Corporate Megatexts (1): Authenticity

Kutanagi v JohanssonWhen Paramount announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Major Kusanagi in the live action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it launched another outbreak of accusations about ‘whitewashing’ – the appointment of white actors and actresses into roles with a clearly established ethnicity. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei advanced a strong criticism of the casting, not on the grounds of racial politics, but claiming that Ghost In The Shell is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” What are we to make of this claim, and of the circumstances that led to it?

This incident is an example of a clash of narrative communities, a phenomena that – with a notable exception I’ll save until later – is peculiar to the last hundred years. The reason we are facing these conflicts today can be traced to a serious gap between the aesthetic and ethical values that sustain contemporary media production. On the one hand, the giant global corporations that produce our most popular entertainments are propelled by an ethical and economic commitment to sustain their franchises by ensuring the money they make will exceed the cost of production. This is the burden of custodianship. On the other side is the question of authenticity in adapting or extending story materials, the demand that all materials be faithfully related. Tsuei’s objections to Johannson’s casting is a good example of an authenticity argument.

The problem of custodianship is often dismissed as pure profit motive, yet no-one is going to stump up millions of dollars to make (say) a blockbuster movie without the hope it can take even more money at the box office, or through other channels of monetisation. To be opposed to custodianship is to attempt to opt out of popular culture altogether – something Marxists certainly have reason to do, but that most people do not. The continued production of content is something most seem to view as beneficial, except where to do so would undermine the authenticity of what was made. Conversely, those pushing against the production of further content can appeal to the diminishment of the core materials, which is another argument from authenticity.

The question of authenticity relates directly to the kind of ‘game’ being played with the fictional world in question. We are not accustomed to thinking of films or books as being ‘played’, but whether this term is taken literally or figuratively, the point remains that there are multiple ways a work can be experienced. As I argue in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies are ‘played’ differently by someone who takes them as an adaptation of the book of that name than by someone who takes them as a prequel to Jackson’s movies of The Lord of the Rings. The problem of authenticity is always tied to a context.

Now there may be a temptation here to dismiss the issue of authenticity entirely as ‘subjective’, and a corresponding mistake of thinking that custodianship must be objective since the money, after all, can be counted. But successful custodianship must meet minimum requirements of authenticity lest the franchise be ‘milked dry’, and thus depends upon the very subjective elements that the economic factors are contrasted against. The desire to dismiss the subjective elements of a problem stems entirely from the mistaken assumption that they are infinitely variable, and thus cannot be meaningfully engaged with. However, once it is recognised that the experience of fiction entails different games, we are no longer dealing with the irreducible infinite. We are simply dealing with a manifold of practices, that is a set of different ‘games’.

Just as Bruno Latour has demonstrated that a grounded sociology is about tracing relations, a grounded study of fictional interplay is about identifying the network associated with the practices of the ‘game’ being played. This network includes all the works that form the megatext of the fictional world. This term ‘megatext’ is Charles Segal’s idea for understanding Greek mythology as inter-related, and I have extended this in my philosophy to contemporary media franchises like The X-Men, Star Trek, and Tolkien’s legendarium. The network also includes both the causal ‘players’ of the megatext (“I saw that movie”) and the hobbyists (“I’ve read every issue”), and all the people and companies entailed in creating the original media. The situation is further complicated by the interdependences: the X-Men megatext links to the Marvel comics megatext, and to the broader science fiction megatext, and more besides! The task of tracing such a network may seem insurmountable, but it is nothing of the kind – it is simply (as Latour notes for sociology) that you must trace things carefully, one step at a time.

While short cuts in network-tracing are risky, a subset of the manifold of ‘games to be played’ can be constructed to provisionally interrogate any megatext. In Implicit Game Aesthetics I took the conflicts between aesthetic values (evidenced by the arguments that are stated) as distinguishing between different ways of playing (indeed, of playing anything). I do not think it a coincidence that Latour uses the same method to trace his ‘modes of existence’. The provisional manifold for every megatext is thus the different ‘games’ revealed by the arguments between ‘players’. Some games are disagreements about the values of authenticity, but some are clashes between custodianship and specific values for authenticity.

In the case of Jon Tsue vs. Paramount, this is precisely the case: taking an authenticity position based around cultural embedding as his aesthetic context, Tsue argues that any attempt to disembed Ghost In The Shell from Japanese culture is a breach of authenticity. The unstated counter-argument from Paramount would presumably be that custodianship dictates a lead actress with box office draw. Without Johansson, therefore, there would be no movie. (This argument was indeed traced, on Paramount's behalf, by the Hollywood Reporter.) Supporters of authenticity could argue in such a case that it would be better not to make the film at all than to compromise the faithful relationship of the new work to the rest of the relevant megatext. Here, in brutal simplicity, is the crisis in authentic fiction brought about by the practical dominance of corporations in the ownership of all contemporary megatexts.

Next week: Canonicity

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.


Moffat's Schizophrenic Continuity in Doctor Who

Contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent that may completely ruin your enjoyment of it. If you have not seen this episode, I advise you not to read the following post. Caution: may contain traces of philosophy.

Heaven Sent TeleporterWhen it comes to Moffat’s Doctor Who, I have to wonder: can he repair the problems in the show’s infinitely compromised continuity faster than his own problems tear new holes into the Whoniverse?

In Heaven Sent, we have what Radio Times’ TV critic Patrick Mulkern has called an “instant classic”. I tend to agree, even if I found this particular script impossibly frustrating in my impatience to get to the resolution of the current plot arc, which is only very slightly advanced by this achingly slow but brilliantly acted episode. But we also have in Heaven Sent the embodiment of current showrunner Steven Moffat’s philosophy for guiding the show, which is diametrically opposed to previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, even though they share a common vision of Nu Who as classic Doctor Who plus British soap melodrama, as I’ve suggested before.

It’s clear from his work on the show that Davies is a positivist, i.e. someone with faith in the objectivity of the sciences. He mounted all his episodes under a tightly conceived materialist conception of science fiction – very much in the tradition of Terry Nation – despite being willing to play fast and loose with elements many sci-fi fans might consider ill-considered. It was never orthodox science fiction (i.e. hard sci-fi), but it was always under its shadow. While Moffat shares Davies’ anti-religious sentiments, he is not fundamentally a positivist, and has never shown any real sign of being interested in orthodox science fiction. So while Davies pursued Nu Who as sci-fi first and melodrama second, Moffat pursues it as melodrama first and sci-fi optional. In philosophical terms, Moffat is an ontic idealist about the Whoniverse – the complete opposite of Davies’ ontic materialism – a point made abundantly clear in The Big Bang, when Matt Smith’s Doctor restores the universe largely (it seems) from nothing but his own memories. Moffat’s universe, in other words, is essentially pure thought – George Berkeley would have been proud!

With Heaven Sent I believe we can see Moffat’s priorities clearly, in that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything in terms of the Doctor Who mythos if it makes an episode as much of a spectacle as it can be, and simultaneously provides as melodramatic a plot as possible when taken as a self-contained story. However – and here is where he becomes schizophrenic – Moffat is also far more engaged in the process of maintaining (and repairing!) the ambiguities and problems in the long-term continuity of the show than any other showrunner in its fifty year history. This tension is part of my joyous frustration with Moffat’s tenure at the top, since I must confess that I struggle to find any episodes penned by Davies that I actually liked (possibly New Earth is an exception), while I find the episodes in Moffat’s era to be stronger in almost every sense, despite struggling to find any that are as good as those that Moffat wrote under Davies guidance.

The problem with Heaven Sent is that its temporally-leaky, closed-loop plot device breaks the Doctor Who universe in an all too predictable way. It’s not that other sci-fi writers hadn’t considered using teleporters as “3D printers” (as Capaldi’s Doctor presents it) – indeed, the science fiction megatext is full of stories about this, and I’ve discussed some of these previously in the context of low fidelity immortality. But as a writer working on a long-running show, you don’t use teleporters this way without opening the big can of worms clearly labelled ‘Do Not Open’. For if all that is required to make a teleporter into a replicator of beings is a jolt of energy, then the moment anyone has transmats (as Doctor Who traditionally calls teleporters), you instantaneously have immortality for everyone, not to mention perfect instantaneous cloning, and all the intriguing problems with personal identity than Ronald D. Moore explored in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Because energy is a generalized resource, and not that hard to come by – particularly if you can simply zap a humanoid to get it – it is simply not a sufficient barrier to prevent the vast swathe of problems that come from conceiving of teleporters in these terms.

Let’s try and be generous to Moffat and imagine that it is the regeneration energy or time energy in the Doctor’s body that is required to thread the needle and make the teleporter into an autocloner. That at least prevents ordinary humans in, say, The Seeds of Death from having instant immortality and duplication from T-Mat. But the energy put into the teleporter each time should be reduced by the amount used to restart it (if regeneration energy) or entirely expended the first time (if time energy), so neither is a very plausible way of mounting the closed loop required for Heaven Sent to work. The situation is far worse if you just ‘burn’ a body to run it a second time. The Master needn’t have spent so many years hunting down ways to get a new body in the plot arc beginning at The Deadly Assassin (clearly an influence on this episode) since he could just use a transmat and a random victim to make a new him simply by having copied himself prior to his last regeneration. I’m afraid it doesn’t work as an element of the mythos: it only works as a means of making this individual episode have a dramatic finale.

That, in a nutshell, is Moffat’s problem. He’s content to make an episode under his jurisdiction work as well as it can in its own terms, regardless of the implications for the mythos. (Kill the Moon, anyone?) But he’s schizophrenic about this, because at the same time he is so admirably dedicated to maintaining and repairing the mythology and, for that matter, integrating the best of the non-canonical Who lore into the master canon. (In this regard, does the next episode, Hell Bent, imply resolving both the so-called Cartmel masterplan and the loose ends with the 1996 TV movie? Ambitious!) I have nothing but admiration for the way that Night of the Doctor not only gave some closure to the eighth Doctor, but also made all the Paul McGann Big Finish audio plays into quasi-canonical stories by name-checking every one of his companions on screen. That’s a move so bold that I just can’t imagine anyone but Moffat daring to do it.

Perhaps this is the point: Moffat is daring – positively reckless, in fact – with Doctor Who, always trying to mount bigger, more ludicrous high concept stories atop of a rather fluid conception of continuity and long-term plotting that he simultaneously savages and painstakingly repairs. Which is precisely Heaven Sent’s problem. It’s a ridiculous piece of high concept storytelling, utterly dependent upon its opening scene not giving the game away (much like The Usual Suspects, actually), and one that opens up the teleporter wormcan and hopes that its consequences can simply be ignored. (Actually, any psychological consequences can be ignored, since to the last and only survivor of these Doctor-copies only a short time has passed!) Perhaps some future showrunner will be able to fix the complications Moffat unleashes here by reconceptualising teleporters, but I doubt it. More likely, it will remain another tear in the fabric of the Whoniverse made by Moffat in pursuit of his own standards of storytelling. I admire him. He has, as they say in New York, chutzpah; audacity – both good and bad. But I also hope and trust that he’s working on the challenging problem of who could conceivably replace him when he eventually steps down.


The Martian as Robinsonade

Contains spoilers for the 2015 film The Martian, and one moderate swear word quoted from it.

The MartianThe 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars proudly declares on its poster: “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!” You can guess, simply from the year and title, what we would make of this claim today. Fifty years later, Ridley Scott’s The Martian plots exactly the same vector, just from a different starting point.

The most realistic aspect of Scott’s The Martian, adapted from the self-published novel by Andy Weir, is that its protagonist, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney, never questions his faith in the power of science to save him. Beyond this earnest depiction of contemporary non-religious zeal, the movie’s claims to showcase anything that might be called ‘real’ evaporate. This, indeed, is inevitable: the lesson from The Martian, should we choose to accept it, is that ‘realism’ describes accordance with whichever mythologies we align with our concept of ‘reality’. That does not mean nothing is true: it just highlights the problems entailed in trying to assert terms like ‘realistic’ in connection with imagined events.

The Martian is real to positivists  (those who put their faith in the sciences) in precisely the same way something like The Greatest Story Ever Told is real to Christians – right down to the way either cultural cohort would approach nit-picking the content. There is a quasi-religious fervour to the way ‘scientific inaccuracy’ is reported in connection with films such as this, a duty to educate on the back of entertainment, all while extolling the need to witness the film in question for its edifying qualities. While there is no denying (for instance) that the Martian dust storm that serves as the inciting incident would be harmless because of the thinness of the atmosphere on Mars, as the author of the original book acknowledges, I was personally more bothered by the internal problems this creates. If killer storms are an aspect of Mars in the fictional world of The Martian, it cannot be the case that the rockets for departure are recklessly sent by NASA years in advance and ready-to-fly, a key plot device upon which hangs the resolution of the film’s crisis. Mind you, none of this matters in terms of claims to this being a ‘realistic’ story, since such a claim is not about what could happen but about how we conceive reality.

To call The Martian a Robinsonade i.e. a tale in the form of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, is perhaps not too surprising. Surely many expected they were going to see Castaway in Space, rather than Apollo 13: Martian Edition. But herein lies the insurmountable rift at the centre of any claim to realism leveled against the film; not that physics, chemistry, and biology are neglected (rather, they are lavishly worshiped, however inaccurate some details may be), but that the central character is not a character, but a mere cipher through which the miracles of Science are channeled. I would compare Mark Watney to Moses, if it were not for the fact that Moses could barely believe the incredible superpowers that flowed through him. Like the preacher upon the pulpit, Watney doesn’t have to be human; to have our frailties, our weaknesses, to fall prey to depression, to slip from sanity – all this is impossible in the given role. Watney, like a good fundamentalist, never questions, and never doubts the agent of his salvation. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” he declares. Hallelujah, brother, testify!

It could reasonably be objected that The Martian doesn’t work as a Robinsonade because so much of the story entails the work of NASA to line up all the necessary science-flavoured plot devices involved in its hero’s rescue. It is certainly a twist on the format! But in many respects this helps reinforce the way that both stories are deeply colonial in their perspective. Writing in the same year as Robinson Crusoe on Mars was released, the Irish author James Joyce noted that Defoe’s protagonist was the “true prototype” of the colonialism of the British Empire. Joyce remarks upon Crusoe’s “manly independence” as well as “the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” This description matches Watney perfectly. Certainly, some of the “efficient intelligence” is outsourced to Earth in The Martian, since many of the characters in the movie exist solely to deliver a domain-specific plot device to its proverbial desert island. But it is Watney's “manly independence” that is always the focus of the action.

The principle difference between Watney and Crusoe is that the latter, as with British colonials, had to deal with the indigenous ‘savages’, and only truly turns to faith at the denouement of the novel. Watney on the other hand is alone, and disturbingly unfazed by it. Perhaps his perfect Earth-agricultural potatoes – utterly implausible given what we know about plant growth, incidentally – are his companions? The colonial reference is made internally to the movie, and it would have been interesting to see the film accept that potato plants grown on Mars would be utterly different vegetables to the ones we know. It would have been an acknowledgment, however small, that what we were seeing was palpably unnatural, in the sense this term is usually deployed. Perhaps coming eye-to-eye with an unrecognisable tuber would have allowed Watney to encounter something other than what his scientifically-flawless sainthood projects: mastery of all, dependence upon no-one.

In both Defoe’s novel and The Martian, we are presented with a mythos whereby one soul is able to survive against the odds. This is not coincidental. While separated by nearly three centuries, both stories build upon a conception of the human soul that was given mythic breath by Descartes’ philosophy. The contemporary sciences, in a brutal irony, deftly unweave the idealism of pure individuality implied by Descartes’ cogito: we are a social species, we cannot be human in isolation. Yet a great many contemporary scientists and their fans, swept up in a mythology they cannot quite perceive because of its status as background assumption, continue to presume this individualism, a narrative massively intensified by the Enlightenment – originally to our benefit, now to our considerable loss. We have been colonised by this way of thinking; its truth has supplanted older ways of being that now seem ‘savage’ by comparison. Of course we must idolise the individual as the embodiment of freedom! Anyone who doesn’t is not ‘one of us’.

The Martian offers to reassure you that you can exist as a pure individual provided you place your faith in the sciences (while ignoring what these discourses reveal about us), and that humanity will act to deliver you from evil – at astronomical expense! – provided you do not live on our own planet. This does not exhilarate me the way it has other cinema goers. I find it somewhat pernicious that we can be entertained by this, for reasons directly parallel to the critique I leveled at Interstellar and Sunshine. I enjoyed the movie only guiltily, quietly concerned by what it reveals about our contemporary mythologies. The sciences cannot save us because they have become quintessentially bound to our problems; not quite their cause, but inestimably far from being our salvation. We cannot go on without their help, but in ascribing to them the unique capacity to determine what is ‘real’ we extend the power practices of our officially dismantled Empires indefinitely. Perhaps it is time to apply the deeply questioning methodology we ascribe to the sciences to our notion of ‘realistic’ and bring an end to the colonialism of truth that underpins far too much of our cultural baggage.


Interstellar as Self-Defeating Allegory

Contains spoilers for both Sunshine and Interstellar.

McConaughey Looking GormlessRecent decades have seen a rise in popularity for non-religious allegory films. But the latest, the Nolan brothers’ Interstellar, provides its own strong reasons for rejecting its message.

The religious allegory has long depended upon travelling as its strongest metaphor for life, as evidenced in both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey into the West (also known as Monkey) – the classic Christian and Buddhist travelogue allegories respectively. Two of the recent spate of non-religious allegories also build their plots upon an epic journey, namely Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Here, the mythic themes of traditional religion are replaced with contemporary non-religion, specifically positivism (which collects various mythos that have in common a strong trust in the sciences as our most reliable truth-givers). Other positivistic allegories in cinemas recently include Greg Motolla’s Paul (penned by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying, both of which descend into bigotry, the latter to a jaw-dropping extent. Of course, religious allegory is hardly immune to this: Journey to the West is about as racist towards Taoists as Paul is towards rural Christianity, for instance.

Interstellar and Sunshine are two peas in a pod: movies about scientists embarking upon an epic space journey to save the Earth from a poorly explained global catastrophe that – quite implausibly, in the case of Interstellar - can only be solved by physicists. Both movies have similar influences; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been mentioned by both directors, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris also deserves a nod in this regard. And both movies hired astrophysicists as full-time consultants – Einstein Medal winner Kip Thorne for Interstellar, and perpetual rictus-grinned Brian Cox for Sunshine. On the surface, this seems like a sensible consultation gig, although in the case of Interstellar the scientific themes go beyond mere physics and a broader consultation might have been sensible. The role of these physicist-advisors is as much spiritual as it is practical, though, as can be seen in Brian Cox’s conversion of Sunshine-star Cillian Murphy to atheism (i.e. a specifically atheological form of positivism) during filming. I suspect in this case that Murphy’s prior agnosticism was already positivistic in inclination, so the ‘change’ was more of denomination than of inclination.

Whereas Sunshine feels very much like Pilgrim’s Progress for those who put their faith in Science, at least before devolving into serial-killer-in-space, Interstellar seems a little more internally conflicted, but only just. Matt Damon’s hilarious cameo as evolutionary dogmatist Dr. Mann provides (sometimes unintentionally) some much needed humour in the frankly overlong movie. Mann has swallowed all of the Dawkins-esque dodgy metaphors about evolution without, it seems, accepting Dawkins’ own exultation to rise above this fallen state (a mythos Dawkins himself exports from Christianity, as others have noted). Similarly, John Lithgow has a few injections of grandfatherly wisdom that help leaven the oh-so-slowly rising bread: I giggled at his remark about Matthew McConaughey’s character ‘praying’ to his gravitational anomaly – far more apposite than perhaps even the Nolan brothers intended!

As spectacle cinema, Interstellar is a strangely effective mix of awe and boredom. But as didactic cinema, the Nolans shoot themselves through their collective feet. Christopher Nolan has stated that with this movie he wanted to rekindle interest in space travel after the disappointing termination of the space shuttle programme. But by its own internal logic, Interstellar is a massive argument against its own rhetoric. The problem springs from its energising mythos being that of the early twentieth century Russian school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who responded to early rocketry by stating: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot live in a cradle forever.” In the film, this is delivered as “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here”, and Dylan Thomas’ striking poetry is repeatedly deployed to underscore this theme. This is a mythos I have dubbed “Flee the Planet” – and it is one of the most dangerous (in the Enlightenment sense) non-religious ideologies in circulation. As ground-breaking evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis remarked, it is a fantasy to think that space exploration is something possible solely through shiny metal technologies and not through messy biological partnerships. As a result, if we are to explore the stars, it is first necessary to fix our problems here on Earth.

This is the first way Interstellar’s message stumbles: it spends the entirety of the first hour painting its picture of a doomed Earth but never really manages to explain why that catastrophe is inescapable, or (equivalently) why super-physicists can save us by evicting us into space but super-biologists are powerless to save us on Earth. If it is possible, as the film’s ending posits, to create majestically perfect space colonies through the wonder of physics, why is it impossible to build (sealed) terrestrial colonies upon the Earth? Because frankly, being in space changes nothing here: if you can’t build sustainable self-contained colonies on the Earth, you’re not going to be able to build them in space either. The film may have got its physics ducks in a row, but its biology ducks are all higgledy-piggledy. We can still buy into conceit this because apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are so familiar to us now, but in this case we ought to be more sceptical about its premise, given the director’s intention to motivate viewers towards a specific way of thinking.

More egregiously on this front, Interstellar veers into very strange metaphysical nonsense in its attempts to neatly tie everything up too neatly. Behind its immediate mythos of “Flee the Planet” lies a more general mythos that philosopher Mary Midgley has dubbed “Science as Salvation”. But the sciences are utterly powerless to provide salvation in Interstellar, because its entire premise is based upon aid from unknown beings that McConaughey’s character insists (with a total absence of evidence – bad positivist, no cookie for you!) are five-dimensional future descendants of humanity. These beings open the wormhole and construct the tesseract that are the necessary plot devices for saving all of humankind in the story. This actually doesn’t make a lick of sense if you examine it too closely, but setting this aside the whole “Science as salvation” mythos fails if what actually saves you is a deus ex machina, or rather homo ex machina since we are supposed to believe that future descendants of humanity are the godlike aliens in this story. Thus if the film attempts to rekindle interest in space travel by suggesting that we’ll need to escape the planet to live after we kill the Earth, it contradicts its own didactic intentions by making such an outcome impossible to conceive without a thoroughly un-positivistic faith in superpowered future post-humans manipulating events like the Greek Gods lowered by a crane into the theatre that gave us the god-in-the-machine metaphor in the first place. As allegory, Interstellar is shockingly self-defeating.

When religious and non-religious allegories posture against rival mythologies, it is almost always ‘the best of us’ versus ‘the worst of you’ – which is (not coincidentally) also how the “Science versus Religion” mythos operates ideologically. In Journey to the West, the silly Taoists are never allowed to present their perspective, and problems within Buddhism never come to the fore. Of course, this doesn’t hurt the story at all! In Interstellar, however, there is a surplus of what I’ve called cyberfetish (blindness when judging our technology) that, unlike the magical battles in Wu’s narrative, undermines what the Nolans want us to make-believe. McConaughey expresses cyberfetish succinctly when he is enraged by his kids’ school adopting textbooks that say the moon landings were faked for political purposes (nice touch, that). He objects that there used to be a machine called an MRI and if they still had it, his wife wouldn’t have died. Maybe so. But isn’t grand scale monocultural farming facilitated by mechanized agriculture the root of the blight that threatens humanity with extinction in the film? Cyberfetish encourages us to see technology solely as friend and saviour – magical medical interventions, test-tube repopulation miracles, sassy robot friends, and galaxy-spanning spaceships. It blinds us to the ways that unfettered technological development has hastened the threat of our own extinction, and already brought about the permanent eradication of many of the species we shared the planet with until very recently indeed.

Interstellar is an epic thought experiment that seeks to persuade us into taking a rash course of action by eliding almost all the relevant information and making it seem that its way is the one true path. There is a nasty history of this in twentieth century moral philosophy, not to mention Medieval religious doctrine: we should not find it more palatable just because it indulges our valiant yearning to touch the stars. If humanity is to explore space, it will not be through the “Flee the Planet” mythos: as Interstellar inadvertently makes clear, this is a dangerous fantasy. Rather, our relationship must first and foremost be with our living planet in all its necessary diversity. “The Earth and then space” is the only mythology that might give us even a fleeting chance of one day travelling beyond our world, and even then we may have to accept (as Interstellar publically denies) that it is our robots that will have to be our proxies amongst the stars. Science fiction inspires us all – both religious and non-religious people alike. Let us ensure it inspires us to do our duty to our fellow Earthly beings rather than encouraging us to hasten our self-inflicted apocalypse by trying to sacrifice the planet in order to ineffectually flee into the heavens.

Interstellar is in cinemas now. For more on science fiction as positivistic mythos, see The Mythology of Evolution, and for more on cyberfetish and the moral dangers of thought experiments see Chaos Ethics.

Please note that this is not a review, but rather a philosophical critique. If you want my review of Interstellar it would be "see this movie if you enjoy attempts at serious science fiction with striking cinematography."


Exterminate! The Dalek and the Drone Assassin

Dalek ExterminateThe Daleks, the most feared race in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. But is their terrible warcry of "Exterminate!" just a chilling historical reference to the Nazi's 'Final Solution', or is it also a horrific reflection of our own willingness to let our technology distort our ethics when it comes to violence?

There is an incredible scene in the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which the military strategist Kongmong (or Zhuge Liang) commiserates with his enemy, the barbarian chieftain Meng Huo. Putting aside the radical differences with the historical personages these characters are based upon, what is striking about the scene is that two warriors who might be considered brutal by today's moral standards do something we can no longer countenance: they share in the grief of an enemy. Meng Huo's forces have been using rattan armour, a lacquered wood that is proof against the swords and spears of the invading forces. Kongmong reasons that if this mysterious defense is proof against both metal and water (the battleground being around dank forests), it must be vulnerable to fire. He thus sets an incendiary trap - but it is too successful. The laquer ignites and the soldiers are all burned to death. But rather than boast of his victory, Kongming weeps with Meng Huo over the terrible loss of life. Despite the savagery of this era, it is still devastating to Kongming to have caused death on such a scale. And so he weeps both for, and with, his enemy.

By comparison, the fictional Daleks shed tears for no-one. They are absolutely assured of their racial superiority, and thus have a mandate to eradicate all other species except when their own plans require enslaving the lesser races instead. Terry Nation, who created both the Daleks and the dystopian science fiction show Blake's 7, modelled the Daleks upon the Nazis, a theme that is most explicit in the final Dalek story of the classic era, Remembrance of the Daleks. Although extermination was a thematic element of the 1960s Dalek stories, it wasnt until 1972 that "Exterminate!" became their de facto warcry, an outcome that owed as much to British newspapers popularizing the phrase in connection with these cybernetic murdererers as anything else.

Fiction is the mirror of our moral selves and we can learn a great deal about ourselves from how we relate to ethical situations portrayed in stories. In the cases described above, we have two odd extremes of a some kind of ethical scale: war is an accepted tool by both Kongming and the Daleks, but the former aims not at the eradication of the enemy but in fact hopes to make them allies, something the aliens from the planet Skaro could not possibly contemplate. We cannot, I suggest, see ourselves in the Daleks, who are as close to absolute examples of moral wrongness as we are likely to find. But we also cannot see ourselves very well in this particular Kongming story - since when do we commiserate with our enemies these days?

The chilling fact of contemporary warfare is that we are far closer to Daleks than we are willing to admit. The familiar 'pepper-pot' shape of the Dalek is a machine (a 'travel machine', as it is called in Genesis of the Daleks) intended to house the mutated descendants of a dying race of humanoids on the planet Skaro. The scientists who make this device have in mind only their ability to continue as a race, but the twisted genius Davros adds a weapon to the casing and genetically engineers the organic occupants to have greater aggression and an absence of empathy and pity. There is a sense, therefore, of the Daleks being destined towards extermination. But in many respects, it is the addition of the weapon to the travel machine that transforms the Daleks from a means of survival to a means of extermination - and this parallels contemporary usage of robotic drones.

UAVs, as the military penchant for acronyms renders them - 'unmanned aerial vehicles' - are also a kind of 'travel machine'. They allow telepresence in remote locations, such that an operator in the United States can fly a drone (as I shall insist on calling them) on the other side of the world. Technology, our Enlightment mythology assures us, is morally neutral, and we should only be concerned about the ways we use our tools and not the tools themselves. Yet for some reason, we are not on the whole significantly concerned about the CIA mounting explosive missiles upon these drones and using them to strike at targets in Iraq and Pakistan. I suggest this is because we think of such deployments as being used 'against terrorists', despite an endless array of evidence that these drone assassinations have resulted in many hundreds of deaths among civilians who simply have the misfortune to be neighbours of those who have been marked for death by military bureaucracy. The facts of this horrific practice are not in dispute. Yet still, we do not weep for the enemy, nor even for the innocents slain in pursuit of the morally reprehensible goal of mechanized extermination.

I'm saddened to report that not long ago I discovered that someone in my circle of acquaintance was working on autonomous guidance systems for military drones. I am reluctant to force my moral values upon others but I had to confront him on this. "They only use drones to kill terrorists" was his shocking reply. Even if that were the case, which it manifestly is not, are we now so far from critically challenging our technology that we would walk into developing not mere Daleks, which after all are still vehicles, but autonomously murderous machines? Never mind the mythology of Doctor Who, this is the nightmare future of The Terminator we are sleepwalking into!

There is an oft-quoted comment from one of Heideggar's lectures that is usually quoted with horror:

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

Excluding militant vegans, who value non-human animals radically more than most people, this line is taken as a sick conflation of the moral value of a chicken or cow to that of the Jewish people. (I have never seen the lives of the Japanese civilians slain by the hydrogen bombs brought into this expression of outrage, however.) While Heideggar's remark was certainly ill-chosen, at its heart is a recognition of the risks of pursuing death as an automated process. The Daleks and the Terminators are science fictional expressions of this concern. Drone assassins are its horrific manifestation in contemporary war. If we cannot recapture some scintilla of the remorse Kongming shows in accidentally exterminating enemy combatants when we face down our intentional extermination of innocent civilians, we must urgently ask those who serve in our armed forces to find new moral values for the battlefield. For today, it is our own forces whose warcry has unknowingly become 'exterminate!'

You'll find more detailed discussions of drone assassination, the relationship between science fiction and ethics,  and other contemporary moral problems in my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.


Kult Post-mortem (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves

Alita In 2005, an unknown Slovak company released a EuroRPG that managed to pull in 80% and 90% review scores. The game was Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (known as Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) and this is the story of how it came to be made.

Fortunate Meetings

In December 2003, Ernest Adams wrote a piece for his popular Gamasutra column The Designer’s Notebook entitled “Inside a Game Design Company”. At the time, International Hobo (or ihobo) were a unique phenomenon – although there were certainly consultants working in game design and dialogue scripting, no-one had tried to form a company that would offer both of these services under one roof. Yet this was the very founding principle behind International Hobo: that to do game narrative well required game designers and writers to work closely with one another, and that a company that could provide outsourced services in both these areas together would offer a significant practical advantage.

At the time we had just released our first game, Ghost Master (with the now-closed studio Sick Puppies) and had received critical success for it – including a 90% review score in the US magazine PC Gamer, and a nomination for Best New IP in the Develop Awards, which also nominated International Hobo as Best Outsourcing Company. However, we were struggling to acquire clients and were substantially short of our targets for this. A strategic mission to Japan had provided great contacts (and we did later work with several of the companies that I met on that trip), but cold calling developers for over a year had produced nothing but pain and heartache.

But on the back of Ernest’s article, I received an email from Peter Nagy who was running a company in the Slovak Republic called 3D People (who later rebranded as Games Farm). Peter and his team were working on a EuroRPG – they had a rather neat isometric game engine, and some fantastic art designs and graphical assets, but they knew they needed help on both the design and the narrative. We provided a free consultation on their documentation, and came back with a proposal to take what they had and turn it into something quite different from everything else on the market. 3D People liked what they read, and commissioned International Hobo to completely overhaul the design and narrative of the game – and to do so in rather a hurry, since they were working to an aggressive schedule. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that is still going on today.

Rewriting the Story

The basis of the story materials that had been delivered to ihobo for revision was a tale of epic betrayal at a besieged city. There was actually a great deal to like about this part of the backstory, and this was to become the legendary tale of how a crippled outcast would rise to become a brutal dictator known as the Theocrat. There was also a great suite of characters with exotic names like Tar Evanger and Carissa Cantrecht, who were part of a secret society called the Penta Nera. Much of the ideas in this original draft survived into the final game, although the way the plot was put together was a little too obvious and conventional.

For instance, the draft story began with a young orphan living in a distant abbey who comes back from a morning walk to find his home attacked and burned to the ground. It was a set-up we’d all seen a hundred times before, and we felt it could be done better. However, 3D People already had the burning building assets – so we needed to rework it in a way that would still make use of the existing materials. We came up with the idea that it would be a much more intriguing opening if the player is attacking the monastery in order to recover a powerful relic – but upon arriving it becomes clear that someone else has beaten them to it... The burning building thus takes on a very different emphasis than the boring ‘my family has been murdered’ cliché. We were also keen that if the game was only going to have one central character, it should be a woman.

As well as remounting the plot, we had to do some work on world-building. The setting in the draft materials was pure generic fantasy – the kind of hodge-podge fantasy setting that Dungeons & Dragons had popularised, made from 50% Tolkien’s legendarium and a scattering of scraps from everything else. We were always going to be an underdog title, so there was a risk of not getting noticed if we were too obvious. I suggested dropping the cookie cutter fantasy races – elves, dwarves, and orcs (which were far too heavily associated with the endless parade of Tolkien clones) and focussing more on the other races 3D People had designed – the Taymurian wolf-folk, and the fearsome ogres and goblins who became the Sura tribes. This immediately helped the setting feel a little fresher. 3D People were also keen on necromancers, so we made a role for undead in the world, serving as slaves who worked the deep and dangerous mineshafts. But the world also needed a name, and the one we’d been given (Rywennia) didn’t have much identity...

Enter the Heretic Kingdoms

My biggest single influence as a writer had always been the work of fantasist and literary writer Michael Moorcock, whose Eternal Champion sequence – Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, and so forth – had been a major influence on Dungeons & Dragons, despite being rather less well known than Tolkien’s stories. Moorcock is one of very few authors to have won awards for fantasy – including the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award – as well as literary awards such as the Guardian Fiction Award. His Elric novels were set in a world called The Young Kingdoms, a setting that explores the nature of Empire, race, and freedom through magic, cruel ancient races, and dragons who drip burning venom. In the same way Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms explored power politics through the lens of an ancient and brutal Empire (a mythological surrogate for the British Empire), I wanted to find a thematic angle that we could use to make the world of our game stand out from the crowd. But what could be our hook?

At the time, the ‘culture wars’ between religion and its critics were starting to hot up – the New Atheists began publishing their best-selling diatribes in 2004 – and I thought this might be an interesting angle to explore in a fantasy game. I was mindful of Hannah Arendt’s account of how the totalitarian states of the twentieth century began by persecuting a scapegoat minority (often, Jewish communities) and gradually came to use this political situation to seize control and consolidate their power. What if our fantasy setting was a world so poisoned against religion that it had come to conduct the very kind of abuses that had turned it that way? What if this was a place that embodied Mary Midgley’s adage “the evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution.” What if this was a world where there was an Inquisition dedicated to annihilating religion – at any cost?

This was the germ of the idea that led to the Heretic Kingdoms, and I had hoped it would be a setting that would have something interesting to say to both theists and atheists. However, it ultimately may have had more appeal for the latter... At a conference that Ian Bogost ran in Atlanta, I met a Christian who had reviewed the game in the speaker’s lounge where I was chatting with Ian and Ernest. He had liked it, but expressed concerns that a setting where ‘God is dead and religion is heresy’ was a difficult premise for many Christians to accept. Of course, the phrase ‘God is dead’ is straight from Nietzsche – and what the German philosopher had meant was much more subtle than is usually thought... but still, it was easy to think this was an anti-religious game. Personally, I don’t see it that way at all, and I’m glad many reviews thought it struck a good balance between both sides of this conflict.

Kult: Heretic Kingdoms was a game about authority and identity – about the ways that people acquire and fight over power, and the symbols they erect in order to seize control. The Garulian Empire rises to power on the story that they have ‘killed the God of the Land’, then the Theocrat overthrows them by claiming to be a descendent of he who killed the God, then the Inquisition overthrows him – in order to seize power for themselves. ‘Religion’ in this setting has been severed from any kind of spiritual, ethical, or communal role and is simply a means of indoctrination and control. This is not a world where good battles evil, because it’s not clear if anyone – including the player character – can actually be considered the good guys. Rather, megalomaniacal nobles and mages are locked in a deadly struggle to seize the last remaining relic and use it as a pawn in their various power-plays. It’s an ambiguous world – with a mysterious Dead God, and absolutely no elves and dwarves – and the player is thrown right into the heart of it.

Next: An RPG Between East and West


Fifty Differences Between The Desolation of Smaug and Tolkien's Work

Caution: contains indescribably massive spoilers for both The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again - don't say I didn't warn you! 

Smaug

The second of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of The Hobbit is in the cinemas now, but is it a faithful adaptation of the book? And are the new films faithful to Tolkien’s wider mythology, known as his legendarium?

In order for an adaptation to be faithful, the spirit and content of the source materials must be respected. Generally speaking, if the spirit is maintained, the content can be altered (sometimes this results in improvements to a story). What’s more, it is possible to keep the content and alter the thematics – some Shakespeare adaptations have attempted this, such as Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest.

On this basis, I maintain the claim I made previously in respect of An Unexpected Journey: although The Desolation of Smaug makes a great prequel to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it isn’t a faithful adaptation of the book nor of the legendarium, although it is a better adaptation of the legendarium than of The Hobbit, since that particular book has such a specifically fairy tale feel (usually explained by it having been written by Bilbo). Broadly speaking, the tone, theme, and spirit of The Hobbit are all being altered in the service of creating a prequel to Jackson’s first Tolkien film trilogy – and I think this is the right thing for him to be doing, more or less. It’s what fans of those films would want, at least. But the geek in me cannot resist a little bit of nitpickery about the new movie…

Thirty Changes Between the Film The Desolation of Smaug and the Book of The Hobbit

  1. The goblins are now orcs and continue to pursue the company beyond the Misty Mountains.
  2. Radagast appears as a character, rather than just being mentioned briefly.
  3. Mirkwood messes with the minds of the company; they don't simply get lost.
  4. Stones are not used to fight the spiders (although the use and naming of Sting is accurate to the book – one of the few things that is!).
  5. As if by magic, Legolas appears! (Although as Thranduil’s son, this is consistent with the legendarium at least).
  6. An entirely new she-elf character is invented.
  7. All the dwarves are given some personality, instead of functioning like the Nine Brothers in Kurasawa's classic Sanjuro i.e. as one collective character.
  8. The Elvenking doesn't just like white jewels, he has specific white jewels he wants from the treasure hoard under the Lonely Mountain.
  9. The barrel escape becomes a fight sequence against orcs.
  10. One of the dwarves is injured.
  11. The company meet Bard, who takes them to Lake-town.
  12. Lake-town is under an oppressive regime and do not immediately welcome the company.
  13. Lake-town has something called a 'dwarven wind-lance' (that serves as a plot device for the next movie).
  14. The black arrow is not Bard's personal relic, but custom ammunition for a 'dwarven wind-lance'.
  15. Bard has a daughter as well as a son.
  16. Bard's son reveals the weakness in Smaug's chest to the company.
  17. The weakness in Smaug's chest is linked to Girion's attack on Smaug to strengthen Bard's role in the story (in the book, Bilbo tricks Smaug into showing his chest, and he notices the weak point personally - which directly leads to Smaug's death via the thrush).
  18. The people of Lake-town blame Girion for their plight (or at least can be rhetorically persuaded to do so).
  19. The people of Lake-town are not immediately cognisant of the prophecy regarding Durin's Folk (this facilitates a reveal with Bard as he connects the dots).
  20. Three dwarves remain behind in Lake-town (to provision characters for the third movie's dragon fight).
  21. The gate into The Lonely Mountain opens under different conditions in order to create an new dramatic failure-into-success scene.
  22. The Arkenstone is elevated from a sacred relic of Durin's Folk (one of seven dwarf families) to an instant "King of All the Dwarves" plot device.
  23. The Arkenstone is no longer a cut jewel, but instead resembles a Simaril (which - despite popular fan theories - it cannot be).
  24. Bilbo does not steal a cup.
  25. Smaug discusses the Arkenstone with Bilbo for the purposes of foreshadowing (although most of the conversation between Bilbo and the dragon is very close to the book - the other thing the film doesn't change much!).
  26. Smaug does not attack the secret entrance to the mountainside, and there is no discussion about whether to close the door, nor is the secret entrance destroyed.
  27. Bilbo is not concerned about the thrush listening in on his conversations with the dwarves (in the book he suspects – correctly – that the thrush is intently learning all it can).
  28. The dwarves fight Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain in an elaborate and over-the-top action sequence (in the book, the dwarves never encounter Smaug, only Bilbo does).
  29. Legolas comes to Lake-town and has a dramatic fight with orcs there.
  30. Smaug tells Bilbo he is leaving for Lake-town (in the book, there is some mystery about where Smaug has gone)

Twenty Changes Between the Film The Desolation of Smaug and Tolkien's Legendarium

  1. Azog does not die in T.A. 2799 but survives until T.A. 2941 (the year of The Hobbit's events), 142 years later.
  2. The Third Age Mirkwood is given the hallucinogenic properties of the First Age Mirkwood (which is about a thousand leagues north and six thousand years in the past).
  3. There are warrior she-elves among the Sylvan elves (Tolkien has no female warrior elves).
  4. The White Council don't know Sauron is in Dol Guldur (in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings it is explicitly stated that they know this 90 years before the events of The Hobbit).
  5. Gandalf and Thorin meet in The Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree a year before the events of The Hobbit and discuss Thráin and the Arkenstone (this would have be mentioned in the Appendices if it had happened).
  6. Gandalf visits the tombs of the Nazgûl.
  7. Gandalf travels with Radaghast the Brown during the quest to regain Erebor (although this is not precluded by the legendarium, it is not explicitly mentioned in the chronology).
  8. Gandalf is not incapacitatingly terrified of Sauron (in the legendarium, Gandalf - in his previous life as the Maia spirit Olórin - is reluctant to become incarnate in Middle-earth because he is so afraid of Sauron).
  9. The White Council do not plan to attack Dol Guldur (according to the Appendices, they plan this during the Quest of Erebor).
  10. Dol Guldur is enchanted to make it appear deserted.
  11. Gandalf suicidally decides to enter Dol Guldur alone, even though he has a fair idea of what he will find there, and that it is beyond his powers to defeat it.
  12. Sauron and Gandalf meet (in the legendarium, they never do).
  13. Sauron and Gandalf talk (in the legendarium, pretty much no-one in the Third Age does in person, although some - including Saruman - do so via palantíri 'seeing stones').
  14. Sauron and Gandalf fight (in the legendarium, absolutely no-one in the Third Age does, and it would be certain death to try).
  15. Sauron has an unspecified reason to keep Gandalf alive (of course, pragmatically, Gandalf can't die until encountering the Balrog named Durin's Bane...)
  16. Sauron does not abandon Dol Guldur simply because he has finished making his plans (this explanation is provided in the Appendices).
  17. Gandalf is captured by Sauron.
  18. The possibility of reconciliation between dwarves and elves is implied far earlier than the friendship of Legolas and Gimli (which in the legendarium is presented as effectively unprecedented).
  19. The Battle of Five Armies (in the next film) is implied to serve as cover for Sauron's relocation to Mordor, rather than being unconnected (although this is a logical alteration of the chronology).
  20. The movie credits say “Based on the Book by J.R.R. Tolkien”, meaning The Hobbit, but the film draws just as much from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and The Quest of Erebor, and makes most of the rest up out of whole cloth.

I will say this for The Desolation of Smaug, though – I haven’t had such fun trawling through the sheer minutiae of an adaptation in many a long year!

For Graeme Strachan - he made me do it!

See also:


Doctor Who and the Paradox of Fiction

Just submitted a paper to the British Journal of Aesthetics discussing Walton’s quasi-emotions in the context of my childhood hiding behind the sofa to escape from Daleks. It’s a lovely piece, but I have no idea whether they will take it! I suppose it is too much to hope that they will both accept it and publish it in time for the Doctor Who golden anniversary in November. Well, dreaming is free, right?


Souls, Persons and the Question ‘Who’?

Indra's Net How do you know who you are? You remember, but this describes solely how you persist in knowing who you are, not in how that knowing comes to pass. If you pause to question how you know who you are, answers will not be forthcoming because every aspect of the notion of a ‘who’ that would be your identity is something you have inherited from an earlier you. There is, as Thomas Nagel suggests, a series of beings that lead to the you that you are now – many series-persons that comprise the person that you are. But who are you? Why are you a person at all?

Descartes created a wholly original way of thinking about the self with his famous dictum “I think therefore I am”, a view of the soul as the source of personality, and of the soul as separate from the body, as something that could be not only be disassociated with the flesh but as something that could be compartmentalised. Kant’s ‘noumenal selves’ built upon this foundation, shoring up this perspective of the individual self as a source of agency and as uniquely individual and separate. Descending from this line of thought we get the modern conception of a ‘person’, which is still tied to Descartes split between mind and body, or soul and flesh. The soul has never left our understanding of who we are, for all that it now hides behind the legal mask of ‘person’. To be able to speak of beings that are persons, and other beings that are not, is to participate in the tradition that affords souls to humans and denies them to other beings – the radical break with animism that can be tied to theism and its concept of history.

For anyone who thinks we have discarded the concept of a ‘soul’, I suggest you examine the writings, games and musings of the post-humans with their fantasies of transplanting the human mind into different ‘sleeves’, Richard Morgan’s term from Altered Carbon, which is also used in the tabletop role-playing game Eclipse Phase. The way of thinking about human consciousness that is locked up in this science fiction concept of putting one mind in another body – already present even in classic Star Trek episodes such as Turnabout Intruder – is a contemporary form of afterlife mythology, for all that the pragmatics of techno-immortality becomes unconvincing upon closer inspection. It is not accidental that there is also a parallel supply of ‘body swap comedies’ that use magic to exchange conscious minds between bodies: imagined future technology and magic are equivalent, and not just for Arthur C. Clarke’s reason that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Whether we are positivists or not, we still use a concept of a soul (whether the immortal soul of the Christians or the digital souls of the post-humans) in our understanding of who we are, of what we are, and what we could be. The clearest sign of this today is in the use of the concept of a person – which although apparently grounded in legal discourse is still essentially an assertion that some beings have souls (or perhaps have more advanced souls). Talk of persons and talk of souls are the same at heart, for all that the conversations these terms appear within may differ. We believe in our special qualities as humans, and that this sets us apart in some way. Despite the continuity between humanity and other animals, we are habituated to understanding ourselves differently. There are good reasons for this, although they are not so strong as to justify setting humanity apart from other life entirely.

One key difference that helps account for the persistence of the concept of a person or a soul is our overdeveloped imagination, and the stories that this capacity generates for us constantly. Daniel Dennett talks of a ‘narrative centre of gravity’ as the basis for our sense of self, inadvertently following a line of reasoning far closer to Buddhist or Hindu philosophy than the Western tradition descending from Descartes. Descartes and Kant removed the soul from the flesh, to be sure, but they also isolated the soul as an individual. It is the quintessential achievement – and cost – of the Enlightenment to celebrate this individuality, and the concept of a person (or equivalently of a soul) lies behind it. Elsewhere in the world, the idea that we can compartmentalise who we are in this way is a strange and alien concept since, having incorporated animism into their view of the world instead of banishing it, the idea of an individual who exists in such isolation is hard to believe. How, someone outside of the person-soul construct might ask, am I supposed to separate myself from my community, my environment, my experience?

It is not a coincidence that the ancient Greek philosophers also spoke of souls – their series-culture is a part of our contemporary culture – but the Greeks had not yet given up animism, and for them everything had its own soul, it’s own good. This we have unfortunately lost sight of, as evidenced in the volume of science fiction fantasies that invest their imagination towards envisioning individual human survival after death while ignoring the ever-pressing need to imagine the survival of both the human species and the vast majority of other forms of life we share the planet with. There is no individual survival without human species survival, no human species survival without the other beings and things that make our lives possible. If you wish to imagine you can cheat death, you must begin by imagining that humanity can discover a way to survive it’s own insatiable curiosity and greed.

It is quite remarkable in this context that Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune and its sequels not only manages to tell a story of the far future of humanity in which other beings are of critical importance, but it also imagines a need to place limits on technology. Was Herbert merely simplifying the task of the futurist for the purpose of his story? Or was he sensing the newly dawning ecological moment, in itself a harkening back to far older mythologies? It is particularly striking in later Dune novels that Herbert’s ghola, the clones of the dead, are not treated as being the same person but as another person based upon those who died. There is no illusion here that you can cheat death with biotechnology. But others can cheat your death and replace you with a simulacrum – should you wish that this happens? Derek Parfit argues we have just as much reason to care for our copies as for our future selves. Perhaps. But I side with Tamar Gendler in thinking that until such monstrous technology is unleashed our personal identity is grounded in the narratives we tell of who we are now.

How do you know who you are? You learned the story of what it means to be a person from your family, who learned it from theirs, who learned what it means to have a soul from their family, and so on. You inherit the story of you from your previous series-persons, but you inherit the story of ‘who’ from the previous series-cultures that connect persons to souls. Over the intervening centuries between Descartes and now the story of ‘who’ has lost the wider sense of the community and environment that each person finds themselves within. These are not locked up in your mind, they are out there in the world – and you are only you when you are among them. Other cultures less influenced by theism have not yet lost this perspective, thankfully, and ironically some of the theistic traditions have a clearer view of this than some of their secular cultural descendents. You do not exist in isolation – how could you! – you were always a part of something else.

You are not your soul, not an isolated individual consciousness, for all that individualism proclaims otherwise. Your soul is just one drop of dew in the spider web of existence, what the Dharmic traditions call Indra’s net – an early metaphor for the sense of interconnection now being discovered (re-discovered?) by the contemporary sciences and philosophies. Where and when you are is also who you are – and it involves far more than just you. But it is you, and only you, who can make sense of this, and decide the answer the most challenging question, the question that will make all the difference in the world: not ‘who are you?’ but ‘who will you be?’


Faithful Adaptation and The Hobbit

Azog The week that the new Tolkien movie adaptation came out, I quipped on Twitter: "Is the first of The Lord of the Rings prequels out? Honestly, I would have preferred a movie of The Hobbit." This remark brings up an interesting distinction in the concept of 'adaptation' that I should like to explore.

Recall that Walton's make-believe theory of representation considers our engagement with representative art in terms of the imaginary games we play with the relevant props. In some cases, particularly those work of a megatextual nature such as Marvel comics or Star Trek, what serves as a prop in our game might be more than the individual work we are experiencing. There are often what I term secondary props that we use. In such cases there may be multiple games of make-believe we can play depending upon which secondary props we are using.

For “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, there are numerous games we can play. Firstly, we could take the movie as the sole prop in our game – in which case it is quite a poor artwork, as much of its content is entirely pointless without considering the relationships to other works. The framing story, for instance, asks that we consider the three “The Lord of the Rings” films as secondary, otherwise Frodo’s presence makes little sense.

I want to claim that because of the way it has been constructed, the prequel movie only makes sense with the main trilogy as its secondary props, and that it doesn't make sense to consider the novel of “The Hobbit” as secondary to its most obvious imaginary games. If the film were a faithful adaptation of “The Hobbit”, the book would necessarily play a secondary role in that choices made in its construction would refer back to the source material in a way that would show consistency. This consistency is absent, and with it the entire fabric of the movie (and presumably movies, too) ends up frayed at the seams, uncomfortably disjoint.

I shall say that a faithful adaptation of a book to a film always offers (but never requires) the book as a secondary prop. This means that if you have read the book, the imaginary games you can play are different than those you can play if you have not. This observation, I hope, is not too troublesome, as it presumably matches common experience. But this would also suggest that if you cannot incorporate the book a film is adapted from into your imaginary game without  serious tensions, the film is not a faithful adaptation. This, I'm claiming, is the case with Peter Jackson's newest film series.

It is worth noting how short the book is (roughly 150 pages) compared to the sequel (about 500 pages). As a result, there is a shortage of content a faithful adaptation can draw upon. Indeed, there are a number of entirely unnecessary sequences in “An Unexpected Journey” that come from the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings”, such as the discussion in the house of Elrond. These would not be necessary in an adaptation of “The Hobbit”, but are useful in making a prequel trilogy to “The Lord of the Rings”, both for length and for continuity. This would seem to allow Jackson to claim that it is a faithful adaptation of  the part of Tolkien's megatext (what Tolkien himself called his ‘legendarium’) that corresponds to “The Hobbit”. But this justification would also fail.

Consider the role of the Orc chieftain Azog in the film versus the book. Azog is mentioned in "The Hobbit" as having killed Thorin's father. However, in the legendarium Azog is dead by the time of the events of “The Hobbit” – and indeed Thorin earns the title ‘Oakenshield’ in the Battle of Azanulbizar where Azog is killed. The likely reason for keeping him alive in the prequel trilogy is so that Thorin can slay him in The Battle of Five Armies, at the climax of the story. But this battle, while a key event in the book, gets only brief coverage in one chapter of “The Hobbit”. But adapting to a trilogy requires material, and this battle is an obvious place to pad out the narrative. Azog serves a vital role in the prequel trilogy movies, therefore, because he is required for the payoff to the inevitable giant battle scene. But he is radically unimportant to the book.

This doesn't show that the prequels aren't faithful adaptations of the legendarium, in so much that Azog is a deeply minor character. But it does demonstrate that in making narrative design decisions for the prequels, Jackson will draw from any sources that might get him the length he needs to justify turning a book a fraction of the length of “The Lord of the Rings” into a film series the same length. “The Hobbit” is only one source among many in this respect, with “The Quest of Erebor” playing an extremely significant role – indeed, it may be fair to call the trilogy a reasonably faithful adaptation of the part of the legendarium that corresponds to “The Quest of Erebor” (a story which has “The Hobbit” as a secondary prop).

The biggest barrier to seeing “An Unexpected Journey” as a faithful adaptation of “The Hobbit” is that the tone is horribly wrong. Tolkien’s original Middle Earth fable has the atmosphere of a fairy tale, and battle sequences are naturally backgrounded while questions of character are foregrounded. Those scenes that are closest to the book – the trolls, Gollum, the goblin king – sit slightly uncomfortably against the fight scenes literally grafted onto the body of the tale. Offhand comments in the book, such as giants fighting in the Misty Mountains, become overwrought action sequences simply because they must if there is going to be enough material to make three movies.

“An Unexpected Journey” isn't a bad prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings”; nor to Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” for that matter. But it is not a faithful adaptation of the book “The Hobbit” for the reasons I have outlined here. Whether this is a problem or not depends to a great degree on what game of make-believe you wanted to play, and with which props. For myself, I would still have prepared a movie adaptation of “The Hobbit” to a bloated trilogy of prequels, but I do appreciate the extent that Tolkien’s legendarium has been woven into the secondary props for these films, if nothing else. It makes me hope for a faithful adaptation of “The Silmarillion” in the future.