Monday, 8 April 2019

A Meditation On Walls

There's magic here, of sorts. Cloistered from the rest of the world, a garden harkens back to the earliest halcyon days of humanity, when the sons of God rejoiced and His newest children walked blameless and naked below the stars. Here, within these walls, lies a remnant, an ember, of how things ought to be, protected from the terrors of outside by brick and stone and wood and metal and concrete.

How it ought to be. But... it is not. Things are not as they should be, and without walls, any attempt to reverse even but a bit of the fall, even locally, will be swamped by the chaos that lurks at the corners of our vision, just beyond the horizon, bubbling beneath the surface of someone we know very little of after all, despite our delusions to the contrary. Walls are a force for good. Walls divide – but division is necessary for diversity, for beauty, for life itself. The first thing ever declared good was the division of light from darkness. Something there is that would have a uniform twilight covering all of existence.

Life itself depends on boundaries. From the smallest organelle to the skin of the most complex organism, life is a series of walls within walls within walls. An environment good for one thing is not good for another. Walls enable a separation that enables flourishing. Even the simplest form of life requires a wall around it to mark off it's interior. “This far,” says the cell membrane, “and no further, must the external environment intrude.” What a foolish thought it is to think that tearing down all divisions would bring utopia, rather than the bland uniformity of hell.

There are two ways to die, the chaos of fire or the cold order of ice. The first from no barrier, the second from no diversity. To avoid either fate requires walls.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Resurrection of Laura Day

Awakening. She can't feel her body. She can't move. She knows she should be terrified, but she feels strangely calm. Her eyes open upon a laboratory. White coated figures are watching her, studying her.

Her mind flashes back to her last memory. She'd been on the run for days, tired, cold, hungry, and terrified by the zombies that had consumed the world. She had no idea what happened to everyone she knew – they'd become separated when the zombies burst into the house they'd been staying at. For all she knew, everyone she'd ever loved was dead.

She'd climbed a tree, to get some safety from the hordes below. It wasn't the best of places, since if you were surrounded then that was it, but at that point she hadn't really cared. Looking at the rope in her hand and the sturdy branch she was tying it to, she'd considered ending it right there, but her hardwired instincts to survive wouldn't let her. Though she knew she was probably going to die of exposure at any rate - the New Hampshire winter wasn't known for it's warm nights. After lashing herself in, she'd drifted off to sleep on last time.

Back to the lab. She hears voices. A woman. “We're picking up substantial brain activity in the neocortex. It seems this idea of your has actually worked.”

A man steps forward, and smiles. “I'm going to ask you a series of questions. If the answer is yes, please attempt to move your left arm. If the answer is no, attempt to move your right arm. If you understand this, please indicate with a yes.” Not knowing what else to do, she complies with the request.

The man glances to the side of her. He seems satisfied with the result. “Now, to begin. The first question. From the identification we found with you, your name is Laura Amelia Day. Is this information correct?” She indicates yes. “You were born on the 19th of April, 2001?” Another yes.

“Okay, I am now going to hold up some shapes, and name them. I want you to answer yes if I am correct, no if I am not. Do you understand my request?” Yes. “Good.” He holds up a triangle. “Square.” No. He holds up a square. “Square.” Yes. He holds up a circle. “Circle.” Yes. A pentagon. “Triangle.” No. After several more shapes, he finally seems to be happy with the outcome. “Well, Miss Day, it seems you're back in the land of the living, to some degree at least. One final question – are you conscious?”

It takes her a while to understand what he's asking. Of course she is conscious, and she responds several times with the answer. People release breaths they hadn't realised they'd been holding in, and start cheering. She can see some of them beginning to cry. She thinks of all those she has lost. Perhaps, if there is hope for her, then there is hope for them too.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Adios, culture war

I've gone off politics. Okay, not entirely – man is a political animal, going off it entirely would require me to become a hermit. But the vitriolic, cultural-political-memetic war that pits people against each other in a fight to see who can be the nastiest? That consumes it's own (and I'm not just talking about those on the left here...) in a whirlwind of hatred, whose fighters race each other on tigers to see who gets to be the victory meal? Yes, I want nothing to do with that any more, even if trolling is fun.

I know that this is nothing new. People have people calling their opponents Hitler since... well, Hitler (though the first people who did at least had an opponent who was literally Hitler). I know that there is nothing new under the sun.

I also know that very few people – I can't say absolutely no-one – consciously decide that they're going to hate group X. Paradoxically, I think most hatred is motivated by love – those who love are motivated to react strongly against any they fear to be threatening the beloved, whether or not those fears are grounded in reality. Christians who are worried that their faith is under attack, and atheists who are worried their lack of faith is as well. Fathers worried that their daughters will be assaulted by transwomen using women's bathrooms, and fathers worried that their daughters will be assaulted if they're forced to use the men's bathrooms by dint of being transgender. Women who are worried that they'll be forced into the tradlife of a fifties era housewife. Patriots, who love their country and its culture, and are worried about it being subsumed and lost. Above all, the everyday worries of people and families who are just trying to get through life, and hoping they keep their job and don't get mugged. I get this.

I also get that there are deep problems still with our society, and there most certainly is pain. The bodies of LGBT youth who have committed suicide prove this. Those who have lost the will to live because of a system that's set up for the benefit of others and left them at the bottom of society, whilst being criticised for the crime of being born white, prove this too. Their blood cries out from the ground. The pain is real. But it has been obscured – nay, smothered, even as it's politicised – by hatred. We're so afraid that the Other cannot see our pain, that we do not let ourselves see theirs. So we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that their pain isn't real, and is just a sob story used as a weapon in their war on our sacred values.

I understand all this. No-one sees themselves as the villain of their own story. It's always the other side which is the Empire, or the Death Eaters, or the Capitol. I can't hate people for that. But when we think our opponents have no redeeming features, everything bad that happens to them is them getting what they deserve, their propaganda to the contrary be damned.

That's why I'm done with this war. This isn't a Lord of the Rings style clash, with the Obvious Good Guys fighting the Clear Bad Guys. If I have to use a fictional analogy, then this is more like Game of Thrones – different sides, some of which are just out for naked power but most of which believe themselves to be in the right, fighting each other and tearing the land apart whilst the real threat moves implacably towards them. The real war is between the living and the dead, and the dead are coming. There are problems that we have as – as a society, as a western civilisation, as a planetary civilisation - which need to be solved, and solved soon. Blaming people – even those who are to blame! - doesn't actually solve those problems. We need solutions more than we need punishment.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Noblebright Future

All civilisations have their end. One would arise, prosper for a while, then decay from within until it collapses into a new dark age. After a while, a new one would take it's place. Rinse and repeat.

Our end was upon us. For a century at the least, we had mortgaged our future to pay for the passing pleasures of today, but eventually we had to end up living in our own repossessed future. Our infrastructure, stretched as it was across continents, was vulnerable to attack by small cells of guerrillas. T As law and order broke down, the poor – which included those who used to consider themselves middle class - became either bandits or their victims. The wealthy, a large number of whom grew fat off the loot that was extracted under the guise of taxation from the rest of society, retreated to well appointed lily-pads guarded by mercenaries. The ethnic differences between these groups – guerilla, bandit, the rich, the poor - were used by demagogues to inflame tensions, and soon we were in the throes of a low level multi sided race war.

When the oil supply was cut, no-one cared much whether it was due to peak oil or terrorists. The end result was the same – a spike in food prices and an end to cheap transportation. The economy, already failing due attacks on the infrastructure, very few people could get a job, but the state could not afford to give them money to survive. Roving camps of homeless people walked from town to town, hoping that the people of the next town wouldn't drive them out again. Diseases which we had under our control suddenly became fatal again, as health and sanitation vanished. People gave up on any hope of the future, turning to drugs to numb the pain, and suicide when that didn't work. We were almost in the dark ages, if not already there.

Until we chose differently. Until we looked at ourselves, and looked at our ancestors, and decided that we would not follow the path that many had trod before us. Until we asked, “Why must the corpse rot completely before a new civilisation could be birthed? Why must the darkness fall for so long until the sunrise comes again?”

The pre-existing institutions were no good. We had to go deeper back in time, searching the thousands of years of recorded history to discern what worked and what didn't, what lessons the Gods of the Copybook Headings had to teach us over and over again. There we discovered virtue. Restraint, the virtue of prudence; and humility, the seed from which wisdom may grow. There we discovered once more the value of tradition, of asking why a gate is closed before deciding to open it. There, we discovered once more the tools we needed to rebuild our society, a new respect for nature, and a greater understanding of our place in the universe – and the potential that we possess.

Armed with this new confidence, we set out to make our planet great again. Abandoned lots were cleared of concrete and debris and seeded to form new forests. Bandits found out that their defenceless targets were now defended. The badly functioning infrastructure was bypassed with local systems, as houses and towns took themselves off the failing grid. The internet was reconfigured, with wireless mesh networks joined together with powerful microwave links into a new network with even greater resilience. Railway lines were repaired, and extended, linking regions together. Towns remodelled themselves, embracing the vernacular architecture of their regions and densifying with grace, their townhouses and courtyard apartments rising several stories above revitalised streets, patrolled by the men and women of the Town Watch. No longer were streets a place to be feared, but once again a pleasant backdrop to the bustle of everyday life – a bustle which could be quickly escaped by means of a short walk into the smallholdings, allotments, and woods which surrounded these small towns and cities.

Technological development accelerated, as people faced the challengers of providing clean water, food, clothing, housing, healthcare, and the myriad of other things which are required for a decent and long life, in a severely resource constrained world. Inventors, doing what they do simply for the joy of it, and in the hopes of making a better world, released their designs for free – not that patenting them would have stopped anyone copying them. As their work made life easier, reducing the hours that were needed to simply survive, others could use their time to learn new skills and create new art. New universities were founded, focusing on cultivating the sort of men and women who would be wise enough to lead humanity forward – and humble enough to be willing to step aside. Scientific research, struggling with funding and corruption under the old establishment, leapt forward as new research institutes were founded. Space exploration, a dream which was thought to have fizzled out for a second time, was revitalised, and colonies were founded on nearby worlds.

Rather than an age of banditry, it is an age of pioneers. Rather than the basest instincts of humanity ruling the day, our essential nobility shines through in the darkness of the universe. Though there are still places where despots rule, most of humanity live in benevolent city-states – and though they have differences in how exactly society should be run, it is rare for cities to war against each other. Far from being a dark age, there is no better time to be alive than now.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Fiction

Another year, another list. Here are the fictional works, quotes, and scenes that have affected me the most this year.

Quote of the Year:

"I guarantee you that at some point, everything's going to go south on you, and you're going to say, 'This is it, this is how I end.' Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work." - Mark Watney, The Martian

Scene of the Year:

This isn't actually from this year, but Elevens regeneration into Twelve is my scene of the year, because "we all change, when you think about it... ...and that's okay... long as you remember all the people that you used to be." I am not who I was, and for a moment this year I did not recognise my own memories, being disconnected from my own past. But that's who I was - all those people are people that I used to be.

Film of the Year:

2015 is probably the year I've been to the cinema the most, so far in my life, and I have seen films on both extremes of the Romanticism versus Enlightenment scale, from the two capping films of the year I saw at the beginning and the end (The Hobbit and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) for Team Romanticism, to Tomorrowland (highly underrated) and The Martian for Team Enlightenment. I have to give this one to Team Enlightenment, and within that to The Martian, for the same sentiment expressed in the quote at the top. We're human, dammit. We don't roll over and let our circumstances crush us, no matter how hopeless they feel - in fact, we actively seek out challenges, as we have that spirit that Reagan mentioned in his speech after the Challenger disaster: "Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy.". So for that reason, The Martian is my film of the year.

Speech of the Year:

This one is a competition between Governor Nix's directed-at-the-audience "Reason you suck speech", and the 12th Doctor's anti-war speech from The Zygon Inversion. I'm giving this one to Tomorrowland (another point for Team Enlightenment) because of this - "In every moment there is the possibility for a better future, but you people won't believe it - and because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality". I look around me, and I can see how everything could be made better, how we already have the tools we need. We're not condemned to failure, it's something we choose everyday.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas - God Chose

The part of the Nativity that has really struck me this year is God's omniscience - that God, being omniscient, cannot be surprised. Anything that happens to Him, happens because He has decided that that is what will happen. As Jesus said about His life, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."

So when we come to the Nativity, we come to a story in which everything that happened was chosen by God. Jesus was the only person ever to be born who was able to choose the circumstances of their birth - the family they would be born into, their social class, their country... and in Jesus, we see someone who chose the opposite of what most, if not all, people would choose.

Jesus was not born into a wealthy family, part of the elite of society.  He wasn't born in an important city. His birth was not anywhere of note. Instead, Jesus chose to be born to a poor couple, in a little town of little significance in the worlds eyes, a town that couldn't even supply Him with a room to be born in, to a people and country oppressed by a brutal foreign occupation. The person who could have had Kings attending His birth, instead chose shepherds, the people near the bottom of the social pyramid. He could have had the company of the rulers of men at His birth; instead, He was born among animals.

The story of Christmas, is the story of God choosing to identify with the poor, the oppressed, and the lowly. He chose to say of those who the world looks down on, "These are my people, and this is my family."

Saturday, 19 July 2014

This Misfit Is You

[Thank you to Anna Magdalena, whose thoughts on the subject triggered the thinking that led to this post.]  

I recently watched Frozen, and, whilst checking Behind The Voice Actors to see if I recognised any of the names (none, except for Alan Tudyk, a.k.a Wash), I noticed a poll of the viewers favourite characters from the movie. The poll was, unsurprisingly, topped by Elsa, and I believe I know why.

Elsa, like most people, is a misfit.

Now, I don't mean she is a misfit in the sense that she is an outcast from society, the sort of person who hangs around on the edges because they have no place. I mean she is a misfit in the sense of a square peg in a round hole - it will go in if you hammer it enough, but to do so requires suppressing the essential squareness of the peg. Like the X-men, Elsa has a part of herself that is integral to who she is, but which she has to hide away from everyone, even her own family. When finally she is forced to reveal this part of herself, she has to flee from everyone and everything she's known. But it is there in the wilderness that she comes to embrace that part of herself, something TV Tropes calls an I am what I am realisation. Far way from anyone who she can hurt, she is free to be herself.

I am reminded, here, of a TEDx talk I watched a while ago, about how we all have something we're hiding. I believe the reason characters like Elsa, like the X-men, resonate so much with people because we are all, on some level, misfits. We all have some aspect of ourselves that we hide, either because we are ashamed, or afraid of how people will react, or worried about damaging the relationships we have. Often, in fact I would say most of the time, these aspects of ourselves are not bad things - the term guilty pleasure is used a lot to refer to enjoying things that it is not socially acceptable for the category of people you are in to enjoy, but rarely do we ask why we should feel guilt at, for example, watching and enjoying a cartoon aimed at children. But if you do try to express yourself, you're quite likely to find someone out there who is trying to, as it were, shove you back into the closet.

Going back to Frozen, there is part where Elsa is telling Anna how it is best that she is alone, where she can be who she is without hurting anybody. Yet at the end, it's Anna's love that allows her to express who she is openly - and in doing so, find the freedom she needs to once again have a proper relationship with her sister, without hurting anyone. Until we can be free to be ourselves and to embrace who we are - and embrace each other, with all that makes us us - we're not going to be healthy, and neither will our relationships.

But once we learn to Let It Go...