Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Only Exotic Gods Coming to Life in Movies?

Here's an idea for a movie: a Lakota boy is adopted and raised by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. He is thus mostly ignorant of Christianity; and given his genetic ancestry, he is fascinated with Old World culture. He becomes an archaeologist and travels to Israel. While there, he discovers an ancient tomb...a tomb that locals fear, and one old man tries to warn him about. Though their "New Testament" describes the power of the demigod who was killed and put in the cave, this archaeologist knows better than to believe in primitive fairy tales. Until, of course, strange things start happening. The bread and fish he bought for lunch one day keeps replenishing itself, and one of the other professors who had been laid up with leprosy magically heals. Was he about to discover that this "Christ" was real, and had awoken? And even more, that the locals' god had a dark side as well?

Of course I'm deliberately being uncomfortably irreverent, even offensive. If instead of the tomb I'd used Mohammed's angel-cave, people would really be upset with me. And yet when you see a movie with a white archaeologist being chased around by an awakened Native American god, that's somehow okay...and that's exactly the point. There is a strange disconnect here. Movies are "allowed" to concretely depict the powers of pagan gods that we remember mostly as myths; that is, they can do so without being considered offensive. But movies are not allowed to depict the powers of gods that people still actually believe in.

Above: in The Mask Jim Carrey was supposed to be wearing the Mask of Loki, the Norse God of mischief, which gave him powers. Below: a major studio is unlikely to make a movie about Christ rising from the dead like this. But wait - people actually believe that he did! Shouldn't there be more support for doing such a movie then?

For the purposes of supernatural horror, people who identify as Christian are quite willing to suspend disbelief about the reality of an exotic god for the duration of a movie or book. So Christians should love a movie about a literal avenging Christ, or Jews about the modern Angel of Death, right? Imagine it: U.S. fighter planes scramble over the Red Sea, firing missiles pointlessly into the Angel's swirling mass. Lamb's blood for door-painting is at a premium on Amazon. (I can't wait for 2-day shipping, we're already up to the seventh deadly plague! ZING, HEY-O!) But guess what? They don't love it. Even talking about it in this way may seem provocative. (An experiment: would trying to explain Buddha's supposed cobra-calming ability be offensive? Shiva's appearance from a flaming lingham? How about a movie about the search for the Mormon gold tablets or the Scientologists' alien-spirit volcano? If some are okay and some are not, why? I think the answer is fairly obvious.)

Of course there are exceptions to this strange ban on movies depicting the gods or forces people say they believe in. The American film industry made a number of such pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and more recently, Passion of the Christ - although these took pains to identify themselves as narratives created by the in-group, and all carefully kept themselves within the scriptural understandings of their likely audience. The only action movies per se made about these themes were Raiders of the Lost Ark and especially the Holy Grail. But there, it's not about Indy getting a gleam in his eye and going on a quest to use the power of the Holy Grail - no, in both cases with Biblical artifact maguffins, it's really, really bad guys who in their hubris have gone looking for them. It's also likely that setting the adventure a few decades in the past insulates it from moral discomfort. It would make people very itchy if Raiders were re-made to take place in the Middle East today, with ISIS fighters digging for the ark and grail.

The likely reason that we're allowed to put mostly-abandoned gods, but not ones worshipped contemporarily, in works of fiction - even if we don't personally believe in them, and just know that many other people do - is the same reason people get uncomfortable about the direct, concrete discussion of religious stories, even if not from a critical standpoint. Angry Christ fighting off the Navy Seals by walking out on the water where they can't get him would move the whole thing out of ritual-land and into concrete visualization, which is very uncomfortable for modern people who believe in things like laws of nature. And we have a frankly misguided sense that it's offensive to do this with anyone's continuing beliefs. But the second the last Scientologist dies - then I guess it's okay to make the L. Ron Hubbard zombie movie.

In this case, giving power to indigenous gods is not a compliment, or an endorsement of their reality. It's exactly because we clearly understand that they're silly that they can serve as entertainment. But we don't want to get led into thinking or explicitly saying that about contemporary gods.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What the Universe Would Look Like if Time Travel Were Possible: Different Regimes and Candidate Covert Travelers

If such a powerful technology as time travel is possible, it would have implications for reality itself, and could change everything; or, it would make such profound changes, before the things that ended up changing ever existed, that we couldn't tell it happened. Thus, it is a potentially all-powerful force that could both be responsible for everything, and could be undetectable, and is thus a PEP, a pointless epistemological problem. And we should expect to be visited not only by humans from our own future, but aliens who have their own purposes in their interactions with us. The recent time travelers party held by Stephen Hawking was quite sparsely attended, so either there were none around, or they didn't want to reveal themselves. So we should ask the same question about time travelers that Fermi asked about aliens: where is everybody?

Above: Horst Wessel, an early member of the SA under Goebbels who was at one point kicked out of a pre-Nazi poltical party for being (get this) too radical. Goebbels is known to have been particularly impressed by the cut of Wessel's jib and had placed him in charge of many of his men in Berlin. Imagine if this ambitious fellow had risen in the ranks of the NSDAP, perhaps even assassinating Hitler to command an even darker incarnation of the Reich than the one we knew. He would be worthy of going back in time to kill. Actually, Wessel was assassinated in 1930 by a supposed group of communists although it remains unclear if the police actually found the responsible party. Are we living in a timeline which is actually better than the one Wessel would have led us down?

In fiction time travel has been imagined in certain ways. It's interesting to think of how we could explain the universe as we currently observe it in terms of those depictions, and quite fun to look for the effects of possible time travelers. (Don't worry, I'm not going to send you to a stupid listicle of pictures from the 1920s that look like someone has a cell phone.)

Time travel model #1: there is no such thing as time travel. Or, there is no way for us ever to detect it; or, it is only trivially real, but useless; or, it creates "branching timepoints" so you kill Hitler and end up in a Hitler-less universe, but your friends back in the "normal" history timeline stay in that timeline, and don't see any benefit from your action.

Time travel model #2: there is time travel and you can change things. However, we certainly aren't aware of big changes, so either they happen and Back to the Future-style, our brains change too, and we don't know (in which case you can't tell the difference between this and one of the versions of #1, and it actually is #1). Also it gets a little silly when there are time travel stories and alternate histories that presuppose this but somehow the same people end up being born, hundreds of years down the line. Stephen Barnes's Lion's Blood series has the branch point occurring in the early 4th century BCE in the Near East, and then somehow in the 7th century CE, Mohammed is still born. What, history is malleable but which sperm meet which eggs is not? I mean come on. I complain about it again in a later post about alternate history.) The One, which is a Jet Li movie that's an interesting combination of The Highlander, The Terminator and several other movies, pretty well-done despite the obviousness of these tropes, has essentially the same problem.

Article: "Psychiatric hospitals filling up with time travellers sent back to kill Donald Trump"

If history-altering time travel is possible, there's another problem. It sets up an inevitable arms race for who can go back before the other guy and cut off their moves pre-emptively (remember how Bill and Ted got out of a plot problem by "remembering" to go back in time from the future and drop a trash can on the head of the guy who was about to shoot them? I don't understand why the bad guy wouldn't have done the same thing to stop them. And Bill and Ted do something to stop him...and so on.) In fact, if history-changing time travel is possible, then (for example) if gold is your thing, piddling around with the California Gold Rush of 1849 is stupid - why limit yourself to the deposits that exist on Earth in your (current) timeline when you can influence the supernova that created the Solar System? Or the amount and distribution of various nuclei at the Big Bang? Efforts would then focus on being able to influence earlier and earlier instants in ways that produce desired outcomes, and the whole universe becomes a game of temporal oneupmanship, where everyone wants to squeeze closer to the causal high ground at the earliest possible instant.

Even if we could somehow "sense" that history had shifted, a la Marty McFly or the returning safari hunter fromBradbury's A Sound of Thunder, there's no reason to be fooling around with dinosaurs, and the universe we're looking at is likely already the final outcome of various struggles that crammed the turns of their game into a handful of Planck times after the Big Bang. (This could explain the strange stringy/foamy distribution of matter in the universe. It's from the entity who captured the first move and canceled all the later ones, and proclaimed Fiat lux! Or Fiat aurum, or whatever it was maximizing. Anyway, it's more likely light or gold than the happiness of conscious beings. Clearly the universe we're in is not optimizing for happiness in a Parfitian or Neil-DeGrasse-Tysonian or any other sense.)

Time travel model #3: there is time travel, but nothing can change anyway. Time travel and fate are both true. This is the model used by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide series, in Twelve Monkeys, and to some degree in Terminator 3, also known as "everything has already happened, in order." Note that models #1 and 2 are agnostic on the question of whether the future is as set in stone as the past, or the more provincial question of whether certain entities in that universe (humans) can make non-predetermined choices. BUt if you think consciousness in an epiphenomenon as some people suggest the Libet button-pushing experiment does, then you believe we're "locked in" exactly like coma patients, except we're looking out through the eyes of meat robots and we're deceived into thinking we're making the robots move, when in fact we're just watching and along for the ride. Consequently, when there's a shift, all we can do is watch, as in Vonnegut's Timequake. (Of note, Vonnegut's meditations on time, evident elsewhere including Slaughterhouse Five, inevitably shade into discussion of morality and meaning.

A variant on this is the idea of temporal homeostasis - maybe you can make a few changes that persist for a while, but there's an equilibrium principle that will try to return the universe to baseline. The series 11/22/63 employs this heavily. Although not explicitly about time travel, Final Destination shows a universe trying to restore equilibrium, and Pohl's Coming of the Quantum Cats shows how material moving between timelines causes physical imbalances (spoiler: in that case, they were rectified by super-advanced humans or unseen aliens that stepped in after they saw the damage we were unknowingly doing.)

In this model, even once people know they can't change anything - i.e. they want to stop the A-bomb from being developed, they even see pictures of themselves in the declassified Manhattan Project materials (maybe that's where they got the idea! because everything already happened, in order) but they still can't help themselves. Hoping against hope they say dammit, I'm still going to try. Of course, by bizarre coincidences, it's going to happen exactly the way it already happened. (This was suggested to have happened with scientists from the future interfering with the large hadron collider, but of course it still came online.)

It's this last model that interests me the most, because what it would produce is a handful of out-of-place people throughout our history; people who know too much, who get involved in historically important events; who disappear or seem to be swallowed by time. Having some fun, I've compiled four good examples.

Jesus Salas Barraza, Pancho Villa's killer. I've written before about this event, and the person who caused it. Underappreciated outside his country, Villa was planning a run for president of Mexico at the time of his assassination. And imagine the kind and gentle government he would have established had he won! Of course, a successful time-traveling assassin would not obviously be stopping a dictator, from the perspective of people in that time, and would have lived out their lives in prison (or in some other obscurity). For example, if he had been successful, Bruce Willis in Looper would've just seemed to be a child killer. Hence the curiosity of Barraza's dying words: "I'm not a murderer. I rid humanity of a monster..."

Above, Jesus Salas Barraza, clearly a guy from the alternate Villista dystopian future. From Escrito Sangre.

Juana Maria, a Tongva woman from San Nicolas Island off the the coast of Southern California. In 1835, a Mexican expedition forcibly evacuated everybody from the island but Juana Maria was left behind. Or...was she a time traveler who went back in time to hide among the Tongva people on the island? Years later, a rescue expedition was sent - actually more than one, since on the first try, they found her footprints but couldn't find her. Eventually they did find her, and brought her back to the mainland. And NOW - after improbably making it off this isolated island where she would be able to affect the rest of history - in a matter of seven weeks she died. And here's the kicker, per Wikipedia: "Juana Maria's water basket, clothing and various artifacts, including bone needles which had been brought back from the island, were part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, but were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Her cormorant feather dress was apparently sent to the Vatican, but it appears to have been lost." It's almost as if space-time desperately wanted to erase any physical trace of her...

Thomas Conway was an Irishman who fought as an officer leading the colonial rebels in the American Revolution, but in 1778, he tried to have Washington removed as head of the Continental Army - and presumably to take the role for himself. Conway's maneuvering was reported and he ended up resigning, first going to France, from which "he was compelled to flee [to Ireland] for his life. After that Conway disappeared from history. He is supposed to have died about 1800 in poverty and exile." Cue Twilight Zone music!

Lastly, Benjamin Franklin, because I mean come on. To name a few of his inventions and accomplishments: fire companies, electricity, discovering the Gulf Stream, paper-based goal-setting software, and (seriously) depositing interest-accumulating money for the future people of Philadelphia. Since his childhood is pretty well-documented, what may have happened is thta some British time traveler realized they bore a resemblance to him, and went back to the date when he "ran away" from his printing apprenticeship knowing that he didn't come back to see anyone who knew him for many years, throwing the real Benjamin Franklin into Boston Harbor one night. Then, he went to London for some time, gradually leaking small innovations here and there and generally having the better of his contemporaries, until coming back to the colonies and marrying. After the Seven Years War Franklin went back to London, leaving his wife to mind the house in Philadelphia. The man we remember as a patriot showed a curious early loyalty to the crown, taking the English side in the Stamp Tax controversy (as any anti-American time traveler would), but this incited Philadelphians to take up arms against his household and wife, perceiving them as in league with the British rule-makers. Franklin then changed his position and returned to Philadelphia, eventually drafting into the role of architect of the revolution and the government which followed. (One is reminded of the ending of Terminator 3, when John Connor realized his position and reluctantly announced over the radio that he was in charge.) Thus, our anti-American British time traveler tried, but failed, to steer the Americans away from revolt, only to take a softer position out of concern for the woman from the past he ended up falling in love with in the past - just as he always had...

Below: I think I've found him. Maybe he wanted to keep the British and American markets combined so he could insult more people.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Themes in Bradbury

Bradbury remains the only writer whose works I've read and enjoyed more than twice. It's a shame that many people encounter him only as kids; I know when I first read Fahrenheit 451 I was twelve years old, and as far as I was concerned it was a slightly odd story of a guy who set stuff on fire for a living, which ended with a scary robo-dog and a nuclear war. Two readings since then have expanded my appreciation of it. The richness that bears repeated readings in any work is found in the shadings of human experience, and these suffuse his work, like myths which constantly yield new insights in each new age. In fact a character in Fahrenheit 451 points out this very richness as one of the characteristics of true literature. As I was re-reading some of his stories in the past few months I was struck by the following themes.

1) Human beings can't help but bend the world around us into a reflection of ourselves. This is tempting, but ultimately smothering and toxic. This occurs most obviously in "Mars is Heaven" and "Here There Be Tygers", but most of the stories in the Chronicles features some aspect of people hurting or killing themselves through this comforting blanket of self-deception. I'm always struck by how the telepathic Martians who facilitate the deception seem to need to help us do this, and need us to need their deception, though I'm not quite sure what to make of it. (The Martians are surely in part a symbol of Native Americans in our history - something onto which we project our fantasies of self and other - and Bradbury even tells us it was our diseases that wiped them out - but that's not all they are.) The most prominent demonstration of the Martians' need for us can be found in "Mars is Heaven", where Martians kill the Earthmen to prevent them from piercing the veil of the dream they'd all allowed the Martians to erect around them. Still, even after the Earthmen are dead and there is no use to further deception, the Martians appear to mourn them, or at least the comforting illusions the Earthmen brought with them and that was now slipping away. The Martians just can't help but receive and amplify the fantasies and memories of the humans.

2) There is a subtle deathwish theme that runs through Bradbury's stories, expressed most nakedly in "The Blue Bottle", but also present in "The Earthmen".

3) Bradbury was able to avoid the more distasteful mid-20th century American literary themes, the badly-aged ones of decrying commercialism through chains of made-up Brandnames(tm), or baldly Freudian character explorations. As for the former, he does certainly register his frustration at 1950s America's Detoquevillean conformity (Fahrenheit 451, "There Will Come Soft Rains", "The Earthmen"). As for the latter, the excellent "The Veldt" may be the closest he comes (after all, there's a psychiatrist in the story) but many of his stories have characters with a moral and psychological simplicity that, if you pay attention, you'll notice being compared unfavorably to one or more other characters (most of his astronauts, or the country folk in "The Burning Man".)

4) It's difficult writing about his stories because Bradbury doesn't place hard little gems inside his stories - you can't point to the page and say "this is my favorite part" - but rather you slurp it down and enjoy it afterward like a warm meal on a cold day. "Kaleidoscope" and "There Will Come Soft Rains" are especially poignant examples. Interestingly I've never once heard a hard scifi geek (and I proudly count myself one) complain that Bradbury's science is unrealistic. You don't stick around long reading Bradbury if you want to know about Martian biochemistry or how his rockets work. But his writing is most certainly speculative fiction, in that Bradbury is playing with the element of setting so that he can tell a story. It is not science fiction, in that he clearly doesn't care about the real atmosphere of Mars, or if there are jungles on Venus, or anything else other than our imaginings of these things. And neither do we, when we start reading the stories he put in these places. Possibly related to this, Larry Niven once made a comment to the effect that young writers would break their hearts trying to imitate Bradbury, because his stories somehow just happen without any respect for action or structure.