An Anarchist Perspective on the Red Lotus
There’s a few images going around simplifying the adversaries in each season of The Legend of Korra as political or philosophical ideologies: Communism, Theocracy, Anarchism, and Fascism. Sometimes recurring irritants on the show get comparable billing and the roster expands to include capitalism and monarchy. But the first world audience is relatively comfortable with these two and so, as a consequence, is Korra. The implicit, although at this point near-explicit, moral in the show is the danger of perspectives that deviate too far from our present prejudices and norms. If these are extremist positions the average viewer starting point is taken as moderation–near some golden balance–that, if it can be narrowed down, will solve all the problems. And so we are deliberately given ‘good’ capitalists (Asami) and ‘good’ monarchs (Zuko), despite these being rather extreme ideological positions inherently underpinned by violence, because capitalism and monarchy are commonplace in the first world today. No equalist/communist, for instance, ever joins Team Avatar.
While members of the Red Lotus are humanized to a shocking and delightful degree in season three, they are still treated as ideologically beyond the pale. Korra immediately dismisses Zaheer’s arguments out of hand. And between the cartoonish looting the authors had immediately befall the Earth Kingdom and the Bismarkian strongman archetype Kuvira appears to be playing in the new season, it’s quite clear Konietzko & DiMartino are defaulting on a conservative Hegelian/Fukuyamist narrative about the emergence of liberal democracy that has no capacity or desire to integrate real anarchist analysis. As such the Red Lotus aren’t allowed space to exist as rational actors or to present serious arguments, their only purpose is to serve as a marker–a kind of “here be dragons” warning sign–to fence in the map of the possible. Individually somewhat sympathetic perhaps, but in a pitiable way. Insane.
Which is sad because as they’re written–however inadvertently–I think there’s a strong case that the Red Lotus are the best damn heroes in the entire history of the Avatar universe.
But first, some words about the context:
The central issue in the Avatar universe–and indeed in almost all fantasy universes with magic–is the innate imbalance those abilities create. These universes are designed to pull us in, to adopt their cosmology as real and get invested in answering “what if” questions and extrapolations. What happens when a firebender and an earthbender have kids? Is there Uranium in this world and could such elements be used by metal benders? One of Avatar’s strengths is its respect for the audience and its efforts to create a coherent world that doesn’t immediately pop under trivial analysis. But there are some fraying ends and rising tensions, especially as they’ve pressed deeper into extrapolation. It’s not just the sheer arbitrariness of “what counts as ‘earth’ anyway?” but the utter bizarreness at times of a culture that looks much like our own while existing in a radically different cosmology and material reality.
Of course we need tropes to guide us as an audience and pulling from the array of profoundly different cultures found in anthropology (like the Australian Aborigines) would be too sharply alien. But magical sentient spirits and flavored martial-telekinesis are no small detail and the impact of their existence is never fully felt in the Avatar universe. I’m not sure if we can speak substantively of ethics in relation to sentient magical creatures/spirits, there’s just too many unknown unknowns, and so I’ll largely avoid it in my analysis. But bending is often treated as a technology in the Avatar universe and I generally think that’s most useful lens.
Unlike force sensitivity in Star Wars, bending appears to have a far more random and less hereditary occurrence. However the flavor of bending one one unlocks is strictly determined by heredity, and simultaneously implied to be tied to personality and outlook. The suggestion is that if your personality doesn’t match the flavor embedded in your parents lineage you’re simply denied bending. Things get a little squirrely when asking whether this dynamic is intentional on the part of either the lionturtles who bestowed bending on humans, a byproduct of history playing out well beyond its original intended scope, or a consequence of deep constraints to the physics of the Avatar universe that even the spirits are subject to. Who knows. Ask too many foundational questions and our suspension of disbelief will come crumbling down. Bending is a powerful technology with a weird distribution pattern imposed externally. As such it provides a sandbox by which to examine some transhumanist issues but not others. Those who don’t have bending constitute a clear-cut underclass, but there’s also incredible intra-familial class mobility, something akin to the effects of meritocracy. There does seem to be some persistent cross-generational power accumulation, as virtually all the powerful families have a strong propensity for children with bending talent, but the scales have been deliberately pushed by the writers to avoid portraying a persistently distinct and powerful class and losing our sympathies.
That said it’s hard to avoid the plain reality that when some people have the capacity to move boulders with their minds and others are stuck as baseline humans it creates a sharp and problematic power dynamic. Unlike The Last Airbender where we followed a band of rebels thrown together by chance and sleeping in the mud at the periphery of things, The Legend of Korra follows those already at the center of world power and privilege. The closest comparison to this shift from more conventionally appealing underdog narratives is the Star Wars prequels and both they and Korra sometimes come across contrived and unsettling as a result. Despite, or because it takes place in a more modern era, Korra is a much more conservative show than the Last Airbender and Korra a much more reactionary lead than Aang. This is frequently frustrating but it’s also profoundly interesting. The writers are unquestionably breaking new ground. Throughout both Airbender and Korra they’ve been casually progressive in hugely impactful ways (Suki’s characterization alone was stunning on a number of fronts). And the richness of an often unsympathetically stubborn, reactionary and naive but just as often sympathetic, dynamic and human lead female superhero is frankly just exciting to watch. DiMartino and Konietzko have a colossal platform and they’re clearly motivated by a love of creating and pushing into new realms. (Note: Such love was, I’d argue, also apparent in George Lucas’ work on Episode I. It’s admirable but not a panacea is what I’m saying.) I can find The Legend of Korra a delightful work that should be produced, while also disagreeing with choices in story and being intensely leery of its reactionary themes and morals.
The division between benders and non-benders is as intensely unethical as any provision of immense technological capacity to an exclusive few. It may ultimately be a product of inert cosmic rules or happenstance in the Avatar universe, but that doesn’t make it less ethically pertinent. Human biology itself is clearly ethically suboptimal. We get needlessly sick, sometimes we’re just randomly born with horrid limitations, roughly half of us get to have / are saddled with uteri and half not at all, by default we have very little agency in all manner of intensely impactful things like whether or not babies suddenly grow in the aforementioned uteri. Some of us can perform amazing feats of physical prowess without all that much work and others can’t no matter how hard we train. And what’s with these non-reconfigurable genitals? Human bodies are decidedly not open source. Thankfully in our world the statistical baseline isn’t as bad as it could be and deviation from it is relatively marginal, allowing us a lot of choice in what talents we develop and how we augment ourselves. But it’s easy to grasp how material realities can be judged for their ethical optimality.
When someone has a physical or cognitive capacity that others do not the resulting social relationship can feedback through numerous means of loose pressures or explicit exploitation and domination into less and less real freedoms for those without. There are basically two ways to respond, either stripping this person of their advanced capacities and/or reigning them in to some arbitrary baseline, OR by changing cultural norms and working diligently to better leak those advanced capacities out to everyone. The first approach, in which the tallest flowers are cut down and sent off to wilt in Siberia has some kneejerk proponents among state communists and primitivists. But it must be admitted that the latter isn’t always easy. And sometimes it isn’t practically possible to detangle power obtained through oppression from individual capacity obtained independently.
The first season of The Legend of Korra was dominated by these concerns in an Equalist revolution that sought to remove bending abillity from everyone. Per an unwritten but near absolute rule in American media, if a character advocates revolution that individual must fall somewhere between irrational bloodthirsty monster and manipulative power-hungry hypocrite. The Legend of Korra barely deviated when it came to the Equalists. But interestingly, by shedding light however glancingly on this disparity of power in the Avatar world, the writers ended up actually annoying a lot of politically moderate critics with their failure to sincerely grapple with the underlying tension. Simply slapping a popularly elected presidency on the United Republic wasn’t enough to placate viewers and I take that to be reflective of quite positive currents in our society.
Now the Equalist approach was I think clearly unethical, a prime example of cutting everyone down to size rather than lifting anyone up; paying attention only to relative power relations and disregarding objective degrees of physical freedom. The closest example of people advocating such today in our real world would be the primitivists who think having seven billion people die in a cataclysm and the scant survivors lose all technological capacity would be worth it because the risks of inequality from people having more–or merely different–degrees of material freedom outweigh the benefit of any such freedoms. I am, to say the least, not a fan.
…But at the same time relative inequality is certainly not of zero concern and it is arguably possible for the risks to everyone’s freedom to outweigh the exceptional freedom provided to a single person.
As viewers we usually take it for granted that the Avatar is a force for good in her universe. But it’s not always clear that this is the case. Past avatars have made mistakes of great consequence. Of course unlike the world leaders/warlords that have periodically risen to do great horrors, the Avatar’s core strength can be seen as purely technological or physical rather than political, and most of her most damaging mistakes in various lives have been prompted by the existence of stark political power. Roku’s failure to overthrow Sozin because of their friendship is the big one we all notice. But Kyoshi’s creation of the Dai Li to help preserve “peace” (albeit an inherently oppressive and violent kind of peace) in the Earth Kingdom was a more proactive horror.
Of course one can read both as merely an issue of acting timidly within the constraint of external political context. And in a more charitable lens the Avatar can be seen as the only permanently free person her world; the only person unboundable by governments and laws and often openly acknowledged as such. Further, the Avatar cycle was launched by a boy who stole firebending and attempted a violent revolution against his city’s ruling family.
…But it’s hard to argue there’s any one single nature to the Avatar throughout all of her incarnations. Despite talk of “balance” and “peace” those are notoriously nebulous and unclear concepts, and in the few incarnations we’ve seen the Avatar has applied them in vastly different ways. The emergent order of life is itself often chaotic when looked at under a certain resolution, while stringent “order” of the trains-running-on-time sort is often underpinned by horrific violence. All the Avatar as a figure or worldwide institution clearly represents is unparalleled technological power in the hands of one person. Ostensibly with hazy ‘good’ intentions, yes, and that counts for something, but it’s not clear how much.
Which is all to say that while I enthusiastically support the Red Lotus’s desire to overthrow the world’s governments and plant the seeds for a freer world to flourish, I’m conflicted about Zaheer’s plan to kill the Avatar permanently.
What the Avatar most resembles is picking a single random person on the planet and giving them a nuclear arsenal. …A person who those in power can usually identify and assert some influence over from a young age. Indeed a lot of Korra’s tendency towards reactionary privilege clearly stems from essentially being brought up by and hanging with the rulers of the world, or at best the ruling classes.
(Incidentally as someone who actually was homeless as a kid, christ it’d be nice to see Mako and Bolin written to actually express more realistic class tension and outsiderness re the magical richies who’ve taken them in like it’s no big deal.)
Granted, the Avatarverse is in some sense a pretty artificial liberal utopia in which major world leaders (Korra’s dad Tontaq, Suyin, Zuko and his daughter presumably) are known to somehow be pretty decent people. But we really have no clue as to their policies. Are they artificially immiserating millions and promoting oppressive oligarchies through misguided trade regimes? Intentions mean little when structural power often has immensely negative externalities. I’d argue that after the dissolution of the council Tenzin doesn’t count as one of these “world leaders” and frankly the Air Nation is pretty damn anarchist already. However it must be said for those wringing their hands at the notion of violent means, that despite their plans to abolish all the world’s governments the only people the Red Lotus explicitly mentioned targetting for assassination are the Republic President and the Earth Queen. The Red Lotus were at various points in a position to murder Tenzin, Tonraq, Zuko, Suyin, Desna and Eska, and they chose not to. I’m not sure if that gets the Firelord off the hook (and remember we’ve seen how bad that position of power can get), but it does say something about rational prioritization. The Republic President is self-serving, the Earth Queen was a complete tyrant and the White Lotus is a extralegal international conspiracy deeply embedded in every power structure and completely unaccountable to the people.
I think we can all agree that stealing Korra (the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal, remember) away from her conservative world-leader parents and mentors so she could be raised as an anarchist at least for a little while would have been the best outcome. Whatever claim of familial affinity might have ethical pertinence, the good of an avatar aligned against oppression rather than on the side of the status quo would have clearly outweighed it. But once our noble heroes were thrown in prison that avenue was up.
Korra grew up into a complex and realistically many-faceted young adult, and the writers deserve credit for challenging viewers with a lead that repeatedly took starkly unsympathetic actions for the first two seasons. (Although again so does Lucas for challenging viewers in 1999 with a WTO stand-in pleading points of procedure before space-congress; doesn’t mean it necessarily makes for good viewing.)
Sadly there seems to be some hedging even within Zaheer’s statements, “True freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are thrown down.” Of course he could have used the redundancy of “oppressive governments” just to be more clear before Korra, but it’s telling how corrupted she is by her proximity to political power that she recoils from even this anodyne statement.
Now one could argue it’s not clear if Zaheer’s affinity group could have taken down all the world’s governments with Korra on the loose. I mean I’d very much like it to be the case that the ease by which they literally set fire to the prisons, tore down the borders and committed sexy sexy regicide could likewise be applied to all the other institutions of oppression while continuing to outwit a bullheaded teenage girl and her posse, and my inclination as an observer is to say they totally could’ve. And left Korra to bottomline the conflict resolution and small warlord cleanup in their wake. But who’s to say Korra wouldn’t have used the chaos to instill her own reign over the world, create worse regimes, or just generally get in the way of the emergence of more organic social forms? She is pretty entitled and prone to control freak tantrums. When you tear down a social order you have a responsibility to secure it from new would-be politicians/bandits/warlords.
The Red Lotus would have made easy work with Kuvira and her bandit lords, but with Korra in the way their odds decline drastically.
It may be that my inclination to ignore Korra and the more peaceful presumably “benevolent” leaders like her dad and Zuko is a result of problematic timidness on my part. Zaheer rolled hard on a future free of the Avatar, doing the work to free the world that virtually no one else besides his small group could attempt, and it’s easy to cry and express remorse that he didn’t bypass that fight to clean up some more pressing tyrannies and potentially reemerging power structures first, but as an audience we’re blinded by our closeness to and compassion for Korra as a person.
Yet I’m ultimately for the responsible proliferation of greater personal capacity and thus on idealistic terms I’m pro the Avatar’s existence, so long as that kind of immense capacity isn’t made an exclusive thing and doesn’t end up suppressing everyone else through externalities. My preference is to see everyone eventually elevated to her level, or at least provided the choice of developing such talents.
In asking whether that’s possible within the Avatarverse we press up against the limits of what can be reliably said here because of the mystery of the spirits. It could be that for some random magic reason only Raava and Vaatu can grant the kind of abilities the Avatar possesses. And not say our pekingese friend.
That said the spirits themselves provide an extra incentive to keep the Avatar around. Why are humans mortal (in some sense) but spirits not? Is there some kind of divine authority in the Avatarverse who has imposed the limitations on humanity? Are the Lionturtles acting in passive charity or are they instrumental in the way the world evolved before the Avatar? It’s one thing to level the playing field between humans, it may well turn out that the Avatar is presently the only thing levelling the playing field between humans and spirits.
But dropping the spiritual context, whatever our ideal scenario, drastic social change is clearly needed in Korra’s era and social change is always hard. It’s harder still when the institutions you mean to overthrow have made themselves near impregnable.
Korra and the generally liberal audience readily recognize the need to depose the Earth Queen and smash the social stratification of Ba Sing Se. Poverty and tyranny are not passive injustices, they are a pressing and continual injustice inflicted on a scale to put virtually every other horror we’ve seen to shame. Every day that the monarchy and Ba Sing Se’s walls remain is the murder of dozens if not hundreds of people from the various pains of poverty alone. Not overthrowing the Earth Queen and the Dai Li is ethically inexcusable in the extreme.
That the Earth Kingdom immediately fell to cartoonish anomie complete with raging fires is not entirely realistic–in practice, despite widespread media narratives to the contrary, “power vacuums” and catastrophes empirically tend to see individuals and communities come together in spontaneously emergent cooperation and mutual aid–not frothy-mouthed everyone-against-everyone opportunism. But even so, had the Red Lotus survived to continue to assist the people in overthrowing would-be rulers, it would clearly have been a bandaid worth ripping off.
Because of the inequity of access to bending technology there simply are very few people capable of taking on the Dai Li (again, an order established by the Avatar).
The situation in Republic City is similar, although approaching the levels of economic injustice and effective murder most viewers today are likely tolerant of. I’m team Korrasami all the way, but let’s be clear: Asami is a capitalist whose empire is predicated on close collaboration with state violence. Yes, the ridiculous scale of Future Industries was built on war machines, but as automobile producers it was also built on infrastructure subsidies secured by taxation and eminent domain. The size of Asami’s empire is a direct result of the injustices that underpin the Republic.
It’s on this landscape that Zaheer, Ghazan, Ming-Hua, and P’Li decided they had to act. And the choices they make are consistently admirable. They show amazing restraint when obliged to fight people who are not their adversaries, leaving defeated people alive again and again. They repeatedly fight cops and prison guards with murderous force, but often choose minimal-damage approaches on the whole rather than risking innocents. Towards the end Zaheer thinks on his feet and condemns his comrade Aiwei to being lost in the spirit world rather than risk letting Korra interrogate him, which is cruel but efficient and arguably necessary given the stakes. But the biggest supposed atrocity they commit is a fake. The Red Lotus doesn’t actually risk any of the people they capture in their last-ditch attempt to lure in Kora besides Tenzin. The trap with Ming-Hua and Ghazan is designed to hold up or permanently stop Korra’s allies from rescuing her and as such it would be irresponsible in the extreme to have innocents lying around in the Air Temple.
Killing Korra feels a bit left-field but I can understand feeling it a strategic necessity.
We never get to see the future the Red Lotus envisions after the Avatar cycle is finished because our heroes are taken out and Korra rescued by other, less enlightened, heroes to grow and mature in season 4, and I doubt the writers know anything about anarchism in our world. But if we take the characters at their word I’d say they exhibit far more noble traits than Team Avatar. It’s easy to respond to threats that show up right in front of you, much harder to tackle the truly big threats, the persistent injustices and horrors that fade into the background. To stir up conflicts otherwise suppressed. To seek out fights you don’t have to.
Despite her combative attitude, throughout the first three seasons Korra is more or less constantly being thrust into conflicts she didn’t start and also can’t hope to avoid. Her companions stick with her out of general camaraderie and a read of the immediate stakes. Korra is a reactive figure rather than a proactive one, and this makes her a stunted sort of hero. Someone who survives challenges rather than seeks them out.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Korra, Asami, Bolin, Mako, Jinora, et al. there’s all kinds of feels there, but Korra is not one for thinking things through. Before the end of her conflict with the Red Lotus she remained on some level a petulant brat who was used to having things handed to her and she consistently approached world issues the same way. I sincerely hope she matures further in season 4 and I even hold out a slim glimmer of hope that the writers’ annoying notion of democracy as the “balanced” synthesis of freedom and tyranny will lead to some sort of conclusion where she tackles her heartbreaking PTSD and unleashes the imprisoned Zaheer in some way against Kuvira. But Korra has not been a particularly conscious agent in her world. And I’m not sure that simply powering through problems rather than preemptively thinking through all possible paths and then setting off on the difficult but most consequential qualifies as heroism.
In the rapidly complicating world of the modern Avatarverse it’s not clear that having an Avatar is even useful. Given the severe power imbalance of the Avatar’s abilities there’s a tendency, even an obligation, to utilize it in sweeping ways, but as the world becomes more and more complex so do the unintended ramifications. A broad base of committed proactive individuals can step up and tackle these ramifications and can act more locally with more nuance and awareness. The Red Lotus offered the beginnings of such a movement, so does Tenzin’s reorganized Airbenders. Korra does not.
We will probably end season 4 on some kind of redeeming note wherein the writers present their thesis regarding the Avatar’s continued importance. But maybe not. While on an individual level Korra is a decent human being who certainly doesn’t “deserve” to die, if the Avatar cycle goes out, if Vaatu and Ravaa disappear from everyday interference, I suspect the world would be a much better place. Whatever challenges Korra faces this season, whatever new overpowered enemies or challenges, I think we should ask ourselves, could the Red Lotus or other hardscrabble volunteer heroes without her wealth, unparalleled magic, and social status have taken care of them? How might they have gone about tackling or heading them off from the start?
Firefly: Season One And Serenity Were Just The Prelude
I will always remember the first time I paused while flicking through channels and heard “boy, this planet really smells!” I was immediately hooked. And I spent the following long dark years before Serenity a fervent evangelist. That we even got our Big Damn Movie shocks me to this day and I want to make clear that I am more than content to sit back, wrap up my fandom with a little bow, put it on a shelf, and only ever trot it out when someone makes the mistake of asking the wrong question at a party. We got our ending–such as it is–and I have no illusions that our wildly successful cast will ever disentangle themselves from their various contracts in time to film anything other than Firefly: The Geriatrics.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to consider the possibilities and the recent successful Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie certainly set off quite a lot of chatter. What surprised me the most though were those who felt the story was finished and that any continuation would have to resort to the dark magic of prequeling, retconning or rebooting. That’s patently ludicrous and I feel it warrants a moment’s response. (Also–in a slightly more self-serving vein–the years have taught me that nothing revitalizes one’s writing like tapping into some geek righteousness. Spend months crafting a very compassionately nuanced and analytical exploration of objectification and pornography, get ten reads; feverishly slobber off some drelk on Star Wars, get ten thousand a day. And while I don’t have any illusions about the odds of striking readership gold again, that kind of piece always breaks my writer’s perfectionism and boy could I use a hand there again.)
Honestly I see Serenity as the perfect launching point for a really solid series and/or sequels. Here’s how Firefly continues in my head:
Remember that in all likelihood Mal and the crew are not famous. The whole point of Wikileaks was to keep B Manning’s name out of the papers and it’s very much not in the nature of Serenity’s crew to stick their heads up further than absolutely required. All the rest of the ‘verse knows is that a bit of video and possibly some boring records got leaked. Of course Mal’s name is finally very much on the government’s radar but there’s some reticence towards generating another big splashy scene hunting the crew down. A Pentagon Papers scandal like Miranda generates the kind of turbulence that changes which corrupt and privileged politicians/businessmen are holding the reins of political power, but it hardly shoves the majority of those responsible or connected to those responsible into the wastebin. Key members of parliament are going to remain, more or less, key members of parliament. Thus there’s incentive for the best repositioned factions of those in power to keep a walking potential after-tremor of the scandal like Malcolm, River and company alive and in play. It’s not in anyone’s interest to make Miranda into a truly tumultuous affair, no one wants systemic change after all, but once the news cycles have petered it out into background static, softly kicking the hornets nest again to re-malign one’s competitors becomes a survivable tactic. Insofar as those with the most amount of power post-Miranda ever consider Mal and the crew, they like that they have a piece in play that could get Miranda mildly back into the news.
But of course this is a two-sided coin. While the upper echelons of the police/military aren’t going to go on a land-burning and sea-boiling crusade for our Big Damn Heroes, there’s lots and lots of space and motivation for other hammers to come swinging at them. Those with–for whatever byzantine reason due to the most current web of politics at any moment–a stake in not having Miranda come up will very much like to see Serenity snuffed out in a silent explosion out on the ass-end of the ‘verse. As will any remnants of those with direct responsibility for Miranda carrying an itchy personal grudge at the notion of letting a flea get away after a bite. And of course River will remain–if not grow–both dangerous and valuable.
If Mal was unable to get underscrupulous jobs before because of his chaotic conscience and attention grabbing antics, now things are surely only peachy.
This is the real linchpin on which Serenity instantly transforms from a crescendo and coda to the opening salvo in our little old firefly’s real journey. Whereas before the crew were junior-grade lumpenproles, in constant danger of being crushed by a stray step but capable of eking out an honestly dishonest living begging for warm bowls of crime-filled gruel and saluting passing cops with their best pearly-white smiles, now they’re actual outlaws.
If Firefly was ever in any chance of returning as a series the first season or two after Serenity would be a tense affair of survival and piracy. Every relationship or period of sedentary safety would have an all-too-pressing expiration date and they’d have to be far more proactive about heists… and a little less discriminatory Sure the sense of soft familial love would be strengthened by Simon and Kaylee, but the tension of “me and mine” versus common humanity with strangers would be again be a salient running theme, and tensions of ends-and-means would surely heighten as the crew turns more and more to piracy.
But! Things are not quite so glum for our occasionally-intrepid mercenaries. There are alternatives to slowly filling the fleshy shoes of the Reavers, although perhaps even less palpable. In my mind Mal and the crew eventually find the kind of sponsors of hired-guns undaunted by the powers-that-be behind the Alliance: other Alliance powers-that-be. First corporate espionage/subversion/thuggery, and then later direct employ from figures inside parliament itself. Although the crew is never treated as anything more than a few steps removed pawn only sometimes on the edge of awareness of their situations, the potential for system-spanning plot entanglements and culture/paradigm clash is immense. As are the internal tensions and counter-schemes, because our Big Damn Heroes are hardly passive.
Firefly certainly did not die with Serenity, nor did the struggles of our crew.
There are quantum-telegraph cables to be cut, murderous gunmen to be tracked down, samples of vats of copyrighted plastics and proteins to be stolen, reavers dispersed by the Alliance into local raiding parties in garbage fields, denizens of small spacestations bandying together to fend off the thugs of spectrum monopolists…
I’ve always really, really wanted to see the crew rob a giant particle accelerator in space. I think there’s so much potential there in the implicit cultural and paradigmatic clash. Firefly borrows strongly from Star Wars’ complete disinterest in science, but explicitly contextualizes this tendency as a cultural and subjective perspective by working hard to make strides towards a believable scientific framework in the background. In much the same way that Joss Whedon is personally a fan of the Alliance’s social democracy (with universal healthcare), yet the story is shot primarily from a libertarian perspective with the other aspects of the underlying reality obscured in what seem like minor details.
Neither Blue Sun nor the history of Shepard Book were sufficiently handled on by the comics–if they’re even cannon–and there’s so much more room to touch on them, if only fleetingly. Just as the first season built up a pile of references and floating plots, so too would one expect any new series to continue shaking in references and background details to entirely new aspects of their society and relationships with new characters. There’s so much more to explore in the ‘verse and so much more to be mined from the cultural, aesthetic and paradigmatic clash between periphery and core that made episodes like “Ariel” so popular.
Cosmopolitan revolutionary and radical movements surely exist in the core of the Alliance and I’d like to thing we’d get to see them open up and explore the reference implicit in Simon’s friends. But sadly a treatment that looks anything like real revolutionary and radical groups rather than nth-iterated cartoonish abstractions of hollywood tropes kinda beggars belief. (It’s still viscerally painful for me to watch those scenes in Children of Men, so embarrassingly unreal are the supposed radicals, excellent though the rest of the film is.) So maybe instead of coming into the ranks of radicals and revolutionaries, the final apex of the story is one of finally actually saving people instead of watching them die or telling their tale. I love the idea of a different sort of social landscape opening up in the border planets over the course of the story, of the sort of wildcat labor struggles that filled the wild west after the civil war was won and the railroads established. Futuristic struggles and battles between Wobblies and Pinkertons would nicely parallel the actual west, where a volunteer Confederate soldier and abolitionist like Albert Parsons could ride with the Texas cavalry, start a paper in Waco, fight the Klan, marry an unbelievably badass freed slave, and die on the gallows in Chicago as an anarchist union organizer.
Serenity framed itself and the prior prelude of Firefly as Mal’s struggle to finally stand for something, to shake off the wounded defensive nihilism of the Browncoats’ defeat and come back into the world. But it also brought to the fore River’s similar but hidden journey in ways that hinted at her always being the main character, albeit temporarily obscured in the background detail. In that light Firefly Season One and its spectacular finale look a lot like opening chapter of a George RR Martin book: the person indicated to be of central narrative importance is there primarily to set things up and characters gonna die quickly.
Serenity ends with River exactly where Mal began five years before the show in that junkyard: a couple years after a personal hell, just beginning to coming out of her shell and looking up at what could be. That’s a lot of seasons to come. I can’t wait to find out what she finally comes to believe in.
Because that? That’ll be an interesting day.
How Star Wars Should Have Ended: Reflections on Taste, The Expanded Universe & Radical Politics
I’m feeling profoundly under the weather so it’s as good a time as any to indulge in that most venerable of radical pastimes, ranting about Star Wars.
I discovered Star Wars the same way any poor eight-year-old did in the early 90s, through the comics section at my local library. Dark Empire and Tales of the Jedi were richly watercolored and stunning in their scope. And eventually I got bored enough to follow up on their source films. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Star Wars was an acceptable geekdom in the otherwise harsh projects. Star Wars was gangsta. And the root of this I suspect lies in its dramatically different character from Star Trek, Lord of the Rings or the myriad superheroes and chain-mail wearing dragon-slayers cranked out monthly. Star Wars feels familiar.
Having turned to the comics section only after exhausting the rest of the stacks, I was knowledgeable enough to recognize the technological trappings as laughable, but gracious enough to appreciate the sly self-effacing shrug in “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The realism of Star Wars is its resonance with our common experience of ‘how reality works.’ Reality is complicated, gritty, lived-in, with more components than you can ever experience or understand. Obi-Wan and Luke don’t know the names of all the alien species dicking about in Wuher’s cantina and it wouldn’t occur to them to try. The galaxy is a big place. And the Empire’s success in this context is awe-inspiring and despair-inducing even while being obviously incomplete. Star Wars is what the world looks like to kids dealing dope on street corners. Scraping by in the chaotic brutal periphery, proud of the various impressions of home and community found there, using fantastic tools without the slightest understanding of how they work, in awe of the state while waking up every morning simmering in hate for it. Star Wars creates an environment in which the colors are brighter but everything else is the same. And then it wraps us up in the fantasy of meaningful resistance.
Maintaining this essential “tone” of Star Wars has been probably the most uproarious issue in the last three decades of popculture. Everyone knows the prequels dropped the ball, although the list of widely identified missteps is a bit shallow in description (more on that later). But Star Wars has been grappling with this burden from the very beginning. Some poor sod at Marvel Comics is told “we’ve got a license” and all of a sudden he’s forced to make difficult decisions about what would best signify the “star warsness” of a story as opposed to a Buck Rogers story. It’s not enough to draw some familiar outfits or even capture the characters’ voices, what fans are addicted to is the feel of the world. And it’s an inarguable fact that almost everyone has been failing to nail that in one way or another ever since.
Some Thoughts On The Newest Generation of SF
For all the talk of impenetrable singularity, it occurs to me that the modern milieu of SF writers is almost entirely preoccupied with futurism and future-shock, in contrast to yestergeneration’s focus on allegory / thought experiment. (Perpetually lurking in the background are the marginal Clarkesque Big Damn Object trade shows.)
While my favorite collection of all time remains The Hard SF Renaissance I’ve never really bought the much vaunted Hard/Soft division. In my mind the SF booktag has always indicated the paradigmatic pop of a story — it makes little difference if it’s political, anthropological, biochemical, astrophysical, etc. An arcane development in mathematics has as much pull as a sufficiently sharp twist on religion. This is what makes SF. The scope, audacity and originality of the concepts explored within an immersive story.
But there is a sharp distinction to be made between worlds contiguous with our reality and those allegorical to it. While the proto-SF of genre rags painted a picture of a gleaming future of rocketmen just around the corner, early SF writers were profoundly afraid to investigate anything close to the immediate future. It was almost dishonorable. The tropes of SF presented a vast sandbox to explore concepts at a distance — tying them to the present with “predictions” seemed both arrogant and pedestrian. If 40s proto-SF took place IN THE FUTURE!, the vast chunk of SF spanning the 60s-70s took place in hazily distant locales understood by author and reader alike to be no more than abstract myth settings. “A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away” except with intellectual pew-pews.
This still continues, but the modern age has given rise to a very distinguishable modern clique of SF authors interested in worlds with recognizable causal connections to our world. In a world deprived of anything more than an anemic NASA how we get there matters (or, alternatively, how it diverged). The other hallmark of the internet age is the density of the snarkiness, reference and speed of ideas — if Blade Runner signified the beginning of the shift away from abstraction with advertisements referencing real corporations, today’s authors plaster their prose with injokes. Rather than trying to abstract away, they embrace our inherent ties to the world as it is in order to milk a higher density out of our shared language. The internet has given everyone the sensation of having passing knowledge in every field, and modern SF authors are expected to be versed and deliver on many if not all fronts.
There simply isn’t the patience for limited-focus authors. And while I still heart Delany and Le Guin, I think this is a good thing. Nothing’s worse than sitting through a work full of intellectual spark on one front to find it dead on another. A great mathematics twist matched with a ridiculous carbon copy of the author’s culture transposed upon a ridiculously different environment. A finely constructed anthropological or psychological thesis with cliche and implausibly-portrayed tech.
Of course nobody’s entirely gotten it right yet, and the most ambitious kids like Vinge, Stross and Macleod have often fallen far from the mark. But it’s still a clear division.
Top 10 SF Films of the Decade
Serenity – At first it might seem ridiculous and fanboyish to place Serenity higher than Children of Men. Not only is the latter more finely composed, but on first appearance Serenity appears not simply ramshackle but less stalwartly Science Fiction. While there are necessary paradigmatic environmental changes (the G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorat, the psychic capacities of River Tam) they act less as central thematic drives than as crutches to drive events. If we take the old adage that a truly SF story is one that at its most basic and general can’t exist without a change of paradigm, it’s hard to evaluate Serenity because it’s hard to narrow down just what Serenity’s core is. Bad thing is done, man must expose? River finding family? Mal finding purpose? Blind faith? Totalitarianism? Tampering with natural order? There are so many disparate yet critical elements at work in Serenity and it moves so fast that one may be tempted to write it off as a desperate gasp than purely conceived and executed work. Yet I would argue that it is precisely Serenity’s linear, unraveling, scattershot density that marks it as a unique product of SF and a solitary masterpiece in the realm of film. Serenity reads like a Charlie Stross novel. Jumpy and uneven, railroaded from point A to B, dense with separately established half-ideas… and unbelievably all the better for it. That is to say an approach to narrative that could only exist and function well in the last couple decades of literary SF. And there’s no denying that Serenity functions well. Compressed seasons of Firefly or not, the film drips with the love it is clearly a labor of.
Children of Men – 2006 was a particularly good year for SF in the theaters and Children of Men was its crowning jewel. Everyone’s already seen this film, and I think that’s because it works so hard to encapsulate the everyday slowly decaying feeling of the Bush years. There is no scientific miracle or even new technology in Children of Men — consumer and industrial products are essentially the same, just with a different gloss, and a rainy, gritty, soggy wear and tear imposed over them. This is the future as the average person intuitively feels it. Exactly the same as today, just with the minor particulars evolved and the newspaper headlines darker. (To sustain this effect they had to remove the internet and infotech entirely.) Children of Men operates on the default assumptions you make when you first go to plot out your career or think about future generations. The world you directly touch will stay the same. And the rest of it will get worse, ultimately amounting to nothing. This is why Children of Men is without question the most accessible SF film of all time. It functions as a meditation on our relationship with SF and paradigmatic change more generally. The tediously building apocalypse beyond Britain, the paint-by-numbers insurgents within, the evolving fascistic state, all of these are operating within an antiquated context that has been dragged out for far too long. The absence of children is a vehicle for the exploration of the absence of ingenuity. Even though we assume they will and react negatively to claims that they won’t, in secret we don’t want things to stay the same. We want to be challenged by the new. The unseen. And its absence is the dissettling and unrealistic proposition.
A Scanner Darkly – The only Phillip K Dick film ever made. (It’s a shame because you’d assume they’d do well in Hollywood.) A Scanner Darkly is a loving tribute to paranoid deterioration. The tragedy isn’t that you don’t care anymore — you care all too much — it’s that you can’t clarify just what it is you care about. You can’t make sense of the world around you or even the particulars of your own life and your own identity because you’re lost in possibilities. A Scanner Darkly is not just a documentation of this state of mind, but an exploration of the unrealistic but not fantastical notion that maybe it was for something, maybe you had a plan all along. Maybe someone out there really does care for you. Maybe you are making a difference. That is to say “making a difference” in some higher form than offing yourself with a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and an unfinished letter to Exonmobile protesting the cancellation of your gas credit. Mundane sunny, suburban California never seemed so orwellian. And rotoscoped slipping and sliding cartoons of stoners arguing about the Beatles never seemed so dissettling. The delivery is an amazing triumph of everyday dystopia. But A Scanner Darkly’s core is a hauntingly utopian wish. That there was some unseen purpose, some triumph in failure. As the list of deceased scrolls by in PKD’s dedication, he plantatively asks if there might’ve been some happiness stolen in the midst of their abject misery. What would that even look like?
The Butterfly Effect - You know what I don’t give a shit. Ashton Kutcher made a good movie and you need to learn to accept that. The Butterfly Effect is the best time-travel film yet made, because it’s the most realistic, elegant and ressonant of them. That’s right, even with the ridiculous jumps forward it’s more on ball than Primer. None of this macroscopic bodily transference bullshit. The Butterfly Effect is the pure distilled essence of the time-travel story — cliche surrender in the face of complexity and inexorable self-sacrifice included. That it has no definitive ending is, kitchsy as it sounds, part of the appeal. Evan’s childhood is the whole point of the film, not whatever his ill-defined present might turn out to be.
Avatar - First, a bit on race: The rejected foreigner who is adopted by a tribe and fights his old tribe is an ancient and entirely valid plot concept. And there ARE plenty of Science Fiction or space fantasy stories told from the perspective of the colonized. It’s just that the subjects are always human (cf Independence Day, The Mount) because doing justice to the truly alien defies the bandwidth of storytelling. Avatar’s problem is that the Navi aren’t alien in the slightest — they’re deliberately made to be recognizable as our (simplistic, essentialist, idealic) impression of indigenous americans. This is both shallow and a bit fucked up. And it’s the reason Avatar tragically falls short of being a great film. It is, however, a very good film. Alas, there is no central component that marks it as inextricably SF. Like Serenity, Avatar is composed of a jumble of concepts, themes and struggles that work well together but defy simple summation. Nevertheless it’s worth pointing out just how positively many of them wax towards scientific inquiry and transhumanist self-expansion. Jake Sully is a broken, impoverished, outcast and marginalized man who desires nothing more than to excel — all his life he attempted this by following orders. But only by marrying his desire to self-improve with his twin brother’s desire to learn does he transcend both their failures and achieve the freedom and community he craves. But Grace Augustine is really what makes this film for me. How many decades has it been since we had scientists — much less scientific inquiry itself — portrayed in a positive light? I almost cried. Avatar has the most beautiful and realistic starship ever portrayed on the screen. It has imperialist soldiers being taken out by pteranodons. What the fuck more do you want?
A.I. – Kubric’s most surreal, ironic and pessimistic film ever required Steven Spielberg’s robotically emotional packaging to truly shine. I mean let’s be clear here. In the third act — in the frozen remains of an unsustainable civilization — it’s revealed that the act of consciousness trancends itself to become an undying legacy embedded in the cosmos. And the ressurected toy robot impulsively responds by irreversibly destroying his owner’s very soul so that he can experience a day’s fleeting intimacty with her once again. Saccharine my ass. A.I. is a twisted, glossy dystopic tale that sets out to excavate the uncanny valley on all fronts. The question “Are they people?” is always a false front for are we machines? And A.I.’s job is to vacillate as wildly as possible on this in as many ways as possible all while telling a coherent, emotionally gripping narrative. It has to get you to continue caring about the protagonists even as your perspective on that emotional atachment fluctuates. This is no small task. And it succeeds brilliantly. Naturally, the product is deeply dissettling. The well-worn dismissal that A.I. should have ended with the second act is, in fact, partially indicative of how successfully anticathartic the ostensibly cathartic third act is. A.I. has its faults — much of the social landscape in the second act simply fails to hit its target. But as a whole it is simply the best exploration yet of the classical Asimovian blur surrounding the animate objects we sympathize with.
Moon – Sometimes an idea doesn’t need to be that fresh, or even profound. Sometimes the smallest of twists can shine simply by fleshing it out well. Moon is not going to surprise you. It’s going to walk you through the consequences so realistically that every scene will make that single thorny change stand out and impress you anew.
Primer - Primer has one trick: omission. It can make for a mildly challenging and sometimes even interesting puzzle, but cripples it as a dramatic. Primer is less Science Fiction than it is engineering fiction. An attempted study of time-travel mechanics (as opposed to coherent theory), it waxes into a study of the ever present paranoia and emasculation that is bourgeois geekdom. Of all the films to make this list Primer is the least in the vein of SF, and yet to omit it would be unconscionable. And not out of token appreciation of its twine-and-bubblegum-wrapper budget. Rather the film is this decade’s rare good example of that overly ballyhooed and only marginally SF tradition: exploring effects of a subtle alteration to examine the world as it is. Primer is most impressive as an accidental critique of capitalist culture. An alienated, shallow world where the effects of true ingenuity can only be stumbled upon and then furiously exploited for social power. Where control of a situation is possible, but almost entirely arbitrary. And ultimately naught but a veneer on the underlying self-destruction. Even framing the plot itself as a puzzle — a competitive test — helps create a meta environment similar to that of Abe and Aaron. So, whether always consciously intentional or not, Primer’s elements do add up to a neat trick and decent SF film. Would that we lived in a world where realistic dialogue and technical detail was anything other than an utterly unique breath of fresh air. Until then.
Sunshine – Oh, I know, it’s shit. But it’s a pile of shit that grows on you. Sunshine is Armageddon meets 2001. Without the upside of Bruce Willis but also without the sheer boredom of Clarke. It’s almost fatally crippled by its third act lapse into giving a damn about a paleolithic irrelevancy (the religious). And the director’s understanding of them scientists is lacking, to say the least. But somehow the film survives and arguably even flourishes. Yes, the material premise is borderline magical and only stated in its most cartoonish form on screen — strangelets be destroying teh sun — but if you knew anything about how little astrophysicists actually know about anything you’d be inclined to let it slide. But, the central premise of Sunshine is actually an aesthetic one: sunlight being more dangerous than darkness. It’s a hack of our visual neurological architecture. A mildly SF conceit that could only function on screen. Of course, one wishes the genre of pretty, immaculate spaceships with pretty, immaculate scientists had more entries to choose from. But Sunshine is at least the most watchable of them.
Pitch Black – Pitch Black is just a very satisfying film. That’s all there is to it. Characters are stranded and hunted by creatures. This vicerally delightful setup almost always works on the rare occasions it is truly embraced (Jurassic Park, Alien) because it negates post-modernism by directly tapping into simplistic material reason in a way that outright horror almost always fails. Horror films terrify by removing rules, by undercutting the security of our capacity to reason — either we stop being able to make sense of the world around us and default on animal instinct or we invest the entirety of our minds into understanding the twisted thinking of our enemy. In both cases there cease to be rigidly tangible rules, or at very least at times the utility of hard headed reason seems to be in question. Pitch Black, like the few adequately SF “being hunted by creatures” films before, generates fearful tension but never the intellectual abandon or psychological recursion of outright horror. The challenge faced is the natural world — an almost prototypical SF story. Granted some of the challenges are farfetched (the crazy orbital locking) and it’s a bit vexing to only see pretty much only one type of life in the biota, but the peculiarities are the payoff in Pitch Black. The film takes for granted that we’ve played this game before and simply tries to change up the character dynamics and setting enough to refresh the experience. In this it does extraordinarily well. It left all of us with enough goodwill to see Vin Diesel though his ridiculous spinoff trilogy, but really, all the characters are awesome.
Notably omitted titles: The Fountain is not really SF because the sf story is an in-film allegory. Similarly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came close but was so introverted and surreally subjective in subject and approach that it might as well be magical realism. Star Trek, while fun, is not SF because it’s fucking Star Trek.
Finally, District 9 hasn’t sat well with me since viewing. The inclusion and portrayal of the Nigerians smacks of direct racism, and the central premise is both too different to allegorize and too allegorized. It of course means to be unsettling but in the process I think it fails at being substantive.
The Insular Decade
The 00s were a triumph of insularity.
Proudly insular politics. Proudly insular tastes & culture. Turning inward and accelerating in niche appeal. The oughties were the decade we realized that social relations are comprised of networks and awkwardly rushed to reframe all our relations upon that premise.
Rather than the tightening of cliques and tribes, the 00s saw a rapidly growing disinterest in common cultural currency. We stopped paying attention to the abstraction of what was popular in general and focused solely on what was popular with our friends and direct associations.
The oughties were the decade in which popular culture died. Even water cooler discussion became impossible. Subcultures were hardly immune because even they require the assumption of a shared venue. Something unto itself, with its own trends necessary to stay aware of in order to maintain the passive social connections it facilitated. A subculture was a vast expanse of shared popular culture, or reactions to that popular culture. Today there are just loose associations. A shared interest or common experience rarely comes bundled with many others. And what few bundles remain are seriously fraying.
Team spirit, despite some brief political upticks, was ultimately rolled back again and again, across the board. Our incomprehension of others outside of our immediate connections deepened. Our passive, dismissive hostilities increased, but in all directions, not to any net advantage.
Aimless, shallow, apathetic or fadishly political youth are nothing new, but those of this decade marched under no self-assumed collective identity. And what they held up as signifying their superiority was not an attitude or image, it was access to information itself. Reference was this decades’ currency.
Rather than gaudy material wealth we decked ourselves our with gaudy informational reference. To us, gold chains, leather studs, armani suits and hemp rags were paleolithically monotone, a sign of almost third-world informational poverty. Instead we wore the equivalent of NASCAR jumpsuits bedecked with varying vintage shout-outs, bandoleers of band buttons and ironic body accouterments. If we could have actually had those shifting t-shirts from the Justice video we would have counted ourselves kings among men.
Poverty was chic, but utilitarian simplicity was suspect if not disgusting.
The oughties were a decade entirely defined by our hesitant first steps of acclimation to the internet. It saw the destruction of the common sphere, and the almost complete reconstruction of our relations around the limitations of dunbar’s number. It saw the death of a certain type of empathy — the bland common ties of fellow citizens. …But at the same time the 00s saw the vast expanse of inquisitiveness in random directions and the accelerating spread of discourse.
We surf wikipedia for fun. Moderate liberals quote bell hooks.
We have less in common with strangers, and there are currently very prominent, very intentional and aggressive trends away from wider, deeper connection with others. But this decade’s insularity was but the first reaction. We are still opening our eyes to the freedom the internet provides. Even now we are acclimating to information overload, to the immediacy and ease by which we can share in limited networks. We are learning, feeling out the limitations of these initial insular approaches and at the same time we are only beginning to address our thirst for substantive knowledge beyond the immediate. As we do we will become more and more fed up with the limitations inherent in relying on the trivial and stylistic as aids to connection.
The internet has shattered cultural content. Traditionally the sharing of such substance-less commonalities formed one of the most critical bases of social connection. But they have shattered too far to be of use much longer. The postmodern death spiral of insular reference cannot continue, because even the inherent diversity of individual experience and network-position will eventually pare the density of bundled culture in our various networks down to nothing. We are going to have to find new ways to connect with one another. To deal with all the strangers we’re pressed up against. And that means a centuries — if not millennia — overdue resurgence of substance. The first strains of this will be apparent in the next decade as we remove the last presentational barriers to knowledge of any and all cultural content. As broadcast mediums are finally abolished, as the beast currently known as Yahoo Answers learns to stop drooling on itself. As classroom education slowly become superfluous. etc.
The strength of an ironic or obscure reference lies in the remaining social scarcities of access to information it operates within. When your t-shirt comes with tabs and tags to the next generation of tvtropes and pandora with extensive and easily accessible situating context, it’s just so much noise. And not only are we learning to filter out noise and prioritize. We’re becoming less and less tolerant of it.
A Few Notes On The Culture & Anarchism
Iain Bank’s novels about an anarchist society called The Culture have garnered widespread literary acclaim and single-handedly re-launched Space Opera. They are stunningly popular and influential books (although still somewhat obscure in America).
But. While they’ve inspired much discussion about anarchy, they’ve been virtually ignored by the anarchist movement and what outside discussion has taken place has been passive and disconnected. This is not entirely surprising. Among the upper echelons of Science Fiction there are few undertakings considered more rude than tearing apart a piece of fiction to seriously dissect its politics. It is what it is. A constructed what if. If you didn’t appreciate the nuances the first time through you’re just an idiot. The insinuation that the author might straightforwardly engage in base politics is insulting. Nor is there anything in the anarchist movement less glamorous than utopian hypothesizing. Theory and futurism are considered meaningless pursuits hopelessly disconnected from the real world. Few within the modern milieu think it possible to wrestle anything of immediate substance or tactical value from such meanderings, thus they’re largely derided as a waste of time.
Nevertheless there’s no denying that Science Fiction and Anarchism have a long and twisted past together, from the more explicit black-flag-waving of Ursula K Le Guin and Ken Macleod to the more subtle explorations by Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, Samuel R Delany and Bruce Sterling (to name but a few). As the cliche goes, the first science fiction author was the daughter of the first anarchist & the first feminist (Shelly, Godwin and Wollstonecraft). Besides being history’s most prominent radical, individualist and forward-thinking identities, Science Fiction came into popularity about the same time Anarchism crashed and burned – leeching, one is forced to suspect, off the same idealistic current.
So I hope no one will mind if I turn a critical eye on The Culture and examine their utopia from an explicitly anarchist perspective. (Even if Iain Banks himself seems to hail from a more moderate socialist background, he and Macleod make a lot of noise about being comrades and the dreaded “A-word” has appeared more frequently in-text as his novels have progressed.)
First, a short overview of The Culture:
The Culture is a large, galaxy-spanning society devoid of laws and government, with a deep hostility to authority and coercion. More of a tendency than formal body its members are bound only by free association, often in differingly identified lumps and spread out in constant migration. Its ranks are largely split between three forms of existence: Mind, Human and Drone, (AI, biological & robot) with extensive self-modifications commonly taking place within each category. Its Minds tend to build giant ships or habitats around themselves. Its Humans alter their genetics extensively, often in pursuit of greater pleasure (drug glands, butterfly wings, etc). While its Drones favor using force fields to interact with the world. The Culture’s citizens are used to social and material freedom and consequently they exhibit both extreme self-confidence and a subtle guilt complex, that is to say smugness and an overactive conscience. The latter of which leads them to meddle extensively in the name of Liberty & Progress. This often cold-hearted utilitarianism, coupled with their utopian success (and unacknowledged idealism) has left them the most respected and feared force in the Galaxy.
In short The Culture is equal parts an allegory to American Hegemony and an exploration of Anarchist Utopianism. But The Culture isn’t just a wish-fulfillment exercise in which the Big Mean Perfect Anarchy goes around beating up Poor Little Evil Empires. The Culture is partially based in fantastical posits, but it also has some real-world grounding.
Things The Culture Gets Right:
1. Hierarchy is impeded by space. Three dimensions facilitates free association on a far qualitatively larger scale. Autonomous lifesystems/ecosystems provide an unprecedented level of self-sufficiency and independence. Relativity and the sheer size of space fundamentally restricts lines of control. Once a civilization moves to space it will very quickly be forced to dissolve all pretenses of centralized authority.
2. Space-faring societies would almost certainly abandon planets to build their own habitats. Gravity wells are disgustingly cost-inefficient. There’s no point in setting up permanent, sedentary settlements on planets — much less struggling for domination over them — when far purer resources are scattered about in abundance. Unlike planets, asteroids and comets are decentralized, uninhabited and easily accessible.
3. Post-scarcity societies have no need for private property (as opposed to personal possession). When every individual controls the means to production, individually, occupation and use become the only relevant claims. When I can build anything I want whenever I want it, there’s no real point in using force to maintain control over a surplus.
4. When anyone can record anything and transmit it freely, acts of aggression are effectively outlawed. If your every action taken in public is truly public, it’s extremely hard to manipulate others or engage in violent coercion. Crime, in the common sense, is largely impossible and restitution quickly obtained. Free association is the most diffuse police system possible and maximizes both choice and personal responsibility.
5. Anarchies are more efficient than other forms of social organization. The more fluid and dynamic a society becomes, the better it’s able to process and enact original or ingenuous ideas. Individual autonomy provides intellectual redundancy and best respond to local conditions, whereas hierarchical or collective processes minimize net intellectual capacity. Decentralized, bottom-up tendencies maximize evolutionary iterations. In wartime, anarchies tend to accomplish far more with far less.
6. Any sufficiently rigorous ethical system is indistinguishable from consequentialism. Deontology is just a retarded version of rule-utilitarianism, but the wider one’s access to the context of an ethical act, the less such rules help. Granted, any moral good or base desire must take into consideration the present, the marginality of future predictions and the effect upon oneself, but that just makes it a particularly robust consequentialism. Whereas deontological approaches inherently flounder as context widens. All of us ultimately recognize — whether we judge ourselves capable of making an informed choice — that sometimes the ends do justify the means.
I don’t really care that The Culture blows up stars, meddles with other civilizations, conspires to start wars and accidentally causes the occasional gigadeath. On the whole I’m willing to take them at their word that they do more good than bad (unlike America, whose state-power is based on exploitation and inextricably embedded in a deterministic negative-sum game of westphalian realism).
My concerns are more interpersonal and sociological.
Decidedly Un-Anarchistic Aspects To The Culture:
1. The separation of Minds, Drones and Humans is hierarchical because there’s no in-betweens. While Banks makes vague handwavings about the infinite malleability of forms of existence within The Culture and we must cut him some slack as a writer, there’s never even passing mention of Humans or drones self-improving to the point where they become Minds. If this is an oversight, it seems a monumental one. The Culture is endlessly cited as the most imminent thought experiment of a posthuman society (and often as proof that anarchism and transhumanism are exactly the same thing). But while The Culture is quite obviously posthuman, it doesn’t focus on self-improvement, exploration and expansion the same way that transhumanism does. And, frankly, seems a little unrealistic. There’s no way 40 Trillion people could have their hands on near-infinite technology without a significant portion of them setting off to better themselves.
2. The sedentary behavior of most Culture citizens is indicative of widespread self-restriction. Beyond showing no interest in becoming Minds themselves, The Culture’s Humans and Drones tend to just dick about in hedonistic pleasure and ineffable arrogance rather than proactively striving to make a difference. Special Circumstances is always portrayed as a very small minority within The Culture, and while everyone tends to take pride in its accomplishments, almost no one set out to change things individually. While SC infiltrates and manipulates thousands of different cultures and civilizations, they don’t go everywhere, and it’s decidedly weird that more citizens don’t strike out for themselves and have a personal go at fucking over teh Prime Directive. Even the Elench (a breakaway, more fervently Anarcho-Transhumanist tendency in The Culture) are practically defined by their conservatism. The Elench trawl the Galaxy for new experiences to help change and improve themselves, but are remarkably blase and limited about the whole thing, pretty much mirroring The Culture’s ship + riders archetype. Worst of all, people across The Culture and its various offshoots tend not to seek the capacity to make particularly complicated things for themselves, but instead rely entirely on the Minds.
3. The Culture is repeatedly portrayed as depending entirely on an built-in tendency of Minds to like Humans. Banks offers up a multitude of reasons why the Minds have no interest in altering their core desires re: being nice to humans, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. At the end of the day the Minds’ anarchistic benevolence is based on gut-level conservatism and laziness, not any objective morality. In short, The Culture’s anarchy works because its most able citizens have yet to kill the cop in their heads. This is excruciatingly annoying and best demonstrates just how afraid Banks is of sounding radical. The only character I found sufficiently anarchistic was the Grey Area — the most despised and ostracized starship in the history of The Culture thanks to its unapologetic inhibitions when it comes to mind-reading. (Which it uses extensively, without consent, to track down, torture and kill fascists. As well as occasionally to repair relationships and help people overcome trauma and misconceptions.)
4. Such hostility to mind-reading and deeper forms of intimacy/honesty betrays The Culture’s broader comfort with subtle forms of manipulation and secrecy. Culture citizens, being sedentary and bored, tend to pass the time with elaborate social and interpersonal games that are based on artificial scarcities of information. People engage in spats, cliques and conspiracies over the most meaningless and arbitrary stuff. And while this is realistic (just look at the present day Anarchist Milieu), their easy-going comfort with such acts of borderline cruelty is disturbing. Granted, there are limits to the degree of casual power-mongering Culture citizens consider acceptable, but even so they display no imperative or desire to reduce such behavior. At best there’s a tired exasperation with it. Which is realistic, I suppose, given The Culture’s weird preoccupation with more-or-less plain human existence. But it’s still decidedly less than anarchist.
Banks portrays The Culture as being unique among galactic civilizations (dating back billions of years) for their suspicion that sudden technological raptures smack of coercion. Given his portrayal of such “Subliming” this certainly appears an admirable reaction. …But sometimes stagnation smacks of coercion too.
There are, of course, many setting criticisms to be made; FTL and hominids are entirely unnecessary but annoyingly still regarded as a reasonable crutch. (Probably because so many authors are still secretly infected with a lust for skiffy. It’d be nice if the Brits got over the influence of Blake’s 7 sometime this millennia, I’m just saying.) Half the high-technology is utterly fantastical while the other half is perfectly reasonable, and the conjunction can be annoying. But most centrally, whenever Banks turns his attention to low-tech worlds they’re invariably some cookie-cutter rendition the European Middle Ages (or, to shake things up, early 20th century Europe). Which is beyond lazy. I mean, seriously. Some level of anthropological awareness would be nice. The growth patterns of Western Civilization are hardly a-contextual historical inevitabilities, or even probabilities.
And this pertains just a teensy bit to Anarchism, as I hear tell it’s arguably possible to have anarchistic societies without world-shatteringly advanced technology (!). Bank’s explicitly mentions home-grown anarchists threatening the rule of their tyrants, but operatives from The Culture seem to default on liberal reformism. Generals replace Kings, and Presidents replace Generals, slowly preparing a society to understand freedom. I’m sorry, but I have a hard time swallowing the conceit that the poor weak-brained peasants need such coddling. And a harder time seeing The Culture as a singular apex of almost marxist development, so far removed from and inaccessible to lower tech societies.
Of course it’s hard to look too closely at a fictional setting as vast The Culture’s without feeling a little ashamed. Any nitpicking can generate its own excuse and on such decades-old thought experiments you have to cut the Author some slack. Still. SF is intended to thought-provoke and some of those trains of thought are worth hijacking.