The dead end above us

A recent note on Slate about Tom Gauld’s Mooncop discusses Mr Gauld’s vision of life in a decrepit and soon-to-be-abandoned lunar colony as “the residue of an older fantasy,” of the Cold War-era dream of thriving human settlements on other planetary bodies.

No doubt there is an element of this at work in Mr Gauld’s imagination, and in other visions of a future in which settlements and stations in outer space are decaying, forgotten remnants of failed enterprises of expansion. Films such as Moon (2009) and The Martian (2015,) with individual space travelers alone on the surface of alien worlds, play to the image of outer space as a realm of abandonment. Yet such visions were part of science fiction before the end, or even the beginning, of the US-Soviet Space Race. Even the founding text of space travel-themed science fiction, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865,) ends tragically, with its heroes forever separated from the rest of humanity, dying pointlessly in a metal ball orbiting the Moon. A work like Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930) is steeped in an overwhelming sense of decline, introducing one species after another descended from humans, each of which meets extinction in its own way.  

Some of the most prominent science fiction productions of the Cold War days also represent space travel as a dead end. Robert Altman’s film Countdown (1968) depicts a US project to land a man on the Moon. The film ends with a lone astronaut wandering the lunar surface, finding a crashed Soviet space-craft and the corpses of the cosmonauts. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, as the astronaut finds a device that may or may not enable him to escape back to the Earth. The overall sense of loss and futility is the same as that with which Verne’s novel ends. The relationship between the cosmonaut and the planetary being in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) develops the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, though where Altman contrasts the isolation his astronaut suffers on the Moon with the professional camaraderie and relatively satisfactory married life he had enjoyed in his life in Texas, Tarkovsky’s film is openly critical of the Soviet Union as a place where the kind of social isolation his cosmonaut suffers in space is commonplace on Earth.

Arthur Clarke, a novelist strongly influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s work, returned throughout his career to a story set a thousand million years in the future. He turned this story into novels twice, as Against the Fall of Night (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956,) and explored it in many of the unfinished tales published in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001.)  The heart of the story is that humans had once created a vast stellar empire, an empire fragments of which perhaps still existed in some remote corners of space, but that the Earth had been separated from this empire, and its people had forgotten the major points of the empire’s history.  The abandoned empire, the isolated Earth, and the forgotten history of the conquest of space are also the background of a much more famous series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1993.)

The two most familiar products of Cold War science fiction are Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Wars (1977.) The image of outer space as a realm of unkept promises figures in those as well.

The background of Star Wars is a fight, not to claim new territory or develop new settlements, but to restore the liberties of a lost Republic. We meet the hero, a young man unaware of his true parentage and his lofty destiny, in the grubby place of exile which he has grown up regarding as his home. Using battered ships, antique weapons, and a plotline recycled from 1930s movie serials, the good guys score a victory for their nostalgic cause.

While Star Trek is set in the early days of an expanding interstellar federation, in many episodes our heroes encounter the ruins of lost civilizations and other traces of abandoned developments. The initial pilot, “The Cage”(produced in 1964-1965,) shows us the ship’s captain as the prisoner of a species who have retreated underground after a war found millennia before, and while there have lost so completely lost their technological skills that they can no longer “even repair the machines left behind by their ancestors” and are faced with inevitable extinction.

Many other episodes show societies that have declined from extraordinary heights of technological development into primitive conditions, conditions that suggest either control of the population by a computer mistaken for a deity (for example, “Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,”) impending doom (for example, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” “Miri,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,”) or disconnection between intellectual and carnal satisfactions, resulting in a society of casual sadism and implied cannibalism (for example, “The Man Trap,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Nor does Star Trek present decline and abandonment as things that happen only in alien cultures. We meet such luminaries from the history of the Earth as a former ruler of India (“Space Seed,”) the inventor of faster-than-light travel (“Metamorphosis,”) the god Apollo (“Who Mourns for Adonais?,”) and Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (“The Savage Curtain,”) all forgotten and imprisoned in the infinite void of deep space.  Our heroes encounter nightmarish doppelganger versions of political entities such as the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses,”) the United States of America (“A Piece of the Action” and “The Omega Glory,”) and Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force,”)  showing that space is a realm in which not only individual humans can become isolated and powerless, but that whole human societies can be cut off, condemned to stagnation and historical irrelevance, by a misconceived response to technological development.

In developing an image of outer space as a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness, this line of science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Tom Gauld may be harking back quite far into literary history. It is often said that Lucian (circa 125-circa 180 CE)’s “True History,” a satirical tale recounting a journey to the Moon, is the first science fiction story. Lucian’s story is itself more than a little reminiscent of two plays by Aristophanes (circa 450 BCE- circa 386 BCE,) The Birds (414 BCE) and Peace (421 BCE.)  In each of those plays, disreputable characters fly to the heavens and pull off unlikely schemes.

Particularly relevant to our discussion is the scene in Peace when Trygaeus, a poor farmer, arrives in the heavens, having flown there on the back of a giant dung-beetle. Trygaeus’ goal is to arrest Zeus and prosecute him in the courts of Athens for having allowed the wars among the Greek states to go on so long that Greece is weakened and in danger of a takeover by the Persian Empire.  Once in the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Zeus and almost all of the other gods have abandoned their usual realm, going off deeper into space in their disgust at the warlike habits of the Greeks.  Only Hermes remains in his usual spot, and he is a degraded figure, so impoverished that that Trygaeus can easily bribe him with a small bag of meat, so powerless that when the god of war and some of his minions come through, Hermes hides from them.  The lower heaven from which the rest of the gods have departed is as much a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness for Hermes as any of the heavenly bodies are for the characters of the gloomier sort of science fiction.

A not-so-good cartoon

Many psychologists study the way the brain reacts when too much information comes up all at once. For example, this cartoon by Randy Bish, embedded in a tweet by Matt Bors, brought to my mind more objections than I could, all at once, put into words:

Why is this a dumb cartoon? Well, here are a few reasons:

  1. Many veterans of the US armed forces work in fast food restaurants. Like nonveterans in the same line of work, they deserve to be paid a living wage.
  2. Many workers at US fast food restaurants are shot at or actually shot in the course of robberies. Like their coworkers who avoid that unenviable fate, they deserve a living wage.
  3. Fast food workers and enlisted military personnel in the USA are, by and large, working class people. Is Randy Bish saying that working class people don’t deserve a living wage unless they subject themselves to violence? If that isn’t what he’s saying, then what he is he saying? I can’t find an interpretation of the cartoon that doesn’t involve that idea.
  4. The difference between substandard wages many fast food workers currently receive and the living wage proposed by strikers demanding at least $15 an hour would not come from veterans’ benefits, or pay to active duty military personnel; these are not the groups in conflict in these strikes.
  5. The military has not been deployed to break fast-food strikes, and is not likely to be so deployed. There is no reason to expect confrontations of any kind between strikers and either active-duty or retired military personnel. The confrontation seen here is one that exists only in the imagination of Mr Bish. Usually editorial cartoons dramatize conflicts that are actually going on in the world; that he presents us with this imaginary one suggests that he sees it as somehow real.
  6. When right-wing commentators grow lazy, they often invoke veterans as a symbol of whatever position they want to promote. This imaginary veteran with his passive-aggressive remarks thus represents, not the views of actual veterans, but cartoonist Randy Bish’s failure to engage with the topic. Mr Bish should be ashamed of himself for hiding behind veterans.
  7. Warriors on the front lines sometimes develop a mentality in which they lump everyone not in the line of fire into the single, undifferentiated category of “lucky bastard.” I don’t know whether Randy Bish has been going around getting himself shot at, whether in uniform or out of it, but as a widely syndicated editorial page cartoonist he has a job far enough from the front lines that he can hardly claim to have come by such a mentality honestly. I’ve spent enough time in VA hospitals and known enough veterans, including veterans who have emerged as leaders in the labor movement and the antiwar movement, to know that such an attitude rarely dominates the minds even of the most battle-hardened vets after they’ve left the combat zone.
  8. Many people in the USA seem to regard it as socially acceptable to disapprove of adults taking jobs in the fast food industry; these are not, for the most part, people who shun fast food itself, but people who regard it as a disgrace or punishment to work at a fast food restaurant once past adolescence. This attitude is often manifested most strongly in the same kind of people who tend to fetishize everything about the military (except actually serving in it, which they are glad to leave to others.)  The cartoon seems expressly designed to appeal to the emotions of people who show both disdain for fast-food workers and exaggerated respect for the idea of the military.

So those are eight things that came to my mind right away. Since they all came at once, it took me several minutes to put my thoughts in order. During that first rush of thoughts, there was a moment of disorientation that may have been similar to what Mr Bors felt when he commented “You know what? Shoot me. I want to die.” A world where such sheer, condensed stupidity can not only exist, but can find its way onto editorial pages that can’t seem to find space for good cartoons by, well, Matt Bors for example, that’s a dispiriting place. And when the reasons for that dispiritingness seem to be both so numerous that you can’t put them into words, and so obvious that you can’t believe you have to put them into words, the thought of giving up completely and succumbing to the homicidal stupidity at the heart of the cartoon may logically occur.

A links post, like in the olden days

Biswapriya Purkayastha, alias “Bill the Butcher,” creator of Raghead the Fiendly Neighborhood Terrorist, posted this ravishingly beautiful prose poem on his blog last week. Maybe the opening will hook you into following the link and reading the whole thing:

I was lost in the forest at night, alone, and I called to my ghost; and at last, my ghost came to me.

I asked my ghost, “Why, when I was lost and I was calling, did you take so long to come? I have been wandering alone and blind through the dark, and I could have harmed this body beyond repair.”

And my ghost settled before me like mist on the ground, and reached out to touch me.

“I was gone far,” it said, “looking along the paths of the forest, and the things that dwell therein.”

“And what did you see?” I asked my ghost, and saw that it still hung away from me, as though reluctant to come home to my body.

“I saw pain and hunger,” the ghost said. “I felt death and the terror of many small scuttling things. And I saw on the fringes of the forest, villages; but the villages lay empty, burned by fire and disease until the living fled and the ghosts of the dead, unable to bear the loneliness, fled after them.”

“What else?” I asked, for I knew the ghost had more to tell; it was my ghost, and it had dwelt within me since the moment I was born.

“And I saw on this path, before us, five images in the shape of women; but women they were not.” The ghost paused, and I could feel it look away into the jungle with its eyeless eyes. “They had skulls for faces, and were clad in robes made of the night. And the first of them had a flame in her hand, for she was the spirit of passion and the heat of vengeance, and she would burn you to ashes if she found you; not because she would want to, but because it is her nature.”

“And the second?” asked I.

It just gets better from there, it really is a gorgeous bit of writing.

It’s certainly at the opposite extreme from the sort of thing I encounter that sometimes makes my daily habit of looking at things on the internet feel like this:

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I am very fond of this installment of The Periodic Table of Videos. My favorite moment comes when the Prof says, “I’ve no idea how this sample got to London. It was brought to me in London, in Max’s bag.”

At The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs worries about the extent to which Americans have taken up, as a favored hobby, hatred for those whose political views differ from theirs.  He recommends pieces in this topic by blogger Scott Alexander (an essay that made its way into the DNA of Weird Sun Twitter,) journalist Lynn Vavreck, and scholars Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood.

The “Archdruid,” alias John Michael Greer, is occasionally brilliant; this essay about “The End of Ordinary Politics” builds on his theory that the distinction between hourly wages and salaried employment marks a class division that explains much of American social life, and that the US political elite has little comprehension of or curiosity about the economic interests of wage laborers. The Archdruid holds that the kind of partisan hostility that Alan Jacobs, Scott Alexander, and others lament is largely explicable as the result of tactics representatives of the salaried classes deploy to keep wage laborers off the political radar:

I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.

It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.

To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.

The Archdruid isn’t a Trump supporter and does not deny that Mr Trump’s appeal is at least partly racial, but he focuses on the questions of economic status that have drawn so many white wage-earners to that particular loudmouthed landlord when they might have chosen to throw their lot in with any of a number of other race-baiting demagogues.

Speaking of Scott Alexander, here’s a bit of speculation from him about where religions come from. These paragraphs are from the middle of it:

If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.

People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.

Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.

So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.

Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.

I have a weakness for maps that purport to describe what people are like in various locales, such as this one, which I saw here and which comes from this article:

 

Ross Pearsall’s “Super-Team Family” is pretty great

Strangely, I have neglected to post anything here about one of my favorite things on the internet, Ross Pearsall’s “Super-Team Family” (a.k.a. “Brave and Bold: Lost Issues.”)  Every day, Mr Pearsall presents a cover for a comic book that would feature two or more characters who, for whatever reason, have never been teamed up by their copyright holders. Here are some of my favorites:

Snoopy vs Enemy Ace:

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Superman and Popeye (notice Supey is reading the comic above):

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Serious comic fans will remember that Superman had a Popeye-like frenemy named Captain Strong whom he encountered on three occasions.

Batman vs the Legion of Super-Pets:

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Mr Pearsall often laments the hyper-serious tone of today’s DC Comics, and contrasts it with the light-hearted approach represented by the Legion of Super-Pets.

Batman and Scott McCloud (the author of Understanding Comicsand creator of Zot!):

batmanandscottmccloud

Batman and Madman:

batmanandmadman

Green Lantern and Green Lama:

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Maybe the next pairing will be Green Finch and Linnet Bird. Anyway, I first heard of the Green Lama, a.k.a. Jethro Dumont, many years ago, but had never seen him before this cover. I love “Jethro Dumont” as the name of a superhero’s alter ego.

The Thing and the Beatles:

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I always like it when Mr Pearsall pairs a comic book superhero with a real person, as Batman with Scott McCloud above or Wonder Woman with the Beatles here.

The Rocketeer and Airboy:

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Wonder Woman and Asterix:

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Wonder Woman and Miss America:

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Something I’ve suggested is Wonder Woman vs Bob Hope- there was a Bob Hope comic book that ran from 1950 to 1968 that depicted Hope as a serial sexual harasser, so the cover would show Wonder Woman holding him in the Lasso of Truth and sternly forcing him to admit the wickedness of his lecherous ways. Guess I’ll have to draw that one myself…

Star Trek and Duck Dodgers:

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It’s good to see the often-forgotten animated Star Trek series used in these covers.

Captain Kirk on the Planet of the Apes:

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I’ve always loved Star Trek and liked Planet of the Apes, so this pairing makes me smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To know what is right

Here’s a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip that I’ve been silently disagreeing with for about a week:

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The part with which I disagree is “Moral standing is assigned to other creatures based on how similar they are to average human intelligence.” I’d say that the key consideration is that social life among humans involves an intricate mixture of competition and cooperation. Because a great deal is often at stake in our competitions with one another, conflicts of interest often render our judgments regarding one another unreliable.  Because the most valuable goals for which we compete can be fully attained only among people who trust each other to act charitably toward one another, excessively aggressive behavior in competitive situations is usually counterproductive at both the individual level and for society at large.

Therefore, codes governing human conduct must begin by acknowledging that no one can be the judge in his or her our own cause.  When we deal with someone who is in competition with us for the good things in life, we cannot justly demand the power to force that person to accept our decision that we should have access to these things and s/he should not. If we are not in direct competition, then perhaps one of us might be acceptable as judge over the other.

An extreme case would be selective breeding of humans.  In various societies there have from time to time been projects to establish a central authority to decide who is allowed to reproduce and who is not.  Since reproduction is one of the principal functions towards which humans and other living beings tend to be oriented, the stakes in this sort of decision are as high as they could possibly be.  For that reason, no central authority could ever be established that would be able to make such decisions in a truly rational manner.  Kinship groups compete with each other to produce offspring and to promote the interests of their offspring in the order of society; no conceivable human being could be altogether disinterested in the implications any particular a ruling for or against sterilization, for or against fertilization, for or against pairing, would have for his or her own kinfolk.  Most judges would, consciously or unconsciously, discriminate in favor of unions that are likely to produce mates for his or her future descendants, and against unions that are likely to produce rivals for them.  A few self-loathing individuals might discriminate in the opposite direction, but in no case would an altogether fair and above-board decision-making process be possible.

Compare this with the selective breeding humans conduct of other animals and of plants. We do not compete directly with any of the creatures whose breeding we direct.  Sometimes we use them to compete with other groups of humans, as a more prosperous agricultural will gain the advantage over its neighbors and gain opportunities to drive them out of their land, and sometimes we use them to compete with other creatures that we classify as pests or weeds or pathogens.  So, if we are to interact with the natural world in a healthy way, we ought to grant some form of moral standing to those pests and weeds and pathogens, inasmuch as our competition with them blinds us to the roles they play in the earth’s ecosystems.  What that form of moral standing would be, and how it would be enforced, is of course not an easy question to answer.  Religions that make particular places and particular species of animals sacrosanct may be good at doing that, though one can hardly be expected to adopt a religion in order to meet the requirements of a single argument from ethical theory.

Intelligence is not altogether irrelevant to the question of moral standing. Of course, creatures that are radically different from humans in average intelligence could not very well make a case for their interests in a way that humans could understand.  What is more, the closer creatures are to one another in their abilities, the fiercer, and therefore the more distorting to perceptions, competition between them is likely to be.  If it is difficult to imagine how a rhinovirus could gain a fair hearing for itself in a human court, it is scarcely any easier to imagine how a human struggling to save a wooden house from a termite colony could keep a clear view of that colony’s ecological role.  Indeed, that human would likely see the corporate intelligence formed by the termite colony, not as a virtue calling for protection, but as a menace to be eradicated by any means necessary.

A puzzling comic strip

I don’t get this joke:

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Why not have macaroni and cheese for breakfast? That would seem like as good a meal as any for it.

David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats”

I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.

He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes.  For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.”  Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.

I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional.  The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis.  Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.

So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.

That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however.  In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet.  Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see.  All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures.  Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways.  The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.

Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence.  One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.”  A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death.  In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others.  Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.

I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium.  Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time.  That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”  The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented.  Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare.  I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.

New issue of Star Pilot

Issue 12 of Star Pilot is now appearing online.  Issues 1-11 are available here for the low, low price of $1.50 each, or the even lower price of $15.00 for the whole series.  It’s highly recommended.  Issue 12 gives the backstory of the mysterious Julio Clemente introduced in issue 11.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is easy to attack, hard to defend, and impossible to escape

Two recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics:

From 9 September:

And from 14 September:

As do dystopian classics like E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” the second strip transfers the world of illusion that Plato presents as the default human condition to a certain time, a future that is presented as a possible outcome of specific present trends.

Data and “Data”

Language Log posted two comic strips today, and I mentioned one of them in a comment about the other.

Here’s today’s xkcd (Language Log post):

There's no

And here’s a recent PhD Comics (Language Log post):

And my comment:

Reading the strip panel by panel, I wondered what the “deep philosophical question” would be. My guess was that the question would be about the role of etymological information in the process of deciding which of various constructions in current use would fit best in a particular context. How exactly you get from that stylistic process to a “deep philosophical question” about the nature of language in four panels and still have room for a punchline isn’t clear to me, but hey, PhD Comics is a big enough deal that I assume Jorge Cham can pull it off.

Instead we get this claim that “It depends on whether you consider data to be facts (plural) or information (which is singular.)” To which the only appropriate response is: No, it doesn’t! English speakers treat the words “scissors” and “trousers” as grammatical plurals, from which it does not at all follow that we “consider” the things they name to be in any sense multiple. It is all too similar to today’s xkcd, which you reproduce in today’s other post, except that relatively few of the people who like to say “There is no ‘I’ in team” seriously believe that they are raising a “deep philosophical question.”

I recommend all the other comments on the Language Log thread, it’s a mix of interesting observations, erudite humor, and speculation about the love life of the robot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.