Hollow City Book Review

Hollow City: Book of Karma book 1
by Cheah Kit Sun
Published by Silver Empire (2019)

Hollow City is the second book in the Heroes Unleashed universe I have reviewed. I picked up this copy on my own, so you can’t blame the author for my opinions.

My opinion is: I like this book. Adam Song is a fascinating character, and I’ll delve into why at some length. Adam’s interests and profession also make this book a kind of gun pr0n, which is fun for me since I am also interested in firearms. Finally, I am enjoying the Heroes Unleashed take on superheroes, which doesn’t make them mundane, but at least routine. Not everyone has super powers, but you better take the possibility into account when making any kind of serious plan.

I doubt this review would pass a strict spoiler policy, but I’ll try to keep it under control. Consider yourself warned.

Let’s get into why I find Adam so interesting. Adam Song is a cop. Not just any cop, but a member of the elite Special Tactics and Rescue team. He is a doorkicker, a life-taker, and a heart-breaker. Well, probably not the last, now that I think about it. In so far as Adam has killed an average of one person a year in the course of his duties with the Hollow City Police Department, he definitely qualifies as a life-taker. But he lacks the dark triad traits that make murderers and terrorists the recipients of gushing fan mail in prison. If anyone’s heart is going to be broken, it is probably Adam’s.

Adam also has a secret. He is a Prime, the Heroes Unleashed version of a superhero. His powers are precisely what elevated him to the STAR unit. At the beginning of Hollow City, Adam has been a cop for six years, but a member of STAR for only eighteen months. Which just happens to coincide with the time since he gained his powers. This is because STAR, like Detroit SWAT, specializes in no-knock raids. But in Hollow City, unlike Detroit, the guy on the other side might have superpowers too, so HCPD makes sure to even the odds by having a Prime on the entry team. In that capacity, he goes by his codename Amp, and wears a mask when he is working.

Knock knock.

Knock knock.

Many men in Adam’s position would probably be insufferably arrogant, but Adam strikes me as a quiet, unassuming type. In part, this is a matter of self-protection, since his public persona would be liable to reprisals if his enemies knew where he lived, but also I get the feeling Adam would have acted the same way in public if there were no danger. His primary motivation is not fame or money, but duty.

His dutifulness is the prime hinge of his character, and the source of the two major conflicts Adam experiences in the book. In each case, he feels duty-bound to do two-incompatible things. In a sense, his life [and this book] is a quest to reconcile these moral imperatives.

First, Adam is first-generation Chinese immigrant. His parents brought him to America when he was thirteen, by way of Singapore and Hong Kong. He was old enough to remember his previous life, but also young enough to imprint on his new home. His parents have definite ideas about what constitutes honest employment, and neither his previous job [Marine] nor his current job [Cop], meet that definition. In the straightforward expectation of his culture, duty would require him to follow his parent’s wishes, and work in the family business.

Aaron and I were outsiders. Always had been, always were. In Singapore, primary schoolers made fun of our funny accents and weird speech patterns. In Halo City high schoolers did the same. Everywhere we went, the old rules no longer applied. We had to learn quickly, adapt even faster.

Aaron kept his head down, submerged himself into the local Chinese community, and followed in Father’s footsteps. I almost did the same, until I saw my first USMC recruiting advertisement. In the Marines, I saw a way to become a man. I wanted to prove that I was an American, more American than everyone else.

In America, duty primarily means service to the nation, rather than the family. So when Adam decides that he wants to be a good American, he does the thing that is expected of him as an American. He travels to distant lands, meets interesting people, and kills them.

This decision flows into his second conflict, which is secondary to his character, but primary to the plot. After Adam gets out of the Marines, his duty to the nation fulfilled, he naturally flows down to the next lower level of loyalty, and joins the Halo City Police Department. In America, the basic motto of any police department is To Protect and to Serve. It just happens that Adam is really really good at protecting the public by shooting bad guys in the face.

Which is exactly what he is hired to do once he becomes a Prime. Adam’s history with the HCPD prior to the STAR unit is a bit less explored in the book, but we do know that Adam was the trigger puller in more than one OIS [officer involved shooting] before he joined the high risk STAR unit. It is possible that this was overlooked in the overwhelming need to put an already employed Prime officer into the high risk STAR unit, but I suspect it is more likely that this was seen as a feature and not a bug.

At least until he became a political liability by killing an admittedly dangerous man [a Prime with the ability to shoot anything he pointed at] who was also the son of a gangster in the process of crossing the line between crime lord and pillar of the community. When Adam was in the Marines, this was his job, full stop. You killed anyone who was dangerous, and you did so in a way that maximized your odds of coming home at the end of the day. This is uncomplicated when you can identify your targets as enemy combatants, and potentially explosive then they are American citizens who are innocent until proven guilty.

In this way, Adam serves as the personification of the militarization of the police in the United States. The actual military is famously forbidden from engaging in police activities by the Posse Comitatus Act, but there is a creeping influence which can probably be measured by looking the kind of uniforms police officers wear, as can be seen by the image above of a no-knock raid training exercise. The fear is that the distinction between accused or suspected criminals and open enemies of the state is being erased.

There is also a positive sense, insofar as the militarization of the police has coincided with a professionalization of the police. Cops used to do pretty much any damn thing they felt like. Now, there is at least a standard to which they are expected to adhere. At the best, this means less chance of death for both the cop and the perp, insofar as options are sought that seek to maximize that outcome.

Adam Song occupies the ground precisely where that question comes into play. A question that is interesting to me is where does the line lie for police work as opposed to war? When is it acceptable to kill a man who might be a danger to public order? Or who is definitely dangerous, but not currently in the act of shooting his victims? For a soldier, that question is relatively simple. You act with maximum force at the first opportunity. For a police officer, the answer is always NO, you cannot kill except when your life or the life of another is directly at risk, or at least that is the moral and legal presumption in our society. What makes this hard is that a lot of former soldiers eventually find themselves in service as cops. Men just like Adam Song.

For Adam Song, what makes a strait-laced cop go rogue is the feeling of betrayal when your superiors throw you to the wolves for doing precisely what they hired you to do. Adam’s job, as Amp, the HCPD Prime, is to serve the warrants on dangerous Primes that would otherwise simply kill all of the arresting officers and then disappear.

This gets even more complicated when your job is to arrest the bad guys that are widely known to be bad, but who of course enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. When you mix in Halo City’s high-diversity, low-trust environment, along with a dash of corruption, you get a lot of guys like Adam, who start to feel that the military way has its attractions. Adam clearly loves his city, but he also feels like there are good guys, and bad guys, and he isn’t particularly interested in watching the bad guys take advantage of a system that was designed for a high-trust environment.

Since I happened to read Hollow City at about the same time I read Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series, I was struck by the differing trajectories the main characters in these books take. Jack Morgan starts as an outlaw, and over the course of the series eventually is reconciled to polite society. Adam Song starts out as a respected member of the community, and ends up becoming exactly what his detractors call him: a rogue cop, a vigilante, and a criminal defendant.

However, in many respects, what each of them do isn’t actually that different. Jack mostly tries to avoid killing, but his symbiont Draycos, the K’da warrior-poet who possesses the rights of judge, jury, and executioner in one person, kills a man in the first book because Draycos seems him commit a murder. This can only loosely be called defense of another, since the man was threatening Jack, but the book makes it clear that Draycos is like a monster of legend, as much greater in combat power than a human as a powerful Prime like Amp is. Also, Jack’s AI guardian, Uncle Virge, does lots of killing, it is just the kind where he shoots down other ships to protect Jack.

Once I realized that, my whole opinion of the weight of the Dragonback series started to shift. There are some real similarities, but also some real differences with Adam Song’s Halo City. Jack Morgan’s universe is a lot further down the path of societal dissolution that Halo City is only starting to tread. Is Adam’s vigilantism worth it if it prevents open slavery and corporations hiring mercenaries to fight literal turf battles over their commercial interests?

Even if we temporarily ignore the question of how probable the odds of success are for Adam’s attempt to stave off further dissolution, this is a worthy question. In the moral and legal framework of the United States, which is clearly the setting of Halo City, which I take to be an analogue of Los Angeles, Adam is pretty clearly beyond the pale. However, the reason I bring in Zahn’s more speculative universe here is that other arrangements that still seem just are imaginable.

Adam is pretty clearly doing what he finds to be his duty, in the circumstances he finds himself. We might judge that he has nonetheless crossed a line that should not be crossed, even if the results are otherwise just. That tension is exactly what makes this book fascinating. I don’t know what Cheah has in mind for Adam after this, but I would like to find out.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books in the Heroes Unleashed series

by Morgon Newquist

Heroes Fall: Serenity City book 1

Dragon and Thief Book Review

Dragon and Thief: Dragonback book 1
by Timothy Zahn
231 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018)

The Dragonback series is a what they now call a YA [Young Adult] series, but I still like the older designation of a juvenile novel, since I grew up with it, and also because a lot of what is branded as YA seems like utter crap. Here is what Jerry Pournelle had to say in 2011 about juveniles:

I followed Robert Heinlein’s rules on ‘juveniles’ when I wrote it: no sex scenes, and as Robert used to say, a juvenile has young protagonists and you can put in more science and explanations of what’s going on in juvenile works; which is to say it’s a good story, and has always appealed to adults as well as to the 10 – 15 year olds it was sort of written for.

I like re-posting Jerry’s re-iteration of Heinlein’s definition because I find that my appreciation for a well-done juvenile novel only grows with time. I am of course influenced by having small children that I want to share stories with, but I also just like this kind of story, and I have for a long time. Something that is truly only fit for children cannot really be a juvenile novel in this sense, because the author needs to craft something as interesting to adults as to teenagers. A good juvenile is also mildly didactic, which fits well in the general hard sci fi mold. In this case, Zahn’s juvenile series is less about some useful aspect of science than about a young man learning what it means to be a good man after growing up as the orphan apprentice of a con man and a thief.

The hook which sets this series in motion is our young protagonist, Jack Morgan, stumbling across the wreckage of an unfamiliar starship. Within, he finds a lone survivor, desperate and near death. That survivor is dying precisely because he is alone. The K’Da are interdimensional symbionts. Draycos can push himself into three-dimensional space for brief periods, but in order to rest he must allow himself to relax by becoming two-dimensional on the surface of a compatible host. Unfortunately, his host, and all the other crew of his ship, were killed either in battle or in the subsequent crash.

Lacking recourse, Draycos gambles his life upon the possibility that Jack may provide the sanctuary he needs. Gathering his failing strength, he jumps! Zahn will likely have a lot of fun working out the implications of what this means over the next five novels in this series, but for now, Jack Morgan has gained an impressive tattoo/traveling companion with fierce claws and a strong sense of justice.

After this unlikely meeting, Jack and Draycos find that their lives are entwined in more ways than either initially suspects. Jack, despite [or because of?] his past life of crime, is hiding on this desolate planet because he has been unjustly accused of a crime. Draycos and his former crewmates were there seeking a new home, refugees of the losing side of an interstellar war. Somehow, this all hangs together, and part of the fun is finding out how and why.

Jack and Draycos immediately find themselves in each other’s debt, for Jack saves Draycos from dimensional dissolution, and Draycos returns the favor by saving Jack from the mercenary soldier prowling about the crashed ship looking for survivors, or witnesses. Fear and necessity bind them together initially, but the rest of the book, and presumably the following books in the series, are about Jack and Draycos learning about one another while trying to unravel the mystery in which they find themselves entangled.

The structure of Dragon and Thief is primarily a caper, as Jack uses his apprenticeship in crime to good advantage. This makes the novel rather fun, as we get to see Jack and Draycos bluff and scam their way through various adventures. However, Draycos himself makes for an interesting contrast, because his rather grand sense of honor is a continual foil for Jack’s primarily self-serving survival skills.

Jack is simultaneously fascinated and annoyed by Draycos, who like a knight of old, is fierce in battle, but he will not press an unfair advantage or abandon a fallen enemy in distress. Draycos, for his part, is occasionally appalled by Jack’s instincts, but mostly sees their fortuitous meeting as an opportunity to set Jack back on the straight and narrow in recompense for saving his life.

The interplay between them, mediated by the ship’s AI which houses the memory of the con man who raised Jack, is what raises this from an entertaining caper novel to a disquisition in very very applied ethics. The stakes in the story are dramatically high, but the basic questions are more fundamental: do you help someone because you expect recompense, or simply because it is the right thing to do? Do you defend yourself with maximum ruthlessness and force, because your enemies will not deign to extend you the same consideration, or do you seek the minimum of force which will allow you some measure of safety? Who can you really trust? And what hidden agendas lie behind offers of help and good intentions?

Since this is a juvenile novel, and not a work of historical fiction or political intrigue, these questions receive relatively straight forward answers. Which is in my opinion appropriate for the intended audience. At some point, harder questions and harder answers need to be proposed and given, but the result will be better built upon a foundation like this. It is far too easy to drift into nihilism otherwise.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it to fans of adventure fiction and juvenile novels in the Heinlein mold. You can pick the first three of six volumes up on Amazon right now for $2.99 USD, which is a great deal. I’ve got reviews coming of volumes two and three, so don’t fret.

My other book reviews

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review


Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Blackcollar series:
The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Serenity City: Heroes Fall Book Review

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles  Artist:  Andy Duggan

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles

Artist: Andy Duggan

Heroes Fall: A Heroes Unleashed Novel
by Morgon Newquist
Published by Silver Empire (2018)

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout. Thanks to the author, Morgon Newquist, for reaching out on Twitter. I’m always happy to review new stuff.

As soon as I finished the first chapter, I was hooked. If this chapter didn’t start life as a short story, I think it could easily have stood alone, and been a damn fine piece of work. Each character comes to life in a few short pages, and the stage is set for everything that follows from the unexplained tragedy of the Rampage. I wept a little bit when I read it the first time, and then I wept again when I read it again at the end, now knowing why.

The question this book asks is: what is the greatest weakness of a superhero?

Achilles’ Heel  No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles’ Heel

No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

One might guess from the eponymous Achilles, the disgraced hero who nearly destroyed the city he was supposed to protect, that each and every superhero has their characteristic weakness, a secret that can be used to defeat them. While this is true, it isn’t as interesting as the realization that heroes [and villains] share our fallen human nature, no matter their powers, and are just as prone to vanity, foolishness, and moral turpitude.

A man who cannot control his passions is forever weak, no matter how much he can lift.

This sets the stage for Newquist’s world-building, which is about the kind of society that would emerge when powers can get you fame, influence, or money, but no one has been granted unusual wisdom or exceptionally good judgment beyond human ken.

In Serenity City, being a superhero is much like being an Instagram personality: a pretty facade hiding a winner-take-all mad dash for endorsements where appearance rules all. Into this cutthroat and remorseless world steps Victoria Westerdale, our young heroine and POV character. She is young, but not young enough not to be disillusioned by the phoniness and media-whoring of the hero business.

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “ Boyfriends of Serenity City ” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.  Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “Boyfriends of Serenity City” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.

Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

As the story progresses, we learn just how deeply Victoria was wounded by that world, and why she fled from her chance at fame and fortune for a walk up flat in the bad part of town and the night shift at a seedy convenience store. Nearly twenty years after Achilles fought his former friend and colleague Pendragon, devastating the city, Victoria finds herself drawn into all of the unanswered questions that lingered from that terrible day. Her inability to let this mystery go is in part because the answers give her the ability to finally stop running away from her own past.

Heroes Fall is the first novel in a shared universe, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The other four authors are J.D. Cowan, Kai Wai Cheah, Jon Mollison, and Richard Watts. I’ve previously reviewed a short story by Kai Wai Cheah, so I’m likely to give at least the initial five novels a read. Given how much I enjoyed Heroes Fall, I am looking forward to Newquist’s sequels as well.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-10-03: Religious Studies; Humans versus Homo Sapiens

St. Thomas Aquinas – An altarpiece in  Ascoli Piceno , Italy, by  Carlo Crivelli  (15th century)  By Carlo Crivelli - Via The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149804

St. Thomas Aquinas – An altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)

By Carlo Crivelli - Via The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149804

This is perhaps the most profound thing John J. Reilly ever said:

Human, homo sapiens, and person are not just different things, but different kinds of things. A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences, then you don't believe in humans; maybe that's Peter Singer's problem); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. (As for the converse, C.S. Lewis occasionally toyed with the possibility that not every homo sapiens need be human; so have I, though I'd rather not pursue the matter.) As for "person," I think this kind of argument conflates the primary meaning of "person," which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," with the notion of "person" as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

I ponder this all the time, and the critical distinction he makes here just gets better with age. Clear terms enable clear thinking. 

Religious Studies; Humans versus Homo Sapiens


Your degree in Religious Studies is not useless, if we consider the Jobs for the Boys implicit in this assessment by that Spengler at Asia Times:

Theological illiteracy is epidemic in the neo-conservative camp. The American Enterprise Institute's Iran expert, former US Central Intelligence Agency officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, thinks that "Islam is akin to biblical Judaism in accentuating the unnuanced, transcendent awe of God". Gerecht is ge-wrong. Worst of all is Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, who insists that Islam takes even a stricter approach to idolatry than Judaism....These are the blunders of secular intellectuals who approach religion from the outside. Because the neo-conservatives propose to democratize the Middle East, they also must insist that Islam can be twisted into the pretzel that they prefer.

In fact, the foreign policy establishment was trying to get up to speed on religious issues even before 911. This effort requires academic expertise, however, and "Religious Studies" is too often an exercise in stultifying multiculturalism; or worse, a scarcely disguised form of Tradition. Many of the people who are already in the religion consultancy business are part of the problem: don't even ask what Spengler thinks of Juan Cole.

One of Mark Steyn's suggestions for combatting the ideological dimension of the jihad (as I note in this excessively long review of America Alone) is the creation of a "civil corps" to refute Islamist ideas and propose alternatives. Might I suggest that the only reality such a measure could have would be something like Christians praying for Muslims during Ramadan:

DALLAS, September 29 (UPI) — A global coalition of evangelical Christians is urging prayer for Muslims during their holy month of Ramadan.

But the idea has met some resistance from Muslims — and even some Christians, Associated Baptist Press reported Friday.

I am not altogether happy with the idea of evangelization as a national security strategy, but it could come to that.

* * *

Speaking of religion and politics, and particularly with regard to the Democratic Party's religion deficit, Robert P. George raises these objections at First Things:

Over at the Mirror of Justice website, law professor Eduardo Peñalver keeps reasserting his arguments for why Catholics and other pro-lifers can and should support Democrats—even those who uphold abortion. But Professor Peñalver’s arguments do not improve with age or repetition....But let us get to the heart of the matter in dispute. Either Eduardo Peñalver believes that human embryos are human beings or he does not....the answer to [that] it is clear. The evidence, attested to unanimously by the major embryological texts used in contemporary anatomy and medicine, is overwhelming. From the zygote stage forward there is a complete, distinct, individual member of the species Homo sapiens ...

[I]s dignity something we possess only by virtue of our acquisition or realization of certain qualities (immediately exercisable capacities) that human beings in certain stages and conditions possess (or exhibit) and others do not, and that some possess in greater measure than others, e.g., self-awareness, consciousness, rationality? If the latter, then not all human beings are “persons” with rights....

I and many others have advanced philosophical arguments against the idea that some human beings are “nonpersons.” I will not repeat the arguments here. I will say only that among the weakest arguments for denying that embryonic human beings are persons is the one that seems to have impressed Professor Peñalver: namely, the argument that purports to infer from the high rate of natural embryo loss (including failure to implant) that human embryos lack the dignity and rights of human beings at later developmental stages. No one knows what the rate actually is, in part because what is lost in some cases is, due to failures of fertilization, not actually an embryo. But the rate doesn’t matter. For nothing follows from natural death rates about the moral status of the human individuals who die.

I'm prolife, too, but I think George's arguments are glitchy. Human, homo sapiens, and person are not just different things, but different kinds of things. A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences, then you don't believe in humans; maybe that's Peter Singer's problem); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. (As for the converse, C.S. Lewis occasionally toyed with the possibility that not every homo sapiens need be human; so have I, though I'd rather not pursue the matter.) As for "person," I think this kind of argument conflates the primary meaning of "person," which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," with the notion of "person" as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

And actually, the conjecture that most concepti might be duds does bear on the matter. If, say, 75% of humans are organisms of a dozen cells that live for just a few days, that fact might not affect their dignity, but it does affect the dignity of the small minority of humans who survive to become adults. Do we really want to define humanness is such a way that intelligence, percipience, or compassion become irrelevant? Then there is also this: if those certainly human concepti could be rescued, won't we be morally obligated to try?

Let me suggest that a human is a little like a quantum particle that strikes a target behind more than one aperture: you can tell where it has been only after it has arrived. Certainly every adult alive today was once a conceptus, and then an embryo, and so on: every stage of this development shared the same essence, and so had the same dignity. That's quite different from saying that every conceptus is a human being; the most we can say is that every conceptus might be. That is quite enough reason not to interfere with it.

A final point on this matter: the human-life question will turn out to be epiphenomenal to the end of the abortion era. Contraception, abortion, and homosexuality were all features of a human-rights package that was designed, at least in part, to lower the birthrate. The intellectual and cultural climate on this issue is changing very rapidly. The interesting thing is that, whereas the courts that created these rights tended to avoid the suggestion that they were really implementing a population-control program, the courts now seem open to explicitly pro-natalist arguments.

You need an argument for your appellate brief that does not smack of theology or natural law? Here you have it.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Traveler's Gate Chronicles Book Review

The Traveler's Gate Chronicles
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (June 8, 2015)
394 pages

I love short story collections. I love them because you can really get to the meat of a story without the overhead of a novel. I like novels, I read a lot of them, but I find many of my favorite authors by means of short stories. Take Tim Powers for example. Jimmy Akin published Powers' short story "Through and Through" in 2006, and I was immediately hooked. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the late Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War! series too, I own all ten volumes of it. I've explored the works of many of the authors who contributed to those collections, and I am better read for it.

Where the short story format shines is in letting us traverse the depth and breath of Simon's world, without needing to build characters, construct narratives, or even introduce the grand concept. While I think this book could serve as an excellent introduction to Simon's world, the Unnamed World, it served even better as a digestif.

For example, we get to see the Territories outside of the point of view of Simon's grand tale of vengeance and awakening. I didn't really appreciate that people lived and worked in the Territories! Even for people who were not themselves Travelers, the Territories could be mundane [you can get used to anything]. 

On the other hand, we also get the backstory of several important characters, including Valin himself. Seeing Valin as a mere man, before Valinhall existed, explained so much. Valinhall was aptly named.

In this case, I didn't read The Traveler's Gate Chronicles until after I had finished the rest of the Traveler's Gate trilogy, but this themed collection set in each of the nine Territories was written so beautifully, and answered so many questions I didn't know I had, that I almost wish I had read it first. Wight deftly wove in little bits that I hardly remembered from the novels into an exploration of the world he created for Simon, son of Kalman.

Something I hadn't appreciated about Simon's world until I read Chronicles is the way color tells you hidden details about characters. I was reminded of an article I read years ago, sent by my friend Tom, about the visual storytelling of Pacific Rim. Visual storytelling in movies is simply how things are done. del Toro, in particular, is obsessed with color. But to do this in a book.


In Wight's world, each Territory, and its corresponding virtue, is color-coded. Violet is the color of honesty and openness. Orange is the color of loyalty, red the color of dominance and rule, blue of mercy. What truly surprised me, and this colors my review of City of Light, is that those virtues are often not precisely what you, or even the Travelers of a Territory, might think. The color that matches the prime virtue of a Territory is often different than the dominant hue you see there, or in its Travelers' habitual dress and presentation. 

However, this is not simply a matter of balancing yin and yang, counteracting dominance with self-sacrifice, but the more active discernment of the golden mean. A self-consciously self-sacrificing leader is often the most oppressive one of all.

My other book reviews

City of Light Book Review

City of Light
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (April 9, 2014)
394 pages

In City of Light, Will Wight finishes what he started. I admire his focus, there are clearly more stories in this world that can be told. But Simon has completed the hero's journey, and the cycle is now complete. Which also means that Simon has become a man, and the nature of the problems he faces will be different in the future. Thus, Wight has ended the story at the place where the story should be ended. And for that, I salute him.

We who about to die salute you!

We who about to die salute you!

We also see a great many pieces fall into place [though not all!], explaining why Elysia and Ragnarus are warring with one another, and why the Incarnations were trapped within the bloody trees of Ragnarus. And why the rebel city of Enosh was trying to free them. 

In the end, it turns out that many of the fateful decisions made had some justice behind them. But justice is not the problem. Everyone has had more justice than they can handle. What this world needs is redemption and forgiveness.

Surprisingly, in a world gone mad with power and thirst for vengeance, there is redemption to be had. In the end, it comes down to strength of character. By strength of character, what I really mean is virtue, in the Aristotelian-Thomist sense of what you habitually do. With a few surprises thrown in, for unusual acts of will. I couldn't ask for a better ending to an already fine series. Highly recommended.

Spoilers below.

My policy in most book reviews is to avoid spoilers if possible. My definition of a spoiler is arbitrary and whimsical, so caveat lector. I think this is a reasonable thing to do, although sometimes it means I can't discuss the things in a book I find most interesting.

In this case, the spoiler is about the nature of Incarnations, and the specific fate of Indirial, after he incarnates. As Wight's artfully chosen name indicates, an Incarnation is their Territory in the flesh. The wild aggressiveness of Endross. The fiery justice of Naraka. The haughty dominion of Ragnarus. We also learn that Incarnations spin out of control when outside of their Territories, but that Incarnations inside their Territories are much more like the humans they used to be.

But, even on the outside, who you used to be matters. When Valin is the Valinhall Incarnation, he fights everyone he sees on the way to kill the King of Damasca. His actions embody the nature of Valinhall, except that he has lost all of his inhibitions about those weaker than himself. Indirial, on the other hand, is quite different. His power and deadliness is the same, but the first thing Indirial does as an Incarnation, in fact the reason he Incarnates, is save his wife and daughter even though it means losing a fight. Indirial, as Incarnation, still thinks the same thoughts as Valin as Incarnation, but his habits push him to do things slightly differently. 

The Indirial who saved Simon because he couldn't bear to see a child die, saves his daughter at the cost of losing a fight to the Ragnarus Incarnation. Valin would have never done that. Thus we see that while the urges of Incarnations are powerful, they do not completely consume the man or woman within.

The Crimson Vault Book Review

The Crimson Vault
by Will Wight
Hidden Gnome Publishing (August 27, 2013)
386 pages

The Crimson Vault starts with the same scene that initiates Simon's hero's journey in House of Blades, from the point of view of one of the other participants. If anything, this initial tragedy is even more gripping, now that we know something of who Simon is. Not only that, but we now get to see something of the character of Indirial, the Valinhall Traveler who chose to save Simon's life on that rainy day.

I was moved by the very human reason that spurred Indirial to intervene: Indirial was a father, and he didn't want to see a child die if he could help it. I did not expect this, in House of Blades, Indirial was mostly a looming figure, painted in shades of black [no, really, he always wears black]. With this one detail, Wight started to flesh him out into a real character. There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler's Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men's souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do.

Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants.

When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of injustice in the world, some of it of venerable antiquity, which provides lots of opportunities for further evil to be done in the name of vengeance. 

Simon's world doesn't really lack for justice. There is a whole Territory devoted to it in fact. Unfortunately, the unflinching attitude of Narakan Travelers illustrates what happens when any one good is pursued without regard for the others, swollen to madness in isolation. Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself. Every Territory is isolated from the others.

What it all calls for is something like we get in the long-lost tenth Territory, Elysium, a harmonious whole of the other nine Territories and their corresponding virtues. In practice, it seems not to work out so well. I am not surprised.

The reason for this is that courage is not the mid-point or balance between cowardice and rashness. Rather, it is the golden mean, or the third way, or the synthesis of the other two. All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11.


This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen. What will put them in order is not some kind of blend of everything turned up as far as it goes, which is Elysium, but phronesis [φρόνησῐς], the art of practical wisdom. Interestingly, Aristotle associated this virtue in particular with politics, and we see that the one Territory that has tried to put some kind of order to the world is Ragnarus, the territory of power, domination, and rule.

Of course, they screw it up too, because Ragnarus is just domination turned up to 11. The ruling dynasty even practices a kind of post-natal embryo selection like the Ottomans did on their heirs to find the best successor. But at least in principle, this is where harmony could come from. But in order to do that, the Ragnarus dynasty would have to learn to let the other things in the world be what they are.

My other book reviews

House of Blades: Traveler's Gate Book 1 Review

Other books by Will Wight

Unsouled: Cradle Book 1 Review

Soulsmith: Cradle Book 2 Review

Blackflame: Cradle Book 3 Review

Skysworn: Cradle Book 4 Review

Soulminder Book Review

The dome of the Florence Baptistry, showing the hierarchy of angels  By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2267968

The dome of the Florence Baptistry, showing the hierarchy of angels

By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2267968

by Timothy Zahn
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (September 23, 2014)
334 pages

For Dr. Adrian Sommer, a split second of driving while distracted leads to tragedy—and obsession. His family destroyed, he devotes his entire being to developing Soulminder, a technology that might have saved his son as he wavered on the edge of death. Sommers’s vision is to capture a dying person’s life essence and hold it safely in stasis while physicians heal the body from injury or disease. Years of experimentation finally end in success—but those who recognize Soulminder’s possibilities almost immediately corrupt its original concept to pursue dangerous new frontiers: body-swapping, obstruction of justice, extortion, and perhaps even immortality.

Soulminder is a little different that the other books of Timothy Zahn that I have read. I picked it up in late December, and I started reading it immediately, but it didn't hook me. I turned to other things, then I came back to Soulminder in March. The more I read, the better it got. This book is not a page turner, but rather a slow burner.

Part of the reason for that is the structure. This work was expanded from a serialization in Analog magazine, with three of the chapters adapted from that previous publication. Accordingly, this isn't a traditional novel, with a continuous flow, but rather is more like a collection of novellas with common characters and a common theme, sometimes with separations of many years in between the events each chapter.

Another reason why this book is different is that it is a different kind of science fiction. For a long time, my working definition of hard sci-fi has been: the method of good "hard" science fiction leaves the reader usefully instructed in certain principles of physics or biology after reading a story that otherwise closely resembles a Western. Many of the best works in the field use this formula, but it isn't the only one that works. 

Isaac Asimov had a three-part typology that explains some other ways:

In 1953, Isaac Asimov published an article titled "Social Science Fiction" in Modern Science Fiction. In that article, he stated that every science fiction plot ultimately falls into one of three categories: Gadget, Adventure, or Social.
Gadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and/or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.
Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention's presence helps or hinders it.
Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people's daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention influences the plot rather than causing it or being the goal.

Soulminder is social science fiction in Asimov's model. There isn't any attempt to describe the scientific principles of Soulminder for the very simple reason that there aren't any. This is a technology that doesn't exist in our world, and we don't have anything that even vaguely approaches it. Thus, we can't learn about soul transfer like we learn about linguistics in The Way of the Pilgrim, or about orbital mechanics and extra-planetary habitats in The Martian. What we can learn about is what our world might be like if a technology like this existed.

The depth at which Zahn explores this question impressed me more and more as I read through Soulminder. My first hint that Zahn was up to something really interesting came in chapter two. Dr. Adrian Sommer, co-inventor of Soulminder, is on a televised panel with several religious media figures to debate the merits of his technology. Since I have a background in moral theology and moral philosophy, I found the stances each expert took to be plausibly within the range of acceptable opinion in their respective faiths, but mostly I found the whole exchange a little boring, since it was mostly a rehash of existing controversies in our world. However, it turns out the debate was really just a red herring for the really interesting question that comes up while Dr. Sommer is sitting in the green room during a commercial break: one of his clients has been caught in the soul trap after suffering an entirely expected third heart attack, but he also has an organ donor card and the hospital is about to start harvesting his organs, since he is legally dead.

On the one had, Dr. Sommer's client probably deserves a chance to be put back into his body once his infarcted heart has been dealt with. On the other hand, at least four people will benefit from the technically dead client's organs. On the gripping hand, it isn't at all clear that the client's heir/protege has pure motives when he insists that the legal precedents around organ donation be followed. This is very, very applied ethics.

And Dr. Sommer has a decision to make. He very much wants to do the right thing, even when he frequently doesn't know what that is. So he makes his decision, and he goes on, through the rest of the book, doing his best to make sure the moral monsters of the world can't take advantage of the power over life and death that he has created.

Earlier in chapter two, Dr. Sommer tries to enlist the help of the Reverend Tommy Lee Harper, a fiery televangelist who is staunchly opposed to Soulminder and all its works. Dr. Sommer suspects that Harper is a man of integrity, and Sommer is right, Harper has so much integrity that he won't help Sommer defend a technology Harper thinks is fundamentally wicked, and contrary to God's plan, no matter what the earthly stakes are. 

Sommer closed his eyes briefly. “It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons,” he quoted quietly, “but out of bad archangels.” “You and C.S. Lewis make my point for me,” Harper nodded. “Soulminder is an archangel, Doctor, so far as earthly creations go. I’m very much afraid that it’ll be beyond your ability to keep it from becoming a demon.”
For a long minute Harper gazed past Sommer, at the lights of the city stretching to the horizon. Then, slowly, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Dr. Sommer,” he said, “but I can’t help you.” The knot in Sommer’s stomach retightened. “Why not?” he asked, fighting to keep his tone polite. “You see the evil in what Marsh is doing—” “But you ask me to support one evil to keep another from happening,” Harper interrupted him. “I can’t do that.”

The ethical dilemma at the hospital bed, and Zahn's portrayal of Rev. Harper, a man who would simply have been an obscurantist villain in many a book, convinced me that Zahn had written something truly compelling, a moral thriller. 

Once I got into it, this book just kept getting better and better. The schemes, grift, and oppression that come into being just because Soulminder exists are breathtaking. Much of it is even plausibly high-minded. The professional witness program, spearheaded in my own great state of Arizona, offers up the bodies of volunteers to the souls of murder victims so that they can testify at their own trials. Justice will be done. However, it is never that simple, especially since only souls that had been rich enough in life to pay Soulminder's fees can be captured and returned, and professional witnesses tend to be the same kind of people who volunteer for drug safety trials. And that is the kind of program the United States governments run. There are plenty of less savory places in the world, and they have Soulminder facilities too. Harper's prediction has a lot going for it.

While I appreciate the moral realism with which Zahn approaches the likely consequences of soul transfer technology, I was also pleasantly surprised by some subtle philosophical points that seemed rather Thomist. For example, the body matters as much as the soul. If you find yourself in someone else's body, you can inherit their habits, emotions, and memories as well. Depending on who that person was, you may find yourself with some unwelcome side effects, like the crime lord who stole the body of a pious young Catholic who happened to share a resemblance, and then discovered that he unexpectedly felt guilty!

If you can persevere through an opening that is admittedly a bit slow [the first chapter was originally written in 1988 or 1989], you will find a work of surprising depth. Not exactly space opera, but worth your time.

My other book reviews

By Timothy Zahn

Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review

Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7
by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
Kindle Edition, 374 pages
Published February 23th 2018 by Galaxy's Edge

Turning Point is an ugly book. It is ugly, because war is ugly. And this is warre, war to the knife. Firebombs, orbital strikes, death and destruction.

The war my grandfathers waged  By English: Ishikawa Kōyō - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681456

The war my grandfathers waged

By English: Ishikawa Kōyō - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3681456

In theory, when statesmanship and diplomacy and the just use of force have been applied prudently, none of this is necessary. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case. And then, when good men find their back against the wall, they will do things that are more horrible than even they could have imagined they would do, if you had asked them before the deed was done.

This is also a book about divided loyalties. In the self-image of the Legion, they are loyal servants of the Republic. In practice, the oligarchs of the Republic use them and hate them, and the Legion returns that hate in spades. The Legion is already divided against itself, and against its masters, but truly, the split runs deeper than that. 

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every leeje, with the result that brother will turn upon brother, and the galaxy will burn. There are hints that something far worse than venial and self-serving politicians, even worse than Goth Sullus, tyrant holdfast, is lurking in the darkness. Yet, I still have hope, hope that the worst can yet be avoided, even if we don't quite know what that could be.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Turning Point (Galaxy's Edge Book 7)
By Jason Anspach, Nick Cole

Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review


My heart is broken. Broken for the good man Goth Sullus once was. Back when I wrote up Galactic Outlaws, I left a long comment on Jon Mollison's response to me saying that I thought Sullus was once a man of honor too. It turns out that was true. And now I know exactly what pushed him over the edge of the galaxy.

I don't know that I would have done any better, in his place. He endured more than any man should, and accomplished more than most. He genuinely wanted to protect others. Thus his fall, when it comes, is all the worse.

Going back to Socrates, there is a principle of moral philosophy that no man really seeks evil: we all seek what we think is good. It is through our brokenness and weakness that evil comes about, because we aren't really up to the task of seeing what is good and what is not. This Greek idea was fused with a Hebrew one, that our ability to seek good is actively thwarted by things that really do want evil.

In the Aristotelian tradition, there is also a principle that only something truly good can really become evil in a meaningful way. This is because of the identity of being and goodness: having a greater capacity, a greater power, is a good thing in and of itself, a kind of perfection. A man who lacks intelligence and self-control lacks the capacity to be as dangerous as someone bright and disciplined. 

The Fall of the Rebel Angels  By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - www.fine-arts-museum.be : Info, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34089605

The Fall of the Rebel Angels

By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - www.fine-arts-museum.be : Info, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34089605

Thus the angels, when they rebelled, were far more dangerous than men, because they had greater perfections. Thus too, Goth Sullus, the man, longer of life, more wise and powerful than the average man, is something far worse than the average man when he loses his humanity.

Except that he doesn't really lose it. He gives it away. Why he chooses to do that is a great and mythic story. I think I can almost understand why some people see Sullus as a tragic hero. After a very long lifetime of trying to protect people from themselves, at the final hour when the demons from outside the galaxy are about to sweep in and conquer when the races of galaxy are squabbling amongst themselves, he gives up everything in order to gain the power to protect those who in many ways don't deserve his sacrifice.

Cain slaying Abel  By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18279148

Cain slaying Abel

By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18279148

And yet, there is something about his sacrifice that seems, unworthy. If pressed on why I think so, it is a lot of little things. Much like Cain, after his sacrifice, Sullus kills his brother. He is indifferent to the fate of little girls, especially little girls he arguably owes a debt to. His deepest well-springs of motivation seem to be fear and revenge. It was Nietzsche, perhaps in light of the tradition I cited above, who said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

There is a kind of man for whom the abyss holds no fascinations. The kind of man whose life is duty, who is an immovable rock. The man who became Goth Sullus, is not that man. When good, his archetype is Merlin, the powerful wizard who manipulates behind the scenes. When bad, his archetype is Faust, the man who gambles for power and knowledge.

Turning from myth to history, the first emperor, the man who unites all under heaven, can either be an inspiration, or a tyrant, hated by all who follow, even when they follow in his footsteps.

Not Tyrus Rechs, but almost as implacable

Not Tyrus Rechs, but almost as implacable

In Imperator, we get much of the backstory of the Galactic Republic. The Savage Wars, so frequently referenced in the earlier books, were far more horrible than I had imagined. Savage AF. The things that Rechs and Sullus saw are nigh unimaginable, but since I wasted my youth with videogames, I can come pretty close. 

We don't need eyes to see where we are going.

We don't need eyes to see where we are going.

The Savage Wars, and the depraved millenarian lighthugger societies that spawned them, are a reminder that no matter how bad you think things are, there is almost always a way for it to be far, far worse.

One lighthugger had tried to develop the powers of the mind by living in total darkness and going long periods without sleep. When the UNS found the ship and cracked the hull, the people they found within referred to themselves as demons. They said the humans who had once occupied their bodies were all gone now. They said they, the demons, had come in from the outer dark. Their minds were shattered. They were stark raving mad.

They were mad, right? Right?

In addition to the origins of the Galactic Republic, and the fate of the long-lost and fabled Earth, we get some tantalizing hints of what made Tyrus Rechs who he was. We see Rechs through the eyes of the man who will eventually kill him, because of a broken promise. That betrayal, the inevitable consequence of a temptation that was not resisted, was perhaps fated.

We'll have to wait for his standalone novel to truly see Tyrus Rechs for who he was. In the meanwhile, we can now see Goth Sullus for what he was, and what he has become.

My other book reviews

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review

Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review

Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review

Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review

Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review

Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review

Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review

Imperator (Galaxy's Edge)
By Nick Cole, Jason Anspach

The Long View: The New Absolutes

This twenty-year old essay is topical this week, with the defenestration of James Damore from Google. I've said several times that the cultural Left won the culture war in the United States, at least insofar as they hold more power to impose their ideas than the Right at present. Yet it seems that the culture war isn't over.

The New Absolutes
by William D. Watkins
Bethany House Publishers, 1996
$19.99, 319 pages
ISBN 1-55661-721-6


The Bohemian Mandates


Garrison Keillor once characterized the United States as a nation founded by religious zealots who wanted to practice religious intolerance to a degree forbidden by the laws of England. While this is perhaps a churlish formulation of the matter, nevertheless it is the case that one of the defining features of American culture has always been a tendency to moralize issues and then to impose the morals by social coercion and, ideally, by statute. Colonial tax resistance, Abolitionism (of slavery), Prohibitionism (of liquor), anticommunism, feminism, the anti-smoking campaign: the roll-call of movements and causes designed to make people be good would make a serviceable backbone for any general narrative of American history.

On the whole, this is not a bad feature for a country's culture to have. Though it has produced undesirable results occasionally (such as the Civil War), it has also added a dynamic quality of self-searching and radical reform to American history that has usually redounded to the nation's benefit. "Usually" is the key word here, since the ancient puritan reflexes have now and again been exercised in the service of causes that would have appalled the Puritans themselves. This is the situation in many areas of national life today, when causes like homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia are being promoted by the leaders of key institutions with all the fervor and moral certainty of John Brown and Carrie Nation.

This list of non-negotiable ethical propositions that began to be institutionalized in the 1970s is what William Watkins (who among other things is a member of the Advisory Board of "Culture Wars") calls "The New Absolutes." By his count there are ten of them, which he contrasts with ten traditional "absolutes" of forty years ago. The contrast of the old with the new is not necessarily that of the good with the bad. Before the civil rights movement, for instance, typical American folkways had it that "All white people are created equal and should be treated with equal dignity and respect," a position on which later decades have brought improvement, despite the moralization of affirmative action programs and the new dogma that all white people have been historically privileged. Most of the new absolutes, however, such as the principles that "religion is the bane of public life" or that a "family is any grouping of two or more people," are experienced by the vast majority of the population as alien and oppressive, without any redeeming characteristics.

A lot of this book is a critique of cultural relativism. Watkins touches briefly on the logical problems of relativism, but is most concerned with the indubitable fact that, at least as it finds lodgment in law and academic curricula, relativism is a bit of a hoax. There is probably a great deal of honest stupidity among the professoriate when it comes to cultural anthropology. (The bold-faced liars are more likely to be found among the professional philosophers.) They really do think that the accounts of Central American Indians devised by French Marxists are about Central America, and they really do think that "Coming of Age in Samoa" is about Samoa. Though matters are no doubt different among working anthropologists, the popular academic use of anthropology elides the fact that the discipline is itself as Western as doilies on tea trays, and was invented by people looking for a barbarian foil to use in their critique of civilization.

Relativists rarely if ever question traditional moral and intellectual structures for the disinterested purpose of seeing where the inquiry leads. Anyone who has ever been in an institution whose leadership started talking about diversity and "hearing other voices" knows well enough that relativism is normally just a rhetorical device for pushing a progressive agenda that is remarkably uniform across the government and the academy and the media. Watkins uses the term "The New Tolerance" for this rhetorical technique. It is a significant corruption of what once had been a noble word.

Tolerance used to mean enduring certain characteristics or behaviors in others of which you personally might disapprove, but which courtesy or respect forbid you from trying to suppress. Religious tolerance normally falls into this category. It has often been argued, perhaps rightly, that it appeared in Europe in the 17th century simply because the continent had been exhausted by religious wars. In the Puritan tradition of America, there was also the conviction that you cannot save a man by compelling him to worship in a manner contrary to his conscience. In either case, the old tolerance was a mechanism for maintaining social peace, not fomenting cultural revolution.

The New Tolerance, in contrast, knows nothing of either courtesy or respect, and it seeks out occasions for confrontation. It requires that active accommodation and even approval be given to things to which you may well have principled objections. This kind of "tolerance" brings a sword rather than peace. Often supported by civil litigation and even criminal prosecution, it is the chief mechanism whereby real intellectual and cultural variety is marinated into the unsalted mush that is marketed under the name of "diversity." The New Absolutes seek to create a degree of conformity at least as strict as that contemplated by Puritan sumptuary laws.

To me, at least, the most interesting thing about the New Absolutes is that they are not arbitrary. Neither are they universal, in the sense of being products of universal human desires set free from traditional constraints. Their specific content, including such things as their feminism, their hostility to family, their superficial interest in foreign cultures, their obdurate socialism, have been staples of Bohemian life in the West since at least the 18th century. While you may, if you like, characterize some or all of these things as degenerate forms of traditional ideas, still not every society that goes to hell in a handbasket takes quite this route. They are not the vices of exhaustion. Some elements of the New Absolutes are as difficult to maintain in practice as the sternest features of traditional morality. They also, oddly enough, are often much more parochially Western than the values they seek to replace.

Take, for instance, the campaign to normalize homosexuality. The transition of the love that dare not speak its name to the love that will not shut up is one of the most disconcerting developments of the past half century. Homosexuality has become a lifestyle, a politics, even an ontology for some people. However, in my opinion at least, the whole thing is to some extent a collective hallucination. While sodomy has no doubt always been with us, there were no homosexuals until about 150 years ago, when people who defined themselves this way began to be a feature of metropolitan life in German and English-speaking countries. (Though not, of course, using the term "homosexual," which dates from about 1910.) To see the transition over the course of the nineteenth century, you need only compare the different ways that history regards Lord Byron at its beginning and Oscar Wilde at its end, despite the fact their personal habits were allegedly rather similar.

What we are dealing with here is not an ancient minority, much less the phenotype of a genotype, but rather an exotic variety of culturally conditioned personality. A good analogy to the homosexual might be the neurasthenic, who appeared at about the same time but did not make it much past the beginning of the 20th century. Odd as it may sound today, there is no reason to think that homosexuality will be a permanent feature of the cultural landscape (indeed, in light of its epidemiological effects, there is reason to think otherwise). It is entirely conceivable that there will be as few homosexuals in 2050 as there were neurasthenics in 1950. Stranger things have happened. Just lately.

If America were really suffering from moral entropy, there would be nothing to be done about it. On the basis of no personal experience, this is the impression I get of most of Europe. The great cities are becoming immaculately-maintained museums whose intellectual life is a post-modern Glass Bead Game. Politics is collapsing into the social services. The pathologies of the continent, both cultural and economic, really are vices of exhaustion. The European Union is starting to look like the lowest energy state of a closed system, the sort of situation that in physics admits of no remedy.

On the basis of at least some personal experience, I would say this is not the case in America. The wires are still live in the United States. The New Absolutes are fiercely-held dogmas, forcefully defended against a growing coalition of their equally energized opponents. Even the current disorders on the conservative side of the spectrum are signs of life. In any case, we should remember that no political party or platform is wholly coincident with the work of moral restoration.

Between the world of the New Absolutes and that of ordinary human life there is only limited occasion for the play of synthesis and antithesis. The cultural history of the United States has not been one of gradual transitions, but of sudden flips, like a huge iceberg turning over. Such events may take as little as a decade to accomplish. One suspects that the America of the New Tolerance will go under far more quickly than it took to rise. We have yet to determine whether what follows it will be better or worse.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The New Absolutes
By William D. Watkins

The Long View 2005-05-02: Human Mice; Roe Misapprehension; Gödel versus Immanence

I demand to see my attorney!

I demand to see my attorney!

I remember being struck by this story when it came out. If your human-mice hybrids start acting too human, the obvious solution is to just kill them all!

Human Mice; Roe Misapprehension; Gödel versus Immanence


No, deranged scientists are not trying to create human-mouse hybrids that have squeaky voices and demand to see lawyers to get them released from their cages. However, the scientists' lawyers do have a contingency plan, just in case:

In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson's progress.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.

There is more to humanity than cytology, so no doubt Stanford is correct in dismissing the possibility that the mice will be even partially human in any serious sense. On the other hand, if the mice do start to manifest human behaviors, might it not be a better idea to stop cutting their skulls open and begin being really nice to them?

* * *

For those of you who cannot wait for the news, here's an item dated November 9, 2008, by Stuart Taylor Jr. of National Journal, entitled How the Republicans Lost Their Majority:

In a succession of blockbuster 5-4 rulings, the Bush Court in 2007 approved state-sponsored prayers at public school functions such as graduations and football games (overruling the 1992 decision Lee v. Weisman); went out of its way to overrule Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 decision that had recognized a constitutional right to engage in gay sex; and struck down key aspects of the Endangered Species Act as unconstitutional overextensions of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce.

Then, this June, the same five justices banned consideration of race in state university admissions, overturning another 2003 precedent (Grutter v. Bollinger); this ruling sets the stage for a dramatic plunge in black and Hispanic enrollments at elite schools. Two days later, the same five-justice majority overturned Roe v. Wade, holding that it was up to elected officials to decide whether to allow unlimited access to abortion, to ban the procedure, or to specify circumstances in which it should be allowed or banned.

This last decision roiled the country and immediately transformed many elections -- for state legislature, governor, Congress, and the presidency -- into referenda on abortion. Republican candidates at all levels found themselves facing a politically impossible choice that put many on the road to defeat: Those who declared their support for a broad ban on abortion scared moderates into the arms of the Democrats. Those who opposed such a ban, or waffled, were deserted by much of their conservative base.

As I have noted before, the reversal of Roe would, and probably will, be a net boon for the Democrats, but not for the reasons this piece suggests. That decision has been an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party for 30 years. If the court deconstitutionalized the question, then Democratic candidates around the country would be able to adapt their platforms to the views of their constituents. That would leave them free to focus their campaigns on economic issues, where it is not at all clear that the Republicans have an advantage. In other words, it would turn the clock back to about 1960, when the Democrats usually won.

* * *

On a not entirely different note, there is a new book by Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel (Great Discoveries), which was favorably reviewed by Polly Shulman in yesterday's New York Times. I've been reading about Gödel for years (I have a review of another biography here), but the review helped to clarify some points for me. Shulman notes:

The dream of these formalists [of the early 20th century] was that their systems contained a proof for every true statement. Then all mathematics would unfurl from the arbitrary symbols, without any need to appeal to an external mathematical truth accessible only to our often faulty intuition.

This reminded me that the main thrust of phenomenology during this period was in the same direction: toward a philosophy that was completely immanent, with no transcendent elements. For existentialists, and for postmodernists who hold that the only truth is intersubjective, immanence is still the last word in sophistication. (In a foggy way, the notion even wafts through legal theory.) What the review, and apparently the book, remind us of is that, in formal logic, this project collapsed:

To put it roughly, Gödel proved his theorem by taking the Liar's Paradox, that steed of mystery and contradiction, and harnessing it to his argument. He expressed his theorem and proof in mathematical formulas, of course, but the idea behind it is relatively simple. He built a representative system, and within it he constructed a proposition that essentially said, ''This statement is not provable within this system.'' If he could prove that that was true, he figured, he would have found a statement that was true but not provable within the system, thus proving his theorem. His trick was to consider the statement's exact opposite, which says, ''That first statement -- the one that boasted about not being provable within the system -- is lying; it really is provable.'' Well, is that true? Here's where the Liar's Paradox shows its paces. If the second statement is true, then the first one is provable -- and anything provable must be true. But remember what that statement said in the first place: that it can't be proved. It's true, and it's also false -- impossible! That's a contradiction, which means Gödel's initial assumption -- that the proposition was provable -- is wrong. Therefore, he found a true statement that can't be proved within the formal system.

Thus Gödel showed not only that any consistent formal system complicated enough to describe the rules of grade-school arithmetic would have an unprovable statement, but that it would have an unprovable statement that was nonetheless true. Truth, he concluded, exists ''out yonder'' (as Einstein liked to put it), even if we can never put a finger on it.

Note that this does not mean the truth is unknowable, only that some truths are unknowable solely through logic. Again, we are back to Aquinas.

* * *

Speaking of which, anyone in the New York area who is interested in a Latin liturgy for Ascension Thursday (May 5) might consider Holy Rosary Church in Jersey City. Mass is at 5:30 PM; the address is 344 Sixth Street And while I'm at it, here's my chant commercial again.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

John claims in this book review that suicide is not common in Ethiopia, where Sinedu Tadesse was born. At least according to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in Ethiopia is about as high as in the US. On the other hand, it has also been twenty years, and you can see from 2012 to 2015 the global incidence of suicide has been getting worse. So perhaps the last twenty years have not been kind.

What data I can find tells me that the data quality is poor in Ethiopia, as in most of Africa, and is estimated instead of measured. Also, the WHO data is age-adjusted. It also doesn't account for other "deaths of despair" like drug overdoses and cirrhosis of the liver, but so far that seems to be a US problem.

If I were to argue that the world has gotten objectively harder to bear in the last twenty years, who would argue?

Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder
by Melanie Thernstrom
Doubleday, 1997
219 pages, $23.95
ISBN: 0-385-48745-2

"On Earth this desire is often called `love.' In Hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger."

--C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters

Sinedu Tadesse was a twenty-year-old junior from Ethiopia. For two years she had roomed with Trang Phuong Ho, a refugee from Vietnam. Both were juniors and pre-med biology majors. The first year together they had gotten along well, the second year not so well, and Trang had told Sinedu that she planned to change roommates in the fall. Early on the morning of May 28, 1995, Sinedu walked into Trang's half of their two-room suite at Harvard's Dunster House and began stabbing Trang with a large knife she had apparently bought for the purpose. Trang had doubled-up that night with another Vietnamese-American woman who had come to help her move as the school term ended. The commotion woke her guest, whose hand was severely injured as she tried to protect Trang. She fled from the room onto the courtyard of the sleeping residence and eventually found someone to call the police. When they arrived, they found Trang's body by Sinedu's bed: she had been stabbed forty-five times, but she had still had enough life in her to try to reach the door. Sinedu was found hanging by a rope (also bought for the occasion) from the sturdy shower-curtain in the old-fashioned bathroom. She had some vital signs when she was cut down, but died soon thereafter. Hers was the third suicide (or fourth, depending on how you count that of a recent graduate) at Harvard in the previous year. Her killing of Trang was the first murder of one Harvard student by another in the four centuries of the school's existence.

"Halfway Heaven" is primarily about who is to blame for this episode. The book began as a piece for "The New Yorker" magazine. The title is an expression Trang's father used to describe how Harvard had seemed to the family. The author, Melanie Thernstrom, is by her own account a Harvard insider. She was graduated from Harvard College in 1987, her parents went there, her father teaches history there, and she herself has taught writing there (as well at other places). Ms. Thernstrom is not just very familiar with Harvard: she once actually rejected Sinedu for a seminar on autobiographical writing because her submission was too boring.

The author is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of her research. Her survey of the diagnosis and treatment of depression and mood disorders is lucid without minimizing the ambiguities that always attend actual clinical practice. She visited Ethiopia and contrived a tactful interview with Sinedu's family, this in a country where the institution of investigative journalism is not native. The chief impediment to her work was neither culture nor technical issues, but the blatant lies and veiled threats visited on her by Harvard University in general and Dunster House in particular. She records all this in great detail, and her shock is apparent. The University's policy was predictably self-defeating: its pretense that there had been no warning that something was radically wrong in Dunster House simply created a mystery that begged to be solved. And indeed, Ms Thernstrom does find the University, or at least its student mental health services, to have been a necessary predicate for what happened that May morning. For the ultimate cause, however, she can only document the possibilities.

The word on Harvard is that, if they let you in, they will take care of you. They will put together a financial aid package, they will tutor you in your weak subjects, they will counsel you if you get the shakes. One way and another, Harvard College (which is of course only a part of a University with ten prestigious graduate schools) manages to achieve an astonishing 98% graduation rate for its 6,000 students. One wonders, in fact, whether Harvard might not be becoming a bit like Tokyo University, which also does a superb job in selecting its student body but is not unduly anxious that the students actually learn anything while they are there. In any case, the magic of the Harvard name has always derived from the opportunity the place affords to make connections with the other very bright people who were selected with you.

Both Sinedu and Trang had come from moderately privileged backgrounds in countries that went Communist in the mid-1970s. Both their fathers had suffered political imprisonment. Trang fled with her father when she was ten and eventually worked her way up through the American public schools. Sinedu's family, despite persecution by the regime (which fell in 1991), contrived to send her first to a Catholic school and then to a school in Addis Ababa intended primarily for the children of diplomats. Like many students who shine locally, they found they were just average at Harvard. Maybe one or both of them would have changed her major, since their "B" averages would not have gotten them into a medical school.

Trang seems to have taken all this in stride. She tutored high school students and was a star in the Vietnamese students association. She acted as ombudsman for her newly-arrived mother and sisters (her parents had separated soon after being reunited in the United States). She had old-fashioned ideas about sex and dating but had several boy-friends. She was also genuinely interested in science, a quality that one might hope to see more often in pre-med students, and she loved lab work. Even allowing for the positive light in which people tend to recall the innocent dead, Trang Phuong Ho seems to have been a competent person who always worked as hard as she could and who rarely missed an opportunity to help others.

Sinedu kept diaries. The spiral-bound notebooks had titles like "My Small Book of Social Rules," "Amazing Improved Events and How I Could Have Solved Them," "Depression" and "Stress." In these, she said she had always been lonely and explained how she had never been able to connect with other people. Though examination of her school records from Ethiopia show her to have had considerable leadership ability, nevertheless she wrote that she suspected the other students had some sixth sense she did not have. (Some of the passages quoted in "Halfway Heaven" sound so much like Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" that you wonder what Sinedu had been reading.) Trang appears in the diaries, mostly in connection with real or imagined gaffes on Sinedu's part. Trang had perhaps taken on the lonely Sinedu as a roommate as another of her good works, and Sinedu was keenly aware that she made asymmetrical demands on Trang for companionship. Still, the only specific person mentioned in the diaries as a possible murder victim is an officer of the African student's association, someone who had considered Sinedu a friend. In the later entries, killing in general, followed by suicide, is mentioned as "the good way," as distinguished from suicide alone, which was the "bad way."

Suicide, incidentally, is not an Ethiopian custom. Sinedu was allowed burial in an Ethiopian Orthodox graveyard only because her family convinced the priest that there was some uncertainty about the circumstances of her death. Neither is there any national tradition of keeping intimate personal journals. The material on Ethiopia in "Halfway Heaven" is fascinating, but this seems to be another situation where culture is bunk.

We know about the content of Sinedu's diaries because they came to light after her death. However, she communicated the same sentiments in other ways. She wrote letters which she posted to people selected at random from the Boston area telephone directory describing her life in pitiable terms and demanding the friendship of the recipients. Some of the people who got these letters forwarded them to the College administration. The Master of Dunster House denies that any of the actual letters were sent to him from the Dean's office (at any rate, he denied this to Ms. Thernstrom, though he seems to have originally said otherwise to the police). Even the Master, however, says he got a "heads-up" letter from the Dean's office.

There were other signs. In her second year with Trang, Sinedu's behavior began to change. Normally meticulously tidy, she began leaving dirty clothes and half-eaten fruit around the suite. She sometimes wept in public. She fought with Trang (by letter) about Trang's decision to move out. In the last weeks, though, she seemed to relax. She sent presents to friends and family. She made dates to see people she had been putting off for months. In her last exam, she got an "A." She also sent an anonymous photograph of herself to the campus newspaper, the "Crimson," with the notation: "Keep this picture. There will soon be a very juicy story involving this woman." The police later fished it out of a dumpster.

Harvard College knew. Sinedu had been seeing a student health service "psychologist," a man with a degree in education, since freshman year. The Dean's office (and possibly the Master) had the message-in-a-bottle letter. They knew that Trang had sought to change roommates as Sinedu's behavior deteriorated. If nothing else, several officials of the school were aware that Sinedu's grades had been falling off. What were they thinking of? Ms. Thernstrom describes her own reaction when Sinedu came to ask that she reconsider her rejection of Sinedu's application to join the autobiographical writing seminar. The student spoke of the suffering her country had experienced in recent years. Ms. Thernstrom gave the plea short shrift. There is a type of Harvard student who acts like the representative of the wretched of the Earth but who later turns out to be royalty. In any case, it probably was true that it was not the poverty of Ethiopia that Sinedu wanted to write about.

Sinedu was clearly sick, and the University was only pretending to help. She got no medication, though she was glaringly depressed (possibly bipolar, possibly schizoidal, maybe even mildly autistic). There are many forms of psychotherapy that are of dubious benefit and vast expense towards which university health plans turn an understandably jaundiced eye. Depression and related conditions, however, are eminently treatable and at reasonable cost. According to Ms. Thernstrom, nearby MIT, famous for its "crazy brilliant" students, is particularly good at handling this kind of thing. Be that as it may, competent medical intervention would certainly have saved Trang's life and probably have saved Sinedu's. You don't even have to go that far. Any of a half-dozen people in Harvard's faux-Oxford administration could probably have prevented the incident just by giving Sinedu her own room.

Still, Harvard is not to blame for what happened in any ultimate sense. As I noted, this book does a good job of surveying the medical parameters of Sinedu's behavior. It is thus somewhat startling to hear to a psychiatrist (from Yale) saying near the end: "If you push psychiatrists far enough, you'll find most of them believe in evil." Sinedu pretty clearly suffered from a mood disorder of the sort for which there is a straightforward neurochemical explanation. However, a dearth of neurotransmitters did not kill Trang, Sinedu did. Her condition was consistent with suicide (and also with curling up into a ball and crying uncontrollably, something she also did a lot of in her last week). The murder, as well as her account of her interior life, really do not lend themselves to clinical analysis.

Reading the excerpts from Sinedu's diaries, I was time and again of M. Scott Peck's book, "The People of the Lie." Peck is another psychiatrist who eventually came to the conclusion that he could not treat some patients without factoring in a moral dimension. The people whose cases Peck describes were seriously sick and hated their sickness, but they could not get better because in some fundamental sense they had chosen to be that way.

We are dealing here with the mystery of personality. The mystery is genuine because it really is irreducible. If you could reduce a personality into a set of instructions, like a computer program, you would not be dealing with a person anymore, but with a machine. This is the only telling argument against solipsism: other people must really exist, because we could not possibly have invented what they do. (It is also, by the way, an argument for the existence of God, since we could not have made up reality as a whole, either.) None of this is to deny that we are also machines, animals, physical objects, suitable subjects of biological and psychological science. However, only pseudoscience purports to account for everything. There is always something else.

Sinedu's diaries are singularly devoid of "evil" content in any conventional sense of the word. The violent language is apparently sparse and mostly directed at herself. If she had any sexual thoughts, she did not commit them to paper. Certainly the widespread rumor that she killed Trang in a fit of jealous lesbian rage is utterly without foundation in the documentation. What was going on in her mind was a step below sexuality. Sinedu equated "connecting" with controlling people. Suicide was the "bad way" because it was an expression of weakness. Murder and suicide was the "good way" because, for once in her life, she would be able to dominate another person with impunity. Sinedu may have been beyond loving Trang when she killed her, but she was still interested in her, she wanted to control her. Sinedu had sometimes written of her life as what was left after a bomb went off. That is a fitting description of what was left after her death.

Ms. Thernstrom notes that, after the murder-suicide, a "mode of discourse" arose on campus by which both girls were spoken of as equally victims. This way of speaking seemed strange to her, but maybe it was the right way after all. Sinedu sought help for over two years to stop what was happening to her. It was only in those last few days, perhaps, that her mind was made up in a way she could no longer change. Terrible events like this tell us nothing about "the state of the culture," or similar gassy notions. They merit our attention precisely because they are perennial. They are, to put it bluntly, about good and evil, and the power of the human will to choose between them.

This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Demoralization of Society from Victorian Times to Modern Values

This book is probably best read in productive counter-point to Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. It is not possible to understand the modern world without understanding both genetics and moral reform. Victorian England was the product of at least 1500 years of selection that made the most prudent, hard-working, and law-abiding population on the face of the Earth. However, there is enough slack in the leash biology keeps on culture to allow an oscillation between Regency dissipation, to Victorian prudery, back to yobs, within the space of 200 years. There is no known genetic mechanism that would allow that much change in that time span, so that leaves other causes. Since I haven't completed the demonstrative regress, I cannot claim that the moral revolution of the Victorians was the exclusive cause of the change for the better in the nineteenth century. However, I can claim it to be plausible to be one of the causes.

We do have the Victorians to thank for changing caritas from love in general into alms for the poor. In their eminent practicality and domesticity, the more rarefied meaning was lost, or perhaps discarded. We probably also owe our notion of progress in the Anglosphere to the Victorians. Progressive politics as such was a late Victorian/Edwardian thing, but the ball got rolling much, much earlier than that. 

One of the big differences between the attitude of the early Victorians and anyone who self-described as a "Progressive" at the time, is how they saw the poor. The attitude of the earlier Victorians is echoed in C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. In a passage describing the difference between a trendy English textbook of the day and what Lewis chose to call the Tao [Natural Law was too Romish]

If they embark on this course the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them this or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

The progressive era was also the era of eugenics. Lewis was astute to notice that the attitudes of his social betters tended to see the poor as livestock. It isn't an accident that eugenics and evolutionary theory grew up together among country gentlemen who bred animals for sport.

The other aspect of decadent Victorianism that largely goes unsaid here was the occult revival. John was familiar with this, as a student of the occult. I do think I detect something of this in the last lines of John's essay, but this a topic for another time.

The Demoralization of Society From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Alfred A. Knopf,1995
ISBN 0-679-43817-3


Nietzsche's Victory


Educated people in England and America around the year 1900 believed in social progress because they had experienced it. In England, where our statistics are best, crime and illegitimacy rates at the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 had fallen by about half from their mid-nineteenth century high. Public drunkenness became rare and alcoholism ceased to be an accepted fact of private life. Literacy became nearly universal, sanitation and diet improved at every level of society. People put great effort into staying clean, and governments built infrastructure that enormously increased the availability of water to common people. Wages nearly doubled in a generation. The entire adult male population was enfranchised. Married women gained control over their own property. All this happened while large towns became sprawling cities and severe financial panics periodically shook the economy. (The term "depression" is a later American euphemism).

This level of civilization was maintained through the first half of the twentieth century, through two world wars. Then, in the 1950s, the statistical indices of social pathology began to creep upwards. In the 1960s, they vastly accelerated. By 1990, crime rates were ten times their nineteenth century high, illegitimacy over four times. (Remember, these former highs had been reached in the most Dickensian years of the Industrial Revolution.) Additionally, in some ways the population was getting appreciably stupider and sicker. As the century neared its end, it had become fashionable to belittle the idea of progress. No wonder.

So what happened? That's the question that Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York (and wife of neoconservative scholar Irving Kristol) tries to answer in this brief and very readable overview of social history. There is no attempt here to turn the Victorian era into paradise lost. Victorian women may not have been the silent slaves depicted in feminist mythology, but they were sufficiently dissatisfied with their lot that they collectively exerted themselves for almost a century to widen their public role. Society was riddled with class and racial prejudices that most people today would find gruesome. (Curiously, the word "imperialism" does not even appear in the index, though the book treats mostly of England in the last fifty years of the nineteenth century.) Though working people were not as poor as they used to be, they still worked appalling hours for wages not far above subsistence levels. The Victorians were even more familiar with poverty, ignorance and disease than we are. The difference is that they believed these things could be greatly mitigated. Their belief was not irrational; they really knew how to do it.

If you need an example of a society in a state of moral and social collapse, you might do worse than to study England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Cities were growing in an almost unregulated fashion as the impoverished peasantry were driven off the land. The capital was intermittently in the hands of a mob bent on revolution. Crime was so common that the hundreds of capital offenses on the books were no longer considered sufficient deterrent, so the transportation of criminals to Australia was begun. The national government was corrupt to a degree that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed. Parliament was the tool of aristocratic factions. The aristocracy itself was violent, promiscuous and ruthless. The Church of England, though blessed with a few great apologists, served mostly as a source of undemanding careers for less gifted younger sons. The country was obviously in a chaotic condition, but its rulers had no plans to put it back in order, or even any clear idea of what was wrong. Though hardly unprejudiced observers, the American Founding Fathers tended to assume that the British Empire was about to go the way of the later Roman Empire.

It was not the rulers of Britain who saved the nation, but the pious middle class. Led most famously by John Wesley and his Methodists, the English evangelicals and nonconformists (i.e., people belonging to non-Anglican protestant churches) began a program of moral reform that, within a century, had transformed society almost as much as technology had transformed the economy. It was a moral revival. Its mechanism was the dissemination of virtues in churches, in schools, and, where applicable, whenever the state met the citizenry. The revival was a long march through all the institutions of the nation. It took four generations, and it was one of the most successful social enterprises in the history of the world.

This work was not accomplished through social bureaucracies; for the most part, they did not exist until the end of the period. The Victorian era (which for many purposes began before Victoria's actual accession to the throne in 1837) was the great age of private philanthropy. Though philanthropy did involve large financial donations, to a large extent it was a hands-on affair. University graduates and professional people established and worked in settlement houses in poor neighborhoods. They taught adult education classes and provided free health care. Successful businessmen undertook surveys of health and poverty at their own expense. Using skills learned in the business world, they invented empirical social science. More to the point, they were able to craft proposals for reform that could be understood by other practical men in government.

The state helped where it could, for good or ill. The workhouse system under the Poor Laws, which in principle required unemployed able-bodied people to live in a workhouse, was leniently applied in practice. It was cheaper to support the indigent if they lived on their own. However, the system helped to stigmatize poverty, even poverty through ill-fortune. Particularly in the final decades of the century, a series of remarkably strict antipornography laws were passed. The state became concerned with discouraging abortion and contraception (some feminists supported these policies, some opposed them). The state served to promote private morality best, perhaps, through the example of the royal family. Though George III had been popular, neither George IV nor William IV had been especially well-liked, for good reason. In contrast, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, surrounded by their innumerable children, were the very picture of domestic bliss. The wealthy and powerful often led the sort of irregular lives that the wealthy and powerful sometimes do. However, they were at pains to maintain the appearance of propriety. Any history of high society from the period is replete with sham marriages and shocking discoveries found posthumously in the personal diaries of eminent Victorians renowned in life for their moral rectitude. This was not hypocrisy, in the sense that naughty Victorians were pretending to standards in which they did not believe. They did believe in them; they just were unable to live up to them. Their pious impostures, however, gave many lesser contemporaries the strength to succeed where prominent persons failed.

Lists of the "Victorian Virtues" have multiplied since that day in the 1983 when a reporter was so ill-advised as to suggest to Margaret Thatcher that her social ideals were merely Victorian. She immediately took the offensive in the cause of the Victorians, one that this review, perhaps, is continuing. The virtues the Victorians cherished were "domestic" in the general sense of personal, practical, humble. While they were consistent with the noble virtues expounded by Aristotle and the theological virtues as summarized by St. Paul or St. Thomas, they were the versions of these ideals which would appeal to people who had to work for a living. Aristotle endorsed wisdom, justice, magnanimity, temperance and courage. The Victorians, more prosaically, were interested in diligence, cleanliness, honesty, sobriety, civic pride. "Charity" ceased to mean love and came to mean the dutiful support of the deserving poor.

Victorian attitudes toward sex varied, though Ms. Himmelfarb is careful to debunk some of the extreme anecdotes on the subject as later satires. (Victorian matrons did not really put little skirts around the bottoms of their pianos to cover the legs. I, for one, am disappointed.) On the other hand, the Victorians did bowdlerize Shakespeare so that salacious passages might not offend innocent eyes. (Thomas Bowdler was the ingenious publisher who gave us this eponymous verb.) They did the same to Gibbon in order to expunge the impieties from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." However, throughout the period, they never lost sight of the virtue of chastity itself. It was a positive good, not simply the failure to commit evil.

Victorian virtues were also domestic in the specific sense of being centered on the home and the family. "Respectability" was something that Victorians worried about, particularly the working class. It meant that husbands worked as much as they could, and then they came home and gave their paypackets to their wives, who might then give them some spending money. It meant that the mothers of large families kept her children clean and sent them to school. In a world without washing machines or food that could be stored for more than a few days, this was no small proposition. Perhaps a quarter of Victorian women worked for wages, either at home or in commercial settings. This was "respectable" because it was necessary, but it was not regarded as a good in itself. Women of the professional and upper classes often had what amounted to demanding careers, but these were likely to be volunteer positions in charitable or social service enterprises.

I suspect that Ms. Himmelfarb underestimates the rates of marital breakup and illegitimacy before the nineteenth century and into its first half. She argues, on the basis of selected statistics from parish registers, they such things were rare going back to Tudor times. As Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" explains, "marriage" in the early years of the century was still a surprisingly slippery notion. Only marriages before a Anglican clergyman were automatically valid. People married in a Baptist chapel might not bother with a license. There was also the ancient and amiable institution of the "common law" marriage. (In common law marriages, the state usually takes no notice of the arrangement until one partner dies and the other claims the departed's property.) There were also popular customs, a sort of common law divorce, for ending these unions. The most picturesque of these was the public "wife sale." (The portrayal in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is misleading, since these performances were not open auctions.) A full legal divorce in England literally took an act of parliament, but some large percentage of the married population was not "married" in way of which the law took cognizance. The regularization of marriage and divorce laws in England must therefore be included among the century's reforms. It was made easier to get married, and control over marital disputes was removed from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Popular behavior gradually conformed to the law. The early Victorians, particularly the common people, were rather lax about these matters. The latter ones were not, and divorce was rare.

The Victorians did not exactly invent childhood, but they made it a special stage of life. They created the peculiar culture of children, the literature and the clothes and the toy industry. It was Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic who gave us Christmas trees and "The Night Before Christmas." Maybe more important, they gave us universal compulsory education and the first restrictions on child labor. School became the career of Victorian children, in principle of the children of all ranks. When marriage laws were amended, one of the principle goals was the protection and support of children. Producing children and raising them were unambiguously the chief priorities of both sexes and of all classes. Only at the very end of the period did serious people begin to suggest that maybe career or eugenic factors should play a role in these matters.

Nietzsche did not cause the end of the Victorian era. He was early read and appreciated by people like Shaw, of course, but the fin de siecle had interests other than the German philosopher's aesthetic nihilism. However, he understood what was happening, and what was going to happen, better than anyone else. God had died for a growing fraction of the intellectual class of the West sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Without a theological grounding, he realized, virtues would become "values," social conventions that could be debated and modified as convenience suggested. Nietzsche had only contempt for his contemporaries' comfortable assumption that society would go on much as it had, except that people would no longer go to church. The moral system of Western civilization is founded on Judaism and Christianity. Once this foundation was removed, the superstructure would start to crumble. Although it was not until the 1960s that the effects would be felt on a popular level in the English-speaking world, the moral imagination of the West was becoming visibly unhinged in Nietzsche's lifetime.

The moral revival had succeeded because it was not original. The working classes and the rural poor did not have a system of morality different from that of the reforming middle class. The virtues the reformers sought to encourage were principles that just about everyone acknowledged. There were rare exceptions, such as the Poor Laws turning poverty into a near crime, that could be characterized as social engineering. Even in those cases, however, the state cannot be accused of trying to make up a virtue out of whole cloth. In the second half of the century, in contrast, that is precisely what the increasingly secular intellectual class tried to do. The aesthetes, for instance, tried to develop an ethics of art-for-art's-sake. While the actual art produced by the self-conscious "decadents" of the end of the century is an acquired taste, it was in fact during this period that art became a substitute for religion for many people. Other late Victorian reformers began to promote more intrusive measures to improve public health or fix the economy. Even when some of these measures were plausible ideas, like the total prohibition of alcohol, they were not to most people self-evident moral principles. The new reformers, however, continued to press them with the self-assurance of their pre-Darwinian forebears. They became moralists who had forgotten what morality looked like.

This era also saw the appearance of eugenics, originally one of the enthusiasms of the Fabian socialists. Earlier Victorian social reformers had looked out on the drunken and dirty laboring classes and seen fellow creatures who needed to be lifted from their deplorable state. The term "patronizing" does not quite do justice to this attitude, but at least it was an attitude of one human being regarding another. The Fabians, on the other hand, such as G. B. Shaw and Beatrice Webb, began to regard their countrymen as cattle in need of an intelligent breeding program. The attitude did not change even when their interest in eugenics wavered; thirty years later these people were also enthusiastic supporters for totalitarian experiments on the continent. Shaw and the Webbs (Beatrice and her co-author husband Sidney) were conspicuous for their support of the Soviet Union during the worst phases of Stalin's regime. (Shaw, by the way, was not as ignorant of what was happening in the Soviet Union as he pretended in public.)

The problem with these opinion-maker enthusiasms is not that they are necessarily wicked, though many of them are. The problem is that they are constructs, something that someone made up. They cannot form the basis of a social consensus, because they are alien to all but their makers. Even when, as in totalitarian societies, they can be imposed by the police, the police themselves are likely to lose interest in them after a while. What happened in the twentieth century was that the opinion-makers continued the cottage industry of value-making which the decadent Victorians had founded. They busied themselves concocting what were, in effect, exotic poisons in the arts and politics and the principles of personal relations. For the first half of the twentieth century, the major institutions of society continued along the vector which the Victorian moral revival had imparted. Teachers knew how to teach, the police knew how to keep the streets safe. For that matter, the Post Office knew how to deliver the mail. However, these funds of institutional wisdom were scarcely inexhaustible. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was obvious that some novel thinking was needed about everything from race relations to the control of industrial pollution. So society applied to the opinion-makers for guidance. And the injection of the poisons began.

Today, we live in a time that bears comparison to the eighteenth century. We have a fatuously self-confident upper class, the New Class of information manipulators, who have forgotten the moral law. We have an increasingly feral underclass who have never heard of it. We also have a very lively sense that something is radically wrong. Many people these days look to the Victorian moral revival as a model for us to follow. If the Victorians were able to reconstruct their society, surely we can engineer a revival of our own?

What happened once can happen again, and certainly not all the cultural indices are falling these days. However, we have to remember that the Victorian moral revival was a side-effect of a popular religious movement. Though the political and economic powers of the time frequently manipulated it, they did not originate it or control it. How could they? No one could have conceived where it would lead. The problem with what many people believe to be the incipient moral revival of America is that we are still playing by Nietzsche's rules. We continue to talk about establishing values, not discovering virtues. To every secularist's considerable surprise, religion is back in politics to a degree not seen for a hundred years, but there is something artificial about the phenomenon. The Methodist revival began as a movement for personal reform that only later developed political significance. (The Labor Party, Ms. Himmelfarb notes, was practically born in a nonconformist chapel.) Today, however, one may be forgiven for suspecting that much of the new-found piety of American conservatives is a political tactic to coopt evangelical and conservative Catholic votes. Secular conservatives seem to think that they can conjure up God to be their familiar spirit and serve their interests. They may well succeed in conjuring up something, but maybe not exactly what they expect.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-02-02: Scary Babies

One of John's favorite themes was how slowly intellectual history moved in the twentieth century. In Spengler's Future, he said this:

Even when literature and art leave a conspicuous mark, however, modernity everywhere is fundamentally a time when ever more brilliant people seem to produce less and less of substance. As the period progresses, its art grows more and more-self-conscious until it disappears into technique. It is the time of Wagner rather than Bach in the West, of Legalism rather than the Mandate of Heaven in China. It is also the great age of reactionaries of all stripes, of traditionalists rather than tradition. Many modern political systems which are supposed to embody ancient principles are in fact faked antiques.

One of the remarkable aspects of modern times, considering the amount of energy and creativity expended during the period, is how little of its vast cultural output survives. Science survives since it takes up relatively little space (for better or worse: the facts of one civilization often don't stand up to examination by a later one). But the plastic and pictorial arts, the prose that critics come to blows over and the poetry that briefly seemed to change the world, all this is often known to later ages only through secondary sources. The originals may be destroyed or suppressed in the terrible final stages of the modern era. More often, they are simply lost or neglected as taste changes. As a rule, the more early-modern a thing is, the greater its hope of longevity. Works like those of Dickens survived (with occasional slumps and survivals), while almost none of the modernist Western canon was equipped to outlive the critical apparatus which called it into being. This is the era of experiments. In the nature of the case, they usually fail.

The battle lines over contraception, abortion, and all manner of reproductive technology haven't really changed much in 50 years. John's post still seems pretty topical after 12 years, which tells me the supposed advances of technology haven't done much for the arguments here. I don't think the problem is technology hasn't advanced much. I think the problem is our understanding hasn't advanced much.

Here, John also hits on one of the biggest issues with all manner of reproductive technology: it costs too much to really affect the raising of children very much. There are thorny issues to deal with in law and moral philosophy, but the majority of children will continue to be made the old fashioned way for reasons of cost:

Scary Babies


There was a picture of one of these on the cover of The Weekly Standard of February 4, 2002. As you might expect, the theme of the issue was biotechnology and its implications for the suddenly problematical human condition. The prospect of reproductive human cloning is only the beginning of evils, it would seem. I have some scattered observations about the two pieces in the issue on the subject.

"Kass Warfare," by Andrew Ferguson, was about the first public session of the President's Council on Bioethics, which is headed by the bioethicist Leon Kass. The rest of the council consists of jurists, philosophers and a gaggle of scientists. The session stared with a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1846 short story, "The Birthmark." That's the one about the scientist who tries to cure his otherwise perfect wife's single tiny blemish and kills her in the process.

The liberal-arts types on the council reached for an interpretation of this story as an allegory of the principle that the attempt to perfect humanity destroys humanity. The math-science geeks were offended by the fact that Hawthorne plainly did not know what scientists did or why they did it. Actually, the best interpretation of the story may be rather technical. Writing in the heyday of New England Transcendentalism, Hawthorne may have simply been trying to illustrate the Kantian notion that absolutes are noumenal rather than phenomenal. That is, we never experience perfection or any pure condition. Such ideals should guide our actions, but we will never see them realized.

The article emphasized the insufficiency of the Yuck Factor, meaning the visceral reaction that people usually have to ideas like cloning when they are first proposed. The Yuck Factor is not a historical constant, Ferguson notes. The laws against miscegenation were backed largely by an inarticulate distaste for the idea of congress between the races. The laws disappeared when the distaste did. The Council on Bioethics is supposed to map out principled arguments about what we should and should not do that will stand scrutiny even when emotions change.

I would add that biotechnology often brings something else into play, what might be called the Pet Shop Factor. This refers to the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese goes to a pet shop to buy a fish, but finds that the shop has only dogs. The shop owner offers to turn a puppy into a fish by vivisection. Cleese agrees, but only on condition that he can watch. It is possible to be greedy of wonders. Quite aside from whether it is a good idea to tinker with fundamental human biology, there is still the raw curiosity about whether it is really possible.



Bioshock Videogame Review

2K Games
PC, XBOX 360, PS3

Caution: This review contains difficult themes and spoilers.

If I could choose one word to describe Bioshock, it would be disturbing. I mean that very deliberately. After I finished playing the game for the first time, I actually felt kind of dirty. By this, I don't mean that the game actively promoted violence or that it is going to turn children into homicidal maniacs. I simply mean that it protrayed an awful situation with frankness and fidelity, and I found that the experience was sufficiently real that I felt a little ill. There was nothing cartoony about it, just gritty realism. Not all 'M' ratings are created equal; Bioshock deserved it's rating. That being so, if I had kids, I would not let them play this game. Half-Life 2 has an M, but I would let a 16-year-old play that game. The minimum age for this game might well be 25.

Let me back up. Bioshock is a first person shooter (FPS), a genre of which I have played a great deal. In fact, I have probably wasted enough time on first person shooters to cure cancer or discover cold fusion. As game types go, this kind often relies on fast reflexes and makes for a particularly immersive experience, since the game attempts to show everything exactly as the character sees it. Bioshock is an FPS that eschews cut-scenes entirely, in favor of maintaining the illusion. Like Half-Life, the protagonist also never speaks, unless one counts grunts of pain. In this game, this technique works well, because Bioshock also allows you to choose your path. Cut-scenes with dialogue would make this more tricky. Jack's silence is your freedom.

Bioshock begins in media res, with a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic. Jack, our point of view for the game, surfaces near the entrance to Rapture, a city built far beneath the sea. Rapture is strikingly beautiful. Despite the game being set in 1960, Rapture is constructed in an Art Nouveau or Art Deco style throughout. This style fits the city, and the story, perfectly. Part of the reason may be the creator of Rapture, Andrew Ryan. Ryan is pretty clearly intended to be the archetype of the kind of character Ayn Rand created for her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. When you are descending to the seafloor to enter the city, a video is played for you in which Ryan explains why he created a city on the bottom of the sea. He wanted to be free of the artificial constraints imposed by governments and religions, so he fled beyond their influence, in order to create a city where a man truly earns his bread by the sweat of his brow. This brief video is masterfully done, and it encapsulates the perennial appeal of Rand's work. "No Gods, No Kings, Only Man."

By one of those strange coincidences, shortly after I played this game some spirited discussion of Rand's life and work appeared on websites I frequent, providing plentiful fodder for this review. I take Bioshock to be a fictional commentary on the kind of world that would result from a serious attempt to create a new society on Objectivist principles. I actually read a plot synopsis that insisted that this could not possibly be the case, because things occured in Rapture that were not in accord with Objectivist principles. I take this objection as seriously as the one that claimed that the USSR had nothing to do with real Communism, because real Communism was never implemented there. Bioshock asks a much more interesting question, which is what would happen if we tried to follow Ayn Rand's ideas given the way that we actually are?

Bioshock's answer is: straight into the Hell Rand did not believe in. This becomes apparent as soon as you step out of the bathysphere. You see a deserted and devastated city, littered with placards of protest and the detritus of street fighting. Just exactly what happened here is something that only gradually becomes clear. Much of the story of the game is told by means of audio diaries that lie scattered around the city. By means of these diaries, the city's swift descent into madness is chronicled from the points of view of a small cast of major players, plus a few random souls who found themselves trapped as the situation deteriorated. Rapture actually ran well for over a decade. Ryan completed the city shortly after the Second World War. For a time, everything worked as planned. Ryan attracted the best and brightest the world had to offer. Science in particular benefitted from the freedom of Rapture. Genetics was advanced to a level where new abilities could be purchased from a vending machine. Unimaginable wealth and power were available to the gifted.

However, there was one small problem. What about everyone else? Even in Rapture, some people were smarter than others. This is a difficulty for Rand. Her supermen are often generous, such as Ragnar the pirate. However, there really is no good reason for them to support the truly pitiful and worthless, given that while Rand repeats Kant's dictum that every person be treated as an end, not a means, that does not mean for Rand that they have a claim to part of your surplus. As Rapture's other leading industrialist, Frank Fontaine says,

These sad saps. They come to Rapture, thinking they're gonna be captains of industry. But they all forget that somebody's gotta scrub the toilets. What an angle they gave me- I hand these mugs a cot and a bowl of soup, and they give me their lives. Who needs an army when I got Fontaine's Home for the Poor?

This conflict is the proximate cause of the fall of Rapture. The poor and disenfrancised rise up against Ryan, led by a revolutionary named Atlas. This uprising starts on New Year's Eve, thus illustrating a theme of Bioshock not often emphasized: millennialism. New Year's Eve is a symbolic Millennium. On that day, the old year dies, and the rules that normally bind us are temporarily suspended. Thus the custom of wild parties at the end of the year. One of the first places you come across in Rapture is the shattered shell of a nightclub that was bombed that fateful New Year's Eve. Throughout the rest of the game, one finds the some of the few remaining living residents of Rapture still wearing their masks from the party that shattered their world.

Shattered is the only world that can apply, because Rapture never recovered from that day. Complete madness did not set in immediately. For a time, life and business continued as usual. However, Rapture had experienced an introductory apocalypse, and the Millennium was upon them. In the Time of Troubles leading up to the New Year's Eve party, Ryan had eliminated his chief rival, Fontaine, in a fiery shootout. Fontaine's crime was never quite laid out specifically, but one finds crates of Bibles and cruxifixes in Fontaine's businesses and held as evidence in the police station. Whether Fontaine was using religion as a cover or that was actually what he was smuggling is never explained. It may actually be both, since Fontaine was in the business of providing hope to the hopeless, an underserved market in Rapture. Ryan does go to the trouble of crucifying a man caught with Bibles for the benefit of the public, however. After the nightclub bombing, Ryan cracked down on the dissidents, and relegated them to a ghetto. Those who attempted to escape were summarily executed.

This kind of brutality really is directly contrary to what Rand meant, thus seemingly pointing to the conclusion that Rapture really needed more Objectivism, not less. Rand rejected any use of force that was not direct self-defense. However, the problem is that Ryan saw religion as a threat to his Objectivist ideals, and correctly perceived that a religiously grounded public order would mean that Rapture would become like the outside world. Thus religion was in fact a threat to his city, and he responded in kind. Rand never really thought this sort of thing through, because she was not really a rigorous thinker. An imaginative one, to be sure, and very gifted. However, lacking a formal education in philosophy, she never truly engaged the classical tradition she thought she was preserving, or any serious criticism. Rand was as completely modern as the collectivists she fought against, and shared much more with them than with Aristotle.

Ryan's reaction, or over-reaction, to a challenge to the principles of his city is thus clear. But what happened to everyone else? Whatever their initial sympathies in the conflict between Atlas and Ryan, the residents of Rapture eventually simply turned on one another. All throughout the city one finds barricades and spent shells. And bodies. Everywhere. Not simply cut down and left in the streets, but increasingly the violence seems to have turned into depravity, with the citizens of Rapture beginning to prey upon one another because they enjoy it. It is particularly chilling that the medical professions in Rapture were often at the forefront of this switch. That was perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the game: the sheer volume of violent death that was depicted. If you can see that and not feel something, you have no heart.

The genetics research that marked Rapture is the strategic enabling technology in all this. Millennialism by itself is capable of causing things like that happened in Rapture, but part of what makes Millennialism work is that it relies upon the kinds of stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. What was the story of Rapture? Rapture was very much intended to be a fresh start for humanity, free from the influences that had corrupted men on the surface. Thus Rapture was a kind of New Jerusalem, a promised land where all wrongs would be righted. Along with a new heaven and earth comes a new man, the man created by splicing. The powers that were granted by the genetic technology of Rapture increased the power of the citizens, but did not improve their characters. How much easier is it to kill a man when all you have to do is think it? Like the millenarian episode in Münster in 1534-35, without the iron wills at the top enabling all the madness, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots could never have escalated that far.

Some of the scientists who immigrated to Rapture had been employed on all sides of the Second World War, and they used the freedom of Rapture to perfect genetic modification using a substance called 'ADAM' isolated from a sea slug. ADAM makes genes more malleable, allowing greater changes to them than would otherwise be possible. All life on Earth shares a substantial fraction of their genes. Things that work tend to be conserved, because small changes in critical proteins can easily be disastrous. Thus your genes are not designed to be easily malleable. ADAM changes that, but at a price. The use of ADAM allows gene splicing, but also promotes mutations and disfigurement. More ADAM can be used to offset these side-effects, but this quickly leads to a vicious spiral. Thus, everyone in Rapture soon needed ADAM.

ADAM is produced by implanting the sea slugs into little girls, creating a symbiotic bioreactor referred to as a Little Sister. This was another point of contention between Ryan and Fontaine, because Fontaine used his orphanages to produce ADAM, while Ryan produced many of the plasmids and gene tonics that did the actual modifications. Thus, they needed each other, but hated each other. Ryan solved this problem by taking over Fontaine's businesses after he had Fontaine killed. Then Ryan had a complete monopoly. Ryan also turned the conflict between him and Atlas to business purposes, because one of the resident mad scientists discovered that ADAM could be recycled from the dead. Thus Ryan actually benefitted from feeding the conflict in Rapture.

This is where your primary moral dilemma in Rapture arises. When you come to Rapture, the little girls have been freed from their orphanage, but not from bondage, because they are employed by Ryan to harvest ADAM from the casualties of war. However, the girls can be harvested themselves by the depraved citizens, so they are protected by massive armored men, Big Daddies, who accompany them everywhere. In order to protect yourself in Rapture, you must collect ADAM yourself, but the only way to do so is to eliminate the Big Daddies and capture the Little Sister. Then you are presented with a choice, save, or harvest? The maximum amount of ADAM is gained by killing the little girl, but they can actually be freed from their bondage thanks to the efforts of a mad scientist with a guilty conscience.

As it turns out, this is the only choice you really have, because your presence in Rapture is not an accident. Jack turns out to be the child of Andrew Ryan, part of an elaborate plot by Fontaine to kill Andrew Ryan, and take control of Rapture. The same genetic technology that allowed scientists to grant new abilities allowed Fontaine to create a man who could be entirely bent to his will, with the added bonus of growing up very quickly. Jack is the ultimate test tube baby, as well as ultimate weapon. For Andrew Ryan had chosen to key control of the city to his DNA, but didn't bother to make it accurate enough to distinguish between him and close relatives.

Andrew Ryan actually discovers Jack's true provenance before you do, and in a final display of the willfulness that made Rapture come to be, actually uses Jack's conditioning to force you to kill him, telling you, "A man chooses, a slave obeys!" The game is thus clearly structured around the choices that we make, and who that makes us. Surprisingly (for me), this really is not the typical namby-pamby "it is good because you chose it!" kind of thing, but rather a very meaty illustration that you can choose right or wrong, and that if you do choose wrong, what usually happens is that you benefit while someone else suffers. This is told through the fate of the Little Sisters.

You can progress pretty well through the game with either choice, to save the innocents, or to sacrifice them, but the ending makes the personal consequences of evil very clear. You become an unadulterated monster, worse than the men who ruined Rapture. I admired the frankness of this, in many games it is now possible to choose "good" or "evil" but mostly this comes down to what color your hat is rather than some fundamental difference in what it means to be human. Sometimes there is a real "evil" ending, but it more along the lines of saturday morning cartoons than anything interesting. Bioshock was different, and that is why I found it so fascinating.

I saved the little girls.

Images Copyright © 2K Games 2007


An unlikely nexus

This month's Public Square column in First Things magazine by R. R. Reno has interesting parallels with Steve Sailer's Selecting for Conformity post. Each man expresses himself in a characteristic idiom, Reno the language of social justice and Sailer evolutionary biology, but it seems that they are coming at the same things from different sides.


The extraordinary complication of the modern college admissions game, for example, are best navigated by happy two parent families where mom and dad work together seamlessly to polish Junior's resume. Consider Amy Chua: she seems like a handful, yet she and her husband get along well-enough to stay married, which allows them to bring their huge joint resources of money, energy, education, and connections to bear on getting their amenable oldest daughter into Harvard. 

This trend has disparate impact on the children of broken families, but what are a combination of single moms, deadbeat dads, men with demanding new girlfriends, and widows going to do about it? Form the Losers and Screw-Ups Rights League?

This may have something to do with the vague social trend that many people have noted: that the young people at the top of society today seem pretty happy, well-adjusted, cooperative, and much more conformist than in the recent turbulent past. I suspect that people of ornery and/or impulsive dispositions inherited from their screw-up parents are less likely to make it to the upper reaches of society than in the past. In older times, parents with screw-up inclinations were more likely to be deterred by explicit social pressures against bastardy and divorces.


No. Progressives talk about “social responsibility.” It is an apt term, but it surely means husbanding social capital just as much as—indeed, more than—providing financial resources. In our society a preferential option for the poor must rebuild the social capital squandered by rich baby boomers, and that means social conservatism. The bohemian fantasy works against this clear imperative, because it promises us that we can attend to the poor without paying any attention to our own manner of living. Appeals to aid the less fortunate, however urgent, make few demands on our day-to-day lives. We are called to awareness, perhaps, or activism, but not to anything that would cut against the liberations of recent decades and limit our own desires.

Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.

In this and other ways, we can help restore the constraining forms of moral and social discipline that don’t bend to fit the desires of the powerful—forms that offer the poor the best, the most effective and most lasting, way out of poverty. That’s the truest preferential option—and truest form of respect—for the poor.

Sailer's example focuses on the Ivy-league elite, but his point is more broadly applicable. The combination of partly inheritable smarts and focus combined with favorable family circumstances [that are not unrelated to smarts and focus] makes it easy to be a winner in America. The lack of any of those three things will push you, or your children, further down the social scale. Lack more than one and you are in trouble.

A great deal of effort has been made to educate the poor and downtrodden youth, but much of this effort has been wasted trying to send people to college who cannot benefit from it. At the same time, the social feedback system that discouraged indolence and rewarded hard work and deferred gratification has been slowly eliminated, mostly for the benefit of the privileged few who don't really need the help.

Charlton on Tolkien and Rowling

Bruce Charlton unfavorably compares the moral universe of Harry Potter with the Lord of the Rings.

When first I tried to read the Harry Potter series, I was put off by the chaos of its moral universe. 

The author did not seem to have secure moral bearings, and it seemed that dreadful behaviour was almost causally tolerated or approved. 

When looking back across the whole series, I can discern that this was mostly a fault of the 'whodunnit' / detective novel structure, by which vital information is being held back from the reader until near the end. 

While this effectively sustains suspense, it does seriously distort the story and its perceived motivations. 

JK Rowling's moral universe is a modern one in which kindness and love are (explicitly) the primary virtues; and the greatest evil is cruelty and hatred. 

The implicit reason is that a world where people are kind and loving is a happier world than one in which people are cruel and hate-filled. 

But there is nothing more to it than that. 


JRR Tolkien's moral universe is one in which divine providence is at work. 

There is a purpose to his world, and moral evaluations take place relative to that purpose. 

Tolkien's is not a world of destiny, since free will is operative. Morally-approved behaviour is when people make difficult choices to support the true purpose of the universe. 

In The Hobbit, Bilbo is faced by numerous occasions when he has to choose between selfish and short-term behaviour and behaviour which is clearly 'right' - he is free to choose, and he usually chooses to do what is right. His mission (mostly) succeeds, both by his choices and by several strokes of luck. 

At the end Gandalf sums up: "You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?  You are a fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"

Here the role of providence, implicitly divine and benign providence, is made explicit. The same thing happens throughout the Lord of the Rings. 


By happenstance, I just [yesterday] reread volumes 6 and 7 of Harry Potter, and I couldn't disagree more. It is churlish to expect of Rowling the kind of moral exposition that Tolkien was capable of. I will readily admit, the Rowling expresses herself in the current idiom, which is at variance with the moral tradition that Tolkien mastered, but it is not wholly alien. Tolkien was an incredibly accomplished professor of ancient languages and a medievalist, with the finest education available in England. Rowling is university educated as well, but no one is under the impression that they are intellectual equals. 

Nevertheless, Rowling's moral universe really is not quite as far from Tolkien's as Charlton would have it. At first I thought that Charlton had simply not managed to make it through all seven volumes, since the seventh transforms the story entirely. However, scanning on, Charlton does indeed appear to have made it all the way through. However, Charlton missed the many occasions where Providence did play a role, such as Lucius Malfoy's foolish decision to inflict Tom Riddle's diary on Hogwarts.

The biggest mistake of all is to assume that everything Harry Potter does is therefore intended as laudable unless the author somehow indicates otherwise. Even in a children's book, this is not required. Every character in The Lord of the Rings served a purpose, since Tolkien was writing a myth. Characters in Harry Potter usually just act like people, with the usual mix of bad and good. 

This especially applies to Dumbledore, who is after all just a man, and as the seventh book shows, prone to all the foolishness and pride that is our lot. It is inapt to compare a mere man to Gandalf, who is a powerful angel that knows and can do a great deal more than he lets on. Dumbledore knows a great deal, but as Aquinas noted, our intellects, even the greatest among us, are just barely intellects compared to those of angels.

I would never place these two works on the same level, but to oppose them so is not borne by the evidence.

The Last Airbender Review

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Starring Zach Tyler, Mae Whitman, Jack De Sena, Dee Bradley Baker, Dante Basco, Jessie Flower, and Mako.

The mark of a good story intended for children is that adults can find it interesting as well. I still enjoy the Hobbit, and I appreciated the Narnia books much more once I was an adult. These stories, and many more like them, contain enough depth to satisfy a thoughtful reader while remaining accessible to almost everyone. There has been no greater curse upon our children than the rise of controlled vocabulary reader, containing nothing more advanced than the average knowledge of the targeted age-group, and usually insipid to boot.

I never gave The Last Airbender a chance because I assumed it would be a typical cartoon. In retrospect, this was unfair. I have liked many of the Nicktoons, going all the way back to Ren & Stimpy. Nickelodeon has managed to produce a remarkable number of children's shows that are watchable by adults. Sometimes, they have perhaps gone too far. Ren & Stimpy and Invader Zim were often bizarre and macabre, violating established canons of good taste in search of a gag. Yet these are shows also have the most enduring popularity. They are the kind of cartoons Dads love and Moms hate.

This show strikes a balance between humor and good taste that should satisfy almost any reasonable person. The Magistra and I laughed often. Yet The Last Airbender is also didactic in the best way. It almost never descends into preachiness [almost]. The dramatic arc of the show allows for genuine moral dilemmas. Given the brutal history of the world in which the show is set, these dilemmas often focus on revenge. Almost everyone has a score to settle with someone. The really interesting part is that most of these complaints are completely justified. At lot of people really do deserve to die. Now you you have your enemy at your mercy, what do you do? 

This world of war and injustice means that strife is endemic. The combat is largely bloodless, but I was surprised by just how many characters died offscreen. Death is a constant for everyone. The Last Airbender confronts death directly. It is amazingly intense. Yet never forced. I have never seen such a touching memorial for a lost son. The Magistra also cried a lot. 

While The Last Airbender is an American cartoon, it borrows from anime for its style and conventions. It even has a beach episode. The world is generically Asiatic, ranging from the Nepalese Airbenders to the Siberian Waterbenders. The bulk of the atmosphere comes from China, however. The martial arts, the overall mythology, the scenic mountain vistas are all Chinese. I approve of this borrowing, since the Han are one of the great civilizations of the world, and deserve to be honored in this way.

Unlike a great many anime series, The Last Airbender managed to stick to the story, and followed the arc to its end in 61 episodes. This itself is a remarkable achievement, so many series get lost on the way to their destination. I can understand why this is so. I wanted it to be longer, and I was sad when the story ended. But I was happy too, because it ended so well. Having the discipline to end it while the ending is good is an essential part of storytelling. 

I would be glad to share this show with my own children. It is a rousing good yarn, with astute judgements about human character, and sound moral reasoning. One of the best cartoons I have ever seen.

Modern Moral Reasoning: Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt gave a talk sponsored by Edge.org on moral psychology.

I have mixed feelings about Edge. The organization seems like it collects all of my natural enemies in one place, because it is the altar of scientism. But, they do sometimes produce really interesting ideas. 

Haidt thinks the paper about the WEIRD people should be required reading for everyone in his field, posted like the minimum wage laws are in every departmental office.

Haidt also complains about the thinness of modern moral discourse, in its two primary varieties of utilitarianism and deontology. Haidt is all for virtue ethics.

Virtue theories are about training the elephant. Virtue theories are about cultivating habits, not just of behavior, but of perception. So, to develop the virtue of kindness, for example, is to have a keen sensitivity to the needs of other people, to feel compassion when warranted, and then to offer the right kind of help with a full heart.

Utilitarianism and deontology, by contrast, are not about the elephant at all. They are instruction manuals for riders. They say, "here's how you do the calculation to figure out the right thing to do, and just do it."  Even if it feels wrong. "Tell the truth, even if it's going to hurt your friends," say some deontologists. "Spend less time and money on your children, so that you have more time and money to devote to helping children in other countries and other continents, where you can do more good."  These may be morally defensible and logically defensible positions, but they taste bad to most people. Most people don't like deontology or utilitarianism.

This is pretty good stuff. But, I can't read something like this without feeling a little frustrated. Edge.org gets together eminent but controversial thinkers, but the things Haidt is talking about are unsurprising to me; they are standard ideas in Aristolelianism and Thomism. Old hat even. Human beings are poor at reasoning and largely self-interested in selecting conclusions? I read that in the Summa. "Barely an intellect" is the phrase St. Thomas used to describe our reasoning abilities.

At the end of his talk, Haidt asks for help finding all the contradictory evidence he missed. This is instead, all the confirmatory evidence he missed.