Archive | May, 2007

The Wild Abyss

I’m a big fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which has been called the “anti-Christian answer to Narnia.” (Though I’m a big fan of Narnia too. Knee-jerk pro-Christian attitudes and knee-jerk anti-Christian attitudes are both impediments to literary enjoyment, among other things.) It has also inevitably been compared with the Harry Potter series, though IMHO it’s much better written.

Lyra Belacqua and friend The books (mainly a trilogy, though there’s a fourth book of sorts, and rumors of a fifth on the way) take place in a parallel universe in which everyone’s soul is externalised in animal form (think “familiars”), and follows the adventures of a girl who may hold the secret to … well, it’s a long and complicated story, involving witches, gypsies, balloons, trepanning, talking bears, homosexual angels, human sacrifice, the rooftops of Oxford, holes in the fabric of reality, the I Ching, original sin, mental illness, the afterlife, lapsed nuns, Neanderthal skeletons, a frail and senile Jehovah, and a substance called “dust” which bears some resemblance both to the “dark matter” of contemporary physics and to the Jain version of karma. (Some plot points seem borrowed from Steven Brust’s To Reign in Hell.)

The theme of the series is the interplay between what Blake called “innocence” and “experience,” and the danger of overvaluing the former at the expense of the latter. At the end of the day I’m not sure that Pullman offers a coherent account of these two concepts, or that the ethical outlook of the third book can be reconciled with that of the first two, but the books are terrific nonetheless. The series is marketed as children’s fiction, but there’s nothing essentially juvenile about it.

The title comes from these lines of Milton’s:

Blake's Satan Into this wild Abyss,
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds –
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage

Anyway, the first book, The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in England), is being made into what looks to be a beautiful, well-cast, and fairly faithful movie; check out the poster and trailer.

Some comments from the filmmakers have suggested that they plan to tone down the anti-Christian content. Other comments from the filmmakers have suggested that they don’t plan to do so. There’s not much anti-Christian content in the first book, though, so we’ll have to wait for the later films to see. Clone Wars (Some fans have also wondered how the films will handle the ending of the last book, which seems to imply sexual intercourse between the two main characters, both about thirteen years old. But that’s easy. The books take place within a few weeks of each other, but the studio plans to make its three films one every two years: thus by the time they get to the third film the stars will be 18.)

In other news, here’s the trailer for the new Clone Wars cartoon series, which seems to take place in the chronological interstices of the old one.

More clone wars? Hmm. That’s one period of Star Wars history that I don’t really feel I have a whole lot of still-unsatisfied curiosity about. Oh well.

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More Spencer Nonsense, Part Deux

Earlier this month I wrote a letter to the New York Times and posted it here. Then I discovered that the Times would only print letters that haven’t appeared previously, so I deleted the letter from my blog. But since they didn’t print it anyway, here it is again:

To the Editor:

Patricia Cohen’s May 5th article “A Split Emerges As Conservatives Discuss Darwin” contains the following remarkable sentence: “Victorian-era social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism, opposition to labor unions and the withdrawal of aid to the sick and needy.”

Ms. Cohen’s charges against Herbert Spencer are false in every particular.

Herbert Spencer First: Spencer was in fact Victorian England’s leading opponent of imperialism; in Social Statics he described Western colonialism as bearing “a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers.”

Second: in his Principles of Sociology, Spencer hailed labor unions as a bulwark against the “harsh and cruel conduct” of employers, and advocated replacing the “slavery” of the wages system with self-governing workers’ cooperatives.

Third: far from advocating the “withdrawal of aid from the sick and needy,” he regarded the provision of such aid as a positive moral duty (though he stressed that it should be given in such a way as to avoid encouraging dependency).

Finally, inasmuch as Spencer developed and published his basic ideas on biological and social evolution prior to and independently of Charles Darwin, it makes little sense to describe him as a “Social Darwinist.”

Why do these bizarre distortions of a great humanitarian thinker persist?

Roderick T. Long

While, as I said, the Times didn’t print my letter, they did publish the following partial retraction:

A front-page article last Saturday about a dispute among some conservatives over whether Darwinian theory undermines or supports conservative principles erroneously included one social Darwinist among Victorian-era social Darwinists who adopted evolutionary theory to justify colonialism and imperialism. Herbert Spencer opposed both.

Score a victory for the Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League!

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Wings Over Niagara

As I work my way through the lesser-known novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I keep finding new material to blog about. I’ve speculated previously about the possible influence on Tolkien of Wells’ 1908 The War in the Air. I now suggest pushing the line of influence four years farther back, to Verne’s 1904 Master of the World – this in turn being a sequel to his 1886 Robur the Conqueror. (The usual complaint against these two books, Robur and Master, is that Robur himself is a less effective recycling of Captain Nemo, while the American balloon club is a less effective recycling of the Gun Club from the moon novels. These are fair complaints. They’re still worth a read, though.)

Verne's Master of the World Why do I think Verne’s Master of the World might have influenced Wells’ War in the Air? Well, in both novels the nations of the world, alert to military possibilities, are frantically vying with each other either to bribe or to capture the elusive inventor of a mysterious flying machine and learn its secret – and in both novels the chase leads ultimately to Niagara Falls as the site of the novel’s central action.

Robur incidentally begins at Niagara. Verne himself had visited Niagara, and writes about it in his lightly fictionalised 1870 memoir Floating City. Wells had visited it too; his famous proto-Randian quote on the subject comes from his 1906 The Future in America.

So okay, it’s not a decisive connection – Wells didn’t need Verne to think of flying machines, aerial warfare, or Niagara Falls – but it’s something ….

Incidentally, Master of the World itself contains a minor character named Wells, who leads the narrator to the hidden location of the flying machine. Wells and Verne were certainly aware of each other (Verne once complained: “I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavourite [the anti-gravity metal Wells used in his own lunar novel]? Let him show it to me!”), and it’s tempting to imagine that the character was intended as a nod to Wells – thus pushing the chain of influence back farther still!

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Happy Birthday, Star Wars

Today is the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars.

Star Wars first entered my consciousness either just before or just after my 13th birthday, when I saw a homemade sign in the window of a Phoenix, Az. movie theatre announcing “COMING SOON: STAR WARS.” But I assumed it was some movie about wars among Hollywood stars, and I wasn’t interested.

But then I saw this comic book cover, complete with a green Darth Vader (the lefthand pic – of which the righthand pic is obviously a more polished version; both by Howard Chaykin), and I was hooked.

Howard Chaykin - STAR WARS

Then the magnificent one-page and two-page ad spreads started appearing in the newspapers. Soon I got the novelisation, by “George Lucas.” When I read it I thought, “wow, he’s a director, but he could really be a writer too; he writes just like Alan Dean Foster!” Only many years later did I find out the reason for that ….

McQuarrie - STAR WARS

Thus when I sat down on a May afternoon in San Diego to see Star Wars, I already knew it was going to begin with an Imperial spaceship chasing a rebel spaceship. So I scanned the opening starfield, expecting the ships to enter from the left or perhaps from the right …. Then wham! that magnificent overhead shot just blew me away. And everybody else too, apparently; I noticed that ads and commercials started emphasising the third dimension much more post-Star Wars than they had pre-Star Wars.

Star Wars opening scene

Like most Star Wars fans, sometimes I want to strangle George Lucas. But not today. Thank you, George.

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Immigration, Secession, and Taxation

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

1. A frequent argument against secession is: What about the tax money that the rest of the country has invested in the would-be secessionist region for infrastructure, education, security, etc.? A region shouldn’t be allowed to secede until it first pays back the full costs of those investments.

Berlin Wall Now many things could be said in response to this objection: do these investments really outweigh the costs, direct or indirect, that the larger unit has been imposing on the region? to what extent did the region voluntarily solicit these investments? and so on.

But I want to offer a somewhat different response. Suppose this argument is a good one. Then by the same logic it should be justifiable to forbid individuals to leave the country. Let’s say I want to move to Canada, and the U.S. government says, “Not so fast – we paid for part of your education, we’ve protected you from criminals and foreign invaders, and now you can’t leave the country until you first pay back our investment.”

Now some countries have indeed had just such a policy – the Soviet Union, for example. But nowadays hardly anyone, including opponents of secession, is willing to embrace the idea of forbidding emigration. So if a history of tax-funded investment isn’t legitimate grounds for forbidding emigration, why is it grounds for forbidding secession? What’s the difference? Why should the principle of “consent of the governed” apply in one case and not in the other?

If the claim to a return on tax-funded investment doesn’t justify a prohibition on emigration (and I agree that it doesn’t), I don’t see how it can justify a prohibition on secession.

2. A frequent argument against open borders (strikingly similar to the anti-secession argument above, though not necessarily offered by the same people) is: What about the tax-funded benefits, such as welfare and education, that immigrants become eligible to receive? So long as immigrants can draw on these benefits, don’t those who pay the taxes have the right to demand that immigrants be excluded from the country?

Smash the Borders Here too, many things could be said in response to this argument: is the average immigrant really a net tax-recipient rather than a net taxpayer? and so on. But here too, I want to offer a somewhat different response.

Suppose this argument for forbidding entry by those who would probably become net tax-recipients is a good one. Why wouldn’t it be an equally good argument for deporting native-born citizens who are likewise net tax-recipients? Now most proponents of restrictions on immigration don’t favour deporting existing U.S.-born welfare recipients. But again, what’s the difference? How can the right of net taxpayers to defend themselves against net tax-recipients depend on where the net tax-recipients were born?

Just as in the secession case, so here, if tax-based considerations don’t justify compulsory emigration (and I agree that they don’t), I don’t see how they can justify compulsory non-immigration.

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