Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Liberals and anarchists and post scarcity oh My!

Well I’ve read waaaay too much of the culture to keep everything straight, so this post will probably veer into the very general. Anyway I think the culture novels are a fascinating kind of window into a world of post scarcity. The message seems to be, post scarcity economies breed anarchists with extreme boredom, which must be satisfied by liberal doo gooder interventions to help others. I think this is a really interesting end result. In “Player of Games” one of the characters remarks that “we don’t live in an age of heroes anymore.” With sufficiently advanced technology what are we to do with ourselves? Are we to descend into a complete Dionysian hedonism? Or will that ultimately fall short of what we want? The culture feels the need to justify and support its own hedonism and as a result they engage in countless interventions through their contact consortium.

The beauty of it all is that Ian M Banks is not a heavy handed moralizer like Rodenberry and his ilk. Banks keeps everything rather crazy by switching POVs in insane ways and by creating massive, tragic conflagrations. Basically it’s a good thing he’s a brit otherwise these novels wouldn’t work. He has a sick sense of irony and he just works it to utterly depressing proportions. Chris noticed how he uses a vignette format to just drive the reader crazy and man is that awesome.

Last but not least I think the culture novels provide a very odd answer to Camus. Why do we not commit suicide? The Culture says “Well you can have a whole lot of fun, or fight a war, but if you’re bored you can always use the euthanasia gland to kill yourself,” An answer properly fit for Mr. Banks.

Substantive post, Look to Windward

As I was reading Look to Windward, I cam across the same problem I have with the majority of the science fiction genre. Even though I start on page one, I feel like I have opened the novel right in the middle and have absolutely no idea what anyone is talking about. I personally need a little more background information and a little less of the author assuming I know what they hell he was writing about. But that is clearly just a personal bias I have, since I don't have any experience with science fiction outside of the readings for this class. Aside from the fact that I spent most of the novel being confused, I did actually enjoy reading it, or at least my interpretation of what I was reading. I'm sure I will be disproved in class today when I realize what I though was going on wasn't really happening. One point that Banks made that I found very interesting was when Huyler and Quilan are discussing the actual reason for the mission and what Quilan is expected to do. Personally, I found Quilan's character slightly annoying, in the way that he was willing to complete a mission that he had no idea what was going to happen and then kill 5 billion innocent people, simply because he was depressed and wanted to die. I found it hard to buy that reasoning, or even feel sympathy for him as a character throughout the novel.

However, the conversation that arose when they were discussing the motives behind the mission made me think of another discussion I had in a different class. Huyler is trying to justify what they are about to do, kill 5 billion innocent people as revenge, and he says that any culture recognizes this kind of trade. “They cost us that; we cost them that. They recognize that sort of revenge, that sort of trade, like any other civilization. A life for a life.” It occurred to me that this sort mentality is exactly how we think about war today, and have thought about it for a very long time. We had a similar discussion in my War and Personal Responsibility class the other day. Is anyone really innocent in a time of war? Are the five billion people that Quilan is supposed to kill guilty simply because they were complacent in what happened during the war all those years ago and have done nothing to make up for it since then? In my class, we had a discussion about whether Americans today are equivalent to the Good Germans during WWII; ordinary citizens who never harmed anyone but never did anything to stop what was happening.In a sense, complacency equals guilt. I think the ending of the novel proves that Banks does not believe this to be true and does not feel that those who do nothing are just as bad as those who did everything. This parallel did not occur to me until the end of the novel, when I finally had most everything straight in my head about who was who and what was going on.

Additionally, I would have liked a little more background on the war, the Chel people, and the Culture. I had a hard time figuring out why the Chel were so blasé about the fact that they needed to kill all these people, and what exactly the Culture had done during the war that would have justified such a severe reaction. It was hard for me to empathize with the Chel people throughout much of the novel. Hopefully in class today, someone will be able to shed some light on the background story so that I can better appreciate the novel itself.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

My Problem with PTJ’s Post

So unlike Chris I haven’t had the free time to write a delightfully detailed rebuttal to PTJ’s post. However I figure I can at least provide a “short” (700-1000 word not that short for most but compared to chris?) post in response.

So the meat of prof’s argument is that science and God, are as Doria claims, “parallel ways” and that the two are categorically different, therefore they should not concern one another. According to PTJ, I and Chris’s attack on Russell’s tolerance of belief in the face of scientific reason is invalid in this case. I do not agree. Science and God are not parallel in a social context. Faith is a subjective personal attribute that defies rationality and is pretty near impossible to convey through language. Language exists in the rational interpersonal realm. Thus when you try to convey faith to someone you sound like an irrational imbecile.

Now what does this have to do with the parallel ways? Well the parallel works so long as you restrict your God stuff to the subjective personal and your science stuff to the rational outer world. When one’s religious faith influences actions taken in the outer world you fall into dangerous territory. The two worlds are irreconcilable for a reason you see. When people start claiming that evolution is wrong because “god said so” we have an epistemological failure to communicate.

Chris and I wouldn’t be such secular assholes if those with faith kept to PTJ’s cultivated Weberian neutrality, but they don’t. Religion has always tried to make the lines perpendicular and the results have been disastrous. PTJ may be right that miracles exist outside of the scientific paradigm. If the only result was a renewal of faith then no one would care. But religious sillies have used this sign of miracles to justify their own idiocy in the real world. They claim that Katrina is an intervention of God rather than a byproduct of environmental destruction; they refuse medical treatment because God will save them. A refusal to acknowledge the natural law of the phenomenological world is a big freakin danger. Whether you believe in miracles or not, you will still fall accelerating at 9.81 meters per second squared if you jump from a cliff.

Now PTJ brings up a good point. A life dedicated to “shit happens” is no life at all. You should just kill yourself and be done with it. But there’s no reason why I can’t construct meaning in my life without the assistance of a God or an organized religion. As Camus says we are truly free when we acknowledge that there is no ultimate meaning, for then we are the ultimate arbiters of what that meaning is. Some of the happiest, most caring and moral people I know are atheists. They’ve fought all their lives against oppression and injustice and gotten very little in the way of accolades or material reward (well except for gains from collective struggle). These folks believe in science and reason and gravity and still live a life full of purpose.

I think part of the greatest danger to leading a meaningful life is organized religion. Unlike a personal philosophy constructed from community and personal input, organized religion is a whole set of beliefs sold as package deal. You can’t pick and choose what makes the most sense to you and your community; you just take the whole friggen box. That’s a danger as totalizing ideologies (Catholicism, Leninism, fascism, Hinduism etc.) are always the ones that claim complete truth and complete authenticity. Those with a monopoly on truth tend to take that into the real world and slaughter a whole lot of people. Nor are you allowed much of a choice in the matter. Unless you convert to a religion the adherent is usually inculcated from birth to believe and follow the dictates of the church/mosque/synagogue/temple etc. That’s no way to construct meaning. That’s brainwashing. You can’t truly believe in something if you have never sampled different fare on a level playing field.

Worst of all, organized religion often pits spiritual and godly knowledge within a sect of specialists. The priest or the rabbi hold a monopoly on proper meaning and can use that to discipline and manipulate those in their flocks. It destroys human freedom in the name of a God perpetuated by those in power. Now this is partially addressed by some of the mainline protestant denominations. Quakers, UCC’s (PTJs chosen flavor of Christ) and their ilk are pretty good about devolving spiritual knowledge to the laity. But even so I feel like it’s an impoverished philosophy. Only drawing from a single book? A big book indeed, but still only one source? Just doesn’t pace with common sense.

The only religious group I genuinely think is alright has got to be the Unitarian Universalists. They claim no official dogma and stake no claim to universal truth. Now I find their services kind of uninteresting, but some folk like them. I’d say my spiritual experience is out there in thick of it, fighting the good fight. There’s a certain joyous exuberance to it that’s hard to describe. But why I fight has a lot to do with thinking reasoned arguments, I may find a spiritual zeal within it, but I also provide arguments that can exist in the rational outer world on their own merits. Anyway that’s All I got right now.

Keep on thinking and always be skeptical of prophets.

Refection for Children Of God

Firstly, there has been a lot of impressions that the novel offered a simple idea of whether there is a god or not (see the two previous posts and comments. A more interesting angle was how did believe or the degree of believe affect the different members.
However, I really like the quote that was brought up in class "whatever the truth is, blessed be the truth". While this would probably be seen, and may have been written, as a religious statement, I see it as more of a statement of acceptence of the world and of its beauty, separate or with something religious. While goodness and truth were brought up in the conversation, they were discussed as founding blocks and intrinsically connected with theistic models of world view. While religion is the main theme, whether something is good or not can have absolutely nothing to do with religion, even in a theisticly questioning novel.

One thing I really did enjoy about these two novels was how differently they approached he fact of dealing with and finding of a new world. Although she went very little into the actual what would have happened on Earth as an effect of the discovery in terms of technology, business and exploration, I still found it refreshing. Immersed in Star Trek for my humans making contact literature, the amount of change on Rakath that occurred because of human landing at first felt very wrong, especially once Sophie started to directly influence the settlement she was with. What this really reveled to me is that the question is actually why not participate? In Star Trek, working on a non-warp drive world is considered interfering, while here it was presented much more as if Sophie was participating and doing her part.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Children of God, Reflection post

I am probably one of the few people in class yesterday who did not have a very passionate dislike of this book. I will agree that I thought The Sparrow was better, I do not believe that the specific failings of Children of God have anything to do with Russell's literary abilities. Maybe I was just able to appreciate the fact that this book, while clearly science fiction, was not as hardcore into the genre as some of the others we have read. I slightly disagree with the notion that the theme of the book is “God is there is you believe in him and he’s not if you don’t”. I think Russell was aiming for a slightly more ambiguous message: No one knows if he is there at all. Jut because you believe, as Emilio did through most of the first mission, doesn’t mean that God will be there for you, and just because you don’t believe, as Emilio does after the first mission goes to pieces, doesn’t mean he still won’t give you something beautiful, i.e. the music. I think that Russell’s point with the music was not to wrap things up neatly and have Emilio believe in God again, because I don’t think he ever gets back to that place.
I agree with the conclusion that Russell was instead saying, “Be careful what you wish for”. They went all the way to Rakhat because of the music and they all had to endure so much death, suffering, and pain and in the end what do they get? Music. Its kind of a cynical way of saying, well you asked God for this and here it is, whether you like it or not. I would have liked to have Russell made Emilio’s character a little more disappointed with the music at the end, that yes it’s beautiful but was it really worth it? What, if anything did it change? I don’t think she explored that as much as she could have. Sequels usually aren’t as good as the first one was and, while I enjoyed Children of God, I feel The Sparrow did a better job at fully exploring its themes and really making the reader think about things even after they were done reading. Children of God leaves you wondering, but not in the same way. I agree that perhaps it could have ended with a bigger bang or a bigger twist, but I think Russell’s intention was to have the ending be as plain and simple as the whole thing started: with a beautiful piece of music and a question about what it means.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Moral of the Story: Jews and Catholics are partially brain dead

AAArgh. I’m sorry but that novel was a total mary sue. Carlo gets it in the end. Emilio has a child and grandchild, and his mental sanity. And we’ve all got purpose because genetic sequences harmonize! Whooptee doo! While I certainly didn’t detest the novel as Chris did. I definitely didn’t think it was a tour de force. 438 pages and the payoff is…well…bland. The janata will live as an intellectual curiosity and the Runa march on.

Also I didn’t notice any of that “whaaa?” that we were supposed to experience. Maybe its because I read way too much sci-fi but nothing was too out of the ordinary. I was waiting for something a bit more expansive. Like, Isaac has bioengineered a new virus that does x or that the janata are actually a subset of earth wolves brought here by y. Instead it was just “oh the perspective has changed and these folks aren’t as evil as we thought..” Though I did find it deliciously pleasurable to see Kitheri get trampled to death. Too bad there was no specific detail.

Stemming from the good but kind of eh plot, the message of the novel was eh too. God is there if you believe in him, and he’s not if you don’t. What simplified nonsense is that? Pascal’s wager is more sophisticated than this. Russell just gets mired in postmodern relativism. We don’t need 438 pages for “to each his own,” That’s all grand and magical but, really find something a tad more interesting The only useful message of this novel is “Catholics and Jews are really stupid for believing in God.” They go through trial and tribulation and never seem to wonder, “Maybe God sent us that meteorite?” No its always “God sent that meteorite at this angle so it would only damage us! Praise the Lord!” They’re like a bunch of abused kids exclaiming when daddy buys them a soda after a particularly vicious beating. Wake up you nonces, God does not love you. This is all a product of natural forces. Some of which you control, some you don’t. If god does exist, he’s not helping!

Also, why couldn’t Russel resolve some of the big questions such as where the Magellan party went or why 6 missions failed? All of this was left unexplained so that she could focus on healing her main man sandoz. And she only accomplished this mixing some genotypes together to make a song. Ggarg. This book frustrates me.

Children of God, substantive post

One interesting point that struck me as I was reading Children of God, was the role of Issac, Sophia's son. My first reaction to his so called "not normal" behavior was that he was autistic. If this was the intention that Russell wanted the reader to go on, it is a very interesting detail to include. People, and more specifically children who are autistic are often "others" in their own world, a foreigner of sorts in the way that they react to and understand the world. I thought this was an interesting parallel to the broader concept of the "other" that this book examines. Sophia is clearly an other, being a human being on Rahkat. Supaari is an other, being a Jan'ata in a community of Runa, and Emilio Sandoz is an other as well, being the only known survivor of the the first mission back on earth. Having Issac as he was, exhibiting behavior of someone who is autistic, illuminated the theme of communication and its importance when encountering the other. This made me think back to The Conquest of America, in which Todorov claims that the Europeans were "successful" in their conquests due to their superior communication skills and there ability to "understand" the native peoples. Many of the tragedies that occurred in this book were a result of miscommunication or misunderstandings of the other. The fact that Issac is the one who discovers at the end, the ultimate purpose of the mission, is a strategic move on Russell's part. it took an outsider among his own people, human beings, to understand another outsider, the inhabitants of Rahkat.

Hate's like Gardening

I think a lot of our discussion danced around two issues that were never completely addressed, ontological displacement, and epistemic frameworks.

So first let’s get into ontological displacement. Basically ontological displacement is a total displacement of being. The thing, or the Other is so utterly different that it cannot truly relate to us, its ontology. Its being is alien to us. I’m not sure this can happen between humans, but it could certainly happen across species. There may be aliens that are so different we don’t even know that they’re aliens. So different that we cannot understand the other on anything but a superficial level; think of the planet in Solaris.

Perhaps this is unnecessarily privileging experiential knowledge over everything else, but I think that in order to understand a person you must have some sort of common referent i.e. a common experience. When your natures of being are completely divorced, this is rather difficult. There’s a taste of this in Todorov, as the natives and the Spaniards seemed to exist on different planes of existence, though they were not so different that they were totally unrecognizable to one another

That sort of dove tails into my other point about epistemic frameworks. As I was saying in class, you can only really empathize with an Other if your epistemic and moral frameworks have some sort of commonality. Cortes could understand the how of Aztec ruled, but could never sympathize with or fully grasp the why. This cyclical time stuff was as nonsensical to him as it sounds to most westerners. I’ve read about the Aztecs, and taken classes on Latin American history. All I really know is the how. Their world view still sounds like nonsense on stilts. Circular time and ritualized speaking do not appeal to me and I do not empathize with the decisions drawn from them (ex. human sacrifice). I can still hate their leaders for these practices with much ease.. Tim mentioned how much we hated on Columbus. Well the guy’s epistemic and moral frameworks seem utterly alien to us, and examined within our own modern moral system, his actions seem utterly repugnant and for good reason.

I think the only real hatred is a hatred based on knowledge of the other. Chris and I were discussing this and we agreed that the sensationalized other as the “foe” is more or less just fear. It’s an enhanced fight or flight response, not real hate. You’re not really fighting a person but a wild animal that will stop at nothing to destroy you. Thus it is not hate but instinctual fear that drives us to atrocities. Hate is only made possible through active participation. You have to fully understand how radically different your moral frameworks for two people to truly despise each other. In other words, hate’s a garden and it needs tender loving care.

Children of God: Not as different as we thought

Stylistically, this book seems much less 'fate' than the previous novel. Because we have no fore-knowledge about the fate of the charecters, the story seems much more malleable and doesn't have the same classic tragedy air. Even though there was almost a genocide in this book, it seems much more uplifting, Emilio has found his faith again, and a 'purpose' behind the tragedy of the meeting has been found. Although to me it seemed very anti-climatic that the genetic music was what needed to be found as the true beauty and point of the meeting. Almost like the Star Trek Next Gen two-parter about the genetically coded message that everyone thought would be instructions to the ultimate weapon, it almost wasn't necessary and you wish they had left it as, "it happened that way just because it did". I did like the touch about the genetic music, but I didn't think it was worthy of being the "point and purpose" to the suffering. If she could have worked it in so it was there, but all those trials and tribulations hadn't been necessary to find it, I believe her theme (i.e. Job II) would have been much better maintained.

An interesting parallel with the title which might have been completely unintentional is that Emilio's constant refrain seems to be "don't do this to me again, kids and babies". However, the title directly relates to Children (although here it is meant in the wider since of the three separate species all of children of the same God). Perhaps the parallel here is that despite however much he tries not to, Emilio will meet up with all the children again. I'm not certain about this interpretation, and wonder if Russel purposefully does not have Emilio use the word children or child to reduce this parallel, however, to me it seems something that should be significant in this imagery laden novel.

One strong compulsion I felt throughout the later half of the novel was just to yell the word 'genocide' at Sophie. Even through all her prejudeces and the evil she felt had been committed by the Jana'ata, with her history and the conditioning against genocide she almost certainly has, one would hope she would pause to consider what she was truly doing. Sophie's complete blindness to this fact only worked for her, although it would have felt jarring with anyother character, because of her proven ability to shut out her emotions and disconnect herself from the realities of what were going on around her. This is also why Russel couldn't allow any of the other humans to survive, if just one other had, they may have been able to rein in the attempted genocide to a role reversal where the Runa became masters of the land, while the Jana'ata became the lower class species.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Columbus, Card, and the Alien

[This serves as both my Substantive and Reflective Posts for Todorov]

My first thought in the first few chapters about Columbus was how well Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch fit into this narrative. The way Columbus is represented in both books as a man more on a quest for the Church than trying to gain money. The impression I truly got of Columbus was of a noble, if time-misplaced, nitwit who without many forceful hints, would completely miss the importance of reality and continue on in his own world.

The analysis of the differences in communication methods also struck me. The presented idea that Montozuma and the other civilizations did not wish to speak to the envoys when they were there, but still preferred to ask the soothsayers what their chances were and what the state of affairs were. This seems perfectly nonsensical until the differing modes of communication are thought of. A person-to-person mode of communication is assumed and is actually what the basis of communication analysis is in the "Western" context. The idea that this second mode of communication with the natural and social group and religious world would be the more dependable runs counter to what I can see as provable. Coming out of an anaylsis of Methods from my IR research class, I believe then this is when other methods than a scientific or neo-postivist must come to bear as with these you would quickly notice that not everything matched. However, if the entire society is forming itself with a constructivist/relational view, they are building the world among the way they see it and they agree it to be, regardless of how a truthful discourse between themselves might present it. To me, this makes the most sense on how to see a how this completely different way of communicating with the universe might come to work.

However, these differing types of thinking are what we are looking for in our classic 'other', and cause me to doubt many of the science fiction aliens that we find. The oddest thing is how we often find patterns of thought and physical shapes on Earth that are more bizarre or different than many from other worlds, even when the ones that are supposed to be "human" aliens are excluded.

An interesting point we touched on in class was the differentiation that evolves when we chose or chose not title someone/thing as human. If they are human, they can be equal. However, Todorov argues that almost by definition, if the other is not human, it cannot be equal, as we have delineated a difference that can not be overcome. This is unequally troublesome for an even hopeful idealist as the hope would be when other alien races are found that we learn to eventually work with them as equals. But can we truly accept that someone is truly 'other' in practically every way, except that they are inherently have the same moral and "human" rights as us, even when there moral structure is alien to us? It is hard to truly conceptualize what this would mean, let alone how an individual or humanity as a group would handle it. But looking at Todorov and pasts where we have met alien humans for the first time probably is the closest we can come to analyzing how we might feel.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reflective post, The Conquest of America

I think that the conversation we had in class today regarding whether understanding automatically leads to sympathy is an interesting one that clearly has ties to numerous other books that we have read. Emilio and the others in The Sparrow felt sympathy for the Runa, and even the other species at one point, but it is clear in the end that they didn't really understand them at all. So if it is the case that one doesn't need to truly understand to feel sympathy, it only makes sense that it can go the other way: one can understand another person or another culture and still not feel sympathy. I still agree with the point that Phil made about the difference between understanding how and understanding why and the effect that has on sympathy. There is a difference in those two types of understanding and I think the understanding how is a lot easier to accomplish. However, understanding why on a deeper, more psychological level is essential to the element of sympathy.

I definitely also agree with the point that just because you understand someone doesn't mean that you sympathize with them or even like them. I can think of a few people that I know pretty well and still absolutely dislike. In fact, understanding your enemy is perhaps the best way to beat them. The more you understand about how someone does something, the easier it becomes to destroy them in the end. I also think that it is possible to sympathize with someone and still dislike them. Empathizing with ones enemy is one way to get and to keep the upper hand. Perhaps this is why Cortez seemed to understand, and even sympathize in the end, with those that he encountered? Was he doing this because he knew that this was an easy way to get what he wanted in the end? Maybe Cortez is proof that it is possible to understand, sympathize, and even feel sorry for someone, but still destroy them in the end.

Conquest by Traffic Sign

I think Todorov’s greatest contribution is his emphasis on the discourse of language and epistemology. Rather than focusing on the political or material bases on which the Spaniards conquered America, but the underlying linguistic and epistemological reasons why. For example He does not discuss “How the Spaniards used smallpox to massacre the Aztecs.” Instead he talks about how the Spaniards used signs to obliterate the other. I think this is an extremely original and interesting contribution. I had never thought to contemplate how cyclical notions of time, and ritualized speech could so easily demobilize a people. The way in which you conceptualize these things determines much of your behavior. It makes much more sense now that the Aztec’s hesitation is put within a broader discursive framework. Without this framework, I think we lose a lot of understanding in regard to the Mesoamericans.

I also like how mike mentioned that westerners were particularly suited to understand the other so that they could annihilate them. I think this shift from Columbus not understanding the Caribs at all, to Cortes deftly exploiting Aztec ideas, show the shift from the medieval to modern times. Rather than seek to conquer the holy lands and cleanse them of unbelievers, the Spaniards seek to conquer the natives and then convert them to their purpose. Todorov describes this as the ironic case of eliminating the internal other (through the reconquista) whilst introducing massive external others into the regime. This shift in attitude really presupposes a more modern view, because it is one based on imperialism instead of crusader zeal. The Spanish crown wanted an ethnically pure state so that it could then impose its purity on others.

In that regard I also enjoyed the overview of Columbus as a silly man. Who knew he was such a superstitious little Catholic! Columbus is supposed to be this great modern explorer who laughed in the face of those who claimed he would fall off the earth. Yet for all his abilities in the field of naturalism, the man was not a very good follower of scientific skepticism. He had what Freud would call “religious delusions” ie that his belief in religion forced him to believe in things that might be true, but for which there was no evidence. To fill that gap Columbus deluded himself with “discovering” evidence to always support his beliefs.

Substantive post, The Conquest of America

I think that it is commonplace in American culture to place Columbus, and other explorers, on a pedestal of sorts. After all, they "discovered" America and opened the doors for the beginning of what our country is today: a place founded by foreign explorers. This being said, I would think that the majority of us in this class would disagree and follow the another thread of the story: that the explorers conquered a land that was not theirs and perpetrated a genocide against the native people. In the first part of The Conquest, Todorov attempts to explain the initial discovery of the Caribbean islands by Columbus and his crew and one thing struck me as very interesting: The seemingly arbitrary way that Columbus decided whether the natives were "good" or "bad". Todorov shows evidence to support that claim that Columbus is so distracted by the beauty of nature and the physical appearance of the islands, that he neglects to consider the native peoples in any serious way. Todorov shows several experts from different texts that show Columbus's obsession with the physical beauty with the islands. Todorov claims that due to the fact that Columbus focuses on nature first and people second, his communication and interaction with the natives suffers. Columbus makes assumptions about their communication skills, or lack thereof in his opinion, and seems to be fixated on the fact that they wear no clothes. I also thought it was interesting that Todorov links this point to Columbus's decision that the natives have no religion. There is a line the Todorov uses to justify this leap of logic: Columbus would have assumed that any human being wore clothes upon the expulsion from paradise, thus these people cannot possible be civilized human beings. This link between religion, nature, and the natives is one that shows Columbus is clearly evaluating them based upon his own cultural standards, a practice which seems the only logical thing to do in his eyes. This made me think of a moment in The Sparrow, when the riot was started after the Runa children were being taken away: they were acting based upon their own cultural standards, which seemed logical to them, but eventually lead to their downfall.

Another point that I found particularly interesting in The conquest, mostly because it is something I had never considered before, occurred in the epilogue. Todorov states that "This extraordinary success (Western European colonization) is chiefly due to one specific feature of Western civilization...among Europeans thereby becoming proof of their natural suoeriorty: it is, paradoxically, Europeans' capacity to understand the other" What I gathered from the statement is that Todorov is basically saying that the Europeans conquered the natives and not the other way around because they understood the natives better in the end. I am not sure if I believe that this is the case, but it is something that made me stop and think as I was reading. Is it really that Europeans were better communicators? Was it really nothing to do with technological might and infecting the natives with disease, i.e. smallpox? OR is it a combination of these factors that caused history to play out the way it did. Like I said, I don't know the answer or even my own opinion about it but it is a point that I found very interesting to contemplate.

Unprepared expeditions + CS Lewis=Bad

So I think this class was eerie in that we seemed to be in pretty good agreement. The Jesuits were well intentioned and had some cute ideals, but they were woefully unprepared. They never thought to observe the planet from afar. They never contemplated the effects of their exploration. They never even checked if the air was breathable. The Jesuits got drunk on their own sense of serendipity and they never thought about the consequences of their actions.

I think the real message of the book lies therein. There may be a creator god or there may not be, but the fact remains that He or she or It isn’t going to interfere. You may read in that God is determining events or providing miracles, but he’s not. God if it exists is not going to interfere in worldly matters. When you choose to believe that God sent you on a mission and then that mission fails don’t blame God, blame your foolhardy assumptions. I think Mike mentioned that Abe Lincoln quote about god being on your side during war. It encapsulates everything pretty well about the whole “god’s on your side” ethic.

On a somewhat unrelated note I think this novel falls into a weird tradition of Sci-Fi/ Fantasy stories written by authors riffing on CS Lewis’s notion of the restricted God. Lewis basically stated God had to allow the universe abide by certain physical laws. If god were to screw around with miracles it would destabilize everything and well…up would be down and down would be up. Thus we need gravity and all the danger that it implies. Without physical laws, things can’t exist, but as a result existence creates evil or dissatisfaction, or whatever you wish to call it.

Russell follows in this tradition of “Well god may be out there, but he aint doing ya any favors.” Of course CS Lewis himself was notorious for breaking his own rules by allowing the introduction of “limited” miracle every now and then to show that god was still around. These miracles are quite similar to the turtles that the Jesuits kept witnessing. Further Lewis was big into science and “learning,’ much like the Jesuits. So I guess you would say that Sandoz suffered from an acute case of CS Lewis. Although Lewis was an atheist turned anglican, not an atheist turned catholic. So it doesn’t totally work. Oh Lewis, you were a traitor to your Irish brethren, no wonder your theories about God were silly and your novels sucked. And on that note, long live the IRA! The old one, not the PIRA. They’re silly.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reflecting on The Sparrow

One thing I liked about the general conversation about The Sparrow was the mention that it was treated as though it's "better" than sci-fi. Which makes me think of the quote
"I've always liked the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it's science fiction 'because it's not about robots and spaceships'." (Terry Pratchett, fun sci-fi quotes)
Although there are spaceships and aliens in this novel, to a "real literature" critique these elements can be safely ignored while they focus on the 'worthy' aspects of the story. But since the quality and thought-provokingness is not unique among Sci-fi novels, what is it that sets it apart to make it more relatable? It can't just be the minimization of 'technobabbel' and the fact that it isn't military or fighting-based (neither of these elements being unique either)? The reason is two fold, firstly the novel centers around the inner journey of one man, and and the religious/theological subject, themes that are associated with 'high' literature.

A basic idea/assumption, that as Americans at least we have, mentioned in the course of the discussion was that there is in fact little reason at all any aliens landing on Earth would say "take me to your leader." In fact, although I've read one book where the ET said "take me to your paleontologist", I can't recall an instance where the aliens first entered/integrated with earth culture and from there announcing themselves. It seems to me, we would be really annoyed, scared and mystified if that happened, so what reason was there to think it would be successful with that approach.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reflection Post, The Sparrow

I thought it was an interesting question that Professor Jackson brought up during class: what mistakes did the mission make and could they have avoided them? I think the answer is only so clear to us because we have hindsight to guide us. Of course they should have been more logical, more rational, and less trusting in what they did. We know that would have probably saved them in the end. However, I think it is also important to remember that, from the very beginning, this was believed to be "God's mission". God wanted them to do this and would protect them from harm, so they didn't need to worry about logic or rational thinking: they had God on their side. It is plausible to speculate on what they could have done differently, and I agree that there are many things that fall into that category. However, in the context of the book I don't believe that any of the characters could have acted differently and still stayed true to what Russell made them to be. They landed on this alien planet with their own cultural and religious bias and stereotypes which made the characters more believable, at least in my opinion. I think that, for me, the theme or main message of this book is that: just because you believe doesn't mean that God will save you in the end. And in order for this to be the thought that the reader comes away with, Russell had to make it seem like what they did and the actions they took, while in hindsight could have been avoided, were the best step to take at the time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

For the Love of God come Armed

Perhaps I'm being a bit silly, but anyone in the expedition think "hrrm maybe we should bring some future weapons." Explorers going to an alien planet unarmed, grand plan...grand. I’m of course being a bit simplistic, but a whole mess of trouble could have been avoided if the humans had brought some orbital weaponry. Obliterate a few Janata strongholds, and make em think twice before they do anything silly. Of course the risks associated with bring a whole bunch of guns, are rather legion. However, the complete lack o worry that they would be attacked or would require force is incredibly naive.

Though its no surprise that naiveté is the rule of the day. Jesus has ordained this mission so of course everything will work out real well. That is…if Jesus actually gave a flying crap. The willful delusions of the expedition’s leadership to assume that things were ordained and that the intelligent life would never attack them were poorly advised. That and bringing only one Lander. Hasn’t Aliens taught us anything? Always have a backup Lander for pilot by remote. Anyway it seems as if the Jesuits got caught up in the excitement, but never thought about the possible dangers of the mission. They made a whole lot of safely precautions on the way there. But man, they did not think about the problems of contact all too well. I mean they didn’t even try to predict if their germs could cause a disease outbreak amongst the aliens.

Substantive post, The Sparrow

I will admit that this is the first book in this class that I actually managed to get through the whole book and end up enjoying it in the end. Russell is clearly a talented writer and her use of language and character development helped to make this book seem not too science fiction for a person like me. Often times there are elements of the the novels we read that I just do not understand but I honestly did not have to go to wikipedia once during this one. What I found most interesting about this novel, and what I feel separates it from others in the sci fi genre, was the overt use of religion throughout. For most of the novels that I have read in this class, my impression was that religious undertones were usually present in some fashion but they were subtle and not ones recognized immediately by the reader. In The Sparrow, the entire plot is based on the fact that God has chosen these people for this mission. It is stated several times, by the majority of the characters even ones who are apparently not religious, such as Anne and George Edwards. It seems that non believers end up believing in the end and those who put their whole life into following God end up losing him somehow, such as Emilio Sandoz. Theer are several passages that I marked as I was reading that all basically allude to the same thought: If God choose them for this mission, how could anything possibly go wrong? This novel questions the role of God in the world and I was surprised not to find more of an outrage of the initial discovery of life on other planets. I would have thought that the religious institutions in the world would be the last people to be accepting of this because it means that we, as humans, were not created special in God's eyes, that there are others out there as well. Anne even makes the comment at one point that perhaps God liked the Runa better because their planet was so much more beautiful and they themselves were more attractive as well. This question of God, his intentions, and the reasons why he sent this group of people to Rakhat are all interesting questions that the author grapples with and, I feel, leaves it up to the reader to decide for themselves at the end.

Are you a vegetarian yet?

One thing that needs to be covered first about this book is that if there is any book that will make you turn vegetarian, this might very well be the one.

An interesting thing is how everything goes down the drain so quickly, when the musicologist dies right after they land, you get the feel that it is going to be a gradual dying off, not the sudden killing of everyone else in a few pages. What this showed was that even if you begin to believe you understand a society, you are still likely to miss something and that one thing can send the entire plan on a huge tremendous down swing. While it was good to see how everything feel so quickly, after all the buildup, it seemed a let down.

Stylistically, I didn't like the idea of going into the viewpoint of the two Jana'ata. It made them much more human, and this made them more relatable, which I thought was actually unfortunate as it hurt they idea of them being truly "other". While Russel may have been trying to make us relate to the Jana'ata and see how we had the potential to evolve as they did. She tries to make a contrast between, "oh don't they seem so much more like us" and "what kind of creatures are they" and while this is obviously drawn, I feel that it took concentration away from actually exploring the differences and uniqueness of their society and turning into some relation to the Middle Ages of nobles and peasants.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Concept of the Simple

I noticed that the class response missed something rather key. It seemed like we kept trying to muddy the waters of what the political was, and who it pertained to. Yes the work was a bit contradictory at times. It often provided a convoluted reason for conflict that jumped between Platonist essentialism and materialist analysis. At one point economics, morality etc have little to do with the enemy, and then it seems that the enemy is created as it stems from those same moral and economic conflicts.

However, we shouldn’t let this confound what the political is. Schmidt’s discussion of the political was pretty explicit in its dualistic, dialectic obsession. He wasn’t interested in muddy waters. He discussed things in a way that Descartes called clear and distinct ie the boiled down definitions. Schmidt really should have titled it “The Concept of the Simple” because he’s not dealing in anything but simple distinctions. He wants an all encompassing, universal definition; he can’t get too complicated when dealing with absolutes. This is why he likes dialectics so much. It logically helps boil everything down to one simple distinction, to their essential properties. Putting forth an either/or dichotomy forces him and the reader to categorize something as essentially a or b. In this case something is either political or non political.

The political is not complicated for Schmidt, which as Mel points out is a key reason why I didn’t like the text. You are political based on a basic either/or question. Are you willing to use deadly force in this conflict? If yes then you have a political situation. If no, it is not political. That’s it.