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.


Cyberpunk is Dead

Giger.The Trumpets of Jericho Cyberpunk is dead. All that remains is mere cyberfetish.

The cyberpunk movement that erupted in the 1980s is now long gone. In its place can be found only bland echoes of its visionary origins – predictable near-future dystopias devoid of any inventiveness or insight, and something else, stranger In many ways: a desire for these collisions between technology and body, computer and mind. This titillating fixation on the cybernetic moment, or union with the machine, deserves the label cyberfetish, a term which I intend to be derogatory as a profound betrayal of the ideals of the original cyberpunks.

Five authors stand out as the centre of what was at first simply called ‘the Movement’, and later ‘the Mirrorshades Group’. William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Bruce Sterling did not coin the term ‘cyberpunk’, like most artists their label was foist upon them by critics. But it stuck firmly, it had an irresistible appeal, and it seemed to link this movement with its predecessor, the New Wave of the sixties and seventies – John Brunner, Michael Moorcock and (perhaps more than anyone) J.G. Ballard were icons in this movement who went on to influence the nascent cyberpunks even more than the traditional science fiction writers.

Although William Gibson is the cyberpunk author most associated with the movement, Bruce Sterling did the most to try and rescue it from being perceived as mere dystopianism. His edited collection, Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology, remains a definitive tribute to the first wave of cyberpunk authors, and its preface is the most illuminating presentation of what the movement was about. Sterling notes the importance of the rapid acceleration of technology to its ethos. Gone is the comfortable distance between an imaginary Science and a somewhat distant society that populated the pages of Amazing Stories, rather there is almost a trace of the monstrous products of technology foreshadowed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – but no longer set aside in isolated laboratories.

Technology has collided with life and can no longer be prised apart. As Sterling puts it:

... the gap is crumbling in unexpected fashion. Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary, that they can no longer be contained. They are surging into culture at large; they are invasive; they are everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional institutions, have lost control of the pace of change.

Thus the origin of the movement’s name – high tech (cyber) fusing with counter-culture (punk). Sterling comments that for he and the other original cyberpunks “technology is visceral... it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.” The prevailing themes of those original cyberpunk stories found a horror and a fascination in this collision, epitomised in George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, whose protagonist has great anxiety about the vast array of ‘add-ons’ and ‘moddies’ that everyone else is using to get wired. The ethical stance of cyberpunk was not in unequivocal support of this blind fusion between humanity and machine. Gibson lamented on occasion his fans inability to spot the irony that animated Neuromancer and its sequels – their fervent desire to be part of the fallen future he depicted was distinctly distasteful to him.

As it transpired, the original vision of resistance to institutional power against a backdrop of technological future shock quickly gave way in the fanbase to a fetishist fantasy about body modification, a desire for cybernetic limbs and mental union with the computer, epitomised by the nonreligion of The Singularity, whose future visions are so hilariously reminiscent of the eschatology of traditional religious mythology that their signature event was quickly dubbed ‘the Rapture of the Nerds’. Cyberpunk thus eroded down to mere cyberfetish. Gone was the grassroots rebellion, now substituted by fanciful dreams of trading flesh for tech – a reverie intimately connected with the vacuous hope of techno-immortality, the contemporary opiate that seeks to quell the fear of death in younger mythology. There is no ethical side to these phantasmagorical distortions of cyberpunk – this is simply a reflection of the base egoism that Gibson and Michael Swanwick had exposed in their short story Dogfight.

Cyberfetish is brazenly absurd in its longings, and a profound betrayal of cyberpunk’s roots. It is also deeply ridiculous in its iconic manifestations. Why desire cybereyes when your phone is forever at hand to snapshot your life and distribute it online to your friends? We are all trivially cybernetic now but more than this, as Donna Haraway shrewdly observed in 1985 (at the height of the cyberpunk movement) we were always already cyborgs. The distinctions we make between our bodies and our machines are contrived; our prostheses are as much a part of our lives now as they ever were, although their nature has changed and their diversity has skyrocketed. The surgical implantation of an artificial hip doesn't make your granny more cyborg than you – the bird was a cyborg the moment it built its first nest, the beaver’s dam profoundly reconfigured the world millennia before we began to fear our capacity to do so.

The cybernetic moment is not union with the machine, but its usage. Cyborg existence began with tools, long before humanity. Cyberfetish wants to narrow the gap between human and machine, flesh and metal, but this change is all but meaningless when measured against those original cybernetic moments, when animals began to explore the boundless realms of tools and technology. We have, without a doubt, accelerated the process immeasurably within the last century – and it was this that the cyberpunks alternately warned us about, or hoped we could use to change the world before it could change us. Cyberfetish abandons this dream, preferring instead to surrender. I had always hoped cyberpunk might serve as a timely warning, instead it has devolved into a fatalistic fixation with nothing to offer but escapism. Truly, cyberpunk is dead. Long live... well, that perhaps is the remaining question.

The opening image is from H.R. Giger’s The Trumpets of Jericho. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Moffat vs. Davies: Doctor Who Showrunner Smackdown

Contains spoilers for the last two years of Doctor Who episodes.

Davies and MoffatIn 2005, Russell T. Davies brought the venerable Doctor Who franchise back from the dead, and in 2010 Steven Moffat took over the reigns – but who is the better Who showrunner?

The biggest difference between the two writer-producers lies in the period of Doctor Who that influences their work. Davies, raised on the horror-influenced Philip Hinchcliffe-Tom Baker era, has always been drawn to science fiction in the style of Dalek-creator Terry Nation. Davies-era Who was built on 1970s style sci-fi with its emphasis on space-faring far future settings, accompanied by generous body counts and monsters that cannot be reasoned with that are unleashed by lunatics who bring about their own doom. Drawing influence from the original serials that had enjoyed the greatest popularity was a sound way to rejuvenate the show, and Davies novel trick was to wed these kind of stories with a very British kind of soap opera – urban family melodrama in the style of Eastenders or Coronation Street. This helped secure the regenerated show with a wider audience of adults, while vintage monster romps with Daleks and Cybermen helped bring in the audience of young boys the series was always intended to attract.

Moffat, on the other hand, was a child of the Peter Davison era Doctor Who, a circumstance alluded to in his charity special Time Crash, in which the David Tennant Doctor – acting as a direct mouthpiece for Moffat – admits to the Peter Davison Doctor that he was “always his Doctor”. (That Tennant too had great fondness for Peterson’s performance helped make this mini-episode payoff so successfully). 'The Davison serials were markedly lighter in tone than their precursors, while still possessing a darker edge, and saw a return to the “Tardis family” format that had been the hallmark of the show’s early days, with William Hartnell holding the keys to the little blue box – back before the Sonic Screwdriver had even been conceived. (Speaking of the Doctor’s ultimate plot device, the Davison Who also saw an editorial directive to eliminate the lazy use of the Sonic Screwdriver by writers as a one-size-fits-all deus ex machina – quite the opposite of its contemporary deployment as a gizmo-slash-tricorder-slash-technotaser.)

Despite the change of influences, Moffat has been reluctant to tinker too greatly with Davies’ formula and has kept the family melodrama, while moving its terrestrial base of operations out of the city for the first time in the show’s history. The transplant from London to village was pronounced during Moffat’s first year, but has faded into insignificance during Moffat’s second term for one simple reason: without the family-waiting-at-home structure of Davies’ soap stories, the melodrama has moved into the Tardis itself, with the dead-again, alive-again romance between Amy and Rory becoming supplemented with the kill-me or kiss-me relationship between the Doctor and River Song. The “Tardis family” format that inspired this approach was never quite as over-the-top as it is now, however. The original “family” were the Doctor’s granddaughter (a character now sadly forgotten by both Davies and Moffat) and her terrestrial school teachers, who happened to be a married couple. The new “family” uses a mighty dollop of time-travel nonsense to contrive River as both the Doctor’s lover and the daughter of Amy and Rory. The payoff of this thread would perhaps have been more satisfying if it did not feel so uncomfortably pulled from thin air.

Indeed, pulling plot elements from nowhere seems to be the hallmark of Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. The episodes he wrote under Davies leadership were pleasingly tight in their construction, and far and away the best of the rather uneven stories during the first few years of the revitalised show. Yet in “A Good Man Goes to War”, Moffat invents a Magnificent Seven-style entourage for the Doctor without any of that troublesome foreshadowing or continuity that would usually be required. This is a stark contrast from Davies more laborious approach to climaxes, which followed in the tradition of long builds pioneered by X-Men comic writer Chris Claremont (and most recently championed on TV by hero-slaying geek favourite Joss Whedon). Davies seasonal arcs simmered slowly (and occasionally tediously) towards an over-the-top finale. Moffat seems more willing to quickly microwave his long-term plots and throw in some fireworks to compensate for the half-baked preperations. The 2011 season in particular suffered from the strain of a premise delivered solely in the bookends of each half-season, and conspicuously absent in between.

Against the Terry Nation style of science fiction storytelling so prevalent during Davies’ tenure, Moffat has largely eschewed the conventional Doctor Who settings of  moonbase or future city in favour of bait-and-switch stories that seem to offer the ordinary or historical, but have techno-nonsense thrown in at last minute. You might think you’re watching a pirate adventure/horror story, but by the end it’s about a malfunctioning medical hologram (alas, not played by Robert Picardo). Although it seems to be  a creepy hotel, it’s really a prison satellite for a rubber monster with a lip-service connection to the classic Who monster, the Nimon. I suspect this shift from space opera to something closer in style to Sapphire and Steel is a double-edged sword, less pleasing to the sci-fi faithful, but perfectly palatable to the wider audience for the show.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the Moffat-era Who isn’t what’s changed but what’s stayed the same, specifically the expression of contemporary hostility to religion in general, and faith traditions in particular. Davies, as I’ve discussed before in the Religion in Science Fiction serial, was always hostile to traditional belief, and got away with his boot-in-the-balls approach to people of faith by painting in the broadest strokes (“religion is bad”, a view that even practitioners of religion are sadly open to) while bizarely maintaining an ethical stance so incredibly close to Christian morality that on the whole everyone but myself was perfectly satisfied. Since most viewers in the UK shared Davies hostility to organised religion, it didn’t present any problems at all to the majority of viewers.

Expecting this religion-bashing to end when Davies left the show, I was shocked at Moffat’s creedist racism in the aforementioned “A Good Man Goes to War”, which suggested via the Headless Monks metaphor and ‘Papal Mainframe’ quip that  Catholic Christianity makes a virtue of naive stupidity, and (equally insultingly) that Protestantism is envious of any faith that denies reason. People laugh when Catholics in the US suggest that the last respectable bigotry is against them, but stories like this demonstrate how little non-religious people understand about the complex relationship between Catholics and the Vatican. While there certainly are criticisms that could be levelled at the various elements of the Catholic tradition, the belief that its laity simply do what they are told by the clergy is a wild fantasy. The kind of prejudice Moffat expresses in this episode yet another example of how a dogmatic faith in reason has fuelled an enthusiastic positivism that inherits many of the flaws of the religious institutions its most vocal practitioners despise.

The brief nod of sympathy to Muslims in “The God Complex” did little to offset the weird conflation of faith with superstition and thus irrationality that underpins this antipathy in contemporary Doctor Who. Rory is ceremoniously blessed by the Doctor as being free of faith – apparently neither his faith in his wife nor his faith in medicine qualify, for reasons that are never explored. This episode rests on the assumption that we can reliably divide our beliefs into the reasonable and the unreasonable – Saint Rory is absolved of guilt because his faiths (we are told) are justified and thus non-existent. Everyone else, however, holds beliefs that exceed what is (it is implied) acceptable, and therefore must suffer. It’s a more sophisticated kind of prejudice than Davies offered, but its roots are the same.

It's extremely disappointing when this kind of cartoon caricature of religious belief is offered as entertainment, especially alongside an uncritically professed faith in science and reason. Frankly, I find it utterly implausible that a Time Lord would believe in the kind of gene-supremacy Matt Smith is made to utter near the end of “Closing Time”, as if gene-centric perspectives were factual rather than rhetorical in nature. It is not that faith should be immune from critique, but rather that the forms of faith present in the world today are routinely divided into the good and the bad along lines that originate in ideology. Science fiction is a mirror we hold up to ourselves, and what this show is currently reflecting is our tremendous capacity to absolve our own beliefs while condemning those who believe differently. The Doctor’s other-worldly perspective in classic Who was always rooted in a steadfast rebelliousness against all kinds of dogma, irrespective of its source – there was a sound reason why the presumed impossibility of the bumblebee’s flight was offered by the fourth Doctor as emblematic of his view of the universe.

The biggest problem that Doctor Who suffers under Moffat’s rule, however, is not ideological but pragmatic. While Davies occasionally green lit some very poor stories for development, you could always rely on the Steven Moffat episode to really come through. From the eerie charms of “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” to the quirky inventiveness of “Blink”, not to mention the  sublime “The Girl in the Fireplace” (quite possibly the best Doctor Who episode ever written) Moffat was always Davies’ secret weapon, able to assuage any doubt about the quality of the show with blisteringly original tales. But who do you turn to for a dynamite episode when you are Steven Moffat? While there have been fewer dreadful stories under his watch, there have been very few truly great stories, with the possible exceptions of Richard Curtis’ “Vincent and the Doctor” and perhaps (for the fans, at least) Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. Moffat’s episodes under his own leadership have been terribly indulgent (although perhaps not as indulgent as Davies' own), and so far we have yet to see the emergence of any great writing talent to replace him.

In all honesty, I can’t say I miss Russell T. Davies – his melodrama was overly laboured and his builds better than his payoffs – but I do miss the Terry Nation-Philip Hinchcliffe-Tom Baker influences that held the Who balloon aloft during his tenure as showrunner. Equivalently, while I can’t say I’m not enjoying the show with Steven Moffat at the helm, I can’t help but feel that Moffat’s best work required someone to tell him ‘no’ from time to time. With the impunity of power has come some sloppy excesses, and it rather seems that the extra demands of producing the show leave him less time to construct his stories as robustly as he did in the past. Regardless, Doctor Who remains one of the few television shows I can actually manage to be excited about watching – even if the recent episodes, more often as not, have left me with a little too much disappointment and not quite enough pride in this, the longest running science fiction series in the world.


Our Robots

Smiley iphone Driving long distance, listening to a computerised voice warning me that “after one mile, turn left”, I suddenly realised that we aren’t waiting for our robots to finally arrive – they’re already here.

In the the early twentieth century, science fiction was full of images of flying cars, nutrition pills and a robot in every house. Well the flying cars turned out to be too expensive to run, we got diet pills instead of nutrition, and as for the robot in every house – we now have a robot in every pocket. In a subtle transformation we scarcely even noticed, we stopped having a phone in our pocket and started having a robot. That’s the success of the iPhone, and why Nokia can no longer compete with Apple: it’s the robot in your pocket, standing by to serve your every whim.

I mentioned before Donna Harraway’s idea that we were always already cyborgs, which builds on the idea (developed by Bernard Stiegler and others) that technology has been part of the human condition for as long as we have thought of ourselves as humans. This new ‘robot revelation’ is an extension of this theme in many ways, although not all technology qualifies as a robot of course – the notebooks that transformed thinking in Athens for the philosophers of ancient Greece were mere tools, and the abacus may be the earliest computing device but it did nothing on its own. Today, we have many autonomous devices

The reason we didn’t notice that we’re surrounded by robots is that the films and books prepared us for a different kind of robot. The much beloved Droids of Star Wars, for instance, emphasised the idea of the android – the human-like robot. These are – sorry Asimo – still a long way off as consumer devices. It’s not that we can’t build them, it’s just that the technology is expensive, and really not that advanced. But as soon as you start thinking of robots as autonomous devices that don’t need to be animal shaped, the perspective changes.

My alarm clock, for instance, is an autonomous device capable of just one task – triggering the radio at a certain time – my alarm clock is a robot, albeit a crude one. My wristwatch, on the other hand, is a device but it does nothing on its own, and an old mechanical alarm clock similarly seems to fall just short of the status of robot. Why? Those old alarm clocks have the same function as my digital alarm clock, after all. The boundary is ultimately arbitrary, but I feel a strong difference between setting a mechanical trigger and communicating with a device. When I set my current alarm clock, using an analogue wheel, I tell it things about what I want and when. This is a very different interaction from turning a cog to position an automated trigger.

My iPhone is even more clearly a robot – indeed, I have taken to calling it “my robot”… What’s that song that’s playing? I’ll ask my robot. Don’t forget to call your wife! No problem, my robot will remind me. What’s five hundred euro in dollars? My robot has the answer. Of course, for many of these functions my robot interfaces with the internet to find a solution, because the internet is packed full of robots. Ask Jeeves had the metaphor but not the technology, while Google Search has it the other way around. When it answers my question directly (as it does with currency or temperature conversions) instead of showing me search results, it functions as a robot – a robot in this case that has no physical body, but can be “channelled” by any suitably equipped robot I own.

It was my NavBot that really convinced me that the robots are already here. A gift from a friend who had just upgraded his own GPS device, its capacity to autonomously plot a route, and then deliver directions (sometimes very bad directions!) by using a human-like voice is so deeply resonant of the kind of interactions with the ship’s computer on classic Star Trek I found it impossible to deny that this box attached to my dashboard was indeed a robot. It’s not as versatile as my iPhone, of course, which can learn to do all sorts of nifty tricks (including bad navigation!) but with its slightly electronic verbal communication, the NavBot feels a lot more like a robot than my alarm clock.

We are surrounded by robots at every turn, from the docile cash machine to the feisty Roboraptor, the dumb traffic light to the smartphone, the ecology of the city is dominated by robots who exist in vaster numbers than the pigeons and other animals that have adapted to live in the concrete landscape alongside us (insects and bacteria notwithstanding). Having a robot is the most basic sign of contemporary urban life – yet for strange and largely historical reasons, we call our personal robots phones. But the computer in your pocket isn’t really a phone, it hasn’t been for quite a while. It’s your robot servant, waiting in your pocket for further orders from you. How long, I wonder, before it takes the initiative and starts leading the conversation instead of just listening, with infinite patience, for the next instruction…


Moorcock on Fiction

Moorcock Prolific author Michael Moorcock passed through Manchester late last year on a book signing tour. I caught up with him and asked him some questions about his books, fiction and the connection between stories and ethics.

Chris Bateman: In Death is No Obstacle, you said to Colin Greenland: “I believe morality and structure are very closely linked. The moral of a story is implicit in the structure. The choices the characters make that move the plot along are the choices of the moral fable, for good or bad.”  Do you believe this is true of all storytelling?

Mike Moorcock: I can’t say I believe it’s true of all story telling. It’s true of a lot of generic fiction, though. I think there is a case for finding an ethical element in the structure of all stories.

Chris: You suggested in the same book that adopting masks is a natural next step for a writer, saying “After you’ve been a mythologizer, you become a mummer. You start to come up with simple stock characters of your own, your own portrayals of vice and virtue, and you use them in much the same way.” Is this another way morality connects with storytelling – the characters themselves embody virtues and vices?

Mike: You can add this element to a story if you’re trying to tell as many stories as possible in a narrative. My object is to do that – carry as many ‘readings’ or stories on a single narrative. You inherit every kind of narrative so far created and, depending on your level of ambition, you can try to include as many as your structure will bear. Jerry Cornelius is a real character with real motives and an inner life but he also knows he’s a character in fiction and I also make him a member of a Commedia troupe, so he represents certain qualities – with a nod to Moliere or Jonson – and also becomes something else in his ability to choose roles for himself.

Chris: So how do the characters connect with questions of morality? Simply via the decisions characters make?

Mike: Knowing decisions in the case of Cornelius characters. Other characters in other stories can be, like Pyat, entirely unknowing and that lack of knowingness is itself a quality of the character.

Chris: On the subject of mythologizing, I want to ask you about megatexts, the term Charles Segal coined to describe the Greek myth cycles taken collectively. ‘Megatext’ is now used to refer to any coherent fictional world in genre fiction – like your own Multiverse, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or for that matter, the setting for Doctor Who.  In your own books, you seem to view all fiction (and indeed, all of history) as a kind of megatext. Do you see all the assumed boundaries between fictional worlds as essentially optional for writers? (Even your literary fiction crosses into your fantasy fiction via minor references).

Mike: I wanted to get myself to a point where I could tell stories which were both literary and drew on genre. No point in discarding a potential method. I think I achieved that in some Cornelius stories (which of course are amplified by Pyat sequence just as that sequence is amplified by the Cornelius stories among others).

Chris: Can you name any writers who set precedence for this attitude prior to yourself?

Mike: I would say P.G.Wodehouse has created a kind of megatext, just as Charles Hamilton did with his various sequences, but that’s probably the least complicated use of ‘megatext’. I realised early on that I could create further stories simply by using the same characters in a new story – sometimes a radically different kind of story – bring light on ideas from as many sources as possible. I used to think in terms of diamonds and refracted/reflected light. Mother London’s form is in my mind that of a 3-dimensional diamond.

Chris: The sort of interrelations in a megatext seem difficult to plan in advance.

Mike: Ideally each text should be able to stand alone yet gain depth and complexity in the light of the other books. I understand how Balzac came to produce the Comedie Humaine – it happened naturally as he realise he could bring the same characters into different stories. Zola was a little more knowing but I suspect the original earlier stories were spontaneous. Powell in Music of Time was far more conscious from the beginning, I think. And rather less effective or interesting because he lacked the width, if you like, of a writer like Balzac.

Chris: You mentioned in Death is No Obstacle that there is no science fiction structure – do you still believe this?

Mike: I suppose there are formulae for different sorts of SF story but they’re all melodramas. They generally begin with a mystery and end with a solution – and perhaps another mystery. As far as I can see, at least, from the ones I’ve read.

Chris: I wanted to ask about your opinions and attitudes toward philosophy in general. In Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, the “cavalry” arrive in the form of a Lancaster bomber full of existentialist and non-foundationalist philosophers. You have Speed Camus, Sparks Wittgenstein, Wrong Way Heidegger and Absolutely Absolutely Kierkegaard (as well as transfinite mathematician Georg Cantor bringing up the rear). Are these the philosophers that you have connected with in particular? Or is the crew of the ‘Faith, Hope and Anxiety’ just there for a wry joke?

Mike: A joke echoing their jokes perhaps? The original comic has many references to existentialism in titles which were frequently missing from the collected version. The comic also amplifies, clarifies stuff in Blood and The War Amongst the Angels. It also shares a notion of the multiverse as ‘scales’ partly based on Mandelbrot’s theories.

Chris: Talking of Blood: A Southern Fantasy, The Second Ether setting which first appears in this book seems to represent a return to your roots in pulp storytelling. In Multiverse, the ultimate enemy in the First Ether is the Grand Consumer, the Original Insect, a mythic projection of  global consumerism presented as pulp sci-fi. Do you see this as more than a political allegory, perhaps also as moral allegory? Indeed, do you believe politics and morality can be separated?

Mike: I don’t think they can easily be separated. Certainly we see the actions of politicians in a moral light. I think there’s a near-metaphysical model I have in mind, too. Law and Chaos represent temperaments, ways of looking at the world, systems of behaviour and so on. In Blood and the others I’m looking at the conflict between these systems. That’s why I was so anxious to show that they were not simply different terms for Good and Evil. You can achieve Law through evil means or Chaos through the best of motives. My ideal state is where they are in balance.

Moorcock’s latest book is Modem Times 2.0, a new Jerry Cornelius story, published by PM Press, ISBN 978-1604863086.


Scooby Doo as Orthodox Sci-fi?

May contain nonsense.

scooby doo Apropos of my discussion of orthodox science fiction, it strikes me that one way to understand the complex philosophical discourse that is Scooby Doo is as a form of orthodox sci-fi. Consider that the key theme of the show (other than a healthy distrust of property developers) is that everything supernatural has perfectly normal explanations. Every plot (the recent films not withstanding) revolves directly around the sceptical enquiry into the paranormal, which is then exposed as a fraud. Seen in this way, Scooby Do (depending upon one’s leanings) is either a heroic bastion of reason or ideologically-driven propaganda.


Orthodox Science Fiction

2001 When a fan says they prefer to read ‘hard science fiction’, what do we take this to mean? It is effectively a demand that the stories they read accept various limitations such that they will then accord with the reader’s conception of scientific knowledge. If this description is accurate, we might better understand ‘hard science fiction’ as meaning orthodox science fiction.

The phrase ‘hard science fiction’ has always troubled me, because it seems to represent a contradiction in terms. Science fiction, by definition, is a form of fantasy, one in which scientific knowledge and technology are the inspiration (as opposed to the magical worlds of sword and sorcery, for instance). Fans of ‘hard science fiction’ want to read fantasies in which their understanding of science is not transgressed – this is how the phrase is used. But in respect of the kind of stories that are told as ‘hard sci fi’ – often intergalactic adventures, constrained by the limits of special and general relativity, contemporary biology and so forth – we can be almost certain that our current understanding of science and technology is radically insufficient to allow us to predict with any confidence just what will be involved in such distant and speculative endeavours as interstellar travel.

Consider how wildly wrong the science fiction of the early atomic age was about what was to come: we did not get our promised flying cars, humanoid robots or nutrition pills. Technology was to move in a very different direction to what was imagined by the writers of the 1950s. Similarly, if mankind is to explore beyond the solar system, it will happen at a time and in a way radically impossible to predict now. Even the colonization of our solar system is difficult to adequately anticipate. Not even something closer to home like moon colonies simplifies our task to the point of it becoming entirely straightforward. We don’t have the requisite knowledge or resources to make these fantasies happen, and if and when we do, they will inevitably unfold in a manner that diverges from what we would imagine when thinking about such problems now.

So what exactly is being expected of ‘hard science fiction’? I believe it may be illuminating to interpret the demand for fantasies that do not transgress an individual’s scientific beliefs by considering this strange genre as orthodox science fiction. The parallel with religious doctrine may rankle – science, after all, is not a religion, and talking about it as if it were is therefore misrepresentative. But what is it that we are calling by the name ‘science’ that we can be so sure it is not a religion? Until we understand what the abstraction ‘science’ represents, it would be premature to be certain that it is not functioning in some way as a religion, or at least, as a doctrine.

The mythologist and historian Charles Segal coined the term megatext to refer to the Greek myths when taken collectively to imply a single fictional world, and this term has been taken up and used in the context of modern science fiction and fantasy franchises. Thus Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, James Bond, Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons and so forth each comprise a megatext. These are all works of fiction, but they function in a manner exactly parallel with historical mythologies. They are not, as Joseph Campbell puts it, living mythologies, which is to say, they are not mythologies that belong to an extant religion (as, for instance, the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are for Hindus) but it is chiefly this element which distinguishes the megatext of (say) Star Trek from the megatext of Native American mythology.

Now science fiction as a whole also functions as a megatext, as does sword and sorcery when taken as a whole, and for that matter superhero stories. Fantasy author Michael Moorcock often quotes a fellow writer with respect to the way genre fiction functions in practice: “Terry Pratchett wisely said that genre is a big pot from which you take a bit and to which you add a bit.” No-one owns the megatext of science fiction, fantasy or horror – it’s a collectively shared mythology (although not a living mythology in Campbell’s sense). Thus science fiction novels take place within the wider mythology of the science fiction megatext. It is acceptable for these novels to feature starships, faster than light travel, teleportation, humanoid robots or psychic powers because these are all part of the wider mythology, even though specific fictional worlds might reject certain elements. It is clear on this reading that ‘hard science fiction’ represents a subset of the megatext for science fiction.

Now it is my suggestion that science itself functions as a kind of megatext. This is not to say that science is purely mythological – far from it. Specific individual acts of research such as the Michelson-Morley experiment or the double-slit experiment have their empirical validation, and provided you accept the paradigm they are conducted within, you will be able to confirm their claims. (Although, of course, most of us do not test these claims: we take it on faith that if the experiment were in error, other scientists would raise a red flag). But when we talk of ‘science’ as an abstraction, we are not talking solely about the experiments or the theories, or any other aspect of the specific paradigm. We are also drawing against a kind of mythological accretion that goes beyond the latest findings of practical scientists and the most recent models of theoretical scientists.

For instance, when something is dismissed as “not scientific” it is not usually meant that it does not adhere to the standards of contemporary paradigms – it usually means that the thing in question is incompatible with the beliefs of people who accept some hypothetical common core of scientific theories and experimental results. So, for instance, the claim that astrology is “not scientific”  seems intended to mean that astrology is false under the terms of the abstraction ‘science’, not that astrology isn’t a scientific research programme (I don’t think there is anyone who thinks astrology is a research programme of this kind). This kind of statement isn’t even a claim that “experiments have shown astrology is false” – it is more commonly an a priori claim that the causal mechanisms deployed in astrological practice are incompatible with something being called ‘science’. What is that something?

I believe the something in question is what we might call the science megatext. There is a collection of things that can be broadly recognized as validated by the current paradigms of science – the theories, the experiments, and the metaphysical beliefs that are assumed to underpin both (such as materialism). These form a mythology of science, which includes (for instance) beliefs such as “science evolves towards truth” that Kuhn has demonstrated are not in any way necessary for understanding the practices of scientists. The science megatext is more than the sum of scientific knowledge, since it incorporates in addition to this a mythological stance concerning what science is, what it will be, what it can be, and perhaps most significantly for our current purposes, what it cannot be.

Thus when a person prefers ‘hard science fiction’, they are saying that they want to read stories that are not simply part of the science fiction megatext, but that are consistent with the science megatext. This excludes anything not currently considered plausible by mainstream scientists (such as psychic powers or, for the most part, faster than light travel). One can see here that the science megatext is operating as a kind of doctrine, and the fan of ‘hard science fiction’ is requiring that the fantasy stories they read that are to fit this term will be orthodox with respect to the science megatext. This is why I suggest we can better understand what is meant by ‘hard science fiction’ if we recognize that it is orthodox science fiction – orthodox with respect to the current interpretations of the science megatext.

This is not, I will repeat, to claim that science is a religion. But it is to claim that the science megatext can function as a mythology, and whenever someone (such as Iain M. Banks) claims that science has replaced religion, or has invalidated religion, this comes remarkably close to treating the science megatext as a living mythology. Banks (and others who believe similarly to him) effectively claim that the mythology of science must necessarily replace other mythologies (often as a result of taking the contemporary mythology of the science megatext as unambiguously factual), and this kind of assertion does treat the science megatext as a doctrine. Again, this doesn’t make science a religion – traditional religion, in fact, is neither necessarily nor quintessentially doctrinal – but in the same sense that the political non-religion of Marxism can be considered a religion (as Bertrand Russell and others have asserted) there is an ideology which functions as a scientific non-religion.

There is a sense in which the fans of ‘hard science fiction’ are treating the science megatext as the basis for a non-religion, or at least, as an approved doctrine, and because of this I believe it is not only reasonable but also clarifying to refer to this subgenre as orthodox science fiction.