknowledge that slavery even happened in the Confederacy (this is an interesting point, and one I'm going to dedicate an entire post to at some later date). Not to meantion various Lefebvrist sites ranting about Americanism. Both sides bring up inequities in United Staes to justify their dismissal of patriotism.

Now this, to me is very strange. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with patriotism or loving one's country. I was raised a good, God-fearing boy in the backwoods (well, suburbs actually) of New Hampshire. I was taught that God was good, my Church was good, and my country was a good place to be. When Pope Benedict came to the U.S. he praised various aspects of the United States. Which is good, but to an extent not relevant to my point, since I don't want to get into a quote-off as I like to call them (for those that don't know, a "quote-off" is when two people in argument simply quote other people back and forth to each other without an serious consideration of the other's side, or attempt at reasoning through a disagreement). I just mention it because I figure the Pope is probably a good Catholic, and this shows that good Catholics can say good things about my country. But again, I'm not so much concerned with the United States specifically, as I am with patriotism generally. Can a French Catholic love France, with all of its problems and inequalities, and still be a good Catholic? Or an Iraqi Catholic love Iraq? An Egyptian and Egypt? Columbian Catholics and Columbia?

For my part, it seems good to me that a man loves his country. I think a man should love his own country for the same reason he should love his wife; not because she is perfect, but because she is his. The patriot doesn't think that his country is Utopia, a place of perfection where there is no suffering (a Catholic patriot especially shouldn't think that). Certainly he may see more strengths than one who hates his country, but the patriot doesn't live in fantasy world. He looks at the serious problems his country has and, as far as is in his ability to affect, he seeks to correct them. The Catholic patriot also recognizes that the New Jerusalem is not possible this side of the grave. He recognizes that there will never be a perfect country anywhere in the world. Knowing this, however, should not lead him to complacency, on the contrary, it should lead him to do as much good as possible, because he never knows when the world's last night will be.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Soul

Before we begin, we should discuss one of the main things the Catholic Faith touches on: the soul. Since one can simply read the Catholic Encyclopedia's definition of the soul, I'm not going to concern myself too much with the definiton of the soul (besides, as Aristotle stated at the beginning of his De Anima, defining the notion of soul is one of the most difficult questions in the world, and one that philosophers and theologians have been struggling with for centuries). No, what I'm going to concern myself with here is how the conept of a soul developed in human culture.

For some time now, ever since I first heard of it in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've been fascinated by the Epic of Gilgamesh. For those that don't know, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian epic, that was first unearthed at the birth Assyriology (the study Sumer, Akkad, Bablyon, and associated cultures, like Assyria) in the 1880s and translated a number of years later. Most Catholics know it, if they know it at all, because it contains an intriguing analogue of Noah's Flood. It tells the tale of Gilgamesh the King of Uruk, a mighty city in ancient Sumer, and his wild, hairy, beat-like friend Enkidu. Together Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on a series of adventures, fighting demons, monsters, and all manner of strange creatures, including gods. In fact, Gilgamesh manages to anger one of Sumer's major goddesses, Ishtar, by refusing to marry her, and then insults her by speaking of her Black Widow-like behavior. As punishment, she has the other gods in the Sumerian Pantheon arrange for Enkidu's death. Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh is horrified and heart broken. He decides the best thing to do is to go out and find the secret of eternal life, from those lived "before the flood". It's an excellent story, and surely one of the most moving meditations on death the world has ever seen. What does this have to do with the soul? Simply this: that if we are to determine the beginnings of the soul concept, we should look back into the past, to the beginnings of humanity itself.

Now, let's do a mental exercise. Imagine it's ancient Sumer, or Egypt, take your pick. You're talking to your good buddy, Hotep, and then all of a sudden he falls down and doesn't get up. And he keeps on not getting up. Now, nothing has changed about Hotep. He weighs the same as before he died. Materially, he's exactly the same. Which would certainly get one to thinking that something immaterial had changed. Something that couldn't be seen, but no less real had changed. How do we know that it was real? Well, reality changed. Hotep was alive, talking and moving, eating and drinking, and now he's dead. The reality of Hotep changed. Therefore something in reality itself changed, and something that can change reality is real (I'm playing a little fast and loose with the term reality, by saying in can change, but what I mean is that the universe changes,since our poor friend Hotep is part of the universe). Now, if we say that the immaterial is not real, then we have no credible explanation for the death of Hotep. Poor guy, he had some much to look for ward to, he had just patched things up with Mrs. Hotep and was looking at a mud hut closer to the river, and now he's gone. Without a belief in the soul, there is no explanation for the difference between states. With the concept of the soul there ultimately isn't any difference between death and life. They're both the same thing, because materially there is no difference between the two. So, far from being a wishful fantasy, the belief in an immaterial soul is actually the most logical explanation for that fate that awaits us all, death.

Now keep in mind we haven't figured out anything about the nature of the soul yet, beyond that it is immaterial and in some sense separate from the body. The actual nature of the soul is something we'll be getting to in a later post. But I think this one has gone on quite long enough. I'll close with merely this last thought. Once we open ourselves up to the possibility of an immaterial, but real, soul, that leaves the door open for many other immaterial and real things to exist. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"


Hi everyone, I'm Hux. My real name's Michael, but the nickname's Hux. I'm a Catholic and an art school student in San Francisco (hence the title, because I live in the "Lion's Den" so to speak). I'm not going to be doing a another Catholic newsblog, because there are already tons of good ones out there (which I'll be linking to eventually). I'm intending this to be more like, well, a series of term papers. I'm fascinated by my Catholic faith and often study certain subjects in it that interest me. So, the basic idea is that I'll study some particular topic I'm interested in, (and if you are too, that's awesome), and write about. I do a lot of reading on the Faith and I feel that it needs an outlet where other people can benefit from any knowledge or wisdom that I glean. And in all honesty, sometimes the things I write about won't have anything to do with the Catholic faith, except in a tangential way. Oh by the way, don't bother looking for daily posts, because they're never gonna happen. Just look about once a week, and you'll see a new post, or two if I'm feeling particularly spry. Anyway, should in be fun.

Dominus Vobiscum